Lights on! At CentralWorld, EMQuartier, Erawan, and Siam Paragon, giant sparkling Christmas trees welcome festive season back to Bangkok. These elaborate light displays have little to do with the spiritual aspect of Christmas, of course. But, with every passing year, Christmas lights in the Thai capital are getting increasingly sophisticated, spreading good cheer and signalling the start of shopping season. The holidays are back, and with them the opportunity to spend, spend, spend before deals disappear.
While shopping is undoubtedly a favourite pastime of both locals and tourists, malls here are a bit more than mere places to fill up plastic bags. Over the last five years, Bangkok’s malls have enjoyed a quiet revolution. “It’s no longer just about retailing, but about providing extraordinary experiences in an arena where people can be inspired, excited, and entertained,” says Chadatip Chutrakul, Chief Executive Officer of Siam Piwat Co., which owns, among others, Siam Center, Siam Discovery, and Siam Paragon.
The transition from retail to lifestyle is due in part to the rise of e-shopping. To compete with the ease of pointing and clicking from the comfort of a couch, malls have had to embrace change rather quickly. Many have evolved past their department store roots, becoming living spaces where art, design, entertainment, and even education cohabitate with shops. Most also express a unique identity, something mall owners hope will increase social appeal. The tender young Central Festival EastVille perhaps best describes the zeitgeist, billing itself as an “oasis of urbanite culture” on its website.
By 2018, Consulting Cabinet John Lang Lasalle estimates that prime retail space in Bangkok will reach a sprawling 3.4 million square metres. Along the two existing BTS lines, there are currently 31 malls—11 in Ratchaprasong alone. In other words, there are a lot of them, and they’re all trying to sell different lifestyle experiences. Some surf the wave of nostalgia, sharing snapshots of old Thailand. Others offer Disneyland-style versions of Korea, Japan, or France in the midst of this concrete jungle. And still others cater to consumer craving for eco-friendliness. What follows is a breakdown of malls with unique aspects. So before you do your holiday shopping, first shop for the atmosphere which appeals to you.
Embracing history at Asiatique The Riverside
Asiatique was the first open-air shopping mall in the city to be located in historical buildings, occupying former warehouses along the Chao Phraya River. Despite the overwhelming volume of tourists that visit, the shopping centre has managed to retain more than a modicum of its charm. Explore the warehouses, colonial-style houses, or its tram as you peruse shops exhibiting the work of emerging Thai designers. Or stroll along the riverfront promenade before ducking into entertainment institutions such as Calypso Cabaret and the Joe Louis Puppet Theatre. Last but not least is its Ferris wheel, the only one in Bangkok.
Trendy Designs at Siam Center
Bangkok’s trendiest shopping mall is also one of the oldest, as it was opened in 1973. A few years ago, Siam Center abandoned its Lego-brick appearance of flashy blue and yellow ceilings, replacing out-dated primary colours with dark anthracite and black décor. Most interesting is the concept behind each shop. “We wanted to pioneer a revolutionary retail concept that involved collaboration between developers, retailers, and brand owners to create a consistent visual identity. [This includes] concept shops, which are all aligned with Siam Center’s distinctive look and mood,” explains Chutrakul.
Over 500 million US dollars were invested in the overhaul. The result is a maze of wooden structures, twisted tubes, sculptures, and electronic screens. While visitors will mostly see the same brands that are ubiquitous in Bangkok, Siam Center is worth visiting simply to soak up the creativity of Thai designers and examine the various kinds of art on display—even the bathrooms have art on the walls.
Family-friendly Siam Paragon
With over 250 shops across 500,000 square metres, Siam Paragon is a massive structure. Over the last ten years, it has become a magnet for shopping aficionados. Though architecturally shallow, it’s still a great place to visit with kids. “SEA LIFE Bangkok Ocean World” offers a plunge into the deep blue sea, where hundreds of species navigate huge tanks. On the upper floor is KidZania, where children can become professionals for a day. And if looking for glamour or the chance to bump into Thai celebrities, the Paragon Cineplex—a multi-screen cinema—regularly plays hosts to film festivals and special events.
New York, New York! at CentralWorld
CentralWorld is the downtown area’s largest mall. It’s also the sixth largest in the world, a towering giant with over 500 shops and restaurants. The mall has been extremely popular with Bangkok’s upper-middle class and tourists for years, especially those in search of a good meal. The mall has hundreds of restaurants, while the supermarket offers products from all over the world. Where CentralWorld truly excels, though, is the arena of events: concerts, photo exhibitions, beer gardens, and the best Christmas decorations in the city. The giant (faux) Christmas tree is Bangkok’s most impressive, wrapped in thousands of bright bulbs. With light sculptures displayed all around the plaza, the mall vaguely recalls the Rockefeller Center in New York. All that’s missing is the iconic skating rink—and the cold climate.
Around the World at Terminal 21
The cheapest way to travel is to go to Terminal 21. The mall took inspiration from airports, with signage especially similar to the ones seen in Munich. However, visitors won’t find a single German-style shop here. On the contrary, they will stroll through Istanbul’s bazaars, traditional (and modern) Japanese shops, the streets of London, and the promenades of Paris. It’s fun, and except for the Paris floor—which resembles a Las Vegas hotel with a French theme—it’s not too cheesy. Photo ops abound: in front of a Samurai, next to a red double-decker bus, or maybe hanging over the Golden Gate Bridge. From a shopping point of view, there are many fantastic boutiques owned by young local designers.
The Green Credo of EMQuartier
EMQuartier is the city’s newest address for the rich and famous. There are many exclusive shops with brands never before seen here. But that’s not the only reason to visit. Behold its gardens and outdoor courts, Bangkok’s largest urban waterfall (40-metres-high), and its thousands of orchids and glittering sculptures. And on the top floor of the Helix building, a 3000-square-metre garden provides bird’s-eye views over the surroundings, including Benjasiri Park and Sukhumvit. It is a welcome green oasis and a great place to relax with friends. Before departing, check out the spectacular rainforest chandelier, a lively green sculpture of ferns and exotic plants suspended over the atrium of the Helix building.
For a blast from the past, visit MBK and Erawan, two typical 1980s-style structures. While Erawan has struggled to reposition itself, MBK remains one of the most popular destinations in the city for cheap souvenirs, affordable clothing, and electronics, despite its cavernous, black hole-like atmosphere.
A decade ago, Gaysorn Plaza was the pinnacle of luxury in Bangkok. In light of recently constructed competition, the elegant mall is now redefining itself, regularly asking top Thai designers to decorate its atrium with spectacular sculptures and flower arrangements.
The latest mall to hit town is Central Festival Eastville. Opened at the end of November, the mall is made to resemble the East Village in Manhattan, with its urban-chic collection of cafés, edgy design shops, and art galleries. Half-outdoors, half-indoors, this mall seems prepped to become the flavour of the month.