A guided tour of Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. Old-fashioned hospitality in the communist D
Saturday 28 May 2016
In 2012, after I got back from my first trip to Thailand, I wrote a short post about a building I had tried – and failed – to get inside. The place is what the Thais call a ‘Ghost Tower,’ this one fifty floors of residential units abandoned shortly before completion, back at the time of the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s. I called that article, Sathorn Unique: How I Failed to Infiltrate Bangkok’s “Ghost Tower”. What I didn’t publicise though, was how I went back a year later and tried again.
Of course, the reason I didn’t post it was because I failed to get inside. Again. The first time I went I’d found the staircases blocked and the elevator shafts welded shut. There was a gate at the bottom of the main stairwell, but it was secured with a heavy padlock. Feasibly, I could have bent one of the rough sheets of metal out of the way and wriggled through – but without potentially damaging the place I simply wasn’t getting in.
That first visit had been at night, which hadn’t helped much either; so when I found myself back in Bangkok for Songkran – Thai New Year – 2013, I decided to try the place in broad daylight.
I had actually done my research in preparation for this second trip, and seen how other people had managed to get inside. From what I gathered, access had been pretty easy up until roughly four months before my first visit. Then, a tourist had died falling down from the fiftieth floor, and the Thai government quite sensible secured the place. It was broken open again not long after I’d left, and for a period between my two visits it seemed to have been quite the tourist hotspot. There was even one blog post I found about a CouchSurfing meet-up arranged at the Sathorn Unique; and needless to say, all this heightened publicity led to the place being locked up tighter than ever before.
Still: Where there’s a will there’s a way, as I kept telling myself. I’d read a few stories that claimed a woman living inside the ground floor foyer of the building had a key. For a handful of baht, she’d been happy to unlock the upper floors.
Another visitor seemed to have gotten in the hard way. There’s a building adjacent to the Sathorn Unique, which rises to a height of some five or six floors. From one of the top levels a covered walkway runs across to the Sathorn. I had checked out that bridge on my first visit, but the gates blocking either end of the tube were locked and barred; while mesh panels had been fitted above and around to prevent people crawling across on top of the cage that surrounded the walkway itself. Back then, I’d decided that climbing across between the two buildings was basically impossible – until I found a photo online, of two people doing just that.
Looking at that photo, the only way to make the climb would be by clinging to the mesh, climbing out and around it with finger tips then creeping across the gantry to repeat the process at the other end. I didn’t like it – nothing much to get a grip on, and a bloody long way to fall if anything went wrong. I chalked it up as a potential ‘Plan B.’ But first of all, I was going to try talking my way in.
Seeing as we already know this story ends in failure, I’ll cut swiftly to the chase. The woman said No. I found her hanging washing out to dry beside a makeshift tent in the building’s lobby – a heavy canvas pitched over a rope between two pillars to form a shelter. We didn’t speak the same language, but she understood the money I offered her, and seemed to grasp my interest in a key. But No. I can only imagine she’d changed her policy since the building began to attract unwanted attention.
I took a look around the lobby, none the less. The unfinished escalators folded up to a higher level, but from there every possible route to the residential floors was either locked, blocked or welded shut.
It was time to investigate Plan B.
That other building was not doing much better than its neighbour. It had the layout of a multi-storey car park, and structurally at least, it appeared sound; I couldn’t fathom why it had been abandoned. Perhaps for fear of the tower next door, all 50 storeys of it, one day tumbling down? The place seemed as though it had never been used – at least, not for its intended purpose.
I started finding signs of life however, as I reached the third and fourth floors up. In a corner tucked behind the stairwell there lay a mattress. Around it, a mass of debris had been semi-sorted from ripped black bags, food waste swept into one pile, clothing in another. Somebody was living here, it seemed – though their lodgings made the tent next door look like a stately palace.
Then I found the needles – a miniature cooking set of syringes, hypodermics, plastic vials and ceramic spoons – and suddenly this place began to make a bit more sense. It also made me quite uncomfortable to be there, though; running into a homeless person needn’t have been an unfriendly meeting, but I had the feeling whoever lived here might not be so easy to reason with.
I was just checking out that gantry, sketching a route in my head from one handhold to the next, when I heard that I had company. There was someone else in the building, downstairs near the entrance. I heard them banging about, then a shout rang out in anger. I don’t think there was more than one of them – I got the impression, rather, that I was listening to a crazy person coming home.
Up until then, I’d already felt quite dubious about climbing. But now, the prospect of dangling off wire mesh, five storeys up and with an unpredictable junkie at my back… No thanks.
I headed back down to the ground floor, dodging the resident as I ducked into a small staircase at the far end of the building; and from there I went back to my hostel, to commiserate my second failure over a curry.
The Bangkok Sky Bar
It wasn’t my idea to go to the Sky Bar; the place didn’t really sound like my kind of scene. Sure, I like rooftops – but I’d rather not share them with too many people. The notion of a fashionable rooftop bar then, with overpriced drinks and even a cocktail named after the blockbuster comedy sequel once shot there (the classy-sounding ‘Hangover-tini’)… well it just wasn’t my cup of tea.
“Sure you don’t want to come?” asked my friend one more time. “It’s got a perfect view of that Ghost Tower you keep on talking about…”
In the end I took the bait.
And there it was. The Sathorn Unique from above: an unlit hulk amidst a sea of light. One dead tooth in the glittering mouth of Bangkok. From up here, it really didn’t seem so big – didn’t seem like much of a challenge at all. But as I sipped my cocktail at the railings on the 63rd floor, some 820 feet up in the air, I wondered if I would ever manage to find my way inside.
Maybe Bangkok’s Ghost Tower will end up being my one that got away; but then again, for years I was saying the same about Battersea Power Station, and just look how that one turned out. So I guess we’ll see. I’m sure I’ll find myself in Bangkok again some day… and when I do, it’ll be time for that third reckoning.
The Exclusion Zone.
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