The modernisation of Bangkok


A few days ago I met a friend of mine who told me she had been forced to close down her pizza franchise as the owner had died and his children were apparently squabbling over the proceeds, which she said is being sold to a developer. This is prime Sukhumvit real estate and a lot of it. My other friends, who always vent their spleens at such tidings, sighed and expressed their concern about Bangkok having yet another shopping mall: a blight on the face of Bangkok, as they see it.

It is perhaps true that much of the old Bangkok that some nostalgically recall has already been knocked down and either left derelict or converted into a large hotel or shopping mall. You have only got to see what is happening in soi 22 to realise that the face of Bangkok is being modernised by the day and there is very little that anyone can do about it. This is not England where there are strict rules about the conversion of old, historic buildings into new and not a city where its past can be traced back to Roman times.

And it has to be said that the pace of change in this city is somewhat surpising and disturbing at the same time. However, I did argue in Asean to boost Thailand’s property market that as the Asean Economic Community (AEC) kicks in at the end of 2015 that Bangkok is being viewed as the new mecca for shopping in the region and that it will witness the expansion of retail malls to bolster the Thai economy within the Southeast Asia region. And if so, it is hardly for us to complain about “progress”, even if it does throw up a few question marks about the quaintness of Bangkok’s traditional street life.

It has to be remembered that Bangkok’s developments do not have that much historic value, in fact most of the buildings on lower Sukhumvit are probably only a few years old. And there is no counterweight to the efforts being made to convert some battered old tenements into malls to serve the emerging Thai middle class. It also has to be agreed that this free-for-all in its development does in some respcets take away a lot of the old city’s character, which is a subjective matter for debate.

On the other hand, an edifice such as Terminal 21 at Asoke, named for its similarity to an airport terminal and its location on Sukhumvit 21, has scored a lot of positive points with the locals as it is right next to the busy Asoke intersection, with Skytrain and underground connections to most areas around the city. Each floor of this shopping mall has a separate theme that is loosely based on cities around the world, even if on the London section they use the sign “Restroom”, which is a completely foreign word to those living in Britain’s capital city and more to do with our cousins across the pond. I have to say that it took many years to complete its construction and I cannot honestly remember seeing any signs of quaintness from its past.

And I cannot say for certain what is going to happen with that huge tract of land between soi 7 and soi 3, the one where my friend was forced to abandon her business, with the only notable exception a bar where I watched a Blues Brothers cover band play a few months ago. What effect this has had on Bangkok’s residents as a whole is tricky to say, but as more stations open up across the city developers are looking further afield to build new condos and apartments near to these new stations, such as the BTS stations that spread further east from On Nut to Bearing.

Of course some Bangkok residents are full of nostalgia regarding the pace of development, while others do not think it is fast enough. Bangkok opened the BTS 1999 and it is fairly safe to assume that the modernisation of Bangkok will grow ever more quickly with the addition of the Purple, Red, Green, Pink and Yellow lines, or whatever other hue that has been pledged to be built over the next decade. For those of us living here, we know these developments are bound to happen, but to indulge oneself too firmly in the past is perhaps to deny the country the modernity and economic clout it will need when the AEC finally takes hold.