Taking Light Rail to SeaTac Airport

When it came time for my return flight from Seattle to San Francisco, I thought it might be interesting to try public transit to the airport. I was staying with a friend on Capitol Hill, just northeast of downtown, and a short bus ride to the Central Link light rail that runs to Seattle Tacoma International Airport, about ten miles south of the city.

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The first step of the journey involved taking a seven-minute bus ride down the hill to the Westlake station at Fourth and Pine Streets. The bus stop was just a block from my friend’s house and a handy free iPhone app called OneBusAway (developed by the University of Washington) let me know exactly when the next bus was coming, minimizing my waiting time. The ride ended up being free because one of the other waiting passengers had accidentally been given two transfers on his connecting bus, so he gave one to me. Normally, it would be a $2.25 ride.

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The Westlake station will be the northern current terminus of the light rail line until 2016 and announcements on the bus made it easy to tell which stop to alight at. Going down two flights of escalators, I found a small ticketing lobby with easy to use self-service ticketing machines. The machines take both cash and cards. “Orca” is the name of the multi-modal fare card in the Seattle area. It stands for “One Regional Card for All” and is, of course, the proper name of the killer whales found in nearby Puget Sound – clever.

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From the ticketing lobby I descended another level to the Downtown Seattle Transit Tunnel. This 1.3-mile tunnel opened in 1990 and provides a convenient, congestion-free path for buses and light rail trains through the heart of Seattle while also providing passengers protection from the elements while waiting. It seems to be a useful piece of infrastructure.

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My adult ticket – $2.75 one-way to the airport. Travel time to the aiport from downtown is 36 minutes, not much longer than what a trip by car would be, without the worries of traffic – and in Seattle, there is usually traffic.

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Signage in the station was clear – different bus lines stop in different sections of the platform – and there were staff members present to answer questions. Frequency of the light rail runs from every 7.5 to every 15 minutes, depending on the time of day. I had less than a five-minute wait before my train arrived.

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Many passengers boarded at this first station, including several who were clearly going to the airport. Average weekday ridership for the 15.6-mile route is about 25,500, growing at a steady but modest pace.

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The two-car trains have a capacity of 74 seated and 126 standing passengers, although it would be hard to imagine that many people standing in this train, especially with the number of people bringing luggage aboard. With the airport as an important destination, there is a surprisingly small amount of storage space for luggage.

Leaving Westlake station, the line passes nine stations at a pretty quick rate, stopping at a station every two or three minutes. The final two stations, though, are much further out with nine minutes between the tenth and eleventh stations. This is a long distance for light rail to run with no stops and as far as I can tell, the route includes no provisions for in-fill stations to be added. 

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Two minutes afer leaving the second-to-last station, you pull into the SeaTac Airport station. This neatly organized station has a view of the north end of the airport terminal and signage directing you to the airport is clear. Unfortunately, it is an open-air station and I imagine that it gets very unpleasant waiting for a train in the winter. It looks, though, like the usually have an outbound train waiting in the station so passengers do not have to stand out in the elements for long.

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A view of the airport light rail station, which is built northeast of the parking garage and is connected via a pedestrian bridge and walkway that is partially protected from the elements. Sound Transit, the light rail operator, says it is a four-minute walk to the airport terminal. That would be a brisk four minutes, especially if you have luggage, and would only get you to the northernmost corner of the terminal. For most people, especially those not flying Alaska Airlines, ten to fifteen minutes would be a better estimate.

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View of the hometown airline, Alaska Airlines, from the light rail station.

I’m a fan of public transit and am glad that one more city in America has made its airport more accessible via transit. The Central Link light rail is convenient to use, reasonably comfortable (of course it was unseasonably pleasant weather when I rode it), and offers a good return on money for time. If you live anywhere near downtown (or along the light rail route), it is a compelling alternative to a taxi or private car. Of course, not everyone in Seattle lives near the light rail, which is always the challenge of public transit. Still, my overall impression of the Seattle light rail is a positive one.

 

Pulling an All-Nighter to Open Tawn’s Boutique (Updated)

Updates below. In about an hour, Tawn and I will drive to Central Chidlom, one of the most prestigious department stores in Thailand. We will arrive just as the store is closing for the night and in less than eight hours, with the help of a contractor and his crew, will install his first boutique. The previous occupant of the space will be moved out and their decorations demolished in less than two hours.

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The remainder of the night will be spent installing the decorative items, shelves, display cases, lighting fixtures, and all the other pieces needed to create the retail space and project the Tawn C brand image. Our friend Ble, a well-known interior designer here in Bangkok (he also designed our condo’s remodel) did the shop design and will arrive at 6:00 am to help with the final styling before the 10:00 am opening.

It will be a long night, but it is exciting to see two years of hard work finally turn into something real. Now, let’s hope we can turn it into something profitable, too!

Update – 5:20 am

Am back at home for a little bit after a night at the department store. Some moving people are supposed to show up in ten minutes to pick up some chairs from our living room. The chairs will be used in the store until the correct chairs that our designer ordered, arrive.

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The deinstall of the previous tenant’s decorations ran late because of some stone tiles adhered to one wall. We insisted that they needed to be removed because the dimensions of our cabinetwork would not allow for that extra two centimeters of thickness on the wall. By 12:30, our workers started carrying cabinetwork into the space and assembling it.

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After taking pictures of the crew installing the paneling on the front column, it occurred to me that it was facing the wrong way: it should be turned 90 degrees clockwise so the short panel that is visible in this shot faces the left of the picture. Tawn brought this to the workers’ attention and they eventually moved it. Then they discovered that due to incorrect measurements, the front riser on which mannequins will stand is five centimeters too long and intrudes into the aisle.

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The workers focused first on installing the rear cabinetwork and, once complete, turned their attention to resizing the riser. The mirrored borders were installed last and the worker was polishing them and peeling off the protective layer of plastic on the laminate.

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Just before leaving the store – about 4:30 am at that point – the workers had disassembled the riser and were manually cutting it (and the metallic edging) to size with a hacksaw. Tawn warned them that the quality of work had to be perfect. We’ll see how that turns out!

After the movers take the chairs, I’ll drive back to the store with some items that the designer and Tawn can use to dress the store. What time do the coffee shops open?

 

Foundation Poured for Central Embassy

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While visiting the Central Chidlom department store the other day, I caught this picture of the construction progress on Central Embassy, the new 37-story high-end retail and hotel complex that is expected to open in 2013. The piles have been driven and foundation concrete had been poured. Subterranean work continues and I’d expect to see columns start to rise in the near future.

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The design is eye-catching, eight stories of retail topped with a twisting tower (to house Bangkok’s first Park Hyatt hotel) meant to echo a double helix. The building is covered on the outside with glimmering diamond-shaped tiles that recall traditional Thai temple roofs. Central Embassy will connect with the existing Central Chidlom complex through the walkway on the left of the picture. A bit harder to see is a second walkway, in the center-right of the picture, which will connect to the Ploenchit BTS Skytrain station.

Here’s an aerial view that I annotated to help orient you:

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The complex is built on land bought from the British Embassy. As one of the last undeveloped properties in the very pricey Withayu-Ploenchit area, the sale brought in hefty proceeds. In a bit of a kerfuffle, many locals were incensed that the British government profitted so handsomely from the sale of land that was gifted from the Thai government many generations ago. Finally, the Thai government clarified that the land had been given to the British government and was theirs to do with as they wished.

I suppose you could (easily) argue that the last thing we need is another mall and another hotel. No argument from me. That said, I like that we’re seeing continued infill development around transit lines. This increased density is preferable to continued sprawl. Not that the infill is somehow eliminating the sprawl, but you get the idea. Also, the design of this building is unique and contributes to Bangkok’s continued ascent from an architectural backwater to a city with an interesting skyline.

Extra: Here’s a link to a snazzy promotional video for the new complex, giving you all sorts of aerial fly-bys from different angles.

 

Two Days in Hong Kong

The final leg of our Hawai’i trip was a two-day stop in Hong Kong.  A former residence of mine, it is one of my favorite cities in the world and a place I always enjoy returning to.  Thankfully, we still have many friends there are were hosted by a former university classmate and her husband.

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This couple has three adorable children and two days wasn’t enough time to properly visit with them.  The older two were keen on showing off for the camera, seeing what funny faces and poses they could make!  Next time we’ll be sure to leave extra time so we can do some exploring of the city with them.

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One of our stops was breakfast at Lan Fong Yuen along the Central Escalator.  I wrote about this place almost exactly a year ago.  The full entry (with loads of food porn) is here.

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It was mighty crowded and we were placed at a table shared with two other couples in the back corner of the restaurant.  Ordering is always a bit of a challenge because the level of English spoken isn’t as much as it used to be, and our Cantonese is basically nonexistent.  Nonetheless we were able to work it out and were rewarded with some comfort food.

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Drawing on the memories of so many school children throughout East Asia: instant noodles and broth with chicken on top.

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And toasted buns with sweetened condensed milk on top, to accompany the milk tea that is just at the edge of the frame.  Nothing fancy here but certainly a tasty way to start your day.

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Most of the two days was spent wandering around, with Tawn doing some shopping and me chilling out in cafes, reading magazines.  Above is a small street in Lan Kwai Fong with some pretty flowers.  We passed by on our way to dim sum with a friend I had not seen since the day Tawn and I met in January 2000.  By coincidence, I ran into this friend and her mother in Hong Kong Airport that same day, as they were on their way to India and I was on my way to a fateful meeting with destiny.

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Lots of galleries in the Hollywood Road area.  This work is called Imperial Pig and it is by Chinese artist Huang Cheng.  It shows a pig receiving a traditional Chinese medicinal treatment known as fire cupping.  When I lived here, I actually had my own not so good experience being on the receiving end of one of these treatments, which left me bruised for months after!

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One of the coffee shops where I spent some time: Holly Brown Coffee, located on Stanley Street.  Fantastic coffee and ambience.  Their gelato is supposed to be pretty good, too.  I like the graphics on their cup.

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Walking around Central, I noticed this store.  I think the metal screens on the facade of Harvey Nichols are beautiful.  There is so much interesting architecture and design in Hong Kong.

We also had the opportunity to meet up with some Xangans.  By sheer coincidence, Jason and his husband Daniel, exiled from Tokyo for the moment, were in town for the weekend.  While they had visited Bangkok just a few months ago, we were excited for the chance to spend some time with them again.

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Photos borrowed from Jason’s facebook page (without permission – yikes!).  On the left, Tawn, Jason, and Daniel.  On the right, me, Jason, and Tawn.  You should check out Jason’s blog.  He isn’t posting as often these days but has some of the spectacular music he has written and performed.

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Following a tip from Gary’s blog, the four of us sought out this retro Starbucks.  Located on Duddell Street, which dead-ends off Queen’s Road in Central, it is designed as an old bing sutt, literally an “ice house”.  The exterior doesn’t give anything away…

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But once you’re inside, you feel you have been magically transported back to the 1950s and 60s.  A bing sutt was the coffeehouse of the old days, where people could take a bread, enjoy a beverage or trendy Western treats such as soda pop and ice cream.  The design was a fusion of East and West even back in those days.  It feels even more fusion seeing a recreation in the context of the modern day.

This particular project was a collaboration between Starbucks and the Hong Kong brand G.O.D. (Goods of Desire) and the location was chosen because it is very close to the city’s arts community.

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While we were there, some photographers started a fashion shoot.  My lighting isn’t that good but the model’s cheongsam fits the interior of the bing sutt perfectly.  Feels very much like the Wong Kar Wai film, In the Mood for Love.

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New shopping area at the tip of Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon called 1881 Heritage.  The developers took the former Marine Police Headquarters (which closed in 1996) and restored it, creating an interesting mixture of history and commerce.  Worth a visit, more for the sights rather than the shops.

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A ride on the Star Ferry remains one of my favorite ways to see the city, and one of the least expensive, too.

The other Xangan we met with was Angel.  He splits his time between Hong Kong and Vancouver, so we’ve been able to meet before.  Didn’t get a picture as we met in a crowded coffee shop.  You should stop by his blog, too, as he recently wrote about a stay at the new W Hotel in Taipei, which is beautiful.

We did a lot more with our two days, but those were the highlights.  On Sunday evening we headed to the airport and flew back to Bangkok, arriving just before midnight.  Of course, all this happened two and a half weeks ago.  I’m so far behind in my blogging!  So now I’ll get back on course and catch you up with what’s happening here in Bangkok.

 

Terminal 21 Nears Completion

In November 2009 I first wrote about the construction of a new mall at the northwest corner of Sukhumvit and Asoke roads called Terminal 21.  I visited the subject again in February of this year as part of an entry about the profusion of malls being built along Sukhumvit Road.  In the weeks since, I’ve stopped by the site, which is easily visible from the outbound platform of the Asoke BTS Skytrain station, to view the last steps of construction.

Since the mall is literally right next to both the Skytrain station (elevated) and the subway station, it should benefit from easy access.  But, in a city with strong sunlight, heavy rain showers, and lots of traffic, the more convenient and enclosed you can make that connection, the better.

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Because of that, one of the things I’ve been observing and thinking about is how the main entry area (shown above) will connect with the two rail stations.  You can see the long concrete deck that will be the main entry area, wrapped in green construction netting.  One entrance is on the left, outlined in red metal beams, and the other is at the right end where there is a bit of a canopy being constructed.

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On the west end of the deck, I can easily see how a bridge might be built to connect to the Skytrain station, which has blue-covered stairs seen on the left of the picture.  In this picture, taken a few weeks ago, I anticipated the potential bridge with orange lines.

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Sure enough, by last week they were pouring the concrete reinforcements for the bridge and I imagine in another week or so they will be laying the beams for the bridge.  This will lead directly to the entrance of the Skytrain station, which I fear is a bit small to deal with the amount of passengers that may be passing through the space.

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The more uncertain question is what they will do with the other entrance to the mall.  In the picture shown above, taken a few weeks ago, they were demolishing the sales office for the mall and I anticipated (in orange lines) that maybe a bridge would be built connecting to the escalators that descend to the subway.  The escalators are in the building with the bright blue roof that has one red segment.  While some re-jiggering of the wheelchair ramp in that area would be necessary, it seemed to be an easy way to get people directly to the subway, short of a tunnel leading into the station itself.

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After they demolished the former sales office and finished off the edge of the entry deck, it is no more clear what they will be doing.  Certainly it will be some sort of bridge, but how it connects to anything else remains a mystery.  Complicating matters further, there is a narrow alley you see in the photo above.  This space contains a small shrine that belongs to the Asoke fresh market, located in the building with the dingy white-washed wall.  Any bridge connecting to the escalators to the subway would have to cross over this alley.  I guess there is little to do but wait and see. 

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One other thing that caught my eye: there seems to be a “moat” built around the edge of the mall.  The other day there was quite a bit of water flowing down it.  Not sure if this is part of the drainage system and will be covered with grilles or what.

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The other night while waiting for the train after my Thai lesson, I noticed they had the interior lights on for the first time.  It may be a bit hard to tell, but the interior is largely finished.  They are laying the tiles on the main floor and most of the shop entrances are decorated already.  I think they will be open in the next few months.

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Not that far away from Terminal 21 – in fact, just two subway stops north along Asoke/Ratchadapisek Road – There is another mall being built.  This is Central Plaza Rama 9.  There is an additional development that is supposed to happen behind it – a large four-tower condo complex.  In fact, the developer was floating the idea of building a monorail that would go down Ratchadapisek Road (to the right in the picture above) and connect with the Airport Rail Link terminal at Makkasan. 

The view above is looking east from atop Fortune Town IT Mall, with the Thailand Cultural Center off to the left and Rama IX road following the bridge on the right.  Pardon the inexpert job done stitching three photos together to create this faux fisheye lens effect.

 

How Well Do You Know This Region?

There are plenty of stories written in the American media about how little Americans know about the world and how few can identify various countries on a world map.  Certainly such knowledge is important to have and as of late, quite a bit has been going on in the North Africa – Middle East – Central Asia area.  So it was with interest that I received an email forwarded by my father that linked to a map quiz from the RethinkingSchools.org website.  The results were interesting.

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First off, the quiz (which is located here) is an easy drag-and-drop style quiz where you simply drag the name of the country to the corresponding space on the map.  If you are correct, the name sticks and the country color fills in.  If you are incorrect, a red “X” appears.  There is no timer and no score is given so there is no external pressure.

“Interesting,” I thought, resolving to try the quiz.  I consider myself a bit more knowledgable about the world than the average American, although the primary arc of the Muslim world is not the corner of the globe with which I am most familiar. 

I started dragging names to places, beginning with the ones with which I was most familiar and then filling in around them based on the spacial relationships I know exist.  Of the 35 countries I was able to fill in 24 before I began to second guess myself.

I’ll add a few blank lines and you can scroll down if you want to see which ones I knew.  Warning: If you plan on taking the test yourself, you should do so before you scroll down.  No cheating!

 

 

 

 

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This was how far I made it.  The next two countries I guessed – Chad and Niger – I got correct.  But after that it was a bit of hunting and pecking.

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The complete results are here.  A good exercise to reinforce that we rarely know as much about the world as we think we do and can always benefit from some more learning.

 

A Profusion of Malls along Sukhumvit Road

Is it perhaps some sort of sibling rivalry?  Listening to the leaders of Bangkok, one could be forgiven for thinking that they were feeling a little bit of envy of their better manicured regional sibling, Singapore.  Like listening to a youngster who both admires and despises his older brother, I chuckle each time an idea is mooted that seems to be chasing after Singapore: Let’s build a giant Ferris wheel by the Chao Phraya River!  Let’s relocate street vendors into clean, well lighted facilities!  Let’s build an endless chain of malls from Siam Square to Sukhumvit!

Not that there is anything wrong with these ideas – well, except the Ferris wheel – but it seems that our civic leaders should find the confidence to just say what we all know to be true: We’re not Singapore, we never will be, and that’s perfectly fine.  After all, if we were so much like Singapore, we would lose a large chunk of our tourists: the Singaporeans on holiday from their overly-staid city state.

Bangkok Mall Map

One area of the sibling rivalry in which we are making progress is the building of malls.  Singapore may well have its Orchard Road, but we have our (admittedly difficult for visitors to pronounce and often taken over by protesters) Ratchaprasong Shopping District, stretching roughly from MBK and Siam Square on the west to Central Childlom on the east. 

You could logically extend the shopping district along the same street (which confusingly changes names from Rama I to Phloenchit to Sukhumvit along the way), bypassing the rather frightening Nana district and ending up at Asoke and Phrom Phong, which are seeing the development of their own new malls.

Let’s take a look at some of that development.

Phloenchit Area

Phloenchit Area Map

In the Phloenchit area, which stretches from the Chitlom to Phloen Chit Skytrain stations, there are three new developments.  In addition to these new developments, the reconstruction of Central World Plaza, which suffered severe fire damage in the wake of protests that were broken up on May 19 of last year, looks to be proceeding on pace for reopening by year’s end.

The largest new project, long discussed but finally announced this week, is Central Embassy, built by Central Retail Corporation, owners of the Central World Plaza and Central Chidlom properties, among others.

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Built between Chidlom and Phloen Chit stations on nine rai (14,400 square meters) of land bought from the British Embassy, this 37-story multi-use development will contain 70,000 square meters of retail on eight floors along with a 222-room luxury Park Hyatt hotel.  Its design will feature a unique “twisting ribbon” that should add another landmark to the city’s skyline.

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A view of the Central Embassy project property looking west towards Central Chidlom (white tower on the right and the shorter brown and green building to its left).  Buildings on the British Embassy grounds are in the lower right of the picture.  The angle showed here is equivalent to looking at the model in the previous picture from the far right side of that picture.

When it is complete in late 2013, the Central Embassy project will have an integrated facade with Central Chidlom, including a bridge connecting the two.  Central Chidlom will reportedly be renovated so the two properties have a consistent look, giving Central Retail Corporation a second large mall (along with Central World Plaza) in less than a one-kilometer stretch of Phloenchit Road.

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Also in this neighborhood, not 100 meters to the east, is a large stretch of empty land next to Phloen Chit station.  (Pardon the poor job stitching two photos together.)  This property has undergone fitful attempts at development over the years, with constructions workers coming in from time to time to clear the land of vegetation and put up construction fencing, only to do no further work. 

This week the process started again with the clearing of an old building at the front of the property which had served as the sales office for whatever project had initially been started before the Asian economic crisis more than a decade ago.  No signage has been posted yet indicating what the development will contain, but based on the neighborhood and size of the property, it seems likely that a mixed-use building with retail, office, and possibly condominiums or hotel rooms will be built.

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Directly across the Skytrain tracks from this property is the Park Ventures Ecoplex, a combination office building and 33-story hotel that will be finished this year.  Once all these properties are complete, all the free land at the Ploenchit-Witthayu (Wireless Road) junction will be developed, baring the demolition of any older properties.

Sukhumvit Area

New Emporium Map

Follow Ploenchit Road east a few Skytrain stops and you get to the middle  of Sukhumvit Road, an area populated with expats and well-heeled Thais.  Since 1997, The Emporium, owned by the Mall Group (part-owners of Siam Paragon), has been the main shopping center for this area.  In fact, it was the first mall to have a direct connection to a Skytrain station, something that has helped it continue to be popular even in the wake of the explosion of malls around Siam and Ratchaprasong.

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The Emporium’s retail monopoly of the mid-Sukhumvit neighborhood is set to end this year as the new Terminal 21 project (previous entry about it) finishes construction at the junction of Sukhumvit and Asoke Roads.  Featuring a nine-story mall including a cinema and 40,000 square meters of retail space, the project will also have 145,000 square meters of office space and a 20-story serviced apartment.

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In the last few weeks, another challenger to Emporium (and the Ratchaprasong-centrism of Bangkok’s retail scene) has appeared.  Directly across the Skytrain tracks from Emporium, construction has started on an extremely large property.  No signage has been posted indicating what will be built there, but given the location it is hard to imagine that it won’t include a large amount of retail along with either a hotel or condo, or both.  (Edit: I just heard today from two reputable sources that this will officially by an expansion of Emporium’s footprint, colloquially called “Emporium 2”.)

There is also another large project two stations to the east at Ekkamai.  Edit: this will reportedly be an IT mall.

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Lumpini Night Bazaar

The final development, retail-wise, is that the Lumpini Night Bazaar, a popular nighttime shopping area located across from Lumpini Park, has finally closed.  This property, owned by the Crown Property Bureau, is slated for a multi-use development by the Central Retail Corporation.  If you look on the first map in this entry, you will see that the Lumpini development is just down the street from the new Central Embassy project.

The closure and development of the Night Bazaar was tied up in legal action for the past two years, but after the calendar turned to 2011 its doors were finally shut and the bulldozers have moved in.  Look for another large mall project to appear along this stretch of Rama IV Road in the next two years or so.

Conclusions

What do all these developments mean?  It seems safe to say that the dominance of the Siam-Ratchaprasong area in the shopping scene will be challenged as development moves eastward on the Sukhumvit Skytrain line.  If anything, this should help ease congestion, both in terms of the number of people as well as the number of vehicles, that crowd that already crowded area. 

The real, and as yet unanswered, question is whether Bangkok needs so much retail space.  Tourism growth has slowed over the last few years thanks to political instability and other concerns.  It would seem that the local population’s buying power has limited ability to grow, too.  If that is the case, one can only imagine that we will be awash in a glut of malls and in that, we will be able to proudly hold our own against Singapore.