Green Light for China

Well, they pushed it nearly to the last minute – about 36 hours before my flight’s departure – but the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok finally approved my tourist visa. We leave tonight at 2:00 for Shanghai.

Visa

The irony was that after we applied, the embassy approved Tawn’s visa (in a Thai passport) with no difficulty, charging him only 1500 baht (about US$ 50). My application was initially rejected because of their concerns that I could not demonstrate sufficient funds to travel. That was funny, considering I’m the one who bought our plane tickets!

After providing additional documentation, my visa was approved. The charge for me: about 9000 baht (US$ 300). The real kicker? Tawn’s visa is good for up to 30 days of travel. Mine is good only for 7 days of travel. Ouch.

While in Shanghai, we will stay with Tawn’s cousin and his wife. We’re also looking forward to spending time with Jason and his husband. I suspect I will not have Xanga access while there, so may have to be away for the next week or so. I’ll be back, though!

 

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.

Central Embassy 2

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:

Central Embassy 1 Annotated

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.

 

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.

Central Embassy

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.

P1090927 Stitch

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.

Rama IV / Sathorn

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.

 

Applying for a US Visa

Tawn’s 10-year visitor visa to the United States expired in January so before our next trip back he needs to apply for a new visa.  This process is really cumbersome and I thought I would share it with you because (for those of you who are American citizens) you should appreciate just how many hurdles there are to entering the country legally.

The most important thing is this: even though we are legally married, because we are a same-sex couple our marriage is not recognized by the Federal government.  In other words, were we a different-sex couple I would be able to sponsor Tawn’s visa or residency in the US.  In this case, should the US government find out that Tawn is married, they could deny him a visitor’s visa on the grounds that he might intend to stay illegally.  Nuts, isn’t it?  What was that bit in the Declaration of Independence?  “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal.”  Oh, right… we didn’t mean equal, equal.

Embassy To get your US visitor visa, you need to complete two online forms.  The first one is comprehensive but not too unusual: name, address, employment, when are you traveling, who are you visiting, how are you paying for it, have you ever had a US visa before, etc. 

There is a section on this first form, though, that is hilarious.  Six yes/no questions including “Do you seek to enter the United States to engage in export control violations, subversive or terrorist activities, or any other unlawful purpose?  Are you a member or representative of a terrorist organization as currently designated by the U.S. Secretary of State?  Have you ever participated in persecutions directed by the Nazi government of Germany; or have you ever participated in genocide?”  This must be some kind of an intelligence test because anyone who answers yes to that question must be stupid.

Oh, wait!  Below those questions it says, “While a YES answer does not automatically signify ineligibility for a visa, if you answered YES you may be required to personally appear before a consular officer.”  Oh, whew!  At least the Nazis and terrorists still have a chance to go to Disneyland.

The second form, a supplemental one, gets into crazy amounts of detail.  Each country you have visited over the last ten years and the year of each visit.  Detailed information about two previous employers including address, phone number and exact dates of employment.  Detailed information about all schools you have attended including address, phone number and exact dates of study.  All professional, social and charitable organizations to which you have contributed, are a member, or have been involved.  Any previous military service.  Any specialized skills or training including firearms, nuclear, biological or explosives.  Exact itinerary of trip including contact information for each destination.

Beyond the forms, Tawn has to pay a $131 application fee (non-refundable) and has to purchase a PIN number to use to make an appointment online.  These fees are paid at the Thai post office, interestingly enough.

After making an appointment he will go to the US embassy, submit all the forms and documentation and then conduct an interview with a consular official.  During this interview he needs to demonstrate his “intent to return to Thailand”.  The government does not require any particulars here, only that the burden is on the applicant to demonstrate that he or she won’t overstay his or her visa. 

Tawn has a strong case to make: full time employment from a global firm for five years, ownership of property, long-term financial investments, and the only child of two retiree parents.  Add to that a demonstrated history of more than ten years of global travel in which he has consistently returned to Thailand and I think his chances are pretty good.

I want to stress that I am not disparaging the Department of State and its visa application processes.  I just think that US citizens need to appreciate the hoops through which potential visitors and students must go through in order to come to the US.  And if anyone has any questions as to why the US is starting to slip from its number-one perch in the world, this might be part of it! 

Why are we discouraging people to come here?  We need more fans, more students, more people who will absorb what is great about America and then go back home and spread the news.  Instead, we’re telling people they aren’t welcome.   And you know what?  There’s plenty of other places for them to go.  Our loss.