The Disco Next Door

In the more than five years that we have lived in our medium-sized condo, we have seen the 1950s house next door transition from being an Indian restaurant to K-Pop nightclub. Now it is set to make its next metamorphosis and become a community mall.

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The house, as you can see in this borrowed picture above, was a beautiful “tropical modern” style, very common in this neighborhood which was, in the 1950s, a fashionable place for well-off families to build their weekend “country” home. Of course, back then this area of Bangkok was truly on the outskirts of town. When we arrived a half-decade ago, it was a contemporary Indian restaurant that didn’t ever seem busy but did do a good job preserving the architecture of the building.

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Then about a year ago, we were informed it was going to become a “the world’s first K-Pop pub”. Much to the consternation of our residents, a new tenant built an exterior shell around the house and turned it into this gaudy sight. Our condo’s management, along with other nearby residents, used all available legal channels to block their operation and ultimately, they opened only a handful of nights before shutting down. Part of me wonders whether it was ever actually meant to be a legitimate business, as the idea of putting a pub in the midst of a residential area was ill-conceived from the start.

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Recently, construction has started again. The exterior of the pub has been pulled down and you can see that the old house remains. After a week or two of initial curiosity, we were finally informed what will be built there.

MINI MALL

 

The new space will be a “community mall” – the term used locally to describe these smaller-scale open air shopping centers that may have at most one or two dozen shops, a limited amount of parking, and restaurants and light retail.

MINI MALL (2)

 

Quite a number exist within a five- to ten-minute walk from our condo, so I’m not sure what the need is, but I suppose it is a better use of the space than a K-Pop nightclub. According to the plans, the original house will still be incorporated in some way, although from these two elevations, I don’t see where.

Anyhow, that’s what’s happening next door. How are things where you are?

 

 

Asiatique

Visits by Xangans have been frequent this winter. Last month, David (fongster8) was in town for a few days and Tawn and I had a chance to enjoy a few meals together with him. One evening, we took the boat down river to Asiatique, a shopping and entertainment center built on the site of the former East Asiatic Company’s old godowns.

The complex opened less than a year ago and is, to some extent, a rebirth of the Lumpini Night Bazaar, which was torn down to make way for another mall. The waterfront complex looks like a series of warehouses and offers a nice promenade along the river from which to catch a breeze and watch the sun set.

The free shuttle boats run from the Taksin pier (near the BTS Saphan Taksin station) every fifteen minutes, making a convenient and enjoyable way to arrive at the shopping complex. I had to laugh at this sign (and ignore the “no photography” sign) that lost the word “beware” or “watch out” when translated to English.

The most recent addition to Asiatique is a giant ferris wheel, not so large as the London Eye or Singapore Flyer, but a landmark in its own right. I mockingly called it the Bangkok Eye and a friend commented that the name sounded like something you might catch in the sketchy Patpong nightlife district. The brightly lit wheel is located adjacent to a large temple complex and I can only imagine that the monks next door are forced to endure both noise and visual pollution.

The shopping isn’t much, mostly nick-knacks of the tourist variety but there is enough to entertain you for an hour or so of browsing. The restaurant selection is wide, from an inexpensive food court to expensive restaurants of all stripes. There are nice public spaces, too, and the architecture is pleasing, albeit in a Disneyesque way.

As for David, his visit coincided with his birthday. He said he didn’t want to make a fuss over it, but I find that people who don’t want to make a fuss over their birthday usually don’t bother mentioning that it is their birthday. Tawn and I took David out for a nice Italian meal, complete with a birthday tiramisu and candle. Thanks for visiting again and happy birthday!

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:

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.

 

Terminal 21: Mall as Airport

In early November, a new mall opened in Bangkok.  Terminal 21, located adjacent to the Asoke Skytrain station along Sukhumvit Road, is a 9-story mall with 20 stories of serviced apartments and office space above the mall.  What sets this mall apart is that it is themed as an airport.

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By an “airport theme” I mean that there are many airport motifs throughout the complex.  These range from information boards that looks like the digital “arrivals” and “departures” flight information displays you see at an airport, to the escalator signage looking like they indicate the directions to different gates, to each floor being themed after a different international city.

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“Departure for Level 3” reads the sign above the long escalator that ascends from the mezzanine floor to a point halfway up the mall.  Given its fantastic location, the mall has been crowded since its opening several weeks ago, filled mostly with local sightseers, much like the international airport was when it first opened.

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Floors include Tokyo (left), Istanbul, Rome, and Paris (right) with each floor decorated in a manner meant to evoke the feel of the city.  Lots of visitors are stopping to take pictures with these decorative items, leading to the likely chance that you will walk through the frame of someone’s picture at some point or another.  Even the mall security and cleaning staff are uniformed appropriately for the floor on which they work.  Yes, that means that on the Paris floors the staff cleaning the toilets are dressed like French maids.

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The San Francisco floor has a miniature Golden Gate bridge spanning an atrium.  The only shops on this floor are restaurants, which seems appropriate for a city well-known for its food.  I’m not sure that the selection of restaurants would necessarily do the City by the Bay proud, though.

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With its location adjacent to both the Skytrain and subway stations, Terminal 21 is positioned at a literal crossroads of Bangkok, accessible to customers from many corners of the city.  The mall looks like it has targeted the middle of the market: there are many popular stores but no high-end ones and there are also a large number of smaller boutiques featuring local independent businesses.  Compared to other malls in the city, it is not nearly as fancy as Central Childlom or Siam Paragon but is much nicer than Platinum or MBK.  I suspect it will be a winning formula.

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The thing that I find terribly ironic, though, is that in a city with an airport that has been criticized for being too much of a mall (the picture above is of the actual airport, not Terminal 21), we end up having a new mall that has an airport theme.  To compare the two:

Suvarnabhumi Airport

Terminal 21 Mall

High end shopping

Local boutiques

Took 4 years after opening to get rail service, which is expensive and inconvenient

Served by rail service from the first day on both the Skytrain and Subway lines

Easily mispronounced Sanskrit name  

Easily pronounced English name

Confusing signage and endless moving sidewalks  Clear signage and quick escalators
Intolerable waits at immigrationBreeze through metal detector at entrance
Insufficient toilets, often dirtyPlentiful toilets cleaned by women in French maid outfits

 

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.

Central Plaza Rama 9 March 2011

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.

 

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.