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ALUN RHYS GRIFFITHS

The Shopping Malls
of Thailand

INTRODUCTION

Bangkok, Capital of Thailand, is one of the foremost tourist destinations in the world. Indeed, it may surprise to learn that Bangkok is currently second only to London in terms of the total number of international visitors who arrive in the city each day. Of course in the case of Bangkok, the majority will eventually move on elsewhere, to the Thai islands, to the highlands of the northwest, or even by connecting flights to other Asian nations.

But most who arrive in Bangkok as tourists will at least spend 2 or 3 days here, taking in the sights - as well as the sounds and smells and tastes - for which this bustling city has become justly renouned. And they will also do some shopping. The Thai capital is famous for its shopping, and the big malls of the city must surely rank among the most attractive in the world for the merchandise they stock, and the ambience of the surroundings in which the retailers ply their trade. And also for the extraordinary added attractions which Thai malls and shopping plazas have to offer. Some of these additional attractions are the main feature of this article, and they will really surprise those who think that going to a shopping mall is just about - well - shopping.

Siam Discovery, Bangkok

This article looks at five of the malls in central Bangkok, of which the author has most experience (though many others could have been chosen). And we also look at one complex in another Thai city, Udon Thani, to illustrate that multi-faceted shopping experiences in this country are not the sole preserve of the capital.

Sleek lines and polished surfaces epitomise the image that Siam Paragon wants to project

THE GENERAL APPEAL OF THAI MALLS

This is a factual review but also to an extent a personal review, written because the author (no shopping affcionado) believes that Thai malls have an appeal which just does not exist in most Western shopping malls and plazas. Perhaps it's because Thailand, compared to nations like the USA and the UK, is an emergent consumer society. The very first shopping malls were only built in the 1970s and most have been designed or at least renovated in the 21st century. As such, the designers have clearly learned from the Western experience, adopted the best features of Western consumerism and added their own distinctly Asian touch. Pretty much anything can be bought in the best of these malls, and pretty much any of the world's cuisines can be found in their restaurants and food halls. Shopping is easy and comfortable in an air-conditioned atmosphere and with spacious, wide aisles and uncluttered displays. Floors tend to be themed - for example with high fashion establishments clustered together, and likewise, home furnishings, gifts and local Thai products, and the very latest in hi-tech electronics. But there are plenty more things to do in these malls besides shopping. Not just multiplex cinema screens which many centres now have, but also childrens' recreational areas, cultural experiences, games arcades, ice rinks and bowling alleys and some even more extravagant entertainments. Six of these malls will now be considered in more depth.

The Terminal 21 shopping mall

TERMINAL 21

General Impression and Location

Terminal 21 is a nine storey shopping complex in the Watthana district of Bangkok, on the Sukhumvit Road between Soi 19 and 21. In adition to road and pedestrian access, the mall is also linked by skywalks to both the Sukhumvit metro train station (MRT) and the Asok Skytrain station (BTS). The mall isn't the biggest in Bangkok, but it's one of the newest (opened in 2011), one of the most distinctive, and one of the most fun, with an almost Disneyesque theme to the mall layout, described below.

Outstanding Features

The key distinguishing feature of the shopping centre is undoubtedly the layout of the mall, and the clue to this is in the name. Terminal 21 is styled as an airport departure lounge, and each floor of this remarkable complex is themed to represent a world city destination. Instead of '1st floor', '2nd floor' and '3rd floor', we have 'Rome', 'Paris' and 'Tokyo'. Then as we go up the escalators (one of which at 36m is the longest in Thailand), we find ourselves in 'London', 'Istanbul', 'San Francisco' and 'Hollywood'. There is also the 'Caribbean Floor', below ground level. And the 'terminal' theme is maintained beyond the floor names. The electronic shop displays resemble airport flight information boards, and the customer service staff are dressed in flight attendant-style uniforms.

The structural decor and some of the shops reflect the clichéd style of the city destinations. Thus on the Rome Floor there are recreations of Roman marble statues and paintings, while the Parisian Champs-Élysées features mock-ups of the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. On the London Floor there are among other sights, a red telephone box and a red post box. Istanbul is themed on a street market or souk, and San Francisco is themed on the Fisherman's Wharf district of that city. A bit gimmicky perhaps but it makes Terminal 21 really distinctive and memorable, and of course the gimmick doesn't detract from the merchandise. Indeed, it makes each floor of the mall unique, and thus easier for the visitor to find his way around. As well as the decor, the store locations tend to be themed too, with fashion on the lower Roman and Parisian floors, and more than 100 clothing and cosmetic themed shops on the Tokyo level. Gift and souvenir shops are common in Istanbul whilst San Fransisco has one of the best food courts in Bangkok. Smaller food stalls are also to be found in the lower Caribbean zone. 8 cinema screens, including a couple of 3D screens, provide most of the entertainment on - naturally enough - the Hollywood Floor, but that is not the only entertainment here. There's also a Fitness First Health Club and spa.

The 'departure' sign for Istanbul, though these shoppers have just arrived down from the Turkish souk to shop in London!

Sumo wrestlers grapple each other - and a concrete pillar - on the Tokyo Floor

A 'double decker' bus acts as a facade to several shop units on the London Floor

One wouldn't expect to see the Golden Gate Bridge, complete with model cars, in the Thai capital, but here it is in Terminal 21

A lighthouse rises from the 'Carribean Beach Town'. A giant anchor lies nearby. This zone also features a large food market

A giant golden Oscar statue stands over the escalator to the Hollywood Floor where the 8 screen SF Cinema City is to be found

A wall decoration on the San Francisco Floor. Not sure what this says about San Francisco but it's just one of the quirky, amusing adornments in Terminal 21

SIAM PARAGON

General Impression and Location

Siam Paragon is the largest of three impressive shopping malls close to the Siam Skytrain Station in Pathum Wan district, Bangkok. It is indeed, one of the largest shopping centres in Asia, covering 10 floors and more than 400,000 m2 of retail space. Since opening in 2005 this mall has become renouned as the place to go for luxury goods and a mecca for the affluent and for tourists, whilst also stocking more typical fayre for ordinary Thais. Shops here include upmarket brands like Rolex, Prada, Cartier, Armani, Gucci, Versace, Jimmy Choo, and many many others. Any glitzy name you can think of, and it will be here. And perhaps most impressive of all there are the super car showrooms, where top of the range Lamborghinis, Aston Martins, Maseratis and Jaguars can be seen. At the time of my visit, the most expensive of all was a Rolls Royce Phantom (if you're merely a dollar millionaire - you can't afford it).

Outstanding Features

But if Siam Paragon is the place to visit for some of the world's finest goods, then it's also one of the best entertainment complexes in town, with branches of Fitness First, a 30-lane bowling alley, and a karaoke centre. There's a 14 screen multiplex cinema, as well as the 'Nokia VIP Ultrascreen', where you can watch movies from the comfort of leather sofas equipped with motorised footrests and a blanket to snuggle up with! In addition, there's the only 3D IMAX theatre in Thailand, which also has the biggest screen in Thailand. There's also Royal Paragon Hall, an events arena for conventions, exhibitions and music concerts, with an audience capacity of 5,000. And on the 4th floor, there is an education zone for children which gives lessons in such things as languages, music, art, dancing, and taekwondo.

But for me, there is no doubt as to the premier attraction at Siam Paragon. What would you least expect to see on one of the floors of a modern shopping centre? A nine foot shark? Alive? That's exactly what can be seen in the basement of Siam Paragon where a branch of Ocean World has its home. This includes the largest aquarium in South east Asia, and in addition to sharks and a myriad of other fishes, there are penguins, tropical frogs, giant spider crabs and more. One can even book to do a scuba dive in the main aquarium!

The Siam Paragon mall - the ultimate shopping experience in Bangkok

The opulent entrance hall to Siam Paragon

Ocean World is a major feature of another web page on this site : 'Shows, Entertainments and Attractions in Bangkok'.

 

All this makes Siam Paragon not just a shopping centre, but virtually a holiday resort in its own right. There's even a hotel adjacent to the mall.

The two faces of Siam Paragon. Spacious aisles and well presented retail stands are characteristic of Siam Paragon - a luxury shopping mall .....

..... but down in the basement below the luxury shops and extravagant showrooms, lurk the denizens of the deep in Ocean World

A Rolls Royce Phantom. Much more expensive to buy this import here than in the UK or America, the price tag on this car said 48,000,000 baht - about £900,000 or $1,400,000

SIAM CENTRE / SIAM DISCOVERY

General Impression and Location

Very close to Siam Paragon are two more great shopping malls - Siam Center and Siam Discovery - which are often considered jointly as they are under the same ownership, and connected by a sky bridge on the 4th floor. And both of these two malls are also connected by sky walkways to the nearby BTS Siam and National Stadium train stations - no need to try to traverse the busy main road here!

Siam Center, which first opened in the mid 1970s, is one of the oldest of all Bangkok's shopping plazas. Despite its age, it is said to appeal particularly to the young generation of Thais, and fashion shops seem to dominate here. Prices may be marginally lower, and the mall is generally busier than either of its near neighbours, particularly at the weekends when teenagers throng the lower floors and the food halls.

Siam Discovery was opened in 1997, and attracts a slightly older (yet still young) clientele. This mall has some resemblence to Siam Paragon, but the emphasis here is said to be less on luxury, more on sophistication.

Between them, Siam Center and Siam Discovery boast more than 400 stores and service companies.

Outstanding Features

At Siam Center, the features which perhaps most draw in the Thai youth apart from trendy shops are the live radio show which broadcasts from the top floor, and promotional shows and guest celebrity appearances which are frequently held on the lower floors.

And at Siam Discovery away from the retail shops, there is 'Ice Planet', an 'Olympic sized' skating rink.

But what else (or who else) can you expect to see at Siam Discovery? Well, there's Barack Obama, David Beckham, Tiger Woods and Muhammed Ali. You can also share a sofa with Will Smith and have tea with George Clooney. Not, sadly, the real people (though I've no doubt many celebrities have turned up here at some time or other) but their waxwork counterparts in the Bangkok branch of Madame Tussauds. Located on the 6th floor, the waxwork museum is easy to access and it lacks the long queues characteristic of many other branches of Madame Tussauds. Also, the emphasis here is on fun, as one can interact with the models for crazy photo opportunities - free to pose with Tom Cruise, duet with Madonna, or get much too close to Hannibal Lecter. Like Ocean World, Madame Tussauds is also featured on this page: 'Shows, Entertainments and Attractions in Bangkok'.

Siam Discovery, Bangkok

Madame Tussauds - and a date with Will Smith

The multistorey Siam Center complex

Shopping mall motor car traders - Siam Paragon has a Rolls Royce. Siam Center has ... a tuk-tuk novelty ice cream vendor!

The entrance to Siam Centre

M B K CENTER

General Impression and Location

Arguably the most famous of all the capital's malls, the Mahboonkrong Center, also known as MBK, is an 8 storey, 89,000 m2 complex of 2000 shops, stalls, restaurants and other establishments, first opened in 1985. MBK is on one corner of a very busy intersection between Rama I Road and Phaya Thai Road, and connected to Siam Discovery and the National Stadium train station by a walkway.

But MBK is different in atmosphere to the other malls so far mentioned - less glitzy, with rather more downmarket areas. Plenty of fashionable, smart stores can be found here, but there are also market-style stalls offering bargain prices, though not necessarily authentic designer labels. In the stalls, expect such things as fake jewellery and watches and pirated games, as well as more legitimate merchandise. MBK has a great appeal for tourists as we shall see, but also caters more for ordinary Thais, and attracts more than 100,000 customers daily with its fayre of clothing, leather goods, electronic supplies, stationery and other goods. And with that level of custom, they describe themselves on their website as 'the most visited mall in Bangkok'.

Outstanding Features

This section is concerned mainly with non-retail activities, but at MBK a particular attraction for tourists are the market stalls of the 6th floor. Anyone who wants to buy souvenirs for the folks back home will find this area a must-visit section for a wide range of attractive, affordable trinkets, piled high and wide. But do be prepared to barter to get the best price!

Apart from the shops and stalls, MBK has two food courts (one Thai and one international). And even if MBK is more of a downmarket establishment than some of the others featured here in Central Bangkok, it still has its fair share of entertainments to splash your cash on. These include a 3D Trick Art Museum on the 7th floor. This is a gallery of 70 interactive paintings and sculptures which offer children, families or anyone who wants to indulge in some silly fun, the chance to stage joke photos of themselves in extraordinary make-believe situations - some gentle, such as cleaning a cartoon horse's teeth with a giant toothbrush, and some rather more grotesque - everything from hanging upside down over a hungry crocodile, to being locked in a dungeon-like cell with a ghoulish monster! Footprints on the floor indicate where the visitor should pose for the best trick photographic effect. It is the second such trick art museum in Bangkok - the other, predictably, is also in a shopping mall, called The Esplanade.

There is also a karaoke and a bowling alley on the 7th floor of MBK, as well as a computer games arcade, and an Internet cafe, and the seemingly obligatory cinema complex. Oh, and there's even a hotel in the same building.

The criss-cross pattern of escalators which link the 8 stories at the MBK shopping mall

Market stalls are a feature of MBK. Any souvenir can be bought here, and adjacent stalls will often compete to sell the same items. Haggling is a necessity!

Hi-tech gaming on the top floor of MBK

The Mahboonkrong Centre - aka 'MBK'

CENTRAL PLAZA - UDON THANI

General Impression and Location

For our last shopping mall experience we head way north to the city of Udon Thani, the capital of the province of the same name. On Prajaksilapakom Road stands Central Plaza - proof that good shopping experiences are not limited to Bangkok; they can be had anywhere in Thailand. First opened in 1994 but renovated and under new management since 2009, Central Plaza features 5 floors of retail outlets covering 65,000 m2 served by a multi storey car park attractively decorated in green trailing plants which smother the exterior of what would otherwise just be another dull concrete car park.

Udon Thani Province lies in a region of Thailand much less frequented by Western tourists, far from Bangkok and far from the beaches of the south. But there's lots of appeal for visitors here, while the shopping experience at Central Plaza offers all that one could wish for, including a full range of retail outlets, and also excellent food halls and entertainment facilities.

Outstanding Features

With more than 60 restaurants and food stands you could if you wish dine at a different one once a week every week of the year and still have some left to sample, including Japanese and Korean restaurants as well as all your favourite Western outlets - McDonalds and KFC, Mister Donut, Dairy Queen Starbucks, and others.

Entertainments here are as diverse as in any of the malls in Bangkok - you can lighten your day's shopping with a spot of ice skating on 'The Rink', or go 10-pin bowling at 'Major Bowl Hit'. And there's a choice of 8 screens at 'Major Cineplex'. And spread over two floors since its opening in 2014 is a 'Fitness First' health and fitness centre with regular exercise classes, professional trainers and an astroturf running track.

A hanging decoration at Central Plaza

Skating on the ice rink

Central Plaza by day

Central Plaza by night

If you go shopping at Central Plaza, mind you don't get run over by the train! Strictly for the kids, this train trundles round one of the upper floors of the mall giving parents much needed respite from crying toddlers

IN CONCLUSION

The author of this article is not much of a shopper, and shopping is scarcely my passion when visiting a foreign country. My idea of how to spend time on a vacation is to go out and explore the countryside and the cultural attractions, maybe laze on a beach, and maybe take in a few entertainments. But in Thailand the shopping malls are an entertainment in their own right. Easy to access, pleasant, usually uncrowded surroundings, and a wide range of merchandise, both traditionally Thai and cutting edge high-tech, as well as typical shopping mall goods. And a full range of cuisines to cater for every taste in the food halls and restaurants.

But on top of this, one could easily spend an entire day in some of these malls and leave without purchasing one single item to take home. Ice skating, bowling, an hour of physical fitness, educational experiences and shows, games and movies - there's plenty to do and see in the shopping malls of Thailand. The locals will already know this, but for visitors to the country, the malls offer some great experiences to be had on those days when the climate is uncomfortably hot or too wet to be out in the open, or when you're just feeling too lazy to go out exploring!

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