Imagine a mall where Gucci and Cartier stores sit under the same roof as public libraries, childcare centers, museums and doctors offices. A mall culture where competition has pushed developers to look beyond straightforward consumption and create futuristic complexes, each with unique attractions — making the mall an in-demand destination.
Welcome to Bangkok.
In a city where the midday temperature regularly exceeds 90 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity stands at a relentless 80 percent, there is a particular appetite for community center-like hubs with free air-conditioning, easy access to daily errands and cultural activities. And thus malls continue to thrive in Bangkok — with nearly 100 dotting the jagged urban landscape.
The massive contemporary structures demonstrate how malls can serve as focal points of daily life, shopping being just one of their leisurely pursuits. They can serve as the entryway to a subway station, a university food court or the location of a consumer’s latest plastic surgery procedure. Malls in the city snake on both sides of the Chao Phraya River, lurking over famous sites like the gilded Erawan Shrine and the sprawling Pathum Wanaram temple.
“Some would say malls are essential, they are the center hub of most Bangkokian’s lifestyles,” said Pat Sutithon, art director for the Bangkok-based, global accessories brand Boyy. Known for its statement handbags, the brand is stocked at Selfridges and Moda Operandi and operates shops in Bangkok’s Gaysorn Village and Central Embassy malls. “You would never see a group of friends catching up in the park for lunch on the weekends. Since it’s always 35 degrees Celsius [95 degrees F] and above in Bangkok, your choices are quite limited,” he added.
“It’s sad to admit, but malls are integral to everyday life,” concurred Mook Attakanwong, a Bangkok-based fashion designer and creative director for the rising gallery ATT 19. “I don’t think it’s possible not to enter the mall space at least once or twice per week.”
There are malls for city-dwellers of various economic means, including those aimed at teenagers and lower income populations, offering trendy fashions and accessories on the cheap. The Platinum Shopping Mall — a labyrinth of fluorescent-lit, crowded alleyways — brims with imitations of Dior and Comme des Garçons, children’s wear and off-brand lingerie. Racks of 200 baht ($6.50) rhinestone earrings and hair clips attract those looking for a quick shopping fix.
The mass-market mall Terminal 21 is among the city’s strangest. An airport travel theme sees each floor built out to resemble a different global city — its escalator a facilitator for simulated sightseeing. The mall’s ground floor is meant to look like Rome, and others like Paris, London, Tokyo, Istanbul, the Caribbean and a food hall developed in ode to San Francisco (with a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge installed overhead). These facades overlap branding from tenants like Brandy Melville, Camper and H&M.
Stores are accompanied by eateries and attractions that play to malls’ specific audiences. “It’s a lifestyle complex,” said Pimdao Sukhahuta, cofounder and creative director for the Thai fashion brand Sretsis, which has recently become a favorite of K-Pop stars. “You can expect far beyond shopping and dining — movie theaters, family activities like aquariums and playgrounds for kids to fancy car showrooms and even property sales.”
Sutithon added: “Every mall, no matter how modern they are, will always have a traditional Thai food section. Fashion retail also gets attention, as Thai designers get spaces dedicated to their local collectives. It makes a lot of sense since it can serve Thais and global visitors who are looking for something authentic at the same time.”
While 32 percent of Thailand’s population still works in agriculture, the Thai tourism ministry is expecting some 41.1 million visitors to spend 2.21 trillion baht, about $72 billion at current exchange, in 2019. Thailand was the world’s 10th most visited country last year, and the second most visited in Asia after China — providing malls there with a solid cushion of transient moneyed clientele.
Even luxury malls like the Central Embassy complex are invested in the local community. Global brands like Hermès and Chanel occupy the first few floors, paying the highest rents and allowing for less trafficked floors to welcome local art galleries, fashion designers and craftspeople. At Central Embassy’s Open House bookstore — an elaborately designed space with multiple cafés — there is supervised childcare with a ball pen to engage children while parents enjoy a coffee together. Central Embassy’s basement food court, Eathai, has culled some of the country’s most admired street food dealers — helping expand their businesses and offering luxury consumers local foods in an air conditioned setting.
Currently the most lavish of all Bangkok’s malls is Iconsiam, where 525,000 square feet of retail square footage is accentuated by an indoor floating market that sells traditional snacks in a historic replica setting. Boats are stationed along the indoor waterway, dispensing sweets, noodles and fruit juices while local jewelers and craftspeople operate stalls in what is meant to look like a local night market.
As is the case in Central Embassy, Iconsiam’s blue chip spaces are occupied by global brands like Dior and Versace, while on floor five the mall has set a local market of artisanal goods called Iconcraft. This rung is also home to “edutainment” firms, bank branches, cell phone providers and toy stores — providing a centralized space for locals to run errands. The floors in between are a mix of luxury and mass market tenants, including most major South Korean beauty brands, Apple and Thailand’s only outpost of the Japanese department store Takashimaya. Its basement is conveniently home to various postal services for travelers looking to ship their purchases home.
Located on a formerly sleepy bank of the Chao Phraya river on a plot of land that last served as a rice mill, Iconsiam has crafted itself into a local destination experience, transporting shoppers across the waterway with a vast network of free ferry services. The mall is further investing in Bangkok’s infrastructure, contributing funds to the construction of a new BTS skytrain station in its area in exchange for 20 years of advertising rights on the train’s cars.
While Attakanwong considers Bangkok’s malls as “vortexes,” she did concede that “By incorporating local traditions and community, Thai malls set themselves apart from malls elsewhere, not only as a modern and commercial lifestyle hub but also as a cultural one. I think this is really important to their success. This actually describes Thailand very well, as we are a very modern country that’s still very strongly rooted in our traditions.”