Are Luxury Shopping Malls Killing the Real Bangkok?

With over 120 shopping malls already, Bangkok is in danger of losing what remain of its charms as it is continually touted as a top retail market in Asia. Despite increasing shows of concern from residents city-wide, developers couldn’t care less—huge plots are still being bought up to make way for even more malls. The sleek new luxury mall EmQuartier is the most recently unveiled example in this never ending race to jam Bangkok full of these cookie-cutter shrines to consumer culture.

EmQuartier lies in the middle of what is now one of Bangkok’s premier high-end shopping districts—central Sukhumvit Road. The changes that this shopping and entertainment area has undergone in the last decade are staggering to say the last. The sidewalk souvenir stalls, bars, and mom n’ pop stores have been increasingly overshadowed by both mall and high rise condo projects.

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This area is now home to a handful of huge malls literally within a few minutes walk of each other: Emporium (across the street from EmQuartier), Terminal 21 (at Asok BTS Skytrain station) and Central Embassy, which is just two stops away on the Skytrain, at PloenChit station. Oh wait, there’s also EmSphere, which is under construction about 200 meters down the road from EmQuartier, and is set to open in 2016.

EmSphere will actually complete the trio of these “Em” themed malls which dominate the so-called EM District, a project that proudly reports it will have 650,000 sq.m (7 million sq.ft) of combined retail space, all oriented around Phrom Phong BTS station.

Like the mega-mall Siam Paragon, which is just a few kilometers west at Siam BTS station, these high-end malls are loaded with stores featuring all of the usual luxury brands (Prada, Louis Vuitton, yada yada yada…) yet most people can see at any given moment there are few to no customers in stores like these. If you’ve ever walked through some of the upper floors of malls like Paragon or “Gaysorn” Plaza, then you know what I mean. Sure, there are some great food courts, movie theaters and even bank branches with extended hours—ubiquitous features of any reputable Thai shopping mall—but using nearly every plot of strategically located real estate in Bangkok, to essentially host a bunch of luxury retailers which are devoid of customers 90% of the time, seems to go just a “tad” too far.

Central Embassy is the latest example of this. It is dubbed an “ultra-luxury lifestyle mall” and, surprise surprise, even after being open for over a year, it is reportedly all but empty most of the time, earning it the nickname “Central Empty.” Many shopping malls find the same thing happening to them, often after opening ceremonies, promotions and long lines of customers, the novelty quickly wears off. And in regard to the “old” malls which have been pushed to the side, I guess the lowly budget shoppers out there can make use of them.

Regardless of popularity, the building of these malls not only creates city block sized construction eyesores, but displaces smaller shops, street venders and residents. Not that everyone is complaining. Perhaps some of these people are bought out at a good price, who knows. But everyone can agree it kills local character, limits variety and pushes yet even more activity indoors—street venders selling food or drinks, for example, cannot ply their wares around the expansive entrance areas of these snooty malls. Meanwhile, traffic congestion worsens in these trendy areas, as if that were possible for Bangkok. The already busy narrow roads have to accommodate shoppers and staff flocking to these new malls on a daily basis.

As mentioned earlier, high rise condos are also a common choice for developers making use of newly purchased plots of land, especially in districts along Sukhumvit Road. One such development will effectively shut down a popular street food spot along the entrance to Soi (side street) 38, next to the Thong Lor BTS station. Restaurant owners, tenants and street food venders have operated here for decades and countless people come here to eat on a daily basis. The Bangkok Metropolitan Administration has ordered those working and living on this plot to move out.

Some Bangkok residents have shown resistance (to overdevelopment in general) by circulating a petition which is to be submitted to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration—with demands that they put a halt to selling centrally located state land to developers. A noble yet futile gesture.

It’s not all bad news though.

There are still some more unique, less pricey and incredibly popular shopping options out there—enjoyed by locals and tourists alike. One standout that comes to mind is Chatuchak Market just north of the city center (Chatuchak Park MRT or Mo Chit BTS stations). J.J Market, as it is popularly known, is one of the world’s largest weekend markets and you can find just about anything you could ever want there. MBK is another famous “normal” mall that has some good deals and is consistently popular with tourists. Lastly is the Pratunam District which mainly serves buyers of wholesale clothing and accessories but if you just want to grab a pair of shorts or T-shirt, almost all shops sell single items too.

H/T: Bangkok Post