The 49-storey Bangkok high-rise was supposed to feature luxury condos for hundreds of newly affluent Thai families, but it was abandoned unfinished when the Asian financial crisis struck in 1997.
Now called the “Ghost Tower,” it is a monument to mistakes made and an object of curiosity to a steady stream of visitors.
“Sathorn Unique,” named after the up-and-coming neighborhood next to the Chao Phraya river it towers over, draws dozens of foreigners daily who come to gawk at the decrepit, stained concrete edifice. It is a home not to Thai yuppies, but to bats, birds, weeds, trees and a black-and-white spotted cat, seen prowling one afternoon on a seventh floor balcony.
“The only way is up,” reads graffiti scrawled in chalk on the fifth floor landing, an ironic reminder of the building’s aspirational past.
Near the building’s entrance sits a ramshackle homemade spirit shrine. A yellowing poster of Thailand’s late king, clad in royal regalia, is plastered above ashes of spent incense and opened bottles of fruity Red Fanta – the tower ghosts’ favorite drink, according to the watchman Suwaschai Dadaelor.
In the booming 1990s, Bangkok’s skyline was surging studded with construction cranes.
The architect and property developer Rangsan Torsuwan was flush with cash from selling ornate, high-rise apartments along the beach in Pattaya. He drew up blueprints, cleared the land and made millions of dollars pre-selling them.
Then came what Thais call the “Tom Yum Goong” crash – referring to the famous local sour and spicy soup. It started in Thailand when the over-leveraged government unexpectedly devalued the baht. Investors rushed to pull their money out as quickly as they could, setting off a regional financial crisis.
About 500 big construction projects – from shopping malls to elevated railways – came to a screeching halt. Some later resumed, but not this one.
At 185 metres, the structure is among the tallest abandoned towers in the world, after North Korea’s 105-storey Ryugyong Hotel, which has been under construction since 1987.
For Rangsan’s son Pansit, who now is in charge of the building, the decline of the building is painful. He locked up the stairwells. “I only feel worry,” he said. “This is not a complete construction, and it’s very dangerous to let people to go up there.”
A few years ago, a 30-year-old Swedish man, Stig Johan Kristian Hammarsten, hanged himself on the 43rd floor. His body was discovered weeks later, cementing the building’s reputation as a “ghost tower”.
A famous cinema was razed to make way for Mr Rangsan’s folly, but the property has been mired in a complex lawsuit for years and it looks unlikely anyone will demolish it anytime soon. Inspectors say the reinforced concrete structure is still fundamentally sound despite weathering decades of storms.
For now it serves as a support for two, 18-storey billboards: one advertising Pepsi and the other the iPhone 7.
For Thais, the tower is a reminder of lessons learned.
On one recent February afternoon, a crowd gathered on the Ghost Tower’s ground floor for a seminar. The topic: the tower, the financial crisis and the 20 years since.
“This building is important because it is a symbol,” said Rames Promyen, the director at the National Discovery Museum Institute.
“It serves as a reminder to ourselves – a reminder of how to better prepare for future crises, and how to strengthen ourselves.”
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