It’s my last night in Bangkok before I start travelling North through Thailand. I’m in a bar, with a beer, scanning my phone for possible routes, towns, and transport options on the way up.
By chance I stumble on a forum post from a guy who is coming to Thailand in a couple of months. The title of the post is ‘The ony thing I definitely know I want to do is this’ with a link to click.
I tentatively click the link (It is Thailand after all, that website could be anything!), and start reading.
“Looks like I’ll be staying in Bangkok one more day”, I think to myself as I put my phone back in my pocket and finish up my beer.
The link took me to post on theexpertvagabond.com about The Sathorn Unique, also known as ‘The Ghost Tower’; A tower in the city centre which was being built in the late 1990’s and was 90% complete until the project was abandoned due to the 1997 financial crash in Asia. Since then it has been left to ruin, but people have been gaining entry to the tower and climbing the floors. As well as being just a cool thing to do, the views over Bangkok are world-class!
Apart from the general spooky appearance that almost all abandoned buildings have, when left in neglect for 20 years and are covered in ominous graffiti (“You’ll find only suffering here”), the Sathorn Unique got its ‘Ghost Tower’ nickname due to a number of dead bodies that have been discovered here – the latest in December 2014 when the body of a Swedish man was found, who had hung himself on the 43rd floor!
I arrive the next day, having done just enough research to know that getting into the tower may be a bit of an uphill struggle. For years, the building was pretty much open to all, but since the latest discovered body there has been a crack down on access – more fences, security guards, dogs, and signs warning potential tourists that they will be hit with a fine for trespassing on the grounds. You are not technically allowed to gain access anymore, although it still is possible……..depending on who is around, and more importantly, who you can bribe!
I get out of my tuk-tuk (after the mandatory haggle) and decide to scope the building.
The tower is huge! 48 stories! And it looks spooky even in the glorious Bangkok sunshine. After a full 360 degree walk aroundc, spiralling closer and closer to the target, I find a side street right alongside the tower grounds. As expected, there are no open doors or obvious signs of entry. Just a few ‘No trespassing’ signs (translated in both English and Thai) and a fully encompassing 8-foot metal fence, complete with anti-climbing grease!
There are 2 women nearby, also hanging around in the street. We didn’t even have to ask each other – we were all here to climb the tower! Why else would we be in this particular side street?
“Any luck so far?” I ask them both.
“No, we saw a guy poke his head up from the fence around 40 minutes ago. We said we wanted to climb the tower and he held out 5 fingers. We think he means 500 bhat, so we held out 3 and he disappeared. We haven’t seen him since”
We stand, and I chat with Andrea and Jasmin, both travellers from Switzerland who were on a tour around Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. We talk for a while about where we had travelled up to now, where we were going, and (more importantly) our plan of attack for getting into this building!
Our conversation is broken when a small spray of water starts landing on us. It is not raining at all, it is just coming from one of the higher floors of the tower. Presuming the worst, we all take a few steps back and thankfully, Andrea has some handwash in her bag to spare.
A bit of shouting, a bit of banging on the fence. It isn’t helping. I spot a nearby wall – not tall enough to climb over the fence, but tall enough to pop my head over to see if anyone’s around.
………….No-one’s around! :-(
And, by leaning on the fence, my hands are now covered in anti-climbing grease. I climb down and turn around 90 degrees and see one of the warning signs which is covered with the handprints of people who have made the same mistake I have just made!
I wipe my hands down, in the footsteps of many a stupid tourist who have made the same mistake and turn another 90 degrees to a new face, a guy holding a camera, and carrying a small backpack – Lorenzo.
“Any luck?”, he asks me in the same opportunistic tone I asked Jasmin and Andrea 30 minutes beforehand.
“No, sorry” I say, “These guys spoke to someone before and it looked promising”, I point to Jasmin and Andrea, “but I’ve seen no-one since I have been here”.
The 4 of us continue to hang around and probe the fences for any signs of entry (or people who can gift us that magical power).
“No!”, I hear as I’m peering through a bottle cap sized hole I’ve just discovered on the far side of the fence.
I turn around and spot an elderly Thai gentleman through a wired-fence door on the other side of the street. It appeared he was the owner of a nearby store or café.
“Hello?”, I reply back
“No! They no let you through……no!”
I walk over, across the road. “Is there no way we can get in? I’ve heard we can pay?”
“Guard, guard!” The man says and gestures to the opposing fence.
“I know. I’ve heard you can get in though?”
“6pm!” he says, “Guard, 6pm”
“I think he’s saying that the guards may leave at 6pm?”, I hear Lorenzo behind me, who has come over with Andrea and Jasmin to see what the conversation’s about.
I look at the clock on my phone…4pm. “Ok, well at least we have an idea what’s going on…..”
“Alright guys!?” I hear a loud British accent behind me. I turn around to see a group of around 12 young guys who have just arrived.
“So, how do we get in this thing?”, another one asks.
“We’re trying to figure that out bud…..I think we may need to wait until 6 when the gua…….”
“Screw waiting”, another one says, “Let’s just jump the fence and climb this f*&ker!”
“There’s, erm…..guards and dogs…..and anti climbing grease all over the fence…..” I offer, unsure if it will help.
Lorenzo, Jasmin, Andrea, and I share a glance between us………‘If these new guys stick around, our chances of getting in this place have just dropped by a mile’. There are now too many people, and these guys are just a bit too loud and boistorous….considering it’s no longer allowed, bribing someone to let 4 people in, compared to 16, seems like a massive difference!
We hang around in our ever-expanding group for 10-15 minutes without any further plan.
“Let’s just grab a coffee”, Andrea says quietly to the 4 of us, “and see what happens.”
“I think that’s the best plan anyone has had all day”, I say and we disappear to a nearby shop. By coincidence, this café also has a back door which seems to lead out to the grounds of the tower.
“No!” the woman who is running the café says to me as I glance at the tower through the back door. She must be a victim of the clamp-down too, I think. People must come in just to try and use her shop as a gateway into Narnia!
“No problem, we just want a drink”, I smile and tell her.
Fortunately, and this will probably be the only time I say this, it started downpouring! We are approaching the wet season in Thailand, and although the weather is generally good, there are the odd moments of heavy rain.
“This rain may mean that it’s just the 4 of us who have hung on long enough trying to get in!”
We wait until 6pm, and I draw the short straw and venture out and see if the situation has changed. Good news is that no-one else is on the street waiting…..the rain has washed away the competition! The bad news is that no-one seems to be on the other side of the fence……and I’m getting wet.
I find some shelter under a ledge and text the guys that I still can’t see anyone. “We’ll come out”, I receive the reply. The 3 guys come out and we start talking, getting to grips with our eventual resignation.
Suddenly a head pops up over the fence. “500?” he asks.
“500”, Jasmin replies. He points to a padlocked door in the fence about 20 meters down and we head towards it.
“I’ve been out here 10 minutes in the rain and no-one has said a word to me! You’re here for 2 minutes and we’re in?”
“Yeah, I guess….but you don’t have breasts!”
“I’ll give the homeless guy a pass on his sexism if I can climb this tower tonight!”
The door opens, some money is exchanged, we’re given 45 minutes (loosely based on some phone-to-phone translation with the homeless guy), and we’re in!
The climb is pretty tough. We can feel the humidity and each of the 48 floors. But we take an occasional break to stop on a random floor and explore. The views are incredible……Bangkok in the late sunset!
The climb is a bit treacherous! Every now and again, we would stop to explore a floor and hear the occasional, life-saving echo bounce throughout the corridor, “Watch your step!”.
There were holes in the floor everywhere, and due to the darkness, debris, and sometimes other random objects (like toilets), they were very difficult to spot!
What made it even worse was that the holes in the floor seemed like a planned part of the building structure – like a plumbing or electicity pipleline…or maybe a lift shaft….which meant that the same gap would be on every floor – if you fell, you were falling to the foundation!
We finally reach the rooftop – floor 48, in under 30 minutes! It’s a strange feeling, being on the top of a tower, in the dark, were there is nothing to stop you walking straight off the edge! By the time we reached the top, the sun had completely set and we were all blown away and (almost) speechless by the 48th floor view over a lit-up Bangkok at night. A view so good that it broke everyone’s English vocabulary to the words ‘stunning’, ‘amazing’, ‘beautiful’, and ‘watch that hole!’
After 30 or so minutes, we begin our descent. If it was allowed, I honestly could have spent hours in there. There are pros and cons to the clamp down on access. The obvious pro is that health and safety professionals all over can sleep at night :-) It also means that you get to explore the tower in really small numbers and have it to yourself for a while. The main downside that I could see is that you don’t get to see the views in the daylight which I imagine are equally as impressive.
After finally making it down, Lorenzo has to make it back to his hotel and we say goodbye. Me, Andrea, and Jasmin go for a celebration drink at the Skybar – A high-end rooftop bar, which featured in ‘The Hangover 2’. We just hadn’t had enough of the skyline view of Bangkok for one evening!
As we were walking into the lobby, a woman who had set up a stall outside the building shouts us over.
“You no get in!”, she points at me. “Pants! Shirt!”, she points at my vest top, sandals, and shorts with one hand while passing me some pants in the other.
“What about us?”, Jasmin asks as both her and Andrea are wearing t-shirts, sandals, and shorts also.
“You two are perfect”, the woman replies and then looks back at me “you are not.”
That felt personal :-) “This is the second time I’m going to ignore this sexism today!”, I say as I sniff one of the shirts.
A couple of hundred bhat later, and I’m getting changed in the lobby toilets. ‘I don’t remember the last time I even wore a shirt’, I think to myself as I sort myself out in the mirror.
We get to the rooftop, order the most expensive beers that I’ve had since I’ve been travelling, and enjoy the view.
We can even see the Ghost tower we have just climbed! It looks so small, when you’re not climbing it!
Brilliant if not slightly, strange day! Thanks Andrea, Jasmin and Lorenzo for planning the strategy and sharing the climb and the beers!