I came all the way to Thailand and I’ve been going to malls. Repeatedly. This isn’t as stupid as it sounds though. It’s not easy to run errands here as whatever you need is usually a few different stops on the motorbike. Frequently, the perfect storm drives J. and I to the nearest mall: we need groceries, new pants or phone credit, and lunch.
There are two malls in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The newer mall called Central Airport Plaza could, at cursory glance, be a mall in America. The major differences are a sprawling basement food court that serves only fresh Thai dishes and a large marketplace for cell phones and other electronics. Central Airport is a lot farther away from our apartment so we rarely go there. Much closer is an old-school behemoth of aging bricks and metal called Central Kad Suan Kaew. Both malls are built around the titular “Central” department store. Both malls get packed on the weekends. Both malls have similar merchandise. But the latter mall is different. There is something wild about it.
Welcome to the mall.
Central Kad Suan Kaew is on Huay Kaew Road, just a few blocks from the moat road. The main entrance isn’t well thought out. There aren’t any pullouts for dropping off people, so vehicles continually jam the curbside lane. Worst are the red taxi trucks that both loiter and merge in and out of the “loading zone.” It’s basically guaranteed that there will be traffic jams and frantic merging if you drive by. From the main road there are two main parking lots that flank the building. One is mostly uncovered. The other involves navigating through the concrete underbelly of the structure. Parking costs 5bht for motorbikes. The attendant is paid in advance and issues a ticket good for 4 hours.
Even when new, this mall must have looked old. Architecturally, it’s a mix of heavy Communist brick, 80s movie theater color schemes, and Thai-style slapdash construction. There appears no master plan for the place. It’s neither regal nor functional. The layout is haphazard, more an exercise in volume than control. The mall has three large wings that wrap around an unused central courtyard. The courtyard has a spirit house and a large fountain with a mosaic dragon snaking around the pools. The central wing of the mall contains the main entrance. All sorts of stores spiral up the 6 floors; each floor offers something a little different. The flow of the escalators makes sense. The grocery store does brisk business. There are clothes vendors, snacks, and displays spilling out into foot traffic. People dig through bins of discount clothes, haggle for cheap used phones, order corn with their ice-cream, people watch, dine inside glass walled restaurants. Looking down 6 floors from the movie theater, everything seems thriving.
The healthy part of the mall.
The Stars War arcade.
The men’s beauty contest drew quite a crowd.
Cell phone accessories store.
The Egyptian wing of the movie theater.
Trueman’s canned hot dogs. Notice that this shelf has two similar brands: Mica and Meica.
But past the department store, things start getting weird. One set of escalators leads from a sad ethnic food area that seems lost between the parking garage and abandoned pet stores to two floors of internet PCs and gaming stations that are barely used. Tucked in a dark and claustrophobic corner is a kiddy play-land with ball pool, carousel, and all kinds of shiny, colorful coin-operated rides. Beyond this is a large, utterly abandoned area that looks like it had a toy store, daycare, and kid’s food court. We could just barely make out a man sitting in the shadows in a row of chairs. He was facing the wall.
The no man’s land between the hotel and movie theater.
Lone kid playing in the grass.
Prime real estate.
Welcome to playtime.
One corner of the mall from first floor to 6th contains mostly abandoned stores. It’s understandable why; no one has reason to walk to that area. But there it is, abandoned, for anyone to walk through. Creepy dark halls? Check. Hastily vacated stalls line the empty echoing halls. Its like walking through a tumor inside an otherwise healthy body.
Mannequins of an abandoned bridal store.
Another wing is mostly a massive hotel that at one point may have been grand but now seems grandly abandoned. An expansive restaurant decorated in heavy wood has staff loitering but no customers. It’s unclear where the reception desk is, and the rest of the hotel’s construction doesn’t blend harmoniously with the mall. Sometimes, a wooden wall will lead down a hall as long as a city block to a single locked door. For some reason, all the ceilings in the hotel area seem really low. The conference hall for the hotel can only be reached by wandering around in complicated darkened spaces behind the movie theater. To go to the bathroom at a movie, you have to walk down dimly lit, tiled halls that resemble a subway. It’s a creepy area.
Chairs for ghosts. Note: IT CITY isn’t to the left.
Dark corridor leading to an isolated food court.
Door with crack.
Fire escape to the bathrooms.
The 6th floor is mostly taken up by a colorful but darkly lit movie theater. All of the screens are in pairs of rooms that flank a theme hallway. When you buy a ticket, you have to wander around a bit to figure out where the entrance to your screen is. The rest of the floor seems to be an afterthought. Passing by abandoned stands next to the theater leads to absolute nothingness. Another area in the back is the haunt of break-dance and hip-hop dance practicing teens. There’s an abandoned ice rink built above a black light lit bowling alley and across from a karaoke bar. That businesses are still open in this area is confusing, as you have to walk through labyrinths of abandonment to get to them. A bird roosts near an inaccessible table overlooking the city through scuffed windows.
Bathroom entrance and phones from the future. This feels a bit like a scene from The Fifth Element. The vents along the wall are functional and conceal a roaring fan.
Abandoned hall on the top floor. Straight ahead is a balcony covered with plants and a fuel canister. The door on the left leads to a cluttered office, also full of plants. It’s like a secret lair for some super villain.
Mural on the wall, unsanctioned.
I’ve marveled at the sad abandoned buildings in Thailand. But it is much weirder to be inside a half abandoned building. It’s creepy, sad, funny, and fascinating. But no one seems to care. The optimism that led to its unrealistic construction is an innocence that allows people to straddle between two Thai worlds. The old world is of modest, honest living off the rice paddy. The new is of material acquisition and shallow satisfaction. But they coexist. The pale skinned Thai teen whose never worked a field wouldn’t even bat an eye if a ox was wandering around the mall. There is an acceptance of disorder here, an unspoken agreement between history and progress.