Climbing The Sathorn Unique Tower: Bangkok’s Ghost Tower

In 1997 the Asian financial crisis hit.

I was unaware of the existence of this crisis due to the fact that (a) I was too young to realize, and (b) Western world’s education system unevenly distributes weight to, well, Western world study topics.

Thailand’s economy had been growing at an average annual rate of 9% and had been the fastest growing company worldwide for ten years. This Asian economic miracle led to a variety of real estate projects and Buddhist temples ceased to be the highest structures in Bangkok.

Then things got nasty.

Triggered by a strong exposure to external shocks and collapsing asset prices, the 1997 Asian financial crisis struck Thailand with great force.

The deadly mix of a credit crunch, currency depreciation, bankruptcies, couple of IMF bailouts, and massive layoffs, put many real estate projects on hold. Numbers colored blood-red:

  • The Thai stock market took a nosedive and lost 75% of its value.
  • The Thai currency, the Thai baht, lost 40% of its value in 1 year (to the US$).
  • The Thai GDP decreased 40% from US$ 170bn to US$ 102bn in 1 year.

Next, the crisis quickly spread out to Indonesia, South Korea, Philippines, and Malaysia.

Today, more than 15 years later, most real estate projects that had been started before 1997 have been completed. However, we can still trace relics of the 1997 Asian financial crisis in Bangkok. The most notorious reminder is the Sathorn Unique Tower, aka Ghost Tower. When finished, it would have looked like the adjacent State Tower with a shiny golden rooftop dome and fancy restaurant. Indeed, the lebua hotels and resorts group has installed the highest open-air restaurant called Sirocco and accompanying Sky Bar at the top of the State Tower.

As for the Sathorn Unique Tower, the project was abandoned but offers equally spectacular views of Bangkok’s skyline and the Chao Phraya River. Without the cocktails. Climbing this tower has been on my bucket list from the moment I landed in Bangkok. I decided to rope in a colleague, packed water and food, and caught the skytrain to Saphan Taksin BTS station.

We managed to gain access to the Ghost Tower through the adjacent parking tower and started climbing stairs. Many stairs. The skyscraper counts 49 stories and the elevators are obviously not working. But where there is a will, there is a way (up). What struck me was the blissful silence, a stark difference with Bangkok’s constant bumper-to-bumper traffic. Calm in the chaos.

The tower has a very particular architecture with Corinthian columns and distinguished balconies. Some floors were nearly finished and already equipped with bathtubs. But the tropical climate is replacing the concrete jungle with the real jungle. Time stopped in 1997 and nature is slowly taking over again. Years of decay have silently peeled off the concrete exposing its metal skeleton and somehow providing a fertile substrate for plants. We even spotted several trees growing out of cracks. The tower could easily serve as an excellent case study for Alan Weisman, the author of The Wold Without Us.

The real star attraction is of course the rooftop. It is not exactly the place where you would like to be during a thunderstorm, but the view is magnificent.

The Sathorn Unique Tower proves to be an excellent billboard for Coca-Cola and Mitsubishi, but how long will it be lording over Bangkok? Torrential rain already brings down chunks of metal and concrete, and the tower will surely face stability problems.

Bangkok seems always under construction and you can spot advertisements for new condo projects everywhere you go. The real estate madness continues with tower cranes dotting the horizon. Same mistake all over again?

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Urban Exploration in Berlin Take Two: Teufelsberg and Maltzfabrik

Nein, man! Ich will noch nicht gehen. Lass’ uns noch ‘n bischen explorieren.

  • After the successful trip to Bernau bei Berlin I was hungry for more action and wanted to make the most of my stay in Berlin. A few other Eintritt Verboten buildings were on my bucket list.
  • First on the menu was Teufelsberg, a US listening station in the middle of Grunewald forest. Last on the exploration chart was die Maltzfabrik, an abandoned brewery in Schöneberg.
  • I had a really great time in Berlin and felt that I was able to sharpen the saw. The start-up experience can be best described as a reality distortion field in which I was sucked and had to compete with Ian Thorpe to keep my head above water.

Another sunny day. I met with my partner in crime and we pedaled to Grunewald forest to explore the Teufelsberg. This abandoned listening station of approximately 5 ha was once operated by the US’s NSA (National Security Agency) to spy on the Soviets in the east. However, its history goes back to the times of World War II. The Nazi architect Albert Speer drafted the plans for the Wehrtechnische Fakultät or Nazi military college. This college was never fully completed and after the Nazis were chased, the Allies wanted to get rid off most Nazi buildings including the college. After multiple attempts it proved to be easier to simply cover the college with the rubble and debris  produced by WWII. And there was a lot to cover with.

In total 26 million m3 of debris, which is the equivalent of 400,000 houses, were dumped on the Nazi college. This work took 22 years from 1950 to 1972. Quick comparison: Palm Jumeirah, the artificial island and self-declared ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ in Dubai took 94 million m3 of sand and was completed in less than 6 years.

The mountain (hill might be more accurate) performed a range of functions. Ski jumps were installed after 1955, but since Berlin was at the center of the Cold War also the Americans showed keen interest. The US decided to install a listening base on top of the mountain in the framework of their ECHELON network.

In the 90s the base was sold to real estate developers. However, the planned apartments and hotels were never constructed and the project was aborted.

We followed little paths to the top that rises about 80m above the forest. After making the top, we found a hole in the surrounding fence and ascended stairs to the base.

Although Teufelsberg literally means Devil’s Mountain, it didn’t live up to my expectations. We quickly found out that the base wasn’t exactly an undiscovered gem.

Apparently some misguided soul leases the site during summer, recruits a couple of crabby security guards and tries to break even (desperately I guess – revenues can’t be spectacular) by charging an entrance fee (€5) and offering guided tours to tourists (€15). I personally find this disappointing and think it takes away the charm of urban exploration. It’s a bit like the famously secretive iPhone 5 that was released yesterday. If you already know all details (specs) in advance, where’s the fun? But as with everything, change is inevitable.

We climbed on the of the radomes (radar+dome) for a panoramic view over the site. The station is in decay and has attracted a couple of squatters and graffiti artists.

Eventually we were expelled from the site after playing (and losing) the cat and mouse game with the security guards. Maybe winter keeps away the tourists and can reproduce (together with snow and grey sky) a more genuine Cold War feeling.

Since we were in no rush we finished with a swim in the nearby Teufelssee. At dusk we decided to finish with a more serious Eintritt Verboten abandoned building in Schöneberg: die Maltzfabrik.

There’s something really nice about this old malt building: not only is it unexplored yet, a huge smiley has been placed on the roof.

 

Back to the Cold War in Bernau bei Berlin

Meetings and training brought me to Berlin, but I found time to explore more than only offices.

  • Highlights included a dinner with a serial entrepreneur and good friend of Richard Branson. The six degrees of separation suddenly turned one.
  • I definitely like Berlin. The city hasn’t the laser-precise touch as most of Germany (it actually feels incredibly non-German) and tries its best to find a balance between an eventful past and one of most innovative places on this planet. Silicon Allee hosts more than 400 start-ups (SoundCloud and 6Wunderkinder just to name a few) and is increasingly becoming Europe’s tech-hub. No better place for Rocket Internet to settle its HQ.
  • But it’s high time to increase the amount of blog posts under adventure. I teamed up with a homie to explore an abandoned Soviet military base in Bernau bei Berlin.

It all sounded very promising. An abandoned Panzer Kaserne of the Soviet Army surrounded by a dark forest with wolves, who’s not in for that? From various sources, I learned that the 90th Guards Tank Division was stationed in Bernau bei Berlin during the Cold War. Earlier, during World War II, the base had served as launderette for the Wehrmacht. Speaking of a turnaround.

Our journey started in Mitte, Berlin center. We decided to cycle to Bernau bei Berlin, which happened to be much more distant and hard to find than we thought. So we only arrived in the late afternoon and this wasn’t particularly beneficial to the exploration of the site. Time management.

The area seemed desolate and empty at first sight. Somewhat annoyingly, we only found an open landscape with a few garages and repair ramps for trucks in the middle. Where’s that military base? Disillusion!

But, we dug a little deeper and found a few reasons not to be disappointed!

First, we didn’t expect the base to be that huge. The total site measures approximately 2 by 1 km with the military barracks located in the northeast. Also the size of the barracks is impressive.  No skeletal architecture here, but massive walls and heaps of concrete. I can imagine that heating during winter should have been difficult to nearly impossible. This was not a cozy place to reside and vodka was most probably a must to survive the harsh winter times.

At the inside, we found remnants of original Soviet wall paintings and a collection of graffiti. Other than that, the place is really dead. We strolled through the corridors imagining the Soviet soldiers killing their time with drinking games and playing basketball in the attics.

Back outside, we noticed that high chimneys popped up above the central building. We took the staircase to the highest level and climbed the ladder at the inside of the chimney. Besides very dark and narrow, it was also very dirty. At the top, however, we had a spectacular view of the entire base and surroundings.

History stopped a couple of decades ago in Bernau bei Berlin and now nature is slowly regaining terrain. Time has taken its toll on the barracks and grasses start sprouting out of the once invincible concrete walls. It’s only a matter of time before gravity triumphs, the barracks collapse, and the forest covers all the remains.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before we sign off, I’d like to list my top 3 eats in Berlin. Except from the compulsory currywurst, Berlin does offer a variety of restaurants (and kebabs). Moreover, your dollar clearly goes further in Berlin.

– Italian pizzas by Turkish pizzaiolos and big, fresh salads and pastas at La Focaccia (Chausseestraße 20, 10115 Mitte, Berlin).

– Definitely worth a visit for Syrian food is Yarok (Torstraße 195,  10115 Mitte, Berlin).

– Dada Falafel claims to have the best falafel in Berlin, up to you to decide (Linienstraße 132, 10115 Mitte, Berlin).

– Bonus: you can find tasty burgers at Jones in Mitte (Reinhardtstraße 9, 10117 Mitte, Berlin).