The forsaken structure looms on the skyline – a decaying husk of a building that is said to be the haunt of spirits. Sathorn Unique Tower’s builders intended it to be one of the most exclusive apartment complexes in all of Bangkok. However, after a financial crisis that rocked Thailand, the ill-fated tower fell into a state of decay before it was even completed. And today, some people say that the only residents of the abandoned skyscraper are ghosts.
The continent of Asia is home to a huge range of abandoned buildings, monuments and even cities that have put an eerie stamp on its vast and diverse urban landscape. Take, for example, the Ryugyong Hotel in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. This impressive landmark was expected to represent the tallest hotel on the planet – demonstrating the power of the country’s communist regime. But the structure would never realize that lofty dream.
Construction on the Ryugyong Hotel kicked off in 1987 – and the 105-story skyscraper was soon to form a pyramid-shaped silhouette on the skyline of Pyongyang. The building’s official moniker means “capital of willows” – a historical nickname for the North Korean capital. And although the Ryugyong has become known colloquially as a hotel, the intention was actually for the edifice to serve several further purposes.
Either way, though, it appears that the North Korean government was very excited about the development of the Ryugyong. After all, it decided to add the towering landmark to maps and emblazon it on stamps before it was even finished. And yet little did the government know that more than 30 years after construction began, the building would still not have opened.
The development of the Ryugyong hit its first stumbling block in 1992. At that time, you see, North Korea had plunged into a period of economic uncertainty after the collapse of the Soviet Union a year prior. And as a result, the enormous, empty skyscraper loomed vacant over Pyongyang, completely devoid of windows and fittings – and with a crane rusting away at its summit.
For more than a decade, it seemed that any plans for the Ryugyong had been completely abandoned. During this period, the European Union Chamber of Commerce in Korea in fact labeled the building as beyond repair. After an inspection in the late 1990s, concerns were expressed that the concrete used on the structure was of low quality. And sources also reported that the elevator shafts in the skyscraper were “crooked.”
So, apparently embarrassed about the failed enterprise, the North Korean government effectively tried to pretend that the Ryugyong didn’t exist – despite its undeniable presence on the Pyongyang skyline. Photographs of the city were edited to remove the building from view, and it was purposely omitted from maps. Consequently, the landmark became known as the “Phantom Hotel” in the foreign press.
But this was not the end of the Ryugyong Hotel’s story. In 2008, you see, work on the skyscraper resumed. Why? Because it was hoped that the building would be ready by 2012 – the year that would mark the 100-year anniversary of the birth of North Korea’s “Eternal President,” Kim Il-sung. The opening date was, however, eventually pushed back to 2013 – albeit with only some of the building accessible. But the hotel never welcomed guests, and the structure remains empty to this day.
It’s not just North Korea that has seen major developments forced into abandonment because of lack of funding, though. Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand, is home to a number of deserted buildings. And that’s at least partly because many of the structures there fell victim to the “Tom Yam Kung” financial crisis of 1997.
After World War II, the economy of Thailand grew thanks in part to American support as well as government-backed investment. In the 1970s Japanese businesses began to invest in the area, too, and soon Bangkok had grown into a financial hub. The city then continued to flourish throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s – decades that saw a swathe of skyscrapers erected, giving Bangkok a futuristic feel.
However, the building frenzy was halted in 1997 when Thailand was rocked by the Tom Yam Kung Crisis. This economic meltdown was prompted by various circumstances – not least of which was a property crash that occurred in 1996. After that, the stock index slumped, and 16 financial organizations were wound up. Come the beginning of July 1997 the Thai baht was a floating currency, meaning that purely market forces determined its value – rather than the government setting it.
The effects of the economic crisis had a devastating impact on Thailand and its population. Many people lost their jobs, and numerous others had their salaries halved. Unsurprisingly, employment opportunities were also few and far between. And as a result, even individuals with skills and education found it almost impossible to find work.
The crisis had a far-reaching and long-lasting fallout in Thailand. Lots of people even took their own lives as a result of financial pressure. And it also affected various of Thailand’s neighbors throughout Southeast Asia. These countries included South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Laos, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
And while the economy of Thailand has since recovered, the lasting impact of the Tom Yam Kung Crisis is still evident. The country has only repaid 33.61 percent of its debt, and in 2016 it had to pay off 40.2 billion baht – a sum equating to more than $1,300,000,000. So it is that Bangkok’s various unfinished buildings now serve as a reminder of Thailand’s rocky economic past.
One such construction is Sathorn Unique Tower – the focus here – in the Sathon District of Bangkok. This 49-story tower was almost completed when the Asian financial crisis struck. However, it is yet to fulfil its destiny as a luxury grouping of condominiums. Instead, it has become one of the city’s most famous – or infamous – forsaken buildings.
The edifice was the brainchild of the architect and developer Rangsan Torsuwan. Torsuwan’s work has been described as “exultant post-modernism – architectural pastiche in which styles and eras are thrown together without any signs of restraint” by Dan Waites in the latter’s 2014 book, CultureShock! Bangkok. And accordingly, the unfinished tower features conspicuous neo-Grecian features, including its columns and embellished balconies.
Torsuwan and his company had high hopes for the new development. According to Atlas Obscura, the building’s commercial brochure reads, “Sathorn Unique Tower is our first residential project in downtown Bangkok. The tower is 49 stories with the total of 659 residential units and 54 retails, located only less than 200 meters (220 yards) from BTS: Taksin station.”
The marketing material for the development continues, “Sathorn Unique Tower is also located at the edge of [the] old commercial town of Charernkrung [and] meets the new international business zone of Silom-Sathorn roads. It sits on the horseshoe bend which is considered the best place for overlook at the Bangkok’s grand cityscape and the charm of the Chao Praya River.”
However, after the collapse of Bangkok’s real-estate market, the companies that were paying for Sathorn Unique Tower fell into liquidation. Development projects across the capital ground to a halt. And consequently, the city was left with more than 300 incomplete high-rise buildings. Today, it’s worth noting, though, there are only some 12 or so so-called “ghost towers” left – the Sathorn Unique among them.
Now the situation surrounding Sathorn Unique Tower was further complicated by a contentious legal case. In 1993 the building’s developer and designer, Torsuwan, was brought into custody for conspiring to kill Praman Chansue, the president of the Supreme Court. What’s more, Torsuwan was declared guilty of the crime in 2008.
But this wasn’t the end of the story. You see, Torsuwan was exonerated in 2010 after his case was taken to the Court of Appeals. And yet while Torsuwan successfully cleared his name, he found that his clout in the property development world had diminished, and he struggled to secure funding for his projects. Hence, the completion of Sathorn Unique Tower was put on hold.
In the years that followed, Torsuwan’s son Pansit tried to restart building work on the Sathorn Unique. But his attempts to refinance the project fell short. The matter also wasn’t helped by Rangsan Torsuwan, who refused to dissolve the company by declaring bankruptcy. Instead, Torsuwan insisted on selling the development on so that he could pay off the tower’s original buyers.
The upshot was that the incomplete Sathorn Unique Tower has been gradually wasting away on Bangkok’s skyline for almost 30 years. The construction’s core is mostly complete, and the building is considered structurally secure. However, the interior and various structural elements have scarcely been started, and the upper stories of the skyscraper are largely half-done.
Particularly given the skeletal appearance of Sathorn Unique Tower, it cuts something of a foreboding figure on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. But it’s not just the look of the forgotten building that has the capacity to send shivers down people’s spines. That’s because a lot of Bangkok natives believe the skyscraper to be haunted.
According to local legend, the Sathorn Unique is supernaturally doomed because its shadow plunges the nearby Wat Yannawa temple into darkness. It’s also believed that the tower was erected on the site of an old burial ground. And in a country such as Thailand, where superstition abounds, locals apparently aren’t surprised by the fate that has befallen the Sathorn Unique.
But while Sathorn Unique Tower has never fulfilled its potential, it is nevertheless an attraction of sorts to certain visitors to Bangkok. The derelict building is, for one thing, of particular interest to urban explorers. Those who practice urbex enjoy venturing into abandoned structures and generally accessing places where the public typically don’t go.
Sathorn Unique Tower is supposed to be off limits. However, there are allegations that security guards sometimes take bribes in exchange for access to the building. In 2015, for example, Dutch travel blogger Chris Wiersma claimed that he was allowed to go up to the top of the neglected structure after handing over the equivalent of just $6.22.
And following his trip up Sathorn Unique Tower, Wiersma shared the experience with The Daily Telegraph. In 2017 he revealed, “The lower floors up to around the 35th seemed quite finished to me. They have railings on the balcony [and] partly wooden floors installed, and even the bathrooms have tiles, toilets and baths.”
Continuing his description, Wiersma said, “From the 35th floor up the construction gets less and less complete. Fewer railings on the balconies, open shafts for plumbing and no more wooden floors but only concrete with holes in it. The intimidating part comes from the fact that you don’t know what you’ll see around each corner.”
Another individual who’s succumbed to the appeal of Sathorn Unique Tower is photographer Dax Ward. Despite hailing from the United States, Ward has lived in Bangkok since 2007. And, describing his adopted hometown on his website, Ward has said, “The Big Mango [Bangkok] provides endless subject matter for photos, with every moment providing something interesting and unique to capture.”
Offering an insight into his style of photography, the self-penned bio on Ward’s website continues, “My heart is in street shooting. But these days I’m heavily involved in the urban exploration genre, seeking out and capturing the eerie beauty of abandoned, decaying or unusual structures and sites around Thailand.” He’s also added, “I’m fascinated with the history of places that were once important components of local communities but now lie derelict and forgotten to history.”
When Ward visited Sathorn Unique Tower, he snapped a stunning series of photographs that reveal the state of the building today. Swathes of the tower are now overgrown, and many of its interior walls have become a canvas for graffiti. Elsewhere, Ward captured various dumped building supplies, including heaps of bricks and sand piles.
So, given the attention that Sathorn Unique Tower has received from urban explorers and graffiti artists, it’s fair to say that the ill-fated development has become a Bangkok landmark in its own right – despite and actually because of its decrepit state. That said, not all of the publicity that the building’s received has been positive. In 2014 the body of Swedish backpacker Stig Johan Kristian Hammarsten was discovered on the tower’s 43rd floor after his apparent suicide.
In light of this death – and the less unfortunate activities of some parkour practitioners – it has become a priority for Pansit Torsuwan to secure the Sathorn Unique from trespassers. And indeed, in 2015 he filed charges against several individuals who had entered the building and documented their visit online. The developer hoped that he could use the case of these alleged intruders to warn others against stepping foot inside the tower in future.
Speaking to The Daily Telegraph, Pansit Torsuwan confirmed that the building was structurally safe, mind you. But the developer was also keen to stress that accidents are still possible. “The only issue that concerns me about the safety of the building is that a lot of people want to climb up there, to take photos or party or [have] some sort of adventure,” he explained.
Revealing his biggest fears, the developer added, “Many spots in the building are not safe. Some floors are half completed, rails not installed yet. It is very easy to fall down and have a serious accident.” So, with that in mind, he has attempted to secure the potential deathtrap.
The decline of Sathorn Unique Tower must be even more distressing to the Torsuwans in view of the success of its sibling building, the State Tower. Lying just 1,600 feet to the north of the so-called ghost tower, this completed skyscraper is among the most striking in Bangkok. The tower rises 820 feet into the sky above the city, and its scalloped balconies and golden dome are synonymous with luxury.
The State Tower was, like the Sathorn Unique, dreamt up by Rangsan Torsuwan towards the beginning of the 1990s. With 3,200,000 square feet of floor space, the building is the largest in Southeast Asia. And, standing at 68 stories high, it’s also the eighth-tallest building in the whole of Thailand, as of 2019 – although upon its completion in 2001, it became the third tallest.
As of 2019, the State Tower is home to a number of serviced apartments and condominiums as well as retail units and offices. The building also contains a pair of five-star hotels: Tower Club at lebua and lebua at State Tower. And on the 64th story, visitors can find Sirocco – the highest open-air eating place in the world and a spot that boasts sweeping views of Bangkok.
Despite its history, then, perhaps Sathorn Unique Tower will one day prove to be as much of an achievement as the State Tower. At the very least, Pansit Torsuwan is confident that it will ultimately get finished. “Of course it has to be done one way or another,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “If it can be done within my authority, I will need to compensate every stakeholder fairly, so everyone leaves this place with too much hard feeling. Of course, 20 years is too much pain.”