Photos: Climbing Bangkok’s Ghost Tower

A view of the Bangkok skyline from an overgrown balcony half way up Ghost Tower
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand

Sathorn Unique Tower, to give it its official name, is an unfinished skyscraper in Bangkok, Thailand. Originally planned as a high-rise apartment block, construction stopped around the turn of the century, most likely due to the Asian Financial Crisis (accounts vary, others link it to a high-society murder trial). However, it is much better known to locals by the more sinister name of ‘Ghost Tower’, and once you go inside it is clear why. Overgrown and flooded balconies with broken railings contrast with the shiny new skyscrapers opposite, while dark stairwells thread the dingy interior of the building, full of helpful graffiti like: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” (in blood red paint). Sunset creates an even more dystopian mood, with views reminiscent of Blade Runner or The Windup Girl – a science-fiction novel set in a future Bangkok full of abandoned skyscrapers.

This is a photo project I started in 2015, towards the end of my six years in Thailand. I was introduced to Ghost Tower by members of my local photography club, and the balconies overlooking the river were indeed often busy with photographers, trying to capture a sunset panorama without interference from building lights behind them. At the time, the tower was also popular with adventurous backpackers and urban explorers. The experience was a bit like hiking a mountain or exploring a cave system, but in the middle of a city. I got a similar sense of exhilaration when I reached the summit, after climbing 47 floors without the benefit of a lift or escalator.

I visited Ghost Tower three times, with a slightly different group of friends each time. Officially, the building was closed to the public, but in practice it was usually open to anyone who turned up with a torch, sensible shoes and 1,000 baht (£25). One time, the guards had even installed lights in the stairwell, set up a register of people going in and out, and gave out an emergency contact number. These were all sensible precautions – the building was fairly complete until about two thirds of the way up, but on the upper levels there were entire walls and floors missing, so you really had to watch your step. Here are some of my favourite photos from the three visits:

First visit, January 2015

A view of Ghost Tower through a hole in the roof of the carpark next door.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
Completed balconies on the lower floors of the tower.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
The interior of Ghost Tower is full of inventive graffiti art. James (left) and I take a break on a sofa in a newly refurbished apartment.
© Alex Fowler/2015/Thailand
Towards the top of the tower, Roman-style pillars give a sense of grand, if unfulfilled, ambition.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
A view of nearby State Tower, designed in a very similar style to Ghost Tower. The two face each other across the Skytrain line, like good and evil twins. Or, for Tolkien fans, like Minas Tirith and Minas Morgul.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
A half built dome on the roof, intended to be like the one on State Tower but now looking more like Stonehenge. James and Alex made the final ascent via a pair of wooden planks but this was far enough for me.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
Sunset from the unfinished dome on the roof of Ghost Tower.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
Another sunset view, with grass growing among the graffiti on the roof.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand

Second visit, March 2015

A full-length portrait of Ghost Tower. Despite not being completed, the building still provides income for its owners thanks to the huge adverts hung from the upper balconies.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
A view of the Chao Praya river, as seen through a giant Coca Cola advert.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
A shadow on a wall inside Ghost Tower … or is it something more sinister?
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
Graffiti art overlooking a flooded balcony and the Bangkok skyline.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
Lema and friend recreate the sofa shot from my first visit. More graffiti had been added in the intervening months, including a bong on the sofa and an anti-monarchy slogan (out of shot, due to Thailand’s strict censorship laws).
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
My second visit was during Thailand’s rainy season. Many of the large balconies and the front of Ghost Tower had been flooded, providing some nice reflections.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
One floor up from the flooded balcony, we found a large group of photographers setting up their tripods in anticipation of sunset.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
A visitor on one of the side balconies of Ghost Tower. These would have been part of the smaller bedsit apartments.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
Me on a balcony high above the Chao Praya River, just before sunset.
© Unknown/2015/Thailand
The Bangkok skyline seen through an unfinished viewpoint window near the top of Ghost Tower.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
A bird’s eye view of the streets below, as the lights of the city start to come on in the early evening.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand

Third visit, August 2015

State Tower, seen behind its unfinished “evil twin” Ghost Tower.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
Balconies behind the latest multistorey advert covering the front of Ghost Tower.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
A sliver of skyline, seen from the balcony of what would have been one of the grandest apartments.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
Graffiti in the central stairwell, now lit by a long line of florescent tubes. This was the busiest of my three visits, when Ghost Tower became an unofficial tourist destination for adventurous backpackers.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
Someone had brought a bench all the way up to this viewpoint and even left a bottle of beer behind.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
This shot always reminds me of Blade Runner. Looking west from Ghost Tower across the Chao Praya to the Bangkok suburbs on the far side of the river.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
Another sunset view, this time looking south, towards the Gulf of Thailand. I was happy to catch a bird flying through the patch of clear sky between the clouds and city.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand
Linda, me, Rickard and Will (l-r) on the roof of Ghost Tower. From here, we could see the well-dressed clientele of nearby The Dome at Lebua (State Tower) sipping expensive cocktails. Despite being tired, sweaty and scruffy, and with cheap beer bought from 7-11 that had got warm during the climb, it was hard not to feel that we had the richer experience.
© Unknown/2015/Thailand
Backpackers sit on the dome of Ghost Tower watching sunset. Others had brought drinks and a portable stereo for an impromptu rooftop party.
© Andrew Brown/2015/Thailand

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