Whereas the gritty streets of both cities offer few opportunities to escape the elements, air-conditioned shopping centres provide a respite from the humidity and, in Bangkok’s case in particular at this time of year, the rain.
But they also offer much more than that, and much more than retail therapy too. I remember writing many years ago, in one of the first guidebooks we wrote on Dubai, how the shopping malls there are like town squares in old European, Latin American and Middle Eastern cities. They’re the same in Bangkok.
Some shopping centres come complete with a central plaza – or two or three or four in the case of the most monumental malls – gardens, fountains (and even waterfalls!), barrows laden with souvenirs or snacks, and entertainment stages that are the modern equivalent of the old bandstand. Sure, these days, we’re much more likely to see a K-pop group or ukelele player perform (in Bangkok anyway) rather than an old-fashioned orchestra, but the idea is the same.
In the town squares of Europe’s historic centres, the old folks will while away time each day on a wooden bench watching the world go by, whereas these days, in the shopping mall (especially in Dubai) they congregate at a café. The motivation is the same – catching up with old friends, gossipping, and people-watching – only the context is different.
In Bangkok, like Dubai, locals of all ages go to the malls to shop, eat, drink, see the latest movies, bowl, play billiards and video games, read (have you been to a bookstore in either city? There are many more people ‘browsing’ than buying), fool around, and flirt. Yes, flirt – in Bangkok it’s out in the open, whereas in Dubai it’s happening via iPhones and laptops (you really think all those kids sitting around their MacBooks at Starbucks are working?).
The malls in Bangkok and Dubai are much more fascinating that the sterile shopping centres in say, suburban Australia, where people seem do little else but shop and gorge themselves on fast food. There are more places to sit and kick back, like the colourful seats in Siam Centre above (top right).
What all this means for travellers to Bangkok – and Dubai, and other cities with extreme climates where the shopping malls reign supreme (I’m thinking Doha, Kuwait, Singapore, Shanghai and so on), is that there’s another space, other than on the streets, to get an insight into how people live out their daily lives. And, depending on your confidence, another opportunity to connect with locals.
My favourite Bangkok malls:
This is where you’ll find the funkiest clothing boutiques, including dozens of Thai fashion designers (see this post), and plenty of affordable Asian and Western eateries, from conveyor belt sushi to burger joints – meaning this is where Bangkok’s young hipsters love to shop, making it the best mall for people watching, especially if you’re into fashion.
Rama Road, BTS: Siam
This mega-mall has something for everyone, from the Paragon department store and exclusive designer boutiques – Gucci, Prada, Pucci, and so on – to bookshops, Apple stores, cinemas, and a bowling alley. It’s also home to some of the best mall eating, in food halls, cafes and restaurants, which means it’s popular with families and groups of friends. There’s always some kind of entertainment on the ground floor or – in good weather – in the space outside between Paragon and Siam Centre.
Rama Road, BTS: Siam
Cheap shoes, accessories and clothes – from hippy tie-dyed dresses to Singha t-shirts – Thai souvenirs and crafts, luggage, cameras and mobile phones, and stall after stall of counterfeit DVDs and software make this the mall to shop for foreign tourists and their Thai ‘friends’. Fascinating for people-watching, as much as getting your hair cut, getting a mani-pedi and getting your business cards printed. There are cinemas upstairs, Thai boxing outside and any number of sports being played next door, so lots to amuse.
Rama Road, BTS: National Stadium
Crammed with exclusive designer boutiques – everything from Gucci to Prada – this is where you’ll find Bangkok’s affluent and very chic Hi-So (high-society). It’s also home to the Thailand Creative and Design Centre (mentioned in this post), which has a café and library, making it a great place to meet arty, creative types. The park beside the mall is also a fun spot to people-watch.
Sukhumvit Road, BTS: Phrom Pong
Note: in Bangkok the big malls generally open seven days a week, from 10am to 9pm or 10pm daily, even on most major Thai holidays, when you’d expect them to be shut.
Are you a fan of shopping malls, other than for retail therapy? Or not? Do you make an effort to check them out if you have time when you travel? Or do you dismiss them as being the same as they are at home?
* At the time of writing this post, Thailand is experiencing a protracted and particularly brutal monsoon season with much of the country flooded and fears of flooding in Bangkok. For excellent coverage and frequent updates on the situation see Travelfish, as well as the Bangkok Post.