If you're based in Bangkok and you enjoy a bit of window shopping, you could do a lot worse than spend a few hours browsing around the capital's newest and most talked about shopping mall - Terminal 21 - located on the corner of Sukhumwit 19, where If memory serves me correct, a Volvo dealership used to stand.
My wife and I spent four very happy hours wandering up and down escalators on Saturday and it's quite possibly the best shopping center I have ever seen. But my advice would be to go as soon as possible and experience the Terminal 21 shopping mall while it's still got the buzz.
The moment you enter Terminal 21, you realize that the developers set out to make it a completely unique shopping experience. And oh boy have they succeeded. On the ground floor, the girls working the information desk are decked out as flight attendants from a bygone era in tight-fitting retro uniforms complete with blue cap worn at a seductively jaunty angle. They look rather like something from a 70's Gerry Anderson kids show - think Thunderbirds or Stingray puppets - but with no strings attached. I found myself wanting to ask a dumb question just so I could watch their lips move.
Cities of the world
Each of the half a dozen or so floors has a ‘city theme'. You begin with Rome on the ground floor with its impressive marble facades and Roman pillars. From there you can ride the escalator up to Paris, where quaint cobbled streets and fashionably distressed shop-fronts await you. Then once you've had your fill of strolling along the banks of The Seine, you can move up again and take in Tokyo and London.
On the London floor, there are countless nods towards the home of the union jack; classic red telephone boxes, beefeaters standing proudly in their sentry boxes, old style pillar boxes correct to the last detail and even an outsize double-decker London bus. There are enough smiles on each floor to lift the spirits of even the most jaded shopper.
With so many photo opportunities around, you are left wondering however if anyone is actually doing any shopping. Terminal 21 has become the talk-of-the-town on the popular Thai discussion forums and everywhere you looked on Saturday, there were teenage couples and groups of youngsters posing next to samurai warriors, leaning against the Golden Gate Bridge and jostling for space inside a fetching red and white striped lighthouse.
An interesting mix of retail
However, the real difference and the main attractions of Terminal 21 are the retail shops themselves. Most of the retail floor space is taken up by independent traders all renting small shop units on a monthly basis. So what you get is an incredibly eclectic mix of designer clothes, unusual accessories and one-off businesses specializing in the weird and wonderful (I saw one shop that sold nothing but bags and boxes made from old cement bags and another shop specializing in studded leather gear and everything for the closet gothic)
There's a surprise around every corner. It's a bit like shopping at the Weekend Market but - and I mean no disrespect to Chatujak because it's a wonderful place - in a much nicer environment.
And how refreshing it was to see a Bangkok shopping mall that doesn't hit you with the usual suspects as soon as you walk in.
Frankly, I can live without straggly lines of Thai families queuing outside MK Suki waiting to celebrate Grandma's 80th birthday. And the same goes for Sizzler, KFC, Swensens, McDonalds and Pizza Hut. You know exactly who they are by now. And I can live without the bright fluorescent lights of Boots the Chemists with its squeaky-clean staff and its buy-one-get-one-free shampoos that have been drop-kicked into their display stands and I can do without Watsons, Yamazaki, Asia Books and all those other retail giants of the Thai high street that do nothing except deflate us with their depressing familiarity.
If I want any of those places, I know exactly where they are.
For those who need their weekly fix of Yamazaki curry puffs and Sizzler salad bar, Terminal 21 does have many, if not all of the usual suspects mentioned above, but they are on the fringes. They are not as ‘in your face' as in other shopping malls. You have to go looking for them.
And as for the likes of Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton - and all those other high-end designer stores that I can't believe people want to spend time in - well, let's just say they are conspicuous by their absence. And for that I'm eternally grateful.
One thing that will come as a pleasant surprise to you is the prices of the merchandise on offer. With obviously so much money being plowed into this exciting venture, coupled with a noticeable lack of price tags on the items in the shop windows, you are instinctively afraid to ask about the cost of that rather nice T-shirt on the second shelf, but I ended up buying a dozen unusual T-shirts in four of five different independent stores and never paid more than 300 baht for any of them.
My biggest concern for Terminal 21 is simple - can it last? I got into conversation with several of the vendors, who were only too happy to chat when they realized I appreciated the stuff they were selling. Without exception, they all seemed dubious about whether they could sell enough stock and make enough profit to claw back the basic 30,000 baht a month rent. Not to mention earn enough money on top to provide them with a living wage.
A real find
Occupying one of the smaller retail units was a young Thai guy selling T-shirts featuring famous music artists. He had t-shirts of The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Stone Roses, The Velvet Underground, Radiohead - all the guv'nors you might say. I've long been a fan and collector of this kind of merchandise and the seller seemed eager to get my feedback when he saw me fall lovingly on a Joy Division ‘Unknown Pleasures' t-shirt featuring the original early 80's album cover.
He told me that he had his own silkscreen printing factory in the Bangkok suburbs and had the capacity to produce thousands of t-shirts a week. But he didn't have the buyers. Exporting the t-shirts was the direction he wanted to go in because ultimately that's where the money would be made. He confessed to me that selling two dozen shirts a day in Terminal 21 was barely going to cover his rent.
I noticed that he had a Smiths ‘The Queen is Dead' t-shirt (UK band ‘The Smiths' made the album in the 1980s and many fans and Smiths aficionados consider it their finest work) however the t-shirt was white text on black cotton. The original ‘The Queen is Dead' album cover was dark green. So therefore the t-shirt needed to be dark green. Had it been that colour, I would have bought it myself in a heartbeat.
The seller started making notes. "Get your money on Stone Roses merchandise" I told him. "They've just reformed after two decades away and their UK three concerts sold out within an hour. But as for a t-shirt design, you won't go wrong with the first album cover"
I found the attitudes of all the sellers friendly and welcoming. No one minded if you picked up every item in the shop, messed up their displays and then walked out without buying anything. Those whose wares you showed an interest in were generous with their time.
What a nice contrast to walking around somewhere like Mahboonkrong or Central Chidlom, where the assistants all look jaded and world-weary and would rather carry on eating lunch than rummage around in the stock-room to find you something in an extra large.
Feeling a little peckish, the wife and I ventured up to the restaurants on the top two floors. Again, aside from a nice-looking food court, there are plenty of restaurant names you don't see all that often. Pepper Lunch is there. The Manhattan Fish Market serves fish and chips and fried seafood dishes. There is even a branch of Olivie, my favorite Italian mall restaurant when I fancy some tasty pasta. There were also many one-off restaurants whose names escape me now.
So all in all, Terminal 21 is well worth a visit, particularly if you are a clothes shopper and looking for something a bit different. It's a very welcome addition to the Bangkok shopping scene and I for one applaud the developers and the ‘ideas men' for having the balls to create something so unique.
But go now - it may not last forever, at least not in its present form. I'm certainly keeping my fingers crossed because it would be so sad to see Terminal 21 fail.