The hidden jewels of Bangkok’s Thonglor

f all: people driving within the speed limit and mostly even according to the road rules. Signs point to exclusive institutions: one to the Japan Hospital, another to the American School of Bangkok. It’s leafy enough that in one or two spots you can hear birds.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Thonglor is trendy, and it has trendy retail to go with it. The area is dotted with the little vertical community malls, built on postage stamp-sized parcels of land. In catering mostly to the local clientele, they are distinct in both spirit and functionality from the mega-malls of the nearby EM District – EmQuartier, Emporium Mall and the under-construction EmSphere. 

Unfortunately, since the community malls are so oriented toward social interaction, their periodic government-mandated closures and restrictions on trade during the pandemic had a devastating effect on these little gems. Now things are normalising, they are slowly getting to their feet again, but it’s been hard. Rain Hill, which stands guard near the entrance to the heart of Thonglor, exemplifies the struggle.

Rain Hill

Rain Hill is a six-level open-air community mall on the main road at Sukhumvit Soi 47 (soi means alley or side street), resplendent with lush, hanging tropical foliage, trendy tenancies focused on close social activities, and teasing spaces that suggest you go sideways but keep pushing you vertically. Even the escalators are just a fraction of the normal width.

The mall is anchored at ground level by a Wine Connection restaurant and a Pacamara coffee bar (the latter recently replaced an Au Bon Pain that had not performed as well as it should have, given the location), and there is a series of eateries with a Japanese focus on the floors both above and below.

Level 3 is dominated by salons offering the beauty treatments that are so popular in Thailand. Casa Prima, for example, markets its botox, facial contouring, laser hair removal, and other treatments with the line “Simple step to be perfect”. Lollana Clinic, next door, likewise offers various routes to physical perfection.

Broccoli Revolution

Less than 200 metres east of Rain Hill, the visitor stumbles upon Broccoli Revolution, and knows for sure that (s)he has stepped away from mainstream Bangkok. Broccoli Revolution is a ‘plant-based eatery’, ‘socially conscious’, ‘eco-friendly’ – you get the idea. Where else in Bangkok can you get, for 260 THB (about $10.80) a broccoli quinoa charcoal burger, served with guacamole and mango salsa on a whole wheat bun?

The prices are robust at this restaurant but nothing you wouldn’t expect from a concept that is so well differentiated from standard Thai restaurant fare. 

Broccoli Revolution stands a few steps from the corner of Soi 49, and if you take a left down 49, you find yourself in a neighbourhood with a distinctly high-end flavour: this is Thonglor proper.  

The 49 Terrace

The 49 Terrace, about 800 metres down the soi, is like Rain Hill, in the sense of being a multi-level open-air vertical mall with beautiful finishes, lush foliage and a distinctly ‘laptop class’ feel to it. There are only 10 tenants here, stacked atop each other over three floors, with Starbucks anchoring the street level. 

The tenant mix overall reflects clearly how distinct Bangkok’s community malls are from the typical neighbourhood shopping centres that are the smallest in the mall pecking order in Western countries, and indeed throughout most of developing Asia as well. The functionality is completely different. Community malls like The 49 Terrace are focused on attracting local residents to spend time working, holding meetings, receiving health and beauty treatments, dining and pursuing hobbies, while conventional neighbourhood centres are anchored by supermarkets and feature satellite tenants selling mainly food for home consumption. You will not find a supermarket of any kind at most of Thonglor’s community malls.

In the 49 Terrace, Starbucks is joined on the ground level by a scrapbooking supplies shop, women’s clothing boutique, and nail salon.

On the second floor is a real gem, a superbly landscaped Italian restaurant, along with a high-end stationery store and a kids’ apparel shop. A Japanese restaurant and Karada Japanese massage boutique occupy the top level.

Malls like The 49 Terrace and Rain Hill are coming to life again. The 49 Terrace itself is tucked away in a sub-neighbourhood of Thonglor sometimes referred to as Japan Town. Lining Soi 49 and the adjacent alleys are restaurants, businesses and a hospital serving the large Japanese expat community.

Thonglor’s underside

For some though, the pandemic was just about the last straw. Just 10 minutes’ walk from The 49 Terrace is a barely breathing community mall called Seenspace, with the familiar multi-level, open-air design. The mall featured a number of alfresco eateries. On the ground floor was a café called Brave Roasters, which looks shelled on the inside and a sad little sign in the window reports that the establishment is ‘temporarily closed until further notice’. On the top level was a boxing gym, where the last blow has already probably been landed.

The area also has clubs, and a couple of them got into hot water during the pandemic for opening when they shouldn’t have. It’s unlikely the transgressions would ever have come to light if it weren’t for the fact that a number of high-ranking government officials were unlucky enough to have been caught patronising them – and then contracting Covid-19.

But the whiff of scandal only added to Thonglor’s mystique, and the neighbourhood looks set for a strong recovery. Although not all of the area’s community malls are going to make it, many will, and they will have many imitators in other parts of the city. The concept has already spread to other Thai cities and into neighbouring Cambodia as well. 

In Thonglor, tourists, particularly from other Asian countries such as Korea and Japan, are starting to stumble onto them. The secret is getting out, and not everyone will be pleased. So a big challenge for the owners will be to maintain the original feel and purpose of their malls as the customer mix evolves.

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