Location: Bangkok, Thailand
I’ve never been a fan of malls; I’ve always preferred a day under the sun to a shopping trip. The never-ending stacks of identical clothes, over-eager salesmen, and bass-heavy, shitty top-40 background music only irritate my indecisive nature and overwhelm me every time. So it’s not surprising that both times I’ve been to MBK, an eight-floor, mammoth shopping center, I didn’t really enjoy it. And I never thought I’d include an entry about a freaking mall in my travel blog, but I don’t think I’d be doing justice to Bangkok if I don’t write something about its extraordinary megamall culture.
The first thing I noticed as we pulled up to the towering, three-block-long, colorless monument to consumerism that is MBK, was the cluster of food and clothing stands around it. The area wasn’t packed, but people still milled about in this cheaper extension of the mall. It was a stereotypical Southeast Asian marketplace: a string of tightly packed, slightly dirty, pretty cheap, makeshift stalls with a questionable hygiene factor. We wandered by rows of fat, barbecue squid skewers, printed tank tops dangling from thin, rusty metal hangars, towers of white, foam takeaway boxes, and whole, plucked ducks hanging from hooks. Plastic tables lined every millimeter of gritty, gray sidewalk and as we walked by them on the black asphalt, the wheels of passing cars and scooters barely missed our feet.
But once I took my first step into actual mall territory, entering through the fingerprint-less, automatic sliding glass doors, it was like I’d crossed the threshold of another dimension. I’d never seen a shopping center like MBK in any of my travels. There were probably thousands of people in that building — all working, wandering, and shopping. The slap of shoes against the spotless, white, diamond-tiled floors echoed lightly and was muffled by the buzz of hundreds of voices. The fluorescent lights across the ceiling were incredibly bright. They reflected off the shiny walls and floors, so it seemed like light was coming from every direction. When I stood in the middle of the huge ground floor, escalators flanked me on all sides.
We’d come to MBK for SIM cards for our phones; Bangkok is a massive clusterfuck of roundabouts, six lane highways, and skinny alleyways, and we were sick of being shafted by taxi drivers trying to hike up our meter price on a couple of trips. The mobile mart, a sprawling web of glass stands stocked with secondhand electronics, fakes, and phone accessories, was on the fourth floor. We found an escalator by the food court and rode it up. The trip from the second floor to the third was easy as well, but the next set of escalators was halfway down the mall, crammed between leather shops and an area devoted to furniture. It felt like we were wandering in circles.
Setting up our phones with SIM cards was tedious, boring, and hellish. Nobody spoke English; our questions were ignored. Every station sold the same product for a different price. I had to ask over and over again until I finally found the cheapest option and was able to haggle it down to a reasonable cost. One vendor would give us a price, shout in Thai with a coworker, and tell us a higher number. SIM cards in Cambodia had cost me about $3 for a month with 1GB of data. I paid nearly $20 for the same product in Bangkok after going back and forth over the numbers for nearly forty-five minutes. And the first set of SIMs didn’t even work; we waited a half hour for the saleswoman to hook it all up, then another half hour to re-do it when the defective SIM wouldn't respond to my phone. As I stood there in the sterile mall air, shaking my head at the bored sales rep in front of me, I felt myself losing faith in humanity.
When we finally exited through one of the mall’s spotless automatic sliding doors and the muggy air embraced my skin, swallowing me in its warmth, I breathed a sigh of relief.