Superficial Thoughts on Bangkok Malls

Earlier this month I was on holiday in Thailand and Cambodia, mostly to see Angkor Wat and other temples, ruins, etc., all of which very much lived up to the hype – so while they were impressive, they were unsurprisingly impressive.

I was surprised by one thing in particular, though: the malls in Bangkok.

I do not subscribe to the notion that tourists – and that’s what I am, a tourist – should only go to the oldest, least commercial places in a destination to get a truly “authentic” experience. I learned more about contemporary China by going to malls and theme parks and resorts than by going to the Great Wall. If you want to know what a city is really like, you should check out the popular, busy places. Hence visiting two malls in Bangkok.

The first mall we visited, Iconsiam, looked to be one of the newest and fanciest in the city, having opened only four years ago. The second, Terminal21 Asok, was more run of the mill, being twelve years old and bereft of superlatives other than the longest escalator in Thailand.

There are apparently over 100 eateries in Sooksiam, just one of the many foodcourts in Iconsiam

What they had in common were restaurants and foodcourts the likes of which I have never seen in the UK and, I suspect, never will. They were so good that even as I ate the most delicious meals there, I felt a pang of despair because I knew that my country simply didn’t possess the interest or the infrastructure to pull off a similar achievement.

It’s not like we don’t have malls here. They’re so popular that before online retail really took off, they were blamed, probably correctly, for the decline of the high street. Westfield’s malls in London are just as big as the ones I visited in Bangkok, even if they were less shiny. And of course they have food courts and restaurants, though of a different sort.

If I had to summarise the differences:

  1. Bangkok malls have 2-3x more restaurants and fast food places than similarly-sized UK malls
  2. They cover a much wider price range, going from very cheap streetcart-style food to pretty expensive Michelin-starred restaurants
  3. They’re generally much better quality and value

It’s hard to judge value given differences in purchasing power, but it sure as hell ain’t hard to judge quality. The restaurants we ate at would easily rank among the very best in all of London, and believe me, I’ve eaten at a lot of restaurants.

I think this happens for a few reasons. The first is that more people are more discriminating when it comes to food in Bangkok. I’m not sure why; some people think this is more of a UK/Anglo problem than anything else, stemming from WW2 and industrialisation. I don’t know the origins of it. What I do know is that I keep seeing British people confidently saying they’ve eaten great Chinese food at restaurants that I know to be mediocre, at best, like this person who thinks London’s Chinese food is as good as that in NY, lol.

Some of the food we ate at Savoey in Terminal21 Asok

It’s obvious to me that a lot of Brits have never actually tasted really good Southeast Asian food, and even if they had, they wouldn’t be able to (or care to) discriminate it from bad food. Maybe this is just a charming patriotism, a defence of the domestic restaurant industry. Or maybe it’s just racism!

The other reason is that rents are too high in British cities, which makes it unprofitable for all but the blandest and/or biggest-scale restaurant chains to success, like Wagamama and Giraffe and Nando’s. The solution would be to build more, but we all know that’s anathema. Another solution would be to allow smaller outlets to open, foodcart-style. To the extent this exists in malls with their “streetfood areas” and such, this isn’t really working because retailers still end up in overlarge spaces with oversized, overbuilt industrial kitchens provided by the landlords.

A week on and I’m still reeling at the experience. It’s not as if I’d previously thought UK malls were the home of good cuisine – I’ve been to Paris – it’s more that I hadn’t imagined Bangkok malls would be this good. That’s my own racism at play, or more charitably, the consequence of not having travelled to Asia for years. It was impressive, and depressing.

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