The thrill is instantaneous. It hits with the rush of color and sound. A vast neon land stretches out ahead, one where displays are unnaturally bright and salespeople promise only the very best, very lowest prices. The lights here are better than any shot of espresso; perpetual, artificial daytime turned on full blast. Piles upon piles of tech toys teeter, and whirling gadgets increase the chaos. You weren’t planning to buy anything, but on second thought...
Although it sounds fictional, this madness is totally real. In fact, it might just be the world’s ultimate tech playground. Welcome to Thailand’s incredible, overwhelming, and outlandish IT malls.
A customer strolls down MBK Center’s glowing, technicolor aisles.
Shop till you drop
In the United States, malls are dying. Brick and mortar retail is fighting a war against the convenience of online shopping and e-commerce giants like Amazon. But in Thailand, and throughout Southeast Asia, malls are thriving. Investors are pouring billions into building and refurbishing shopping centers, turning out high-end malls in a bid to attract even more shoppers.
The difference largely comes down to shopping habits. In Thailand, e-commerce is on the rise, but only half as many people shop online versus the US. Over 96% of the country's sales are cash-only, and even most internet purchases are cash on delivery.
There are also substantial barriers to online shopping. While retailers do exist, many Thai businesses haven’t yet gone digital, and Amazon is only available in Japan and Singapore. And beyond slow internet, rural delivery is challenging. Ordering a package is just half the battle.
Despite this, Southeast Asia is an IT-purchasing powerhouse, and the Asia-Pacific region drives a majority of global consumer electronics sales. Buying products in person hasn’t stopped devoted techies, and tourists come from far and wide just for cheap gadgets, sending IT malls soaring to new heights.
Go big or go home
The ultra-futuristic MBK Center looks more movie set than mall.
Bangkok’s MBK Center is the ultimate electronics experience. Although it’s spitting distance from four other massive malls, it’s the only one that looks like something out of Bladerunner. Nestled in the bustling hub of Pathum Wan junction, colorful tuk tuks and taxis zip by as huge wall screens cast flickering, eerie patterns on giant mushrooms. Skytrain tracks crisscross pedestrian overpasses, and bright trains blast through the darkness. Everything deepens the impression that you’re in a futuristic, urban utopia.
However, MBK’s interior is a stark contrast to its modern trappings. Even the same levels vary dramatically as you go deeper into the mall. The third floor morphs from bright, airy spaces and typical shops to twisting passages, tiny clothing stalls, and claustrophobic kiosks peddling handmade goods. At times, it feels like someone stuck walls and air conditioning on one of Bangkok’s famous outdoor markets. And with seven floors, 2,000 stores, and over 957,000 square feet, it’s just as possible to get gloriously lost here as in the open-air versions.
For electronics shoppers, the fourth floor is the place to be. Home to all things digital, it's packed to the brim with blindingly colorful stalls. If there are a few spare feet, it’s guaranteed a shop has been crammed in.
Thailand’s electronics markets are incredibly bright no matter the time of day.
Many vendors carry the same products, which makes MBK the perfect place to haggle for deals on everything from USB cables and phone cases to larger electronics, even Nintendo Switches. Bulk purchases give even more bargaining power. Just be sure to test everything before you buy, and walk away if prices are too steep. Odds are good the place two stalls down has the same item, anyway.
Without a doubt, electronics shopping at MBK is an unmissable experience. This place perfectly captures the chaos of open markets, minus the oppressive heat. And if you’re looking for a little adventure, you’re in luck; getting lost is all part of the experience.
A saleswoman eats dinner on a stool inside one of MBK’s tiny kiosks.
Classics in the capital
With so many IT malls to choose from, competition is fierce. There are at least four in Bangkok alone, and their owners know complacency spells obsolescence. And not every shopping center has the luxury of MBK's central location, either. Buyers need a good reason to make the trip, never mind walk through the doors. For many malls, that means targeting specific customer groups rather than all tech buyers.
Pantip Pratunam in Bangkok is five floors of nonstop, shop-till-you-drop tech.
Bangkok’s Pantip Pratunam Plaza is a massive complex about 30 minutes from MBK by Skytrain. In 2016, it underwent an extensive two year, 300 million Thai baht renovation. Unlike MBK, which features many different types of goods over its seven floors, this is an IT mall through and through. Every single one of its five levels is dedicated to electronics. From the outside, it’s hard to fathom how a building of this size could just be tech-focused.
Inside, small kiosks dot the first level, while larger stores ring every other floor. The sweeping atrium reveals an overwhelming number of stores and it’s hard to know where to begin. On weekdays it’s not too crowded, but with over 10 million annual visitors, you can see how this place could be packed on weekends.
One of many gorgeous ROG PC builds spotted at the Thai IT malls.
Like MBK, Pantip Pratunam has plenty of tiny kiosks, and it’s easy to get caught up in some intense haggling sessions. However, general electronics aren’t the only thing going on here. One of its big differentiators is a coworking space where anyone can settle in for a few hours of work. But the biggest highlight is the awesome gaming stores. Pantip Pratunam is clearly targeting the gamer demographic. Sexy modded PCs are everywhere, they recently added an esports arena, and there’s even a dedicated ROG store with badass black and red displays.
Pantip Pratunam’s slick ROG store is definitely worth a visit.
If you're looking to upgrade your PC or pick up a new ROG mouse, Pantip's got you covered, but it's the retro third floor that truly separates Pantip Pratunam from the rest of the pack.
It all begins with retro-themed Z Cafe, where you can forget about paying the cashier for your drink. Instead, feed those coins into a Pac-Man arcade cabinet. This isn’t just a gimmick; you get unlimited play time on any of the classic arcade games while enjoying your technicolor beverage. There’s even a 500-game NES knockoff “Entertainment System,” which includes time-honored classics like Bulbbe Bulbbe 2, Hello Kidy, Contra 8, and Mowing. The last one was precisely as thrilling as it sounds.
Left: Z Cafe’s retro theme isn’t all there is to see here. Buy a drink and you get unlimited arcade game play time.
Right: Z Cafe also offers a hilarious NES knockoff. The obviously-bootlegged games are definitely fun for some laughs.
Just around the corner, you’ll find more authentic titles at iMo Retro Game. Their glass cases are packed with nostalgia: Famicom, SNES, every imaginable Gameboy, N64, Gamecube, and the list goes on. Even if you aren’t looking to buy, this is definitely the place to window shop for some serious retro goodness. They’re accompanied by tons of games, including many Japanese imports, with prices ranging anywhere from 300 to 3000 Thai baht ($9 to $90 USD). These prices beat many shops outside Thailand, which could be a red flag about their legitimacy, but they look fairly real. It could also simply be a result of Thailand’s lower prices overall.
Left: Gamecube, PS2, and PS games for sale at Pantip Pratunam’s iMo Retro Game store.
Middle: A Super Famicom was on sale for about $45 US dollars.
Right: There were tons of imported Japanese Gameboy and Gameboy Advance games, too.
Games get real
Still, wander Thailand’s bustling IT malls long enough and you’ll notice the bootlegs. Sometimes they’re mixed in with legitimate games, like when real titles mingled with 10-in-1 Megaman Gameboy cartridges at iMo Retro. Other times, entire stores are dedicated to fake games and movies. Some are obvious: flat packages with photocopied covers. Others are practically indistinguishable from the real deal.
Thailand’s thriving bootleg culture comes from decades of gaming and movie companies ignoring the Thai market. When people couldn’t buy what they wanted through official channels, they found workarounds. Sellers make little effort to hide it, and some even bribe officials to continue openly selling their contraband goods.
This is just one of many movie stores at Bangkok’s Fortune Town IT mall. Sometimes it’s easy to tell which are bootlegged, sometimes not.
Despite this, obvious bootlegging is slowly disappearing. In some cases it’s going digital, but it’s also generally on the decline. Game manufacturers are hastening this process by offering lower prices in Thailand, while some retailers have even instituted anti-bootleg policies. Once-infamous Pantip Pratunam no longer allows stores with pirated products after their high-end remodel.
Whether these policies are successful is debatable, given iMo Retro still sells some ROM-hacked Gameboy cartridges and 500-in-1 knock-off NES systems at Pantip Pratunam. But Thailand’s Department of Intellectual Property is also cracking down (even on tourists leaving the country with bootlegs), and the risks have increased for would-be buyers, too.
If you’re going game shopping in Thailand, a little caution is certainly advisable. However, it’s not like it used to be. With some advance research it’s possible to not only visit Thai IT malls, but to buy some awesome, inexpensive, and legal games. You might even pick up a few sweet classic games or rare Japanese titles while you’re at it.
Mixing esports and electronics
At least 100 people gathered in Pantip Chiang Mai’s atrium to watch gaming competitions and demonstrations.
Game stores aren’t the only way IT malls are enticing shoppers through the door. In some places, esports are a major draw. Bangkok’s Pantip Pratunam made waves as Thailand’s first IT mall with an esports arena. ROG even hosted its CS:GO and Dota 2 ROG Masters 2017 competitions there in August.
A little over 400 miles north of Bangkok, in the city of Chiang Mai, Pantip is also doing its best to spark a dormant esports scene. Chiang Mai’s gaming culture couldn’t be more different than that of Bangkok. There are few, if any, internet cafes, esports stadiums, or gaming events—surprising, given it’s been dubbed the “digital nomad capital of the world.” With hipster cafes dotting the streets, it feels more like a tropical Los Angeles than Thailand. Walk a block and you’re just as likely to pass a programmer from Portland as from Pattaya. Yet, for whatever reason, all is quiet on the gaming front.
Pantip’s goal is to change this, especially since desktop and mobile games are a huge market throughout Thailand and Southeast Asia. At Pantip Chiang Mai, recent investment spurred a renovation project similar to the one at Pantip Pratunam Plaza in Bangkok. They’ve modernized the four-story building, adding an esports arena and adopting the tagline “Gaming and tech hub of the north.” But this isn’t just a slogan. During their opening weekend, there were esports and gaming events galore.
In the spacious main atrium, a crowd gathered to watch mini-competitions, hardware giveaways, and overclocking demonstrations. Just around the corner, dramatic waves of liquid nitrogen fog rolled off the ROG and ASUS booths, obscuring an ROG Rampage VI Apex motherboard beneath. Without realizing it, I’d stumbled upon a group of mad scientist overclockers pushing the Rampage VI Apex and Intel Kaby Lake Core i5 to their limits.
An ROG Rampage VI Apex and Intel Kaby Lake i5 were torched during the epic overclocking demo.
We wrote about a similar setup in September 2017, but reading about it doesn't compare to seeing it in real life. A crowd gathered and watched in awe as the processor was supercooled to a frosty -40℃, overclocked to a blazing 6.7 GHz, then warmed back up to 0℃ with a blowtorch. Freeze, overclock, torch, repeat. It was a dramatic and impressive demonstration of the hardware’s overclocking capabilities.
Beyond the impressive hardware demos, Pantip Chiang Mai has several gamer-specific stores, including Speed Gaming. This PC paradise had several beautiful mods on display, including one with the sleek ROG Strix X299-E Gaming motherboard.
Speed Gaming was displaying a beautiful ROG Strix X299-E Gaming with a winning mix of neon green and arctic white cooling liquid.
But that’s not all. Nearby cheers revealed a group of gamers congregating on steps inside the store, rapidly swiping, tapping, and jabbing on their cell phone screens. Every person was playing a mobile game which looked remarkably like League of Legends. Around the corner, hundreds more players were sitting on the floor and standing in line, patiently waiting for a tournament qualifier.
I quickly learned this game is Garena’s RoV. Although unfamiliar, sleuthing revealed this is a Thai-licensed and rebranded version of Arena of Valor, which is itself a rebranded version of Tencent Games’ King of Glory. In other words, it’s made by the same company as League of Legends. No wonder it’s so familiar. Thanks to Garena’s re-licensing and localization, RoV is now Thailand’s most popular mobile game. Of course, you don’t need a website to see that; simply looking at this crowd of gamers is enough.
Pantip was clearly going all-in on esports during their relaunch, because their adjoining newly-opened stadium was also hosting a Point Blank tourney. This free-to-play MMOFPS resembles CS:GO and is immensely popular in Thailand. Although I missed the tournament action, it was clear the match had been a heated one. The relieved victors and runners-up were hugging, hollering, fistbumping, and posing with their winning signs.
Visiting Pantip Chiang Mai on opening weekend was an exciting look at what’s to come for Chiang Mai’s esports scene, and there are more esports events planned for the future, from CS:GO competitions to collaborations with a local startup, Arena Hub, which trains pro gamers. If Pantip is successful, they just may succeed at creating a vibrant esports scene in Chiang Mai, with their mall at the center of it all.
Inside Pantip Chiang Mai’s new esports stadium, an excited Point Blank tournament victor holds the sign listing his team’s winnings.
One of a kind
IT malls are booming in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia, and it’s partially thanks to their innovation and desire to stay relevant amidst fierce competition. They’re doing everything from adding coworking spaces and building esports arenas to hosting gaming events and partnering with startups. In the process, they’re attracting new customers and creating a vibrant community completely separate from the threat e-commerce poses to their core business.
Thailand’s tech meccas are absolutely worth a visit, even if you’re not in the market for new electronics. As they work to ensure the rise of e-commerce does not spell their ultimate demise, these shopping centers are constantly evolving, and what's there today may not last. So, get while the getting is good. Set aside an hour or two to wander the aisles and gawk at the gadgets. Most importantly, immerse yourself, and get a little lost in the twisting labyrinths and swirling kaleidoscopes of colors.
Colorful LED lights dance and flicker at an IT mall kiosk.
By Kimberly Koenig