SMART COOKIES: Butterflies in bangkok - An overseas despatch from Thailand brings a refreshing view of a wounded Asian tiger that may still be limping but is on the prowl for business again

SMART COOKIES: Butterflies in bangkok - An overseas despatch from Thailand brings a refreshing view of a wounded Asian tiger that may still be limping but is on the prowl for business again - What's Bangkok got to do with butterflies?

by ANDREW WILEMAN, strategy and organisation consultant;e-mail:
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

What's Bangkok got to do with butterflies?

Grasshopper say: Butterfly flap wing, somewhere in forest tree fall. Thailand was the first market to tremble and crash in the roaring '90s, back in 1997. The stock market tumbled, the baht devalued, a big property bubble burst. Investors who bought at the peak lost more than 80% (in dollar terms), and haven't recovered it. South Korea and Indonesia nose-dived a few months later, then Malaysia, Latin America and Russia - the emerging markets crisis of 1998. Three years later, the rippling wave of market crashes has hit Nasdaq, then the Dow and Europe.

What's it like in Bangkok, four years on?

You can clearly see the fallout. Sitting on my 17th-floor hotel balcony at dusk, no lights come on in a third of the big new high-rise developments that stud the cityscape. Take the express boat up the Chao Phraya river and you see dozens of buildings, abandoned unfinished. The banks are still running daily fire-sale auctions of prime residential and office property.

The brand-new SkyTrain is getting only half its forecast passenger numbers. The Plaza Athenee, which bills itself (accurately) as a six-star hotel, is just dollars 110 a night - whereas the new, completed Novotel on the river opposite the Oriental hasn't bothered to open.

I've got butterflies in my stomach now.

Don't worry, I'll make you feel better. What really strikes me about Thailand is how much progress it's made and how strong its prospects are.

I'm comparing it with my last visit to Thailand 10 years ago. I remember a Bangkok of chaos, pollution, dereliction and record-shattering traffic jams (Bangkok's traffic lights were often manual then, and the guy pulling the lever might be off having lunch). I remember a countryside of minimal infrastructure, facilities and living standards - similar to rural India or Indonesia. That has all changed radically. Thailand has moved up a level on the food chain, and it's got the momentum to keep going.

What's your evidence for feeling so positive?

Bangkok has great potential as a multinational business services hub for south-east Asia. The city infrastructure has improved enormously, with better roads, expressways and the SkyTrain - airport to downtown in a taxi now takes less than 30 minutes. There's an efficient airport with good regional and intercontinental connections. Business services (offices, telecoms, IT, legal, accounting and so on) are comprehensive and cost-competitive. English is now widely spoken, as well as Chinese; and working practices, flexibility and productivity are all good.

My client in Bangkok is a Europe-based global technology business. Last year it chose Bangkok as its regional HQ in Asia (for pan-regional sales, marketing and tech support). Singapore and Hong Kong are great, but bloody expensive. KL was a strong contender, but El Presidente was bashing foreign investors and had just stuck the new airport 80 kilometers out of town (guess why).

So Bangkok it was - and, after initial scepticism back in Europe, it proved a great choice.

My client runs its Asian follow-the-sun tech help desk out of Bangkok.

The Thai engineers deal in English with customers in the US, Germany and Japan. They earn about dollars 12,000 a year. Total cost per head, including benefits, office space, IT and telecoms, is less than dollars 25,000. India could be cheaper on payroll, but telecoms and IT costs would be higher. Hong Kong or Singapore, on the other hand, cost three or four times more.

How about the general environment?

There's still a long list of stuff to get upset about. Child sex; conservation; accommodation with Burma; corruption - the two ex-wives of a dead career politician-general (who led the government's anti-corruption campaign for years) are fighting over his dollars 60 million estate (how did he acquire that?).

But if I were an ex-pat, it would be my choice in Asia. The people are friendly, tolerant, enthusiastic. The towns and countryside are garbage-free, the houses and gardens well maintained, the roads good. A national park network is being built. And then there's the food ... The feeling is like Spain in the 1960s.

And the Thai butterfly?

Its wings are flapping again, only this time the ripples are ones of resurgent growth and progress. Markets will boom and bust, but Bangkok revisited is a reminder of how far and fast the global economy has come in 10 years.

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