Posted by: Nick Ward | 18 July, 2010

Adventures in Bangkok: Three Colours Red

Asia has always fascinated me.

It’s so close to home, yet so completely different. Culturally, climactically, and demographically, it has always been a welcome change whenever I’ve been travelling.

What I guess I have known but not spent too long analysing is how different Asia is economically.

This trip to Bangkok has been different in a number of ways. Firstly, it has been a work trip. It has involved a daily commute to the office, meetings and teleconferences, business lunches and security passes. Second, it has been only a few weeks after a series of protests which paralyzed one of Asia’s largest cities, saw scores of people lose their lives, and a number of large buildings burn to the ground.

Don’t get me wrong, the Thais have been just as friendly and welcoming as ever, the food and shopping have been just as outstanding, and the tourist draw cards are as perfect as ever. It’s just that now a more serious thread weaves under the fabric. On this trip I have seen Thailand in a slightly different light.

Thailand, or more particularly Bangkok, has seen spectacular growth in the twenty years since I first visited here. Then it was tuk-tuks at twenty metres to get around, now it is metered taxis in every lolly-shop colour and air conditioned sky trains. Back then shopping was fake Lacoste polo shirts in Khao San Road, now it’s Armani and Gucci in Siam Paragon.

Head offices of companies like my own, Amadeus, are now based here guiding their commercial activity across the entire Asia Pacific region. While there are quite a few expats in these companies, the opportunity has certainly been shared by the Thais, these are certainly not Anglo-Saxon workplaces.

There is plenty of money in this town, some wealthy foreigners and a lot of wealthy Thais.

So why do I find myself at all surprised by this?

Well, to an Australian, Asia has, generally, been warm, cheap, accessible and full of the friendliest of people, and as a result, it many years ago became a holiday playground. To be blunt, we have I think become more used to seeing our Asian neighbors staffing hotels than running multi-national corporations. I recognize that I myself, who I pride on being a died-in-the-wool internationalist, have unconsciously formed preconceptions in this area. How’s that for an uncomfortable admission.

Well, this trip has provided some valuable insights into what is really beating at the heart of today’s Thailand, and addressed a lot of these preconceptions I wasn’t even aware I had.

Bangkok, like the other big capital cities in this region, has grown some very wealthy citizens. Rama 1 Road, which runs East-West through the centre of Bangkok, is lined by some massive shopping centres, all Thai owned.

MBK is perhaps the best known, probably five hundred metres long and six stories high, it is full of stalls selling everything from t-shirts to iPhones, diamonte scrunchies to green curry chicken. It is enormous, and most of the stuff there is pretty cheap.

At the other extreme is Siam Paragon. This centre makes Harrods look positively hawker-market. Marble and gold throughout, it’s all European designer stores, Gucci to Chanel.

Next door is Central World, incorporating Zen, again, very top end. I know that because I could see a melted and mangled ‘L’Occitane En Provence’ sign in the rubble outside Central World’s burnt out shell.

What motivated the Red Shirts to establish their blockade of the commercial heart of Bangkok for weeks, and to torch a number of buildings as they were removed, is hard to completely pin down, but suffice to say there weren’t many Red Shirts driving Ferraris. A lot of Thais appear to feel the wealth, of which there is no shortage, is not being shared around, and they would like a bit. From what I understand there’s more to it than that, including just run-of-the-mill frustration with a government they don’t like, but economics seems to be a pretty big part of it.

I find it hard to condone protests that lead to violence and vandalism, but I’m not completely surprised it has happened, even in as peace-loving a country as Thailand. Throughout Asia there is the most appalling gap between the very rich and the very poor. I recall ten years ago being driven through Mumbai and having the houses of millionaires pointed out on the hill overlooking people living on flattened cardboard boxes next to the road, begging for coins from passing cars. That these countries provide no safety net to the poverty stricken while such wealth exists is downright shameful. I might add, that is not an Asian phenomenon, there are many in Australia who would push us in that direction, and in the United States this situation of the very very rich living next to the very very poor is a reality already.

Has Thailand heard the last of this? Not a chance, I’m afraid.

This wonderful country with it’s fantastic people are in for a bumpy ride over the next year or two I fear, but they will come through it, I’m confident of that. I really hope so, as on this trip I’ve found that this is more than a brilliant place to visit, it’s an excellent place to work.

On this trip I have discovered the most wonderful restaurants, been to the equivalent of an AFL Football Match (that being, Thai Boxing!), jogged around Lumpini Park dodging the locals doing their morning Tai Chi, and had a brilliant time shopping and socialising with my work colleagues. Full on week of work, make no mistake, but great to be working somewhere like this.

OK, enough blogging for one day, time to head out and make the most of this city. I do love a seriously rough Thai Massage, might make that my first stop.


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