Smiling business hub beguiles – but for a limited time – FT – audio slideshow

Text below blends slideshow narrative with related article –

Once a small fishing village on the Chao Phraya river, Bangkok was transformed by a 1980s investment boom into the concrete, high-rise city it is today. The sprawling metropolis and its population of up to 12m now produces between 15 and 35 per cent of Thailand’s gross domestic product.

The bustling city is a favoured tourist destination and famed first port of call for most of the 15 -20 million visitors to Thailand each year.

It’s got temples, it’s got skyscrapers, it’s got traffic, it’s got sun. It is a city of contrasts, with Buddhist shrines and temples sitting next to 5-star hotels and brand-name bling.

24/7, Bangkok does relaxed and hectic side-by-side, an effortless transition that to many, makes Thailand’s capital such an attractive place to visit.

But bouyed by a growing economy and investment from the west, Japan and increasingly China, Bangkok is a city for living, for foreign business people keen to integrate with Asia’s booming economies.

As a regional hub for foreign multinationals, Bangkok attracts a wide variety of overseas executives and businesspeople from a range of sectors, including tourism, automobiles, electronics and computer hardware. The city’s population of foreigners is in the high hundreds of thousands, with tens of thousands each of Japanese, Chinese, south-east Asian and western employees working alongside hundreds of thousands of Burmese who mostly do menial jobs shunned by Thais.

For those used to the good life, the variety and quality of the city’s cuisine is key, says one US executive, reeling off a long list of favoured dining spots ranging from Italian to Mexican to Indian and Chinese and, of course, Thai. There are some top-end restaurants, but many offer quality meals for less than the cost of a takeaway sandwich in London.

This array of choice and price can be found in Bangkok’s other attractions, too. The city offers a lifestyle “from the simple to the sophisticated, in food, shopping and living”, according to another long-term expat executive.

Bangkok is a haven for those who prefer their shopping malls luxurious with goosebump-inducing air conditioning. But rather than spend over the odds at plush downtown malls, many prefer the charms of Chatuchak market, a vast weekend bazaar where pretty much anything can be bought at a good price by the discerning haggler.

But it is not the mall or flea market where foreign businesspeople congregate to kick back or get things done and set deals in motion.

Alison Leary is a technical services manager with Alltech, a Kentucky-headquartered biotechnology animal health company. She likes to relax and network while watching sport – be that regional rugby or Aussie rules tournaments (there are enough of her countrymen and women across the region to make this happen), with a close-knit group of Irish and British friends.

Sporting options are plentiful in Bangkok and its hinterland, and many expat workers extol the virtues of the networking opportunities provided by golf. Thailand has thousands of courses, which can provide a welcome respite from the bustle of a city that is constantly under construction. “You can go to the driving range, you can talk,” says one. “It is peaceful, much better than in a noisy crowded bar or restaurant.”

Bangkok is not without its growing pains – as is often the case with fast-rising cities in middle-income countries. Some foreign executives therefore see it as place to stay for the short term, rather than a lifetime bet.

Indonesian-Australian Sarah Huang is seven months pregnant but still putting in nine-to-five days, running the Bangkok office for Exa, a Melbourne-based information technology firm. She says the city is “definitely a place I want to stay for the next five, 10 years.” Nannies and home help are affordable for young working mothers, but high fees for quality secondary education have Ms Huang thinking that she will either move to Japan (her husband’s home country) or back to Australia when her child reaches high school age.

Moving back to Australia much sooner is Ms Leary. Bangkok’s often searing heat and crawling traffic can be drag, but she says that she loves living here. However, as her parents get older, her working priorities are changing. But it is not just that, she says. “I miss the change of seasons we get in Australia.”

Stanley Kang, head of Taiwan’s TunTex textile company operations in Thailand, says that Bangkok is the best regional hub to conduct multinational operations across southeast Asia.

Other executives share this view, including Luc de Waegh, who divides his time between Bangkok, Singapore and Myanmar, and describes Bangkok as vital to managing business in Myanmar’s newly-opening economy.

“I think Bangkok is a base to do business in Myanmar is ideal. Importantly regional headquarters of major companies doing business in Myanmar are based here,” he says.

Infrastructure and communications are better in Bangkok than most other cities in the region, save Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, businesspeople say. For Sarah Huang, an Indonesian-Australian heading operations for Australian-headquartered Exa, Thailand compares favourably with bigger hubs such as India for the multimedia work her company does..

A downside, however, for the 26 year old executive. is cultural, with Thais and other Asians not accustomed to dealing with someone so young in a managerial position.

“I’ve had problems with older, more experienced people, however, wanting to come work for us. They just haven’t been subjected to someone having someone above them half their age.”

But she says the city is a great place to eat, with tasty inexpensive street food often trumping the high-end restaurants that also dot the city. It’s a great place to drink too, adds Sarah Huang, mentioning well-known pubs in trendy Thonglor and grittier Sukhumvit.

“i like to hang out at Cheap Charlie’s on Soi 11, which is a kind-of rundown outdoors shack that’s been around since the Vietnam war.”

But Bangkok has other homelier, more down to earth attractions, says Stanley Kang, whose company makes sports-shirts for the likes of Team GB at the upcoming Olympics and the English football team.

‘Thai people are very friendly,” he says. “it is a smiling country.”

That naturally-affable nature spreads to the business community, says Kang, who is vice chairman of the joint chambers of commerce. “We have the network with the different chambers of commerce here,” he says, mentioning European and North American chambers as well as Asian.

Good places to network and socialise, he says, include some of Bangkok’s numerous high-end hotels, such as then nearby Plaza Athenee and the Erawan Hyatt, a striking facade of Greek columns beside Bangkok’s iconic Erawan shrine.

Joe Mannix, head of United Airlines operations in Thailand, knows all about these Bangkok landmarks, as they are right at .the same intersection where anti-government protestors locked down the centre of Bangkok for 2 months in 2010.

But, he says, Thailand’s economy and business environment is back on its feet after recent political unrest, and 2011 floods. testimony to a city’s resilience and the determination of the foreign business community to stick with Bangkok.

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