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Creative Cities

Bangkok: Embracing the World with a Smile


Bangkok: Embracing the World with a Smile


Eight million people, eight million smiles. The most tolerant of Asia's cities, Bangkok is described by Westerners as a place you never want to leave. How does this internationalized city preserve its allure?



Bangkok: Embracing the World with a Smile

By Fuyuan Hsiao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 398 )

Compared to other international cities, laid-back Bangkok is often chaotic. It usually places in the bottom half of surveys ranking the quality of life in cities around the globe. Harry Yang, the managing director of Acer's Thailand subsidiary Acer Computer Co., Ltd., can't help laughing when he reflects on the city he's lived in for 12 years 'and its horrible drainage system. The most expensive suit he ever owned in his life, an Yves Saint-Laurent, was ruined when caught in floodwaters caused by heavy rains.

Bangkok, however, is no longer the same city it was then, no longer a dilapidated, disorderly third world city that floods whenever it rains. The architecturally ultra-modern Suvarnabhumi Bangkok Airport through which visitors first enter the country links to a brand-new freeway that runs perfectly straight and unobstructed. The rainy season has arrived, but Bangkok's many skyscrapers and several major complexes nearing completion send the city's pride towering through the raindrops.

The authoritative Travel + Leisure magazine annually ranks the world's Top 10 cities to visit as part of its "World's Best Awards,"and Bangkok has been rated the best city in Asia and third-best worldwide for six consecutive years.

Westerners describe Bangkok as an Oriental city that you never want to leave once you're there. Of the city's 14 million annual visitors, a third come from the United States and Europe.

Why is Bangkok so popular, and not Hong Kong, Tokyo or Singapore? Those cities are reputed for their planning, efficiency and quality, while casual, accommodating, loose Bangkok stands in stark contrast at the other end of the spectrum. Kriengsak Chareonwongsak, who has taught at Harvard and Oxford and plans to run for governor of Bangkok this year, observes that throughout the city's history, it has lacked any notion of planning, but its pulsing vitality has never been restrained. Westerners attribute its ability to remain a flourishing scene of prosperity over the years to its special brand of disruptive innovation.

Geographical Advantage

From a geographical perspective, Bangkok is Southeast Asia's second largest gateway, and for people going in any direction, it's a necessary transit point. When Suvarnabhumi Airport opened in September 2006, it was designed to handle a maximum of 45 million passengers a year. It is hard to believe that in its first year of operations, 42 million travelers passed through its gates, threatening Singapore Changi International Airport's status as Southeast Asia's busiest hub.

Its geographically advantageous location, neither too far north nor south, has made Bangkok home to the Asian headquarters of 29 international agencies. Almost all Asian branches of United Nations sub-organizations call Bangkok home.

Price Advantage

In the competition among global cities, Bangkok's core competitive advantage is price. According to the annual cost of living survey of 143 international cities conducted by U.S.-based international consultant Mercer Human Resource Consulting in 2007, Bangkok ranked 129th, and it emerged as the easiest metropolitan area to live in anywhere in the world.

Bangkok once hosted the most sumptuous banquet ever held, at 1 million Thai baht (NT$940,000) a plate, but in the city's downtown area, there is no shortage of excellent Thai restaurants where for just over 100 baht one can enjoy a Thai meal as it was truly meant to taste. Upscale travelers can stay at The Oriental, Bangkok, one of the top rated hotels in the world, while those on a backpacker's budget can stay at comfortable and clean guesthouses on Khao San Road for a few hundred baht a night.

Rather than saying Bangkok's most unshakeable competitive edge is its cheap prices, it would more apt to describe it as the attentive "ask for 50 cents, get a dollar"service behind the price.

Cultural and Creative Advantage

Western tourists often describe Bangkok as Asia's most exotic city. Much of what sets Bangkok apart emanates from its omnipresent Buddhist culture. The city's residents all have spirit houses in their homes where they offer gifts to the spirits, and one even finds shrines hidden within apartment complexes. The first thing many people in the city do after waking up in the morning is to burn incense and worship at their shrine.

People in Bangkok describe the many different subcultures coexisting within the larger umbrella of Buddhist culture as "little mosquito nets inside a bigger one."In these tiny subworlds, local residents are inherently creative artists. The most popular department in Bangkok universities is not the sciences, engineering, law or business, but rather entertainment, mass communications and cultural management. The city's most famous weekend market Chatuchak is one of the world's biggest clusters of individually owned creative enterprises.

Thailand's government has applied the concept of "whole plant exports"to promote Bangkok's creative industries. Thai food is an example of this, where the government offers start-up loans to any Thai who opens a restaurant serving Thai food overseas. As long as the project is certified by the government, the borrower can receive low-interest loans, under the condition that all their food materials are purchased from Thailand. More than 2,000 Thai restaurants around the world have received certification to date. The Thai government also subsidizes the training of chefs, drawing to the nation's capital cooks from all over the world who are looking to improve their skills. Using this "turnkey export"model, Thailand has been able to set the Bangkok standard for Thai food, massage, spas and other lifestyle sectors.

Many believe that cities must undertake huge missions and constantly think about competing and developing. Bangkok, the happiest model of change amid a paradigm shift in the nature of cities, has proven otherwise.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier