TIGER NO. 5 TAKES OFF Robust Thailand offers many lessons


Hats off to execs my age (49) who travel to Asia several times a year. Four days after the 16-hour flight from Bangkok to San Francisco, I'm still in the grip of jet lag: Waking up at 3 a.m. on the dot, conking out at 3 p.m., viewing the world through a spinning, gauzelike filter. Such are the hurdles to true Pacific Rim citizenship!

Lesson Learned. I tried, Pat Buchanan. America First and all that. Fly Northwest. But the flight got canceled, costing me a full day -- and mental anguish. As for that Northwest clerk who chided me for questioning his explanation of the snafu: How would you react to a major problem cropping up, on a mostly empty flight, one minute -- literally -- after scheduled departure? (And how's this for great lines from pilots: "Well folks, we're ready to go up here in the cockpit, but there's a little engine problem." What a jerk!)

Next day: Japan Air Lines to Tokyo; Royal Thai on to Bangkok. Yeow, the service is so good, so attentive (almost cloying), it's spooky. Forget the fact that both flights left and arrived on time. That was the least of it. You couldn't help but feel that baggage handlers, desk clerks and flight attendants actually cared!

Once in Bangkok, more of the same. A white-liveried driver from the Oriental Hotel, claimed by some to be the world's best, sought out my wife and me as we cleared customs. As we settled into the car, he turned around and handed us ice-cold towels -- this wasn't Presidential Suite stuff, they do it for every guest. Attention business people: Take a vacation to Bangkok, but write it off, in good conscience, as a business trip. That's legit if you stay at the Oriental; just watching its staff perform is an advanced course in service quality.

I can only label it miraculous. Unseen employees spring to your side just as you imagine that you need something. To wit, the fellow at the 14th-floor concierge desk each morning who senses that you have left your room and pushes the elevator button so you and the elevator arrive simultaneously!

Ah, Asia as the new millennium approaches. Bangkok's heat is awful. Its smog is choking. (Jogging through it for eight days, even before morning rush hour, may have taken a year off my life.) The traffic relegates Los Angeles to the little leagues.

But what energy! You can feel the pulsating growth of what will likely be Asia's fifth "tiger" (joining incredible Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Korea).

I recall the Dallas oil boom in the late '70s. Pundits said the city's official bird was the construction sky crane. So, too, Bangkok today. High-rise after high-rise races to the heavens. (Per capita income growth races just as fast.)

The city is a study in contrasts. The ancient and the modern are everywhere juxtaposed. One morning, for example, I stood on a wobbling dock, waiting for an old, sooty commuter "express" boat to arrive. Next to me was a crisply starched Thai businessman. (How they stay so well-appointed in that wilting heat remains a mystery.) As he shuffled to keep his balance, he placed a string of calls on his portable cellular phone -- Thai businessmen hate to be seen in public without one, it seems.

At times I thought I was in a Japanese colony. Almost every car on the hypercrowded streets is Japanese. (I saw two American cars, a handful of Volvos and, of course, a smattering of Asia's status symbol Mercedes-Benzes.) Almost all Thailand's vacationers are from Japan -- doing their characteristic, hover-in-a-group tourist bit. And my hotel was bursting at the seams with Japanese businessmen. Sure, they're closer to home than we are, but, frankly, it felt as if we've opted out of any effort to compete with the Japanese in Southeast Asia.

"Getting" Asia is daunting for us Westerners -- physically, intellectually and especially emotionally. But look, it's where the action is. Forget Japan for a moment. The four tigers plus the likes of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and parts of China (Guangdong province) are the fastest-growing, most exciting economies in the world -- and their potential has barely been scratched. They make Europe look like a stagnant backwater, the "miracle" of economic integration notwithstanding.

I always come back from Asia excited and befuddled in equal measures. I'm one of those numerous Americans who grasps at the continent's edge but never embraces its heart. For us Eastern U.S.-born, Euro-centered sorts, it's hopelessly confusing -- unless we determine to take the plunge.

If I were a 25-year-old starting out, or a 35-year-old (even in a plum, fast-track job), I'd think hard about chucking it all for 18 to 24 months and heading across the Pacific. Not to do business necessarily, but to hang out in China, Korea, Japan or Thailand. I'm certain I'd come back a different -- and, crassly speaking, more valuable -- person. If you're serious, nothing short of total immersion, I fear, will do.

Asia is the 21st century's raw, voluptuous economic frontier. Period. Sidestep it at your peril.

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