I was in Bangkok on a business trip after a gap of four years. On arrival in the early hours of the day after a short night flight from Bangalore, I was looking forward to some rest/ catch up with my sleep as I had no work planned till an early dinner with a good friend & colleague. I was booked by our company at the Executive floor of one of the classy business hotels, but when I asked for a smoking room (still guilty of carrying this curse), the well trained hotel staff was of most polite service and offered to upgrade me to a luxurious suite overlooking Bangkok’s arterial river named Chao Praya. The large working desk in my suite and the panoramic view of the skyline around the snaking river did something to my thoughts. I couldn’t resist the magnetic pull, the inviting expanse of the large black desk had on me. I just love black clean desks. My mind forgot my tired body in a jiffy, the laptop was up in the middle of the desk in no time; the nespresso machine was buzzing and the ashtray was asking to be sullied. The cozy working corner of the large living room was simply too inviting to waste half a day in bed. Just in time, I realized that I was hungry and needed to take my tablets. My room card gave me access to the 32nd floor executive lounge for breakfast, outside which I could go for a peaceful puff. Staring at the skyline from the 32nd floor, the city of Bangkok looks like the answer to socio-economic development that my country could well aspire for and not just debate the India – China breach.
The smartphones of today come in handy for such moments. I took a photo of the Bangkok skyline and sent it to my children (grown ups – about to join the working class) with a comment “They learnt to sell Hospitality…India hasn’t; I believe that we will never learn…”. My 23 yr. old son (yet to visit Bangkok) wrote back “I don’t understand… this photo? Hospitality??? Isn’t hospitality more, much more than a concrete jungle that resembles Manhattan”. He was right in his perplexed reaction from what I sent across; a Bangkok skyline photo and the above lines. I returned to my cozy desk with the nespresso and the friendly, waiting ashtray.
My son was right! Civilization is much more than Manhattans, original or clones. Hospitality is different. Thailand, with Hindu/Buddhist influence from India is quite similar to my country in many ways. Even today, Thailand has ~50% of its population dependant on agriculture (maybe 60% for India), while Agriculture contributes ~11% to the GDP against India’s ~18%. Industrialization started much earlier – ~44% contributor to GDP against India’s 28% while Services contribute ~45% while for India it stands at ~54%.
I read somewhere that Thailand attracts the most tourist traffic in Asia and probably stands next to France as a country in the global tourism-league. But, Thailand did not have old Europe’s history, sculpture, art or music to attract tourists. They appear to have built tourism out of the very essence of the word, Service. People say it has something to do with the Thai society and the early traffic of American military that came for rest and relaxation during the Vietnam War, since Thailand alone stood non-colonised in the pre-war period and was recipient of US patronage, post war. In early sixties through seventies, Thailand was a very poor country of rice farmers, blessed with great beaches and natural beauty. It probably did not have much else other than service to offer to the powerful western visitors with money to spend. That it was still ruled like a kingdom with so much of poverty, probably created the cultural rationalization for selling service in exchange for a lifeline to much better levels of survival.
Over the years, Bangkok and the country became a favoured port for businessmen scouting for economics of scale and the culture of service joined with cheap labour created a sound base for Thailand to fast evolve as a destination of choice for automotive, electronics parts production and supply. Thailand capitalized on these early connections and its agriculture also found good export markets. Although, the agricultural labour like in most developing countries including India, yet got the rough end of the stick, the country developed at a galloping pace till its labour costs became a stumbling block with China having meanwhile raised its organized army of export manufacturers at lower costs. Even after the 90s shock of flight of foreign capital, Thailand continued to thrive without any other value additions such as what countries like Singapore or Malaysia could offer. The only thing that Thailand continued to reign supreme in was the promise and delivery of superb service in Hospitality, including medical hospitality in the later years.
Back to my hotel on the Chao Praya and the photo I sent to my children. Why the photo captured my thoughts relates to the fact that Everything is in place in this great city. The superb infrastructure, the ferries, the roads, the taxis with their meters, the modern Airport & the filthy Chao Praya, the malls & the Bazaars, the Metro & the Tuktuks (Auto-rickshaws), the highways & the pavements, the luxurious hotels & their competitive rates, the bargain markets & the sterling service in restaurants or hotels – nothing is amiss; all in proper place. They can’t clean up their great River, but they know how to use it and charge money from visitors. They have their shadowy social side distasteful for some, but superbly regulated for the discerning to yet enjoy the more decent or palatable side. I see here the existence of a paradox, but with both sides contributing to a whole.
This is the mix of Indian and Chinese philosophies. Indians are superb in intellectually handling complexity but act only in singularity. While the Chinese philosophy of the Ying & Yang probably has something to do with the Thai’s being able to create a life for all creatures. Bangkok, visited by millions of foreigners including Indians throughout the year has a lot to offer over and above what it may be better known for, in hushed tones in shadowed conversations.
Whatever you may need – literally – is available for the visitor, be it a single tourist (male or female), family, businessmen, politicians from neighboring countries, who not. Total Solutions for All varieties of visitors from all across the globe including if you need caring for your forlorn soul or body.
- ‘Thailand learnt to Sell Hospitality!’ not merely sell tourism. It is Hospitality that they offer and successfully sell for a price.
- ‘India will Never learn to sell Hospitality’.
Over the years, each country I visited, I wanted something it had, for my country. I wanted the digital growth of the South Koreans, but not the stretch marks on its society; I wanted the searing pace of infrastructure development of China, but not the conversion of every young person into a Calculator of stock markets or real estate invests; I want my country to learn to sell our vast tourism potential, but not with the youth of my country offered as wax for the foreigner’s wick.
What can I do, I am an Indian after all – complexity is great, but for the unraveling powers of the mind. Before we act, we have too many priorities to settle including some values, that some may call quite archaic. After all, we are the land of not only Buddha, whose teachings were paraphrased by even the Thais to suit economic growth. After all, we are also the land of Swami Vivekananda who traveled to the Chicago winter in cotton robes to spread the message of sisterhood and brotherhood.
I was happy to be back at our apartment in crazy Bangalore after 2 days of luxury in great Bangkok! Staring out of our 13th floor balcony, I did not see any paradox, I saw a great potential for growth for my country, but I could see only the linear way not necessarily the bang bang or Ying Yang way.
It is not necessary that we meet the world’s Expectations. There must be a way Beyond Expectations!
© Amit Chatterjee