Space in Hong Kong is at a premium. The airport, with its single runway, is no exception. (Forget about trying to land your G-4 here. There are barely enough landing slots for the 747s, let alone corporate jets. Go land in Macao and take the ferry over to Hong Kong.) As a result, as our bus passed jet after jet, cargo plane after cargo plane, skid after skid of who-knows-what (silk? microchips?) lined up on the tarmac, it appeared we were driving to Bangkok. And then, finally, we reached the stairs leading up to our jumbo.

Given jet bridges, one rarely sees a 747 from the ground, close up. The overall impression is of a six-story building lying on its side — two stories tall even in recline — that could not possibly fly.

Hold that image.

We board the flight and watch more Seinfeld and Ellen reruns. A fine breakfast later we are in Bangkok, capital of the Kingdom of Thailand. The King no longer has direct power, but a lot of influence and a lot of Mercedes. (The plural of Mercedes, I have decided, like moose, is Mercedes.) He is in his 51st year on the throne. Later that day, the King and I get to cross paths. Our van is held up at an intersection as the King whizzes by in his caramel-color Rolls Royce, preceded and followed by a string of red Mercedes.

Here’s what I want to tell you about Thailand: it is a wonderful country, filled with bright, warm people. (And free luggage carts at the airport.)

About the size of France, with a population of 60 million, it is one of the developing nations that, despite its current real estate glut and other economic indigestion, is a wonderful success story. The per capita income has risen from $84 a year in 1961 to around $3,000 a year today. There’s a huge gap between the rich and poor — 20,000 families have net worths in excess of $3 million, and a few have world-class fortunes. But widespread misery and starvation are not part of the Thai landscape.

If you have enough frequent flier miles, visit. I can’t believe I waited so long. Bangkok is, it’s true, home to more than its share of pollution, traffic and HIV infection. But then again, so is New York. (It’s also hot most of the year — New York in August.) And the image this conjures is unfair. The pollution for a few days is no big deal — my eyes saw it but didn’t feel it. And as for traffic, in an air-conditioned cab or van, all very cheap by U.S. standards, what’s the rush?

Do you picture mobs of sweaty people leading water buffalo through congested streets? Picture skyscrapers instead, construction cranes, and the juxtaposition of modern office towers and shacks (but each shack with its little doll-house like Buddhist temple); three-wheeled “tuk-tuk” taxis here and there, but mostly modern taxis and European and Japanese vehicles. One feels safe, one is not assaulted by beggars or peddlers, one is struck by the vitality of the place, the friendliness of the people. (One should not, however, drink the water.)

Before long, I was placing my palms together in front of my face and bowing my head just as they were. It’s a lovely gesture of mutual respect, and seems to be delivered not peremptorily, but with a sweet smile. We should consider adopting it ourselves. Oprah could start this trend. Get Rosie and Jay in on it, and we would be transformed.

Anyway, I hope you’re still holding the image of that 747, the huge building reclining on its side.

Come back tomorrow for more. Or just cut to the chase and buy a few shares in the Thai Fund, or something similar, if you are a long-term investor whose assets are too heavily concentrated in U.S. equities. Thai stocks have had quite a setback in the last year or so; yet there’s a reasonable chance the country’s amazing growth will continue — growing more than twice as fast as the U.S.

(The problem is, perhaps recognizing all this, the Thai Fund currently trades at a fairly hefty premium to its net asset value — which means you pay $1.15 for $1 worth of assets. That’s a very steep handicap I make it a rule never to accept — I only buy closed-end funds at a discount. So I haven’t bought those shares myself. [Symbol: TTF on the New York Stock Exchange.] But I have my eye on them.)

Or buy shares in a company called Asia Fiber, if your broker has an Asian connection. It makes nylon fabric — the black fabric of your umbrella may have been made in the factory we visited, or the cover for your tennis racket. What I like about it is that when Mark Mobius started buying it for his various mutual funds seven years ago, the stock was five or six times as high as it is today. By now, his funds own 12% of the company. This doesn’t mean it will go up. (And if your browser doesn’t register italics for some reason, that last sentence was italicized.) But if it went down or disappeared, you would at least have the satisfaction of knowing you had done much less badly with it than famed investment manager Dr. Mobius (whose fame, let me be clear, is well deserved, which is why we had flown half way around the world to follow him around with a film crew). Full disclosure: I’ve bought a little myself.

Tomorrow: Boeing, Bangkok, Buddha – Part II



Comments are closed.