Just recently returned from a couple of weeks in Asia and ready to pore out my wholly random and pent up thoughts regarding the places I’ve been. Here goes, in chronological order:
The Good: I started my trip in Shanghai, where I went for the tail end of the Shanghai film festival. I skipped Shanghai my last trip to China and I found it good to be back. My sense of Shanghai is that it is China’s easiest city for foreigners. The roads from the airport seem to get better every time and Shanghai’s taxi drivers are generally calm and professional. I also don’t get the sense the drivers are out to kill me when I walk across the street. Shanghai is a great food city and I did my best to realize its potential.
The Bad: Many people are worried about how well foreign movies are doing in China. The thinking is that China’s government is not going to keep letting foreign movies blow away Chinese movies at the box office and eventually may restrict foreign movies even more.
The Really Random: It struck me on this trip that Europeans seem to favor Shanghai over Beijing and the opposite is true of Americans. This may have been due to my having met up with two European lawyers in Shanghai, but I am starting to think it goes beyond that. Am I completely making this up?
The Good: Bangkok is booming economically and if it can deal with its political problems and its pocket of violent Muslim extremists in the South, there is little doubt it will continue to thrive. ASEAN (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Viet Nam) is going to become one common market by 2015 and many multinationals are already looking to take advantage of this. Singapore will be where the largest and wealthiest of the multinationals set up their ASEAN headquarters, but I see many a smaller company choosing Bangkok because it is so much cheaper, and yet still a fairly easy city for foreigners. I have a friend who lives in a very nice, 2 bedroom, 2 bath condo, right off Wireless Road (one of Bangkok’s nicest areas) and pays only USD$1200 per month. Bangkok even has excellent healthcare. And the food is off the charts incredible, if you (like me) love spicy.
The Bad: Thailand is rightfully proud of its history of withstanding colonization and that means it often does things its own ways. In practical terms, that means Bangkok’s street system is like just about nowhere else. Get used to hot and humid.
The Random: Seems more flights land late at night in Bangkok than anywhere else. I am told not to complain about this because late night landings are the best way to avoid the traffic. As fewer and fewer people continue believing China’s economic growth-line will perpetually point straight up while its costs remain flat, the concept of a China Plus One strategy is gaining considerable currency. ASEAN is becoming the plus one.
The Good: The people. The food. The sights. The new. The temples.
The Bad: The business climate.
The Random: A surprisingly decent local wine. The world’s most (only) patient cab drivers. Twice I got stuck in horrible traffic due to accidents/rain and this was after having negotiated ridiculously low flat fees (USD$1.80). If this had happened in Beijing, I probably would have been tossed out of the car in the middle of the freeway in the pouring rain. Instead, the cabbies were polite as could be the whole time. Both times I doubled down on the fares and both times the drivers were just as gracious as could be. I know it makes me sound like a complete hick to say that the people are nice, but dammit, the people are nice.
The Good: I swear that Beijing’s pollution seems to miraculously disappear right before I arrive. Granted I was there for only two days, but (again) everyone told me that it was as nice as they had seen it in a long long time — I even avoided the heatwave. In spite of China’s downturn, Beijing is still totally hopping — or maybe it just seemed that way to me because I was always hopping. I added Beijing on to my trip at the last minute and that meant trying to squeeze in double the meetings possible for the time allowed.
The Bad: Beijing has become wicked expensive. The drivers are still out to kill you and the taxi cab drivers are still the least competent and meanest in the world. I prefer risking my life with the pedi-cabs.
The Random: I had to show my passport six times to get out of the country.
The Good: I always love staying at the Westin Chosun Beach Hotel (you need to pronounce it Wes-TIN CHO-SAN BEECH-UH or nobody will even know what you are saying). I love how just about everyone in Pusan seems to be middle class. Busan is Korea’s baseball city and you can hardly go anywhere without seeing a couple of kids playing catch. There’s something reassuring in that.
The Bad: Busan is a port city of more than 5 million, but it has less than a handful of international law firms and no new ones for many many years. I’ve been going to Busan since forever and this was the first time I had ever seen a homeless person there and I saw a handful of them. Were they not there before or had I just missed them? I saw five and three were at the train station.
The Random: I took the high speed train from Busan to Seoul and I am never going to fly that route again.
The Good: The Westin Chosun is maybe the best business hotel in the world. Not elegant, just woefully efficient. It has a phenomenal health club (and they supply all of the work-out gear) and the best sushi restaurant in town (okay, maybe tied with the Hyatt). I also love how it is right next door to the Lotte Department Store and so it makes it nearly impossible for me to go just about anywhere without seeing the Lotte Parking Ladies, which I view as quintessentially Korean. Incheon is just a great airport. I really respect Korea. It has gone from being the second poorest country in the world (only Niger was poorer) in the 1950s to a developed full-on democracy and by many measures, the cultural capital of Asia. Count me as a big fan; Korea does not get the kudos it deserves.
The Bad: Seoul is very expensive. I hate that a really good friend of mine (with whom I would have dinner just about every time I came to town) has been transferred to Singapore.
The Random: Everyone is talking about Korea’s having recently signed a free trade agreement with the United States and of how Korea’s legal market is finally opening up. Korea is a very wealthy country but in many ways even more difficult than China for foreign companies to navigate. Will the new rules/laws change that? Nobody seemed willing to give any real answers. Will we be seeing more American companies seeking to go to Korea? I expected more optimism on this point than I got. Then again, I cannot remember a Korean lawyer ever doing anything other than downplaying his or her country. Korea just always seems to do well….
What do you think?
4-17-2013 Update: Seems Beijing may finally do something to improve the lot of its cabbies and those of us who suffer through them.