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Teflon Thailand

Through a dozen coups, a tsunami, financial upheaval, floods and riots, Bangkok keeps bouncing back

By Suttinee Yuvejwattana and Tony Jordan  /  Bloomberg, Bangkok

A bartender prepares a cocktail at the Park Society rooftop bar in the Sofitel So hotel last month.
Warning: Excessive consumption of alcohol can damage your health

Bloomberg/Dario Pignatelli

In a crowded Bangkok bar, a Filipino singer belts out a ballad about a Vietnam vet who can’t help returning to Southeast Asia. On his seventh visit to the city, Australian Damien Waddell sips his beer and shrugs when someone mentions this year’s military coup.

“Doesn’t bother us,” says the 32-year-old sheet-metal worker from Perth, as he waits with his friends for a late flight home after a golf holiday in nearby Hua Hin. “We keep coming back.”

That’s Bangkok’s story. Through a dozen coups, a tsunami, financial upheaval, floods and riots, the city keeps bouncing back. With each crisis, tourism numbers slump, stocks crash and investment dips, only to return stronger than before. A unique draw of ancient temples, modern hotels, exotic food, raunchy nightlife and 24-hour shopping makes the place an enduring destination.

“There’s no other city in Southeast Asia like it,” said Santitarn Sathirathai, Singapore-based head of economics for the region and India at Credit Suisse Group AG. “You can come here to do business, shop, enjoy the nightlife and go sightseeing.”

The May overthrow of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is testing the capital again. The number of visitors to Thailand fell almost 11 percent in May, according to preliminary figures from the Bank of Thailand. Hotel occupancy slid to 46.4 percent from 62.2 percent in February. More than half the nation’s visitors, who contribute about 10 percent of Thai gross domestic product, spend time in Bangkok.

UPHEAVAL HISTORY

The city of 8.8 million is no stranger to upheaval. Since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932, it has witnessed bombing during World War II, a Japanese occupation and more than a coup per decade. Protesters shut down the international airport in 2008, riots broke out in 2010 and much of the region around the capital was inundated during 2011 floods.

While the city is best known as a tourist destination, it has been a trading port since the 15th century. In 1782, King Phutthayotfa Chulalok, or Rama I, founded the Rattanakosin Kingdom, and on April 21 erected the City Pillar here, a gold-coated post that marked the center of his new capital, whose Thai name of more than 100 characters hails Bangkok as the city of angels, seat of the king and home of gods incarnate.

The metropolis became the base for the regional headquarters of companies including oil producer Chevron Corp and Norway’s Telenor ASA. It’s the focus of Southeast Asia’s largest auto-production base, hosting Toyota Motor Corp and Honda Motor Co as well as thousands of their suppliers.

INVESTMENT REBOUND

Foreign direct investment slipped during past upheavals and then recovered, bolstering the moniker Teflon Thailand. Net inflows reached about US$11 billion in 2012, trailing only Indonesia and Singapore in the region.

“There have been so many crises here,” said Yeap Swee Chuan, 66, a Malay national who has lived in Thailand for 30 years and is chief executive officer of Aapico Hitech Pcl, an auto-parts maker with a factory in Ayutthaya province, north of Bangkok, which was hit by the 2011 floods. “It’s very resilient.”

Bangkok’s benchmark stock gauge, which fell 10 percent in the final two months of 2013 during street protests against Yingluck, is up about 16 percent this year, four times the gain for the MSCI Asia Pacific Index.

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