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As you’re officially on holiday at this point (and if not, you should be), I thought it was time for a little Fast Lane quiz, as I haven’t offered one up for a while. To get prepared, all you need do is adjust your surroundings so you’re sitting comfortably, there’s a good beverage within arm’s reach, some available shade and hopefully a nice view if you drift from the page and start daydreaming. Here we go . . .
Guess where I am right now? I was thinking about making it multiple-choice but that would be too easy, so I’m going to throw out some clues and you try to plot where I am on the globe.
Clue 1: I’m standing in a lobby, and some of the most glamorous women in the world are stepping out of gleaming black minivans (mostly Toyotas and Hyundais) and gliding across the slate floor. Some are in their early twenties and their hair bounces rhythmically in a perfect “party set” as they round the corner and have their pictures snapped by onlookers and local paparazzi. Others might be their mothers, aunties or grannies, and they have enormous black hair-dos that could easily house radar installations for tracking North Korean missile tests. These women all have enormous rocks on their fingers and favour elaborate silk jacket-style dresses in deep shades of green, blue and pink.
No, no, this is not a gala in Las Vegas or even Los Angeles, as minivans are not seen as status objects in the US. Besides, the hair should be a giveaway. Allow me to continue. The young men arriving at this event are almost as perfect as the women. One gentleman is in a sharply tailored navy suit — the trousers are gently tapered and he’s wearing a double-buckled shoe that might be from John Lobb or could be from a more obscure shoemaker in Tokyo. He and his friends also have perfectly sculpted, shellacked hair, immaculate nails and watches far too big for their dainty wrists. I reckon the men in this town might be the biggest dandies in the world — more serious than any Italian and somewhat kookier than the Japanese. And unlike the Italians and the Japanese, they don’t drive themselves anywhere — although they do own nice cars.
Has this helped? Are you any closer to pinpointing a place on the map?
If I look outside, there’s an elevated railway just beyond the front doors and a train is speeding past. It’s packed with school kids and workers heading home. In this town, schoolboys tend to wear clunky black shoes, socks, short shorts and open-collar shirts. As there are no true seasons in this part of the world, this is their year-round get-up.
This train is part of the city’s ever-expanding rail network, which is now starting to reach the outer suburbs. Rail travel is the best way of covering ground quickly as the city suffers from notoriously heavy traffic — which becomes impossible to deal with when the sky opens up and it buckets down for a solid hour or two.
You think you’ve got it? Singapore, you say? No, no, no. Singaporeans are nowhere near as chic as this crowd, and while Singapore’s traffic seems to be getting worse, it’s quite efficient compared with this capital city.
Hanoi? I wouldn’t know, I’ve never been there.
OK, last hint. This is a city that has reinvented the mall. The Americans might like to think that they have ownership of the concept, while the Australians think they’ve gone some distance to improving them, creating a global powerhouse in the process — but this is a city where multiple levels of food, fashion, electronics, dancing Disney characters, first-class cinemas, sprawling book, retail and exceptional grocery stores force you to think about where you might want to live out your air-conditioned retirement. Indeed, if you look around, you’ll see that many Westerners have already decided to take up residence. Most of them, however, look like they’ve given up on life when compared with the well-preened, finely put-together locals.
By this point, you will have guessed that I’m in Bangkok — off the back of yet another new mall launch by the Siam Piwat group and on the eve of yet another constitutional referendum. Nearly a year on from the bomb attack on the Erawan Shrine, most business people will tell you it has been difficult but that things are improving. A host of high-profile mixed-use developments will continue to transform the city’s skyline, the middle class continues to expand, and the creative community is taking renewed pride in making products in their home market.
Viewed from the street, things might well be improving and that’s exactly what the ruling military junta wants you to see — more order, fewer street vendors, less mess and pungent smells. If the regime pushes forward with any more sanitising, Bangkok will turn into a city that no longer resembles one of my favourites in the world.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine; firstname.lastname@example.org