BANGKOK - Thailand

Population: 5.5 m (official); 8 m (unofficial)
Area code: (+66) 2;
Time zone: GMT +7
Currency: Baht (Bt) = 100 satang
Climate: tropical, monsoonal
Average temperatures: hot season (Mar-Jun) 27C/80F - 38C/100F, rainy season (Jun-Oct) 24C/75F - 32C/90F, cool season (Nov-Feb) 18C/65F - 32C/90F
Bangkok International Airport (Don Muang) (BKK): 2.5 km/16 miles

Prosaically interpreted by the rest of the world as the 'village amongst the plum-olive trees'. for Thais the name of their capital hovers like an incantation above the sprawling megalopolis on the banks of the Menam Chao Phraya, the 'Mother of Waters'. What's in a name? Krung Thep... 'Great City of Angels, the Supreme Repository of Divine Jewels, the Great Land Unconquerable, the Grand and Prominent Realm, the Royal and Delightful Capital City Full of Nine Noble Gems, the Highest Royal Dwelling and Grand Palace, the Divine Shelter and Living Place of the Reincarnated Spirits'. Ancient rites and myths have here retained their power to invest the smallest event of everyday life with a multi-layered spirituality which is at once mysterious and enlightening.

At first sight, though, the 'Great City of Angel's' seems to have more in common with Milton's Pandemonium (and the more modestly named California metropolis) than the abode of the blessed. Mushrooming skyscrapers constantly change the skyline, thronging masses crowd potholed sidewalks; snarling traffic, choking exhausts, pungent smells and jarring colors vibrate like the legendary tuk-tuks in a steamy, merciless, suffocating pall of heat. bangkok assaults the senses with an insistence far removed from the tourist-brochure cliches. Patpong is the most charming red-light district in the world, though virtually all the travelers' tales about its lurid nightlife are true.

But here is beauty in abundance too, fragile and almost surreal, to be discovered in unexpected places. You may sense it amidst the pomp of Wat Phra Keo, seat of the 'Emerald Buddha', or surrounded by the enigmatic silence of the statues in a temple cloister. And in the fleeting images of palm-fringed canals, tranquil teak houses, gleaming spires, tinkling chimes, rainbow-hued orchids and caressing breezes, which waft all the spices of the Orient. Costumed dancers, saffron-robed monks and gentle smiles crystallize into filigree cameos and cast, sensual tableaux of Breughelesque dimensions.

Fifty times bigger than the country's second-largest town, Chiang Mai, bangkok dominates all political, social, religious and commercial life in Thailand. With its hinterland, it possesses the country's largest international port (at Klong Toey), the lion's share of the nation's industry and most of its wealth.

Founded in 1782, Bangkok is a young city as capital go, but its origins hark back to the glorious Siamese kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. Many of the waterways which formed the original thoroughfares have now been concreted into roads. And yet, from the terrace of the Oriental, the 'Venice of the East' still bewitches latter-day Somerset Maughams and Joseph Conrads as the last rays of sunlight dance on the golden temple roofs of Thonburi across the muddy brown waters of the 'River of Kings'.

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