Bangkok is the capital city of Thailand, formerly Siam. In Thai it is usually called Krungthep ("city of angels") or Krungthep Mahanakorn. The full ceremonial name of the city, rarely used, is Krungthep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit, and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest place name in the world.
Bangkok was just a simple fishing village on the banks of the mighty Chao Phraya river when Taksin established his capital across the river at Thonburi in 1767. When General Chakri (Rama I) took the throne in 1782 he moved the court to the opposite bank, and so Bangkok was established as the pre-eminent Thai city. It began to grow, the verdant rice fields giving way to graceful golden-roofed Buddhist temples and palaces. European visitors and traders used to call Bangkok the Venice of the east because of the innumerable canals that threaded between the stilted teak homes, plied by women in simple boats offering delicious fruits and curries for sale. Until a few decades ago the city retained its bucolic charm.
No longer. Today Bangkok is a huge sprawling urban conglomeration. The official population is over nine million; add to that the countless country people fleeing poverty and drought and the hoardes of tourists that flood the kingdom, and the true number is probably closer to ten million. The traffic jams are deservedly legendary, and the pollution is truly horrifying: the few klong (canals) that remain are black and gaseous, the river brown and malodorous, and the air so filthy that one's face, after a stroll, is covered with grime.
The international traveller often arrives in Bangkok in the middle of the night - to avoid the traffic jams of the daylight hours I think - and so takes a taxi through unnaturally quiet streets. No matter what month, the air is hot and humid, and carries a faint smell of rotting fish, hot chile, and cheap whiskey.
Though it's late, when you get to your hotel, don't go straight to sleep, or, if you do, awaken at dawn and peek out your window: you will see shaven-headed, saffron-robed monks setting out on their daily alms rounds. Smartly dressed office girls and graying grannies pull open their doors and place offerings of rice and food into the monks' copper bowls; no thanks are expected, none given. This has been happening in the villages of Thailand for centuries, and continues today. This is your first view of the native people's city.
Doves coo, dogs bark, as the city comes to life: children don uniforms and pack their homework into schoolbags; vendors ready their carts to be wheeled out to their corners, where they will sell pad thai or fresh orange juice or grilled chicken and sticky rice; workers step into fashionable polyester outfits (in which, miraculously, they don't sweat) and head to curb, prepared to run for their bus and stand, sardine-packed, for a two hour ride to the office or factory; businessmen and women run pomade through their hair, then catch up on their sleep in the back of their limousines.
For visitors, the city can show a greedy face, eager for profit. The tourist trade has made prostitution, already well-established for the domestic market, into a grotty attraction that is irresistable for some. Everyone else finds themselves hunted by sharks of a different kind, patrolling the streets in search of prey to buy genuine fake Rolexes, t-shirts, tuk-tuk tours, jewelry, silk, fried bananas, Coca-Cola, and yes, women: desparate to support themselves, willing to do things you wouldn't want your mother or sister to do, in exchange for your money. The majority of Thai people are poor, and you are not: remember that, as you wilt under the rapacious attention of those who would like to turn the tables.
To survive and thrive in Bangkok, first, relax. If you have errands, don't try to do more than one a day. Take a river taxi if you can rather than a vehicle that plies the roads. When people approach you, watch your bag, smile politely, and turn away if you feel at all uncomfortable. As you make your way around the city, step off the street and into one of the thousands of temples, sit down, and breathe deeply. Visit Jim Thompson House for a memory of an earlier, more peaceful Bangkok. Go to the Grand Palace and Wat Po for a glimpse of the magnificent royal 19th century Bangkok. Sit on a bench at Sanam Luang and watch the kite fighting. Have dinner by the river and linger after, sipping your drink. For above all, eat, eat, eat. This food, here, is so much better than you could ever have imagined, back there.
Thus will you begin to discover the beguiling pleasures of Bangkok, so numerous that they can cause a traveller to cease her wanderings and stay on for years; and to sigh, years later, for the memory of the city of angels.