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Exploring the Other 'City of Angels' : For those willing to explore, Bangkok's exotic charm will define itself in surprising ways.

March 22, 1992|MARGO PFEIFF | Pfeiff is a Westmount, Canada, free-lance writer.

BANGKOK, Thailand — Sanuk. It's one of the first things you notice about Thailand. It's in the big smile that flashes easily; in the "never mind" philosophy. In spite of the hardships of everyday life, better to keep things fun. Sanuk.

"One hundred baht." "No way, 30 baht." "Fifty baht, OK?" OK. I jump into the back seat of the "tuk-tuk." Nicknamed for the sound of its smoke belching, two-stroke engine, the taxi is an indigenous Thai three-wheeled contraption that is part motorcycle, part pedicab. It will zip you up Soi Sip Song or down Klong Toey, halfway across Bangkok for less than two dollars. All the soot you can breathe is free.

Draped around its lifelessly dangling rear-view mirror are dozens of religious amulets and a crucifix donated, no doubt, by some tuk-tuk fearing Christian who felt his prayers had been answered when he survived the trip through madcap Bangkok traffic. Rattling along in a tuk-tuk means, in no uncertain terms, that I'm back in Bangkok.

Squeezed between Myanmar (formerly Burma), Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia--Thailand is synonymous with exotic. Yet arriving in Bangkok--the "City of Angels" or Krung Thep in Thai (only foreigners call it Bangkok)--is to find it resembling another "City of Angels"--Los Angeles--during a climatic inversion half a world away.

At first glance, it resembles a gray cocoon wrapped in a gray sky, but begin to explore the streets and the exotic Siamese charm that has enchanted travelers for centuries seems to define itself in front of your eyes. Thai temple dancers in glittering costume appear out of nowhere to perform at a tiny outdoor shrine wedged between the Japanese Sogo Department Store and a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. An idle salesgirl suddenly begins to massage my neck as she chats with her work mate, who fetches shoes in my size. At the airport, I glimpse a saffron-robed monk bless the gleaming nose of a brand-new Thai Airways 767.

In Bangkok you never know what you're going to see around the next corner.

No more typical of Thailand than New York is of the United States, Bangkok is, however, intrinsically Thai in its nonchalantly chaotic character and haphazard layout. There is no single downtown area or financial district. Everything is jumbled together. Mega-malls, giant hotel complexes, main shopping avenues, temples and palaces are scattered, making it necessary to hopscotch from one part of the sprawling city of 8 million to another.

And then there's the weather. With year-round weather reports a parade of hot and humid, Bangkok was recently rated the world's hottest city by the World Meteorological Organization.

Even its history simmers. The last in a long line of Siamese capitals, Bangkok was established only 200 years ago. One of its most enlightened monarchs, King Mongkut (Rama IV)--the character played by Yul Brynner in "The King and I"--left the country a heritage much more important than a catchy musical. (Although "The King and I" is taboo in Thailand for misrepresenting the king, most English-speaking tour guides, hoping to strike a chord in visitors' minds, refer to him as the " 'The King and I' King"). Mongkut spent 27 years as a Buddhist monk, was fluent in Latin and English and, in a very Thai way, quickly modernized and Westernized Thailand in the mid-19th Century so that it established its independence and remained the only Southeast Asian country never to be colonized. It's no coincidence that in English, Thai means free .

My favorite way to start a Bangkok day is along the broad Chao Phraya River that snakes its way through the middle of Bangkok. I rise early for a table on the river-side terrace of my hotel to watch the wacky armada of craft that fuel the morning river rush hour. Strings of portly rice barges lumber downstream, while brightly painted, gondola-type river taxis called hang yao or "long-tailed" boats zip commuters to work, their six-foot drive shafts sending up rooster plumes of white water. Just upriver around the bend I can see a bubbling orange tropical sun nudge its way up behind Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn.

Bangkok has hundreds of temples or wats and attempting to take on too many can leave your head spinning as you lose track of which wat is what. Early morning is the best time to visit, when the monks are out with begging bowls that are ritually filled by the local people. Most Thai men over the age of 14 spend some time in a temple monastery, which is why you see so many saffron-robed devotees in the streets. They are revered. There are even special "Monks Only" waiting sections at airport terminals so that foreigners, unfamiliar with the custom that the monks are not allowed to touch women, will not sit alongside.

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