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Thailand: Bangkok

A huge reclining Buddha
The immense reclining Buddha of Wat Pho, whose feet are as big as a man

As I hooked up my computer to the public phone just off Bangkok's Khao San Road, I noticed that everything had stopped. Despite it being 8.30am and the height of Bangkok's morning rush hour1, everyone on the street had suddenly stopped moving, the horns had stopped blaring, and even the most manic drivers had stopped trying to fit ten cars into the space of one. And then I realised that the national anthem was being played, and in this country where the King is revered almost to the point of deification, everyone stops and stands to attention when his signature tune is played. It's just one amazing thing among many in this crazy city.

The Khao San Road

A huge golden Buddha
The huge golden Buddha at Wat Intharawihan

The Khao San Road is Bangkok's backpacker centre, and everything the traveller needs is there, from cheap accommodation to travel agents to bars. It wasn't long before my passport was at the Indian embassy, being processed for a six-month visa, and I was the proud owner of a ticket from Bangkok to Calcutta, for the incredibly low cost of 3400 baht, or about £40, a symptom of the crashing Thai economy. Flushed with bureaucratic success, I decided to let my hair down.

Marble Wat, Bangkok
Marble Wat has a lovely roof

Exploring Bangkok

A shop in Bangkok
The Bangkok streets are one big shop

Bangkok is a fascinating place. The images of Thailand's capital are all accurate; it's heavily polluted, incredibly crowded, very noisy, amazingly sleazy and endlessly interesting. It didn't freak me out as much as I'd thought it would, though; it is, after all, just another Asian city, and although it's a particularly bustling version, it's conceptually no different from Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and so on. It's just crazier.

A backstreet scene in Bangkok
A backstreet scene in Bangkok
Wat Pho Temple, Bangkok
Wat Pho Temple

1 Where, of course, the traffic doesn't rush, it sits. Perhaps a better phrase for Bangkok would be 'crush hour', judging by the number of dents and near misses I witnessed from my phone booth cocoon.

2 Check out this article, which I spotted in the Indian paper The Asian Age, dated . It's illuminating.

Thailand's politicians can't fathom the furore over the sex scandal surrounding US President Bill Clinton, with one suggesting Mr Clinton move to the Southeast Asian kingdom should he be impeached. 'Great leaders are always very good at sex, like Cleopatra, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Mao Zedong. Mr Clinton is also a capable leader so it is normal for him to be very good at sex,' Mr Pan Phuengsujarit, a former government spokesman, was quoted as saying in Thursday's The Nation newspaper. 'We know this kind of thing is normal among Thai politicians,' he added.

Not all Thai women are as accepting of their husband's infidelities. Last year one housewife made headlines when, after discovering her mate had a minor wife [a second wife, not strictly legal, but socially accepted], she sliced off his penis with a kitchen knife, tied it to some balloons and watched it float away. Such acts of revenge are so common that one Bangkok hospital has a special unit devoted solely to reattaching male sexual organs.

A tuk-tuk
A Bangkok tuk-tuk

3 A tuk-tuk is a three-wheeled taxi that's open to the elements, and therefore provides a much more thrilling ride than a conventional taxi. Tuk-tuks are named after the noise they make with their hopelessly out-of-tune moped engines, and the pollution they churn out is simply amazing. They're everywhere, they're driven by shameless touts, and they're a great way to get around the city. The fact that tuk-tuks look like golf buggies and are about as fashionable doesn't stop the Thais fixing garish stickers and garlands to them... and why should it? It's no worse than go-faster stripes...