At first glance, this metropolis of over 10 million people seems a bewildering melding of new and old and indeterminate, and of exotic and common place and indescribable, all tossed together into a gigantic urban fuss.

Years after that first glance, it usually still appears that way. More so than most metropolitan areas, navigation around Bangkok requires a few anchors for the traveller's - or resident's - mental map of the city.

Most obvious for such an anchor is the Chao Phraya, the river that Thai Kings throughout the centuries have used to define their royal cities, first to the north and eventually Bangkok itself. In part for the symbolism and in part for defensive concerns, the kings would take a trist in the river, dig a canal or two between two of the river's bends and thus slice off a parcel of land into an artificial island.

In Bangkok, the royal island became known as Rattanakosin. An essential part of any tour of the city, its highlights are many, including the Grand Palace, Wat Po, and the National Museum.

As outside threats diminished, the kings often established palaces in the suburbs, which were just beyound Rattanakosin. Dusit to the north and the regions to the east - rural countryside at the time - were popular.

Today, one finds the current king's residence, a number of parks and the zoo in Dusit. To the east are the main boulevards and shopping malls of modern Bangkok.

South of the royal city are the several enclaves where foreigners settled, such as Chinatown, or Sampeng, and the Silom Road area.

This is where the Oriental Hotel and several other luxury hotels now hug the Chao Phraya's waters. Silom road itself, at one time girdled by swamps, is an important business and corporate centre. At its eastern end, near the green oasis of Lumpini Park, soi (side streets) lead to the not-so-humble rumble and tumble of Patpong.

All of this is on one side of the Chao Phraya. On the other side is Thonburi, the royal capital before Krung Thep. Thonburi hasn't been paved over as much. Canals still thread through the neighbourhoods, old wooden houses clinging to the canals. The growth that intrinsically defines Bangkok to the east of the Chao Phraya lacks the same intensity in Thonburi.

Growth in most of Bangkok has left a confusion, most clearly demonstrated by the city's world-class traffic snarls. But, like cities anywhere, Bangkok in no way represents the country as a whole. Bangkok is a distinct entity unto itself, and that is its unique and compelling interest to travellers.

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