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A mother and son elephant on the streets of Bangkok startle a little girl outside a donut shop

Bangkok has dominated Thailand's urban hierarchy as well as its political, commercial and cultural life since the late 18th century. Although you can shop in air-conditioned comfort in its Western-style malls, the city is a long way from being tamed by commercial homogeneity.

Bangkok proper seethes on the east side of the Chao Phraya River, drawing rural Thai folk into its cluttered fold daily. The city is reportedly sinking at a rate of 5cm (2in) every year, but there's too much sanĂ¹k (a peculiarly Thai concept of fun) going on for that to get anyone down.

It's worth putting up with the coronary-inducing traffic jams, pollution, annual floods and sticky weather to experience the contrasts of the city: glass and steel buildings shaped like cartoon robots standing next to glittering temple spires; wreaths of jasmine flowers dangling from the rear-view mirrors of buses and taxis; shaven-headed, orange-robed monks walking barefoot along the street beneath a bank of giant Sony screens blasting MTV Asia. Just like any good Buddhist you may have to struggle a bit to reach enlightenment in Bangkok but when it hits you'll understand that famous Thai smile.

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