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IN STARTLING BANGKOK, WANDERING THE TEMPLES OF THE KINGS

The restaurant -- a two-story barge -- moved slowly down the Chao Phraya River through the center of Bangkok. Temples (wats) glittered along the bank: Wat Arun, the graceful temple of the dawn; Wat Po, where the reclining Buddha reigns; the Grand Palace of Thailand's kings.

"It's magic," I breathed. "Fairyland," said my companion. Our host, a retired Thai physician, smiled and gently bowed his head. "These are the treasures of our old city."

To us farangs (Thai for "foreigners"), the buildings were indeed exotic: stepped gold towers (prangs) rose into the air, shining with flower mosaics, guarded by half-bird, half-human garudas.

The river introduced us to two themes of modern Thailand: the importance of Buddhism and the royal family. There also was a third theme -- rampant industrialization and Westernization, visible in the riverbank's luxury hotels and half-completed high-rise office towers.

This was our introduction to Bangkok, capital of Thailand. It is a startling city of over 7 million sprawling across 600 square miles, where sandaled Buddhist monks parade serenely through a bustling metropolis oblivious to some of the worst traffic jams in the world.

Because the streets are clogged with autos, motorcycles, buses, taxis and tuk-tuks (three-wheeled motorized vehicles) and the air reeks of gasoline fumes, visitors must plan carefully. The Chao Phraya Express, a water bus, travels the length of the river and offers a good overview, stopping at Bangkok's historical sites.

Board at the ferry stop near the expansive Pratunum Market in the old city. Sit by the window for the breeze and the view; when the ticket taker shakes her metal collection tube at you, indicate your stop (Grand Palace, Wat Po, the Oriental Hotel), and she will tell you what to pay. Fares are cheap -- 5 to 15 baht (20 to 60 cents American). Wear a hat and dress for comfort -- a long-sleeved shirt, a skirt or long pants are essential for visiting temples. Be prepared to remove your shoes often.

The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaeo (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha) are in the same compound; Wat Po is down the street. Wat Arun (which was undergoing restoration while we were there) is a ride downriver.

Each compound is vast. The Grand Palace covers nearly a square mile of Royal Residences, museums, the Bangkok City Pillar and the royal family's private chapel with its emerald Buddha carved from a single block of jade.

While you can wander through these sites on your own with guidebook in hand, it's advisable to take at least one tour. The guide will relate such important facts about Thailand as: It is 95 percent Buddhist; over half of all Thai men don saffron robes and become monks for a portion of their lives; that women must never touch a monk; that Buddhism co-exists with animism, and that the Thais revere their royal family.

The guide can help you avoid the embarrassing faux pas of pointing your toes at a statue of the Buddha or taking photographs within a royal site. We saw a guard seize the camera of a young man who tried to sneak a picture, rip out and discard the film and force the chagrined tourist to leave. Thais take their religion and their royal family seriously.

The visitor quickly discovers that a wat is much more than a temple. The 150-foot reclining Buddha with its mother-of-pearl feet is Wat Po's central attraction, to be sure. But this amazing wat also houses the monks' residence, gardens and nooks and crannies peopled with statues of yogis and representations of elephants, dragons and other mythological creatures, plus a massage school where a visitor can get a Thai massage. A visit could stretch into days.

Wat Po overflows with vendors. We bought dozens of bottles of the cold nam (water) on sale everywhere -- a necessary antidote to the fierce Thai sun, because the tap water is not potable. We sampled a tangy ginger beer -- refreshing after touring in the heat. We could have had our pick of ice cream flavors, including fresh mango, not too sweet.

The many food carts reflect Thais' snacking habits. Vendors selling street foods line the streets and highways offering fruits and ice creams, hot and cold tidbits wrapped in leaves, coconuts, candies and hot fried dough.

Speaking of food, Thai food is much spicier in Thailand than it is here. Thai food aficionados will recognize the multiplicity of curries -- red, green and yellow -- but they may not recognize the sweet/salt/spicy taste of tamarind, a major flavor in many sauces.

In addition to curry and tamarind, foods are spiced with cilantro, Thai basil, fish sauce, dried shrimps, coconut milk and chilies, chilies, chilies. A Thai cook may use as many as 40 varieties. Curries and other dishes are accompaniments to rice. Thais eat with a fork and large spoon; knives aren't necessary because the food is bite-size.

Fresh fruit is plentiful. Many, like pineapple, watermelon, bananas, mangos and papaya, are familiar, though sweeter and riper than what we get in the United States. Others, like rambutens, mangosteens, jackfruit and tamarind, confound the Westerner but are flavorful and sweet.

The traveler should try a Thai breakfast at least once: rice with chicken broth, dried garlic, fish sauce and chilies to taste. Hotel coffee is generally instant and bad; the tea is hot, strong and good.

Lunch is often noodles seasoned with seafood, chicken or pork and chilies, of course. Another favorite lunch is laab -- very spicy cold ground pork or chicken. Green papaya salad, the national dish, combines cool, crisp fruit with fiery seasoning.

The visitor longing for European food can go to high tea at the Oriental Hotel. Served in an Edwardian garden furnished in white wicker, tea includes cucumber sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and endless pots of Earl Gray tea -- all presented with Thai attention to detail.

A trip to Bangkok would not be complete without a trip down the klongs (canals). Return to the Pratunum Market to hire a long boat for this morning-long tour. The boatman steers down the Chao Phraya River and into a peaceful canal where many Thais live in traditional houses built on stilts.

Men and women stand on their steps, bathing themselves or their children, washing clothes and scrubbing woks. They shop from vendors who row from house to house selling everything from fresh and cooked foods to water, beer, yard goods, even postage stamps.

The trip back into the Chao Phraya takes you to the Royal Barge museum. These ceremonial barges are up to 150 feet long and take up to 50 oarsmen to propel. Intricately carved with garudas, serpents, dragons and other brightly gilded figures, the magnificent barges are used on state occasions.

Travel information

Thailand has three seasons, summer (March to May), rainy (June to October) and cool (November to February). The average temperature is 80 degrees, but it can get much hotter in Bangkok. A visa isn't necessary for visits under 30 days, and vaccinations are not required, though it's a good idea to consult a physician regarding recommended immunizations and malaria medication.

Our tour (Eldertreks, based in Toronto; call (800) 741-7956) included all accommodations and food. We flew Cathay Pacific from Toronto. Other airlines that fly to Bangkok from the U.S. and Toronto include Canadian National Airlines, United and Northwest.