BANGKOK, THAILAND - The flower ladies sit in the stifling heat of a Bangkok morning delicately threading the petals of exotic orchids and jasmine flowers onto strings. They effortlessly turn the pedals into beautiful multi-coloured garlands called a malai, which they then sell to passersby for just pennies.
On the opposite side of the street, fruit carvers entertain a group of school children with their craft - turning melons and other fruits into turtles and elephants and pretty much anything you challenge them to sculp. The children, who must learn the ancient technique as part of their curriculum, laugh as a stranger tries his clumsy hand at this delicate art. They toil in the noise and pollution of downtown Bangkok, where fume-spitting tuk tuks, Bangkok's famous three-wheel cabs that sound like a loud lawnmower and hold two passengers and one daredevil driver, zip through the crowded noon-time streets.
It is almost impossible to hear yourself think when the tuk tuk is at full throttle. Usually, though, you are too scared to notice the noise because you are holding on for dear life as the driver weaves in and out of chaotic traffic in a vehicle that offers no more protection than a bicycle.
It's a hair-raising experience in a city where drivers tell me "a green light means go, a yellow still means go and red means hurry up."
The tuk tuk drivers charge a negotiable (yes, most can get by in English) flat rate to take you where you want to go - usually for far less than a cab - but will try to sell you an added tour of the city along the way. They drive a hard bargain, especially when they stop down a back alley to negotiate, but finally take "no" for an answer when you threaten to leave. You never feel compromised, though, and how could you when the smiling driver keeps calling you "friend."
These are the sights, sounds and smells one comes to expect in a vibrant Asian city like Bangkok, a place favoured by adventurous young people as their initial foray into this exciting but somewhat intimidating part of the world.
Left: A woman in traditional dress offers prayers. Right: Thailand is just one big botanical garden.
An army of backpackers can always be seen marching around Chinatown and other parts of Bangkok, trying to keep budgets in check by buying their meals on the street from vendors selling cooked meats on small grills. They bed down in the city's famous hostels in the Banglamphu (Khao San Road) before heading for the country's legendary beaches located in party places like beautiful Phuket.
Few stay here long enough to get to know the real Bangkok, a city that offers visitors so many different looks - starting with Chinatown, a place where you will find very few Chinese names.
That's because when they arrived in Bangkok, Chinese immigrants tried to assimilate quickly and took Thai names. Not far from the madding crowds of Chinatown, you will find a more sophisticated Bangkok, along the banks of the murky Chao Phyra River, where five-star hotels - including the world's best, the Mandarin Oriental (an honour bestowed upon it by many international travel magazines) - offer luxurious surroundings at four-star prices.
It's at the Oriental where the delicate craft of Thai cooking is celebrated and preserved in the hotel's culinary school, the best of its kind in the country. In Thailand, the art of cooking is just that, and the country's master chefs are held in high esteem, much like the great Impressionist painters are in France.
Just as the Oriental is famous for teaching the skill of Thai cooking, the small, luxury Sukothai Hotel is equally famous for serving it - at its famous Celadon restaurant. Patrons are treated to traditional Thai meals that range from seductively spicy, to refreshingly cool in classically-designed salas - small dining rooms. A lotus pond surrounds the restaurant and an open-air terrace provides guests with the option of al fresco dining. It's an experience that should not be missed.
Equally impressive is the Sea Food Market restaurant on Sukhumvit Road. It's a bit of a drive from downtown but well worth the effort. The Sea Food Market is huge, able to hold 1,000 patrons, and is half restaurant, half supermarket.
Visitors pick the ingredients for their meal at the supermarket located at the back of the facility and then one of the 80 chefs on duty most nights prepares it in the open kitchen at the front of the Sea Food Market.
An attendant with a shopping cart followed us around the supermarket as we told her: "We'll have one of those and two of these ..." We picked our meal from piles of freshly caught local fish and some imported ones as well - like Nova Scotia lobster - and then accented the main selections with vegetables and fruits. After ringing up our choices, the attendant retreated to the massive open kitchen where the chefs turned the raw ingredients into classical Thai dishes. The server returned a few minutes later with piping hot platters heaping with food done to perfection and swimming in the delicate spicy sauces.
Our selections ranged from giant prawns, crab meat done in a lemon sauce, lemongrass soup, four beers, lots of veggies and fruits, and cost less than $60 for three. A small preparation charge was added to our bill. The experience and freshness of the food still makes my mouth water months after visiting Bangkok.
In the many upscale hotels that line the busy Chao Phyra River, service is second to none. Visitors are welcomed with the traditional Thai greeting of sawatdee by smiling attendants who place their hands together in a prayer motion.
In the grand lobbies of those hotels, distinguished Thai women walk about in exquisite silk creations laced with beautiful malai garlands - there are two types, one that is carried and another that is worn around the neck.
More of those grand properties can be found in the city's business and shopping districts - all legacies of Asian tycoons who tried to outdo each other by building bigger, more opulent hotels in better financial times.
All are fit for royalty, which is good since Thailand has its own monarch, King Rama IX, very much loved and appreciated by his subjects.
The king and his family live in the Grand Palace, the largest and most impressive of the country's 30,000 wats and temples.
A whole gold mine was emptied to create the lavish decorations scattered about the grounds of the impressive Grand Palace, which boasts some of the most beautiful statues, many decorated with gold and ceramic flowers.
Just as impressive, but not as lavishly decorated, is Wat Pho, whose walls pre-date Bangkok and are lined with ancient carvings of massage therapists and doctors' charts identifying the pressure points of the body.
Wat Pho, which features over 97 pagodas and a reclining Buddha on its grounds, is believed to be where the first massages were performed in Thailand. Massages in Bangkok are administered more for medicinal purposes and attract manytherapists from around the world hoping to enrich their training and skills.
There is a small massage parlour on the grounds of Wat Pho where dozens of therapists administer body-soothing treatments to fully clothed tourists for about $5.
One of the most interesting sites you will see in Bangkok is the four-faced Buddha, which sits on a corner next to the city's World Trade Centre, home to some of the most upscale shops in Asia. The Buddha is always surrounded by worshippers, most from China, who hold the golden statue in high regard. The rest place the delicate malai garlands around the Buddha's base, creating a colourful scene in Asia's most colourful city.