To its critics, Bangkok is a steaming sprawl of seedy, overcrowded chaos. Rip-off merchants seem to lurk around every corner and traffic clogs its polluted streets. But to its fans, Bangkok is an addiction. It is South East Asia's most vibrant city; its mesmerising unpredictability being its most endearing quality. You can take a seat at an outdoor cafe while watching life pass you by and be entertained for hours. You might see an elephant holding up traffic, a street vendor selling fried grasshoppers and silk worms for a quick snack or a Buddhist monk in a bright orange robe chatting away on a mobile phone. Bangkok never sleeps. Rows of roadside food stalls squeezed onto potholed pavements serve pad thai and noodle soup until the sun rises, as a relentless stream of traffic rumbles past.
Bangkok is also a city of extreme contrasts. A morning spent shopping in the sprawling Chatuchak weekend market, where you can buy anything from jewellery and wooden carvings to a Russian fighter pilot helmet or a kitten, could be followed by browsing for an Italian sports car in the air-conditioned luxury of the Siam Paragon shopping mall. Bangkok has tranquil spots for those who get exhausted by its frenetic energy elsewhere. A longtail boat trip along the Chao Phraya river, for example, takes visitors to leafy temple complexes where the smell of burning incense mixes with the damp air and tranquility reigns.
Many people who spend only a couple of days in the city while in transit to a southern island or to the Chiang Mai province in the north grumble about Bangkok's heat, its traffic, its pollution and - for the ones staying in certain guesthouses on the Khao Sahn Road - the stuffy, cockroach-infested rooms. But take time to get off the beaten track and enjoy the friendliness of the city's residents and you will surely be captivated. Bangkok offers quick and inexpensive air and bus links to Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Myanmar. Onward travellers should include at least one night in Bangkok in their itineraries and make the most of it.
Bangkok's imposing Grand Palace complex is the city's spiritual home and its most impressive architectural attraction. Take at least three hours to stroll around the former royal residence. The main attraction is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (actually made of jade), which is one of Thailand's most sacred sites. Ignore anyone on the street who tells you the palace is closed for a public holiday or for renovation as you approach the site. They will offer to take you to one of the city's other attractions, usually stopping at an overpriced gem store on the way. At the temple you will need to pay a US$7 (Dh26) entry fee. Make sure you wear long trousers, a long-sleeve shirt and closed shoes. The Grand Palace is a short walk from Wat Pho, which is home to a 46-metre reclining golden Buddha. It is situated in a 20-acre complex of temples and manicured gardens, which also includes a school for traditional Thai massage.
To avoid temple fatigue, visit the home of Jim Thomspon, an American entrepreneur who set up a silk company that contributed greatly to the industry's revival. Thompson mysteriously disappeared in 1967 while trekking in Malaysia. His elegantly furnished Thai-style teak house, located on a tree-lined street in central Bangkok, retains fascinating clues to his life, interests and tastes in art and craft.
The Chatuchak market and the Pat Khlong flower market are worth visits for their shopping and sightseeing opportunities. Chinatown is another area offering great food and interesting shops. For a walk on the wild side, head to the Snake Farm (Queen Saowapha Memorial Institute) on Rama IV Road. A centre for producing anti-venom serum, the institute also puts on venom-milking and snake-handling shows, during which one of the cobras, vipers or kraits may slither too close for onlookers' comfort. For sport fans, the brutal energy, loud cheering and musical accompaniment of Muay Thai boxing, the country's most followed sport after football, can be sampled at the Lumpini Stadium on the Rama IV Road or Ratchadamnoen Stadiumnear Democracy Monument.
Budget Most backpackers in Bangkok head automatically for the crowded and well-known area on and around Khao San Road. The Shanti Lodge, a 15-minute walk away from this area, however, offers a civilised escape and personal service. There is an excellent in-house vegetarian restaurant and guests can avail of Shanti's team of Thai masseuses. The dormitory is dark and dingy so it's worth paying for a private room - from $11 (Dh43) per night.
Shanti Lodge, 37 Sri Ayutthaya Road, Soi 16, Si Sou Tewet (www. shantilodge.com; 0066 2 281 2497). Midrange Le Fenix Sukhumvit opened in 2007 and caters to a young crowd. It is conveniently located on the lively Sukhumvit Soi 11, within easy reach of the Skytrain and several pubs, bars and restaurants. Rooms start at $54 (Dh200). Le Fenix Sukhumvit, 33/33 Sukhumvit 11, Klong Toey Nua, Wattana (www.lefenix-sukhumvit.com; 0066 2 305 4000). Luxury Facing the Chao Phraya, the five-star Mandarin Oriental offers one of the city's most luxurious riverside stays. It will also set you back at least $389 (Dh1,430) per night. The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, 48 Oriental Avenue, City Centre (www.mandarinoriental.com/bangkok; 0066 2 659 9000).
Breakfast Thais aren't much of a breakfasting nation. But a cheap and traditional early morning staple is johk, a thick porridge-like rice soup. Joke Samyan (920 Phayathai Road, opposite Chulalongkorn University) has a reputation that reaches beyond the capital.
Lunch Some of the tastiest and most inexpensive food in Bangkok is available at thousands of roadside food stalls. The stalls are mostly grouped in clusters of four or five, each serving one of a range of meals including soup, rice dishes, curries, fried noodles, fruit shake and desserts. Head to the outdoor stalls at the Khao Sahn Road (and the streets running parallel), which are popular with Thais and visitors alike. For a more sophisticated experience, visit the Emporium, Siam Paragon and MBK shopping malls, which boast large food courts offering the same dishes at a higher price.
Dinner If you've had enough of dining at the street stalls and are looking for something more upmarket, there are some fantastic options for fine dining. For the incomparable view alone, try Vertigo Grill and Moon Bar, which perches on the roof of the 61-storey Banyan Tree Hotel on the Sathorn Road. To sample the ultimate in Bangkok's luxury riverside dining, visit the terrace restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental. It offers delicious food and a grand river view with the brightly lit boats trundling past.