In 2002, Bangkok celebrated 220 years as the nation's capital, a milestone that coincides with the opening of the city's first subway system. These two facts, the venerable age of Bangkok and the ongoing advance of modern development, epitomise a duality that characterises the city. It both preserves the old with respect and embraces the new with enthusiasm.
During the past two decades the Thai capital has undergone more change than probably at any other period during its history. What had been reasonably steady growth from the city's founding in 1782 up to the mid 20th century surged spectacularly in the 1980s and 1990s.
Fuelled by a highly successful export drive and foreign investment, the Thai economy boomed at that time, resulting in unprecedented infrastructure development.
Concrete and glass high-rises reshaped the skyline and multi-lane expressways re-mapped the city's thoroughfares, while at the end of 1999 the Skytrain mass transit system was completed and now, soon to be finished, is the subway.
The modern cityscape, at moments seemingly reminiscent of Tokyo or Los Angels, is matched by new hotels that rank among the most luxurious in the world, smart shopping plazas selling top brand-named items, classy restaurants, Western fast-food outlets and all the other amenities of a 21st-century city on the move.
The ultimate impact of all the development is that Bangkok is now better than it has ever been - it's greener, it's more comfortable to experience and it's quicker and simpler to get around town. Imagine, a cross-town journey that previously would take one and a half hours by taxi or bus can now be completed in a matter of minutes by the Skytrain. Popular destinations, such as Chatuchak Weekend Market, are now much easier to visit, while the Skytrain also provides convenient links to and from many major hotels around town.
Likewise, the options for shopping, dining and entertainment have vastly expanded in the last couple of decades. Now, modern luxury buys are available as well as the traditional handicrafts; Thai restaurants are matched by others offering virtually the whole gamut of world cuisines, while entertainment can be as diverse as a classical concert at the Thailand Cultural Centre or an Irish band playing in an Irish pub.
Indeed, Bangkok can be all things to all people. Essentially a paradox in its blend of old and new, of traditional
Oriental splendour overlaid with a modern Western facade, the Thai capital defies easy definition. Yet the inescapable fact is that the city is ultimately totally enchanting, "impossible to resist", as travel writer Pico Iyer remarked recently in Time magazine.
The endearing attraction springs in large part from the city keeping its essence even in the wake of massive modern development. It may in part echo other great cities, but an immutable "Thainess" nonetheless prevails so that Bangkok is Bangkok in the same way as Gertrude Stein's rose was a rose.
In all things there is this sense of "Thainess", of a unique style found nowhere else. It is an all-pervading style that extends beyond the obvious, whether in the grace of classical dance or just in the simple wai greeting, and permeates the culture so that adopted foreign influences are always adapted into something specifically Thai. Bangkok thus retains a personality that is unchanging and uniquely its own, and which allows the traveller to discover somewhere truly different while also enjoying all modern conveniences.
Amid all the new development Bangkok is still a city of temples and palaces, of golden spires and orange tiered roofs, of saffron-robed monks and serene Buddha images. Classic sights, most famously the Grand Palace and Temple of the Emerald Buddha, remain as wondrous as ever. How to view them better, however, is being developed in new tour options and attractions.
Walking tours of Rattanakosin Island, for example, are adding a fresh dimension to the appreciation of this area of the old Royal City. Also new are mini light-and-sound shows at Wat Arun, Temple of the Dawn, which give a valuable insight into the history of the temple. There are also new places to see the old and, for example, the traditional Thai home of the late Kukrit Pramoj, a former prime minister, is now preserved