A foreigner's reaction to Thailand's capital is often as confused as the city's geography. Bangkok has no downtown, and streets, like the traffic, seem to veer off in every direction. There's even confusion about the city's name: though to Thais it is Krung Thep, the City of Angels, foreigners call it Bangkok. The oldest quarter clusters along the eastern bank of the Chao Phraya River, which snakes between Bangkok and Thonburi, where the capital was first established after the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767. When King Rama I moved his capital in 1782 across the river, he chose a site that foreign vessels knew from their navigational charts as the village of Bangkok. This settlement -- dominated by the Grand Palace and bordered by the Chao Phraya and semicircular klongs (canals) -- is called Ratanakosin and is today a jumble of streets that lead to palaces, government buildings, temples, and museums. In the last 25 years, the city has changed enormously. Before Bangkok became the destination for American servicemen during the Vietnam War, it had a population of 1.5 million. Then, as U.S. dollars attracted the rural poor and development began, it grew to more than 10 million, nearly 15% of the population and 40 times the size of any other city in Thailand. Nowadays, space in which to live and breathe is inadequate. Bangkok is infamous for its traffic-jammed streets and sois (side streets and alleys), and its air pollution is among the worst in the world (policemen directing traffic wear masks). When the economy collapsed in 1997 the traffic situation improved as people sold their cars instead of driving them, and the population shrunk as many returned to the countryside. But as the economy bounces back so does congestion. The skytrain, which opened in December 1999, makes some difference, and a subway system scheduled to open in 2002 should help. However, some streets, particularly Sukhumvit Road and other major arteries, still look like parking lots during much of the day, and as construction reawakens with the reviving economy, the traffic will only get worse. Even with its growing pains, though, Bangkok gives you a sense of history and timelessness, perhaps because King Rama I set out to build a city as beautiful as old Ayutthaya before the Burmese sacked it. Bangkok's contrasts require an adjustment on your part, but amid the chaos you soon come to appreciate the gentle nature of the Thais and their genuine respect for other people.