We clacked groaned chugged bumped into Thailand via Hat Yai, a dusty little metropolis near the border. It’s not much of a town really but it has a certain appeal for some.

Young Malaysian men, it is said, take the train here to enjoy the comparatively lax moral atmosphere … sometimes even bringing their girlfriends and wives. They leave the girlfriends and wives in guesthouses while they go “get a haircut.”

A few of these guys were our neighbors in the sleeper car, I think. No girlfriends or wives though. A clean slate.

We spent a sweaty afternoon in the Hat Yai train station, becoming occasionally falsely alarmed over whether this train or that was ours: for the first time since coming to Asia we were without the benefit of bilingual PA announcements. The machine gun-toting uniformed men marching up and down the platform were no help at all. But we worried too much. We made our train. We clacked groaned chugged grinded out of the station and into Thailand proper.

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The pointed karst shoulders frowning over the watery plains of southern Thailand are spectacular. They flew past our windows and the light of the afternoon faded. We crawled into our sleeping berths and passed out, waking up the next morning to the brisk bustle of Bangkok. Train odyssey complete.

Bangkok, for anyone who’s been there, needs no description. For anyone who hasn’t, it’s beyond description. Hanging out with our friend Pat, who kindly put us up in his family’s apartment for several days, gave us a real advantage over other people who come here for the first time: we learned the city quicker and better and saw much more of it than we otherwise would have: and we overcame what might otherwise have been an extended period of anxiety and insecurity, if not outright fear and loathing, at the complete uniqueness of our new surroundings. Bangkok is just that crazy.

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Crazy, insane, mad, maddening – and electric, eclectic, fun. The range of activities is mind-blowing. The spectrum of people – travelers and locals alike – is stupefying. The gamut of sights and sounds and smells and tastes, staggering.

Anything is possible in Bangkok. It’s the kind of city where you can literally do, or find, anything.

(Even a pair of size-13 sandals for your ponderously large American feet. For me this became sort of a quixotic quest: my beloved Chacos are in a bad way. After procrastinating the purchase of backup flip-flops through Australia – forgetting that as a lumbering barbarian I have ridiculously large dogs – I started hitting markets in Singapore, to no avail. A woman in Singapore’s Little China summed up the prevailing amused sentiment: “Your feet too big. Go back to your country maybe.”

But realizing the difficulty of the mission turned it into a fixation and by Bangkok I was obsessed. It took four days of hopelessly scouring night markets and day markets and vendors and malls but finally an Adidas store came through: and I walked away knowing that, indeed, I have the biggest feet in Southeast Asia – and possibly the only size-13 footwear on the continent.)

A good spot for a Wat, and whatnot

It may seem so sometimes but Bangkok is not all about food, drink and shopping. No sirree! For one thing the city is lousy with Wats – Buddhist temples – of every size and description. The most spectacular and famous of these, Wat Pho, is near the Golden Palace, where the king once resided.

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Lisa at Wat Pho

Wat Pho is the residence of the famous Reclining Buddha, depicting Siddartha’s dying moment. The Reclining Buddha is a 46-meter-long, 15-meter-high gold-enameled colossus with pearl-inlaid feet depicting in minute detail the 108 “auspicious characteristics” of the Buddha. It is an imposing, impressive idol.

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The best way to get to Wat Pho and the Golden Palace (shoes and pants required) is by water taxi. For the equivalent of a buck you get to ride the churning green waters of Mae Nam Chao Phraya, enjoy the light breeze and watch the fish snap at the surface, and see a more serene side of Bangkok transport. Less traffic to dodge, for one thing.

You then get out of the narrow flat-roofed boat and run a gauntlet of vendor stalls, dodge a couple motorcycles and buses – back into the rhythm of the city – and finally enter the serene confines of the temple. It is more of a compound really. You wander in a haphazard fashion past stone gatekeepers – creatures out of fairy tales with long beards and axes and spears – into tiled courtyards, past cairn fountains and shade trees and into a tiled pogoda with gabled roof and orange, green and blue minarets that houses the Buddha. And then you are stunned, so you don’t say anything for a while.

In outer buildings throughout the 20 acres of Wat Pho you find 1,000 more golden statues of the Buddha, all festooned with flowers and offerings. These also leave you speechless.

Wat Pho is Thailand’s largest Wat. It is also probably the oldest, as far as anyone knows. It is indescribably ornate: a structure of sanctums within sanctums: scripture cabinets in gilded alcoves … stone benches and basins with lilypads … miniature statues of monkeys clutching coconuts, leering out of corners. Varicolored shrines everywhere, spewing incense.

And a school, a basketball court, and makeshift soccer goals. And a student brass band.

Porticoes, pavilions and milling, agape tourists. A good spot.

Wat Pho was our first real Wat in Asia – a good start. We’d see many more in the days to come.

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We said goodbye, temporarily, to Bangkok shortly after Wat Pho. On the way out of the temple grounds we walked past a lady selling plaintains on the street corner. She had a cat on a leash: the cat sat watching a pack of dogs sunning themselves on the sidewalk. The dogs paid no attention. The cars zoomed wildly by.

We thought the whole scene was metaphorical somehow, but we couldn’t quite make it out.