National Geographic : 1973 Jul
as the largest metropolis in Southeast Asia. Moreover, the City of Angels faces prob lems far from celestial, including pollution, overcrowding, poverty, disease, hunger, and rising crime-familiar trademarks of grow ing cities everywhere. Thailand's capital lies in a sweeping bend of the Chao Phraya River, the main stem of the great water system that drains the west ern part of the country from its northern border to the Gulf of Thailand, 25 miles southeast of Bangkok (map, page 100). In area as well as population the city is one of Southeast Asia's largest, extending across 600 square miles. Citadel of Freedom in Southeast Asia During an era when violence and discord have ravaged most of their neighbors, Bang kok and Thailand have escaped almost unharmed as outposts of freedom among nations either threatened or already engulfed by Communism. At considerable risk to itself, though rec ognizing its own stake in Asian security, the Thai nation has granted the United States the use of advance air bases within its bor ders. During the Viet Nam war U. S. air power hammered enemy troops and supply lines from several sites in Thailand, whose names have become familiar to Americans Udorn, U-Tapao, and Ta Khli. In return, the United States has advised and assisted Thailand's 160,000-man army in its constant battle against Communist infil tration across its borders. With Chamnian's blessing and with my five invisible guardians, I set out to explore the City of Angels. For an earthly compan ion I was fortunate to have Xuwicha Noi Hiranprueck-simply Noi to his friends-a gifted 24-year-old student of economics at Bangkok's Thammasat University. In the weeks that followed I never discovered how many guardian spirits Noi himself has, but I suspect the maximum. Anyone who has sur vived Bangkok's traffic for 24 years has more than mere luck on his side. Devotion to cleanliness brings women to bathe at their doorstep in a khlong, or canal. Once Bangkok's major arteries of travel, khlongs still lace the city in a watery net work that inspired Westerners to call it "Venice of the East."