On Ploenchit Road, the main artery of this fast-expanding city, eight lanes of smoke-belching buses, sedans with tinted windows sealed tight, pickups converted to carry passengers and packs of motorbikes without mufflers roar past throughout the day with the unrelenting momentum of damned souls crowding through the gates of hell.

You haven't tasted the full flavor of Asian life until you have tried to cross the road, particularly during a rainy rush hour. Five minutes of waiting for a break is often enough to make you abandon caution and step into the torrent, dodging oncoming vehicles lane by lane.

Flashing headlights are the Thai motorists' way of saying, "If you think I'll slow down you're wrong."

Few cities in the world so graphically display the collision of modern technology with an essentially village-oriented way of life. The past 20 years have transformed parts of Bangkok -- a city now of 5 million people -- into an environmental travesty as bewildering to Thais as to foreign visitors. i

One by one, the city's gracious wooden homes are falling victim to demolition teams. In their place rise rows of cheap, whitewashed shop-houses, multistory car parks and elevated highways. Not surprisingly, cement frequently runs short.

Transport in Bangkok once moved along an extensive network of canals, which also served to drain off monsoon rains. This was an important function in a city that is only a yard or two above sea level. Now most have been filled in to make room for more cars, and 90 percent of all Thai motor vehicles are registered in Bangkok.

On the city's periphery, American-style housing developments are being built on former rice fields for the rich and aspiring rich. The poor, meanwhile, inhabit stilted houses built of packing crates on the marshland.

Borrowing from the West has reached the point that many Thais believe foreign things are inherently better, whether they be machines, liquor, styles of clothing or even words.

Thai clothes are worn on Bangkok streets mainly by those who cannot afford Western one. Countless English words -- many having to do with wealth and status -- have entered the Thai language: slum, gang (as in gang of thieves), playboy, down (as in only 20 percent down) and townhouse, to name a few.

All of this may create the impression that local ways have collapsed under the deluge. Happily, such is not the case. In some respects, Bangkok might simply be called the biggest of Thailand's 50,000 villages. This country feeling in the city makes it a vibrant, intensely liveable place despite it all.

From atop any tall building, you can see that enormous volumes of tropical foliage coexist with the fumes and concrete. Thais hate apartments and whenever possible buy their homes and raise a few banana trees or orchids in closely guarded backyards.

Chinese merchants who favor the antiseptic townhouses festoon the roofs with potted plants.

Just a few steps back from the main avenues, there survive pockets of almost rustic tranquility.Behind Prachatipok Road, for instance, is a delightful working-class neighborhood of wooden houses, banana groves and an occasional lily pond.

Like village folks, Bangkok's people talk to one another, strangers or not.

Foreigners riding the city's buses find themselves constantly falling into conversations with their seatmates. Taxi drivers gab with people in the next car at traffic lights.

People eat fresh food. Early every morning, trucks roll in from surrounding provinces loaded with vegetables and fruit, many of them varieties unknown in the West.

You are never far from good restaurants. Roadside stalls serve the sticky rice and dried beef favored by people in the country's northeastern provinces. Residential lanes are plied by vendors who sell noodle soup from stoves mounted on trishaws.

Village religious beliefs hold strong in the city, too. No luxury hotel is built without a spirit house in front to shelter any supernatural entity that construction might have displaced. No major decision is made without consulting an astrologer.

At sunrise, along the already active streets, Buddhist monks can be seen doing their best to beg food with dignity as packed commuter buses shoot past with robe-fluttering velocity.

Bangkok people pursue amusement with the same energy found at a country fair. After shots of Mekong, the cheap whiskey sold in every restaurant, men flock to the city's two boxing stadiums to cheer the frenzied matches. Horseracing and soccer fill stadiums to the brim.

Movies do well only if there is plenty of action. Chinese adventure films filled with sword fighting and kung fu and American war productions such as "Apocalypse Now" are big favorites.

Mass circulation newspapers offer much the same. With front pages that are mostly banner headlines and photographs, they lure readers with such stories as an Iranian tourist who went berserk on discovering the girl in his hotel room for the night was actually a transvestite, a freak 60-pound baby discovered in a remote village, or impending Vietnamese invasion of Thailand. d

Like New York, Bangkok inspires both love and resentment in people who make it home.

"Bangkok is terrible, " says a Thai doctor. "You have to push to get on the buses, push to get space on the sidewalks," adds a bookstore clerk.

But still people keep coming. Its population has grown from 3 million to almost 5 million in the past 10 years through migration from poor up-country villages and births.

Everyone complains about traffic, polllution and the hectic pace of life. Yet one can sometimes detect a hint of pride even in these. Modern-day woes, after all, the reasoning appears to go, are the problems of an up-and-coming country, not a poor one.