My cousin's boy was detoxing so he was having green chicken curry and beer for breakfast. Spend any time at all in Bangkok and this sort of carry on will seem almost sane. We were sitting on the street in Th Khao San, that quarter once infamous for drugged-out hippies, now full of cheap tat and neo-hippies on other trips. My cousin's boy was on his way to a beach where what passes for a holiday is daily colonic irrigation.

The cousins were staying at Nanas where, for $20 a night, they got a shared room, a shower on an outdoor balcony, and a sign on the stairs which read: "If you bring ladies, we may charge you extra." They weren't charged for taking me to their room; perhaps it depends on the lady.

We left the boy to his navel-gazing and followed the promise of a breeze to the river, through the alleyways of Banglamphu, to the pier, where we got on a boat. We stopped at a floating petrol station for diesel, and beer for retoxing purposes.

We drifted past a floating funeral parlour, the coffins stacked up outside; lounging monks; shacks and mini-mansions; an old woman soaping her breasts; little boys diving, their round bare bums sticking up like a row of ducklings. A woman in a sarong, her newly washed hair in a towel turban blew us a kiss. My cousin said: "I don't know if I'd be so obliging if I had strangers peering into my living room every day."

Infinity had only been open a day. We chanced upon it on the way back from the pier: a tiny bar, a strangely successful mix of 50s kitsch and Buddhist shrine and a couch on the footpath. The barman fell in love with my cousin. So did the barlady, who may have been a bar man in another life. The barman delivered the drinks with a little dance. The barlady with a flutter of false eyelashes. We sat for two hours that felt like a very happy infinity, drinking the cheap and good local rum, Sang Sum, with fresh pineapple juice.

After dark we wandered back through the district, past the street vendors, the scent of the banana pancake stands, to the tune of the bicycle horn tooted by the crazy advertising man in his white suit. You have to make a splash to get noticed in Bangkok, city of crazies.

Catch the Sky train to see the young, ultra-cool, ultra kooky Bangkok kids in their best: a girl got up to look like Holly Hobbie, with a patchwork pinafore, matching hand bag and plaits.

The Sky train is cheap, easy to use and allows a reprieve from the taking your-life-in-your-hands experience that is getting around in Bangkok traffic. I'd catch it late at night, alone, and always felt safe. Except for the time I came down the stairs into the dark street and was jumped by a figure with a gun: a 4-year-old boy with a water pistol. I said: "You're very naughty."

He said: "You give me money."

"Or what?" I said. He squirted me with his pistol and ran off whooping. This wasn't quite a joke. What was he doing out, alone, at that time of the night? And he really did want money.

You don't have to be a bit hazy in the head on Sang Sum to experience Bangkok, but it doesn't hurt. Although there are also the stone cold sober moments which make you feel drunker than you've ever been in your life.

"You believe in fortune tellers?" said the taxi driver on our way to feed the lucky snapping turtles at the Wat Prayoon temple.

Did he? "So, so," he said.

Why did he go, if he only believed so, so?

"I might get a good fortune."

What was his last fortune?

"So, so. Why are we going to feed turtles?"

For good fortune.

Or maybe so, so.

Same, same but different, he might have said. Almost everything in Thailand is same, same but different.

A Tiffany bracelet. A lady boy. A sign read: "Beware of Fake Monks." A Gucci bag. "I take you Gucci," said the driver. I've already got a Gucci, I said, holding up the ghastly, gaudy mirror bag I picked up in Koh Lanta for 500 baht (about $20).

"Gucci! How much you pay?"

I told him. "Weeee."

Was I ripped off?

"Maybe ... so, so."

The snapping turtles and giant pongy cat fish are in a pond beneath a strange rocky outcrop on which perch, haphazardly, miniature shrines containing the ashes of departed ones. For 10 baht (40 cents) I bought two plates of food, handed over with long pointed sticks used to impale the offerings of one platter: some indescribably disgusting grey bits of, well, what? "Fish," said the taxi driver. It was Thai fish then: same, same, but different. The other platter was filled with dry cat biscuits - to feed the cat fish. I thought that was funny; the taxi driver thought this outing the most ridiculous thing he'd ever seen a tourist do. He poured the entire plate of cat biscuits into the pond when he thought I wasn't looking.

Now," he said, "Gucci?"

The turtle activity is not, by a long way, the most ridiculous thing a tourist can do in that balmy, barmy, maddening, exhausting, love affair of a city that is Bangkok.

The streets smell of incense, of fishy things on sticks and fresh lime juice sold by the street vendors, of the Thai jasmine garlands on the shrines, of exhaust fumes. Of baby powder wafting in innocent puffs from the massage shops where ladies with tiny, delicate hands like fluttering birds pummel your tired feet with the strength of stevedores. My foot massage was delivered with much giggling. On the way out I noticed painted cupids on the window. They must really love massaging feet, those delightful ladies.

The maddening? The taxi and tuk-tuk drivers. "Lady, lady. Take you anywhere for 500 baht."

This can drive you insane, but I worked out a trick.

"Anywhere?"

"Yes, lady. Anywhere."

"For 500 baht?"

"Yes, lady. Anywhere."

"Okay. Hanoi."

"Hanoi!" Then, passed on up the taxi line, with much guffawing: "She says, 'Hanoi!' Not Hanoi, lady!"

The Buddha sellers are as persistent. "You buy Buddha. Very old. Genuine Thai Buddha." You are not allowed to export Thai-made buddhas from Thailand. "Okay. You buy Buddha. Brand new. Made in China."

In a posh antique shop: an early 19th century gilded Buddha for US $6500. "I will give you a fake certificate saying Chinese and modern.'

This is a city where frenetic commerce is carried out with good grace. Even the Ronald McDonald clown has its yellow-gloved hands raised to the chin in the wai gesture of thanks.

At the beyond-glitzy Siam shopping mall is a grand piano in the middle of a lake and a glass bottomed boat ride in the basement. The boat ride was beyond ridiculous. We had to wear lifejackets, although I suspect the "sea" - you're hauled around in dinghies by ropes attached to the side of what looks like a large para pool - is knee deep. You do get to see sharks: in the aquarium underneath the pool. A man wearing an orange lifejacket over his white dishdash spent the voyage (all of about five minutes) correcting the "captain's" pronunciation of fish.

Captain: "Now we see a beeg feesh."

Dishdash man: "Fish."

Captain: "Yes. Feesh." And so on.

I was glad of the lifejacket. There was a real danger I would fall in laughing.

There was no real danger at the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute Snake Farm unless you count having to cross a four-lane intersection (a loose interpretation of the word lane) to get there. It took 20 minutes to get up the courage for a dash and I was reminded of a mate who once got a tuk tuk to take him to the other side of a Bangkok street.

While waiting, I met a poor lunatic, who jabbed his finger at me, and scribbled furiously in a scruffy notebook, no doubt indecipherably. I was scribbling furiously in my scruffy notebook at the time. When I looked at it later, what I'd written was indecipherable except for this: F***ing traffic.

At the snake farm you sit in a darkened auditorium and watch two people dressed in medics' white coats lift a cobra to the glass, provoke it to make it bite, then hold up the glass tumbler containing the venom with a flourish - as a magician might show a rabbit in a hat. You used to be able to see the snakes fed live things, such as, possibly, a rabbit. But even in Bangkok, where you can die waiting to cross a road, never mind actually getting across one, live feedings have been deemed too ghoulish for people to watch.

The snake farm is worth a visit. Hardly anyone goes there - I don't know why. Seeing a cobra milked is something you are unlikely to forget - which makes it a haven in Bangkok terms.

Another sort of haven: Jim Thompson's House. Thompson was a silk merchant who revived the industry after World War I and moved six 200-year-old teak houses to this site in the 50s. He lived here in elegant fashion until he vanished mysteriously in the depths of the Cameron highlands in Malaysia.

Our guide told us about the warning a monk gave him: "You should be careful when you are 61." He was 61 when he disappeared. His life was a bit of a mystery too. He married, but never had children. There were three gay guys from New York on the tour. The first said, "Very Aunty Mame". "Very gay," said the second. "Totally gay," said the third. His house is certainly lovely (nice chandelier; fabulous antiques) and the gardens gloriously, well, gay.

I stayed in Sukhumvit, in a chic and charming little boutique hotel called Seven with staff to match. They were happy to decipher the ingredients in the mysterious street food I'd buy on the corner and bring back to my room for lunch. This was a free service. I don't believe they charged extra for odd ladies.

At the end of my street (or Soi) motorbike drivers hang out, drinking whiskey and gambling while they wait for rush hour travellers as they come off the Sky train. The office girls sit side saddle, as poised and groomed as ladies from another era on horseback. The local dogs hang out too, having sex and waiting for dogs from other Sois to turn up for a fight. I was a bit frightened of them. What sort of dogs are they? I asked. "Thai dogs. They won't bite you. They only bite dogs from other Sois."

I was reassured about the mutts by the beautiful and elegant Camilla of the Oriental Hotel while we were having afternoon tea in the famous Author's Wing with its white cane furniture and bamboo print upholstery. We had the Thai version of tea which means the scones are tinted eau de nil (from pandanus leaves) and served with rose petal jam, almost too pretty to eat, and my idea of detoxing. In the reading room are photographs of famous writers who have stayed here: Somerset Maugham, Barbara Cartland, Wilbur Smith, Iris Murdoch. Some of the writers have suites named after them and I desperately wanted to see the Wilbur Smith suite with its big game-patterned wallpaper and the stuffed antelope but some blighter was in residence. The Cartland suite proves "too pink" for some guests, but really, what did they expect?

I'd blagged a room at the Oriental for my last night in Bangkok. The limo driver, Ron, picked me up at the airport. He'd learned English watching American action films. He said, "Jesus Christ!" at the traffic, and sounded peculiarly like Arnold Schwarzenegger, should he have been to Thai charm school.

If you are lucky, the famed lift attendant, in his Oriental Bangkok livery of jodphurs, long black socks and shoes so shiny you can see the lobby chandeliers in them, will reach in and push your floor button, without ever asking what floor you're on.

My room was filled with flowers: orchids, gardenias on my pillow, a jasmine garland. The 24 hour butler brought freshly squeezed orange juice on a silver tray and said: "Madam, please push this button, at any time, if you want anything at all." I stood at the windows and watched the tourist boats strung with fairy lights and couldn't think of anything I wanted that Bangkok hadn't already delivered.

I went down to the street for a last wander and the taxi drivers called: "Hello, Hanoi lady!" And I thought: "Goodbye Bangkok, you gorgeous, intoxicating, nutcase of a city." Then I got in the limo with Ron and he said "Jesus Christ!" at the traffic.

Michele Hewitson paid her own way to Bangkok but stayed courtesy of the Oriental Bangkok for one night.