Philip Cornwel-Smith text & photographs John Goss photographs
• Acclaimed bestseller that explains the perplexing charms of Thai life.
• Definitive source on Thai pop, trusted by locals, experts, media, students and visitors.
• Iconic style book for designers and artists, who use ‘Very Thai’ as the label for Thai streetlife.
This pioneering celebration of Thai pop and streetlife reflects the dramatic changes in Thailand as it modernised. With a contemporary eye and two decades” experience, the author delves beyond the Thai clichés to reveal the casual, everyday expressions of Thainess that so delight and puzzle, from floral truck bolts and taxi altars to buffalo cart furniture and drinks in a bags. Full of savvy insights into the impromptu creativity behind the exotic image of Thainess. Like no other book, Very Thai captures the quirky vigour of the Thai street. Read more
70 Chapters • 320 pages • 591 Colour Photographs Foreword by Alex Kerr • Afterword by Pracha Suveeranont
Very Bangkok: In the City of the Senses
In the follow up to Very Tha, the world’s most visited city finally gets the dynamic portrait it deserves. Vividly photographed by the author, itexplores Bangkok’s kaleidoscopic facets, from street to chic, folk to pop, and ancient rites to sci-fi.
Experience Thailand’s enigmatic capital through each sense, whether intense tastes or beguiling scents, boisterous sound or shamanic trance. Find how beliefs shape the Thai sense of direction, time or colour.
The heart of the book navigates the tensions between creative chaos and dreams of order. Encounter the subcultures of organic markets, youth tribes and ethnic roots. Glimpse the reality behind the wild reputation. See how the city portrays itself, through media, the arts and the Bangkok noir. It contrasts the grand traditions with the improvised streetlife that makes Bangkok so lively and resilient.
This groundbreaking way to view cities applies the latest ‘messy urban’ ideas and data mapping to this fast-changing tropical metropolis. Exploring the local cultures and the spirit of place reveals what’s unique. Delve behind the myths of Thainess to discover the secrets of Bangkokness.
See Bangkok as it’s never been shown before, through offbeat photography, digital graphics and 82 artworks that convey the city’s inner life. An invaluable resource, a desirable gift and a quirky guide, Very Bangkok will change how you think about this sensual World City.
32 Chapters • 67 sidebars • 360 pages • 450 Colour Photographs Foreword by Lawrence Osborne
‘Art talk forums will include expert Asian art curator Jorn Middelborg on Myanmar political art, Philip Cornwel-Smith (of best-selling book Very Bangkok) on “Rival Portrayals from Myths to Noir to Realism,” and moderator David Robinson on the young Thai artist movement.’
As everyone looks forward to the upcoming Songkran holidays, art lovers will be keeping themselves busy this coming weekend at Mango Art Festival.
Dubbed “the most complete art festival,” Mango Art Festival unites famous designers, trendy independent artists and renowned art studios from across Thailand to showcase visually striking and thought-provoking contemporary art, along with the latest design trends.
The festival will take place at Lhong 1919, the 19th-century Thai-Chinese riverfront venue, from Saturday, Apr. 3 to Tuesday, Apr. 6.
Mango Art Festival will also feature fashion shows, jazz music and DJ sets. Art talk forums will include expert Asian art curator Jorn Middelborg on Myanmar political art, Philip Cornwel-Smith (of best-selling book Very Bangkok) on “Rival Portrayals from Myths to Noir to Realism,” and moderator David Robinson on the young Thai artist movement.
Additionally, there will be special art exhibitions including rare artworks and personal displays of Thai art collectors and an “Art for Environment” exhibition curated by Ek Thongprasert and Wishulada Pantaranuwong.
Bangkok can seem confusing, but beneath the chaos, it has a surprising internal logic. Understanding its inner character is the aim of Very Bangkok, which is the most up-to-date and comprehensive book on the Thai capital.
Written by longtime resident Philip Cornwel-Smith, Very Bangkok: In the City of the Senses is not arranged by area or era, but through themes that explain this city of surprise. Vividly photographed by the author, the book starts and finishes on the river, from the city’s origins as a trading post and sacred island to today’s riverside creative resurgence. In between, we get to explore its many contradictions, whether chic or street, elite or pop, ancient or futuristic.
Half of the book explores Bangkok’s impact on our senses, whether the love of boisterous noise or the aromatic herbal and floral arts. It turns out that Bangkok food has its own flavour profile, thanks to multi-ethnic influences. We also probe the supernatural sixth sense that shapes many decisions, plus the semi-taboo scene of shamanic trance. In all, it covers 20 senses, including the distinctive Thai senses of direction, time or colour. You’ll never think of Bangkok the same way again.
The heart of the book is about Bangkokians themselves, whether hi-so elites, folk communities or middle-class mall-goers. We encounter vivid subcultures, such as the informal markets, youth tribes and ethnic identities, from Muslims and Mons to the majority Thai-Chinese. The conclusion reflects on the gulfs between Bangkok’s self-image, its wilder noir reputation, and a new wave of realistic portrayals in the arts. Behind the myths of Thainess, we discover the essence of Bangkokness.
The author has become an expert on his adopted city since 1994, as founding editor of its first listings magazine Metro, editor of the Time Out Bangkok city guide, and author of the influential bestseller, Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture.
Bangkok: a virtual tour through film, food, music and books
by Philip Cornwel-Smith, Fri 26 Feb 2021 11.00 GMT
Explore the dynamism and contradictions of one of Asia’s most beguiling cities through its culture, novels and cuisine
Few cities assail the senses as viscerally as Bangkok, from the kinetic cacophony of its street life to its aromatic herbal cures and the incendiary spice of the food. Social distancing has only briefly withheld the touch of Thai massage and the jostle of its markets. Juxtapositions startle the eye, with designs often decided by fortune tellers or sacred colours. Timber shacks abut glitzy towers of novelty shapes in the world’s third least equal society.
Breakneck modernisation has sparked tensions between the cosmopolitan “hi-so” (high society) and grassroots values, while young reformers protest at the seniority system that enforces a hidden order behind the apparent chaos. Amid the hi-tech towers, a vast informal economy wheels food stalls and makes street furniture from found materials. It’s both fun and poignant to ride around the teeming centre on motorcycle taxis, converted pickup trucks or canal boats with a hinged canvas roof that lowers under bridges.
Author and composer SP Somtow called it a “city both futuristic and feudalistic, a city where the first and third worlds were in endless collision”, in his book The Crow: Temple of Night. Others say this village-minded megalopolis is Blade Runner-esque.
Returning tourists will find its tangled laneways opened up by fresh routes. New rapid urban railways link neglected districts, and will meet the trans-Asian network at the new Bang Sue Grand station. Driverless Gold Line trains run to the huge IconSiam riverside mall, and on to Kudi Jeen, a 250-year-old quarter first settled by Persians and Portuguese, Hokkien Chinese and Mon people from Myanmar. Paths lead to a waterfront cafe named My Grandparents’ House, embodying the trend of rediscovering once-supressed Chinese heritage.
London never got its garden bridge, but Bangkok last year opened the leafy SkyPark, spanning the Chao Praya river from Kudi Jeen to Chinatown. Its undulations afford views downstream, where skyscrapers bristle like a hairbrush, and upstream to the Grand Palace, the temple of the reclining Buddha, and Wat Arun, the city’s five-spired symbol. Mosaicked in particoloured glass and china, Bangkok’s temples are, to cite Somerset Maugham in his 1935 travelogue The Gentleman in the Parlour, “unlike anything in the world … and you cannot fit them into the scheme of things you know. It makes you laugh with delight that anything so fantastic could exist on this sombre Earth.”
The SkyPark leads right to the old moat, Khlong Ong Ang, where markets have been cleared to make canalside promenades lined with Instagram-ready murals of Sikhs, Muslims and Teochew Chinese traders. The country’s multi-ethnic past is being repackaged into a digestible “diverse” Thainess. But as William Warren warned in his 2012 portrait of the city, Bangkok, “the result of this successful assimilation has been the steady decline, virtually the disappearance, of anything purely Thai”.
Chinatown, too, is relinquishing its mysteries as shophouses turn into galleries, bars and hostels. Crumbling stucco alleys strewn with engine parts draw hipsters during the Chinese Vegetarian Festival, Bangkok Design Week and regular Galleries Nights. Siam’s first paved street, Charoenkrung Road, arcs through here into Bangrak Creative District, an independent initiative by young urbanites that bypasses the state’s orderliness to make a virtue of the varied chaos.
Bangkok Vanguards pioneered neighbourhood tours here. You can now join them via Zoom, either as a live-streamed scooter trip or a video tour narrated by the guide. From Khlong Ong Ang, you thread through the passages of Saphan Han with its community leader, encountering a jewellery workshop, a sala pao dumpling stall and a shrine to their Teochiu deity, Pun Tao Kong.
Across the moat from Saphan Han are the neighbourhoods of Little India and Wang Burapha, which was the first Thai hub of pop culture. That history is told in one of the virtual exhibitions at the irreverent Museum Siam, viewable alongside ones of nearby Tha Tien market plus the museum’s irreverent take on nationalism, Decoding Thainess.
Bangkok’s reputation is at its most compulsively lurid in The Hangover Part II, a bachelor party caper that spawned Hangover guided tours and the catchphrase: “Bangkok has him now.” The best films about this city aren’t being streamed, but Netflix has several popular dramas: Bangkok Traffic Love Story, which deals with contemporary mores; Hormones (2013-15), the first Thai series to tackle youth issues with provocative realism; and time-travel fantasy series Love Destiny (2018), which contrasts today’s affluent lifestyle with 17th-century courtiers, sparking a fad for wearing traditional dress to events.
The 1840s story of the ghost of Mae Nak – who sees her beloved husbandsent off to war and later dies in childbirth in what is now the Phrakhanong neighbourhood – has sparked countless films, from the sumptuous 1999 romance Nang Nak to the 2013 horror-comedy Pee Mark Phrakhanong, about her hapless husband. In a documentary on the city’s visual culture, World In Motion: Bangkok, I guide you through Nak’s shrine at Wat Mahabut.
In her food blog She Simmers, Leela Punyaratabandhu dissects how the TV series Love Destiny contrasted ancient and current recipes, such as a dip for grilled fish. Her cookbook Bangkok: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of Thailand, explains the foreign influences upon its hybrid cuisine, and comes with YouTube demonstrations. She reveals how a Thai prime minister famously added a splash of brandy when cooking his green curry with beef. While other curries can get away with pre-made pastes, she insists that green curry paste is best made fresh, toasting the coriander seeds and cumin before grinding with the herbs and shrimp paste.
But Bangkok’s most famous cooking class, which also sparked a book and YouTube clips with Jamie Oliver, earned fame initially for its title: Cooking With Poo. Chef Saiyuud Diwong – nicknamed Poo (crab) – proudly stayed based in the Khlong Toey slum where she grew up.
The first Michelin star for Thai food went to Australian chef David Thompson at Bangkok’s Como hotel, whose two cookbooks, Thai Food and Thai Street Food, are laced with cultural context. The latter spawned a TV series (on Vimeo), partly set in Bangkok, which demonstrates how to brown a Sino-Thai oyster omelette using pork fat and tapioca flour.
The aural equivalent of the exploding flavour pockets in Thai cuisine is molam, the north-eastern music introduced by migrants from the Thai and Laotian hinterlands since the 17th century. It’s the music most busked on the streets, often by groups of blind musicians. Spotify streams the Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band, a supergroup of master players who blended the plaintively warbled vocals and bamboo khaen pipes with surf rock and Latin rhythms that get anyone churning to its infectious beats.
Bangkok pop feels bland by comparison, with copycat sounds, K-pop formulas and tonal vocals that can sound off-key. Yet some Bangkok-born artists earn fans abroad by singing in English. Phum Viphurit sings fetching jangly tunes and one of Hugo Chakrabongse’s blues-infused rock ballads has been covered by Beyoncé.
Bangkok Noir (2011) gives short-story tastes of Bangkok’s detective genre set in seedy locales like Soi Cowboy. “Noir in Bangkok happens fast,” notes its editor, Christopher G Moore, talking of how it is fed by folk beliefs and the news. “At every turn there is a new noir-like incident, such as the temple morgue found to contain two thousand aborted foetuses. Take a late night walk through some poor neighbourhoods. Hear the soi dogs howling as the angry ghosts launch themselves through the night, and observe that modern possessions don’t stop the owners from making offerings to such spirits.”
Leading literary expat Lawrence Osborne dissects the ambiguity of outsiders in his travelogue Bangkok Days and condominium-set thriller The Glass Kingdom. “Bangkok is an asylum for those who have lapsed into dilettantism,” he quips. “Westerners choose Bangkok as a place to live precisely because they can never understand it.” And it’s no less of an enigma to Thais.
Some local authors published in English try to unblock the policed blanks in the national memory. In Bangkok Wakes to Rain, Pitchaya Sudbanthad tracks a wooden house over centuries via its conversion into a spa to its fate in a flooded future Bangkok, evoking the city’s sensory hit. “A pearl-eyed lottery seller, sensing passersby from footsteps and the clap of flip-flops, calls out of an opened case of clothes-pinned tickets to whoever craves luck. Her nose picks up the ashen smell always in the air.” Like indie novellist Veeraporn Nitiprapha in The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth, he uses metaphor to tackle scandals that most try to forget. As Pitchaya dryly notes: “The not remembering doesn’t really work, does it?”
Philip Cornwel-Smith was the founding editor of Bangkok’s first listings magazine, Metro, and the Time Out City Guide to Bangkok. His latest book is Very Bangkok: In the City of the Senses (River Books, £20)
A Review of ‘Very Thai’ and ‘Very Bangkok’ by Philip Cornwel-Smith
By Steve Rosse, 20 Feb 2021
Some time in the summer of 1989 I was working on a one-day shoot for something, a dog food commercial maybe. There’s a lot of down time in video production, or at least there was before everybody was shooting movies on their iPhone. We used to stand around the set for hours and talk and talk and talk. It was one of the best parts of working in the industry.
So on this day there was a guy in the Electrics department who was holding everybody’s attention with his stories about working for a couple of months in Thailand on “Casualties of War.” (Because of the continuity challenges involved in shooting a feature length movie in which the main characters never change their clothes he called it “Casualties of Wardrobe.”)
“There’s only two Thai words you need to learn,” he said. “Towel-I and Meeow. They mean ‘how much’ and ‘I don’t want it.’” Hearty guffaws and knowing winks all the way around. His mispronunciation of the words rankled, but his implication that all Thailand had to offer was an adventageous rate of exchange was worse. Still, I held my tongue, because my own experience of Thailand was, at that point, only three months in the bars and brothels of Phuket, and I didn’t think that gave me the moral high ground.
In 1990 I moved to Thailand permanently (“permanently” wound up to be only seven years) and I quickly learned that Thailand is experienced subjectively. Every farang has a different idea about what Thailand is. I had friends who owned bars, who spent every day and every night in their own bar, and had done so for years on end. Their view of Thailand was radically different than the guys who had come to Thailand in the 1960’s with the Peace Corps and spent years upcountry teaching rice farmers how to spray for weevils. And their Thailand was WAY different than the Thailand cherished by the old soldiers who had come on R&R, and WAY-WAY different from the Club Med executives who moved from continent to continent every two years, and more different still than the Thailand pored over by the academics who came to teach for a semester at Chula and stayed forever because they fell in love with being adored.
We can only know as much of the world as our five (or six) senses tell us, says The Buddha. Jump ahead to 2018, and I’m visiting Phuket for the first time in 20 years. The place overwhelms me. The God-awful traffic, the pollution everywhere, the overcrowding, the push-push-push. The sheer ugliness of the place. It was like meeting an old girlfriend who’d become hideous. My friend Baz said, “You’re the tensest tourist in Thailand. Why don’t we go ride bicycles in the Khao Sok National Forest? Maybe you can find some cannabis up there and mellow out a little.”
I hadn’t been on a bicycle since I was a teenager, but I jumped at the chance to get out of the place I’d spent two decades dreaming of coming back to. I also jumped at the possibility of finding a little weed. After living in a State with legal weed for four years I had developed a pretty stern daily habit, and it had never occurred to me, in all the time I’d spent fantasizing about coming back, that when I finally returned to my beloved Thailand it would mean suddenly going cold turkey. I was Jonesing bad.
We went North and checked into some bungalows in the forest and the bike nearly crippled me and I never found any weed. But on our second morning there Baz took me to some breakfast joint he liked, and while we waited for our eggs I checked out the little shelf of discarded books in the corner of the dining room. Among the detective novels and Lonely Planet Guides I spotted a hard-back book called ‘Very Thai,’ by Philip Cornwel-Smith. I pulled it off the shelf because it was in hardback; it looked and felt like a textbook. Remember when books felt like something important in your hands?
Well, ‘Very Thai’ feels and looks and reads like something important and lavish and gorgeous. I read that book until our meals arrived at the table. Then I read that book while I ate. Then, after our bills were paid, I contemplated stealing that book. I’m not shy about stealing books; I’ve stolen books from some of my best friends. There was a little note on the shelves that said you could take a book if you left a book, but I didn’t have a book to leave. If that copy of ‘Very Thai’ had been a paperback it would have been in my back pocket without a second thought. But it was too big and solid and real to smuggle out in my clothing, and that skinny waitress with the lazy eye was already suspicious of me. With deep regret I put ‘Very Thai’ back on the shelf.
Since returning to New Mexico I’ve purchased my own copy of ‘Very Thai,’ and also a copy of the follow-up volume, ‘Very Bangkok.’ I almost never buy books. They’re expensive, and almost every book is available for free through the interlibrary loan system. ‘Very Thai’ and ‘Very Bangkok,’ which are only available in handsome hard-bound editions, each cost about twenty dollars at Amazon, and shipping adds another twenty.
I paid sixty dollars for two books, which is WAY, WAY, WAAAAAAY out of character for me. But I’m glad I did. I’ve got about fifty books about Thailand on my shelves right now, and in two years when I retire to Thailand (God willing) Mr. Cornwel-Smith’s books are the only books I’m planning to take with me.
He says this in his introduction to “Very Thai:” “I’ve tried to steer a balanced course through the minefield of outsider opinions: orientalist fantasists; sensationalist moral scolds; earnest students of culture; old hands (some rejoicing, some embittered); champions of Thai exceptionalism who are jaundiced about the West; universalist ideologues suspicious of cultures that are more judgmental of gender, race, class, faith, minority or other social markers; religious believers who interpret Thailand through their faith; anthropologists who filter Thainess through academic categories. I try to be the open-minded “flaneur,” – the wandering seeker of raw experience, open to impressions.”
Okay, A: Mr. Cornwel-Smith is a compulsive list-maker, but while I disagree with his use of the semicolon that is a lovely, long, wonderfully precise and colorful sentence, and B: That sentence describes what should be (I think) the object of any farang who writes about Thailand. I am surely one of the “orientalist fantasists” he mentions (and also a “universalist ideologue”) so it’s probably beneficial for me periodically to be exposed to a more open-minded flaneuring.
In his introduction to ‘Very Thai,’ Alex Kerr says, “‘Very Thai’ looks at the simple things of daily life that Thais and foreigners usually pass by, but in these very details lie the mystery and magic of what it is to be Thai.” I don’t know if revealing to farang the mystery and magic of what it is to be Thai is even possible, but certainly he’s right that Mr. Cornwel-Smith has focused on the minutiae of Thai living. He’s illuminating the macro by shining a light on the micro.
Ever wondered about those ubiquitous and almost useless little square pink tissue paper napkins? ‘Very Thai’ is where you’ll find out about them. (There were some on the table in Khao Sok when I first stumbled across this book, and so that was the first chapter I read.) Ever wondered about all those electrical wires tangled over the street? Or how you bet on a Hercules Beetle battle? The difference between Luuk Thung and Mor Lam? Soap operas, katoeys, icons, shrines, tuk-tuks, beauty contests, blind street musicians, edible insects, or lucky lottery numbers? This is where you’ll find your answers.
‘Very Thai’ seemed to me pretty Bangkok-centric, but even so Mr. Cornwell-Smith has also given us ‘Very Bangkok.’ Now, I’ve said it before in this forum but since I’m the Admin I’ll allow myself to say it again: Bangkok sucks donkey balls. It’s Mexico City without the culture. Since a million beautiful, charming, cheap places to live are available only an hour from Krung Thep by bus, I don’t know why anybody would ever choose to live there. But if you are forced by marriage or occupation to live in Bangkok then ‘Very Bangkok’ is a useful, perhaps an essential, guide.
In his introduction to ‘Very Bangkok’ Lawrence Osborne says these books are a “…brilliant and polychromatic look at Bangkok done in a way that no other writer has attempted.” I quibble with that only because I think these books are solidly in the tradition of Denis Segaler’s ‘Thai Ways,’ but brilliant and polychromatic they certainly are. The photographs are jaw-dropping. They are nothing less than amazing. Just flipping through the book looking at the photos provides more enjoyment and enlightenment than reading 90% of the books published about Thailand. Mr. Osborne goes on to say that Mr. Cornwel-Smith has “…turned Bangkok into a vast tapestry of meditations on the nature of cities.” Spot on, that.
I’m going to admit to you right now: I did not read every single word in ‘Very Thai’ and ‘Very Bangkok’ in preparation for this review. These are not books you read like novels. These are books you use like encyclopedias. The font is small and there is a LOT to read. You may wish to keep these books on your bedside table and read a chapter every night before you sleep, or keep them on your balcony to read for just as long as it takes to drink your morning espresso, or keep them on the back of your toilet…
If you try to read them like novels you’ll never remember everything. You might not even recognize everything. They’ll be most useful when you’re invited to the Phi Ta Khon festival in Loei, and you have no idea what it is or how you’re supposed to behave there. You’ll want to throw them in your bag when you go visit friends upcountry, or when you come down to the City for a dental appointment. The chapters are all about as long as an in-flight magazine article, and while they’re densely packed with information they’re written in a very engaging and readable prose. Often, even a witty prose. These are books you’ll still be referring to twenty years down the road.
I relied on the “Lonely Planet” guides when I was new in the Kingdom, and these days I suppose everybody has a favorite “influencer” on YouTube who wears a Go-Pro and wanders Soi Cowboy. But nobody, and I mean nobody, but Mr. Cornwel-Smith will quote the guy who wrote his Harvard Ph.D. dissertation about the dirty, tattered, vests that motosai drivers wear. Nobody but Mr. Cornwel-Smith takes dives this deep. Nobody I’ve read, anyway.
I salute you, Mr. Cornwel-Smith. And I thank you, because you’ve done a huge favor for all of us.
I bought a copy of Very Bangkok at the book release event at the FCCT. I recall that in the question period after he gave his remarks I asked him how long he thought the construction boom could go on, and he said something but not really to my point– how long we can keep creating condos that no one lives in, just for various asians to park money in. So the event must have been before the pandemic hit, because it’s a bigger question than ever now. The book marker in my copy is stuck at p. 64, I gave up for a while at that point, because hell, I’m stuck here against my will; but I hope you’ve inspired me to get back to it.
I’m going to try and read this again, and at least a few chapters as you suggest. I’m going to go out today and buy a HUGE magnifying glass since the publishers don’t know how to design a readable book. If I was Mr. Cornwell-Smith I would be hugely annoyed at the designer and never buy him or her a beer again.
I remember buying Very Thai years ago at the airport and was attracted to the colourful cover but now with years passed this quirky and sometimes bizzare account of Thai culture is my norm and somehow makes sense !
Many thanks for your review Steve. Much appreciated. I’ll keep trying to dive deep!
Steve BaloghThat worked out well. I bought these two books from Amazon for around $90 for the two and received a $100 gift voucher for locally delivered wines. Made an order and now have a dozen bottles of fine wine valued at more than $300 discounted to $180 wholesale and I only had to pay $80. Looks like I got the two books for free and got heavily discounted wines to drink while reading them. Cheers Steve for the review.
In this episode I am an Englishman in SIAM, for International travellers, the name SIAM conjures up ‘The King and I’, tuk,tuks, temples and Buddha’s. But what makes Thailand and its capital, Bangkok so very different to a city like London or Paris? With the answer is author and Thailand expert Philip Cornwel-Smith.
Buy Philip’s original Book “Very Thai” here: https://tinyurl.com/ybcskkwt
And his new book “Bangkok In The City of Senses here:
‘Very Bangkok’: In search of the contemporary in the city of senses
SEBASTIAN PARTOGI, 15 Nov 2020 / 02:59 pm
With a lot of people stressed out by being confined to their homes for months on end during the pandemic, many have started to realize they had previously taken their outdoor adventures for granted.
This, along with the rise of so-called “immersive travel experiences”, has prompted many people in quarantine to dream of being excited by the adrenaline rush of such journeys, where they can activate all their senses by exploring off-the-beaten track attractions in their chosen destinations once again.
Among the many travel books launched this year, is Philip Cornwel-Smith’s Very Bangkok: In the City of the Senses (River Books, 2020), a 360-page captivating homage to Thailand’s capital city by someone who has lived there for over 25 years.
The author: Philip Cornwel-Smith has just published ‘Very Bangkok: In the City of the Senses’, which takes unique ways of considering why this elusive city is the way it is. (Courtesy of Philip Cornwel-Smith /-)
Originally hailing from England, Smith presents a unique half-insider, half-outsider account of the place. Someone used to say that to truly experience a place, it is not enough for you to just experience it in all its glory, you also have to get in touch with the more painful aspects of its residents’ daily humdrums – something that these immersive travelers are desperately looking for.
In a similar vein, the book also gives you a rich sneak peek of how the mundane daily life in Bangkok unfolds, beyond the pad thai and the beautiful pagodas and the shopping malls and the fun nightclubs that the city is most famous for among tourists.
Congruent with its title, the book opens with an account of Bangkok as a city which truly overwhelms all your five senses, with the various smells and tastes coming from the more sacred realm of fresh culinary presentations and food markets on down to the more profane one of air pollution on the streets.
Meaty flavor: For those who like meat in their drinks, Eat Me restaurant makes a cocktail that tastes like the warm salad dish moo larb. (Courtesy of Philip Cornwel-Smith /-)
He also dedicates a full chapter called “Heat and Damp”, giving us a picture of how it feels like to be “hazed” by the city’s tropical temperature – normally hot and humid during the dry season but can also be cooled down by downpours during the monsoon.
Having experienced great cabin fever upon months and months of home quarantine, all of a sudden, the idea of venturing out in the open, taking in the innocent sensuality of the hot afternoon sun stinging your skin or braving a hard rain during a motorcycle ride can sound tempting to so many travelers.
Bangkok is also a city where poor neighborhoods and more luxurious establishments stand side by side.
On these roads you can witness the socioeconomic inequality at play, the lives of the privileged being brutally contrasted with the less fortunate ones. True “road dogs” who are up for a navigational challenge can also find something to love about memorizing the puzzling routes of the local roads, which do not follow a grid system.
This is why travelers from Jakarta will also find that despite its very distinctive style and nuances, Bangkok’s daily hustle-and-bustle can be shockingly similar to Indonesia’s capital.
Street performance: The Sino-Thais are the majority population of Bangkok. But as society changed, Chinese opera and lion dances started to be performed by a later group of indigenous migrants from Thailand’s northeast region. (Courtesy of Philip Cornwel-Smith /-)
Perhaps this fine balance between familiarity and strangeness between Indonesia and Thailand explains why so many Indonesian tourists have been attracted to visit the place year after year. Data from the Thai Embassy in Jakarta from 2016 revealed roughly 500,000 Indonesian tourists visited Thailand each year.
Also similar to Indonesia, Thailand comprises a multitude of different ethnic groups and faiths living side by side. The book portrays how the dynamics among these groups play out through accounts of street food, for instance.
Another social identity issue that this book has brought up is that of the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
Despite many tourists across the globe having a somewhat orientalist view of Bangkok as a “gay paradise” and despite the availability of so many gay clubs in the city, Smith quotes a 2019 Legatum Prosperity Index revealing that Thailand ranked 48 out of 167 for LGBT tolerance.
Yet, the author does not take the quantitative measure at face value as he also mentions that the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center hosted the Spectrosynthesis II, the biggest ever LGBT art exhibition in Asia, in November 2019.
Speaking of the arts, he also provides you a guide to the city’s aesthetics and places you can go to, to take some kind of artistic and intellectual refuge. Yet, as we mention in the beginning, an author can only do some justice to a place when he also addresses local tragedies, which you will typically miss if you only frequent local tourist attractions.
The beautiful, bad and ugly stories from Bangkok are very well captured here, presented in in-depth historical, political, social and cultural context by the author, which link together the city’s historical roots with its current, contemporary state.
Ceremonious: Bangkok is a loud city of modern noise, but also a center of delicate aural culture, such as conch shell blowing in Brahmin rituals. (Courtesy of Philip Cornwel-Smith /-)
The historical and political account can also give you contextual sense of the very recent youth-led pro-democratic rallies in the city, which tourists who picture Thailand as a paradise might find puzzling.
If after the pandemic is over you find yourself longing for some extended thrills abroad, you can consider reading this book to guide you to explore Bangkok in its totality.
You are in for some new surprises about the city thanks to Smith’s deep insight into the place, aided by multi-sensory description methods which, again, live up to what he promises readers in the title.
If you have already been to the city before, the way Smith approaches the Bangkok story here can also inspire you to read more books and learn more about the sociopolitical history and contexts of other destinations as well, so as to enrich your next trip itinerary, wherever that may be.
Whatever your future plans might be, we can only pray that the day when we will be allowed to travel internationally again will come soon. (ste)
A review of Very Bangkok: Unique and pithy insights into the Big Mango by Very Observant Philip Cornwel-Smith
By Aydan Stuart | Thu 5 Nov 2020
As any visitor to Bangkok will know, it’s impossible to avoid the hot mess of sizzling street food, fragrant shrines, putrid canals and never-ending traffic jams. As one of the most complex and complicated cities in the world, just being there can be an overwhelming experience that forces every sense into overdrive. But why is it this way? And what makes Bangkok so, well, very Bangkok?
It is these sounds, sights, tastes and smells of Bangkok that Philip Cornwell-Smith attempts to dissect in his most recent book, Very Bangkok, which expertly explores how every hidden secret and cultural anomaly catches our senses and tickles our curiosity.
Donning his anthropological cap once again, some seven years after his highly-acclaimed second edition of Very Thai—which offers an in-depth exploration of Thai popular culture—Cornwell-Smith again shoots past the obvious and goes straight for the jugular, exposing the real-life spaces, faces and rat races that our technicolour capital hides best.
Guiding you down smelly canals, letting your mind stroll around fragrant gardens, and unmasking your misinterpretations on polluted highways, this well-written and deeply insightful guide to Krungthep Mahanakorn is a coffee table must, and much more besides. Each one of its 360 pages offers honest and visceral insights into the heart of Thailand’s most unique personality. His prose unapologetically frank, full of whimsy, and deliberately evoking.
Describing the city and its many suburbs as one “living, breathing art piece”, he skirts around more obvious topics such as ‘Streetfood’ and ‘Vertical Living’, before exposing new perspectives such as ‘Bang-Pop’, ‘Birdsong’, and ‘Bangkoklyn’. Cornwell-Smith, once again, serves up a dense helping of endless discoveries, picking apart every aspect of daily life and fondly sharing why Bangkok is so quintessentially iconic.
Leaving no stone uncovered, and no taboo unspoken, he explores both the popular and unpopular fame the city attracts. Seedy, sweaty red-light districts make way for auto-amnesiac destructions of history and free-flowing corruption that locals have come to expect and live to exploit. “Krungthep’s liveliness comes from constant churn;” he writes. “It reflects the fact that the city is structurally unstable at deeper levels. Things that most countries consider permanent, shift with surprising ease in Bangkok.”
Yet, as politics increasingly defines what it means to be “Thai”, the shifting political culture and recognition of the people and events that have defined the city’s almost clockwork cycle of protest, election and coup, are diplomatically scant. Instead, Cornwell-Smith focuses on how the overall idea of “Thainess” is evolving and forever being re-defined by society, a theme that plays a prominent role throughout Very Bangkok, just as it did in both editions of Very Thai.
And although a Chiang Mai version of his Very-series would be both fascinating, yet unlikely to make it to the printers, there are more than enough points and tidbits that can tickle the fancies of us Northern folk.
As an ex-Chiang Mai resident sat on a dusty Bangkok balcony, trying to read over the grinding hum of the city below, I was pleasantly surprised to find something on almost every page that evoked a sense of Northern nostalgia.
Marble-clad temples performing Lanna rituals with betel nut offerings and spirals of sai-ua sausages. Provincial-themed street parties that totally disregard the standstill traffic jams around them. Hercules Beetle fighting championships that go deep into the night. Regional transit that has “more jazzy stripes than Paul Smith socks”.
With countless references to the unique and Thai-defining elements that make up the Kingdom, it is no surprise that even those (un)lucky enough to avoid Bangkok altogether, can still pick up on many similarities to their hometown or provincial city sweetheart.
As always, Cornwell-Smith is a master in articulating the unexplainable and shining a light on the invisible. Very Bangkok is a five-star journey through the many tiers of the capital and offers a wide-open window onto the fluorescent pulse of the city. From city sewers to cultural hierarchies, every aspect of Bangkok’s rich identity is laid bare in spectacularly engaging and eye-opening detail.
Very Bangkok: In the City of the Senses by Philip Cornwel-Smith, Bangkok: River Books, 2020. ISBN: 9786164510432. 995 Baht.
Bangkok is one of the most often studied and written about cities in the contemporary world.1 Sometimes ‘Bangkok’ stands by itself as a singular set of urban phenomena (p. 15), as a symptom of other social conditions, as a unique destination for tourist delectation (p. 193). Sometimes discussions of this city function as a stalking horse for yet another representation of progressive globalization (p. 87), or it poses as the ultimately flawed epitome of the ‘Thai’ nation whose outer honour is fanatically defended but which conceals a cruel and nihilistic core (p. 187). ‘Bangkok’ can serve as a symbolic cauldron into which are titrated the liqueous humours of a strangely occult concoction, partly a modern excitatory effluvium, partly an ancient flow from an implacably poisonous, subterranean swamp (pp. 13, 25).
Cornwel-Smith’s second Thai compilation from fifteen years of further perceptions and recorded glances, after his Very Thai, Everyday Popular Culture (2005),2 is organized as the product of three zones, or modes, of physical perception and display: Senses, Heart, and Face. The text is accompanied by photographs, which he largely took himself and sometimes take over from the text as the bearers of his perception. The written texts are far more insightful than Very Thai, but both books have their origins in the rather breathless Time Out style of the guides he used to edit: a kind of ‘travelling Wikipedia on speed’ without too much interventionist or academic referencing. Nevertheless, Very Bangkok is much more careful in tying its perceptions to other sources, or to more rounded if often critical perceptions, and the index is printed in better-spaced columns, making it more useful and more valid as a traveller’s reference. Unlike Cornwel-Smith’s earlier book, it also includes two particularly detailed maps, a conventional North-South view, and one with a new orientation of Bangkok rightwards and southwards towards the sea.
The longest zone is of the ‘Senses’, with fifty-five subcategories. ‘Heart’ has twenty-six and ‘Face’ has eighteen subcategories, and within these texts about sixty per cent are closed off into mini-essays on special topics like ‘cycling’ or ‘graffiti’. I was a little frustrated at the rather choppy flow until I reached the fourth group of subcategories under ‘Space’, which has the four subcategories, ‘Sanam Luang’, ‘Background City’, ‘Third Places’ and ‘Green Space’. I then began to see the author’s careful imbrication of his material in a number of critiques of urban life, some environmental concerns and notions of different kinds of urban space. One set of examples shows the author’s skill in this area:
Tiered spaces reinforce social tiers. Rich, middle and poor often live adjacent and may mingle in some public areas, but their worlds barely touch. Each class accesses separate overlapping grids, whether for work, shopping, or socialising, with modes of transit for each class of passenger. (p. 48)
Foreigners can be oblivious to the social rules of kalatesa [time-space] which govern what’s appropriate to any situation from manners to possessions. (p. 49, in ‘Background City’, ‘City of Levels, p. 46)
It is, however, difficult in such an apparently haphazard set of different texts to sustain an underlying flow, and the quality of an aleatoric, non-consecutive existence only reappeared, for me, in the later section, ‘Portrayals’, which had six subcategories. This is where the author comes to grips with the fictionality of the city and of its imagined mess, which is somehow liveable and, despite itself, self-sustaining. Cornwel-Smith cites the use of soap opera templates by the prominent author, Veeraporn Nitiprapha, to reveal Bangkok’s ideological blindness.
If you can understand the myths of love then you can understand the myths of everything, of hatred and of conflicts…..what struck me about the 2010 crackdown is how there were people glad about other people’s deaths. (Veeraporn, p. 309)
Land. These crises, whatever their historical generation, are also handled by a political and regal symbolic system, which seems only suited to defer or obfuscate them. There is no chapter which handles authoritarianism, in particular that shown in the military massacres on Bangkok’s streets in 1992 and 2010. Cornwel- Smith may think these events would be a political distraction from the subject of experiencing the city through his senses, but they are a real part of the lives of all Bangkokians, even if deflected or obscured in many aspects of daily life. He does handle memory in the section ‘Memory: remembering to forget’, noting that ‘Forgetting is policy. Recent events dissolve before our very eyes, didn’t happen here’ (p, 282), but this may be a too straightforward a formulation for the deliberate and self-interested avoidance by both the perpetrators and their victims.
Walking about almost any city is likely to trigger associations of historical memory. However, one does not find in Cornwel-Smith’s text the lyrical engagement with the past in Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories of a City,3 that might require a longing, or love, that is slipping out of grasp and is only recuperated by Pamuk’s text and by his mobilization of other photographs and illustrations of a world which has nearly gone. Nor does one see the probing historical mind of late 19th century Northern European visitors to Istanbul, who divide off parts of a city by the period and type of their occupation. One would not know much about Thonburi or its role in the genesis of the Bangkok side of the river from Cornwel-Smith, as one sees clearly the rise of ‘Stamboul’ in Hutton’s Constantinople.4
This lack of a lyrical or a historical thread becomes a very clear impediment with regard to formation of the multi-ethnic nature of Bangkok’s population, which has arrived over time. In Very Bangkok the treatment of ethnicities is spread out, not seen as a particular force given via the nature of late Ayutthaya history, the defeat of the Burmese, and the recommencement of one of many long waves of Chinese immigration (p. 222). Instead, Brahmins and Muslim Thais are handled under the subcategory of ‘Sacred’, but Indian Thais under that of ‘Becoming Bangkokian’, and Thai-Jiin under a mixing concept of ‘Stir-Fry’. This reader lost all sense of a peculiar and place-specific interaction between historical situations and the geographical/geological possibilities of habitation in Thonburi/Bangkok. This is clearly laid out in the book by Van Roy, Siamese Melting Pot: Ethnic Minorities in the Making of Bangkok (2017), which Cornwel-Smith includes in his bibliography but does not actively mobilize.5 Such ethnic variety explains the restricted viability of the concept of ‘Thainess’ like none other, and the casual observer may not so easily sense in Very Bangkok the fictional quality of ethnic categories in the streets and in historical time (p. 297).
It could be objected that the purpose of Very Bangkok is not to capture ‘Thainess’, but the range of specific experiences and their real-world situations which can be cumulated into ‘Bangkok Thainess’. Unfortunately the multi-ethnicity of Thai society makes one realize that the lack of such an intention will not make the issue of a deceptive and self-interested ‘national essence’ deployed assiduously by the rich and powerful go away (p. 178), whatever level of concreteness any particular set of sensations have given rise to. Indeed, Cornwel-Smith assumes throughout a sort of inclusivist sensibility which, in practice, the reader has no means of affirming. He leaves himself out of the account of his sensations, which, for him, have a directness and purity. It is difficult to believe that inherited cultural habits may allow such perception to be unmediated, however long someone has been in Thailand.
Despite extensive observations about digital realities (see ‘Feeling digital’, pp. 166- 169, and index, pp. 350, 353), perhaps this book has come too late to examine in depth how digital virtuality functions in the integration of opinion youth cohorts, especially in the urban environment of Bangkok.6 These children and adolescents are now beyond the control of their parents, and increasingly younger cohorts have escaped the insistent ideological training provided by the Thai education system even before University. There is a large set of digital networks among youth, which facilitate or produce the self-positioning affiliations of even younger school children active in recent calls for constitutional reform. ‘Thai’ society is now being integrated beyond the control systems hitherto active.7 It would be useful to know how these circuits are now functioning in Bangkok and whether, or how, they have affected urban identities to any extent.
What Very Bangkok, brings the reader, apart from its texts, are Cornwel-Smith’s own photographs. Towards the end, he confesses that he is wary of the status of the street photographs he takes because of the posing or reaction to the camera of the street subjects. He queries what has become, from Henri Cartier-Bresson, photographer’s dogma for street photography that emphasises:
“capturing ‘The Decisive Moment’, the skill of freezing a moment to convey deep meaning.” Given the way that Bangkok street photography can flummox the viewer with ambiguous juxtapositions, it could be said to capture ‘The Indecisive Moment’ (Klongton, p. 311).
The reader can thus go back to take an open-ended interpretive view of the images he presents. Bangkok now appears as a litany of in-between pauses, which segment and redefine its ambiguous meanings.
Overall, this is a valuable guide to the sorts of Bangkok one can experience without necessarily forcing the reader to agree with the author. Aside from an understandable reluctance to handle issues to do with royal status or the authoritarianism of the current military regime, it represents a remarkably comprehensive view of Bangkok’s social phenomena as may be encountered in the street.
1 Among more useful texts are: Askew, Marc, Bangkok: Place, Practice, and Representation, London: Routledge, 2002; Hamilton, Annette, “Wonderful, Terrible: Everyday Life in Bangkok”, in Bridge, Gary and Sophie Watson (eds.), A Companion to the City, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2000, pp. 460–471; O’Connor, Richard A., “Place, Power and Discourse in the Thai image of Bangkok”, JSS, vol. 78, no. 2, 1990, pp. 61-73; Ünaldi, Serhat, Working towards the Monarchy: The Politics of Space in Downtown Bangkok, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2016; Van Roy, Edward, Siamese Melting Pot: Ethnic Minorities in the Making of Bangkok, Singapore: ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute and Chiang Mai, Silkworm Books, 2017.
All images in this review are from Very Bangkok.
2 Cornwel-Smith, Phillip, with photographs by John Goss and Phillip Cornwel-Smith, Very Thai, Everyday Popular Culture, Bangkok: River Books, 2005.
3 Pamuk, Orhan, Istanbul: Memories of a City, London: Faber & Faber, 2005.
4 Hutton, William Holden, Constantinople: The Story of the Old Capital of the Empire, London: J.M. Dent, 1900, reprinted 1933.
5 See note 1 above.
6 Cornwel -Smith somewhat simplistically concludes: “Time will tell if digitisation poses an existential threat to the sensory experience of Bangkok or gives it a new flavour’ (p. 169).
7 On the issue of digital controls, see Aim Sinpeng, “Digital media, political authoritarianism, and Internet controls in Southeast Asia”, Media, Culture & Society, vol. 42 (1), pp. 25-39, 2019. There is some analysis of the role of the internet in forming new youth cohorts in Aim Sinpeng and Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, “New tactics, old grievances in Thai Protests”, East Asia Forum at http://eastasiaforum.org/2020/09/08/new -tactics-old-grievances-in-the-thai-protests/
Episode 111: Very Bangkok with Philip Cornwel Smith
Scott Coates & Trevor Ranges, 22 October 2020
Talk Travel Asia podcast welcomes back Phillip Cornwel Smith to talk about his latest publication: Very Bangkok. There’s no doubt that Bangkok is one of the world’s most visited cities. Its sites are some of the most featured on Instagram, and almost everyone will come up with some mental pictures of the city, good and bad, the moment they hear the name. Founded in 1782 when the Chakri Dynasty established Bangkok as Thailand’s capital, it’s a vibrant, dynamic city that dazzles the senses at every turn. Some love it, others hate it, and all with good reason. Today we’ll explore the City of Angels well beyond the surface with longtime resident and author Philip Cornwel Smith, who will share insights from his book Very Bangkok.
Trevor & Scott give a quick overview of our time in Bangkok and Thailand, including some of their loves and hates of the city. Scott loves the food, friendly people, variety of transport methods, all sorts of hidden corners and communities; he dislikes constant heat, traffic, lack of green spaces, the smell of salty fish and elephant pants.
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Guest Intro: Philip Cornwel Smith
We’ve been lucky enough to know our guest for quite a long time. Philip Cornwel Smith is originally from the UK but made his way to Thailand in the nineties, quite by accident as many do. He started as the editor of a listings magazine, Bangkok Metro, authored and produced a Timeout Travel Guide to Bangkok and the Beaches, and then made a massive splash in 2005 with Very Thai. In it, he explored many, many quirky elements of Thai life and has since gone to become the ‘go to’ authority on Thainess, despite not being Thai himself. He joins us today from the UK. Welcome again Philip and thanks for making time for us.
Listen to Episode 111: Very Bangkok with Philip Cornwel Smith to hear Philip answer the following questions:
You were last on our show in July 2015 to talk about your other book Very Thai on Episode 28, what have you been up to since then?
Before we get to Very Bangkok, has the success of Very Thai surprised you?
When did you first get the idea for Very Bangkok and why has it taken 14-years to get to print?
What can readers expect to learn from Very Bangkok that they didn’t experience in Very Thai?
The subtitle of Very Bangkok is ‘In The City of The Senses’, why did you choose that?
You broke the book into some pretty interesting sections: Senses, Heart, and Face; why did you choose those?
You also touch quite a number of times on the use of digital sensing and tools to understand the city. How did that come about?
Bangkok is one of the world’s most visited and photographed cities, what do you think are some of the biggest surprises about the city that readers will discover with Very Bangkok?
I found it really interesting that you mention a lack of Bangkok pride amongst its residents. Why is this?
You spend a fair bit of time in Bali now, what do you enjoy there that you don’t get when you’re here?
What’s next for you Philip?
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Talk Travel Asia is brought to you by Trevor Ranges and Scott Coates, every two weeks(ish) from wherever in the Asia they happen to be. Alternating episodes feature a guest or the two hosts, cultivating travel insight through intelligent conversation. If you enjoyed the show, please donate, even just a dollar a month: that’s only .50c per episode(ish).
Very Bangkok – Philip Cornwel-Smith in Conversation
The India-Thailand connection: “Very Bangkok” is Philip Cornwel-Smith’s long awaited follow-up to his iconic book “Very Thai”. A longtime cultural observer of all things in Thailand, Cornwel-Smith is keenly aware of a construct of “Thai-ness” that is often quite different to the experienced lives of Thai peoples within their own popular culture. Using a non-Western, non-categorical approach in his new book, he instead looks at popular Thai culture through a multitude of senses. In this rambling conversation he discusses the historical and cultural connections between India and Thailand, Hinduism and Buddhism in Thailand today, why Hinduism has become more popular in Thailand, and how sex and alternative sexual lifestyles are viewed in Thai culture.