Bangkok Post (interview)

Very Thai

Philip Cornwel-Smith proposes a fresher, interesting view on the everyday complexities of life, and how Thailand is full of them

By Krittiya Wongtavavimarn, Photo by Yingyong Un-Anongrak

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Philip Cornwel-Smith is obsessed with details. A man of boundless energy and great curiosity, the 43-year-old British is a meticulous, a perfectionist who is incredibly careful about his work, and his keen eyes always see things beyond the obvious – things that are very… very Thai.

While culture normally is a term associated with refined arts and national prestige, Cornwel-Smith looks for ordinary things representing hybrids between Thai tradition and modernity. The Bangkok-based writer took seven years gathering over a hundred casual, everyday expressions of Thainess, and presented them in a practical, easy to read and well-illustrated book of 60 chapters entitled Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture.

The majority of topics in Very Thai are transitional and contemporary, which consists of four sections: Street, personal, ritual and sanuk. The book is a mixture of daily life activities – from street food, drinks in a plastic bag and tiny pink napkins to blind bands, motorcycle taxi men and yaa dong (alcohol-pickled medicine). The book pieces together the jigsaws of Thai customs and culture, said the author.

“And these jigsaws are basically the side effect of ways the Thai people live presented in a modern manner,” he said. “They fade away and disappear very easily, and nobody keeps any records of them. Tourists who come to Thailand are surrounded by many life intricacies, which are never fully explained to them… perhaps because these small acts don’t fall into the traditional definition of culture. Though, more and more visitors now have some sort of clue about the back story of this blind musician on the street or how the motorcycle taxi man works.”

For 14 years in Thailand, Cornwel-Smith has enjoyed the charm of street life, local lifestyles, practical folk arts and pop culture. A former editor of Bangkok Metro magazine and freelance writer for travel guide book Time Out, Cornwel-Smith believes the beauty of Thailand isn’t limited to its traditional culture of traditional dance, temples, historical sights and teak houses presented in an exotic way as such, but rather the appeal it has being on the streets in everyday life.

“When I see small traders on the street, markets and shop houses, I feel compassion for how hard and how happily they work. They’re the lifeblood of this society, keeping everything ticking so conveniently. On the streets you find the best flavours, characters, inventiveness and real sanuk. For Thais, however, a lot of these little things are so familiar they might never look at them differently. People don’t really think about the little things much, and they don’t think these things are of importance,” he said.

Popular culture is the cause of tourism and should receive great attention and promotion, he added.

“Internationally, the interest in popular culture is huge. I’m certain that foreigners don’t come back to the country for the same tourist spots but for those ‘ordinary things’ on the streets – popular culture, food, night-life, lifestyle and local lifestyle – which are charming, seductive and put people at ease. And surely people can find creative inspiration from these ordinary things in life.

“Unfortunately, planners rarely see the value in intangible, human-scale popular culture. They seem to be on a mission to evict living communities just to create lifeless monuments in their place. The avoidable bulldozing of viable old communities breaks my heart and damages the city in the long-term. If I could choose, of course, I would prefer the small living details,” he added.

Cornwel-Smith’s passion for detail goes back to his roots to his years at Sheffield University, where he studied history. One of the history teachers sparked his curiosity and interest, which made him detail-oriented and inspired him to look at things from different angles, he said.

“I was lucky to know the teacher who was the author of the first historical World Atlas. The book covered history in terms not of battles, kings, revolutions or dates, but about how inventions, crops, geography and religions changed history and moved people. It’s about the rise and fall of civilisations and looked at the causes. It was a left-field way of looking at things. It provided a different perspective on things that were similar. And that’s what got me excited,” he recalled.

“So whatever I do I try to look at things from a side angle, different perspective and research information in hopes to shed new light on the subject. And hopefully this will lead people to think in a fresher way about things they already know, but never truly noticed,” he said.

Cornwel-Smith comes from a questioning and listening culture. After graduating from university, he worked in guide books and listings publications. He is also an extreme explorer. Trying new activities and travelling to unusual destinations give him a broad perspective on social and cultural issues on a global scale, he said.

“I’ve been backpacking in the wilderness. I’ve climbed four volcanoes and broken down in deserts. I almost died in the ocean at the Great Barrier Reef. I nearly died on the road to Bali. I had a fever in a remote jungle area in Java. But when I came to Thailand, strangely enough, I felt a sense of peace and freedom. The chaotic side of Thailand is refreshing. There’s never a dull day in Thailand. What’s around the corner is so unexpected!” he laughed.

Thailand has become his hometown. After graduating, then working for some publications in England and backpacking in many parts of the world, Cornwel-Smith intended to come to Thailand for a short visit, but ended up residing here for over 10 years.

“I really love the place,” he admitted. “At first I didn’t ever think I would like Thailand since the country had a very negative reputation on the backpacker trail, just like in the movie The Beach. Thailand was heavily criticised by word of mouth and the perception was that Thailand had nothing of interest. So when I came to Thailand I was pleasantly surprised. And l learned to adjust myself and finally break through the threshold of adjustment.”

Unlike other foreigners, the first thing Cornwel-Smith did in Thailand was to go to Wat Suan Mok in Chaiya, Surat Thani, to learn meditation, and to Chiang Mai to study traditional Thai massage.
“It was one of those life-changing experiences. It was quite an extreme situation for me – going for 10 days of no speaking, total silence, all vegetarian food, waking up at four in the morning. Everything was just a shock. But after the seventh day I started to feel ‘normal’. Some of the unsorted things in my life were sorted out. And I’ve found it’s very useful in my job and in my life.

“I then realised that experiencing some extremities are good for your life – it is very good at making you see things in another way. It’s about discovering things when you are ready to discover them. Peace and balance stay in your mind and you can access that quiet place in your mind much easier. It’s something you can take with you and it becomes a tool when you face difficult situations,” he said.

One inspiration for Very Thai was his exposure to the diverse content of Bangkok Metro magazine during his eight years as editor, where he gradually became accustomed to the way of life in Thailand, he said.

“I received a lot of enquiries from people who expected magazine writers and editors to know answers to all of these questions. There were people who asked about pop culture and what these and those things were in their daily lives. But I didn’t know the answers. So I thought it would be a good idea to look at things around us and try to find reasons for why they were the way they were,” he added. “The more I researched, the more I found out how much I didn’t know about each topic. And some subjects like Thai boxing and Thai food have also been written about academically and become very difficult to understand. So I tried to reinterpret them into a language people can easily read and access.”

During the process, Thailand has become less foreign and more positive to Cornwel-Smith, giving him a different attitude towards the country, the people and the culture.
“To define Thailand and Thainess, however, is no easy task, he admitted. There are so many ways to define Thailand and Thainess. When looking for a definition of Thainess, you have to look at the way Thais adapt to things. There are not too many things invented from scratch here. But Thai things are very distinctive, and it’s what Thais do to them and how they adapt them. And that’s where the Thainess lies.

To understand Thai culture you need to understand where these cultural references are in the region, in the West and in Thai history and tradition. If you have a cultural GPS, you have a satellite to help map out your position on the earth, and you can understand your culture and any other culture better,” he said.

Cornwel-Smith intends to become a cultural interpreter and information gatherer – to make dull, academic context interesting, exciting and accessible. Apart from Very Thai, Cornwel-Smith is currently writing two new books. One is Pop Bangkok, a follow up to Very Thai, which is about pop culture and how it has developed.

The new book will look at different genres of entertainment, design and the media. The other book is Very Bangkok, a guide-book or handbook for Bangkok and popular culture in the city.

Cornwel-Smith is also working on a Very Thai web site, which is being developed for people to contribute ideas regarding popular cultural issues – to serve as a cultural archive for both Thais and foreigners.

“People don’t keep examples, photographs and records. In order to understand and know yourself and your culture, I think it’s important. People won’t feel lost culturally if they have a reference point to understand where they are in that transition. People should be able to connect to where they come from or how things have changed in the recent past. It’s important for people to feel comfortable about all of the things in their culture, and can actually tell stories about who they are and where they come from. I’ve always approached life with a sense of wonder, so I like Thailand because it truly does amaze! I find it sad when people say they’re bored or act dismissively, because anything can be fascinating. Every detail has a story to tell. And it can become a piece of history.”

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