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.
42 likes, 34 comments, 10 shares
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.
Yes the print was too small in Very Thai and we increased it in the 2nd edition. Any bigger would have required a total redesign or cutting chunks of text. Very Bangkok is in a much bigger point size.
Excellent writing.. is the semi colon really dead
top read mate
‘ezz a charmin’ bloke as well
I want to read these books now!! Nice writing about it, Steve!
Whoever you are you are a great writer
Gold where can l purchase these books
Thanks my friend
… I will let you have a look as long as you wear white gloves and use a golden pointer stick while reading.
I seldom buy new books. Picked up a used copy of Very Thai on ‘bay $Au 28.19, 2 more copies there for any one else downunder, or UK.
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 !
A review guaranteed not to make the writer cry. Oh, tears of joy, perhaps . . .
To be clear, David is saying that they’re in stock at Canterbury Tales book shop in Pattaya. Any members in Pattaya go snap ’em up!
Good to know that your well stocked [and long time] bookshop has survived during these trying times, David. Cheers!!
Just ordered Very Thai.
Just ordered from World Of Books, Australia, $28 , great value.
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.