Book Review: Very Thai
by Lang Reid
Another guide to life in Thailand, but not the usual “which bus to catch” and “don’t mess with the servants”, but a hard-cover guide to the everyday, but oft unfathomable, life and times in Thailand. Written by Philip Cornwel-Smith, a writer with much experience in this country, and photographed by John Goss, Very Thai – Everyday Popular Culture (ISBN 974-9863-00-3) was published this year by River Books in Bangkok.
In Alex Kerr’s preface to the book, he writes, “A hundred things which had intrigued me for decades became clear on reading it (the book). Such as where the statue of the beckoning lady came from, or why the alphabet always appears with pictures.” That introduction alone was, for me, the ‘beckoning lady’ to look further!
Let’s begin with the beckoning lady who is called Nang Kwak, and her overseas cousin, the Japanese Maneki-Neko, the beckoning cat. Page 165 will unravel this mystery, and even extend this into the shamanic practices of carrying certain herbs as love amulets. Have you ever wondered about discarded spirit houses? I always have, and on page 184, it is covered.
The attraction in this book is the liberal use of excellent photographs in conjunction with Cornwel-Smith’s well researched words. There are ‘amazing’ facts within the covers, including such bizarre items as a temple in Bangkok which has a gold sculpture of David Beckham in its altar. It appears that even Buddhism became caught up in the football frenzy, in this particular temple at least!
The book is divided into four general sections – Street, Personal, Ritual and Sanuk. Each main section is then divided into around 20 items under the general umbrella. I found this a trifle confusing at times, feeling that perhaps an alphabetic approach could have been easier, but this is a minor complaint, as there is a good alphabetic index at the back.
The book has also managed to highlight and explain many of the ‘everyday’ features of life in Thailand, to which the expat eye becomes inured after a while, but which still have most interesting stories. For example, the street cats with the knobbly truncated tails have not all had their appendages caught in the door, as I had always imagined. It is a genetic deformity! A fact that was noted by the eminent Charles Darwin, but was missed by me.
Even the ubiquitous motorcycle taxis (“motercy”) are explored in depth. Were you aware that the collecting point was known as a ‘win’ and the jackets are ‘seua win’? These jackets cost anything between 4,000-100,000 baht, like a regular taxi license in the west, but are part of the underground economy in Thailand. This continues despite a government heralded national registration policy in 2003.
The book has a Bibliography and an extensive Index, which alone would make for good reason to be published in hard-cover. It is also a reference book, no matter how beguiling are Cornwel-Smith’s words or attractive Goss’s photographs. A reference book that will also delight the casual reader, local expat or frequent visitor. At B995, this is a treasure-trove that should be on your shopping list.
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