As someone born and raised in Bangkok, no matter how often I heard outsiders characterise the city a ‘bounty of sensory pleasures’, it always felt as though they were describing a place that didn’t exist. Despite its many mazes, its contrasting shades and sides, to me Bangkok is simply home, a place where you spend your life navigating the traffic, the humidity and the shopping malls. And the nature of home is that it remains the same. However it might feel to others, my Bangkok was stagnant, impervious to progress. And to live in it was to be bound by its sense of uniformity.
I spent my childhood and teenage years feeling out of place in my own city and yearning to be somewhere else, to belong somewhere else. Other places in the world— whether it be London, Paris, Tokyo, Milan—all seemed rich and intoxicating in comparison. So whenever I heard visitors or friends from abroad rhapsodising about how much they ‘love Bangkok’, I always felt sceptical and detached from their positive sentiment. There are many things about being from Bangkok that these outsiders could never understand—especially the way life is lived here, which, as a young person, I find mundane and stifling. Unless you become an actor or a pop star, your entire ‘ordinary’ life is already laid out before you—a good education, a steady job, a steady income and then a family.
When I first heard of Very Bangkok, Philip Cornwel- Smith’s follow-up to his popular book Very Thai, I felt similarly sceptical. What could a white Westerner tell me about my hometown that I didn’t already know? What could be gained from a book about Bangkok written in English and meant to be consumed largely by non- Thais? The experiment seemed both futile and clichéd. Would the book, like so many others about Thailand written by foreigners, be concerned with just the ‘touristy’ elements of Bangkok? If not, then how honest and nuanced could it be when it came to discussing what it’s truly like to be a Bangkokian?
Yet as I started engaging with Very Bangkok, I
began to see that there might be some merit to having as its author someone who hasn’t, to quote author Lawrence Osborne in the book’s foreword, ‘absorbed unconsciously as a child’ the things which make Bangkok unique. By taking on the role of an outside observer, Cornwel-Smith is able to provide a more well-rounded view of Bangkok than a Bangkokian who’s lived in only one area of the city. An example of this is the section on Bangkok’s LGBT scene, which has long been unfairly aligned with the city’s seedy underbelly. ‘Bangkok is my church,’ drag artist Nuh Peace says. ‘In any other religion, if you are queer or different you’re out. But Bangkok accepts you how you are.’
True to its title, much of the book is devoted to Bangkok’s ‘sensory pleasures’, and to finding out the causes of the city’s ‘unexplained puzzles’. Filled with photographs of Bangkok and its people, Very Bangkok has three parts: ‘Senses’, ‘Heart’ and ‘Face’. Cornwel- Smith calls Bangkok ‘the world’s most primate city’ and is interested not in simply providing niche knowledge on various historical landmarks but in getting under the city’s skin and making sense of its DNA. Hence these musings, which almost turn Bangkok, a place of ‘very meaty spaces’, into a living, breathing character: ‘a city fretting about the future finds solace in orchestrating the past’, and ‘amnesiac Bangkok is recovering the gaps in its memory’. Many of the observations in Very Bangkok might not be the most flattering to this city of angels, but they are honest and important ones that many Thais haven’t dwelled on or even noticed, partly because they are so ingrained in us.
Thailand’s class system, for example, has always been a harmful but rarely discussed element of our culture. Very Bangkok notes that both of Bangkok’s electric rail systems, the MRT and the BTS, are ‘off limits to the poor or those with meagre incomes’, with stations directly integrated into affluent shopping malls, unlike bus stops. Religion, too, is put under the microscope, with one of the book’s Thai contributors arguing that Thai religiosity ‘has more to do with nationalism … than philosophical aspects of religion’. Our reverence for seniority is also shown to be harmful, especially to the younger generations. ‘Youth movements require spaces and time’, writes Cornwel-Smith, ‘which are not just lacking, but deliberately curtailed.’ We’re seeing more and more of this as young people attempt to take a greater role in politics.
The section of the book that I appreciate the most discusses Bangkok’s attitude towards sexuality. In the West, Thailand is often regarded as somewhere to have ‘a good time’, a phrase usually accompanied by a suggestive wink. But this perception of sexual liberation has always contrasted greatly with reality. To quote Cornwel-Smith, Bangkok is more ‘Sin City meets Prim City’. For many Bangkokians, public displays of affection between couples are unseemly; sex is not a topic that is openly or healthily discussed, either in schools or during one’s upbringing. The book also highlights that Thailand has the world’s second- highest rate of teen pregnancy, and that 44 per cent
of men admitted to having assaulted their partners when drunk. Although Bangkok is perceived to be a bachelor’s paradise, many of its locals are actually living in a society which ‘frowns on female sexuality’.
Where Very Bangkok could have done better, however, is in its preoccupation with defining ‘Thai-ness’ and ‘Bangkok-ness’. Certain statements from the author and non-Thai contributors—such as ‘for Bangkokians, nothing matters more than to ‘gain face’, for the self, this city, or the nation’, and ‘selfies are a way to get your face out there without fear of losing face’—come across as sweeping generalisations. The quote from Wayne Deakin, a Thailand-based British philosopher, that ‘Thai people are searching for identity’, is not far off the mark. But you can’t help reading it and wishing the conversation could have gone on longer, with more in-depth discussions of what might have caused this condition—perhaps with other contributors, especially those who are Thai, taking centre stage. Cornwel-Smith insists that his ‘status as an outsider is somewhat moot after twenty-five years of experience’. But would the book be different if there had been a native at the helm?
The answer isn’t straightforward. Last year I moved to Edinburgh. Living in Europe, I’ve found that Bangkok has taken on another role in my life. In many ways, I am now both the outsider and the insider; while the city is still my home, being away from it has simultaneously deepened my appreciation for it and opened my eyes to many of its flaws. Like Cornwel-Smith, I have learned to dissect the city and tried to figure out what lies beneath, leading to questions about the way we’ve been conditioned to view the world and, as Bangkokians, each other: Why do I always get compliments on my pale skin? What is life like for Bangkokians whose ethnicity or sexual orientation differs from mine? Will things ever be better for women or those not born into wealth?
But despite these flaws—and the city’s inability to address or confront them—I still find myself missing Bangkok. While I don’t miss the traffic or the humidity, I’ve found myself longing for small home comforts, mainly the food, the shopping malls, the language and the people. Now, whenever friends of mine from Europe or the United States ask for my advice on visiting Thailand, especially Bangkok, I encourage them to go. ‘It will be very different what you’re used to, though,’ I always tell them. ‘Different and overwhelming.’ But perhaps that’s what I’ve come to miss most about my city since I’ve been away: the overwhelming sameness of home. ☐
Pim Wangtechawat is a Thai writer based in Edinburgh