All reviews and features are listed in full chronologically below the 'Select Review Quotes'. For individual reviews click on a quote or a media listing on the right.

Select Review Quotes

  • ‘This is the book I wish I’d had when I first came to Thailand.’
    — Alex Kerr, author of ‘Lost Japan’
  • ‘A unique guide to Thai pop and folk culture. Future social historians will thank Cornwel-Smith.’
    — Andrew Marshall, Time magazine
  • ‘An entertaining and provocative look at Thai culture.’
    — John Burdett, author of Bangkok 8
  • ‘Philip Cornwel-Smith is writing in a way that I like, with an electric eye for the streets.’
    — Lawrence Osborne, author of ‘Bangkok Days’
  • ‘A thrilling, trail-blazing book of cultural history… A work of astounding breadth and erudition. Very Thai has few, if any, English-language equals.’
    — Nick Grossman, Bangkok Post
  • ‘A more sophisticated guide to the country’s contemporary culture’
    – Conde Nast Traveller
  • ‘A brilliant book-length photo-essay… Cornwel-Smith writes with astute animation.’
    — Donald Richie, Top 3 Books on Asia 2005, Japan Times
  • ‘Required reading for visitors, residents and anyone anywhere interested in what makes Thailand tick.’
    — Jennifer Gampell, Asian Wall Street Journal
  • ‘With a wit that suits the Thai spirit, Very Thai explains with delicateness things that Thais regard as indelicate. An important source that reflects modern Thai consciousness.”
    — Pracha Suweeranont, Matichon Weekly
  • ‘It was about time that somebody wrote something worth reading about the Thai culture. Philip Cornwel-Smith does that, and does it well. Read Very Thai. You’ll be glad you did.
    — Bertil Lintner, The Irrawaddy
  • ‘It is truly so much better than any other “guide”.’
    — Paul Dorsey, The Nation
  • ‘Very Thai is the first in-depth examination of Thai popular culture.’
    — Jason Gagliardi, South China Morning Post
  • ‘Answers and insights aplenty in this erudite, sumptuously photographed guide to contemporary Thai culture.’
    — Lucy Ridout, Rough Guide to Thailand
  • ‘Very Thai shines a loving light on the minutiae of everyday life. The book is equally fun and authoritative.’
    — Andrew Marshall, The Australian
  • ‘Pick of the Picture Books. Very Thai is an attempt to capture the complex realities of Thai culture, a blend of finesse and fun which fuses folk tradition with hi-tech and bling. Here are fascinating glimpses of high life, low life, street life and, er, Honda life.”
    — The Independent newspaper (UK)
  • ‘The publishing sensation of 2004. This book is a revelation of all those things we thought we’d never understand.’
    — Vaudine England, Dateline, Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand
  • ‘A delightful read and a wonderful roadmap to diverse elements of Thai Popular Culture.’
    — Gerald W Fry, Historical Dictionary of Thailand
  • ‘No other author has delved so deeply into the subconscious of Thai popular culture in such an intriguing, eye-opening way. You’ll love the insights gained from reading this best-seller. Wonderful photography too!’
    — Nancy Chandler Map of Bangkok

Reviews in Full

December 11, 2005

Natalie Bennett: Philobiblon

Book Review: Very Thai – Everyday Popular Culture by Philip Cornwel-Smith

 By Natalie Bennett (now leader of the UK Green Party)

 

VT Natalie Bennett Philobiblon a VT Natalie Bennett Philobiblon b

View as PDF: http://blogcritics.org/archives/2005/12/11/135518.php

New arrivals in Bangkok are easy to spot; after a day or two in the city they’ve got a dazed, bemused look, and move slowly, hesitantly. This Bangkokitis is an extreme form of the culture shock that many tourists experience in foreign lands.

There are two factors that make it particularly acute in the Thai capital. First, so much of the environment seems familiar – glass-and-steel office blocks, modern cars, familiar fast food restaurants. Yet it is also so foreign. Underneath the office blog might stand a baby elephant, its owner begging for funds. Amidst the modern cars zip scores of death-defying motorcycle taxis, their riders’ bright jackets clashing with the mini-skirts of the high-heel-shod women perched precariously side-saddle behind them. Then they’ll be the shrine on the corner thronged with fortune-tellers.

Bangkok is where east meets west, modern meets traditional, the past meets the future. And while often they’ll stand in stark opposition, they’ll also blend to produce astonishing new hybrids.

The visitor who seeks easy answers might turn to a guidebook, and for some of the more obvious sights get a sentence of two of explanation. Or they might turn to a scholarly historical study, explaining temples and sculptures. But Philip Cornwel-Smith’s Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture is the first book that I know of to try to explain Thailand as it is today.

This is a prodigiously illustrated (by the photographer John Goss) text, accessible, but informative enough that even people who’ve lived in Thailand for decades will find plenty they didn’t know.
Of course I was aware, having lived in Thailand for almost five years, that trucks were usually heavily decorated, particularly in their upper parts. But I didn’t know that these works were designed to placate the journey spirit, Mae Yanang, or that each cab represented the sacred Mount Meru. The frequent inclusion of Western film stars in these images in no way interferes with this.

But it might take the first-time visitor a while to notice these, being too distracted by more disconcerting sights, such as the kathoeys (lady-boys) who can be seen at work and play around the capital without the locals batting an eyelid. (I used to live in the African rag-trade district of Bangkok, Pratunam. A kathoey was an otherwise entirely ordinary staff member on one of the stalls. When Africa met Asia at work, there was frequently some cultural confusion.)

Cornwel-Smith explains the understanding of gender and sexuality – so different from the West’s – that underlies the phenomenon:

Thais make a distinction between gender – a public identity to be kept riab roi (proper) – and sexuality, which remains undiscussed, unrestrained. Thai society tends to regard sexual urges – at least for males – as natural and requiring plentiful, but private outlets. Hence polygamy, once banned, resurfaced through minor wives and the fancifully themed playgrounds of the sex industry. With women’s virginity still a commodity to be guarded, kathoey have offered a non-disruptive outlet for single males.”

This acceptance has helped to encourage Thailand as a destination for medical tourism of a specific king – gender-reassignment surgery. Up to 1,000 operations are thought to have been done on foreigners each year. And many kathoeys have taken up the practice.

Yet after centuries of a place in Thai society, new conflicts have emerged. Following the recent morality crackdown by the Shinawatra government, the rights of kathoeys have become a political issue, Cornwel-Smith reports, quoting Thanyaporn Anyasri, 2002 “Miss Queen of the Universe”, who said: “I want to be the world’s first transexual prime minister so I can legislate laws that promote homosexual people’s equality.” He then quotes a representative of a Buddhist foundation saying that since every person has gone through innumerable reincarnations they are likely to be kathoeys at some point in the future, so should think about equality now.

After contemplating all of that, the first-time visitor might need a drink and a nice meal. If they’re very brave, that might include the “prawns of the air” (grasshoppers), deep-fried whole and sold from street stalls, and some Red Bull – one of the few Thai traditions to really make it big inter (internationally). Cornwel-Smith will explain too why there might be tiny pink tissues on table, and for afters a pudding so sweet it will set your teeth on edge.

Many more aspects of Bangkok, from the skin-tight police uniforms (the government was keeping up with Western fashion in the Sixties, but then got left behind) to the numbers of dogs roaming the streets. There are also sections on Thai music, festivals, decor, gardens and much more.

If you’re the sort of visitor to Thailand who just wants to swan down Khao San Road and then lie on the beaches, you won’t need to buy Very Thai. But if you want some great stories to tell about the country – not just accounts of what you’ve seen but explanations for the curiosities and complexities – then this is an essential book.

Declaration of interest: The author used to commission writing from me when he was editor of Metro (then Thailand’s answer to Time Out) and I was a writer there. Online from that time I have an article about Khunying Supatra Masdit (billed by some as most-likely to be Thailand’s first female prime minister) and a piece about the Maldives. They’re not the paradise you think.

 

This review was also published at Blogcriticshttp://blogcritics.org/archives/2005/12/11/135518.php

Posted in: Blog

Blogcritics

Book Review: Very Thai – Everyday Popular Culture by Philip Cornwel-Smith

By Natalie Bennett (now leader of the UK Green Party)

http://blogcritics.org/archives/2005/12/11/135518.php

New arrivals in Bangkok are easy to spot; after a day or two in the city they’ve got a dazed, bemused look, and move slowly, hesitantly. This Bangkokitis is an extreme form of the culture shock that many tourists experience in foreign lands.

There are two factors that make it particularly acute in the Thai capital. First, so much of the environment seems familiar – glass-and-steel office blocks, modern cars, familiar fast food restaurants. Yet it is also so foreign. Underneath the office blog might stand a baby elephant, its owner begging for funds. Amidst the modern cars zip scores of death-defying motorcycle taxis, their riders’ bright jackets clashing with the mini-skirts of the high-heel-shod women perched precariously side-saddle behind them. Then they’ll be the shrine on the corner thronged with fortune-tellers. read more »

Posted in: ReviewsBlog Reviews
December 1, 2005

TAT Newsroom (Tourism Authority of Thailand)

Indie Bangkok

Books on Thai traditional arts and culture Thai fill the shop shelves, but the everyday aspects of modern Thai life that so beguile visitors go largely unsung and unexplained, until now.

1 Dec, 2005
www.tatnews.org

 

In the new book Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture, Philip Cornwel-Smith explores the pop things that people encounter in the street, in vehicles, in homes. He devotes whole chapters to such minutiae as buffalo cart furniture, auspiciously decorated trucks, and the Siamese delight in cute miniature objects.

These incidental things might not be the icons of high culture, but are every bit as authentic and immediately tell you you’re in Thailand. There is more to Thai pop than the tuk-tuk, though the book also reveals the unexpected origins of that symbolic vehicle. read more »

Posted in: Reviews
September 14, 2005

Thai Day (talk preview)

Highlights

Thai Day VT talk preview 05-0914 copy

When Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture was released last year, the book was a sweeping success. Tracing the origins of mundane items like the taxi dashboard, the menthol inhaler and pink tissues, Bangkok-based British writer Philip Cornwel-Smith explained many of the oddities and nuicances of Thai culture. Now the author will share some of his insight at the Siam Society in a talk aimed at building a more inclusive, up-to-date picture of Thai culture, society and history. Take this chance to look anew at the ordinary at the Siam Society.

Thai Day was an English-language Thai newspaper

Posted in: Reviews