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
Bangkok Days by Pim Wangtechawat
Vol 5, No 3, May–July 2020
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 EdinburghPosted in: Blog
British Author’s ‘Very Bangkok’ Deftly Dissects Thai Capital
Very Bangkok reviewed by Teeranai Boonbandit, March 5, 2020
BANGKOK — Why do Bangkokians love malls so much and why do they call some Western tourists “bird shit Whiteys?”
These answers can be found in in farang Thai expert Philip Cornwel-Smith’s new book “Very Bangkok,” something between a tourist guidebook and an anthropological encyclopedia. At a recent book launch, Cornwel-Smith said he wants to hold up a krajok hok dan, or six-sided mirror, to the city of eight million.
The term, he noted, was first coined by Luang Phor Toh, a widely-revered monk who is believed to have exorcised the vengeful spirit of Mae Nak who allegedly haunted the community of Phra Khanong.
“We tend to look at a mirror to see our faces reflected back. This prioritizes the face, which is extremely important in this culture,” the British author said. “But Luang Phor Toh conceives that we should consider a sixsided mirror, where all around us are ways of reflecting on our lives and what is happening around us.”
Like a hexagonal mirror, “Very Bangkok: In the City of the Senses” invites readers to not only feel the city with the basic senses such as touch, taste, or smell – but also the phenomena he deemed unique to Bangkok such as the city’s erratic flow of movement.
The first of the three large sections, “Senses” makes up the bulk of the book.
“This city is pretty wild in the way everything is moving around without an order,” Cornwel-Smith said. “Directions tend to be based on personal landmarks or things that are familiar. There are even three centers of the city to choose from, as different organizations use different places for their kilometer zero.”
But it’s not only the obvious senses that are being discussed in the book, it also includes invisible, undesirable, and supernatural domains.
“The sixth sense is very visible in Bangkok,” Cornwel-Smith said. “There’s a very big subculture of trance in Bangkok as well. It’s not what the authorities are trying to promote particularly, but you would see it happening at a Hindu temple on Silom Road and the vegetarian festival at Chinatown.”
Of course, with all the uncanny sensations that bombard Bangkokians everyday, it seems that they can find an oasis right in front of almost every soi: chains of convenience stores and shopping malls.
And contrary to the popular narrative in Western media that malls “drain the life” out of the city, Cornwel-Smith said he understands why they are popular among Thais.
“I personally think that one of their appeals is that they are cold, very bland, and neutral, offering a relief before we go back out into all of these sensory stimulations,” he said.
And to answer the other question posed at the beginning of this article, Cornwel-Smith explains in the “Backpackers” chapter that “farang kii nok” or bird shit Whitey, is a term Bangkokians reserve for “backpackers who grow blond dreadlocks, bargain too low, pair batik pantaloons with a tie-die vest, and reek of patchouli.”
“Heart” digs into societies and subcultures that make up the city’s melting pot (the “Stir-Fry” section is dedicated to the Sino-Thai). “Face” deconstructs different portrayals of Bangkok, whether they are official (“Project Singapore”), notorious (“Tourist Trappings”), and popular (“Bladerunneresque”).
Cornwell-Smith, who has lived in Thailand 26 years, described his latest work as a “distant cousin” to his first book, “Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture.”
Published in 2005, “Very Thai” has since become one of the best-selling coffee table books about Thailand, thanks to its well-researched effort to define “Thainess” through ordinary and everyday phenomena.Posted in: Blog
A love letter to a city in flux
Very Bangkok reviewed by Chris Baker, 21 Feb 2020
Philip Cornwel-Smith’s treatise on Bangkok is thoughtful, compelling and affectionate Very Thai (2005) was about things. About teasing the meaning of Thai out of objects and signs, ranging from the sublime symbolism of Thai design to the question why the paper napkins in all everyday Thai eateries were pink in colour and stupidly small in size.
Philip Cornwel-Smith’s long-awaited sequel is very different. It is entirely about people. The physical city is a backdrop to its residents, sojourners and visitors. Though Bangkok is a subset of Thai, this book is bigger and weightier. The author and his assistants have talked to lots of people — from artists to administrators, from visitors to vendors, from the enthusiastic to the appalled.
The author’s personal biases are clear to see. There is scarcely a page that does not circle back to food, music or the creative fringe, while the temples that crowd the tourist guidebooks appear only if they host an art installation. But the coverage is remarkable for its range and its depth. There’s a lovely page on blossom. Very Bangkok is serious, thought-provoking, and fun.
As a subject, Bangkok is a problem because it does not stand still. Over the couple of decades of this book’s gestation, the city has probably doubled in size and changed radically in culture. Before the millennium, it still had a private, parochial, self-absorbed feel. Now it is a global city, transformed by the falling cost of travel, by the quiet relaxation of restrictions on foreigners after the 1997 crisis, by the massive promotion of tourism and by the confidence of a new Thai generation to welcome the world. Apart from anything else, this book tracks the transition from parochial to global beautifully.
The book is organised into three sections, labelled Senses, Heart and Face. Senses records the city as experienced by its residents and visitors, starting with the assault on the nose, ranging from tropical flora to pitiful waste disposal. It moves on to the sense of space in the chaos contrived by weak government, resistance to any kind of planning, serendipitous architecture and catastrophically inadequate public infrastructure, especially for transport.
Bangkok is a mess and “development” has only turned it into a bigger mess. But mess can be fun. The new floating and semi-floating population of outsiders, mostly quite young and quite wealthy, have recreated Bangkok as a playground with a focus on food, music and nightlife. A generation of Thais borne up by the pre-1997 boom have happily joined in, rekindling the sense of sanook which had seemed on the wane.
The second section, Heart, presents a catalogue of the city’s extraordinary ethnic diversity. During the violent 20th century, Bangkok offered refuge for all kinds of groups who lost out in the Great Nationalisation. Since the 1960s, the city has sucked in labour from the provinces, especially the Northeast, and from neighbouring countries, especially Myanmar.
The big story has been the rise of the Chinese. They have been a major part of the demography and dominant in the economy since the city’s early years, but were culturally and politically restrained by narrow nationalism and powerful bureaucracy. Since the 1990s, driven by the community’s wealth and the rise of China, they have shucked off those restraints and made their mark on everything from food to language to tastes in looks and architecture.
In parallel, the old communities in the city centre have been gradually eroded by the logic of the real estate market, the susceptibility of timber to rot, and the changes in taste, technology and lifestyle. Cornwel-Smith captures this elegantly in a description of the last few craftsmen who make monks’ alms bowls in the traditional way. The brutal destruction of the Mahakan Fort community was a symbol and a turning point. Cornwel-Smith wonders aloud what “Thai” means when its physical expression is being destroyed, and what remains is being museumised by officialdom, the tourist industry and Big Retail in projects like Iconsiam.
In the final section on Face, the background theme is the struggle over the city’s future, a struggle between order and chaos, between authoritarianism and the freedom to be creative. On the side of order is the middle class, which idealises Singapore as a model, the bureaucracy which wants to impose rules and the military politicians who like telling people what to do. On the side of chaos is the new generation which grew up in a globalising Bangkok and who have come to enjoy its freedoms and opportunities. On this side too is the new floating population, and most of the tourists, who told the shocked Tourist Authority through a survey that what they come for is the chaos.
In the backwash of the 1997 crisis, which temporarily loosened the grip of both big government and big business, there was an outpouring of creative energy in an “indie” movement of creative crafts, fashion design, music festivals and hipster markets. Though authority returned with a thump, the momentum of this movement has survived.
With Bangkok now so open to the world, the guardians of the national culture are worried over the city’s “face”. But the portrayal of Bangkok has slipped out of their control. Twenty years ago, critical novels and memoirs about Bangkok could be counted on a pair of hands. Now you could fill the wall of a bookshop. The authors include Thais writing in both Thai and English, along with foreigners from all over. As Cornwel-Smith records in great detail, the trend in film, creative arts, music and humour is much the same.
Towards the end, Cornwel-Smith waxes optimistic, raising the possibility that the projects to be completed by the city’s 250th anniversary in 2032 will make the city more liveable by tapping the creative talent which he documents, and by listening to what the city’s residents want. But a page later, he wonders whether by then the city will be slipping under rising sea levels from global warming.
Very Bangkok is crammed with information, but delivered like a friend in an informal chat rather than a teacher with a script. This tone invites readers to think about Bangkok but also about cities in general and especially about the new breed of Global City. Cornwel-Smith is clearly on the side of “messy urbanism”. He lives here because he loves it. What comes across, and what makes this a great book, is that love.Posted in: Blog
Review post on Facebook by Art4D editor.
Since the first edition of Very Thai was published in 2005, the book has become influential to a great number of people in the design industry. Perspectives have been broadened as many take a different look at everyday objects in the city they live in. The mundaneness has been given new values. But in an even bigger picture, the term ‘Very Thai’ has become a description that people use to express quintessential Thai characteristics of an objects, place or to define certain behaviors. To us.’very Thai’ is like a ‘grey area’, it doesn’t always denote the notion of ‘greatness’ conventionally defined by the state. At the same time, it doesn’t necessarily possess any meanings that are entirely ‘negative’.
art4d had a chance to sit down with Philip Cornwel-Smith, the author of both the editions of Very Thai that was released respectively in 2005 and 2013. We were interested in what he had witnessed throughout his 25 years of living in Thailand. Our conversation jumps from a recollection of Bangkok before the birth of Very Thai, to his observations on ‘Thainess’ all the way to the ‘self’ of the city such as Bangkok.
Originally published in the supplement of art4d No. 266. Meet art4d at the Architect’19 at F205-1, 10th post. Until May 5th 2019 at Challenger Hall 1-3, Impact Muang Thong Thani
Read on art4d.com/2019/05/looking-through-very-thai
Interview by piyapong bhumichitra / Kanokwan Trakulyingcharoen / paphop kerdsup
Photo: Ketsiree Wongwan
art4d READ : Looking Through Very Thai
หลังจากที่ Very Thai ฉบับแรกถูกตีพิมพ์ในปี 2005หนังสือเล่มนี้ได้ส่งอิทธิพลต่อคนในอุตสาหกรรมสร้างสรรค์ไม่น้อย มันเปิดมุมมองให้ผู้คนได้มองสิ่งของในเมืองต่างไปจากเดิมและให้คุณค่ากับสิ่งเหล่านั้นมากขึ้น ในภาพที่กว้างกว่านั้น คำว่า Very Thai กลายมาเป็นคำที่คนทั่วไปนำมาใช้เรียก สิ่งของ / กริยา / พื้นที่ประเภทหนึ่งที่ “ไทย” มากๆ เราคิดว่าคำว่า “ไทยมากๆ” มีความหมายเทาๆ เพราะมันไม่ได้หมายถึง “ความดีงาม” แบบเดียวกันกับความเป็นไทยที่รัฐสถาปนาขึ้นมา แต่มันก็ไม่ได้มีความหมายในแง่ลบแต่อย่างใด
art4d มีโอกาสได้สัมภาษณ์ Philip Cornwel-Smith ผู้เขียน Very Thai ทั้งสองฉบับที่ตีพิมพ์ในปี 2005และ 2013 ถึงสิ่งที่เขาเห็นตลอดระยะเวลา 25 ปี ที่เข้ามาใช้ชีวิตอยู่ในประเทศไทย ตั้งแต่การย้อนกลับไปพูดถึงบรรยากาศในกรุงเทพฯ ก่อนและหลังการตีพิมพ์ Very Thai ทั้งสองฉบับ ข้อสังเกตของเขาต่อคำว่า“ความเป็นไทย” ไปจนถึงตัวตนของเมืองกรุงเทพฯ เอง
บทสัมภาษณ์จากหนังสือเล่มเล็กที่มาพร้อมกับart4dเล่มที่ 266 สามารถหาซื้อได้ใน งานสถาปนิก’62 ระหว่างวันที่ 30 เมษายน – 5 พฤษภาคม 2562ที่ชาเลนเจอร์ฮอลล์ อิมแพ็คเมืองทองธานี (พิกัด: art4d ตำแหน่ง F205-1เสาต้นที่ 19)
อ่านได้ทาง art4d.com/2019/05/looking-through-very-thaiPosted in: Blog
Looking Through Very Thai
Art4D magazine interview supplement explains beyond the book.
An interview Philip Cornwel-Smith did with the architecture and design magazine Art4D on his 25th anniversary in Bangkok they turned into a free 32-page colour booklet! In both English and Thai, it goes into depth about the book and its effects, and probes his thoughts about Bangkok city for their issue theme of ‘Urban Reflections.’ It is an experimental new format for Art 4D, so thanks to the Art4D team for your generosity. It was great working with you. #verythai #verybangkok
For the full interview in English and Thai, please go to:
All pictures courtesy Art4DPosted in: about the book