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
Recommended Cultural ReadingsPosted in: Reviews
(Thailand) Book Bag: Bangkok
John Burdett’s gripping characterization set against Bangkok’s edgy, seductive cityscapes make his series a thriller in every sense of the word. John Burdett was originally a lawyer with practices in London and Hong Kong. He has lived in France, Spain, Hong Kong, and the U.K. but currently makes his home in both Bangkok and Southwest France.
One of John Burdett’s favorite books about Bangkok is: “very Thai by Philip Cornwel-Smith An entertaining and provocative look at Thai culture.”Posted in: ReviewsReviews & Features
‘Explains lots of seemingly quirky Thai cultural behaviours, including the obsession with tiny napkins.’
— Suzanne NamPosted in: Reviews
How Very Thai gave rise to ‘Thai Thai’
Long-standing commentator on the Kingdom’s eccentricities discusses the second edition of his book.
By Brian Curtin
Which cultural idiosyncrasies stick when you visit a foreign country? And what value do you accord them? Slightly amusing or perhaps just annoying? Indicative of some deep-rooted essence of that culture or merely a weird aberration? A challenge to your own vocabulary or a means of extending it? And why do some idiosyncrasies persist while others disappear or transform?
Thailand has an abundance of cultural idiosyncrasies and Philip Cornwel-Smith, a dedicated follower of local mores, has been exploring such questions for nearly two decades. Philip was the original editor of the defunct and much missed Metro magazine and of Time Out Bangkok, and his Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture is a must-read for anyone hoping to unpick such local phenomena as sniff-kissing and the pervasive influence of “hi-so” communities for Thai social hierarchies.
Originally published in 2005, the book has been expanded into a second edition with four extra chapters, and much of the rewritten material addresses how social upheaval has affected daily life here. Please describe how your new chapters relate to major cultural and/or political shifts in Thailand since the first edition.
The period between the editions has seen unprecedented challenges to the exotic Thai cliche. The world now questions those smiles. One reason I wrote the book was to celebrate the non-exotic things that also shape Thai character.
I look at how the internet has gained a Thai flavour. Modernity and the consumer lifestyle used to be synonymous with Bangkok, but increasingly they apply to the urbanising provincial middle class, too. One thread in the book is to view social evolution through the tastes of each class as it came to prominence.
Politics inevitably impacts many topics, though often indirectly. The chapter on day colours [wearing clothes of a specific colour on a certain day of the week] was an obscure curiosity for most readers _ then, overnight, the yellowshirts made it topical. Motorcycle taxis went from a lowly street fixture to an icon of a rising class now courted by election posters. Looking at everyday phenomena reveals how this political division is not just about parties, protests and personalities, but the latest of many shifts in the history of Thainess.
You have called one new chapter “Vernacular design”.
One trait of Thai street-life are those ad hoc solutions to practical problems with found materials like old planks and bits of plastic. Middle-class people associated that with slums, but the trauma of the Great Flood of 2011 turned that ingenuity into a meme on Facebook and an exhibition at the Thailand Creative & Design Centre. It became respectable once residents of housing estates suddenly had to live like canal-side squatters. Now it’s a style that is being called “vernacular design”.
Please comment on the readers Very Thai has attracted and what feedback you’ve received about it.
I wrote the book to explain what isn’t explained to expats. But its most enthusiastic fans are young, indie Thais who are hungry for fresh ideas. It’s become a required book in universities so I have to satisfy academics, too.
Last year’s exhibition of Very Thai photos outside Zen [CentralWorld] gained it a mainstream audience, who see it more sentimentally as a record of retro things that are slowly fading. In one new chapter I discuss how Very Thai became a kind of handbook for a zeitgeist wave that has made popular culture an accepted aspect of Thainess labelled “Thai Thai”. The design guru Pracha Suveeranont has written an afterword [for the second edition] about the impact of the book on creative Thais. Popular culture is low-status, edgy and even taboo, so they find the book lends a kind of legitimacy. Also they use it as a style reference for all kinds of stuff _ advertising, design, event organising. Independent of me, the book has been an exhibit in several art shows and the subject of film, mime and theatre performances.
Please discuss any criticisms you have heard about Very Thai.
Older readers complained about the font size. So we increased it. There has been less criticism than expected about giving street-life a platform as culture. That was partly to do with timing, because society was just starting to accept street culture as a legit form of Thainess. Some nationalists claim that foreigners can’t understand Thainess, yet Buddhism insists that detachment is necessary to see things clearly. There’s a concept called emic and etic _ insider and outsider views. Each is valid, and I try to integrate both in an insider/outsider approach.
The appearance of Very Thai is very different to that of other books about Thailand on the shelves. Was that a conscious decision?
Most illustrated books on Thailand strive to be beautiful and so the scene is often set up or “prettied” beforehand. That’s part of myth-making about Thainess, so it creates expectations. Yet the photos in Very Thai deliberately show normal things as-found. That impromptu aesthetic has emerged internationally _ and the public connects with this book precisely because it rings true to their experience. One reader gave the book to a friend who had moved away as an album of the photos she didn’t think to take while living here. It’s about looking at familiar things with a new eye.
The new edition kept a similar look, because the cover’s become a bit of a brand, but over a third of the pictures are new to keep up with how fast Thai tastes change.
How does Very Thai relate to other English-language literature about Thailand?
Ever more books tackle the chaotic street-life, often through fiction by the likes of John Burdett or Lawrence Osborne. But too much writing about Thai ways has veered to Orientalist extremes, whether sensationalism about infamous scandals or the fawning exoticism found in tourist, sponsored or Establishment books. Actually there is an older literary genre of objective accounts by Chinese, French, British, American traders and adventurers. Thai literature tended not to dwell on “low” topics, and murals just depict; they don’t describe.
So much of what we know about past popular culture comes from foreign observations of the kind reprinted by [local publisher] White Lotus Press. So I aspire to that legacy of insider-outsider commentaries. I’m trying to write contemporary history, but it’ll be up to future readers to judge whether I caught the tenor of the times.
Posted in: Reviews & FeaturesInterviews
The Bangkok We Never Lost
Protesters and developers demand more, but these guides to the city and Thai culture encourage us to venture out and enjoy what we have
by Paul Dorsey
With anger further fouling the city air and the streets a din of roars and whistles, this might not be the best time to be exploring the unknown alleys of Bangkok. But two terrific books that have just come out will have you dodging the slings and arrows of our unfortunate era to track down the history already written – as opposed to the kind that’s being written as you read this.
Kenneth Barrett’s “22 Walks in Bangkok” ranks as one of the most thorough guides yet to the city’s historically important areas – and the newly refurbished “Very Thai” can be its ideal companion in your travelling pack. The updated and extended second edition of Philip Cornwel-Smith’s popular and influential 2004 original is just as much a must-have resource, thanks to his encyclopaedic knowledge and charming explanations about all the sights and experiences you encounter in Thailand. Again, it’s replete with hundreds of great photos by John Goss, Cornwel-Smith and others.
Of course the current political demonstrations – anti-government and pro – have never come close to blanketing the metropolis. Barrett touches the fringes of a couple of hot spots, and both books allude in passing to Thaksin Shinawatra and his legacy, but there are still plenty of places free of discontent where you can poke around for evidence of Teochew civilisation (see Barrett) and perhaps a plastic bag of refreshing flavoured sugar-water with shaved ice (see Cornwel-Smith).
In fact the first few of the 22 Walks ramble through Thonburi, remote and relatively peaceful on the other side of the big water.
Barrett’s journey begins when Thonburi was anything but peaceful. Following the downfall of Ayutthaya’s King Narai in 1688, Siamese cannonballs hurled across the river to demolish the French fort he had allowed to be built in the swamp that grew up to be Bangkok. A century later Thonburi was Siam’s capital.
Three more centuries further on, you can still spot homes there that have four wooden pillars in the doorway – which can only be removed from the inside. That’s how the original Chinese immigrants “locked the door”, explains Barrett, a veteran journalist.
And completely hidden behind the Klong San District Office is a remnant of Pong Patchamit Fort, one of five that King Rama IV built to shield his capital from invaders. Still standing is a mast on which flags were once hoisted to indicate which trading vessels were present – and later to report the weather.
Not far away, down Soi Lat Ya 17, Barrett found a seven-metre-long stone sculpture of a Chinese boat called a yannawa perched among old timbered houses. With a bodhi tree as a mast, this is an ancient shrine recalling the arrival in Thailand of Buddhist monks from Japan and China.
One of the most intriguing of Bangkok’s many intriguing areas is Bang Krachao, the vast “pig’s stomach” of land around which the Chao Phraya River swirls, which continues to be a great green lung (to mix anatomical metaphors) despite covetous commercial intentions.
Barrett sets out from the Presbyterian Samray Church, a 1910 replacement for the 1862 original, chronicling the missionaries’ story as he goes, and then has a look for what’s left of venerable Chinese rice mills. He glimpses a gilded Captain Hook and David Beckham among the artwork at Wat Pariwat next to the Montien Riverside Hotel.
Just as interesting is the Mon community that since the fall of Ayutthaya has dominated this district, further down the Phra Pradaeng Peninsula. The Mon, fierce fighters in combat, came to man the forts that King Rama I built there.
To any Bangkok resident who’s never been there, it’s impossible to imagine, somewhere in among all this concrete, “a huge area of green countryside in which quiet villages snooze down peaceful lanes”. Barrett explores “orchards, jungle, mangrove swamps and hidden temples” – and with amusement comes across the more recently inaugurated Bang Nam Pheung Floating Market, a nod to tourists, but mainly Thai tourists.
“There is no police station. You will look hard to find an ATM … The modern city is only a ferryboat ride away, but there is no hurry to travel back across the water.”
In urban Thailand and in rural Thailand, you couldn’t have a better “dictionary” than “Very Thai”, and it’s easy to imagine Cornwel-Smith strolling alongside Barrett, quizzing the locals about what they’re up to. “I try to be the open-minded ‘flaneur’ – the wandering seeker of raw experience,” writes the chronically curious former editor of Bangkok Metro magazine.
“Very Thai” explains a great deal about amulets and magic tattoos, taxi altars, luk thung, beauty pageants, katoey life, ubiquitous uniforms, edible insects and the lore of the motorcycle-taxi stand. For farang, it’s magical in its own way – although, as Pracha Suveeranont, “an expert on visual culture”, points out in an afterword, the first edition of the book became a hit with Thais too, an aid in celebrating their culture for fun and profit.
But clearly it was badly in need of updating, Cornwel-Smith writes. Since 2004, Thai pop has “gone inter” and Apichatpong Weerasethakul triumphed at Cannes. Asean is about to blossom. We’ve got those plastic kitschy but undeniably purposeful hand-clappers and foot-clappers now (the whistles will have to wait for the next edition).
And virtually everyone in Thailand has “gone virtual”, not least the fashion-plate hero of Facebook, Mae Baan Mee Nuad (Housewife with a Moustache), who’s also featured here. The social media are rampant in Thailand. In 2012 there were more snapshots posted on Instagram from Suvarnabhumi Airport and Siam Paragon than from New York’s Times Square. “Digital media actually suit the Thai character,” the author says. “Local websites collide multiple diversions as discombobulating as their predecessor, the temple fair.”
Then, digging deeper, he adds, “The difference this new medium makes is that we can now see through the former taboos.” Cornwel-Smith displays a keen if subtle passion for the country’s politics, at least in the way it affects popular culture. In addressing the difficulties of nailing down the nature of Thainess, he says, “The recent politicisation of Thais at all social levels has made discussion more open, direct and heated. As censorship grows futile, we all now know so much more how this country works. The official version has lost its monopoly.”
In another informative chapter, on the rise of “Thai Thai” – which he calls “vernacular Thainess [with] a hint of both essence and exaggeration” – Cornwel-Smith tackles the vexing issue of Thai exceptionalism with his exquisite sense of balance. He cites the frequently heard insistence that foreigners can never fully understand Thai ways, and then demonstrates how “the accusation fires both ways”.
These two books serve to reassure readers, both Thai and farang, that there is nothing to fear, scorn or being ashamed about, in either stoic tradition – or in Bangkok’s immediate future.
Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture
By Philip Cornwel-Smith and John Goss
Published by River Books, Second Edition 2013
Available at Asia Books, Bt796
22 Walks in Bangkok: Exploring the City’s Historic Back Lanes and Byways
By Kenneth Barrett
Published by Tuttle / Periplus, 2013
Available at Asia Books, Bt396