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
The Return of Very Thai
It’s over seven years since Very Thai, an encyclopedic guide to everyday culture, reshaped the way outsiders look at Thailand’s colourful brand of the mundane.
From whisky drinking etiquette to the truth about pink tissues and the inspiration for Thai truck bolts (the flower petal), this was the book that revealed the hidden logic and structure in Thailand’s freewheeling street life. That became the go-to gift for expats looking to enlighten visiting loved ones. That turned long stints in the toilet into a crash course in Thai pop academia. That, above all, captured that elusive Very Thai-ness that even those of us who live here struggle to put our fingers on.
Now, hot on the heels of the spin-off exhibition, which runs until early December in front of Zen Department store, a new edition of the candy-hued best-seller is on its way. What can we expect? Sixty four more pages, for starters, says its author, long-time resident and cultural historian Philip Cornwel-Smith. “We wanted to increase the type font and the size, which was always a bit small,” he says speaking to us at Bangkok 101 HQ. “The book is also being translated into other languages, and German is a much longer language than English, so we’ve given most chapters an extra page.”
However, the new edition is not just more spacious and easier on the eye. Rather, it’s a top-to-bottom overhaul that, as well as featuring lots of new photographs, brings Very Thai kicking and screaming into the here and now, where it belongs. “This is a genuinely new edition,” he says, “I’ve not just added in little bits and pieces. In some cases I’ve had to completely rework the chapters or rewrite large chunks of them.”
Unmistakable in the original book was the sense that this is a society in rapid transition. “In one dizzying spasm,” he wrote, “Thailand is experiencing the forces that took a century to transform the West.” During our conversation, he cites the rise of digital media, a movement towards authentic tourism and a more intrusive tabloid media as just a few examples of the cultural shifts that have taken place since its release. “Also, some of the more folky adaptations of tradition are giving way to just plain modern things,” he says.
The new edition reflects these changes but not at the expense of the old case studies. “A lot of the research for the original was done at the turn of the millennium,” he says. “So that’s over a decade of change – of extraordinary change. I wanted to reflect that transformation in the book, not just simply change the data.”
He’s also opted not to lop out topics that are fading away or nearing obsolescence. Why? Because even they, Cornwel-Smith explains, have their usefulness, offer us a conduit, a prism through which modernisation and social change can be viewed.
For example, the chapter on pleng phua chiwit (Songs for Life), a socially-consciousfolk-music movement that now seems littlemore than a quaint reminder of the deeplypoliticised and bloody seventies, has beenkept in. “Now it’s a vehicle for talking aboutpolitical changes over the past seven years,”he says, “as like much of the country themovement got split between the red and theyellow shirts.”
For other topics, the only thing that has really changed is their social context. “Thai tattoos, for example, used to be something that was looked down on and a bit improper,” he says. “But it’s been ungraded in the public perception… nowadays every second celebrity has a haa taew tattoo on her shoulder and the pronouncements are about foreigners who don’t understand traditional Thai heritage getting them.”
Changes in public perceptions of the motorcycle taxi driver are another phenomenon he singles out (“they have become a bit like the tuk-tuk – cultural emblems, safe for public consumption”). So, too, is Thailand’s beach culture, which has changed so radically that he now sees the chapter on it as a “barometer of social change”.
As well as tracing all these and many other cultural shifts, the new edition also includes an afterword by Thai visual culture pundit Pracha Suweeranont. “In the first edition we didn’t have one because there wasn’t really a question to be answered. But having looked at it over a long time, I can see certain traits and trends.” In it, Suweeranont apparently explains how Very Thai helped him, a native, look at vernacular culture in a fresh way.
During our meeting, Cornwel-Smith touches on many subjects: over-reaction to moral panics by the Ministry of Culture (“I think there is a legitimate concern that some things might be swept away in a rush to modernity”); the flattening effect of digital technology; the explosion of interest in street food. But one theme overarches them all: change.
This begs a question: has Thailand’s breakneck development washed away any of the grittiness, the allure that first led him to start writing about the place? “Short answer: yes,” he says. But he, a trained historian, also calls for long-range perspective. “I’m sure people would have given the same answer when all this western stuff was brought in by the aristocracy a hundred years ago: those awful, mutton-sleeved blouses, etc.”
“When I first released the book back in 2005, somebody said “You do realise that all this stuff will disappear? However, we shouldn’t forget that a lot of the things that we take as being traditional Thai are actually imports from other countries in the past – that Thailand has a way of making modern things its own.” In other words, the topics may transform, but the Kingdom’s ability to assimilate foreign influence in a unique and curious way – that elusive Very Thai-ness – is here to stay.
The new edition of Very Thai will be published in early December by River Books. Meanwhile, the exhibition continues in front of Zen Department Store until December 6.Posted in: Blog
เวรี่ไทย (Very Thai)
by Bundit Thienrat บัณฑิต เทียนรัตน์
เกือบห้าปีที่ไม่ได้อยู่เมืองไทย ทำให้ผมเริ่มจำไม่ได้ว่า ถ.ศรีนครินทร์อยู่ที่ไหนหว่า??? นอกจากนั้นผมยังงงๆว่า หกช่องฟรีทีวีมันหายไปไหนสองช่อง กลายเป็นอะไรเอ็นๆพีๆบีๆอะไรวะเนี่ย? แล้วรถเมล์รถตู้ทำไมมันถึงได้วิ่งแข่งกันอย่างนั้น? เอ แล้วเค้าไม่มี time table กันเหรอ? แล้วผมจะจัดเวลาการเดินทางยังไงกัน!!! ครับ ผมดัดจริตไปแล้ว ผมไม่ได้เป็นคุณชายมาจากไหน เดินทางไปทั่วกรุงเทพฯก็ยังต้องใช้บริการขนส่งมวลชน กินข้าวกินปลาก็ยังต้องพึ่งพาตลาดร้านรวง เดินห้างหรือดีพาร์ทเมนท์สโตร์ใหญ่ๆชื่อฝาหรั่งที่ผุดขึ้นมาเต็มบ้านเต็มเมือง ผมต้องกลายมาเป็นคนกรุงเทพฯส่วนใหญ่ ที่ไม่ใช่อภิสิทธิ์ชน หรือซีเล็บหรูแฝ่ ที่แทบไม่รู้ด้วยซ้ำว่ากรุงเทพฯนั้นอากาศร้อน! ผมจึงถูกสปอยล์โดยไม่รู้ตัวจากออสเตรเลีย read more »Posted in: Reviews
“Brilliant excavation of the intricacies of Thai popular culture rendered in a chatty, down to earth style. Some nice photography as well.”
— Andrew SpoonerPosted in: Reviews
Recommended Reading for All Newcomers
By Nima Chandler
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. Fairy lights, streetside shrubbery, and hair dos you may have seen every day but never noticed will take on new meaning. Learn why most Thai noodle shops offer the same pink colored tissues, why cats’ tails seem to be bent or at best stunted, and what is the Thai sniff kiss. Wonderful photography too!
Thai Culture Ministry to crack down on religious tattoos on foreign skin
By Saksith Saiyasombut
Tattoos have a very special place in Thailand. They’re more than just permanent fashion statements, not unlike amulets they are regarded as spiritual guardians. Tattoos with religious or spiritual motives, called Yantra tattoos, are yet another sign that Thais take their beliefs skin-deep. Philip Cornwel-Smith dedicated a whole chapter in his excellent book Very Thai.