As the Rough Guide to Thailand observed this guide on contemporary Thailand is well-researched, knowledgeable, and lavishly photographed. Its not a guide book per se. It can’t fit in your pocket, but it is of a size to pop in your packsack. But it should grace your coffee table and be readily at hand when you want to reference some cultural phenomenon that suddenly confronts you in your wanderings through the Land of Smiles. This could be when a street vendor passes your gate yelling that he has brooms for sale. It could be when another goes by selling ice cream sticks. Or it could be when you have just turned on the television and cannot figure out what your boyfriend finds so uproariously funny about this game show.
The author of this review did know that one piece of information, regarding the tailless cats which seem ubiquitous in Thailand, are commonly seen because somehow a tailless cat must have entered the feline gene pool in the Kingdom at some point. But in pointing this phenonmenon out to an acquaintance, realised that many people living in Thailand still think the cats without tails in Thailand have had their tails lopped off by some evil feline haters.
This is just one of the many points about fascinating Thailand to be clarified in the book’s 253 pages which celebrate Thai pop and folk culture in all its myriad variations. The text is well written by Cornwel-Smith who has lived in Thailand for several years, writing and editing for over a decade. He started as editor of Bangkok Metro magazine. As the publicity blurb states, eight years of press conference buffets later, he moved on to edit Time Out Bangkok Guide. He also has several international writing and editorial credits under his belt.
John Goss who provided most of the photographs, is an American artist who has also lives in Thailand for a long period. His involvement with traditional and electronic media projects earned him a fellowship from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts. He has had exhibitions of his video work and photography exhibited around the world and continues to write, photograph and research beauty spots in his travels around Asia.
The book is widely available for 954 baht. As stated earlier, it is not a book that one can carry around but requires a permanent place for easy reference. That said it could be a book one could take to your favorite beach chair for the afternoon. Thus it is ideal for residents of Thailand or visitors who are staying for a few months. It has an extensive index and is well organised.
It is divided into four sections: street; personal; ritual; and, sanuk (meaning ‘fun’). Under those headings one can imagine all the listings one might expect. Explanations of all the food one sees available for snacking are contained in “Dinner on a Stick”. Helpful too, are expressions transliterated in Thai that can be useful if ordering some of these tidbits we always see but stay clear of because of their uncertain origins. The sections often help to re-open ones eyes again as well, especially for those of us who have gone through the preliminary culture shock of seeing “grates and grilles” which merits its own section. It reawakens us to notice things that maybe we forgot after a few months, or a year or several years, aspects of the local scene, the tableau vivant that are truly unique to Thai culture and the local scene.
For a gay audience, a section “Katoey & Tom-Dee” explains or attempts to explain the situation we Westerners find amazing, beyond male and female to ‘angels in disguise’ as the text terms the dilemma of comprehension we confront daily (or nightly). This section updates perceptions by stating that “katoey” are facing increasing prejudice in Thailand, not only from local conservatives, and even liberals but Thai feminists and lesbians because of their stereotypical feminizing of roles. Even homosexuals or ‘metrosexuals’ are said by the author to be prejudging “katoey”. The section discusses how Thai media is too, stigmatising “katoey” in an increasingly unflattering manner. The movie, Iron Ladies is cited as illustrating the ambiguity of the current status of katoey.
The section also explains Tom and Dee in the Thai lesbian world and the increasingly Westernised view of being homosexual which is manifested in the thriving bar culture of Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket and Chiang Mai. The section is one of the longest in the text and fortunately does end on a positive note, mentioning Boxer Nong Toom who won public sympathy for his strength and discipline, going on to a much-publicised sex change. It talks about Khru (teacher) Lily who has made literacy something to have fun acquiring. And it highlights Dr. Seri Wongmontha who has been quite courageous over the years since his media persona took off, and his position as an outspoken professor of Thammasat University became less a reason for his hi-so fame. The section mentions other personalities who have entered politics and taken the rights issue into the public and political arena.
In addition to all of this, have you ever wondered why your boyfriend rather than kissing you wetly, or your wet kisses in response, spends so much time sniffing you? Did you not shower or powder with enough gusto before heading out to your rendezvous? Well in a section on the “Sniff Kiss” or hom kaem you will finally learn what is going on.
And what about palad khik you must be asking? Yes there is that de rigueur section on the eternal power of phallic charms. This section clears up your concerns regarding what exactly these charms (which you see in the most unlikely places), mean. Apparently some believe that applying one of these charms to a snakebite, but only if it has been appropriately blessed, will provide the needed cure to save a life. The text goes further to suggest that prang towers like those on Wat Arun are “clearly phallic” which may provoke unseemly screams from more chaste art historians and anthropologists not to speak of experts in Thai architecture.
If you are a visitor, but want to spend quality time in Thailand, understanding what is a feast for your eyes, this text is a great book to take in your packsack to Jomtien Beach and practice the Thai phrases you will find scattered throughout while you absorb the local scene. It is not recommended inviting passing fruit vendors to do you tonal practice on, unless you want to devote more time than you intended or pay the tab in pineapple sticks. There is even a section on just that “Life at the beach”, which will explain why you are in permanent darkness under a canopy of plastic umbrellas, why many of the Thai beachgoers are wading in fully clothed and even why you, you silly thing, are willing to risk melanoma and premature wrinkling to even venture into the lethal Thai sunshine.
Was the beach too much for you? Take the book back to your air-con room and flip to page 234. Then hit the remote on your room’s television. No, do not skip the soap operas, game shows or weird fashion exposes. Very Thai, will hold your little hand and explain what is passing before your eyes in terms you can understand. Even though you probably will never be able to fathom what the hell they are all screaming about in that game show, at least you will have more comprehension than you did before because you will know the name of that personality who keeps cropping up week after week. The book will undoubtedly date as the current personalities become has beens. Like the former Miss Universe 1988, Pornthip Narkhirunknok who is still an icon locally even though she was raised in the United States and had to re-learn her Thai to keep up her image in her re-adopted homeland. She gets a photo so now you know who SHE is.
Whatever the section, all of them clear up in a well-written and clearly well-researched 250 pages what many of us have been asking ourselves for years but have never had the definitive answer. Definitely worthwhile and required reading for all who live and love Thailand and want the answers in a pretty, reasonably priced nutshell.
Sticky Rice is an online magazine about gay Asia.