Talk about Thai beliefs in Hindu gods and the spirit world at Gaysorn, in a preview of the TBEX Asia Travel Bloggers Conference.
An advance party of travel bloggers from the US did a preview trip to Bangkok on Feb 22, 2015. The city will host the first Asian edition of the world’s biggest travel blogging conference, TBEX Asia on October 15-18, 2015. Philip gave a talk to the bloggers about the famous Hindu shrines located around the Ratchaprasong Intersection where Gaysorn is located. The bloggers later visited the shrines, now with some background knowledge to understand the dynamics of the shrines, which are an internationally-famous draw for tourists, especially Asians.
Philip will give further talks as part of the TBEX Asia conference.
A twenty-year veteran of Thailand, Philip Cornwel-Smith recently released the second edition of Very Thai, a celebration of Thai pop, retro, street and folk culture. The re-release covers the many cultural changes that have swept through Thailand since the first book hit store shelves to considerable success nearly a decade ago.
Through vivid photographs, sharply rendered illustrations and insightful observations, the author pinpoints some of the biggest changes he’s witnessed over the years. One of the most dramatic changes, Cornwel-Smith notes, is the way politics has come to infuse daily life in Thailand, from fashion to soap operas.
The new edition features more than 200 striking images and four original chapters, including a fascinating exploration of the rise and global popularity of the retro ‘Thai Thai’ culture. “Magical tattoos, herbal whisky, Morlam folk music and street food have evolved from low-status taboo into mainstream trends with export appeal,” the author says. What’s more, Cornwel-Smith notes, is that Thai pop culture itself, long dismissed by traditionalists as urban trivia, has acquired social legitimacy and is regularly celebrated int eh media, at museums and at galleries in Thailand and elsewhere.
Most intriguing is his in-depth exploration and explication of quirky Thai icons, historical events and traditions, including the Japanese motor-rickshaw’s transformation into the tuk-tuk, rock’s morphing into festive farm music, the colour-coding of weekdays, floral truck bolts, taxi altars and drinks in bags.
And yet it’s the youth of Thailand that continues to astound the author: “Thais have become the world’s leading users of social media, intensifying their culture of personal networks and relishing online freedom.”
Fah Thai is the Bangkok Airways inflight magazine
Featuring fascinating explanations of various oddities from everyday Thai popular culture, from why the tissues on tables are pink to the apparent obsession with phallic objects on street stalls in Thailand, the first edition of Very Thai by Philip Cornwel-Smith has proved a real hit since its release in December 2004. Building on that success, the second edition delves even deeper with revamped chapters, extra pages and over 200 new photographs. It also includes four new chapters covering more recent developments such as the internet, the impact of the recent political crisis, the increasing cosmopolitan chic, and the hidden political context to changes in taste. It makes a great read for travelers to Thailand who want to get more from their visit and gain a better understanding of local culture.
B995, available at Asia Books.
Literally millions of Bangkokians and visitors will have passed by and seen this exhibition, which was visible both at ground level on the plaza on Bangkok’s busiest corner, and also from passing vehicles and from the overhead walkway beneath the SkyTrain.
Feb 11, 2013 9:22 AM Posts: 1
I’m organizing a group trip to Thailand May 18-29 for travelers from the Washington DC Area. I try to choose a book, fiction preferred, for all of our trips, so that we can pass the time while traveling and enjoy a book discussion during our trips.
I couldn’t find any novels written by Thais that are in English that seemed appropriate as a first-time introduction to read and discuss during a vacation in Thailand. I’m thinking of choosing the non-fiction Very Thai: Everyday Pop Culture since it has great reviews and explains lots of fun things you will see in Thailand.
Have any of you read this book and is it an appropriate/fun read during a trip to Thailand with a group book discussion?
Organizer, DC Global Adventurers
Feb 11, 2013 1:03 PM Posts: 3,560
Sorry I have not.
The one I just finished is a steampunk short story set in a future Thailand called Windup Girl.
Feb 11, 2013 3:26 PM Posts: 412
By some strange coincidence I met the author Philip Cornwel-Smith last Wednesday, and watched a presentation on the subject of his book.
He was interesting and engaging, its surprising just how much of Thai culture is imported from overseas. or is even a fairly recent invention. Thai things that were not invented till the mid 20th century include Pad Thai, using the greeting sawatdee and also the use of the wai as a greeting.
His book is about to be printed as an updated edition, the new version will be ready in approx one month and contains lots of updates. Worth getting, but also worth holding off for the new edition.
Feb 12, 2013 2:59 AM Posts: 233
I’ve got the book, it is interesting and will explain the inevitable WTFs when you get to the country (like “oh, money does grow on trees, or why toilet paper is on the table and not where it belongs) but I don’t think it is the sort of book you discuss before getting here
Feb 12, 2013 5:23 AM Posts: 63
it’s good for sure, I’d also definitely recommend Robert Cooper’s culture shock: Thailand and Alex Kerr’s Bangkok found
Feb 12, 2013 5:29 PM Posts: 540
It’s one of the best books on Thailand. It may be the best book on popular culture that you would run into on a trip. Enjoyable and written with affection for the country.
Feb 12, 2013 6:40 PM Posts: 873
IMO If not the best book it is certainly one of the best books on modern Thai culture in the English language; well informed and well researched with some references and a bibliography.
There are a lot of those who post on TT who really could do with reading it before they post.
My only criticisms are that it is published in an annoyingly small typeface and that it hasn’t to my knowledge had an updated edition published.
Feb 12, 2013 6:43 PM Posts: 412
The author addressed this when I met him last week. he said the new version coming out in a month will have a larger typeface.
Feb 12, 2013 11:42 PM Posts: 873
He may well sell me another copy then!
I’m the author of Very Thai. Thanks for the feedback. I’m glad you enjoy it.
The 2nd Edition of Very Thai is now out. I launched it at London’s 1st Southeast Asian Arts Festival in October.
It is 64 pages bigger, with four extra chapters (in a new section called Thaianess) and has over 200 new photos (out of nearly 600 pictures in total). I heavily rewrote it to cover the massive changes in Thailand in recent years.
This December you’ll start to see reviews and interviews coming out about the book. I’ll also be doing some talks, mainly in Bangkok. The next one will be at the National Museum, but it just got postponed due to the political rallies.
And yes, deeral, we increased the font size!
If you are interested in the subject, I’m about to relaunch the verythai.comwebsite, which will also have feeds from the #verythai hashtag threads on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. And there is a Facebook page on the book at Facebook.com/VeryThaiBook. So you can interact about the book, post your own pictures and hear about upcoming events.
Yes-bought it last week, I’m reading the second edition right now – I noticed the font size – better,
I still believe it is the best book on vernacular Thai culture and a must for anyone visiting, living in or in any way interested in Thailand. As you say there have been massive changes in Thailand over the last decade – and I’m hoping your book has kept pace
Are you speaking anywhere near Chonburi? – please PM me if you are or would like a gig.
So done the Facebook, twitter etc….where’s my T-shirt???
Lp’ers book recommendations for Thai culture plz…
I have some general knowledge and nit noi language skills..
What top FIVE social things have you learnt that are distinctly Thai ?
Lost in translation
the two most important:
joking aside, the basic are well know, don’t violate the head or air space above it.
visiting a wat/house of worship, dress as you would visiting you own house of worship.
the rest is basic courtesy you were raised on, hopefully, i was. respect elders, don’t argue, talk back and basically treat people like you want to be treated.
rule to survive…………you are a guest, don’t attempt to change anything, it is their house/country.
2 years ago
Very Thai – Philip Cornwel-Smith and John Goss – 2005
ISBN 974 9863 00 3
Probably the standard for any EL commentary on Thai culture.
I would like to think there is a new edition on the way
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.
One of the best books about Thai culture and life, Very Thai by Philip Cornwel-Smith, now has a photo exhibition in front of ZEN in Bangkok. The exhibition runs from now until 6th December 2012. ZEN is part of the CentralWorld complex and has easy access from BTS Chidlom. The free exhibition is outside so check the weather report first. For more information, check out the Facebook page for Very Thai.
This is an insightful look into one of our favorite destinations. Brand new and profusely illustrated, its written by Philip Cornwel-Smith, an English expat with many years’ residence in this Kingdom of Smiles. Indeed, Very Thai is so good, it’s already heading into translation. Highly recommended.
– Robert Carmack, Globetrotting Gourmet, author of Thai Cooking & The Burma Cookbook
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!
Posted in: Reviews,
by Michael Babcock, June 5th, 2010
One of the more common Thai napkin is a flimsy, pink sheet. The one I measured was 14 cm (or 5-1/2 inches) square and about the consistency of flimsy, 1-ply toilet paper. I often wondered about these and was able to find out a bit about them in one of my favorite books about Thailand: Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture by Philip Cornwel-Smith, with photographs by John Goss. The pink napkins are made from recycled paper and are less expensive; they are died pink to cover up blemishes from recycling. The dye is made from extracts of tomato and cinnabar.
caption: Napkins at My Choice restaurant in Bangkok
A fun, informative book with eye-catching photographs by John Goss. Makes a great souvenir.
Posted in: Reviews,
A must-have for anyone interested in scratching beneath the surface of modern Thai culture and its origins. For almost every question about modern Bangkok, the answer is here.
By schmechi Jun 8, 2009 at 7:04 AM
I’ll stay in Bangkok and Phuket next turn of the year and I wonder wether you can recommend me some Thai literature (or literature about Thailand) to get into the mood for my holidays… Btw I’m talking about prose literature, not travel books… For example I’d recommend everybody visiting Vienna to read Stefan Zweig’s “World of Yesterday”…
Re: Thai literature or literature about Thailand
By Tina-Perth Jun 9, 2009 at 2:57 AM
Hi, there is a book which I really like called “Very Thai” – Everyday popular culture, written by Philip Cornwel-Smith. It explains a lot of things you may wonder about when you get to Thailand. Take a look here; http://www.verythai.com/ Enjoy your trip!
Re: Thai literature or literature about Thailand
By aberacadabra Jun 10, 2009 at 1:24 AM
Bangkok Inside Out by Daniel Ziv. Very Thai by Cornwel-Smith is excellent.
BY GREG LOWE on 28 April 2008
In the first of Travelhappy’s Thailand Writers series, Philip Cornwel-Smith, author of the bestselling Very Thai, a guide to understanding everyday street life in Thailand, describes why he loves the Land of Smiles
Time in Thailand
What brought you here?
A backpacker bored with touring, I studied meditation and massage before staying in Bangkok with an ex-Time Out pal. Within four days, I was hired as founding editor of Bangkok’s first city magazine, Metro. A typical Thai tale of reinvention.
What do you most love about the place?
Unpredictability. Flexibility. Vibrant streetlife. General pleasantness. Tolerant acceptance of human nature.
Where do you live in Thailand? Why did you choose to live there?
At a house opposite where I first stayed, in a close-knit central soi dubbed Sesame Street, though it can evoke Melrose Place.
What irks you?
Obstacles to people flourishing: impunity, censorship, monopolies, philistinism, the education system.
Thailand is the Land of Smiles. Discuss.
The plural doesn’t mean uniform happiness; there are different smiles for every emotion and motive. To learn Italian you begin with gestures; here you must learn how to smile.
Cultural recommendations (ie getting over culture shock)
Learn how to smile.
Explain the passion and idea behind your latest book in 100 words
Exoticised presentations of Thai culture ill-prepare visitors for reality. Thai streetlife fascinates, but goes mostly unexplained. In ‘Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture’ I identified patterns amid the chaos, investigating things like grooming and ghosts, blind bands and truck art, which intrigue outsiders, and which Thais often overlook as familiar or déclassé. Happily I hit a zeitgeist. Thais increasingly find inspiration from street culture as they develop a new pop aesthetic in movies, advertising, design. ‘Very Thai’ captures a transitional phase when traditions still affect how Thais express modernity. My next book spotlights the emergent creative culture.
Very Thai – Philip Cornwel-Smith
Any indy bar with mis-matched furniture.
Many. Frequent standby: Greyhound Café.
Favourite Thai getaway
Koh Samet, and festivals in Isan or Lanna.
Favourite Thai meal
Spiced herbal soups like tom yum or tom khlong, crab fried rice, stir-fried bitter gourd vines, grilled squid with seafood sauce, char-grilled pork dipped in jaew, and any laab with aromatic leaves.
Community events unpublicised in English. Serendipity or sleuthing required.
Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture (2005).
Time Out Bangkok guidebook (3 edns).
Travel Happy is a travel website
A fun, informative book with eye-catching photographs by John Goss. Makes a great souvenir.
Posted in: Blog,
Finalmente le risposte a tutte le vostre domande riguardanti la Thailandia: perchè i taxi a bordo hanno piccoli santuari, perchè vengono annodati pezzi di tessuto intorno agli alberi.
A very fun book that covers pretty much every quirky area of Thai culture and society – great pictures too.
Posted in: Blog,
Razzle-dazzle: At Sirocco, dine alfresco on the sixty-third floor of Bangkok’s second-tallest building, the State Tower, where Mediterranean cuisine and live jazz compete with glittering city views
Bangkok is one of the most heterogeneous, if not miscellaneous, cities in the world. Wandering down Sukhumvit Road, a main thoroughfare, in one block I passed a Kashmiri restaurant, a camping-gear shop, a diamond merchant, and a passel of friendly girls in red high heels in front of Pedro’s Bar before arriving at my destination, the California Wow Xperience, a popular exercise club. At the entrance, speakers aimed at the street keened and thudded with techno music. Directly underneath, two old women sat on camp stools, peddling lottery tickets and Buddhist amulets, while behind them a little girl sprawled on the sidewalk doing her English homework under a banner advertising a two-for-one membership promotion. (more…)
Posted in: Reviews,
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. (more…)
Posted in: Reviews,
29 Aug 2005
A wonderful book is “Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture,” by Philip Cornwel-Smith and with 500 photographs by John Goss. I picked up a copy in the gift shop of the National Museum in Bangkok, but it is available on Amazon.com. The pictures are incredibly evocative, and there are essays on everything from vendors to transportation to soi animals to alphabet tables to fortune tellers to monk baskets to soap operas to temple fairs. Rough Guide says “Answers and insights aplenty in this erudite, sumptuously photographed guide to contemporary Thai culture.” The book is a manageable size.
This fantastic read delves behind the façade of Thai culture and explains why the Thais do what they do, say what they say, watch what they watch, and are who they are. And Very Thai does so in such an engaging fashion that it is hard to put down. Well researched and accompanied by 500 quirky photos, Very Thai is an essential for anyone navigating Thai life. Whether you are curious about the origins of the tuk-tuk, the bouffants preferred by those in the social pages, ladyboy culture or the thousands of superstitions observed in the Land of Smiles, Very Thai will give you the answer, along with several laughs and poignant insight.
Brazilian madness erupts on Feb 26, when the Carnival from Rio de Janeiro pitches up at Shera1 Jan 2005
ton Grande Sukhumvit. Eat, drink, and be Latin with the self-professed “happiest Brazilian group in Asia!” After cocktails and a buffet dinner, samba dancers jiggle for the crowd, paying homage to four of the main Samba styles from Rio. A night of overindulgence in food and drunken gyrations to make the Romans proud…
Posted in: Reviews,
“Why do Thais decant their soft drinks into plastic bags, and what lies behind their penchant for Neoclassical architecture? Answers and insights aplenty in this erudite, sumptuously photographed guide to contemporary Thai culture.”