Fidel 3094 posts
Posted 28 October 2006
“Very Thai” is the book about Thailand I’m most glad I bought.
500 or so great photos of daily Thailand life: katoeys, truck art, motorycle taxi drivers’ vests, phallic symbols, the tiny pink tissues on all the tables and on and on, with excellent written explanations! A great coffeebook table to remind you of Thailand and shed light on Thai culture. A steal at under 1000 baht!
A review from the net:
For newcomers or old hands Thailand poses a plethora of questions: Why the gaudy paintings on the sides of buses? What are those strange tattoos supposed to do? How about the national obsessions with soap operas, fortune-tellers, and comedy cafes? And what’s up with those blind street musicians anyway?
In the book Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture (River Books, 2005), writer Philip Cornwel-Smith and photographer John Goss attempt to answer many of these puzzling questions that usually go unasked in books about traditional Thai culture and most travel guides.
The book is divided into four different sections â?? “Street”; “Personal”; “Ritual”; and “Sanuk,” â?? which examine everything from security guards to beauty queens and the philosophy behind all those ornate gates.
At first glance some of the essays such as “Dinner on a Stick” might seem like their regurgitating the banal: Bangkok has thousands of restaurants and stalls serving up sustenance-on-wheels. But one of Philâ??s primary strengths as a writer is his meticulous research. Even some younger Thais might be surprised to learn that the real restaurant boom in the capital began in the 1960s when, after getting a taste of Western restaurateur capitalism, “wealthy Thai wives in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit district converted buildings fronting their compounds into outlets for their cooks”.
So it goes with many of the essays. Quite a few readers will know that the mythical Garuda (an almighty hybrid of bird and human) is a symbol of Siamese Royalty, but may not realise that King Rama V once “had a man-sized Narai riding a man-sized Garuda’s shoulders on the bonnet of a motorcar.”
This is the kind of book that makes for a great companion in the streets, or on the road, often times literally, as it veers off on detours through the history of the tuk-tuk (originally a Japanese invention, but given a Thai spin), explains the Buddha images and yantras in taxis, and looks at some of the splashes of inspirations, like northern-style umbrellas and Japanese manga, that animate the bright murals on public buses.
Philip also offers up plenty of original insights. In trying to explain the sometimes erratic driving styles of Thais, he looks back into history’s rearview mirror to the Kingdom’s waterborne culture: “Weaving between lanes, Thai cars slip through gaps as if they were a canoe that would glance not crash. Touting taxis and tuk-tuk hover freely rather than stop at reserved ranks. Cars park up to three metres deep, rather like tethered boats.”
The book’s overriding theme, how past and present, East and West, are on a collision course in the Thailand of today is captured by photographer John Goss in a number of eye-riveting juxtapositions: like a 7-11 behind a spirit house and a temple dwarfed by a Western-style high-rise, or a sign that reads “Nice Palace” next to an ad-hoc, sidewalk kitchen.
But Very Thai is also a very versatile read and photo collection. For the real or couch-bound traveler, the creators whisk you off to the racy Phi Ta Khon, or Ghost Mask Festival in Loei; and there are stopovers at a wild tattoo festival on the grounds of Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Chaisri, as well as the “Illuminated Boat Procession” in Nakhon Phanom province.
They also take you behind the scenes of high-society parties, where, surprisingly enough, gatecrashers are not barred. Says one lady from the upper echelon, “Door policies will never happen in Thailand, believe me. If you’re not invited, they’ll let you in anyway, but maybe talk behind your back.” With all the business deals being sealed at these glitzy functions, Phil believes “hi-so is the new golf.”
Popular entertainment is also spotlighted, and the fickleness of fame is mocked by Thais as maya (the Sanskrit word often used in Buddhist terminology for the illusory nature of life.) But the author also sings the praises of the “Songs for Life” genre of Thai folk music, Modern Dog (the indie heroes who put the bite into Thai alternative music), and local rapper Da Jim.
Another fault-line running through Very Thai is that, in a book which purports to be about everyday culture, very few ordinary Thais are quoted. Most of the quotations are taken from Thai academics. In places this gives the book a scholarly tone that clashes with the subject matter. It should be an easy enough flaw to fix in what will most likely be a series, and John Goss’s images manage to bring some of the Ivory Tower asides back down to street level.
One of the most overused travel writer’s clichés about Bangkok and the country’s markets and festivals is “chaotic”. What may seem shambolic on the surface, however, reveals depths of order moored in ancient traditions. Such is the case with the essay entitled “Day Themes: a colour-coded guide to surviving the eight-day week.” Seemingly random and merely aesthetic to the Westernized eye, the brilliantly hued sashes wrapped around sacred trees, chedis, and spirit houses are actually auspicious colours associated with different days. Another photograph reveals that even 7-11 has used these colours for an advertisement.
Not one to make light of the country’s dark side – as is the case with so many Western writers – the essays on “Fortune Tellers,” “Ghost Stories,” and “Lucky Number 9” reveal that Thailand may have some of the fashions and facades of the West and Japan, but has retained its very Thai spirit.
All in all, this groundbreaking work strikes me as one of the few books written in English to come out of the country in recent years that will still be of interest to readers, students, and pop culture historians in a century from now.
Pailin on 10 July 2008
Re: Very Thai
I have this book and enjoy it. It has great snippets into Thai life.
guava on 10 July 2008
Re: Very Thai
I too can recommend this book, it was first published in 2005. I have just pulled out my copy and forgot how good it was!
yeows on 10 July 2008
Re: Very Thai
I can’t wait to get my hands on the other 2 books.