Alex Kerr, earning his accreditation herein as an “Asia pundit”, says it best in the foreword to Very Thai: “This is the book I wish I’d had when I first came to Thailand.” It is truly so much better than any other “guide” (once you’ve got all the maps and hotel listings in your pocket).
A pair of aliens who upon landing fell in love with Thailand, Bangkok Metro magazine’s former British editor Philip Cornwel-Smith and American artist -photographer John Goss have, with genuine affection, put together 256 pages of endearing text with 494 colour photos of instantly recognisable social signatures.
While it bookends pop culture, the guide covers subject matter that’s so permeating it blooms on every street corner to form part of the collective Thai consciousness.
“A book seemingly about trivia and trifles, ‘Very Thai’ is about Thailand’s very soul,” Kerr writes.
With only a few typos and style slips, the author takes readers on a boisterous, adventurous holiday in a land where “dayglo paintings of village huts zoom by on mini buses” and “overloaded broom carts bristle like a roadside art installation”. With this kind of devotional creativity, you can see why the pair are amazed by Thailand – and wonder why some expatriates, scowling into their newspaper, are not.
What about those tiny pink napkins you see at every restaurant and curbside food stall, then? Every virgin farang wonders about them. These intensely inquisitive guys ask about their size and colour and share the answers with the reader.
Among “the miscellany of Thai life, whether folk or formal, pop or ethnic, home-grown or imported” explored here are:
Markets, street food (including khanom and insects), boats and buses, soap operas and katoeys, amulets and nang kwak, blind buskers and look thung, uniforms and nicknames, hi-so and motorcycle-taxi win (ranks), scrap collectors, taxi dashboard shrines, bagged drinks…
The yaa dom nasal inhaler, (“the little white nozzle plugs into both nose and the national psyche”) and the yaa mong balm merely worsen respiratory ailments by weakening the immune system, the author notes, but what a good way to fend off the offending odours of stopped-up sewers.
A nice segue to hom kaen, the uniquely Thai sniff kiss, is a subject that gives Cornwel-Smith’s romanticism full bloom and highlights a mid-’90s US survey that found Thais to be the world’s best-smelling people.
He can be utterly charming about mundane stuff. “If Disney wrote the recipe for contemporary cute, and Japan baked it as a cupcake called kawaii, Thailand iced it with pink sugar.”
And he can be philosophical too. The ubiquitous cute kitsch, which extends to spirit houses with doll figurines and police booths capped by giant traffic cops’ helmets, might in others’ eyes imply a calculated passivity, even a readiness to be taken advantage of.
He can also be at times overreaching in his descriptive enthusiasm. “Much of the value from the past is being junked in the headlong rush to one of the many ways to be modern. Yet some traditions draw renewed energy from this cultural whirl, which is financed by a booming economy and was sparked in 1992 by the dawn of a workable democracy.”
It’s a mighty struggle staying cheerful in the face of this country’s bureaucratic bungles and sheer bad habits. Of Bangkok’s failure to honour a 1999 pledge to bury all the telephone cables, Cornwel-Smith quotes a rather sniffy Kerr: “People who are born and live in such an environment know of no alternative.” He then applauds the fact that the eyesore wires and pipes are put to colourful use as clotheslines and sculpture.
To be sure, outsiders’ comments on a host country usually invite trouble, but in Very Thai, any hint of farang chauvinism is chased off by Cornwel-Smith’s commendably compassionate text, which actually leans towards the ingratiating but is saved by its sense of celebration, of respectful homage.
Thus, those frightening tumours of overhead electrical wires become “whimsical knots”, and security guards’ shrill whistling “is good, positive, colourful: the sound of doing something”.
And while “the blurred line between state and private guards allows them to impose authority on their own turf with minimal accountability and murky allegiance”, the yaam are praised in pity: “For Thais, wired for group sanuk, sitting solo in an aluminium booth for 12 hours is dullness verging on torture.”
Let the whistles shriek, then. It’s “Very Thai”, and if not a coda to the national anthem, still worth a salute.
A great book about a great country.
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