In this episode I am an Englishman in SIAM, for International travellers, the name SIAM conjures up ‘The King and I’, tuk,tuks, temples and Buddha’s. But what makes Thailand and its capital, Bangkok so very different to a city like London or Paris? With the answer is author and Thailand expert Philip Cornwel-Smith.
Buy Philip’s original Book “Very Thai” here: https://tinyurl.com/ybcskkwt
And his new book “Bangkok In The City of Senses here:
‘Very Bangkok’: In search of the contemporary in the city of senses
SEBASTIAN PARTOGI, 15 Nov 2020 / 02:59 pm
With a lot of people stressed out by being confined to their homes for months on end during the pandemic, many have started to realize they had previously taken their outdoor adventures for granted.
This, along with the rise of so-called “immersive travel experiences”, has prompted many people in quarantine to dream of being excited by the adrenaline rush of such journeys, where they can activate all their senses by exploring off-the-beaten track attractions in their chosen destinations once again.
Among the many travel books launched this year, is Philip Cornwel-Smith’s Very Bangkok: In the City of the Senses (River Books, 2020), a 360-page captivating homage to Thailand’s capital city by someone who has lived there for over 25 years.
The author: Philip Cornwel-Smith has just published ‘Very Bangkok: In the City of the Senses’, which takes unique ways of considering why this elusive city is the way it is. (Courtesy of Philip Cornwel-Smith /-)
Originally hailing from England, Smith presents a unique half-insider, half-outsider account of the place. Someone used to say that to truly experience a place, it is not enough for you to just experience it in all its glory, you also have to get in touch with the more painful aspects of its residents’ daily humdrums – something that these immersive travelers are desperately looking for.
In a similar vein, the book also gives you a rich sneak peek of how the mundane daily life in Bangkok unfolds, beyond the pad thai and the beautiful pagodas and the shopping malls and the fun nightclubs that the city is most famous for among tourists.
Congruent with its title, the book opens with an account of Bangkok as a city which truly overwhelms all your five senses, with the various smells and tastes coming from the more sacred realm of fresh culinary presentations and food markets on down to the more profane one of air pollution on the streets.
Meaty flavor: For those who like meat in their drinks, Eat Me restaurant makes a cocktail that tastes like the warm salad dish moo larb. (Courtesy of Philip Cornwel-Smith /-)
He also dedicates a full chapter called “Heat and Damp”, giving us a picture of how it feels like to be “hazed” by the city’s tropical temperature – normally hot and humid during the dry season but can also be cooled down by downpours during the monsoon.
Having experienced great cabin fever upon months and months of home quarantine, all of a sudden, the idea of venturing out in the open, taking in the innocent sensuality of the hot afternoon sun stinging your skin or braving a hard rain during a motorcycle ride can sound tempting to so many travelers.
Bangkok is also a city where poor neighborhoods and more luxurious establishments stand side by side.
On these roads you can witness the socioeconomic inequality at play, the lives of the privileged being brutally contrasted with the less fortunate ones. True “road dogs” who are up for a navigational challenge can also find something to love about memorizing the puzzling routes of the local roads, which do not follow a grid system.
This is why travelers from Jakarta will also find that despite its very distinctive style and nuances, Bangkok’s daily hustle-and-bustle can be shockingly similar to Indonesia’s capital.
Street performance: The Sino-Thais are the majority population of Bangkok. But as society changed, Chinese opera and lion dances started to be performed by a later group of indigenous migrants from Thailand’s northeast region. (Courtesy of Philip Cornwel-Smith /-)
Perhaps this fine balance between familiarity and strangeness between Indonesia and Thailand explains why so many Indonesian tourists have been attracted to visit the place year after year. Data from the Thai Embassy in Jakarta from 2016 revealed roughly 500,000 Indonesian tourists visited Thailand each year.
Also similar to Indonesia, Thailand comprises a multitude of different ethnic groups and faiths living side by side. The book portrays how the dynamics among these groups play out through accounts of street food, for instance.
Another social identity issue that this book has brought up is that of the local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
Despite many tourists across the globe having a somewhat orientalist view of Bangkok as a “gay paradise” and despite the availability of so many gay clubs in the city, Smith quotes a 2019 Legatum Prosperity Index revealing that Thailand ranked 48 out of 167 for LGBT tolerance.
Yet, the author does not take the quantitative measure at face value as he also mentions that the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center hosted the Spectrosynthesis II, the biggest ever LGBT art exhibition in Asia, in November 2019.
Speaking of the arts, he also provides you a guide to the city’s aesthetics and places you can go to, to take some kind of artistic and intellectual refuge. Yet, as we mention in the beginning, an author can only do some justice to a place when he also addresses local tragedies, which you will typically miss if you only frequent local tourist attractions.
The beautiful, bad and ugly stories from Bangkok are very well captured here, presented in in-depth historical, political, social and cultural context by the author, which link together the city’s historical roots with its current, contemporary state.
Ceremonious: Bangkok is a loud city of modern noise, but also a center of delicate aural culture, such as conch shell blowing in Brahmin rituals. (Courtesy of Philip Cornwel-Smith /-)
The historical and political account can also give you contextual sense of the very recent youth-led pro-democratic rallies in the city, which tourists who picture Thailand as a paradise might find puzzling.
If after the pandemic is over you find yourself longing for some extended thrills abroad, you can consider reading this book to guide you to explore Bangkok in its totality.
You are in for some new surprises about the city thanks to Smith’s deep insight into the place, aided by multi-sensory description methods which, again, live up to what he promises readers in the title.
If you have already been to the city before, the way Smith approaches the Bangkok story here can also inspire you to read more books and learn more about the sociopolitical history and contexts of other destinations as well, so as to enrich your next trip itinerary, wherever that may be.
Whatever your future plans might be, we can only pray that the day when we will be allowed to travel internationally again will come soon. (ste)
A review of Very Bangkok: Unique and pithy insights into the Big Mango by Very Observant Philip Cornwel-Smith
By Aydan Stuart | Thu 5 Nov 2020
As any visitor to Bangkok will know, it’s impossible to avoid the hot mess of sizzling street food, fragrant shrines, putrid canals and never-ending traffic jams. As one of the most complex and complicated cities in the world, just being there can be an overwhelming experience that forces every sense into overdrive. But why is it this way? And what makes Bangkok so, well, very Bangkok?
It is these sounds, sights, tastes and smells of Bangkok that Philip Cornwell-Smith attempts to dissect in his most recent book, Very Bangkok, which expertly explores how every hidden secret and cultural anomaly catches our senses and tickles our curiosity.
Donning his anthropological cap once again, some seven years after his highly-acclaimed second edition of Very Thai—which offers an in-depth exploration of Thai popular culture—Cornwell-Smith again shoots past the obvious and goes straight for the jugular, exposing the real-life spaces, faces and rat races that our technicolour capital hides best.
Guiding you down smelly canals, letting your mind stroll around fragrant gardens, and unmasking your misinterpretations on polluted highways, this well-written and deeply insightful guide to Krungthep Mahanakorn is a coffee table must, and much more besides. Each one of its 360 pages offers honest and visceral insights into the heart of Thailand’s most unique personality. His prose unapologetically frank, full of whimsy, and deliberately evoking.
Describing the city and its many suburbs as one “living, breathing art piece”, he skirts around more obvious topics such as ‘Streetfood’ and ‘Vertical Living’, before exposing new perspectives such as ‘Bang-Pop’, ‘Birdsong’, and ‘Bangkoklyn’. Cornwell-Smith, once again, serves up a dense helping of endless discoveries, picking apart every aspect of daily life and fondly sharing why Bangkok is so quintessentially iconic.
Leaving no stone uncovered, and no taboo unspoken, he explores both the popular and unpopular fame the city attracts. Seedy, sweaty red-light districts make way for auto-amnesiac destructions of history and free-flowing corruption that locals have come to expect and live to exploit. “Krungthep’s liveliness comes from constant churn;” he writes. “It reflects the fact that the city is structurally unstable at deeper levels. Things that most countries consider permanent, shift with surprising ease in Bangkok.”
Yet, as politics increasingly defines what it means to be “Thai”, the shifting political culture and recognition of the people and events that have defined the city’s almost clockwork cycle of protest, election and coup, are diplomatically scant. Instead, Cornwell-Smith focuses on how the overall idea of “Thainess” is evolving and forever being re-defined by society, a theme that plays a prominent role throughout Very Bangkok, just as it did in both editions of Very Thai.
And although a Chiang Mai version of his Very-series would be both fascinating, yet unlikely to make it to the printers, there are more than enough points and tidbits that can tickle the fancies of us Northern folk.
As an ex-Chiang Mai resident sat on a dusty Bangkok balcony, trying to read over the grinding hum of the city below, I was pleasantly surprised to find something on almost every page that evoked a sense of Northern nostalgia.
Marble-clad temples performing Lanna rituals with betel nut offerings and spirals of sai-ua sausages. Provincial-themed street parties that totally disregard the standstill traffic jams around them. Hercules Beetle fighting championships that go deep into the night. Regional transit that has “more jazzy stripes than Paul Smith socks”.
With countless references to the unique and Thai-defining elements that make up the Kingdom, it is no surprise that even those (un)lucky enough to avoid Bangkok altogether, can still pick up on many similarities to their hometown or provincial city sweetheart.
As always, Cornwell-Smith is a master in articulating the unexplainable and shining a light on the invisible. Very Bangkok is a five-star journey through the many tiers of the capital and offers a wide-open window onto the fluorescent pulse of the city. From city sewers to cultural hierarchies, every aspect of Bangkok’s rich identity is laid bare in spectacularly engaging and eye-opening detail.
Very Bangkok: In the City of the Senses by Philip Cornwel-Smith, Bangkok: River Books, 2020. ISBN: 9786164510432. 995 Baht.
Bangkok is one of the most often studied and written about cities in the contemporary world.1 Sometimes ‘Bangkok’ stands by itself as a singular set of urban phenomena (p. 15), as a symptom of other social conditions, as a unique destination for tourist delectation (p. 193). Sometimes discussions of this city function as a stalking horse for yet another representation of progressive globalization (p. 87), or it poses as the ultimately flawed epitome of the ‘Thai’ nation whose outer honour is fanatically defended but which conceals a cruel and nihilistic core (p. 187). ‘Bangkok’ can serve as a symbolic cauldron into which are titrated the liqueous humours of a strangely occult concoction, partly a modern excitatory effluvium, partly an ancient flow from an implacably poisonous, subterranean swamp (pp. 13, 25).
Cornwel-Smith’s second Thai compilation from fifteen years of further perceptions and recorded glances, after his Very Thai, Everyday Popular Culture (2005),2 is organized as the product of three zones, or modes, of physical perception and display: Senses, Heart, and Face. The text is accompanied by photographs, which he largely took himself and sometimes take over from the text as the bearers of his perception. The written texts are far more insightful than Very Thai, but both books have their origins in the rather breathless Time Out style of the guides he used to edit: a kind of ‘travelling Wikipedia on speed’ without too much interventionist or academic referencing. Nevertheless, Very Bangkok is much more careful in tying its perceptions to other sources, or to more rounded if often critical perceptions, and the index is printed in better-spaced columns, making it more useful and more valid as a traveller’s reference. Unlike Cornwel-Smith’s earlier book, it also includes two particularly detailed maps, a conventional North-South view, and one with a new orientation of Bangkok rightwards and southwards towards the sea.
The longest zone is of the ‘Senses’, with fifty-five subcategories. ‘Heart’ has twenty-six and ‘Face’ has eighteen subcategories, and within these texts about sixty per cent are closed off into mini-essays on special topics like ‘cycling’ or ‘graffiti’. I was a little frustrated at the rather choppy flow until I reached the fourth group of subcategories under ‘Space’, which has the four subcategories, ‘Sanam Luang’, ‘Background City’, ‘Third Places’ and ‘Green Space’. I then began to see the author’s careful imbrication of his material in a number of critiques of urban life, some environmental concerns and notions of different kinds of urban space. One set of examples shows the author’s skill in this area:
Tiered spaces reinforce social tiers. Rich, middle and poor often live adjacent and may mingle in some public areas, but their worlds barely touch. Each class accesses separate overlapping grids, whether for work, shopping, or socialising, with modes of transit for each class of passenger. (p. 48)
Foreigners can be oblivious to the social rules of kalatesa [time-space] which govern what’s appropriate to any situation from manners to possessions. (p. 49, in ‘Background City’, ‘City of Levels, p. 46)
It is, however, difficult in such an apparently haphazard set of different texts to sustain an underlying flow, and the quality of an aleatoric, non-consecutive existence only reappeared, for me, in the later section, ‘Portrayals’, which had six subcategories. This is where the author comes to grips with the fictionality of the city and of its imagined mess, which is somehow liveable and, despite itself, self-sustaining. Cornwel-Smith cites the use of soap opera templates by the prominent author, Veeraporn Nitiprapha, to reveal Bangkok’s ideological blindness.
If you can understand the myths of love then you can understand the myths of everything, of hatred and of conflicts…..what struck me about the 2010 crackdown is how there were people glad about other people’s deaths. (Veeraporn, p. 309)
Land. These crises, whatever their historical generation, are also handled by a political and regal symbolic system, which seems only suited to defer or obfuscate them. There is no chapter which handles authoritarianism, in particular that shown in the military massacres on Bangkok’s streets in 1992 and 2010. Cornwel- Smith may think these events would be a political distraction from the subject of experiencing the city through his senses, but they are a real part of the lives of all Bangkokians, even if deflected or obscured in many aspects of daily life. He does handle memory in the section ‘Memory: remembering to forget’, noting that ‘Forgetting is policy. Recent events dissolve before our very eyes, didn’t happen here’ (p, 282), but this may be a too straightforward a formulation for the deliberate and self-interested avoidance by both the perpetrators and their victims.
Walking about almost any city is likely to trigger associations of historical memory. However, one does not find in Cornwel-Smith’s text the lyrical engagement with the past in Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories of a City,3 that might require a longing, or love, that is slipping out of grasp and is only recuperated by Pamuk’s text and by his mobilization of other photographs and illustrations of a world which has nearly gone. Nor does one see the probing historical mind of late 19th century Northern European visitors to Istanbul, who divide off parts of a city by the period and type of their occupation. One would not know much about Thonburi or its role in the genesis of the Bangkok side of the river from Cornwel-Smith, as one sees clearly the rise of ‘Stamboul’ in Hutton’s Constantinople.4
This lack of a lyrical or a historical thread becomes a very clear impediment with regard to formation of the multi-ethnic nature of Bangkok’s population, which has arrived over time. In Very Bangkok the treatment of ethnicities is spread out, not seen as a particular force given via the nature of late Ayutthaya history, the defeat of the Burmese, and the recommencement of one of many long waves of Chinese immigration (p. 222). Instead, Brahmins and Muslim Thais are handled under the subcategory of ‘Sacred’, but Indian Thais under that of ‘Becoming Bangkokian’, and Thai-Jiin under a mixing concept of ‘Stir-Fry’. This reader lost all sense of a peculiar and place-specific interaction between historical situations and the geographical/geological possibilities of habitation in Thonburi/Bangkok. This is clearly laid out in the book by Van Roy, Siamese Melting Pot: Ethnic Minorities in the Making of Bangkok (2017), which Cornwel-Smith includes in his bibliography but does not actively mobilize.5 Such ethnic variety explains the restricted viability of the concept of ‘Thainess’ like none other, and the casual observer may not so easily sense in Very Bangkok the fictional quality of ethnic categories in the streets and in historical time (p. 297).
It could be objected that the purpose of Very Bangkok is not to capture ‘Thainess’, but the range of specific experiences and their real-world situations which can be cumulated into ‘Bangkok Thainess’. Unfortunately the multi-ethnicity of Thai society makes one realize that the lack of such an intention will not make the issue of a deceptive and self-interested ‘national essence’ deployed assiduously by the rich and powerful go away (p. 178), whatever level of concreteness any particular set of sensations have given rise to. Indeed, Cornwel-Smith assumes throughout a sort of inclusivist sensibility which, in practice, the reader has no means of affirming. He leaves himself out of the account of his sensations, which, for him, have a directness and purity. It is difficult to believe that inherited cultural habits may allow such perception to be unmediated, however long someone has been in Thailand.
Despite extensive observations about digital realities (see ‘Feeling digital’, pp. 166- 169, and index, pp. 350, 353), perhaps this book has come too late to examine in depth how digital virtuality functions in the integration of opinion youth cohorts, especially in the urban environment of Bangkok.6 These children and adolescents are now beyond the control of their parents, and increasingly younger cohorts have escaped the insistent ideological training provided by the Thai education system even before University. There is a large set of digital networks among youth, which facilitate or produce the self-positioning affiliations of even younger school children active in recent calls for constitutional reform. ‘Thai’ society is now being integrated beyond the control systems hitherto active.7 It would be useful to know how these circuits are now functioning in Bangkok and whether, or how, they have affected urban identities to any extent.
What Very Bangkok, brings the reader, apart from its texts, are Cornwel-Smith’s own photographs. Towards the end, he confesses that he is wary of the status of the street photographs he takes because of the posing or reaction to the camera of the street subjects. He queries what has become, from Henri Cartier-Bresson, photographer’s dogma for street photography that emphasises:
“capturing ‘The Decisive Moment’, the skill of freezing a moment to convey deep meaning.” Given the way that Bangkok street photography can flummox the viewer with ambiguous juxtapositions, it could be said to capture ‘The Indecisive Moment’ (Klongton, p. 311).
The reader can thus go back to take an open-ended interpretive view of the images he presents. Bangkok now appears as a litany of in-between pauses, which segment and redefine its ambiguous meanings.
Overall, this is a valuable guide to the sorts of Bangkok one can experience without necessarily forcing the reader to agree with the author. Aside from an understandable reluctance to handle issues to do with royal status or the authoritarianism of the current military regime, it represents a remarkably comprehensive view of Bangkok’s social phenomena as may be encountered in the street.
1 Among more useful texts are: Askew, Marc, Bangkok: Place, Practice, and Representation, London: Routledge, 2002; Hamilton, Annette, “Wonderful, Terrible: Everyday Life in Bangkok”, in Bridge, Gary and Sophie Watson (eds.), A Companion to the City, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2000, pp. 460–471; O’Connor, Richard A., “Place, Power and Discourse in the Thai image of Bangkok”, JSS, vol. 78, no. 2, 1990, pp. 61-73; Ünaldi, Serhat, Working towards the Monarchy: The Politics of Space in Downtown Bangkok, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2016; Van Roy, Edward, Siamese Melting Pot: Ethnic Minorities in the Making of Bangkok, Singapore: ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute and Chiang Mai, Silkworm Books, 2017.
All images in this review are from Very Bangkok.
2 Cornwel-Smith, Phillip, with photographs by John Goss and Phillip Cornwel-Smith, Very Thai, Everyday Popular Culture, Bangkok: River Books, 2005.
3 Pamuk, Orhan, Istanbul: Memories of a City, London: Faber & Faber, 2005.
4 Hutton, William Holden, Constantinople: The Story of the Old Capital of the Empire, London: J.M. Dent, 1900, reprinted 1933.
5 See note 1 above.
6 Cornwel -Smith somewhat simplistically concludes: “Time will tell if digitisation poses an existential threat to the sensory experience of Bangkok or gives it a new flavour’ (p. 169).
7 On the issue of digital controls, see Aim Sinpeng, “Digital media, political authoritarianism, and Internet controls in Southeast Asia”, Media, Culture & Society, vol. 42 (1), pp. 25-39, 2019. There is some analysis of the role of the internet in forming new youth cohorts in Aim Sinpeng and Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, “New tactics, old grievances in Thai Protests”, East Asia Forum at http://eastasiaforum.org/2020/09/08/new -tactics-old-grievances-in-the-thai-protests/
Episode 111: Very Bangkok with Philip Cornwel Smith
Scott Coates & Trevor Ranges, 22 October 2020
Talk Travel Asia podcast welcomes back Phillip Cornwel Smith to talk about his latest publication: Very Bangkok. There’s no doubt that Bangkok is one of the world’s most visited cities. Its sites are some of the most featured on Instagram, and almost everyone will come up with some mental pictures of the city, good and bad, the moment they hear the name. Founded in 1782 when the Chakri Dynasty established Bangkok as Thailand’s capital, it’s a vibrant, dynamic city that dazzles the senses at every turn. Some love it, others hate it, and all with good reason. Today we’ll explore the City of Angels well beyond the surface with longtime resident and author Philip Cornwel Smith, who will share insights from his book Very Bangkok.
Trevor & Scott give a quick overview of our time in Bangkok and Thailand, including some of their loves and hates of the city. Scott loves the food, friendly people, variety of transport methods, all sorts of hidden corners and communities; he dislikes constant heat, traffic, lack of green spaces, the smell of salty fish and elephant pants.
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Guest Intro: Philip Cornwel Smith
We’ve been lucky enough to know our guest for quite a long time. Philip Cornwel Smith is originally from the UK but made his way to Thailand in the nineties, quite by accident as many do. He started as the editor of a listings magazine, Bangkok Metro, authored and produced a Timeout Travel Guide to Bangkok and the Beaches, and then made a massive splash in 2005 with Very Thai. In it, he explored many, many quirky elements of Thai life and has since gone to become the ‘go to’ authority on Thainess, despite not being Thai himself. He joins us today from the UK. Welcome again Philip and thanks for making time for us.
Listen to Episode 111: Very Bangkok with Philip Cornwel Smith to hear Philip answer the following questions:
You were last on our show in July 2015 to talk about your other book Very Thai on Episode 28, what have you been up to since then?
Before we get to Very Bangkok, has the success of Very Thai surprised you?
When did you first get the idea for Very Bangkok and why has it taken 14-years to get to print?
What can readers expect to learn from Very Bangkok that they didn’t experience in Very Thai?
The subtitle of Very Bangkok is ‘In The City of The Senses’, why did you choose that?
You broke the book into some pretty interesting sections: Senses, Heart, and Face; why did you choose those?
You also touch quite a number of times on the use of digital sensing and tools to understand the city. How did that come about?
Bangkok is one of the world’s most visited and photographed cities, what do you think are some of the biggest surprises about the city that readers will discover with Very Bangkok?
I found it really interesting that you mention a lack of Bangkok pride amongst its residents. Why is this?
You spend a fair bit of time in Bali now, what do you enjoy there that you don’t get when you’re here?
What’s next for you Philip?
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Very Bangkok – Philip Cornwel-Smith in Conversation
The India-Thailand connection: “Very Bangkok” is Philip Cornwel-Smith’s long awaited follow-up to his iconic book “Very Thai”. A longtime cultural observer of all things in Thailand, Cornwel-Smith is keenly aware of a construct of “Thai-ness” that is often quite different to the experienced lives of Thai peoples within their own popular culture. Using a non-Western, non-categorical approach in his new book, he instead looks at popular Thai culture through a multitude of senses. In this rambling conversation he discusses the historical and cultural connections between India and Thailand, Hinduism and Buddhism in Thailand today, why Hinduism has become more popular in Thailand, and how sex and alternative sexual lifestyles are viewed in Thai culture.
Very Bangkok: Soaking In and Exploring The City of Senses
by Mae Rosukhon & Simon Philipp, co-founders, Expique tours, 15 May 2020Very
You’ve landed in Bangkok – and the smell hits you like a blast. It’s the heat, combined with food, grilled meats, frying chilli and basil, the flower garlands… mixed with traffic exhausts and dank canalways. Smell is the first sense to be assaulted by Bangkok, but certainly not the last.
Sensing Bangkok may just be the best way to explore it. Why is the capital city of Thailand the way it is? This is the question Philip Cornwel-Smith, the author of Very Bangkok, has set out to answer. A follow-up to the highly-acclaimed Very Thai, his in-depth look at Thai popular culture, Very Bangkok is equally wide-ranging, and captures how Bangkok catches our senses, aware and unawares, delving beyond smell, taste and sound to explore other senses like space and flow, balance, and the heart of being Thai.
“Bangkok is a city with lots of preconceptions and projections,” said Cornwel-Smith at his book launch at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Bangkok (FCCT). “It’s known as the Land of Smiles, and its serene view of itself competes with a sensationalist view of the city.” Bangkok’s nightlife temptations are quite world-renowned but has tended to crowd out other stories of the city, such as of its creativity and design, he also noted.
As someone born and raised in Bangkok, no matter how often I heard outsiders characterise the city a ‘bounty of sensory pleasures’, it always felt as though they were describing a place that didn’t exist. Despite its many mazes, its contrasting shades and sides, to me Bangkok is simply home, a place where you spend your life navigating the traffic, the humidity and the shopping malls. And the nature of home is that it remains the same. However it might feel to others, my Bangkok was stagnant, impervious to progress. And to live in it was to be bound by its sense of uniformity.
I spent my childhood and teenage years feeling out of place in my own city and yearning to be somewhere else, to belong somewhere else. Other places in the world— whether it be London, Paris, Tokyo, Milan—all seemed rich and intoxicating in comparison. So whenever I heard visitors or friends from abroad rhapsodising about how much they ‘love Bangkok’, I always felt sceptical and detached from their positive sentiment. There are many things about being from Bangkok that these outsiders could never understand—especially the way life is lived here, which, as a young person, I find mundane and stifling. Unless you become an actor or a pop star, your entire ‘ordinary’ life is already laid out before you—a good education, a steady job, a steady income and then a family.
When I first heard of Very Bangkok, Philip Cornwel- Smith’s follow-up to his popular book Very Thai, I felt similarly sceptical. What could a white Westerner tell me about my hometown that I didn’t already know? What could be gained from a book about Bangkok written in English and meant to be consumed largely by non- Thais? The experiment seemed both futile and clichéd. Would the book, like so many others about Thailand written by foreigners, be concerned with just the ‘touristy’ elements of Bangkok? If not, then how honest and nuanced could it be when it came to discussing what it’s truly like to be a Bangkokian?
Yet as I started engaging with Very Bangkok, I began to see that there might be some merit to having as its author someone who hasn’t, to quote author Lawrence Osborne in the book’s foreword, ‘absorbed unconsciously as a child’ the things which make Bangkok unique. By taking on the role of an outside observer, Cornwel-Smith is able to provide a more well-rounded view of Bangkok than a Bangkokian who’s lived in only one area of the city. An example of this is the section on Bangkok’s LGBT scene, which has long been unfairly aligned with the city’s seedy underbelly. ‘Bangkok is my church,’ drag artist Nuh Peace says. ‘In any other religion, if you are queer or different you’re out. But Bangkok accepts you how you are.’
True to its title, much of the book is devoted to Bangkok’s ‘sensory pleasures’, and to finding out the causes of the city’s ‘unexplained puzzles’. Filled with photographs of Bangkok and its people, Very Bangkok has three parts: ‘Senses’, ‘Heart’ and ‘Face’. Cornwel- Smith calls Bangkok ‘the world’s most primate city’ and is interested not in simply providing niche knowledge on various historical landmarks but in getting under the city’s skin and making sense of its DNA. Hence these musings, which almost turn Bangkok, a place of ‘very meaty spaces’, into a living, breathing character: ‘a city fretting about the future finds solace in orchestrating the past’, and ‘amnesiac Bangkok is recovering the gaps in its memory’. Many of the observations in Very Bangkok might not be the most flattering to this city of angels, but they are honest and important ones that many Thais haven’t dwelled on or even noticed, partly because they are so ingrained in us.
Thailand’s class system, for example, has always been a harmful but rarely discussed element of our culture. Very Bangkok notes that both of Bangkok’s electric rail systems, the MRT and the BTS, are ‘off limits to the poor or those with meagre incomes’, with stations directly integrated into affluent shopping malls, unlike bus stops. Religion, too, is put under the microscope, with one of the book’s Thai contributors arguing that Thai religiosity ‘has more to do with nationalism … than philosophical aspects of religion’. Our reverence for seniority is also shown to be harmful, especially to the younger generations. ‘Youth movements require spaces and time’, writes Cornwel-Smith, ‘which are not just lacking, but deliberately curtailed.’ We’re seeing more and more of this as young people attempt to take a greater role in politics.
The section of the book that I appreciate the most discusses Bangkok’s attitude towards sexuality. In the West, Thailand is often regarded as somewhere to have ‘a good time’, a phrase usually accompanied by a suggestive wink. But this perception of sexual liberation has always contrasted greatly with reality. To quote Cornwel-Smith, Bangkok is more ‘Sin City meets Prim City’. For many Bangkokians, public displays of affection between couples are unseemly; sex is not a topic that is openly or healthily discussed, either in schools or during one’s upbringing. The book also highlights that Thailand has the world’s second- highest rate of teen pregnancy, and that 44 per cent
of men admitted to having assaulted their partners when drunk. Although Bangkok is perceived to be a bachelor’s paradise, many of its locals are actually living in a society which ‘frowns on female sexuality’.
Where Very Bangkok could have done better, however, is in its preoccupation with defining ‘Thai-ness’ and ‘Bangkok-ness’. Certain statements from the author and non-Thai contributors—such as ‘for Bangkokians, nothing matters more than to ‘gain face’, for the self, this city, or the nation’, and ‘selfies are a way to get your face out there without fear of losing face’—come across as sweeping generalisations. The quote from Wayne Deakin, a Thailand-based British philosopher, that ‘Thai people are searching for identity’, is not far off the mark. But you can’t help reading it and wishing the conversation could have gone on longer, with more in-depth discussions of what might have caused this condition—perhaps with other contributors, especially those who are Thai, taking centre stage. Cornwel-Smith insists that his ‘status as an outsider is somewhat moot after twenty-five years of experience’. But would the book be different if there had been a native at the helm?
The answer isn’t straightforward. Last year I moved to Edinburgh. Living in Europe, I’ve found that Bangkok has taken on another role in my life. In many ways, I am now both the outsider and the insider; while the city is still my home, being away from it has simultaneously deepened my appreciation for it and opened my eyes to many of its flaws. Like Cornwel-Smith, I have learned to dissect the city and tried to figure out what lies beneath, leading to questions about the way we’ve been conditioned to view the world and, as Bangkokians, each other: Why do I always get compliments on my pale skin? What is life like for Bangkokians whose ethnicity or sexual orientation differs from mine? Will things ever be better for women or those not born into wealth?
But despite these flaws—and the city’s inability to address or confront them—I still find myself missing Bangkok. While I don’t miss the traffic or the humidity, I’ve found myself longing for small home comforts, mainly the food, the shopping malls, the language and the people. Now, whenever friends of mine from Europe or the United States ask for my advice on visiting Thailand, especially Bangkok, I encourage them to go. ‘It will be very different what you’re used to, though,’ I always tell them. ‘Different and overwhelming.’ But perhaps that’s what I’ve come to miss most about my city since I’ve been away: the overwhelming sameness of home. ☐
Pim Wangtechawat is a Thai writer based in Edinburgh
Stay Curious: Experience Bangkok From Your Living Room
by David Luekens, 27 March 2020
Culture Trip invites you to indulge in a spot of cloud tourism and experience the sights and sounds of a place without leaving home. Now, hop aboard our virtual tuk-tuk and let’s take a turn round Bangkok.
Bangkok is one of the world’s most widely visited cities, and foreign travellers can usually be found scooting around in tuk-tuks, feasting on street food and wandering through the temples and palaces.
Here are five ways to acquaint yourself with the Big Mango from the comfort of your own sofa. So why not prepare some Thai food, listen to some of Bangkokians’ favourite music to get you in the mood, and learn a few Thai phrases in preparation for going there IRL. Read on and you’ll get an idea of some of the energy that normally pulses through Bangkok.
Read and learn
Introduce yourself to the Thai capital’s quirkiness with a look through Very Bangkok (2016) by Philip Cornwel-Smith. It’s a follow-up to his similarly captivating Very Thai (2005), with both of these works honing in on the details that give the Thai capital a character found nowhere else. They share the pop culture, superstitions and unexpected style of everyday Bangkok and Thailand. Book stays and experiences, hand-picked by our travel experts.
British Author’s ‘Very Bangkok’ Deftly Dissects Thai Capital
Very Bangkok reviewed by Teeranai Boonbandit, March 5, 2020
BANGKOK — Why do Bangkokians love malls so much and why do they call some Western tourists “bird shit Whiteys?”
These answers can be found in in farang Thai expert Philip Cornwel-Smith’s new book “Very Bangkok,” something between a tourist guidebook and an anthropological encyclopedia. At a recent book launch, Cornwel-Smith said he wants to hold up a krajok hok dan, or six-sided mirror, to the city of eight million.
The term, he noted, was first coined by Luang Phor Toh, a widely-revered monk who is believed to have exorcised the vengeful spirit of Mae Nak who allegedly haunted the community of Phra Khanong.
“We tend to look at a mirror to see our faces reflected back. This prioritizes the face, which is extremely important in this culture,” the British author said. “But Luang Phor Toh conceives that we should consider a sixsided mirror, where all around us are ways of reflecting on our lives and what is happening around us.”
Like a hexagonal mirror, “Very Bangkok: In the City of the Senses” invites readers to not only feel the city with the basic senses such as touch, taste, or smell – but also the phenomena he deemed unique to Bangkok such as the city’s erratic flow of movement.
The first of the three large sections, “Senses” makes up the bulk of the book.
“This city is pretty wild in the way everything is moving around without an order,” Cornwel-Smith said. “Directions tend to be based on personal landmarks or things that are familiar. There are even three centers of the city to choose from, as different organizations use different places for their kilometer zero.”
But it’s not only the obvious senses that are being discussed in the book, it also includes invisible, undesirable, and supernatural domains.
“The sixth sense is very visible in Bangkok,” Cornwel-Smith said. “There’s a very big subculture of trance in Bangkok as well. It’s not what the authorities are trying to promote particularly, but you would see it happening at a Hindu temple on Silom Road and the vegetarian festival at Chinatown.”
Of course, with all the uncanny sensations that bombard Bangkokians everyday, it seems that they can find an oasis right in front of almost every soi: chains of convenience stores and shopping malls.
And contrary to the popular narrative in Western media that malls “drain the life” out of the city, Cornwel-Smith said he understands why they are popular among Thais.
“I personally think that one of their appeals is that they are cold, very bland, and neutral, offering a relief before we go back out into all of these sensory stimulations,” he said.
And to answer the other question posed at the beginning of this article, Cornwel-Smith explains in the “Backpackers” chapter that “farang kii nok” or bird shit Whitey, is a term Bangkokians reserve for “backpackers who grow blond dreadlocks, bargain too low, pair batik pantaloons with a tie-die vest, and reek of patchouli.”
“Heart” digs into societies and subcultures that make up the city’s melting pot (the “Stir-Fry” section is dedicated to the Sino-Thai). “Face” deconstructs different portrayals of Bangkok, whether they are official (“Project Singapore”), notorious (“Tourist Trappings”), and popular (“Bladerunneresque”).
Cornwell-Smith, who has lived in Thailand 26 years, described his latest work as a “distant cousin” to his first book, “Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture.”
Published in 2005, “Very Thai” has since become one of the best-selling coffee table books about Thailand, thanks to its well-researched effort to define “Thainess” through ordinary and everyday phenomena.
Philip Cornwel-Smith’s treatise on Bangkok is thoughtful, compelling and affectionate Very Thai (2005) was about things. About teasing the meaning of Thai out of objects and signs, ranging from the sublime symbolism of Thai design to the question why the paper napkins in all everyday Thai eateries were pink in colour and stupidly small in size.
Philip Cornwel-Smith’s long-awaited sequel is very different. It is entirely about people. The physical city is a backdrop to its residents, sojourners and visitors. Though Bangkok is a subset of Thai, this book is bigger and weightier. The author and his assistants have talked to lots of people — from artists to administrators, from visitors to vendors, from the enthusiastic to the appalled.
The author’s personal biases are clear to see. There is scarcely a page that does not circle back to food, music or the creative fringe, while the temples that crowd the tourist guidebooks appear only if they host an art installation. But the coverage is remarkable for its range and its depth. There’s a lovely page on blossom. Very Bangkok is serious, thought-provoking, and fun.
As a subject, Bangkok is a problem because it does not stand still. Over the couple of decades of this book’s gestation, the city has probably doubled in size and changed radically in culture. Before the millennium, it still had a private, parochial, self-absorbed feel. Now it is a global city, transformed by the falling cost of travel, by the quiet relaxation of restrictions on foreigners after the 1997 crisis, by the massive promotion of tourism and by the confidence of a new Thai generation to welcome the world. Apart from anything else, this book tracks the transition from parochial to global beautifully.
The book is organised into three sections, labelled Senses, Heart and Face. Senses records the city as experienced by its residents and visitors, starting with the assault on the nose, ranging from tropical flora to pitiful waste disposal. It moves on to the sense of space in the chaos contrived by weak government, resistance to any kind of planning, serendipitous architecture and catastrophically inadequate public infrastructure, especially for transport.
Bangkok is a mess and “development” has only turned it into a bigger mess. But mess can be fun. The new floating and semi-floating population of outsiders, mostly quite young and quite wealthy, have recreated Bangkok as a playground with a focus on food, music and nightlife. A generation of Thais borne up by the pre-1997 boom have happily joined in, rekindling the sense of sanook which had seemed on the wane.
The second section, Heart, presents a catalogue of the city’s extraordinary ethnic diversity. During the violent 20th century, Bangkok offered refuge for all kinds of groups who lost out in the Great Nationalisation. Since the 1960s, the city has sucked in labour from the provinces, especially the Northeast, and from neighbouring countries, especially Myanmar.
The big story has been the rise of the Chinese. They have been a major part of the demography and dominant in the economy since the city’s early years, but were culturally and politically restrained by narrow nationalism and powerful bureaucracy. Since the 1990s, driven by the community’s wealth and the rise of China, they have shucked off those restraints and made their mark on everything from food to language to tastes in looks and architecture.
In parallel, the old communities in the city centre have been gradually eroded by the logic of the real estate market, the susceptibility of timber to rot, and the changes in taste, technology and lifestyle. Cornwel-Smith captures this elegantly in a description of the last few craftsmen who make monks’ alms bowls in the traditional way. The brutal destruction of the Mahakan Fort community was a symbol and a turning point. Cornwel-Smith wonders aloud what “Thai” means when its physical expression is being destroyed, and what remains is being museumised by officialdom, the tourist industry and Big Retail in projects like Iconsiam.
In the final section on Face, the background theme is the struggle over the city’s future, a struggle between order and chaos, between authoritarianism and the freedom to be creative. On the side of order is the middle class, which idealises Singapore as a model, the bureaucracy which wants to impose rules and the military politicians who like telling people what to do. On the side of chaos is the new generation which grew up in a globalising Bangkok and who have come to enjoy its freedoms and opportunities. On this side too is the new floating population, and most of the tourists, who told the shocked Tourist Authority through a survey that what they come for is the chaos.
In the backwash of the 1997 crisis, which temporarily loosened the grip of both big government and big business, there was an outpouring of creative energy in an “indie” movement of creative crafts, fashion design, music festivals and hipster markets. Though authority returned with a thump, the momentum of this movement has survived.
With Bangkok now so open to the world, the guardians of the national culture are worried over the city’s “face”. But the portrayal of Bangkok has slipped out of their control. Twenty years ago, critical novels and memoirs about Bangkok could be counted on a pair of hands. Now you could fill the wall of a bookshop. The authors include Thais writing in both Thai and English, along with foreigners from all over. As Cornwel-Smith records in great detail, the trend in film, creative arts, music and humour is much the same.
Towards the end, Cornwel-Smith waxes optimistic, raising the possibility that the projects to be completed by the city’s 250th anniversary in 2032 will make the city more liveable by tapping the creative talent which he documents, and by listening to what the city’s residents want. But a page later, he wonders whether by then the city will be slipping under rising sea levels from global warming.
Very Bangkok is crammed with information, but delivered like a friend in an informal chat rather than a teacher with a script. This tone invites readers to think about Bangkok but also about cities in general and especially about the new breed of Global City. Cornwel-Smith is clearly on the side of “messy urbanism”. He lives here because he loves it. What comes across, and what makes this a great book, is that love.