‘Art talk forums will include expert Asian art curator Jorn Middelborg on Myanmar political art, Philip Cornwel-Smith (of best-selling book Very Bangkok) on “Rival Portrayals from Myths to Noir to Realism,” and moderator David Robinson on the young Thai artist movement.’
As everyone looks forward to the upcoming Songkran holidays, art lovers will be keeping themselves busy this coming weekend at Mango Art Festival.
Dubbed “the most complete art festival,” Mango Art Festival unites famous designers, trendy independent artists and renowned art studios from across Thailand to showcase visually striking and thought-provoking contemporary art, along with the latest design trends.
The festival will take place at Lhong 1919, the 19th-century Thai-Chinese riverfront venue, from Saturday, Apr. 3 to Tuesday, Apr. 6.
Mango Art Festival will also feature fashion shows, jazz music and DJ sets. Art talk forums will include expert Asian art curator Jorn Middelborg on Myanmar political art, Philip Cornwel-Smith (of best-selling book Very Bangkok) on “Rival Portrayals from Myths to Noir to Realism,” and moderator David Robinson on the young Thai artist movement.
Additionally, there will be special art exhibitions including rare artworks and personal displays of Thai art collectors and an “Art for Environment” exhibition curated by Ek Thongprasert and Wishulada Pantaranuwong.
Bangkok can seem confusing, but beneath the chaos, it has a surprising internal logic. Understanding its inner character is the aim of Very Bangkok, which is the most up-to-date and comprehensive book on the Thai capital.
Written by longtime resident Philip Cornwel-Smith, Very Bangkok: In the City of the Senses is not arranged by area or era, but through themes that explain this city of surprise. Vividly photographed by the author, the book starts and finishes on the river, from the city’s origins as a trading post and sacred island to today’s riverside creative resurgence. In between, we get to explore its many contradictions, whether chic or street, elite or pop, ancient or futuristic.
Half of the book explores Bangkok’s impact on our senses, whether the love of boisterous noise or the aromatic herbal and floral arts. It turns out that Bangkok food has its own flavour profile, thanks to multi-ethnic influences. We also probe the supernatural sixth sense that shapes many decisions, plus the semi-taboo scene of shamanic trance. In all, it covers 20 senses, including the distinctive Thai senses of direction, time or colour. You’ll never think of Bangkok the same way again.
The heart of the book is about Bangkokians themselves, whether hi-so elites, folk communities or middle-class mall-goers. We encounter vivid subcultures, such as the informal markets, youth tribes and ethnic identities, from Muslims and Mons to the majority Thai-Chinese. The conclusion reflects on the gulfs between Bangkok’s self-image, its wilder noir reputation, and a new wave of realistic portrayals in the arts. Behind the myths of Thainess, we discover the essence of Bangkokness.
The author has become an expert on his adopted city since 1994, as founding editor of its first listings magazine Metro, editor of the Time Out Bangkok city guide, and author of the influential bestseller, Very Thai: Everyday Popular Culture.
Bangkok: a virtual tour through film, food, music and books
by Philip Cornwel-Smith, Fri 26 Feb 2021 11.00 GMT
Explore the dynamism and contradictions of one of Asia’s most beguiling cities through its culture, novels and cuisine
Few cities assail the senses as viscerally as Bangkok, from the kinetic cacophony of its street life to its aromatic herbal cures and the incendiary spice of the food. Social distancing has only briefly withheld the touch of Thai massage and the jostle of its markets. Juxtapositions startle the eye, with designs often decided by fortune tellers or sacred colours. Timber shacks abut glitzy towers of novelty shapes in the world’s third least equal society.
Breakneck modernisation has sparked tensions between the cosmopolitan “hi-so” (high society) and grassroots values, while young reformers protest at the seniority system that enforces a hidden order behind the apparent chaos. Amid the hi-tech towers, a vast informal economy wheels food stalls and makes street furniture from found materials. It’s both fun and poignant to ride around the teeming centre on motorcycle taxis, converted pickup trucks or canal boats with a hinged canvas roof that lowers under bridges.
Author and composer SP Somtow called it a “city both futuristic and feudalistic, a city where the first and third worlds were in endless collision”, in his book The Crow: Temple of Night. Others say this village-minded megalopolis is Blade Runner-esque.
Returning tourists will find its tangled laneways opened up by fresh routes. New rapid urban railways link neglected districts, and will meet the trans-Asian network at the new Bang Sue Grand station. Driverless Gold Line trains run to the huge IconSiam riverside mall, and on to Kudi Jeen, a 250-year-old quarter first settled by Persians and Portuguese, Hokkien Chinese and Mon people from Myanmar. Paths lead to a waterfront cafe named My Grandparents’ House, embodying the trend of rediscovering once-supressed Chinese heritage.
London never got its garden bridge, but Bangkok last year opened the leafy SkyPark, spanning the Chao Praya river from Kudi Jeen to Chinatown. Its undulations afford views downstream, where skyscrapers bristle like a hairbrush, and upstream to the Grand Palace, the temple of the reclining Buddha, and Wat Arun, the city’s five-spired symbol. Mosaicked in particoloured glass and china, Bangkok’s temples are, to cite Somerset Maugham in his 1935 travelogue The Gentleman in the Parlour, “unlike anything in the world … and you cannot fit them into the scheme of things you know. It makes you laugh with delight that anything so fantastic could exist on this sombre Earth.”
The SkyPark leads right to the old moat, Khlong Ong Ang, where markets have been cleared to make canalside promenades lined with Instagram-ready murals of Sikhs, Muslims and Teochew Chinese traders. The country’s multi-ethnic past is being repackaged into a digestible “diverse” Thainess. But as William Warren warned in his 2012 portrait of the city, Bangkok, “the result of this successful assimilation has been the steady decline, virtually the disappearance, of anything purely Thai”.
Chinatown, too, is relinquishing its mysteries as shophouses turn into galleries, bars and hostels. Crumbling stucco alleys strewn with engine parts draw hipsters during the Chinese Vegetarian Festival, Bangkok Design Week and regular Galleries Nights. Siam’s first paved street, Charoenkrung Road, arcs through here into Bangrak Creative District, an independent initiative by young urbanites that bypasses the state’s orderliness to make a virtue of the varied chaos.
Bangkok Vanguards pioneered neighbourhood tours here. You can now join them via Zoom, either as a live-streamed scooter trip or a video tour narrated by the guide. From Khlong Ong Ang, you thread through the passages of Saphan Han with its community leader, encountering a jewellery workshop, a sala pao dumpling stall and a shrine to their Teochiu deity, Pun Tao Kong.
Across the moat from Saphan Han are the neighbourhoods of Little India and Wang Burapha, which was the first Thai hub of pop culture. That history is told in one of the virtual exhibitions at the irreverent Museum Siam, viewable alongside ones of nearby Tha Tien market plus the museum’s irreverent take on nationalism, Decoding Thainess.
Bangkok’s reputation is at its most compulsively lurid in The Hangover Part II, a bachelor party caper that spawned Hangover guided tours and the catchphrase: “Bangkok has him now.” The best films about this city aren’t being streamed, but Netflix has several popular dramas: Bangkok Traffic Love Story, which deals with contemporary mores; Hormones (2013-15), the first Thai series to tackle youth issues with provocative realism; and time-travel fantasy series Love Destiny (2018), which contrasts today’s affluent lifestyle with 17th-century courtiers, sparking a fad for wearing traditional dress to events.
The 1840s story of the ghost of Mae Nak – who sees her beloved husbandsent off to war and later dies in childbirth in what is now the Phrakhanong neighbourhood – has sparked countless films, from the sumptuous 1999 romance Nang Nak to the 2013 horror-comedy Pee Mark Phrakhanong, about her hapless husband. In a documentary on the city’s visual culture, World In Motion: Bangkok, I guide you through Nak’s shrine at Wat Mahabut.
In her food blog She Simmers, Leela Punyaratabandhu dissects how the TV series Love Destiny contrasted ancient and current recipes, such as a dip for grilled fish. Her cookbook Bangkok: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of Thailand, explains the foreign influences upon its hybrid cuisine, and comes with YouTube demonstrations. She reveals how a Thai prime minister famously added a splash of brandy when cooking his green curry with beef. While other curries can get away with pre-made pastes, she insists that green curry paste is best made fresh, toasting the coriander seeds and cumin before grinding with the herbs and shrimp paste.
But Bangkok’s most famous cooking class, which also sparked a book and YouTube clips with Jamie Oliver, earned fame initially for its title: Cooking With Poo. Chef Saiyuud Diwong – nicknamed Poo (crab) – proudly stayed based in the Khlong Toey slum where she grew up.
The first Michelin star for Thai food went to Australian chef David Thompson at Bangkok’s Como hotel, whose two cookbooks, Thai Food and Thai Street Food, are laced with cultural context. The latter spawned a TV series (on Vimeo), partly set in Bangkok, which demonstrates how to brown a Sino-Thai oyster omelette using pork fat and tapioca flour.
The aural equivalent of the exploding flavour pockets in Thai cuisine is molam, the north-eastern music introduced by migrants from the Thai and Laotian hinterlands since the 17th century. It’s the music most busked on the streets, often by groups of blind musicians. Spotify streams the Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band, a supergroup of master players who blended the plaintively warbled vocals and bamboo khaen pipes with surf rock and Latin rhythms that get anyone churning to its infectious beats.
Bangkok pop feels bland by comparison, with copycat sounds, K-pop formulas and tonal vocals that can sound off-key. Yet some Bangkok-born artists earn fans abroad by singing in English. Phum Viphurit sings fetching jangly tunes and one of Hugo Chakrabongse’s blues-infused rock ballads has been covered by Beyoncé.
Bangkok Noir (2011) gives short-story tastes of Bangkok’s detective genre set in seedy locales like Soi Cowboy. “Noir in Bangkok happens fast,” notes its editor, Christopher G Moore, talking of how it is fed by folk beliefs and the news. “At every turn there is a new noir-like incident, such as the temple morgue found to contain two thousand aborted foetuses. Take a late night walk through some poor neighbourhoods. Hear the soi dogs howling as the angry ghosts launch themselves through the night, and observe that modern possessions don’t stop the owners from making offerings to such spirits.”
Leading literary expat Lawrence Osborne dissects the ambiguity of outsiders in his travelogue Bangkok Days and condominium-set thriller The Glass Kingdom. “Bangkok is an asylum for those who have lapsed into dilettantism,” he quips. “Westerners choose Bangkok as a place to live precisely because they can never understand it.” And it’s no less of an enigma to Thais.
Some local authors published in English try to unblock the policed blanks in the national memory. In Bangkok Wakes to Rain, Pitchaya Sudbanthad tracks a wooden house over centuries via its conversion into a spa to its fate in a flooded future Bangkok, evoking the city’s sensory hit. “A pearl-eyed lottery seller, sensing passersby from footsteps and the clap of flip-flops, calls out of an opened case of clothes-pinned tickets to whoever craves luck. Her nose picks up the ashen smell always in the air.” Like indie novellist Veeraporn Nitiprapha in The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth, he uses metaphor to tackle scandals that most try to forget. As Pitchaya dryly notes: “The not remembering doesn’t really work, does it?”
Philip Cornwel-Smith was the founding editor of Bangkok’s first listings magazine, Metro, and the Time Out City Guide to Bangkok. His latest book is Very Bangkok: In the City of the Senses (River Books, £20)
A Review of ‘Very Thai’ and ‘Very Bangkok’ by Philip Cornwel-Smith
By Steve Rosse, 20 Feb 2021
Some time in the summer of 1989 I was working on a one-day shoot for something, a dog food commercial maybe. There’s a lot of down time in video production, or at least there was before everybody was shooting movies on their iPhone. We used to stand around the set for hours and talk and talk and talk. It was one of the best parts of working in the industry.
So on this day there was a guy in the Electrics department who was holding everybody’s attention with his stories about working for a couple of months in Thailand on “Casualties of War.” (Because of the continuity challenges involved in shooting a feature length movie in which the main characters never change their clothes he called it “Casualties of Wardrobe.”)
“There’s only two Thai words you need to learn,” he said. “Towel-I and Meeow. They mean ‘how much’ and ‘I don’t want it.’” Hearty guffaws and knowing winks all the way around. His mispronunciation of the words rankled, but his implication that all Thailand had to offer was an adventageous rate of exchange was worse. Still, I held my tongue, because my own experience of Thailand was, at that point, only three months in the bars and brothels of Phuket, and I didn’t think that gave me the moral high ground.
In 1990 I moved to Thailand permanently (“permanently” wound up to be only seven years) and I quickly learned that Thailand is experienced subjectively. Every farang has a different idea about what Thailand is. I had friends who owned bars, who spent every day and every night in their own bar, and had done so for years on end. Their view of Thailand was radically different than the guys who had come to Thailand in the 1960’s with the Peace Corps and spent years upcountry teaching rice farmers how to spray for weevils. And their Thailand was WAY different than the Thailand cherished by the old soldiers who had come on R&R, and WAY-WAY different from the Club Med executives who moved from continent to continent every two years, and more different still than the Thailand pored over by the academics who came to teach for a semester at Chula and stayed forever because they fell in love with being adored.
We can only know as much of the world as our five (or six) senses tell us, says The Buddha. Jump ahead to 2018, and I’m visiting Phuket for the first time in 20 years. The place overwhelms me. The God-awful traffic, the pollution everywhere, the overcrowding, the push-push-push. The sheer ugliness of the place. It was like meeting an old girlfriend who’d become hideous. My friend Baz said, “You’re the tensest tourist in Thailand. Why don’t we go ride bicycles in the Khao Sok National Forest? Maybe you can find some cannabis up there and mellow out a little.”
I hadn’t been on a bicycle since I was a teenager, but I jumped at the chance to get out of the place I’d spent two decades dreaming of coming back to. I also jumped at the possibility of finding a little weed. After living in a State with legal weed for four years I had developed a pretty stern daily habit, and it had never occurred to me, in all the time I’d spent fantasizing about coming back, that when I finally returned to my beloved Thailand it would mean suddenly going cold turkey. I was Jonesing bad.
We went North and checked into some bungalows in the forest and the bike nearly crippled me and I never found any weed. But on our second morning there Baz took me to some breakfast joint he liked, and while we waited for our eggs I checked out the little shelf of discarded books in the corner of the dining room. Among the detective novels and Lonely Planet Guides I spotted a hard-back book called ‘Very Thai,’ by Philip Cornwel-Smith. I pulled it off the shelf because it was in hardback; it looked and felt like a textbook. Remember when books felt like something important in your hands?
Well, ‘Very Thai’ feels and looks and reads like something important and lavish and gorgeous. I read that book until our meals arrived at the table. Then I read that book while I ate. Then, after our bills were paid, I contemplated stealing that book. I’m not shy about stealing books; I’ve stolen books from some of my best friends. There was a little note on the shelves that said you could take a book if you left a book, but I didn’t have a book to leave. If that copy of ‘Very Thai’ had been a paperback it would have been in my back pocket without a second thought. But it was too big and solid and real to smuggle out in my clothing, and that skinny waitress with the lazy eye was already suspicious of me. With deep regret I put ‘Very Thai’ back on the shelf.
Since returning to New Mexico I’ve purchased my own copy of ‘Very Thai,’ and also a copy of the follow-up volume, ‘Very Bangkok.’ I almost never buy books. They’re expensive, and almost every book is available for free through the interlibrary loan system. ‘Very Thai’ and ‘Very Bangkok,’ which are only available in handsome hard-bound editions, each cost about twenty dollars at Amazon, and shipping adds another twenty.
I paid sixty dollars for two books, which is WAY, WAY, WAAAAAAY out of character for me. But I’m glad I did. I’ve got about fifty books about Thailand on my shelves right now, and in two years when I retire to Thailand (God willing) Mr. Cornwel-Smith’s books are the only books I’m planning to take with me.
He says this in his introduction to “Very Thai:” “I’ve tried to steer a balanced course through the minefield of outsider opinions: orientalist fantasists; sensationalist moral scolds; earnest students of culture; old hands (some rejoicing, some embittered); champions of Thai exceptionalism who are jaundiced about the West; universalist ideologues suspicious of cultures that are more judgmental of gender, race, class, faith, minority or other social markers; religious believers who interpret Thailand through their faith; anthropologists who filter Thainess through academic categories. I try to be the open-minded “flaneur,” – the wandering seeker of raw experience, open to impressions.”
Okay, A: Mr. Cornwel-Smith is a compulsive list-maker, but while I disagree with his use of the semicolon that is a lovely, long, wonderfully precise and colorful sentence, and B: That sentence describes what should be (I think) the object of any farang who writes about Thailand. I am surely one of the “orientalist fantasists” he mentions (and also a “universalist ideologue”) so it’s probably beneficial for me periodically to be exposed to a more open-minded flaneuring.
In his introduction to ‘Very Thai,’ Alex Kerr says, “‘Very Thai’ looks at the simple things of daily life that Thais and foreigners usually pass by, but in these very details lie the mystery and magic of what it is to be Thai.” I don’t know if revealing to farang the mystery and magic of what it is to be Thai is even possible, but certainly he’s right that Mr. Cornwel-Smith has focused on the minutiae of Thai living. He’s illuminating the macro by shining a light on the micro.
Ever wondered about those ubiquitous and almost useless little square pink tissue paper napkins? ‘Very Thai’ is where you’ll find out about them. (There were some on the table in Khao Sok when I first stumbled across this book, and so that was the first chapter I read.) Ever wondered about all those electrical wires tangled over the street? Or how you bet on a Hercules Beetle battle? The difference between Luuk Thung and Mor Lam? Soap operas, katoeys, icons, shrines, tuk-tuks, beauty contests, blind street musicians, edible insects, or lucky lottery numbers? This is where you’ll find your answers.
‘Very Thai’ seemed to me pretty Bangkok-centric, but even so Mr. Cornwell-Smith has also given us ‘Very Bangkok.’ Now, I’ve said it before in this forum but since I’m the Admin I’ll allow myself to say it again: Bangkok sucks donkey balls. It’s Mexico City without the culture. Since a million beautiful, charming, cheap places to live are available only an hour from Krung Thep by bus, I don’t know why anybody would ever choose to live there. But if you are forced by marriage or occupation to live in Bangkok then ‘Very Bangkok’ is a useful, perhaps an essential, guide.
In his introduction to ‘Very Bangkok’ Lawrence Osborne says these books are a “…brilliant and polychromatic look at Bangkok done in a way that no other writer has attempted.” I quibble with that only because I think these books are solidly in the tradition of Denis Segaler’s ‘Thai Ways,’ but brilliant and polychromatic they certainly are. The photographs are jaw-dropping. They are nothing less than amazing. Just flipping through the book looking at the photos provides more enjoyment and enlightenment than reading 90% of the books published about Thailand. Mr. Osborne goes on to say that Mr. Cornwel-Smith has “…turned Bangkok into a vast tapestry of meditations on the nature of cities.” Spot on, that.
I’m going to admit to you right now: I did not read every single word in ‘Very Thai’ and ‘Very Bangkok’ in preparation for this review. These are not books you read like novels. These are books you use like encyclopedias. The font is small and there is a LOT to read. You may wish to keep these books on your bedside table and read a chapter every night before you sleep, or keep them on your balcony to read for just as long as it takes to drink your morning espresso, or keep them on the back of your toilet…
If you try to read them like novels you’ll never remember everything. You might not even recognize everything. They’ll be most useful when you’re invited to the Phi Ta Khon festival in Loei, and you have no idea what it is or how you’re supposed to behave there. You’ll want to throw them in your bag when you go visit friends upcountry, or when you come down to the City for a dental appointment. The chapters are all about as long as an in-flight magazine article, and while they’re densely packed with information they’re written in a very engaging and readable prose. Often, even a witty prose. These are books you’ll still be referring to twenty years down the road.
I relied on the “Lonely Planet” guides when I was new in the Kingdom, and these days I suppose everybody has a favorite “influencer” on YouTube who wears a Go-Pro and wanders Soi Cowboy. But nobody, and I mean nobody, but Mr. Cornwel-Smith will quote the guy who wrote his Harvard Ph.D. dissertation about the dirty, tattered, vests that motosai drivers wear. Nobody but Mr. Cornwel-Smith takes dives this deep. Nobody I’ve read, anyway.
I salute you, Mr. Cornwel-Smith. And I thank you, because you’ve done a huge favor for all of us.
I bought a copy of Very Bangkok at the book release event at the FCCT. I recall that in the question period after he gave his remarks I asked him how long he thought the construction boom could go on, and he said something but not really to my point– how long we can keep creating condos that no one lives in, just for various asians to park money in. So the event must have been before the pandemic hit, because it’s a bigger question than ever now. The book marker in my copy is stuck at p. 64, I gave up for a while at that point, because hell, I’m stuck here against my will; but I hope you’ve inspired me to get back to it.
I’m going to try and read this again, and at least a few chapters as you suggest. I’m going to go out today and buy a HUGE magnifying glass since the publishers don’t know how to design a readable book. If I was Mr. Cornwell-Smith I would be hugely annoyed at the designer and never buy him or her a beer again.
I remember buying Very Thai years ago at the airport and was attracted to the colourful cover but now with years passed this quirky and sometimes bizzare account of Thai culture is my norm and somehow makes sense !
Many thanks for your review Steve. Much appreciated. I’ll keep trying to dive deep!
Steve BaloghThat worked out well. I bought these two books from Amazon for around $90 for the two and received a $100 gift voucher for locally delivered wines. Made an order and now have a dozen bottles of fine wine valued at more than $300 discounted to $180 wholesale and I only had to pay $80. Looks like I got the two books for free and got heavily discounted wines to drink while reading them. Cheers Steve for the review.