By Arshi Banerjee
What more can be said or written about Bangkok that’s not already appeared elsewhere? After all, there’s a mountain of books out there on Thailand’s enigmatic capital, and the pile grows ever bigger by the year, so you’d think pretty much everything had been covered.
Then along comes Philip Cornwel-Smith and his wonderful newly published book ‘Very Bangkok’ and you realize that there is still much to be learned about the Thai capital.
Sub-titled ‘In the City of the Senses,’ this is a well written and deeply insightful guide to Philip’s adopted home since 1994, and deserves a place on the bookshelf of anyone with an interest in Thailand.
It’s an impressive production, beautifully printed, 360 pages long, featuring Philip’s thoughtful photography and unique research arranged in three parts: Senses, Heart and Face, each providing a different way of looking at one of the world’s most complex and complicated cities.
Philip, a British freelancer who wrote the first Time Out Bangkok city guide, says his aim for the book is to be a ‘krajok hok dan’ - a six-panel mirror - of Bangkok. It’s a term borrowed from Luang Phor Toh, a legendary former abbot who urged people to use the mirror to get a multi-faceted view of our nature. Each reflection is paired to a sensory organ: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and heart-mind (hua jai), the sixth sense which is a popular phrase in Thailand. To understand reality, it is important to perceive every angle.
As an example, in the libido section of Very Bangkok, the author talks about the hypocrisy of Thai society which tries to paint Bangkok as the ‘Prim city’, conveniently overlooking the sultry nightlife and Bangkok’s history of sex workers.
He then focuses on how art has influenced the infrastructure of the city and how Thai culture, sometimes called ‘Thainess’, has influenced many postmodern artists based there. The local view of corruption gets a mention whereas politics are noticeably absent from the book.
Probably the most interesting part of Very Bangkok is the sense of inclusion you feel, which basically captures the essence of Thai culture. Read the religion section and you realize that Thai people have a lot of respect for other religions. When it comes to tourists, everybody is welcome. Declares Wisoot Buachoom of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. “I can’t think of a market that we wouldn’t welcome.”
Very Bangkok provides a kaleidoscopic vision of the many parts that make up this remarkable city and what it's like to be a Bangkokian. So, you can clear out all your old guidebooks and replace them with Philip Cornwel-Smith’s excellent work.
Very Bangkok, Published by River Books Co Ltd (Publisher: Narisa Chakrabongse). 396 Maharaj Road, Tatien, Bangkok 10200. Tel 66 2 6221900, 2254963