Very Bangkok: Soaking In and Exploring The City of Senses

Review of new book by Philip Cornwel-Smith

Written by Team Expique
Published: February 27, 2020

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.

Looking at Bangkok through form and colour, there’s plenty to catch the eye. It’s a visual feast for details, from glittering mosaics on temple panels to brightly coloured pipes, crisscrossed by enough wiring to make your head spin. There are splashes of striking colour, especially as the city’s taxi fleet flows past, though “the overwhelming colour is grey,” said Corwel-Smith, “It’s still a concrete city.”

But within the grey and the concrete are multiple levels of space, and Bangkok once again offers a new way to explore and to be amongst its residents. Should you walk at street level through the market stalls next to passing traffic, or on the walkways above to get quickly to your destination? Even faster, a ride on the BTS will deposit you directly at the doors of an air-conditioned mall, or you could take the slower (though infinitely louder and visually more interesting) route via canal or river boat. These are ‘tiered spaces’ and they reinforce social hierarchy, according to Cornwel-Smith, and he writes that each level of Thai society “accesses separate overlapping grids, whether for work, shopping or socializing, with modes of transit for each class of passenger.”  

Corridors of flow and movement across the city can be fluid and Bangkok has an array of transport options – but if you’re stuck inside a car at peak hour, the most soothing type of flow may come from the cooling air and radio. Learning patience is a good way to practice jai-yen (‘cool heart’), the Thai concept of being calm, outwardly expressed through accommodating flexibility, and a lack of open confrontation.

That public presentation of self, and of city and nation, is entwined with the highly-regarded Thai value of face. Official portrayals of Bangkok align with the accepted narrative or the ‘system of deference’, and the city of divine conception, repository of jewels and royal palaces, begins its official name with Krung Thep (‘City of Angels’). But it’s known to the wider world as Bangkok, and as Cornwel-Smith contrasts it in his book, “Krung Thep is like the higher masonry, Hindu-style temple, while Bangkok is the lower, wooden, indigenous house.”

This is a city that encompasses all and is multi-faceted, multi-tiered, full of charms and temptations, saturated with hues and diverse flavours. Bangkok’s face shows life, all walks of city life, on a rich and stimulating kaleidoscope. It’s no wonder your senses are overwhelmed, but Very Bangkok is the perfect companion to understanding why. And you can take Bangkok in at your own pace through its pages.

This is a guest post by Mae Rosukhon: Co-Founder of Random Thainess and Founder of

Very Bangkok mentions Expique’s tours and translucent roofs in its chapter on Looking: Seeing is not believing – Come join our tours and see Bangkok for yourself!

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