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Nima Chandler of Nancy Chandler Maps

Nima Chandler of Nancy Chandler Maps: Khao San Road Map
Nima Chandler of Nancy Chandler Maps: Khao San Road Map

One thing there is no shortage of in Thailand is maps… Big ones, small ones, pocket sized ones. You know the sort of thing… They are often a pointless exercise that contribute nothing to the quality of your visit… The immediately disposable giveaways probably most functional in the rainy season as an alternative to the umbrella you didn’t think you’d need to bring. Usually found at your guesthouse reception, these maps feature places you already know about or wouldn’t really want to visit. Invariably, they carry countless adverts for “Rahiv’s and Sanjay’s Bespoke Tailoring Shop”, restaurants offering the best Pork Knuckle this side of Baden-Werttemberg (or even Lower Saxony), and diving lessons from the local Swedish diving school (why are there so many in Thailand?). They contribute nothing to the quality of your visit… unless of course you are talking about Nancy Chandler Maps.

Created by Nancy Chandler Graphics, and turning the genre on its head, Nancy Chandler Maps are no throw away irrelevancies, but items visitors to Thailand cherish and actively seek out to purchase. Advert free and uninfluenced by ‘tea money’, they act as a surrogate guidebook, which they often rival for pertinent information. Nancy Chandler Maps are not only useful, but they are the sort of thing people take home as souvenirs. This month saw the organization cross into KhaoSanRoad.com territory with a detailed map of “Khao San Road & Old Bangkok”. Before the Bloods and Crips kicked off a turf war, we sat down for a powwow with Nima Chandler, who researched the map.

Here’s the result:

KSR: Nima – thanks for meeting us like this. First of all, why don’t you give us an overview of Nancy Chandler Graphics and its history?

Nima Chandler: My mother Nancy Chandler founded the company in 1974 when she produced the first detailed map of Bangkok, initially meant to be for expatriates. Handrawn and handletttered, it included special little craft outlets, the only western supermarket, English langauge bookshops and the like about town, while also trying to make some sense of the chaos that were the Sunday Market (then at Sanam Luang near Khao San) and Chinatown. All much the same as was what we do today, although Bangkok has grown immensely since then.
 
KSR: So, you’ve lived in Thailand all your life?
 
Nima Chandler: It has been home since I was one, the chaos of the city something I thrive on. Visiting the US, I am always amazed at the lack of street food vendors, loud music, mega malls around every corner… It’s much too quiet and sane for me there.
 
KSR: And you have maps for Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Suan Lum Night Bazaar… how do you research your maps?
 
Nima Chandler: We clip and file anything we read or see of interest year round. Come update time, we collate all notes before setting out to research specific areas, then either walking or driving up and down streets, keeping one eye open for things on the list, another eye open for things not on the list. One thing you’d never want to do is walk behind me in the Night Bazaar or Chatuchak Weekend Market as every stall gets a once-over before I head home with my notes to pick and choose what might be of interest to the visitor or expatriate.
 
KSR: It must be an ongoing task updating them?
 
Nima Chandler: In a city like Bangkok, it’s exciting. There’s always new places to visit, old places to toast for surviving, and closed places to keep an eye on to see what comes next. Each city map does take about 6 months to properly update, which is why we only do so every year and a half normally. Luckily I have help now, with my assistant Manapiti Ramasoot, who calls around to confirm hours and the like, while also taking on some of the on foot and road research as well.
 
KSR: …and now Khao San Road… what drew you to Khao San?
 
Nima Chandler: We added an inset map of Khao San to our Map of Bangkok back in 2003. I personally loved the color of the area, its vibrancy and energy, not to mention all the great bars, shopping and attractions of the area. (As my mother jokes, there weren’t many bars on her map at all until I joined her in the business. When I did, Khao San was not an area to be overlooked for all it had to offer nightlife lovers.) Since then, we’ve held several fun scavenger hunts in the area and I’ve co-hosted several wild hen’s nights and Khao San pub crawls for expatriates that rarely tour this part of town. Pictures would be provided, but my friends would not speak to me if I shared, sorry.
 
KSR: We have to say it’s a totally detailed little map – everything you need is there and it’s going to be really useful for people visiting the area. How long did it take to research?
 
Nima Chandler: Approximately 6 weeks. We had just updated our Map of Bangkok so our notes were pretty up to date before we focused on the area in more detail. We then spent 2 weeks of researching on foot in the area – I actually moved to a hotel on Phra Athit for the week – hunting down places we’d heard about but had yet to pinpoint for the map, after which it took another 2-3 weeks to map, index and double-check. Nancy meanwhile was working on all sorts of sketches to go with the map – of backpackers looking for hotels, shopping, drinking, etc – which sadly never made it onto the map for lack of space! Hopefully, we’ll be able to use them in another format in the future.
 
KSR: Most people who come to KSR leave and come back again after a couple of weeks and say “I hardly recognized the place”! Isn’t keeping your map of Khao San and the area relevant going to be a particular challenge given how quickly things change here?
 
Nima Chandler: Our website offers free updates online, something we started years ago with our other titles. Updated at least once a month, we highlight great new additions, mention places that have closed and things to keep an eye out for, as well as list upcoming events people might be interested in. In short, if we’ve heard about or seen any changes, they’ll be noted online at www.nancychandler.net.
 
KSR: Give yourself a plug – where can people buy your maps on KSR? What’s the current price?
 
Nima Chandler: Nancy Chandler’s Map of Khao San & Old Bangkok is available online at www.nancychandler.net and at bookshops in the Khao San Rd area (including Shaman, Sara Ban, Bookazine, Aporia, Moonlight and others). Our suggested retail price is B 125* in Thailand. For those overseas, our website offers the map at US$ 7.95* including delivery by airmail (we don’t believe in quoting one price then adding on huge delivery charges without notice when people go to check out).
 
KSR: Most of the maps you find around Thailand are merely excuses for advertising. But of course, you don’t accept advertising. So this means you recommend everywhere you mention?
 
Nima Chandler: No, we don’t recommend everything on the map – there’s too much on the map to do that. On our Bangkok and Chiang Mai maps, recommended places are highlighted in the directories that accompany the maps if not on the maps themselves. On the map of Khao San & Old Bangkok, our favorites are generally given a special mention on the map itself and within the directory. For our nightlife listings, however, we provide short descriptions, leaving the user to decide what kind of scene they are into. For example, we’re not particularly keen on hip hop ourselves, but if you are, you’ll find a place you’ll like on the map. You can read between the lines too, as in the case of one pub where we note “mind the drunken yobos” and another we describe as with “loud live band 9pm on, chill earlier”.
 
KSR: And you don’t take ‘tea money’?
 
Nima Chandler: No ‘tea money’, no free rooms, no free meals, no discounted drinks. We usually don’t mention who we are or what we’re doing either, unless contacting people by email.
 
KSR: So what are the ‘must do’ places on KSR right now?
 
Nima Chandler: Hmmm. What’s ‘in’ changes regularly and really depends on what kind of crowd you’re into – I love the streetside cocktail bars which are located in front of what will be a big new mall and hotel, in other words, a remnant of the past likely to disappear soon. Thais meanwhile are currently flocking to the streetside cafes and clubs on Rambuttri just north of Khao San which has a flavor all its own after dark. If I had to list five places that would ‘surprise’ the visitor to Khao San, they would include a visit to the restored mansion that houses Starbucks for a coffee, a browse for the most unusual title you can find at Shaman Books (there are some truly bizarre ones), a pre-party drink anytime from 6-8 pm at the rooftop Gazebo, dinner anywhere on the street, and then a few more drinks at the Roof Pub on Khao San (great oldies music and a buzzing crowd), the Old Phra Athit Pier on Phra Athit (a much quieter, almost refined ambience for the area) and/or the Ad Here blues bar on Samsen (for the non-claustrophobic).
 
KSR: And if you were writing a back of an envelope itinerary for someone staying on KSR, where are the key places they should visit in the area? I am sure Wat Phra Kaew must be on the list?
 
Nima Chandler: The Grand Palace and Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Po and Wat Arun are on everyone’s itineraries. Special suggestions we would make would include: Sunset drinks and/or dinner at The Deck of the Arun Residence, a wander down the back alleyways to the simple shack-like riverside cafes near Tha Phra Chan, maybe a wander through the crowds at the market in front of Siriraj Hospital on the other side of the river, for sure dinner in the Phraeng Phuton area at Chotechitr. If you’re vegetarian, we’d recommend May Kaidee’s and Rub Ar Roon. If you’re a student, we’d recommend a visit to Thammasat University’s bookshop and uni market. I could go on and on. In short, we recommend personalizing your visit, something we believe our detailed map enables people to do.
 
KSR: What about little novelties – markets, oddities… places people might not necessarily read about in a guide book but should visit while they are on KSR… got any suggestions?
 
Nima Chandler: Besides the many mentioned above, wander by the Sor Vorapin boxing gym when classes are in session – who knows, you might find yourself signing up for a few hours of training. The Lofty Bamboo crafts shop is our favorite relatively new outlet, with great little hill tribe textile baby shoes that jump off the shelves among other items. Sticking your head in Nittaya Curry’s shops for Thai kanom (sweets) and snacks can also be a unique experience…
 
KSR: So, what projects are coming up… what new maps can we look forward to?
 
Nima Chandler: Let’s see. I am supposed to be on holiday, resting up after updating the Bangkok map and releasing the Khao San & Old Bangkok map, but someone who shall not be named has us now toiling away on a map for this very website… As for other projects on the table, we’ll let you know when we’re ready to announce!
 
KSR: OK – well… good luck with all of that and let us know how things work out.
 
Nima Chandler: Will do.
 
*Prices June 2008
 
See the map of Khao San Road provided by Nancy Chandler Maps.

Vietnam: The Road Less Travelled

Vietnam: The Road Less Travelled
Vietnam: The Road Less Travelled
Vietnam: The Road Less Travelled
Vietnam: The Road Less Travelled
Vietnam: The Road Less Travelled
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vietnam_the_road_less_travelled_7

I only had a few days in Vietnam and, as enamoured with Hanoi as I was, I wanted to catch a glimpse of rural Vietnam. So, leaving behind Hanoi’s cafes, lakes, tree-lined streets and deliciously smooth and hideously cheap draft beer I headed out west.
With a natural aversion to buses and not enough time for a trip on one of the painfully slow trains the only option seemed to be two wheels. Throwing common sense aside I opted for Russian over Japanese.

The Russian Minsk is more commonly known as the ‘mule of the mountains’ and favoured by the locals for its basic approach to transport and its ability to tackle the rugged highland terrain. Added to that it is cheap and there are spare parts readily available everywhere from Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi and beyond.

Feeling oddly proud of my US$10 a day museum piece I secured backpack to seat and kicked the decades old two-stroke into action. Navigating through the mayhem and chaos of Hanoi’s streets is an adventure in itself. Officially Vietnamese drive on the right but anywhere between, and including, the paths on either side will do. Street lights and road markings are purely decorative.

Once out of Hanoi the scenery is quick to change. Retail becomes heavy industry which in turn becomes agriculture. Houses become fewer, smaller and with greater distance between them. Eventually the flat rice fields around Hanoi start to incline towards the mountainous region of the west on route 6, where rice is grown in terraces.

The Minsk copes admirably with the hills and trundles along at a steady pace. With no electrics or battery on-board judging speed and fuel consumption is down to guesswork.

The road is generally single lane and of poor quality. Drivers are surprisingly polite even in the very rural areas and as you go further from Hanoi the bounds of what passes as a vehicle get stretched to the limit. Any motorised farm implement with wheels is quickly decked out with a seat and attached to a trailer. Instant tractor!

In Hanoi Minsks are thin on the ground but in the mountains their popularity is clear. Every well dressed Vietnamese owns one. Struggling up a steep mountain road I passed a farmer on a Minsk with a young buffalo trussed up like a chicken and strapped to a board, broadside across the back of the bike. Blue smoke belched from the exhaust just inches from the buffalo’s nose as the two-stroke screamed its way up the mountain.

High in the mountains at around 1000m the temperature dropped and I regretted heading out in only a t-shirt. Stopping to pull another shirt from my backpack I was invited to drink tea with a man sat outside his house. Soon we were joined by two others, one holding a baby. None of them could speak English and I can’t speak Vietnamese but we somehow managed to communicate with a few words from my Lonely Planet guide and sign language.

With an hour to spare before sunset I reached Mai Chau, a village-sized town set in a flat valley base of rice fields surrounded by steep mountains on all sides. Hidden off the main road down a long and bumpy lane Mai Chau leads me to Ban Lac, a small hamlet of traditional ‘hill tribe style’ stilted wooden houses.

The people of this region are said to ancient relatives of the Thais in Thailand and known as White Thai. The houses here are very similar to the traditional stilted houses found in the northern region of Thailand.

For about US$6 I got a room for the night, and dinner and breakfast. The room was devoid of windows or furniture and had an old, thin, fold-up mattress thrown down under a mosquito net as a bed. A ceiling fan hung from the rafters and one bulb gave just enough light to read by.

A delicious dinner was served alfresco beneath the house, overlooking the rice fields. Having managed to get the message across that I am vegetarian I was served home grown vegetables, tofu, rice and deep fried homemade crisps, all washed down with a few bottles of the excellent Halich beer.

After dinner I chatted with the lady of the house. Being a Thai speaker, well sort of, I was amazed to discover that distant as the White Thai are to modern Thais there are still some similarities in the language. We managed to have quite a conversation using common Thai words and English.

The view from my bed was a magnificent panorama of rice fields and the steep, rugged mountains beyond. I went to bed with the sounds of rice paddies in my head; lizards, frogs and crickets chirruping contentedly in the darkness. By 2am the local dogs burst into song as a response to several over zealous cockerels and at 5.45am I was roused from my slumber by the sound of cow bells down in the lane. The cool mountain air, dull dong of the cow bells and gentle plodding of the cattle on the dirt road gave the whole thing an air of the Alps.

After an icy cold shower and breakfast of crusty bread, cheese, jam and local coffee I walked through the network of lanes, dodging small herds of cattle ambling slowly in front of their herders. Thick cloud had descended and the mountains were completely shrouded, leaving only the valley floor visible.

The lanes were alive with the gentle hum of conversation and the tapping of hammers. In several locations new wooden houses were being erected. Craftsmen and women were busy shaping wooden beams and carving out ornate mouldings for doors and stairs. Women and children were weaving traditional hill tribe clothing and wicker baskets.

Later on the journey back to Hanoi was cold, wet and with poor visibility. Going over the mountains surrounding the valley in which I’d spent the night the traffic was reduced to nothing more than a crawl with visibility down to about two metres.

The Weekender