For almost half a century, a colorful map highlighting secret soi haunts has been a backpack staple of every dedicated visitor to Bangkok. But the family business behind those maps has finally succumbed to the rise of Google Maps.
The company that produces Nancy Chandler’s Map of Bangkok, the exploration bible of every paper-based tourist and expat since the 70s, is shutting its presses after 45 years in business due to declining sales. The last maps will be printed in May.
“‘You gave us the confidence to explore, to venture outside our hotel or our new home’…‘Nancy Chandler, you saved my life when I moved to Thailand,’” Nima Chandler, Nancy’s daughter, recalled feedback she has received over the years. “The maps help share memories, and our love for Thailand.”
Nima, now 51, joined her mother’s business in 1997 with general manager Varisara Bejrakashem and graphic designer Roengsak Chankasem, who have each clocked in 22 years at the company. Nima has since retired. Perhaps surprisingly, the research and marketing of the tourist and expat staple fell into the hands of two Thais who know the city perhaps better than anyone.
No Ordinary Map
Nancy Chandler’s Graphics was founded by Nancy Chandler, an American, in 1974. Nima fondly recalls that Nancy’s first map was a fold-out spread of the Grand Palace area in the American Women’s Club Magazine, drawn after getting lost at Sanam Luang.
The places featured on the latest 2018 edition of the Bangkok map were largely discovered by explorer Roengsak, who spent years walking sois.
“I walked very single soi, not looking for obvious highlights. These are places even Thais don’t know, and should go see,” Roengsak, 42, said.
Air-conditioned places are marked in blue. Vegetarian restaurants are marked with a V. With just a glance, holders of the map can find places to eat and visit in the vicinity of landmarks. The map also helps tourists explore areas that may initially look unsavoury, but are home to charming local businesses.
“Some sois might look like, ‘Woah, I’m not going down that soi’. But I know something’s there because it’s on the Nancy Chandler map,” Nima explained.
The maps also come with a directory that lists places featured on the map, and lay out specially curated tours: “For Lovers of Old Buildings”, “One Stop Clothing Spots For Western-sized Clothes”, “For Those Who Don’t Want to See Another Foreigner Out”.
“This isn’t generic ‘Top Ten’ list stuff but places that will make [your visit] magic – yoga, art films, bowling,” Nima said. “These are things that will make Bangkok yours.”
Nancy Chandler might have been one of the first to transliterate Thai street names into English for maps, as there were no English road signs back in the 70s, Nima mused. The paper maps were later digitized by Roengsak, who even created the Nancy Chandler font himself.
Nancy moved back to the US in 1987 but continued to visit Thailand every year until she passed away from pneumonia in 2015 at the age of 76. She left the company to Nima, Varisara and Roengsak.
“She was very kind, narak and an artist at heart. She really knew Thai people. She would come spend time with us at Christmas,” Varisara, 45, recalls. “She was a farang who fell in love with Thailand and expressed it through art.”
Over the years, the company has weathered the increasing digitalization of tourism – not only by map apps, but also online Top 10 Lists that divert travellers to tourist traps rather than small sois. When Redshirt protests in 2010 set fire to parts of CentralWorld, flames engulfed a large collection of the company’s bookstore stocks. They have also felt every single tourist downturn.
Operations were less and less profitable over the years. Although the company broke even and stashed away enough severance for their six staff members, Nima made the decision to close down Nancy Chandler’s by the end of May. The company has never taken ads, though many companies have contacted them in the hopes of being featured on the map.
“It’s our choice what we want to put in,” Nima said. “Some people have called and asked if they can continue Nancy Chandler, but with ads. Nancy wouldn’t have wanted that.”
A Changing Bangkok
How can a meticulous paper map keep up with Bangkok, where streets change on the daily?
“The moment you print a map, it’s outdated,” Nima observed.
Often changes occur because of mall openings, high-rise construction or multi-billion mixed-use projects.
“She loved Thailand, but she hated the shopping malls and skyscrapers. She said it was too much. It wasn’t the Thailand she knew in 1974,” Nima said, referring to her mother.
Nancy Chandler employees viewed the construction as a fact of life in Bangkok, but still wanted people to find little nooks in the city. They championed the mom-and-pop bakery over the corporate chain.
“Thai people are probably happy that the city is improving. And it is. But if they wanna see Thainess, maybe there’s a little less of that,” Roengsak said.
“Not all big buildings are bad. But you’re not gonna find a Starbucks or McDonald’s on our map, unless it’s a special one, like in a historic building,” Nima added.
All Nancy Chandler maps are now 25 percent off. The Bangkok and Chiang Mai maps cost 296 baht each. The Nonthaburi map costs 137 baht. The rest of their stock, which includes cards and stationary, is available online at 50 percent off. Either place orders online, drop by their office at ITF Silom Palace (a walkable distance from BTS Chong Nonsi), or wait for their May 25 to 26 sale at Neilson Hays Library. Stock has largely been pulled from usual outlets. Sales end May 31, but the PDF versions of the maps will continue to be available.
Correction: An earlier version of this article contained errors regarding the financial situation of the company. The error has been corrected.