Retracing Chiang Mai through an artist's map

A journey through the streets of Chiang Mai in Thailand, guided by an artist's colourful hand-drawn map, proves to be as beguiling as it is immersive.

The enchanting Wat Suan Dok Buddhist temple
  • Catherine Marshall
  • March 2019

Thailand is not unfamiliar to me but Chiang Mai is a mystery. “Ah,” people say when I tell them I’ve seen Bangkok from the bottom up, gliding along its klongs (canals) in a longtail boat, and from the top down as I sipped cocktails at a rooftop bar overlooking the Chao Phraya River.

Their eyebrows rise inquisitively as I recall the time I spent with Burmese refugees in the border town of Mae Sot and my walk across the Friendship Bridge from Thailand to Myanmar, nervously relinquishing my passport along the way. They smile as I speak of Ranong, where I roamed streets clamorous with the song of caged birds and drank a beverage striped with infusions of evaporated milk and black tea.

“But you haven’t been to Chiang Mai?” they ask, pityingly. I had not been to this city, founded in the 13th century in a cushion of jungle about 688 kilometres north of Bangkok. I had not been to this provincial centrepiece, famed for its northern Thai culture that takes expression in ancient temples, handicrafts, architecture and cuisine.

The city, renowned for being the gateway to the elephant camps proliferating its outskirts, the paddy fields swaying up and down its hillsides and the chedi-crowned Doi Inthanon (Thailand’s highest mountain). It sounded like a dream.

Visiting Doi Inthanon is a spiritual experience
Visiting Doi Inthanon is a spiritual experience.

Now, I’m finally being lured there by an old friend. She has wrapped Chiang Mai in a cellophane package and sent it to my Sydney mailbox. I slip the city from its envelope and watch as it emerges from within the folds of paper on which it’s been printed. It’s a candy- striped swirl, invigorating glossy white stock: orange roads traced like latticework across the page, the turquoise ribbon of Mae Ping River bisecting the city, the bubble gum-pink Chiang Mai-Lampang super highway arcing across a chaos of legends and illustrations and immaculately handwritten recommendations.

This isn’t any old moth-eaten, utilitarian atlas. It’s Nancy Chandler’s Map of Chiang Mai, an artwork from which the city’s people and places spring to multidimensional life. It’s a legacy etched in print. Although Nancy has been gone some years already, she’ll be here to guide me through the city she knew so well. She had held my hand six years earlier, on my first visit to Thailand. Tucked beneath my arm was her map of Bangkok, a city she had arrived in, from the US, some 40 years before.

Nancy Chandler's famous Map of Chiang Mai
Nancy Chandler's famous Map of Chiang Mai.

Nancy had lost her precious watercolours on a prior trip to Nepal and replaced them with puja powders found in Kathmandu’s market. Later, she used the vivid pigments to create a rudimentary guide to Bangkok’s markets for a magazine published by the American Women’s Club of Thailand. So popular was Nancy’s map, the issue was reprinted twice.

Today, Nancy Chandler’s Map of Bangkok is iconic, famously cramming even the most intimate of details into the tightest of corners. The map has expanded to include editions for Chiang Mai, Nonthaburi and Vietnam’s Hanoi, as well as pocket-sized directories packed with up-to-date information. Nancy’s daughter, Nima, has continued to run Nancy Chandler Graphics in Thailand since her mother’s death in 2015.

In my room at the boutique Tamarind Village hotel, which takes its name from the towering, 200-year-old tree in the courtyard, I spread out the paper map, flattening it with my fingers.

Located within the walls of the old quarter, The Tamarind Village Hotel is modelled on traditional Lanna architecture and culture
The Tamarind Village Hotel is modelled on traditional Lanna architecture.

There’s too much to do here, too many wats (temples) with golden, pitched roofs looming out from the page, too many markets designated in blocks of mauve and too many parks greening the city. I lean in for a closer inspection of the Old City with its frame of ocean-blue moat and ramparts rendered mustard-yellow. The scale tells me the area is a walkable 1.5 kilometres-squared (that’s in spite of the disclaimer, which states that, “We don’t always follow the rules. The scale is ‘approximate’ only. We consider content more important than 100 per cent adherence to scale. As long as you can still find what you’re looking for.”).

Reassured, I set off along Ratchaphakinai Road with Nancy’s instructions – held up like a book before me – leading the way. Beyond the backpackers’ bars and the laneway to Angel’s Secrets Café, I find Wat Chiang Man, enclosed within mouldering walls and shaded by ancient tamarind trees.

Wat Chiang Man is Chiang Mai's oldest temple
Wat Chiang Man is Chiang Mai's oldest temple.

This is Chiang Mai’s oldest temple, built around 1296 and buttressed by elephants carved from stone. Devotees have left offerings at the elephants’ feet: gifts secreted into banana-leaf parcels and coconuts spiked with joss (incense) sticks. It’s tempting to linger here, quarantined as it is from the city’s clatter, but I’m lured by the butter-yellow stripe of Wiang Kaew Road and its promise of refreshment. Slipping into the grounds of Fahtara Coffee, I attempt to recreate my experience of that striped Thai tea in Ranong with an iced coffee. It’s not quite as enchanting but the memory I’m creating is indelible: the shaded courtyard, dappled in hill tribe colours, and the slap as the waterwheel hits a pond by the wall.

The tropical climate calls for iced drinks at Fahtara Coffee
The tropical climate calls for iced drinks at Fahtara Coffee.

Afterwards, the serenity on Phra Pok Klao Road mirrors my own as I float weightlessly along it. The heat is dissipating and devotees are gathering at Wat Phan Tao – the tuktuk drivers are smiling as they shout their fares. Scents fill the air like a profound call to eat: chilli, lemongrass, basil. Tonight, I’m dining at Lert Ros – “highly rated north-eastern Thai”. But first, I must fulfil an exhortation Nancy made on my first trip to Bangkok: “Buy something you will treasure forever,” she said.

For truly authentic Thai goods try the markets in Chiang Mai
For an authentic taste of Thailand, try the markets in Chiang Mai.

I have my eye on a tiny, amber-hued figurine at a market on Ratchadamnoen Road. I’ve tried to drive down the price – “bargaining is part of the fun!” Nancy says – but the trader’s not budging. So I hand over the stipulated baht and cradle the golden gem in my palm. It’s my own little piece of Chiang Mai – a city that has been so exquisitely conjured for me through another woman’s eyes.