Nancy Chandler’s Map of Chiang Mai

Men are convinced that women cannot read maps. They know this to be a fact.

If you go up to a man, any man, on the street, give him your map, and tell him that you are lost and you want to go to the National Museum, he will take your map, unfold it, and stare at it for three seconds. He will then stab his finger at the map and say, “We’re here right now.” Then he will point at the museum, which is clearly marked, and say, “You want to go there.” Then he will trace your route along the map, and give you precise instructions: “Go down this street three blocks, make a right, go two more streets, turn left, and it will be right in front of you.”

If you go up to a woman, and try to give her your map, most won’t take it because they know they can’t read it. But if you insist, she will gingerly unfold it, hold it at arm’s length, stare at it, rotate it 90 degrees, turn herself so she’s facing the road, rotate the map again, and generally try to figure out how to align the map with the road. Naturally, the printing will be upside down. Eventually, she will say something like, “I can’t tell from this stupid map; it’s that way” and point in the direction of the museum.

The reason this happens is not that women can’t read maps; it’s that women can’t read maps designed by men.

Men are precise, logical animals. They know precisely where they are in space at all times. As they walk along a street, they watch the house numbers, they absorb the names of the cross streets through their pores. They know, at any instant, exactly how far they have come from a known, fixed location, like that main intersection back there.

Women, on the other hand, also know where they are, but not precisely. They know they are somewhere near the cathedral, and that the market is over that way a little bit. They know that if they walk in that direction for a few minutes, and then head towards the river, they will come to an antique shop they visited three years ago.

I am a programmer, and quite familiar with these two methods of locating things: the first is called “absolute addressing”, and the second “relative addressing”. They’re both right, they both get you to where you want to go, but they use different techniques.

The reason a woman can’t read a map is that maps are designed by men to give them the spatial references they need to navigate. A map is no good to a man unless it shows every cross street, all the railway lines, as well as significant things like towers, parks, and hills. Ideally, a map should show house numbers and the direction of one-way streets.

To a woman, this is all confusing detail, which makes the map a chore to read.

This was brought home to me a few years ago, when my wife and I were in Chiang Mai, a town in Northern Thailand. We were in a tourist shop, looking at maps, when my wife pulled out Nancy Chandler’s Map of Chiang Mai. “Let’s buy this one,” she said. She was obviously attracted by the colourful exterior; all the other maps were drab in comparison.

Outside on the street, she opened up the map and held it in front of her. I looked over her shoulder. The first thing I noticed is that most of the streets were not marked; while the main streets were all there, none of the little side streets were shown at all. There was just a lot of empty space, coloured beige.

“This map is no good,” I said, “It has nothing on it.”

“Hold the map,” she said.

I did, and she stabbed her finger at the map.

“We’re right here,” she said.

I looked closer, and she was pointing just to the right of the street on which we were standing.

“How do you know we’re at that spot?” I asked.

She lifted her finger. The tourist store we had just exited was marked on the map, and had been under her finger.

“This is a great map,” she said.

Nancy Chandler’s Map of Chiang Mai is designed by a woman for women. For men, it’s next to useless; for women, it’s priceless.

About the Author:

Douglas Anderson is the author of Speak Easy Thai and the web master of Learn Thai Faster.

3 thoughts on “Nancy Chandler’s Map of Chiang Mai”

  1. Hmmm, I am not a full-time programmer, though I have programmed some but I’m not sure the analogy you provide is as robust as it might be especially with regard to relative addressing. I might say that absolute addressing gives a “set-in-stone” set of directions that say one MUST go straight 2 blocks, then left 2 blocks, then right 2 blocks to get from A to B. While a relative address would be something like: point B is at 10:00 from your current position. Going toward 10:00 – either by left 2 blocks then right 4 blocks or straight ahead 4 blocks, then left 2 blocks or straight 2, left 2, right 2 – all will yield the result desired. In other words the relation between the beginning and end point remain the same, though the path between them is not codified. I hope I have understood what you are trying to relate and my example assists.

    What I really wished to say is that I have purchased many maps of areas in Thailand and find Nancy Chandlers’ of little value. Perhaps you would say that is because I am an absolute addressing male. I believe it is more because all of her maps are uncorrected and out of date and so the information they provide is either incomplete or incorrect. When purchased, some of her maps included extra documents that describe additions and changes, but the maps themselves remain as originally “painted” – with incorrect information remaining on the page.

    I prefer the Groovy Map series. They have all the information for absolute as well as relative orienteering (IMHO) and offer quite good suggestions of places to visit and things to do. They’re also laminated to keep them stain-free and in one piece. And best of all, these maps are UPDATED.

    I understand the point of your essay is not to encourage anyone to buy a particular map. Just in case someone might use your essay to form an opinion of the value of maps, I thought I would give readers the benefit of my experience and save them money and time spent. Nancy Chandlers’ maps are nice illustrations, and might be fun as wall-mounted art as a reminder of one’s trip but as a tool to get from one place to another I think they are lacking.

    (And no, I do not know, nor have anything to do with, the makers of the Groovy Map series.)

    Thanks for the interesting comparison, it had me thinking.

  2. paul o'callaghan

    I spent quite a lot of time in Chiang-Mai in 2008 and bought the Chandler map and lo & behold i could not make head nor tail of it ! I thought i was just stupid now i realize it’s because i’m a man ! The above article makes so much sense now.Thank you.

  3. As someone who is relatively good at land navigation having spent some time in the military, one of the things I connected with in this article is that if I have a map that does not have ALL the streets on it . . . it’s useless to me. If I pass a street and it’s not on the map I have no idea whether I’m heading on the correct bearing.

    In typical land navigation . . . you know, the type where people’s lives depend on it like in the military or in aviation how you navigate is to pick your course and then fix on a particular feature that is on your bearing. As long as you keep that feature as your immediate goal then you are on course.

    So, let’s say for instance, I need to hike 20 miles due east to intercept an enemy formation. I look at my map to see where I need to go relative to my current location and set a compass bearing. Then I use my compass and identify some feature that is on that path. For instance, it might be a large rock formation that is directly on an easterly course about 2 miles away. Now I can walk towards that rock formation and when I get there I locate the next feature which is on the compass bearing. And so on and so on until I arrive at my destination.

    So, a map that does not contain information that allows you to constantly correct course is pointless. If I come upon a canal that is not on my map . . . how the hell do I know if I’m even going in the right direction?

    The whole purpose of a map is to give you referential information so you can navigate.

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