To be a successful guidebook writer, you need not only good research and writing skills, but also a good sense of direction. This is one area of the job in which I normally feel quite confident, as I spent a few years driving minicabs in London as well as driving buses for London Transport, and I reckon if you can find your way around London, you can find your way anywhere.
When I’m on the road researching a guidebook update, I often have a list of 30 or more hotels, restaurants, bars, spas, pharmacies and so on that I need to locate each day in order to decide if they are worth recommending for the new edition of the guide. With the help of maps in the guidebook and online, I usually manage OK, but sometimes things go wildly wrong, and I always get messed up in Mae Sot.
Mae Sot is a bit of a Wild West town, located just a few kilometres from Thailand’s border with Burma, and is populated by an odd mix of Thai schoolgirls in short skirts, Burmese men in long skirts (longyis), Karen women in colourful shifts and bearded Muslims in billowing robes. As with many border towns, it has a reputation for smuggling, and Mae Sot is reputed to be a major conduit for amphetamine trafficking from Burma to Thailand. It’s also an important centre for the buying and selling of jade and other precious stones from Burma.
The first time I went there, I didn’t expect any problems as most places I needed to check were on a couple of parallel roads in the centre of town, so I knew once I found one of these streets, I’d be able to find all the hotels and restaurants that I needed to visit. However, a couple of new roads had been built on the outskirts of town that didn’t appear on my maps, so I lost my bearings, and although I knew I was somewhere near the town centre, I couldn’t for the life of me find the two main streets I was looking for.
It didn’t help that rather than being laid out in a neat grid system, Mae Sot’s roads are narrow and twisting. Several times I found my way blocked by markets where traffic was prohibited, so I had to keep backtracking and heading down more winding lanes until I had completely lost track of whether I was going north, east, south or west.
Getting lost may be the traveller’s ultimate nightmare, but it’s even worse for a guidebook writer. Imagine if I had to hand in my update with a note to the editor that no revisions had been made to Mae Sot because I couldn’t find any of the places listed in the guide. In such circumstances, failure is not an option, so I fell back on another skill that has helped me out before—my ability to speak Thai reasonably well.
I started asking shop vendors and other locals how to get to Inthirakiri Road, which runs from east to west right through the town centre and is home to the main police station, post office and several guesthouses. Some of them had never heard of it (or more likely, couldn’t understand my poor pronunciation), while others pointed vaguely, saying “It’s over there.” I would follow in the general direction they had indicated, but when I stopped to ask again, the locals pointed back in the direction from which I had come.
I became flustered, realizing that by losing so much time in getting started, I probably wouldn’t be able to visit all the places I had listed for that day. That in turn would mess up my schedule for following days, and in my irritation I imagined that I’d end up spending a week longer on this update than I had planned.
Sensing that I was losing my rag, I parked up and wandered to a coffee shop in order to collect my thoughts. When the waiter brought my espresso, I thought I’d ask one more time, fully expecting a blank look in reply. I got the blank look, but then the grin on his face suggested he wasn’t exactly clueless, and he pointed at a street sign that stood right behind my roadside seat, which clearly stated ‘Inthirakiri Road’. I thanked him and buried my face in my espresso to hide my embarrassment.
Last week I was in Mae Sot again, updating for a different guidebook this time, and I was supremely confident that because I had been there before, it would be easy to find all the places on my list. Yet due to indecision at a couple of unmarked junctions on my way into town, I somehow managed to follow a similar downward spiral to my previous visit, getting more lost at each turn. First, a street market blocked my way, then one-way streets prevented me turning the way I felt I needed to go. Finally I started asking locals, but those who didn’t respond to my request with a blank stare pointed in opposite directions, even arguing among themselves about the location of Inthirakiri Road.
This time I tried a different strategy. Instead of stopping to drink a coffee and calm myself down, I drove around aimlessly, wary of asking more locals and getting even more confused. Then just as I began to suspect that I was drifting ever further from the town centre, I pulled up at a junction and almost jumped for joy to recognize the police station on Inthirakiri Road. I checked into the first hotel along the street that I needed to review for the guidebook, and decided I’d be better walking around the town centre to do the update rather than driving, for fear I’d get messed up in Mae Sot again.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.