An Interview with David Unkovich, a Chiang Mai Cartographer
David Unkovich, 56, born in Australia of Croatian extraction, has been in Chiang Mai so long it’s perhaps possible he doesn’t know who the Culture Club is; he missed out on microwave dinners, crimped hairstyles and Max Headroom. . . a well-timed exodus you might wonder. Citylife spent the day with him, doing what he does best, riding through the mountains.
10.30: Hire new Kawasaki ER6 and follow Unkovich into the mountains on the Samoeng Loop.
11.30: Drive through some fabulous scenery, passing clear lakes, swimming buffalo herds; climbing mountains, passing hill tribe villages, kids waving, women sat crouched smoking cheap cigars.
1.30: Arrive at Pongkwao Hot Springs, just outside the village of Pongkwao. Unkovich talks of his time in Chiang Mai.
“Twenty-five years ago it was so quiet you didn’t have to look when crossing the road. There were no tuk tuk, hardly any traffic.” He tells me how he has a pet hate for tuk tuk, “We should get rid of them, or at least ban them from the moat, give the drivers electric buggies to drive.” His biggest issue with the present Chiang Mai is over development, traffic problems, pollution. “They should facilitate access into the city, keep cars outside the city, have buses, tram services, buggies . . . traffic is killing this city.”
His early Chiang Mai life really was sabai sabai, all he did was ride around on his Honda Wing 125cc and read books, “one a day,” he tells me. His book collection got so vast he opened Chiang Mai’s first secondhand book shop. “George from Gecko Books was one of our customers!” he says.”
He explains that while he had his bookshop he would also explore the local area on his motorbike, going places no farangs had been before. He put a map on the wall so people could see where he’d been. The only available maps of Thailand then were military maps – now classified – but back then Unkovich had a copy of some northern Thailand maps. “People would walk in the book shop and ask me for directions, I’d give them my notes. My notes got bigger and bigger until I had to make a photocopied book I could give to people. And so a book was made. Jaruek Publications, owned by Transvin Jittidecharak from the Suriwong Book Centre Family published ‘A Pocket Guide for Motorcycle Touring in North Thailand.’ I think it was the first English language book Transvin ever published.”
Unkovich’s fame as an intrepid explorer spread to the fringes of the travel writing industry and soon “all the major travel book writers would come to my shop asking for advice on new places, new things to see, how to get there etc.”
It wasn’t long until he was asked to make a more serious map. A guidebook approached Unkovich. “It was only a hobby of mine, this was the first time I’d been asked to do it seriously. But I drew their map by hand, they digitalised it and it turned out to be a fantastic map. There were two or three reprints and it sold 15,000 copies.”
He then realised he could be doing this for himself and soon was the first mapmaker of the Mae Hong Song Loop – a moniker he had given the almost circular journey. The map is now in its fourth edition and has sold over 30,000 copies. “I then made a Laos map and that sold out in 12 months.”
His favourite place in the whole of this region is the Chiang Khong border with Laos, “A beautiful place,” he says, “I don’t think they can f**k that up,” he adds, in relation to the over development of Thailand’s hot spots.
“Where can you go now in Thailand? All the towns are in valleys, covered in smog, cloud, pollution, only Khum Yuan and Mae Salong are high up but everything else is in valleys, and you can’t escape the smoke, the fires, traffic pollution. They don’t control development, if only they could learn from Luang Phrabang, an example of how a city should be developed. But there’s too much power in business, business will ruin everything.”
Over our second dish of mama, in the empty restaurant of the hot springs, he mentions how the Louis Berger Group (offers services in areas of civil, structural, mechanical, electrical and environmental engineering) made a master plan for Chiang Mai, to build a better public transport system, integrate building codes, to develop the infrastructure sensibly. “But the Lauda plane crash killed half of the administration working on the project and that wiped out the plan.” (Thailand’s worst ever air disaster took place in 1991 when a Lauda airliner went down into the Thai jungle killing all of its 223 passengers, including the Chiang Mai governor, and a tour group of prominent Chiang Mai residents.)
“We are choking Chiang Mai. It’s the same in many places in Asia, there is not enough respect for the places where we live. Despite the negative environmental aspects of Chiang Mai I still think it is the best city to live in in Thailand, if not South East Asia.”
4.30: We said farewell to the two girls who cooked our mama; they were now shredding bamboo, preparing dinner. Quite an extraordinary place this, a not so hot spot, hidden away in the mountains as it is. You should come here before they build the new road, open up a Wawee . . . be sure take to a map.
Hot springs: 053 497055, 081 005 9911 [email protected]