Interview with Thailand Writer, Suzanne Nam

By Nomadic Matt | Published April 8th, 2009

Moon Thailand GuidebookA few months ago, I interviewed Panama Guidebook author William Friar. Moon Guidebooks liked it so much they asked me if I wanted to review their Thailand guidebook and interview the author. Since I am always interested in what people write about my favorite country, I agreed.

I found the book to be a lot like the Panama book and other Moon Guidebooks I have read. Lots of history and story but short on detailed practical information. There is information on what to see, where to stay, and where to eat but not like there is in a Lonely Planet. Then again LP gives you about 1200 pages of information with pages and  (sometimes too many) pages of places to stay and where to eat. The Moon Guidebook is only 400 pages long.

One thing that Moon does very well is find authors who tell stories well and this is no exception. There focus always seem to be more about giving you the history and culture of a place than telling you were to find the best breakfast place or coolest club. Like William Friar and his Panama guidebook, author Suzanne Nam tells the story of each area of Thailand well, giving you a lot of the background and history of each place. Everyone wants something different in their guidebook, which is why so many companies exist. Moon continues to be the guidebook for those looking for something besides raw intel. It’s the guidebook for those who want the story behind the destination and this book continues on that strength.

Nomadic Matt: How long have you lived in Thailand?
Suzanne: I’ve been here for almost four years. I arrived in May 2005 for the first time to work as a newspaper reporter. I thought I’d be here for a year or two but haven’t left yet!

How did you end up as a guidebook writer?
I’d been working as a reporter for a while when I saw an advertisement for the job. I contacted Moon, sent them a detailed proposal and then talked to one of their editors.

When writing the Thailand books, how do you decide what goes in and what doesn’t go in?

All travelers are different. What one person thinks is the perfect vacation another might not like at all. Things I enjoy or think are really cool might not appeal to every reader. And people have different budgets and time constraints. So I try to include destinations, sights, food, accommodations across a very broad spectrum, so everyone finds things they are happy with. But whatever I include, it has to be the best option available, whether it’s a five star resort or a $15 bungalow, street food or a fancy restaurant. The only rule is nothing mediocre or disappointing unless I’ve warned the reader in advance and there’s a really compelling reason to include it.

Suzzane NamThailand is a pretty touristy country. How would you recommend people traveling there get the local experience?
There are very touristy places in Thailand but really most of the country is just going about daily life! To get a real local experience, pick any of the smaller cities or beaches and just go. You may not find lots of folks who speak English or many well-worn paths, but you will generally find friendly, accommodating people who’ll do their best to help you out. People tend to want to go to places where others have gone before, but the great thing about Thailand is that there are plenty of beautiful, interesting or otherwise worthwhile places to visit. If you want to see what life in Bangkok is like, don’t stay on Khao San Road. If you want to go to beaches but don’t want too many tourists, don’t go to Ko Samui or Phuket. Try Satun, Trang, Khanom, or Sichon, where the other guests at your hotel or bungalow will probably be Thai families on vacation. In the more touristy areas, such as Chiang Mai, Bangkok or Phuket, you can get a local experience if you just walk a couple of blocks from the most touristy areas. Even in Bangkok, a very worldly city, there are plenty of neighborhoods in the city center where you won’t find any tourists. Have dinner on Nakhon Chaisi Road, which is about a mile from some of the city’s best sights, and chances are you’ll be the only non-Thai person there. And wherever you are, when you find someone you can communicate with, go out of your way to talk to them and ask them about their life!

Every guidebook has its own personality. How would you describe your guidebook’s personality?

Selective. There are plenty of books, websites, and other resources out there, so it’s easy for travelers to find information if they just want to know how to get somewhere or where the hotels are. I can’t compete with the Internet, and I don’t want to just spout out an exhaustive list of all the places to go, all the sights to see, all the hotels to stay at, and all the restaurants to eat at. What travelers really need is advice, someone to cull all that information, help them make sense of it all, and pick the best thing for them. Whether you’re a backpacker with three months or a vacationer with ten days, I want you to have the best experience possible.

comments 13 Comments

thanks for posting this interview. It’s interesting to hear from the people who write the books we (i) rely on. Adding character and a face to those words really tends to make things – I don’t want to say more real, but different. And in a good way.

Ugh, see I LOATHE Lonely Planet. Their guides are inaccurate, lazy and lacking detail (I hate how the listing, for example, are all of two lines…what are you supposed to get from that little information?). Also, Scott and I used their Central America on a Shoestring for Guatemala and Honduras in the fall, and in one chapter alone, the dude writing it used the word “rape” four times–he had us terrified to go to Lake Atitlan, and once we got there, we couldn’t have felt safer! If ever I buy a guidebook, it’s Rough Guide, Frommer’s or Moon.

Clive @ FH4U

Re Your point about escaping tourists. i havent been to Thailand since the last century ;-( but I hired a motorbike and went by local buses and very quickly you left the tourists behind. You were soon in a owrld of local markets and people sleeping on tables under palm thatch selling petrol from bottles. doesnt come much less touristy than that.

Great interview. Moon is one of my top choices for guidebooks (along with Rough Guides) because they tell a story of both the history and the culture.

“Thailand is a pretty touristy country. How would you recommend people traveling there get the local experience? ”

That is SUCH a good question. You should ask this during every interview. Thanks!

Hi Matt,

Thanks for your kind words about my Moon guide to Panama. But I was surprised by your suggestion that it is “short on detailed practical information.”

I suggest you take another look, as that’s not a comment anyone’s ever made. Every destination in Panama is covered in detail. For larger destinations, I list and describe dozens of places to eat, stay, things to do, etc. If an area is a tiny backwater, I still include the most promising holes-in-the-wall to try and how to find them.

The book includes everything from detailed trail guides (along the lines of “turn left at the second stream”) to comparisons of hidden gay bars to how to hitch a ride on boats sailing to Colombia.

It was especially ironic for you to suggest the Lonely Planet as a source for more detailed information. The Lonely Planet guide to Panama has not been properly updated since 2001. The most current edition raves about a Panama City restaurant that closed in 2004, leaves out a hotel that Conde Nast declared one of the 10 best in the world in 2006, describes a region that’s been booming for several years as a remote backwater with only one place to stay, and so on. (Don’t take my word for it — check out the LP’s Amazon reviews.)

My book is 300,000 words long, easily the longest and (I’m pleased to say) generally acknowledged as the most complete guide to Panama. It’s long enough to include both background and history AND detailed practical information. (Again, look at the Amazon reviews.)

Everyone of course has different taste in guidebooks, but I don’t know of anyone who’s used my book and wanted more nuts and bolts. If anything, some would probably have preferred less!

Criticism of a book is fair enough. But it really needs to be accurate.


William Friar
author, “Moon Handbooks: Panama”

josie

great interview… i agree with ummmmheyyyy…. awesome question to ask, priceless answer to have. i think i may pick the book up. Thailand is way up there on my list of must go to very soon.

NomadicMatt

@william: Sorry if my comments came off the wrong way but my criticisms were towards Suzanne’s book. My comparison towards yours was that it contained lots of details about the history and culture of people.

Suzanne’s book left out a lot of details about places to go and see and I was surprised to find that her accommodation and dining section were so short. She missed a number of big places to stay and eat in Bangkok and on many of the islands I know.

Thailand is a huge country and I don’t think doing a 400 page guidebook on the country does it much justice in the way of nuts and bolts. Overall, I found Suzanne’s book to be great for the story, not so great on practical options.

I don’t have that critic of your book though and was not slightly you or your guidebook. Comments on our interview suggest that your guidebook is the best. Many readers like it. My thoughts are on the Thailand book

Hi Matt,

Thanks very much for the clarification. If you re-read the first couple of sentences in the second paragraph of your interview introduction, above, I think you’ll see why this misunderstanding occurred.

I appreciate your taking the time to explain, and I’m sorry for hijacking the conversation about Thailand!

William Friar
author, “Moon Guidebooks: Panama”
http://www.panamaguidebooks.com

I agree practical information in a guide book is more helpful. History and cultural stuff are interesting to read. But that’s too much to cover, and can be a whole different book, and not eveyrone is interested. If I’m keen to get those information, I would a) find book on Thai culture and history. b) talk to local Thai people and hear from their stories. I would recommend having a local Thai tour guide to get the local experience. When I visited Bangkok and Chiangmai, my local guides were really great and mingled my sightseeing with local discovery (markets, streets, etc.)

local guides, local wisdom

Michelle

I love the Moon guidebooks but have to agree with you on the one on Thailand. I glanced thru it at my local bookshop in Bangkok, but found a lot of information missing.

I’ve lived in Bangkok for over 6 years, and found that Suzanne missed a lot of great places to eat or stay just in Bangkok. Chiang Mai’s section was the same thing – obvious places that any local should know about weren’t included in the book, which was a pity. She writes very well, but the information in the book was minimal at best, so, unfortunately I wouldn’t recommend it (although like others on here) I wouldn’t recommend Lonely Planet either – a lot of their information is often outdated and useless.

Good interview!

Based on your experience in Thailand, where would you consider the Top 5 restaurants in Bangkok?

audrey

how can one perceive as top restuarant while it may not in others eye?? bangkok street food may be my top but may not be yours on the list.

cant get enough of thai food… mouth watering…

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