March 26, 2010

Multi-lingual cyberscapes: the case of Bangkok, Thailand

For the most part, our maps have been based on the results of keywords in English which has complicated our analysis at the global level (see here and here). Although many English words are used in other languages, it remains an issue. As a result, we have recently begun mapping and comparing the results of searches based in a variety of other languages including those written using characters other than the Latin alphabet.

This post outlines four terms we searched for in Bangkok in both English and Thai.

The first map is similar to other city-scale maps we've published in the past. However, this time we specifically decided to search for references to beer. This map shows results of searches for placemarks containing the word "beer" overlaid on satellite imagery of Bangkok (courtesy of Google Earth). The color and size of each circle indicates the number of results at every given point. Big red circles have the most references and small purple circles have few. Locations without any circles have no references.

A few parts of the city stand out with an abundance of references to beer: the backpacker ghetto of Khao San Rd at the northwestern corner of the map, Patpong in the middle of the map, and the infamous Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy at the far eastern edge of the map. A cluster of references to beer can also be seen slightly to the north of the main Hua Lamphong train station (the area of white blobs on the map), although we're not really sure why.

"Beer" in English
Interestingly when the same search is conducted using Thai charcters instead of English (เบียร์), a relatively similar pattern is evident. The same areas stand out on the map, although this time Patpong is far more visible. Also evident is the fact that references to beer have a far more dispersed geography in Thai than they do in English. This is likely due to the fact that English speakers are far more likely to reference the few tourist hot-spots in the city, while Thai speakers are more likely to be familiar with a much broader range of places . In any case, we are gratified to see that beer seems to international.

"Beer" in Thai (เบียร์)

This difference in the parts of the city understood and mapped by tourists versus locals can also be observed when a search for "silk" is conducted. Silk is one of famous exports of Thailand and this is reflected in Bangkok's cyberscape. When looking at references to silk in English, we see a map not too dissimilar from the map of beer. Khao San Rd. and Patpong stand out again (likely because silk is often sold in the night markets in both places). The map also picks up references to silk stretching from Patpong down Silom Rd. to the Chao Phraya river and stretching from Nana down Sukhumvit road in both directions (both roads are lined with silk shops that are oriented towards tourists).

"Silk" in English
When the Thai word for silk is used (แพร), a very different pattern can be seen. References to silk are scattered throughout the city without the clear clustering seen in the English (and presumably tourist oriented) cyberscapes of silk. Very different geographies and understandings of place are therefore being constructed between English and Thai representations of the city.

"Silk" in Thai (แพร)

These differences between English and Thai cyberspaces are observable in a whole range of terms. Mapping references to "temple" in English, unsurprisingly highlights the Grand Palace Complex and the many temples in the Phra Nakhon District of the city.

"Temple" in English
A search for the Thai word for temple (วัด) highlights entirely different parts of the city. Instead of the Grand Palace area, we see a focus on the Temple of Dawn and the many other temples on the eastern bank of the river. There are also clusters of placemarks around the Golden Mount, Chinatown and the temples in Sathon (e.g. Wat Yan Nawa). Again these are locations in the city that are more likely to be known and frequented by Thais than foreigners.

"Temple" in Thai (วัด)
Finally, we wanted to look at the geographies of an industry that is far more visible in Bangkok than in most parts of the world: the sex industry. We started with a search for the term "brothel" in English. We see a few dominant clusters showing up on the map: most notably the famous red-light districts of Nana and Patpong.

"Brothel" in English
But when searching for brothel in Thai (ซ่อง), a radically different geography can be seen. The Chong Nonsi area especially stands out (a part of the city not particuarly famous as a red-light district).

"Brothel" in Thai (ซ่อง)
We recognize that ensuring that our terms are equivalent in both languages is problematic and would welcome thoughts on ways to improve our searches. For example, would English speakers use the term brothel or sex club? Or something else?

Nevertheless what this shows, is that very different representations of a city are being produced and reproduced for different people. Our understandings of the cities we move through are heavily influenced by representations of place and we therefore need to find useful ways to map and understand the fluid and sometimes fleeting representations that exist on the internet.


  1. Fantastic blog. Love it.
    Cheers - J.

  2. Great choice of country for this example.

  3. Find out the good places,please

  4. Those are tough questions! I enjoyed how globalization has made terms relevant in various languages, but figuring out a way to take this into account is beyond me, especially considering your basic units of measurement (number of online references) have such subjective meaning!

  5. Great to see the language factor in the mix. But as you mention, there's problems related to a strict translation. You mention this in relation to brothels. Another example might be the arabic word for corruption, "baksheesh". The direct translation for this is "small gift", but in arabic speaking parts of the world it's also used to designate a bribe. In yet other parts of the world, such as Turkey, it's used to describe a tip. Of course, to take such issues into account is quite an undertaking.

    Another factor which might be interesting is the communication infrastructure (internet availability) in given areas. This is, of course, dependant on how you gather the data; is the data georeferenced or based on IP locations?

    At any rate, yet another interesting post. I'm playing with the idea of using a similar approach on a thesis on corruption. Of course, the representation of the data is an issue. As you state, it's not easy to make such visualizations all by one's lonesome. But it beats regular diagrams and charts by a parsec.

  6. Thailand is not a good country.I did not like it.People are so rude. Malaysia is way better than Thailand. So many things they have in Malaysia.

  7. This is also true using Google maps in China; searching for information or directions in Chinese characters is far more informative. (Although maybe not for long with Google's recent pulling out of the country.)


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