Back-Pocket Perks

For the ultimate party animal tour of Bangkok, Bali or San Francisco, Aaron Frankel’s got a Groovy Map for you



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report, August 27, 2001



Commanding a chattering-howling riff-raff of ghouls, vampires and witches with a whistle, Captain Morgan ambushes unwary suit-and-tie commuters on Bangkok’s elevated Skytrain metro. Moonlighting as Seagram’s rum-swilling, swashbuckling signature pirate is an eye-patched Aaron Frankel.

Flamboyant mapmaker Aaron Frankel (right), dressed as Seagram's rum-swilling Captain Morgan, lives it up with a fellow party animal during a "sky crawl" around Bangkok's most popular bars and pubs

The American-born Jewish Bangkok old hand is spearheading one of his regular “sky crawls,” his trademark costumed jamborees for fun-lovers visiting the Thai capital as well as for resident party animals. The boisterous crawlers meander, increasingly tipsy, from pub to pub, all the way to their ground zero at Planet Hollywood, where they pelt bartenders with free cocktail coupons and guzzle yet more intoxicants.

The “sky crawlers” don’t get sauced just for fun. They serve as extras for Frankel, who hands them complimentary eye-patches, T-shirts and baseball caps, to plug his “Groovy Map ‘n’ Guide Bangkok By Night.” Like his sales-pitch revelry, Frankel’s maps have broken the mold of traditional city guides. No hefty tomes of travel minutiae, his Groovy Maps ‘n’ Guides — foldable, palm-size and plastic-wrapped — are cartoonish maps on one side and brief guides on the other, offering Frankel’s tongue-in-cheek lowdown on the funkiest local eateries, nightclubs, girlie bars, and “secret haunts” for adventurous fun-seekers.

And not only in Bangkok. Frankel’s nightlife highlights include 13 other cities in map form from Hong Kong to London to San Francisco. And he’s planning to go more global with 50 additional cities mapped out worldwide in the next two years.

But how does the Bangkok-based Frankel know what to do in, say, Bali (the site for an upcoming guide)? Because he’s been there, done that. Through a network of friends and friends’ friends, Frankel, a self-proclaimed “travel guru,” has recruited a global (and growing) group of “researchers” (travel writers and party animals) who go pleasure-hunting in their cities and write up their best-of picks for him. Then comes Frankel jetting in from Thailand to personally test out their recommendations as the first user of the Groovy Map in-the-making. “I put in a lot of hours into these projects, so I do deserve some perks, no?” he explains.

Globetrotter that he is, Frankel remains a Bangkok local patriot. Of all the world’s party hotspots, he ranks his beloved Bangkok tops. The Thais’ City of Angels (where “angels” routinely wear G-strings, writhe in go-go bars, or administer “special full-body treatments” in Turkish baths) has it all, Frankel testifies, “from the exotic to the erotic and even the esoteric.”

Fame, though, mostly favors the erotic. Take, for example, on Frankel’s invitation for some sex tourism in “Bangkok By Night” a “naughty massage” where you can “wrestle with a soapy dominatrix for several 1,000 baht.” Did he personally test-wrestle his recommendation? He skipped this one, he stresses: Info comes from bachelor friends.

It had better. Frankel is a married man, and Nurith (Niki) Thongborisute is literally his better half.

“He can drive me crazy, he’s so disorganized,” Thongborisute, who is also Jewish, says of Frankel. “I like to go from A to B to C. Aaron likes to bounce all over the alphabet.” Frankel, the flamboyant creator, and Thongborisute, the level-headed pragmatist, are fire and water. But they complement each other admirably. “She helps me stay on the ball; I help her loosen up,” Frankel says.

Groovy Map's Bangkok guide seeks to take tourists straight to the best sights and watering holes that the Thai capital has to offer (photo courtesy of Groovy Map)

Last year Thongborisute, 29, quit her well-paying legal practice in corporate law at a leading Bangkok firm to join Frankel at Groovy Maps. Besides her own share of researching and writing, she has taken charge of distribution, development and marketing. And she also reminds him of their Jewish cartographic obligations: “We’re the only map of Bangkok,” Thongborisute says, “to mark the Chabad House on Khao San Road [a rowdy backpacker haunt] with a Magen David sign.”


Frankel and Thongborisute are two of Thailand’s few “indigenous” Jews. Thongborisute was born in Bangkok in 1972 as number 5 of the six children of a Jewish American mother and a Thai father, the late Sungkas Thongborisute, a renowned surgeon who founded Thailand’s first private hospital. Her parents met in New York and moved to Bangkok in 1967, the year Aaron was born to the Frankels. Her mother, still an active member of Thailand’s small Jewish community, raised Niki and her siblings Jewishly. (One of Niki’s brothers is now a Lubavitcher hasid in New York.) Thongborisute — who is Hollywood blond and pale-skinned, with only her almond-shaped eyes attesting to her half-Thai lineage — went to Carmel College, a Jewish boarding school in England from age 6, and later to Stern College and Fordham University in New York, where she got her degree in law.

Frankel arrived in Thailand as a toddler in 1969 with his father Richard, an environmentalist with a PhD from Berkley, who relocated his family from their home in Washington D.C. to Bangkok on a U.S. government appointment. Aaron attended an international school in Bangkok and lived a sheltered life in a welcoming and tolerant Buddhist society. “Bangkok had barely any Jews back then,” he recalls. “My best friend was Korean, and I didn’t know ‘Aaron’ was a Jewish name until I went to Israel.” At age 16 and at his father’s insistence, Frankel spent a year on Kibbutz Kfar Blum, near Kiryat Shmonah. He and Thongborisute met at a Jewish engagement party in Bangkok in 1995. A year later, they were wed in a Jewish ceremony.

But Frankel is a Jew with an oriental flair: a “farang” (white foreigner) changed forever by life in sun-drenched, laidback, fun-loving Thailand, where every day is a potential holiday. Frankel was born in “the Year of the Monkey,” in 1967, sports a goatee, a Kojak-bald pate, loud tie-dyed or Hawaiian shirts, and blasts around on a powered-up Triumph motorcycle. And like his guides, he has a carefully cultivated flakiness about him: he’s the kind of mannered eccentric who’d eat foie gras out of a can. (He gobbles on-the-run but expensive a la carte lunches at various Italian restaurants.) In promotional photos for Groovy Maps, he often poses as an intrepid explorer in a pith helmet, chewing on his sunglasses’ earpiece and fixing his gaze pensively out of frame. And he hopes, the accompanying text explains, “map sales will allow [me] to lie in bed till noon. Thanks for your support!”

Frankel’s surfer-hippie looks befit a take-it-easy bohemian (and former drama student at the University of California, Irvine) who “got fired from all my jobs” until Groovy Maps came along. He got the boot as a waiter after only three days in a New York restaurant at age 18 during his first American trip from his “native” Bangkok. “I proposed a better way of serving customers to my bosses,” he explains. “They didn’t like it.” Ditto, when he twisted balloons for a living in San Francisco: “I got fired from even that, too!” Undaunted, he tried his luck again; this time in advertising, brainstorming for a major Bangkok agency between 1992 and 1995. Didn’t work out, either. “I worked my butt off to help others make a bundle, but what did I get? Peanuts!” he recalls.

So Groovy Maps, which affords Frankel his own cluttered office in a wood-paneled traditional two-story house in the heart of Bangkok, has been deliverance. Still, his venture-adventure in cartography started out nothing this auspicious. Often too busy to take his visiting foreign friends to his favorite Bangkok hangouts, he supplied his picks onto a hand-drawn map of the city for them. They loved it. Then Frankel realized he might as well get his map to other visitors — and charge them for it, in the bargain. Thus was Groovy Maps born in 1996. His “Bangkok By Night” map is already in its fourth revision and still the most popular.

His secret: Strip a product down to its barest appealing essentials, as in advertising, and there you have it: a Groovy Map. “Take a metropolis and turn it into an intimate village, that’s what we’re about,” he says. And forget backpackers and their Lonely Planet bibles. “We want to become another Lonely Planet, but for the next-generation traveler.” His idea of the next-generation traveler, Frankel goes on to explain, “is a well-padded guy who drops in a city for three days just to check out the local watering holes.” A guy, in other words, who in Rome wants to do as the Romans; in Paris, as the Parisians; in Bangkok, as the Bangkokians. And spare him the threadbare touristy places of government brochures and package holidays.

If you’re such a guy, the Groovy By Night maps are just what you need. They’re user-friendly guides designed for the back pocket, selling at 100-150 Baht ($2-3) in bookshops, hotels and Family Mart outlets Bangkok-wide, and for $4-$6 on They reel off nightlife highlights from connoisseur restaurants to “midnight munchies,” from pleasure haunts to “groovy romantic stuff.” In their respective “Splash O’ Cash” fold, they list what Frankel calls “once-in-a-lifetime treats”: a glide in an ultralight over lush rice paddies in northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai; a leisurely ride on the royal-grade Eastern & Oriental Express in Singapore; or B&B with “moonlight cruise n’ snooze” afloat in the San Francisco Bay.

And plenty more treats are yet to come. Propped up by his own small creative team of designers at his Litehart advertising agency, where he’s director (so now no one can fire him), Frankel is busy mapping out new hip cities worldwide and updating others; he even got a night map ready for the Sydney Olympics last year, he says proudly. On the side, he’s printed more than 2 million free, ad-financed maps for commuters on Bangkok’s Skytrain, with monthly up-dates on local events, since the light rail began operation in December 1999.

So a rosy, lucrative sunrise may be looming on the Groovy Map horizon. “Groovy Map is a brand with a great personality, Aaron’s, and given some luck it can go anywhere from here,” says Thongborisute. The map will go places, Frankel stresses: “I want to make Groovy Maps so popular one day they’ll come together with your travel tickets.”


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