Me and my guidebook don’t get on. I’ve met some people who say they use the guidebook just to get to a place, then would have you believe they just leave it behind at the hostel for the rest of the trip. Not so for me, I’m an unashamed guidebook devotee. During days of ascetic travelling, when you leave behind clothes, books and other possessions in every place you go, the guidebook becomes a sort of extra limb, if only as a result of lugging it around everywhere in the boiling heat, like you do the rest of your limbs. Obviously. In my travels, I’ve argued over carrying them, threw them across the room in disgust, relied upon every word, and whenever I’m stuck for something to do, I’ll always leaf through it in case there’s something I’ve missed in my endless re-readings. When I was younger I used to parrot back the guidebook information to my parents, much to their delight (probably)
However, as I said, my South East Asia guidebook is a limb I can’t wait to get rid of. A gangrenous limb, perhaps, or slightly less drastically, an ingrown toenail or an unwanted hair. I bought it many moons ago when I first tentatively thought of going on this trip (because obviously once you’ve bought the guidebook you HAVE to go) and read it avidly, assuming that when I got here all the things I read would make sense, would have relevance and helpfulness in the face of the South East Asia village or metropolis. Sadly, this has not been so.
I don’t want to imply the book hasn’t been useful, it has, but in latter days I’ve started to use it in a negative fashion. That is, if something appears in the Lonely Planet, I know to avoid it. I don’t mean to condemn all LPs, I’ve used them before in other countries and found them excellent. But seriously, if you come to SE Asia, don’t bring the SE Asia on a Shoestring. In the 70s this was the classic text, the only text in fact, written by a couple committed to budget travelling through parts of the world few people thought of as holiday destinations at the time. Somewhere along the line, they sold out, and they have managed to franchise these countries into a LP-SEA-experience for drunk 20-somethings released from school or university or dead-end jobs. At first I thought this was some sort of mistake, but after repeatedly being recommended tourist-trap restaurants, ‘party’ hostels, being treated to irritating asides about how you can catch Angkor Wat at sunrise ‘on your way back from drinking all night’ and virtually no useful or interesting information about, um, the countries in question, I have given up in disgust.
I think this is partly because SE Asia has a well trodden tourist route, and because other guidebooks don’t seem to have made much of an inroad here (and pirate copies aren’t available on every street corner), so that everywhere they recommend is immediately inundated with tourists. They are delighted by the increase in their custom, and straightaway raise their prices and lose any character or charm they once might have had by becoming homogenised and mainstream, offering the same fruit shakes or sugary versions of Western food that everywhere had. The other part of the problem is that the LP doesn’t seem to update its recommendations very often. In older versions of the book, the hotels and restaurants are the same, and clearly no-one has gone back to examine the tragic results of their recommendation.
It doesn’t seem to expect you to want to do anything by yourself, offering tour recommendations and so on. In the rare occasion that it does say you can do things independently, again the information seems out of date, or perhaps the authors have only every travelled in the high season, because in the low season things can be radically different. I learned this after two miserable days in the Mekong delta, wandering the streets looking for boats that didn’t exist. The LP is geared towards laziness, and the travellers and the destinations follow suit.
All in all, it’s with great relief that I’m leaving it behind in my hotel room this evening, to graduate to the infinitely superior and comforting Rough Guide to India.