Every backpacker’s bible

Unpacking the gospel according to Lonely Planet

It’s known as the Yellow Bible. Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring is as easy to spot on a young Montreal professional’s bookshelf as poking out of a backpack in Koh Samui. It’s one of Lonely Planet’s 20 best-selling guides, and backpackers looking for a cheap way to break from the mundanity of Western life rarely get on a plane to Bangkok without one.

Southeast Asia on a Shoestring was so crucial to my six-week trip through Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam in 2007 that my boyfriend, Ian, made a bus full of travellers wait in Hanoi on our way out of town while he ran close to a kilometre back to our hotel room to retrieve it. Ian found our forgotten Yellow Bible glowing under the bed, full of maps and recommendations that we didn’t think we could travel without.

When I look back on my trip, I often return to our decision to go back for our Lonely Planet guide. Our Yellow Bible knew so much more than we did about Bangkok restaurants and sleepy beach resorts that until that point, we had never put it down. Maybe if we’d left it under the bed at the Lonely Planet-recommended hotel in Hanoi, the pictures from our remaining three weeks wouldn’t have looked so similar to ones posted by friends on Facebook who did the Southeast Asia circuit with their very own copy of the travel guide in tow.

I thought the Yellow Bible read like a real life choose-your-own adventure, and that it would be impossible for anyone to replicate the decisions Ian and I made from the options in the book. But as I swapped stories with travellers my age on the road and back home, I started to realize just how unoriginal my trip had been.

For starters, I was one of countless university-student-age travelers who flock to Southeast Asia from all over the world. Emely Oliveira, who has helped university students book trips for eight years with Voyages Campus, said she’s seen travel to Southeast Asia rise steadily. Students come into her McGill office every day asking about cheap flights to Bangkok, Vietnam, or Cambodia.

“Europe is still a killer, but there is a lot of demand to go to Southeast Asia. People who have already done Europe will turn to [Southeast Asia],” Oliveira said.

Stats back up what Oliveira has observed over the years; according to Tourism Authority Thailand, 19,165 Canadian tourists hopped off international flights to the steamy air outside Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport in January 2007.

Even the recent bombings in Bangkok, which prompted the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) to issue a level-wwwwwwwwwtwo warning (exercise high degree of caution), haven’t stalled interest in the region, according to a representative at the Thai Consulate in Ottawa who processes visas for stays of more than 30 days.

“I have people who go every year, sometimes twice a year. And that’s stayed about the same [after the bombings]. They still go because they enjoy the country,” she said.

Well of course. The danger of the unknown is part of the thrill.

Kristen Wilmot knows travelling in Southeast Asia isn’t always easy, and that’s exactly what makes her proud of her trip. She did the Southeast Asia circuit ultimate justice. Most backpackers I met had only visited half the countries she’d knocked off her list in the span of two months: Laos, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia. When I caught Wilmot on the phone for an interview, she was browsing pictures of Facebook to jolt her memory of the trip she took by herself in September 2007.

“I did get sick and I got stuff stolen out of my backpack. When I left, a coworker told me he thought that was the last time he was ever going to see me,” Wilmot said.

Ryan O’Connor, U3 Anthropology, who crowned a short whirl around Southeast Asia with a ten-week volunteering post teaching English on the Thai-Burmese border, prefers developing world destinations to Europe or the States.

“[Travel to the third world] is cheaper and it broadens my horizons much more than going to places where things are safer. Travelling in Europe is easier; everything works on time and there are fewer hassles. But in the third world, there’s an array of challenges,” he said.

O’Connor spoke contentedly about food poisoning in Thailand and late buses in Guatemala, experiences he said he came to appreciate with time.

Chuck Thompson, seasoned travel journalist and author of Smile When You’re Lying (2007), a collection of tidbits, observations, and rants about travelling that mainstream tourist magazines just wouldn’t print, thinks Southeast Asia’s appeal for university-age students applies to all poor countries where language barriers and cultural difference make travel challenging.

“Rich people spend a lot of money to look at poor people, and you kind of earn your travel stripes by suffering through hardships along the way: meeting a con artist, getting ripped off or lost somewhere. Adventures happen in places with a different economy and political system,” Thompson said in an interview.

Thompson’s got a point. For months after I got home, I never grew tired of telling my friends that when our motorbike crashed in Pai, a town in northern Thailand, locals fixed it up so we could make it to our elephant riding appointment on time. I sat myself down on the elephant’s head when we arrived, lodging my knee – gashed open from the accident – behind his ears. I thought I was earning my travel stripes that day, one baby elephant ear slap at a time.

But in all the times I told the elephant-motorbike story, I always left something out. The Pai doctors and nurses at the hospital where we later went to get our wounds cleaned told us they treat Western tourists who crash their motorbikes every day. Ian and I rented a motorbike because Lonely Planet told us to. Without one, the authors cautioned, accessing the waterfalls and elephant reserves surrounding Pai is next to impossible. It took me a few months to let go of the glory of the motorbike accident: it just wasn’t the same once I realized I had earned my travel stripes the same way as thousands of others.

Neil Manning, who let his Lonely Planet Mekong Delta navigate his six months on the Southeast Asia circuit in 2007, worried that his guidebook’s pages even led him to the experience that felt most unique: trekking with a local guide spontaneously in Laos.

“You kind of feel like everyone is following this one route and it’s hard to get off the beaten path. Lonely Planet tells you the best things to do and it’s hard to find something to do that’s not in there. You can go on a trek with a local but the idea to do that is in the book,” Manning said.

Thompson dedicates a whole chapter to Lonely Planet in Smile When You’re Lying. He recounts an anecdote about venturing out to a Lonely Planet-recommended Bangkok café located far from the tourist hubs, only to find it full of backpackers with their doggie-eared guidebooks next to their plates.

“You are set up with an expectation and you’re looking for that. [Guidebooks] tell you what you are gonna get, and that is kind of what you get,” Thompson said.

Not only can Lonely Planet-guided travel feel unoriginal and artificial, it can also be problematic because it directs tourist dollars specifically to the hotspots it plugs. Tourist dollars would be better spent spread out across Southeast Asian regions and shared between local businesses.

Lonely Planet culture has a life of its own. O’Connor effortlessly stereotypes Lonely Planet travellers as sloppily dressed 20-somethings artificially concerned with connecting with locals. Even though the guidebooks include historical information and notes about cultural sensitivity, some diehard readers skip right to the part about Koh Phan Ngan’s Full Moon Party and the strip clubs on Patpong Road.

“If they read all their Lonely Planet from front to back, maybe we’d have more respectful travelers. [In Thailand], there are ghettos of tourists who create their own culture: they want to go and enjoy themselves. It’s free-for-all sex, free-for-all drinking, and free-for-all drugs. [That kind of tourism] doesn’t have anything to do with culture,” said Christine Mackay, founder of Crooked Trails, an educational non-profit organization based in Seattle that organizes sustainable trips, which combine volunteering and tourism to stimulate the economic growth of local economies. Crooked Trails’ Thailand trip includes combating sexual slavery among the hill tribe people and replanting mangrove swamps in Andaman fishing villages.

As Mackay continues on about tourists that swarm Thai villages happily snapping photos of people they don’t have time to get to know, I start to realize what it takes to make travel meaningful. Lots of people have got aspects of it right: it needs to be ecologically responsible, culturally respectful, and should channel money to the local poor rather than to big corporations. But more than anything, it needs to tap into local knowledge about what to do and where to go. I pushed through mob after mob of pushy touts in the Southeast Asian cities I visited, confident in dismissing their skills as guides because I thought everything I needed to know was just waiting to be read in my Yellow Bible. Without it, I would have been completely dependent on local people to help me get around, and my tourist dollars could have pumped life into the informal economy.