“You know, Richard, one of these days i’m going to find one of those lonely planet writers, and i’m going to ask him, what’s so f*ing lonely about the Khao San Road?” ~ Alex Garland, The Beach
When was the last time you put down your guide book for a trip to a new country?
Or perhaps, even didn’t bother buying one at all?
Personally— I have to admit that I can’t remember.
On my recent trips outside of Europe and the US, when travelling to an unfamiliar place, i’ve always had my trusty lonely planet in hand or close by. I’m even too old fashioned to go for the e-book version which are more sustainable for sure—thank heaven for printing on FSC certified paper.
There are so many positives that a well researched guide book brings. Through them, we can inform ourselves about the culture, the language, the history of the place we will be visiting – all key elements for appreciating and opening ourselves for the experience to come.
By reading a guide book on our destination before we leave we not only prepare ourselves for our trip, but through reading about culture and what / what not to wear we enable ourselves to travel in a respectful way and one that allows us to create a positive impression. We know what to look out for, we know what to avoid and where not to go as much as where to go, thus increasing our chances of a drama-free trip.
But in Indonesia last year, I discovered part of the darker impact of my beloved guide book. I was in Yogyakarta, Java, visiting the Sultan’s Palace. I’d read the section in the guide which drew attention to touts hanging around outside the Palace, trying to direct tourists to another entrance which would charge more and only show a fraction of the Palace compared to the official entrance. I got close to the building, but the entrance was not clearly signed. A group of Tuk-Tuk drivers started calling out to me, asking was I lost, the entrance is this way, etc… determined not to fall victim to yet another scam I walked on past them – only to spend 30 minutes looking for the entrance in the blazing midday sun. Having come full circle and feeling pretty silly by this point, I again walked past them and they again called out to me to ask if I was looking for the entrance. Heat having got the better of me I conceded and followed their directions – only to find that they had indeed sent me to the official, correct entrance which was just around the corner.
Not everyone, I realised, is out to take advantage of you or is involved in a scam. Many, are just trying to be helpful and welcoming.
It taught me a lesson: that if you go to a place expecting to be scammed at every corner and to be suspicious of those you meet trying to help you, the experience you get as a result will be much less enjoyable. Whilst I’m not suggesting that we should just unquestioningly follow strangers that we meet; there is so much benefit to keeping an open mind and believing that the vast majority of people are friendly and honest.
Guidebooks sometimes focus us so much on the things to look out for, that we forget that we are there to enjoy the experience.
Then there’s the larger and far less lonely effect of guidebooks.
Travelling in South East Asia and some other hotspots in particular you become aware of the well beaten path of tourists and backpackers. The Tourist Circuit. The common path that so many of us seem to follow.
I realise it in conversations, through looking at social media, watching TV – it feels like we’re all going to the same places. But on the ‘circuit’ we’re all headed the same way. Case in point: Boracay in the Philippines, where sewage has been found to start overflowing into the sea, because there has just been too much rapid development for infrastructure to keep up.
And it’s ok that we go to the same destinations, we hear great things about a place, it’s only natural that we want to go too. Many places are on the Tourist Circuit for good reason. But what i noticed about the Tourist Circuit is how easy it is to just stay on it. To stay in the places that already have booming tourist numbers and infrastructure (in some ways) to match: bars, wifi hotspots, sunday brunches, tourist dedicated buses to the next town or place of interest, and a big travel community that follows it, making it easy to make friends and stick with them along the way.
But in reality it means that in some countries the benefit of tourism is thickly concentrated and thinly spread.
Contrast the amount of tourism dollars that get spent in the town of Siem Reap neighbouring the temples of Angkor Wat, compared to remote villages on the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia where residents are mainly too poor to travel to Siem Reap for healthcare.
For the sake of spreading the benefit of tourism and the positive effects it can have economically, as well as socially (on both us as travellers as well as the host country) I know it’s time for me to put aside my guidebook for a bit.
Not necessarily to put it aside for a whole trip, and certainly not for doing my research before I go, but really to take a couple of days out of my trip to go somewhere that’s not even in there. To go somewhere that i haven’t read about where to stay or where to eat or what to watch out for.
But just to go and take my chances, and enjoy the flow.