On the Road

Lonely Planet

In Alex Garland’s novel, “The Beach”, one of his characters says something like:

“I’m going to find one of those Lonely Planet researchers and ask him ‘What’s so fucking lonely about Khao San Road?’”

The Lonely Planet Travel Guides started out with Tony Wheeler’s “Across Asia on the Cheap” in 1974, a self-published edition that had the lowdown on where to score the best marijuana in Thailand. With the backpacking boom following on the heels of the original hippy trail, the Wheelers were on to a good thing and Lonely Planet was born soon afterwards.

Although always one step removed from the cutting edge, the early Lonely Planet Guides were at least entertaining in parts, detailing the best places to go and see live sex shows in Japan, where to score magic mushrooms in Bali and how to wear a wig to hide your long hair and fool the Singapore immigration.

As the empire grew though the big money demanded that they sell out to larger market interests. The schoolbook sections on history and local wildlife grew and any real comment about the places diminished to the odd quirky paragraph. Everywhere now is drenched in the same tired old clichés of ‘a land of contrasts’, ‘a bustling marketplace’ and ‘a warm and friendly people’.

The problem is not that the Lonely Planet travel guides are mostly bland, bourgeois and politically correct but rather that they’ve spawned a generation of backpackers who consult their guide book before they trust their own senses, heart or minds. In addition, with 6 million travel guides sold each year with the Lonely Planet logo, any quiet, ‘off the beaten track’ place mentioned will soon be swamped with tens of thousands would-be explorers, Lonely Planet bible in their hand. Anyone who’s witnessed sleepy village hamlets turned into 5 star resorts in the space of 5 years in India and Thailand will know what we mean.

There have always been guide books for wealthy travelers that have missed the point of travel. The crime of Lonely Planet is that they hijacked the spirit of hitting the road on a budget and turned it into consumer travel. They hype every destination and foster clichés and platitudes that end up being parroted by half the backpackers who read them.

Thus Extortionate local police who fleece travelers and locals are described as ‘untrustworthy’, a bus station crawling with sharks, con men and hustlers of every description is summarized as ‘a little intense’ and a place as mind numbingly dull as South Korea becomes a ‘land full of culture and tradition’.

One wonders whether a Lonely Planet Guide to Nazi Germany would have described the Third Reich as ‘a well-run country with good public transport and safe streets to walk at night. The locals will be keen to tell you about their leaders and on no account should you disdain the Fuhrer in public.’

The Lonely Planet also has a huge online presence with a huge travel community and goods to punt unto them. Most significant is the enormous forum the Thorn Tree where travelers can pose questions to each other about cheap bus tickets and is the Taj Mahal worth the bus trip? The forum is stuffed with queries that receive no replies as the same dumb questions and arguments are rehashed time and time again. Essentially the Thorn Tree is a zone for backpackers with a lot of attitude but little knowledge to whinge, whine and bitch about their travels and criticize the ethics and intelligence of everyone else who posts there.

Now that Lonely Planet has disowned its roots, amusingly there are even now fake editions turning up in Vietnam from canny forgers out to make a buck from the backpacker market. And when the Lonely Planet hype a guesthouse in Varanasi, don’t be surprised that twenty other guesthouses suddenly change their name to the “Ganges Inn” overnight. In fact about the best use for the Lonely Planet guides is to look through them and find places that aren’t mentioned – that way you might actually get to explore the country without whining gap year students in your face asking if you know where to get a cheap milkshake.

The Wheeler’s were smart enough to sell out to the BBC when they realised that the internet was about to undermine the whole travel guide industry and they in turn had to sell it on for a loss 2 years later to an American tobacco millionaire.

So if you want to read some guides owned by Big Tobacco, check out the Lonely Planet Travel Guides Online.