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Editor’s Note — Joe Cummings created the actual aboriginal Lonely Planet Thailand guide, which was appear in the aboriginal 1980s. As the acclaimed biking cast begins shuttering its offices, Cummings reflects on his decades-spanning career as a guidebook writer.
With planes grounded, borders bankrupt and bodies blockage home all over the apple in acknowledgment to the Covid-19 bloom crisis, any business associated with biking and tourism is on its knees at this point.
Still, accepting been a Lonely Planet guidebook columnist for 25 years, I feel it.
I watched the aggregation abound from a apprentice two-person start-up in the 1970s to an authority with added than 500 appointment agents on four continents. In the 1990s, aback I was visiting LP’s address in Melbourne two or three times a year, a abiding ascend in sales and assembly affected the aggregation to about-face to a above breadth three times.
Thus for me, and I’m abiding for abounding others who grew up bent the apple with ailing guidebooks abutting at hand, the cease of Lonely Planet’s aboriginal address signals the end of an era.
In my life, that era kicked off aback I aboriginal apprehend “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” while on my way to appointment in Thailand as a Peace Corps advance in 1977.
Nicknamed “the chicken bible” by its countless of devotees, the rustic adviser was accounting by the UK’s Tony Wheeler, who calm with his Irish wife Maureen, created their DIY banner four years beforehand afterwards finishing an overland adventure from London above Asia to Australia. Their stapled-together “Across Asia on the Cheap,” complete with hand-drawn maps, awash 1,500 copies on artery corners bottomward under.
Each affiliate was adherent to a altered country in Southeast Asia, and although the advice was skimpy, and the maps almost usable, I was about afflicted that accession had absolutely done it.
Born to a traveling aggressive ancestors who lived in Europe, I was acclimated to the “F” guides — Fodor’s, Fielding and Frommer’s — which for the best allotment ashore to well-trod itineraries in Europe, North America and Japan.
Guidebook columnist Joe Cummings
Established during the aboriginal post-WWII era, these guides were geared appear bodies like my parents, who agitated beefy accoutrements and catholic by clandestine car.
Writing about how to biking in developing countries via bounded bus and train, Lonely Planet was actual underground by comparison, for the time. Aback I accomplished my appointment in Thailand and was advancing to biking home by way of India and Nepal, I arrested Bangkok bookshops to see if Lonely Planet had appear annihilation added on these countries added than abrupt capacity in their out-of-print “Across Asia on the Cheap.”
There was annihilation accessible on either abode yet, but while browsing the shelves, I apparent just-released Lonely Planet titles on Myanmar and Sri Lanka. I bought both, and apprehend them cover-to-cover while traveling through the subcontinent (I didn’t absolutely appointment either country till later, as a Lonely Planet columnist on assignment).
Avoiding culturally cloistral travel
Back in the States, I started autograph for The Asia Record, a San Francisco-area bi-weekly committed to Southeast Asian diplomacy in the deathwatch of the US-Vietnam War and abatement of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. I additionally enrolled in a master’s affairs at the University of California at Berkeley, breadth I wrote a apriorism on tourism as apparent through the eyes of antipathetic insurgencies in Thailand and Malaysia.
One day in backward 1980, I sat down, fed a dejected aerogram into my electric typewriter, wrote out a angle for a “Lonely Planet Thailand” guide, and mailed it anon to Tony Wheeler. Aural a few weeks, Tony wrote aback and said that accordingly he was attractive for accession to do a adviser on Thailand, and aback LP was expanding, he didn’t accept time to do one himself.
At his request, I beatific him a autograph sample that followed the Sri Lanka adviser arrangement and focused on Ko Sichang, an island off the bank of Sri Racha that I’d visited several times while active in Bangkok in the backward ’70s. As far as I knew, no one had anytime appear annihilation about the island in English before.
Joe Cummings’ aboriginal Lonely Planet adventures page.
Courtesy of Joe Cummings
Tony’s additional acknowledgment came quickly, alms $9,000 to actualize the aboriginal copy of Thailand — a biking adaptation kit. I had to pay my own air book and expenses, but as it angry out I accompanying accustomed a paid acquaintance from Berkeley to backpack out acreage studies, so I formed the two projects into one cruise during the bounce of 1981.
I hit the arena running. It was an agitative moment for me, aback the book I was researching would become the aboriginal English-language adviser adherent absolutely to Thailand aback “Guide to Bangkok with Notes on Siam,” appear by the Accompaniment Railway of Siam in 1928. Although there were a brace of French and German guides, they were actual abundant geared appear hiring your own car and disciplinarian and blockage in capital hotels forth the way, abundant like Fodor’s and added boilerplate guides.
In band with the LP philosophy, my aim was to abstain culturally cloistral biking as abundant as possible. Our ambition readership was “Independent ability freaks.”
As I told a anchorman in an aboriginal bi-weekly interview, “people who appetite to be adequate and safe all the time maybe don’t appetite to apprehend these books”.
Carrying annihilation but a accept bag with a change of clothes, a brace of notebooks and a manual-focus SLR blur camera I traded a Gibson electric guitar for (an barter I still regret!), I caromed about Thailand by rot rawn (hot bus), the all-over orange inter-city buses with wood-plank floors and aged alternating admirers to activity the apathetic air.
Air-con buses were attenuate in those canicule — in actuality none had appeared in Bangkok yet, nor did Bangkok taxis accept either air-con or meters. Occasionally I bent a second- and third-class train.
“By the time I chock-full autograph guides in 2006, LP Thailand had awash able-bodied over 2 actor copies,” says Joe Cummings, pictured in a contempo photo.
Courtesy of Joe Cummings
For places like Chiang Mai, Ayuthaya and Phuket, the Tourism Authority of Thailand gave out chargeless stapled mimeographs with advantageous straight-ahead advice on attractions and apartment — annihilation like the glossy TAT promotions we see today — and I abounding my bag with these. But for best added genitalia of Thailand, I’d acquisition a abode to break and afresh arch beeline to bounded markets to babble with locals.
As the attenuate farang (white foreigner) visitor, I’d generally be arrive to allotment a canteen of Thai whiskey or a basin of noodles, abnormally in night markets. I’d ask about places to see and things to do about the area, and my new accompany would acclaim waterfalls, museums, monuments.
Frequently accession volunteered to booty me about on the aback of a motorbike the abutting day as continued as I paid for ammunition and meals. In baby towns afterwards hotels, I’d beddy-bye on the attic of a bounded Buddhist monastery.
Like active in a Graham Greene novel
Although I’d catholic about Thailand while alive abreast Bangkok two years previously, I accomplished the country actual abnormally this time, airy by abbreviate academy holidays.
I’ll always bethink council a aged old Yamaha motorbike forth unpaved anchorage from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son via Pai, through landscapes of asperous limestone peaks and close forests of bamboo and teak, and activity that I’d stumbled into paradise, as cliched as that may sound.
It was April 1981, anon afterwards Songkran (Thai New Year), that I spent my aboriginal night in Pai at Hotel Wiang Pai, a six-room, all-wooden Shan-owned auberge with a activity opium den in back. I bethink cerebration it acquainted like active in a Graham Greene novel.
Likewise, accession on Ko Samui by apathetic baiter afterwards that month, and exploring the island via a distinct clay alley that belted the interior, falling comatose at night in bamboo-thatch huts to the complete of after-effects lapping the shore, I wondered how I adapted the advantage of award such dependable close idylls.
In Bangkok, I stumbled on two old Chinese-style hotels on Khao San Alley while branch out on bottom to analysis Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace. Aback the hotels, which at the time catered to traders affairs broad appurtenances adjacent and affairs them upcountry, were bargain and aural walking ambit of prime sightseeing spots, I wrote them up and included them in my LP guide.
When I alternate to do an amend for the abutting edition, both hotels were abounding with backpackers, and three baby bedfellow houses had opened to board the overflow. This, apparently, started Khao San Alley on its way to acceptable the better backpacker centermost in the apple by the mid-1990s.
“I’ve activate my calling”
After 10 weeks of travel, I alternate to California, sat bottomward at my typewriter and wrote the 136-page aboriginal copy of “Thailand — A Biking Adaptation Kit” in three weeks. Afterwards it was published, it bound became the biggest-selling appellation in LP’s rapidly accretion catalog, and backward that way for the abutting 20 years.
I thought, “OK, this is activity to be it for me, I’ve activate my calling,” and alone a acting plan to do a Ph.D. at the Academy of Oriental and African Studies in London. From that point forward, I adherent myself to autograph about travel, food, art and ability and never looked back.
This anniversary I had a attending at that aboriginal edition, which has become added adamantine to acquisition these days.
My half-page accession accustomed Thailand’s non-colonial legacy, the amazing backdrop and the amenable culture. Beneath “Eating And Sleeping In Northern Thailand” (yes, all in one section), I acclaimed that there were 45 hotels and about 15 bedfellow houses in Chiang Mai.
I absolved Pattaya in three paragraphs, concluding, “most non-tourists will acquisition Pattaya defective in acceptable aftertaste as able-bodied as ability and would do able-bodied to avert it from their itineraries. Pattaya Bank is not abundant of a bank to activate with, and its better businesses, watersports and artery sex, accept apprenticed prices for aliment and adaptation above Bangkok level.”
I acclaimed that Khon Kaen was acclaimed as the arch abode breadth Thai Sticks (marijuana buds angry to bamboo) were assembled, and “that allocation of the artefact that does not leave boondocks for bigger markets is accounted to be the actual best available, in added words, the locals accumulate the best for themselves — old Thai easily alarm it ‘Khon Kaen Crippler’.”
Such references alone lasted a brace of editions afore an added politically actual Lonely Planet removed them — acrid accustomed medical marijuana’s now-legal cachet in Thailand.
A bazaar athirst for anxiously curated info
Joe Cummings was offered $9,000 to actualize Lonely Planet’s aboriginal Thailand guide.
Rui Vieira/PA Images/Getty Images
To accompaniment the obvious, yes, biking 35 years ago, afterwards today’s avant-garde technology and accumulation tourism, was added adventurous. Traveling in abounding genitalia of Asia aback then, if you ran above accession backpacker walking bottomward the alley you would anon run up to them and alpha trading biking tips.
That changed. By the sixth edition, the “Lonely Planet Thailand” adviser (“travel adaptation kit” was alone from the appellation forth the way) counted 800 pages, and not continued afterwards that it advised in at aloof beneath a thousand, and anybody was accustomed it.
By the time I chock-full autograph guides in 2006, LP Thailand had awash able-bodied over 2 actor copies.
In accession to autograph added guides to Bangkok, Thailand’s islands and beaches and Laos, I was assassin to amend absolute Lonely Planet guidebooks, including Myanmar (which I covered from 1988 to 1998, afterwards which I was blacklisted by the aggressive government until 2011), China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and the Philippines.
In Lonely Planet Myanmar, Joe accent nightly home performances by Mandalay’s Moustache Brothers, a ball affiliation the aggressive government banned from touring.
Courtesy of Joe Cummings
When Lonely Planet had aloof one country larboard that they hadn’t covered, Tony and Maureen arrive me to address the aboriginal copy of Bhutan. I declined, due to overwork, a accommodation I affliction today as I’ve become acerb absorbed to the country.
As for Lonely Planet in the time of coronavirus, I achievement it’ll survive as a brand. If the aggregation can allow to accumulate activity until bodies are traveling again, I’m adequately assured it can re-capture a bazaar athirst for anxiously curated info, which is what Lonely Planet offers over Internet-based, crowd-sourced alternatives.
Although I’ve confused on from guidebooks to added kinds of writing, my affection for biking has never ebbed.
Ajahn Buddhadasa, a acclaimed Thai abbot who anesthetized abroad in 1993, already told me, “You apperceive why you like to travel? Everywhere you go, annihilation belongs to you. Aback you’re home amidst by your possessions, you’re advised down.”
I anticipate he was right; it’s liberating actuality bare bottomward to one suitcase, which is how I still travel, in the aboriginal LP style.
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