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Long route home Our trip all the way home, trying to catch no planes and stay on the ground like civilised people. It's taking us via India all the way to Europe from Japan, the furthest of the Far East...

Guides

NEPAL | Friday, 26 November 2010 | Views [422]

We started with three guidebooks on this trip and now we have none.  Rough Guide to Japan was left with Christopher in Beijing after 18 months of bookmarking, dog-earing and scribbling in during which it served us very well indeed.  Lonely Planet's South East Asia on a Shoestring found its way onto the bookshelf at the Coliseum Hotel's Planter's Bar having guided us there, among many other great places and the Rough Guide to India was sold for a surprisingly high price in Kathmandu.  Now we are using web guides such as wikitravel and relying on word of mouth, tourist information or web searches.  Do we think guidebooks are good or bad?

A guidebook is a big, heavy, expensive part of your bag.  All three were 1000 page monsters.  They've been annoying to lug around in the day bag and there was never any chance of pocketing them.  While they are very useful, this is a major point against them - a website weighs nothing.  However, the computer that makes sense of those 0's and 1's does weigh something and is much more expensive and fragile.  If it's not in your pocket then you have to find one and that can be tricky and time consuming, especially in India.  Using a webguide in India would have been very impractical and wasted a lot of time.  Browsing offline is very convenient but online browsing is (mostly) impossible on trains, ferries and buses.  Web connections can be fast or slow but you must get to the line.  Books, on the other hand take a few seconds to find the correct place.  As for money, you pay once for that guidebook and it's equal to about 20-30 hours of browsing.  After that, the web's costing more.

Something we called the Gregarious Planet problem emerges in many places.  Basically it runs like this - Lonely Planet give a good review, leading to more custom for one place.  Everywhere around there then adapts to try and lure away this business.  Local flavours and customs are lost in the stampede to provide what foreign (usually Western) tourists want and we end up with bacon and eggs or banana sodding pancakes on every menu.  Character and personality goes out of the window, replaced by blandly identical beach shacks, traveller hangouts etc.  Many places suffered from this although Thailand is by far the worst.  The bubble is created and then sustained as it feeds on itself, encouraging more people into these dens of cultural irrelevance.

More annoying still is walking into somewhere and finding 20 twatpackers smugly shouting at one another as if they were a mile rather than a metre apart.  Almost everywhere in the LP SEAsia suffered badly from this - it wasn't too bad in India or Japan.  It's a situation easily remedied by avoiding their recommendations - a sort of list of places you don't want to visit.  A familiar feeling was turening up to places and finding them gone or changed beyond recognition.  Japan and India especially had quite high turnover rates and enormously mutable cities and thus a two-year old guide book was often wrong.  Travelfish.com and talesofasia were very useful in this regard, regularly updating and checking details and info.  Seat61 was also absolutely critical for many of our tricksy connections.  It wasn't always easier online though as many websites feature wildly out-of-date information and of course are never checked/edited or display dates.  Recommendations are hit-and-miss in a guidebook.  We found many places we would never have known about or discovered without the books, such as the Coliseum in KL, the fact we could stay in Da Lat's crazy house or the Atlanta hotel.  On the other hand, online comment veers so wildly to extremes that they often become unusable, either denigrating places entirely or hyping them to absurd levels.

Critical to the use of a guidebook is understanding the writing style.  With the LP SEAsia it was very much aimed at young gap-year students with little life experience or cultural interest.  The most important points were adjudged to be, in order, easiness, driving price down as far as possible at any cost to quality and 'authenticity'.  The last one is perhaps the most pernicious and the most outrightly false.  The other guides were never quite as bad as the LP, which was written by and for people with little or no interest in contemporary culture, politics or society.  It looks down on malls and praises traditional dance performances, despite the fact that these shows survive only on tourist money and usually have no relevance to everyday life in the country.  It encourages you to go to the same place all the other apes go rather than looking at what the locals do or thinking for yourself.  One gets the feeling that quite a few LP researchers haven't actually travelled or lived all that much and thus rave about places endlessly.  The web engenders a huge range of sites covering thousands of sights.  There are dozens of violently conflicting opinions on pretty much every topic.  This is great if you're sitting at home with hours to kill on a wet tuesday night in November but a real pain if you're searching quickly for an answer at an improbably expensive cybercafe.  Furthermore, the most distracted you'll ever be is looking at Sumatra longingly, not flicking quickly to football365 to see what's going on and suddenly losing half an hour of that precious time.

In conclusion then, guidebooks are very important parts of your kit but not the definitive tomes they're often made out to be.  You wouldn't rely on one shirt, no matter how nice, and neither should you rely on guidebooks alone.  On the other hand, travelling without one at all for any long amount of time is ridiculous - comparable to those that travel without proper shoes, shirts or trousers.  They're usable on the beach, in a cafe or a train.  They're quick and usually reliable.  They've often been checked and edited.  They're focused.  They're indispensable.

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