Monthly Archives: October 2008

Step Away From the Lonely Planet: A Requiem for Travel Guidebooks

Posted by on October 30, 2008

This addresses is something which I’ve touched on before, the need for guidebooks when traveling. The impetus for this was spurred on by a Twitter discussion with Leif Pettersen who declared:

I declare that smugly claiming to be too cool or savvy to travel with a guidebook is officially passé and open for ridicule.

Leif is a guidebook writer. I’ve met other guidebook writers while traveling. I have nothing against guidebook writers. After a 19 months on the road, however, I can say with 100% certainty…

You don’t need a guidebook to travel, and getting information online is better, cheaper, and more convenient than what you will find in a book.

Here is why:


I have used one guidebook on my trip. Prior to leaving, I purchased the Moon’s Guide to the South Pacific. The author, David Stanley, is probably one of the foremost authorities on travel in the South Pacific. He’s been traveling the region for decades and knows the area very well. I subscribe to his website to get news of the region.

Nonetheless, for reasons which were totally beyond his control, much of the information in the book regarding flights was out of date. Pacific Blue had canceled their flights to Tonga. Air Nauru no longer existed. Several other transportation issues made me have to change my plans based on information I got online or on the ground. The problem wasn’t with the author, it was with the medium. He is very diligent about providing updates to airlines on his website, but that same information might take years to make it to print.

The publication cycle for guidebooks means that the moment a new guidebook hits the shelf, the information is probably a year out of date. The schedule for putting out new editions can range from 1-5 years and for little visited places, perhaps even longer.

Sites such as will have much more timely information. You can usually find reviews from people who have stayed at the hostel within the last two weeks.

Transportation schedules are the things most likely to change. You can find up to date train information at You can find up to date flight information at any number of flight sites like Expedia, Orbitz or Kayak. You can get bus schedules from most places you stay. I know here in SE Asia, bus schedules are easy to find at any hotel or hostel, and they will have the latest information.

Most places you will have an entire industry built around tourism. Most guidebook authors get their information about attractions by picking up brochures, and you can do the exact same thing when you are there. If attractions have been closed for any reason, you can more readily find that out online than in a guidebook.


To address the quality of the information you get from a guidebook, I will not even address the controversy surrounding guidebook author Thomas Kohnstamm and the allegations of fraud (because there really was no fraud). It isn’t necessary.

Leif’s main contention is that you don’t know what your source is online, but you do in a guidebook. I contend the exact opposite. I have no idea who most guidebook authors are and I have no idea what went into the research of the guidebook. I’m sure most guidebook authors are honest, but I’m equally sure that some aren’t. They might have fudged some information or taken freebies from hotel/restaurant owners. I have no way of knowing.

There is huge demand to be a guidebook writer, because of the glamor associated with travel writing. Most guidebook authors are paid very little, and are required to cover a lot of places in a short period of time. I met one guy who was working on the Australia book for Let’ Go. We were both in Coober Peady, SA. He was there for a day, and I was there for four days. We both had access to the same information. He was gathering up everything he could before he had to take off and go to the next place. I probably experienced more of Coober Peady, but I wasn’t trying to catalog as much information as I could.

Guidebooks are not reviews. Guidebook authors do not visit the vast majority of restaurants, hotels, and attractions they write about. They can’t tell if you if a place is good, just that it exists and contact info. If you want reviews of place, you have to go online. Do I trust the collective wisdom of hundreds and thousands of people, or a single person? I’ll take the mob. If a hotel is consistently getting rated poorly online, that is level of information you’ll never get from a book.

The mob also does a good job with sites like Wikitravel. I have personally updated some of the entries on the Solomon Island and East Timor, which I found to be out of date. You have no way of knowing that I was the person providing the information of course. Can wikis have incorrect information? Yes. So far, however, I’ve found them to be reliable. (Prediction, Lonely Planet or someone else will eventually use these user created information banks to gather information and publish books using this content, bypassing individual authors completely. This will totally remove biggest cost associated with information gathering.)

Most importantly, it really isn’t that hard to get information once you are at a location. The more popular the place is, the easier it is to get information. In somewhere like Bali, you will have people falling all over themselves give you brochures, which is the exact same information which goes into a guidebook.

Finally, all guidebooks are second hand information. Online you can get primary information. Via the web can you get hotel, park, or airline information directly from the source.

Cost and Weight

Guidebooks are expensive and heavy. If you buy in a bookstore, you can easily spend $20-40 on a book. (much less at Amazon). Some of the thicker books can weight over a kilogram (2.2 pounds). That is not trivial when you are traveling. If you are going to many different places, that can all add up. Given the amount of money you spend on a book, you could spend hours at an internet cafe getting the same information (and of course, it will cost nothing if you get it before you leave).

Ultimately, guidebooks sell because of fear and uncertainty. When you go someplace you’ve never been, you want to have some certainty about where to go and what to do before you show up. I still feel the same thing before I go somewhere new. However, I have come to learn that I can get by just fine by asking questions on the ground and doing some research online. I’ve arrived in many places with no accommodations booked ahead of time and had no problem finding a place to stay.

Smugness has nothing to do with it. Guidebooks may have made sense back when Lonely Planet was founded in the 70’s. Today, they are a vestigial reminder of a pre-internet era.

Be the author of your own guidebook and leave the Lonely Planet at home.

Kanvaga Bay, Rennell Island, Solomon Islands

Posted by on October 29, 2008

Kanvaga Bay, Rennell Island, Solomon Islands

Kanvaga Bay, Rennell Island, Solomon Islands

One of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on my trip was Kangava Bay on Rennell in the Solomon Islands. This beautiful bay, which would be a packed with tourists if it were anywhere else on Earth, had only a few families with small wooden houses living near it. We stopped here to fix a flat tire and everyone ate fresh coconut while we waited. Because of its remote location, Rennell attracts only a few visitors every year.

Kanvaga Bay, Rennell Island, Solomon Islands

Posted by on October 29, 2008

Kanvaga Bay, Rennell Island, Solomon Islands

Kanvaga Bay, Rennell Island, Solomon Islands

One of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on my trip was Kangava Bay on Rennell in the Solomon Islands. This beautiful bay, which would be a packed with tourists if it were anywhere else on Earth, had only a few families with small wooden houses living near it. We stopped here to fix a flat tire and everyone ate fresh coconut while we waited. Because of its remote location, Rennell attracts only a few visitors every year.

Still in Saigon

Posted by on October 29, 2008

I’m still in Saigon. I said I wasn’t going to leave until I have all my Cambodia photos processed and I plan on sticking by that. I wasn’t aware of just how many photos I had taken between Angkor, Preah Vihear, Tonle Sap and Phnom Penh. I still have 500 left to process. Taking photos is fun. Processing them isn’t so great.

I was especially upset with a lot of my photos because it was an overcast day when I visited Angkor Wat and Bayon Temple. When you have a bright gray sky, it tends to really wash out photos. When shooting landscapes or buildings, I like a blue sky with moderate amounts of fluffy clouds. I probably get more hung up on the sky than I should, but I hate having a solid white background.

I’m enjoying Saigon. It is a much better city than I thought it would be. I don’t think it is on a level with Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok, but it can be within ten years. There is a vibrancy here. It may not be on a par with Hong Kong yet, but it is here.

I’ve become a regular at a local cafe with wifi. I am amazed at how waitresses in this part of the world go out of their way to point out my dimples in a matter of seconds. The woman who runs the guesthouse I’m staying at mentions them every time she sees me. I wonder if there is some cultural things in SE Asia surrounding dimples I don’t know about. If there is, perhaps I should stay longer :)

A humpback whale fin in Exmouth, Western Australia

Posted by on October 27, 2008

Humpback whale diving. Exmouth, Western Australia

Humpback whale diving. Exmouth, Western Australia

I went to Exmouth, WA to see whale sharks. I ended up seeing five whale sharks the day I went out, but was unable to take any photos (no underwater camera). I did however get to see some humpback whales. This was the tail of a mother who was swimming with her calf.

Preah Vihear: My Trip To A War Zone, Part 3

Posted by on October 27, 2008

Read part 1 and part 2 first.


Made it! Note how totally dirty I am. It was even worse driving back. I still have a layer of Cambodia on my camera bag.

The Temple

We paid the dirt bike drivers $18 to take us round trip up the mountain. I don’t think they get much business lately. On the way up we saw periodic small groups of soldiers sleeping or bathing. They didn’t appear to be at Defcon 5. We also saw various propaganda posters by the Cambodian government along the road. As they were written in English as well as Cambodian, I don’t think they were made for domestic consumption. Several of the soldiers cheered and waved to me. I think they must have thought be to be a reporter.

The temple itself was almost a letdown given the efforts required to get there. The first thing you notice is stuck right in the middle of the ruins closest to Thailand is a highly unnatural looking flagpole with a Cambodian flag. It looked like it was giving the finger to Thailand.

The temple is very long with three major sections. The temple is designed such that you walk up a long flight of stairs (which terminate near the Thai border), go down a paved path through several buildings, leading to a final temple building overlooking the plains of Cambodia. During its prime, it must have been quite dramatic.

Lest there be any confusion

Lest there be any confusion...

In addition to soldiers, there were also women and children near the temple area. Why they were there is beyond me. They were not visiting. Some appeared to work there. One girl tried to sell me a CD, which I thought was very odd given the circumstances. I think they non-soldiers are there either to support the soldiers (food, cleaning, etc) or to solidify the claims to the temple by having civilians.

My total time at the temple was about an hour, which was really more than enough to explore all of it. I would like to have taken some more photos of the soldiers and talked to more of them, but we were on a schedule. If we were to make it back to Siem Reap at a reasonable hour. We pulled away from Preah Vihear at about 1:30pm.

The Road Back

View from Preah Vihear Temple

View from Preah Vihear Temple

So far, the experience hadn’t been a physical challenge. My legs and butt were sore from being on the bike for so long and I had burned my right calf on the tail pipe getting off the bike, and I had one of my left toes hit with a rock from a passing car. As we took the same road back, the pains of sitting in place for so long started to become worse. Image getting stuck on the middle seat of an airplane for a flight across the ocean, the seat is above the engine, has no padding, the flight is nothing but turbulence, your legs are locked into a position you can’t move from, and you have to straddle some other dude.

My knees were beginning to hurt from not moving for hours at a stretch and my ass hurt from the bumpiness of the road and not moving. Dirt and dust has crept into everything. Weeks after, my camera bag is still dirty from the trip. The only good thing was that we had avoided rain. There were storm clouds ahead of us that we just missed. We got back to Anlong Veng before sunset and I was hoping to be in Siem Reap by 7-7:30pm.

Then it started to rain…

We drove through the rain for about 30 minutes. We had no rain gear and it was dark. I had put my camera bag in my backpack, so all my gear was safe, but we slowed to about 20km/hr. We were on graded road at this point, but there were still potholes. Just went it looked like the raid would never end, it did and we managed to avoid it for the rest of the trip home.


Part of the reason for the dispute is Cambodia's claim to the legacy of the Khmer Empire.

My shirt and everything else dried quickly from driving in the open air. My shorts however, didn’t dry as I was sitting on them. I assume you have seen what happens to skin when it is exposed to water for long periods of time. If you’ve been in the bathtub or swimming for too long, your skin starts to get really wrinkly. This was happening to all the skin on my butt because it was in contact with water for several hours.

About two hours out from Siem Reap, things were really starting to get painful. The backseat of the motorbike was starting take its toll. It was really narrow and wasn’t as padded as the part where the driver sits. The constant pounding and the wet clothes began to make sitting extremely painful. I had to adjust my position every 30 seconds or so else it become unbearable. This is very difficult to do on the back of a bike. My knees also began to ache from being locked into position for so many hours.

I eventually told Bhin that we needed to pull over to take a break and let me walk around to stretch. He didn’t want to because there might be gangsters out at night. At one point we did pull over after we went over a particularly bad pothole and a car pulled up as we were on the side of the road. I had no idea what was going on, but I felt if Bhin had been alone, they wouldn’t have stopped. I had no idea what they were saying as they were speaking Cambodian, but at one point Bhin lifted up the seat where I knew the gun was stored. I began to mentally prepare myself for whatever may happen, but thankfully nothing did. I still don’t know why he lifted the seat.

By the time we rolled into Siem Reap it was 9:30pm. It was in so much pain, had we not been back I would have suggested stopping somewhere for the night. I was cursing Bhin under my breath for the last two hours. He really didn’t do anything wrong, but I needed to vent at someone, and he was the only available target. He actually did a helluva job all things considering. I paid him his fee, a decent tip, and painfully stumbled to get something to eat.

15 seconds after I leave Bhin, the first words anyone says to me are “Sir, you want motorbike?”

No thanks.

A paved road never looked so good

A paved road never looked so good


My butt is still not 100% healed from that trip. Because of the wet clothes and the bouncing, I developed some sort of rash which hasn’t totally cleared up. The scabs from the burn I got from the tail pipe are mostly gone, but a bit still remains. My hat is still dirty as are my backpack and camera bag.

Would I do it again? No. This is the first time I can honestly say I wouldn’t do something again which I experienced on my trip. If Preah Vihear is really something you want to see, don’t do it how I did. Take a car, take your own motorbike, stay over night, or best of all, wait for the current issues with Thailand to settle down and visit from the Thai side of the border. There was a very nice paved road over the border with lines down the middle which taunted me while I was there.

The irony of the conflict between Cambodia and Thailand is that the infrastructure for visiting Preah Vihear is all on the Thai side of the border. I saw signs touting Preah Vihear in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but there is no real infrastructure to actually visit it from Cambodia.

While I wouldn’t do it again, I did do it, and visiting a “war zone” is definitely something I’m going to brag about over drinks for the rest of my life. I’m sure the story will morph to have me dodging bullets in a few years and and sores on my ass will be from shrapnel, not a motorbike seat.