September 2011 | Nate Pedersen

South East Asia on a Shoestring

For any of you that collect old guide books, you must occasionally wonder what it would be like to try traveling with just an antiquated guide book in hand; i.e. showing up in Florence with your Baedeker and seeing what restaurants or pensiones are still open, how much the Uffizi is now charging for admission, and how inaccurate the maps are.

Well, Brian Thacker, a popular British travel writer, recently did just that with a copy of Lonely Planet's first ever publication. Lonely Planet has become a global powerhouse in the guide book field, but their first publications were geared toward young hippies traveling overland from Europe to Asia. Their first book, South East Asia on a Shoe String, was published in 1975 and has been nicknamed the "Yellow Bible" for its original popularity.
Guide books, of course, go through many editions and old editions are often tossed aside on account of their outdated information. As a result, no one has used the original Yellow Bible in many years. Enter Brian Thacker, who met Tony Wheeler, co-founder of Lonely Planet, at a book signing. Thacker decided on a whim to travel through southeast Asia with only the original Lonely Planet guide as a companion. (Wheeler lent a copy to Thacker, by the way--the original guidebook is quite hard to find. The nearest copy I could find online was an edition from 1977).

Thacker just published a book about his adventure, called Tell Them to Get Lost. He frequently got lost himself following the old guide book maps which often had streets that no longer existed. He ventured through Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Singapore over the course of 12 weeks. Whenever possible, he stayed in the same guesthouses and hostels recommended in the original book, many of which were quite decrepit, with sheets so riddled in stains that he covered them with clothes. He also had some pleasant surprises, such as meeting a woman in Bali that was still cooking in the same small restaurant that was open when Tony Wheeler first visited.

I applaud Thacker's initiative to use an old guide book in the modern age. Have any of you ever tried something similar? For my part, I'm a huge fan of the American Guide Series from the WPA and love bringing copies with on road trips to see what remains from the 1930s. The cultural and historical commentaries in the WPA guides are also fascinating.