Brian Thacker was sitting at a book signing with Tony Wheeler when he asked the famous publisher if anyone had ever attempted to travel with the first edition of Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. Known as The Yellow Bible, this celebrated guidebook has been carried by travelers across the region for decades.
Before he knew it, the travel author was planning a trip around Southeast Asia following Tony’s footsteps through Portuguese Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Burma and Singapore using only a thin battered copy of the 1975 original as his only guidebook. Totaling only 148 pages, the book was but a puny shadow of the current 15th edition which is over 1000 pages and weighs in at almost a kilo.
Racing through seven countries in 12 weeks, the trip would give Thacker a chance to find out what the region was like through the eyes of a backpacker traipsing around Asia in the early 1970s. In Thacker’s chronicle of his travels through Indonesia and former Indonesian territory, which comprises almost half of his book, he discovers for himself what has changed and what is still around since Tony and Maureen Wheeler rode their clapped out 250 cc Yamaha trail bike into history.
In early 1974, the Wheelers set off from Melbourne and up the coast to Darwin. From there they flew to Baucau, the main port and international airport in the Portuguese colony, then spent a year island hopping and traveling overland collecting information on what was to later to become known as the Hippie Trail. By the time they published their first guidebook, the first generation of baby boomers were beginning to head over to Asia in droves on a well-traveled route that was dotted with cheap guesthouses, restaurant hangouts and beach gathering spots.
Following the same route that the Wheelers took, over the three months Thacker singlemindedly and assiduously tracked down guesthouses, restaurants and attractions that were listed in that first on-a-shoestring guide. Many of the former hotels were now just concrete slabs, patches of grass, broken walls or had been reborn as another hotel or turned into a light fixture shop or grocery store. Happy Restaurant had become a McDonald’s, Helen Restaurant had become a Dunkin’ Donuts.
In 1974, the capital of Portuguese Timor, had the only paved road and one of only two petrol stations in the entire colony. Only a few short months after the launch of the original guidebook, the territory was invaded and barbarously occupied by Indonesia, enduring decades of hardline rule that left over 180,000 civilians dead and a long traumatic struggle to gain its independence in 1999 when Indonesian militias vindictively wreaked even more death and destruction.
Back in the day the only way to get to Bali was on one Merpati flight per week from Darwin. Now there are 20 flights a day to Bali from every major city in Australia. Thacker took a taxi out of the airport on a road filled with bumper to bumper traffic. The first edition’s description of Denpasar as “a fine alternative to Kuta with some excellent hotels” had evolved into the 15th edition’s characterization of the city as “a congested noisy hellhole where it’s hard to imagine anybody would stay of their own free will.” Even so, he was thrilled to discover that the old Adi Yasa Hotel was still there.
Bali’s trashy overpriced art shops were still there also, but nasi goreng, scooter rental, bus fares, overnights in homestays all cost the same as they did in 1974 when only 50,000 tourists visited Bali. Now there were more than two million a year. Thacker records the reminisces of Jenik of long-standing Poppies, Oka Wati renown in the 1970s for her bean soup warung, and Tjenderi who had opened her guesthouse in Ubud in 1970. Kuta was the only foreign place the author has ever seen where the Australian pop culture was more potent than American culture.
This is a book full of verbal Before And After sketches. Along his journey the writer charts the startling changes in tourism, technology and economic progress that have taken place. We are able to follow one continuous thread progressing from the 1970s right up to the present day. We jubilate when he meets someone who remembers the old days or when he locates of an old hotel.
Mishaps and motorcycle accidents dog his travels. He is beset by gangs of ravenous rats, swims with a goat-eating crocodile, gets hopelessly lost or stuck in the middle of nowhere with a flat tire. But he’s on a mission and is not too proud to try anything, whether they be crispy grasshoppers, karaoke bars and hallucinogenic pizzas. Not satisfied with finding a hotel that still exists, he also feels obliged to sleep in it too. In unfailing pursuit of the engrossing anecdote, he laughs at himself almost to the point of self-denigration, enduring horrible cities, lumpy beds, tiny dark rooms, stained sheets, dripping faucets, freezing urine reeking showers.
Thacker dutifully relates a worsening or improvement, takes note of any contradictions or ironies that enable him to contrast the old days with contemporary times. He follows the Wheeler’s trail to the bitter end, staying in the same room in Singapore where the legendary first edition was pasted up. Like everywhere else visited in this farcical and entertaining adventure, time had wrought heavy changes over the past 35 years. The Palace Hotel had become the Madras Eminence Hotel, the price had gone up from $4 to $55 and the old room had been divided into two smaller rooms. True to form, to make yet another connection between the past and present and for the sake of the yarn, he stayed there too.
Tell Them to Get Lost: Travels with Lonely Planet Guidebook that Started it All by Brian Thacker, William Heinemann 2011, ISBN 978-174-275-1955, paperback, 354 pages. Available for $13.75 by ordering online through bookdepository.co.uk with free delivery worldwide.
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