Groove in the Map was originally written with the help of an advance from guidebook publisher Lonely Planet. The intention was to document a journey across the overland trail using the first ever published Lonely Planet guidebook, Across Asia on the Cheap (1972). Groove was rejected in a nascent form. This is an updated version of the introduction.
IN THE 1945 PREFACE to a collection of travel writings, Evelyn Waugh lamented the passing of a world without borders. “I rejoice that I went,” he concluded, “when the going was good.”
When I’d burnt out on writing guidebooks and was wondering whether I had anything to say about my years on the road, I read and reread that introduction compulsively. It didn’t matter to me that Waugh was reflecting on a time in which he wrote a number of witty travelogues, whereas I only had writing credits on a small pile of Lonely Planet guidebooks. The way I saw it, like Waugh, I’d spent much of my twenties and thirties traveling to pay the bills, only to end up feeling pretty much the same way he did: I too was glad I went when the going was good.
Admittedly Waugh, in 1945, not only had some good writing behind him; he also had the weight of history. Germany was divided; an iron curtain was about to descend on Eastern Europe; Japan was occupied, and China was in the grip of a civil war that within four years would draw down another curtain. To good writing and history, add certitude to Waugh’s checklist: he had no doubts about where to pin the blame for everything that had gone wrong. Quoting himself on the subject of Mexico, he wrote, politics “everywhere, destructive, have here dried up the place, frozen it, cracked it, powdered it to dust.” His conclusion was wistful, despairing: “Never again, I suppose, shall we land on foreign soil with letter of credit and passport … and feel the world wide open before us.”
Twenty years later, most of the barbed wire—as it tends to eventually—had been rolled up and carted away. The generation that preceded mine was traveling around the politics. By the time I first landed on Indian soil in 1982, with a passport and a book called India—a travel survival kit, the world seemed vast and various, full of mystery, and wide open before me.
India was farther away then, way more foreign—in 1982 the world was a bigger place. Some years ago I browsed through some yellowing letters, kept all these years by my mother, and came across a young me apologizing for not having called: just placing a telephone call home from India could take up to twelve hours, I explained, with no guarantee that the connection would hold beyond a few static-churned words of greeting. By contrast, not long ago I watched schools of holidaying Europeans playing in placid seashore shallows of Kep, just a few hours east of Phnom Penh, snapping selfies of themselves against an acrylic sunset. Waugh worried about politics: barbed wire, shuttered windows, padlocked gates, the same bleak future that inspired the publication of Orwell’s 1984 just three years later. Today we worry less about being shut out than about too many of us being let in. Our inheritance is connectivity: anyone, everywhere, anytime—paradise on a budget and beach huts with WiFi and 4G cellular connectivity.
WiFi WASN’T AROUND when I was writing for Lonely Planet—and nor were mobile phones—but there was no doubting the way things were going. The global economy was chipping away at distance, bringing everything closer to home, turning the destinations that had bewitched my youth in Asia into tourist traps. Ray Bradbury once wrote a story about a travel agency that takes time tourists deep into the Earth’s prehistoric past. Great care has to be taken that they have absolutely no impact on their destination. It goes wrong—as of course it must—but in the tiniest of ways: somebody accidentally steps on a butterfly, and the group returns to an eerily distorted present—vaguely familiar but not quite home. The story’s title, “The Sound of Thunder,” takes its name from the sound of the butterfly-killer—at least this is how I remember it—blowing his brains out. It may be a suitably dramatic ending to the story, but it’s an unlikely scenario in my experience. If my generation had been allowed to go back in time, we’d have been handing out Bob Marley CDs to our ancient ancestors and teaching them to make banana pancakes. By the nineties, as trekking groups fanned out amongst the hill-tribes of northern Thailand in search of opium and taught villagers on Nepal’s Annapurna circuit to make apple pie, travel—the world’s biggest industry—was triggering unprecedented change. It wasn’t hard to imagine that for every butterfly crushed underfoot in Bali another go-go bar sprang up in Bangkok. As a Lonely Planet writer then, I found myself wondering whether I really did have the best job in the world.
I envied Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler his insouciance. I couldn’t imagine him losing any sleep over the implications of having set budget guidebooks loose on the planet. When I was working in the Melbourne office as an editor, I was once invited to lunch at his home with travel writer Ronald Wright, whose phrasebook for the Andean language of Quechua I’d been attempting to edit. An anthropologist by training, Wright had an easy laugh that disguised a sharp, probing mind. Tony, while also sharp, likes to keep things evasively light; under pressure, he tends to deflect questions with a nervous energy as fast as they’re thrown at him. So when Wright asked him whether he thought guidebooks ruined the places they described, Tony hesitated for barely a beat before hitting back with an anecdote I’ve never forgotten. In the north of Thailand, he told us, there was once a restaurant with a sign that read “The Not in the Lonely Planet Café.” He paused for dramatic effect and then grinned: “It was doing very good business—so next edition we put it in.”
It took me some time to realize how more evasive this was than at first it seemed, how it hinted at the complicity in its own destruction of every idyll that is devoured by the tourism industry. But, if that was what Tony meant in part, it wasn’t entirely his point. I think what he really meant was, yeah, he’d heard the argument, and, yeah, there might even be some truth in it, but then what? It might be ironic that wherever travelers went the locals seemed to want more of them and the travelers wanted less, but in the end that was simply the way it was. Perhaps not the most intellectually engaged of positions, but you have to admit it at least has the virtue of being honest—and the same couldn’t be said generally of Lonely Planet after it began it’s huge expansionary push in the early nineties.
I got my education in Third World etiquette through a do-it-yourself course of Lonely Planet “survival kits” and “shoestring” guides. Those early books were often more like eccentric travel companions than guides: scattershot, meandering, garrulous on the subject of interesting local characters who ran the guesthouses and restaurants, archly hinting where you could score drugs. There were quirky hand-drawn maps that left a lot—usually whatever it was you were trying to find—to the imagination. It didn’t matter all that much if the information in the books wasn’t very accurate (I seem to recall being surprised when it was): they guided you in the right general direction, into the right kind of crowd, to people who knew where it was you wanted to go even if you and the book hadn’t figured it out yet. I leapt at the opportunity to write one myself. I couldn’t imagine a better job. But after a dozen or so projects I began to change my mind, and it wasn’t just the tedium of repetition, the treadmill of updates. The problem was, by the time I’d joined Lonely Planet at the tail end of the eighties, there wasn’t really an in-crowd anymore. The readers of the emerging new-look books—with their sections on five-star hotels and haute dining (which, in the absence of five-star budgets, we researchers had to make up based on our powers of observation and our imaginations)—could pretty much be anyone. In fact, that was the whole point. The Lonely Planet target reader was anyone: the disabled, corporate jet-setters, the unemployed, inner-city professionals, retirees, gap-year drug-fiends, ex-hippies, Mum, Dad and the kids, lesbians, Moby even (the perfect Lonely Planet reader, when you think about it); you name a target audience, and we at Lonely Planet had special entries catering to their needs and interests. Meanwhile, as HQ in Melbourne increasingly took on the appearance of believing its own hype, the books began to assume a smug, knowing air of all-inclusiveness. The cheekiness of old was shouldered aside by an unassailable, politically correct ethos that suggested: We at Lonely Planet are at one with our readers’ commitment not to step on the butterflies.
My problems began the moment I realized this, and simultaneously realized that I could not go along for the ride. In fact, as I increasingly found myself wondering what I was doing writing guidebooks, I started to see the Lonely Planet creation myth—staplers in Singapore and twenty-seven cents in the bank, not to mention the donations to worthy causes—as a front that disguised a mundane truth: Lonely Planet was just another corporation, like any other, going about the immemorial pursuit of profits and growth, while presenting a caring face and urging its customer base to follow their consciences. I was reminded of this, in fact, many years after I had moved onto other things, as I leafed through a copy of the New Yorker and found myself pausing over a cartoon. It showed a king seated on a white horse, a village in flames in the distance, his troops lined up expectantly before him. “You are reminded to loot, pillage and burn responsibly,” he proclaims.
BY THE MID-NINETIES, I started thinking I might in fact be working for a malign McDonald’s of the travel industry—it didn’t occur to me that I was burnt out and losing the plot. Rather, it led me into protracted and pointless battles with Melbourne head office over everything from the covers of the books to hyphenation—as if was somehow it was my responsibility not to yield to corporate imperatives, to remind the system that there was a time when the writers were characters and not just, as one Lonely Planet veteran years later complained in an interview, “fact collectors for the editors.” I started to sour on the whole project: travel, guidebooks, the scribbling down of bus timetables, the wandering listlessly around four- and five-star hotels, and trying to think of something—anything—I hadn’t already said a hundred times before about rooms that were “well appointed” or “fancy” or had “beach views” or “oozed local charm”—somebody stop me, please. I grew tired of pain-in-the-ass editors and queries like: “You say the Paradise Lodge is just east of a church: are you sure that wouldn’t be just west, and is the church Catholic or Protestant, and does it have services on Sunday, and if so at what times, and are lesbians and gays welcome?”
I should have quit. Instead, I embarked on a travelogue about retracing the route of the guidebook that started it all, Across Asia on the Cheap. The result would be a journey into the Lonely Planet heartland, an exploration twenty five years-on of the destinations that had inspired the Wheelers to put pen to paper.
My Lonely Planet years had given me a front-row seat on a revolution that turned the overland Asian journey from a dropout rejection of the good life into a coming-of-age rite of passage. I’d travelled from one end of Japan to the other, visited every province in China but a couple in the far northeast. I circled the vast and little-visited island of Borneo. I was in Cambodia just after the United Nations peacekeepers pulled out, before Angkor was on the “circuit.” I spent three months in Tibet. And, along the way, I’d met a lot of travelers who were pondering the question I heard Ronald Wright put to Tony all those years earlier— “Do guidebooks ruin places?”—and then some other questions: “Has travel become so commercialized that it’s simply do-it-yourself tourism?” and “What is travel anyway when so many of us are doing it and it’s all become so easy?”
When I first thought of retracing the route of Across Asia on the Cheap, it had seemed to me it would be the perfect vehicle to explore all those questions. But the first thing the book did was to make me think about Across Asia on the Cheap itself. It’s something of a collector’s item today, which is a pity. Anyone who’s ever lugged the dead weight of a one-thousand-page guide to India or China or Thailand around in a daypack should read it. Above all, it’s a chastening reminder that there is another way. Apart from tips on how to fund onward travel by selling your blood (Kuwait gave the best rates) and what to do about Indians who “hassle your chick” (“punch out their lights”), its pages are sparing with the kind of information that fills guidebooks nowadays. India is dispatched in four pages, Thailand in just two. It’s less a guidebook than a manifesto.
“Few people realize that for about the same cost as jumping on a plane in Sydney today and off in London tomorrow they could spend several highly enjoyable months, see a whole cross section of cultures and get to London!” the book begins. A vague reference to the astounding traffic passing over the Afghanistan border comes next, and then: “If you don’t mind roughing it a little you can join the thousands of people who really have dropped out of the nine-to-five rat race … All you’ve got to do is decide to go and the hardest part is over. So go.” (This was later to mutate into a Nike-like catch-cry: “Don’t worry how your trip will turn out. Just go!”)
Across Asia on the Cheap made up for its kitchen-table amateurism with enthusiasm (and exclamation marks). It gestured to the exotic and self-indulgence: temples, beaches, colorful natives, curious customs, plentiful dope (“If that’s what you want you’re going to the right places!”). And the message was clear: You too can drop out. It’s cheap. It’s easy. All you had to lose, in the words of another manifesto, was the chains of your day-job.
THAT FIRST LONELY PLANET guidebook described the Asian overland trail as “so popular” it was “almost a groove worn in the face of the map.” But when I looked for accounts of the emergence of this groove I came up empty handed until I stumbled across a copy of A Season in Heaven. Author David Tomory had interviewed surviving hippies, freaks and dharma bums who set off on the trail long before any guidebooks were around to trace its turns or map its oases.
“Two great waves rolled East,” Tomory writes: “the hardy pioneers in and around 1967, and the wagonloads at the turn of the decade.” They set out with little or no cash, in decrepit vehicles, with little or no idea of how to get there, and with little or no idea even where it was they were going. Some of them never came back. In their journey without maps, India and Kathmandu were a quest, part of that “drop out and tune in” mindset shift of the sixties that set a generation simultaneously looking inwards and outwards for answers. They were post-colonial, affluent Westerners looking for a new way to experience the East—not as colonizers, but as humble seekers.
Heaven led me back to Across Asia on the Cheap. I suspected Cheap marked an important turning point. Its prescience fascinated me. It seemed to know that everything Tomory’s interviewees described was going to change—that the groove was destined not only to become a highway but a groove. Heaven is about dropouts queuing days for a train ticket, flipping out on cheap weed and smack, and wandering the mountains penniless in search of holy men. Cheap says, wait a minute, anyone can do this and have fun while they’re at it. It appeared before nearly everything that defines today’s grand Asia tour—before hill-tribe treks, full-moon raves, batik, massage and cooking courses, before backpacker tour buses and camel safaris, before Facebook and TripAdvisor, before white-water rafting and bungee jumping, before banana pancakes even. But the book is the trumpet blast that announces imminent arrival of the entire package. Cheap gets the word out, and the history of the trail and the guidebooks that followed is a history of commercialisation.
Which brings us back to Ronald’s question: “Do guidebooks ruin places?”
I don’t think so. And for reasons that are best summed up by Tony’s answer about the not in the Lonely Planet café, despite the fact it wasn’t really an answer at all. Tony, like a novel by Alex Garland, The Beach, was being profound in spite of himself. If travellers are congratulating themselves on being somewhere the book is not, the place is finished. Years ago, on the China-Burma border, I followed a traveller’s tip and visited a charming Dai-minority-run guesthouse. The guest book was ecstatic and punctuated with admonitions not to “tell anyone from Lonely Planet.” I put it in. I’m sorry. I had no choice. The word was out, and the guesthouse had reached the point of no return. If I hadn’t done it, a rival guidebook writer would have, and then everyone would have been bitching about Lonely Planet losing its edge.
Travellers sometimes imagine sinister guidebook forces are at work, ever on the lookout for pristine beaches and far-flung villages to rape and pillage. It’s not like that. Lonely Planet and its imitators of the day—Rough Guide, Footprint et al—were instrumental in turning individual travel into a big business. But like their researchers, who are lucky to even lay eyes on all the bargains their pens describe, they’re simply scrambling to keep up with the travellers. Blame for the domestication of adventurous trails belongs to anyone who’s ever dropped out of the daily grind and set off determined to travel cheap and local. When enough people like this start turning up, things start to happen: the family that rented out a room builds a guesthouse, somebody learns to make French fries and sets up a restaurant, a smart kid with an English dictionary—or today, perhaps an app—starts guiding the new arrivals to nearby minority villages and the waterfall, or perhaps to a deserted beach (which won’t stay deserted for long). Get enough strangers wandering into town asking when and where they can see the Dance of the Rat God, and sooner or later an enterprising local’s going to think, What if we only pretended to do the Dance of the Rat God and charged them for it? When that happens, the meaning of the Dance of the Rat God shifts, and the culture that gave rise to it starts to become part of the global economy.
THE WONDERFUL THING to me was that histories of this kind of change were buried in guidebooks. I started taking notes from old editions, which can always be found at the bottom of dog-eared piles of discards in Asia’s second-hand bookshops. The best example I came across was Bali’s Kuta Beach.
A fabled island paradise, Bali was the preserve of Gauguinesque artists, peripatetic writers and the occasional anthropologist until Kuta’s first hotel opened in 1959. By the late-1960s, family-run losmen (guesthouses) began to sprout up, catering to travellers over-landing between London and Sydney. In 1972 the guidebook writer arrives. Tony Wheeler gives Kuta’s guesthouses the nod, calling them “friendly,” and adding “you may not have electricity, but you will get bananas and tea twice a day for free.” This is the tail end of what the old hands call the “golden age”, when Kuta, along with Kabul in Afghanistan and Kathmandu in Nepal, was one of the legendary “Three Ks.” Dope and magic mushrooms were plentiful, the living was cheap, and the sunsets the talk of the overland trail. Not for long. By the time the first edition of South-East Asia on a shoestring comes along in the mid-1970s, Kuta is home to more than a hundred places to stay, including “a dozen or so flash establishments.” And by 1983, Bali & Lombok a travel survival kit is on the offensive: “Where once you used to get peacefully stoned freaks gazing at the sunset you now have numerous bars where loud-mouthed drunks get ripped off every afternoon, clamber clumsily on to their motorcycles and mercifully fall off at the first corner.” Kuta, the angry assessment concluded, had become “strictly a beach resort.”
Did Tony’s 1973 praise for Kuta sound its death knell? I doubt it. Cheap flights and Australian budget travel packages probably did more to change Kuta than guidebooks. It’s only very occasionally that a guidebook writer has an obvious impact on a place—as in they take it from total obscurity to the kind of guidebook footnote that is a red flag to the more adventurous travellers. For me it came on assignment for Lonely Planet in China. I’d taken an impulsive detour to Guiyang, provincial capital of Guizhou in southwest China, that left me stranded in a tiny minority village. It was dusk, and the girls were brushing out their hair in the village square. When I asked them for a photograph, they giggled in Chinese, “Go ahead,” before returning to a lilting, tonal dialect that belonged more to the streets of Bangkok than to Beijing. Later, in the last light of day, I washed in a shallow stream, bought some vegetables and pork at the market, and the family who’d rented me a room for less than a dollar a night cooked me dinner. I didn’t reach Guiyang for another four days—a bone-jarring journey on a succession of clapped out buses that I could have avoided if I’d been less adventurous and taken the twelve-hour train trip. I thought a lot about those four days when was writing up the book. I might have turned the minority people I’d stayed with into a small-scale tourist attraction. Instead, I mentioned the village allusively in a couple of paragraphs about a difficult, time-consuming route to Guiyang. Today Congjiang, as the village is called, has a tourist tourist service center, restaurants and hotels. If the hair-brushing girls are charging tourists for photographs, I could grandly claim it’s my fault.
Except it’s not.
To return to Tony’s anecdote, most places end up in the guidebook because they’re simply waiting to be discovered. A large part of their cachet is that they’re not in the guidebook, and the locals pander to the foreigners who come there precisely for the reason that, if they do it long enough, one day they will be in the guidebook. Just ask them—at least the locals who are profiting from tourism. They’re waiting for business. And in all my years researching guidebooks I’ve only come across one exception. It was on a southern Thai island: the island, in fact, from which Richard and friends, of The Beach fame, set off on a journey to find an unsullied beach where the living was cheap (free, actually) and only those in the know were invited: backpacker heaven.
THE DISCOVERY CAME when I followed a tip I had about a not-in-the-Lonely-Planet bay with bungalows on the island of Ko Pha’ngan. I hired a boat at the party beach of Haad Rin and bobbed through choppy waters past thickly forested hills to an idyllic crescent of white sand, fringed with palms. But if Lonely Planet was yet to discover it the travelers weren’t; the bungalows were all full. I scrambled up over a steep bluff, to see if there was anywhere to stay in the next bay, and stumbled on the Sanctuary.
At that time, the Sanctuary was one of the most unusual places I’d come across, and it wasn’t just the offer of a colonic irrigation at check-in (today commonplace, of course). Bungalow operations on the southern beaches of Thailand then were of a kind: tatty, thatch-roofed huts on stilts that radiate out from an equally tatty restaurant that offers fried rice, French fries, banana pancakes and fruit shakes. The Sanctuary was a massive wooden structure built onto a rock-face, with stairs leading up to a warren of bungalows. New age music wafted through the vegetarian restaurant, and half the foreign travellers sprawled out on cushions were there on weeklong, Sanctuary-supervised fasts. I found it difficult to believe it had sprung up overnight, but if it hadn’t I also didn’t understand how it had slipped through the net of the guidebook industry. At dinner, I joined the Sanctuary’s Irish manager, determined to get to the bottom of it.
When the small talk subsided, I asked Michael how it had all come about.
“For a long time nobody knew we were here,” said Michael. There were twenty, thirty of us. We’d turn up whenever we could get away. We built the huts up from the beach, amongst the trees, so you couldn’t see them. You could sail past and you’d see nothing. We all knew each other. It was like a commune you could drop into any time.”
“It was free?”
“Well, everybody contributed in some way, but it was free to stay here.”
“People started finding out. Turning up. People who weren’t invited. We had to make a decision: disband it all or go commercial.”
“So you went commercial,” I said, and then as it suddenly dawned on me: “It’s the Beach, isn’t it?”
“I didn’t say that,” said Michael sharply.
“But it is the Beach, surely?” I pressed him.
“If you want to say that, that’s up to you, but I didn’t say it.”
An hour or so later a young Brit who was working in the restaurant wandered over casually and whispered, “It’s true. It’s the Beach. Alex Garland stayed here before he wrote the book.”
To this day I’m not entirely sure that I stumbled on the setting for The Beach. But I liked the idea that the real-life model for the most successful travel novel set in Thailand now had a regular boat service and room rates anyway. I liked it not only because it seemed truer to life, but also because it confirmed something I’d been thinking about for some time.
It was about the nostalgia—“You should have seen it twenty years ago”—that haunts the contemporary traveller, and the anxiety—“Get there before it’s too late”—that inspires adventure. In The Beach they amount to a premonition that all attempts to secure and keep a slice of paradise are doomed. The novel features much banter on the evils of guidebooks, but in fact everybody knows that the real threat is other travelers. The days of the books eponymous beach are numbered from the moment the central character, Richard, arrives with his map. If everybody had been smart they’d either have packed it all in then or started charging for the bungalows. The Lonely Planet writer would have turned up, probably around the time the second or third commercial guesthouse opened, a regular ferry service was up and running and the dope farmers realized they had a ready market on their doorstep. And that, if what I’d heard at the Sanctuary was true, is what did happen.
THE BEACH was about contradictions I’d been observing as a guidebook writer for many years. The one thing the Beach community is unanimous about is that the guided masses are not cool—they may as well never have left home. But the denizens of the Beach aren’t travelers either. They’re utopians, a community under siege: from other travelers, from guidebook writers and from the locals—especially the locals, but more on that in a moment. When I said The Beach was profound in spite of itself, it was this I was talking about. It recognizes that the modern travel experience is a communal phenomenon, less a personal journey of discovery than about being with the right kind of people in the right kind of places—in other words, a form of elitism. In this sense, in their extreme forms, there’s less difference between travel and tourism than most of us realize. The travel ethos of The Beach is a paranoiac quest for exclusivity that ends up a journey into the wasteland—the wagons drawn up in a circle on the prairies. The exclusivity of tourism, on the other hand, is its day rates—if you can afford them, welcome to paradise, sanitized, home to the right kind of people, the unruly local world kept at bay by the security guards and the fences.
But if tourists keep the locals at bay out of fear, in the travel ethos of The Beach it’s because they can’t be trusted not to sell out—they don’t get it—better to cut them out of the loop altogether. They’re the enemy, the guys with shotguns who stand between paradise and its supply of free drugs.
I once watched a traveller in Pokhara, Nepal, harangue a Nepali who was showing him the delights of Pokhara’s lakeside trekking bazaar—its supply shops, steak houses, souvenir stands and lodges. “I’m not here for this shit!” he suddenly shouted. “I came here for that!” And with his arm he gestured Messiah-like at the peaks of the Himalayas, which jostled the skyline like an advertisement for a cure to the ills of the modern world.
Moments like this are embarrassing. They arise through a culture clash of expectations, but they also point to a particularly thorny contradiction at the heart of the travel ethos, and with far more disturbing implications than travelers blaming their guidebooks for not having their travels to themselves. Travel back through the years to 1942, and a French academic, is attacking the decision to leave the crumbling Cambodian Angkor temple of Ta Prohm in the clutches of the jungle just as Henri Mouhot discovered it in 1860. The traveller who thrilled in such a sight, he said, was “driven by an outdated individualism, and all that counts for him is a romanticism fueled by spectacular effects.”
I have my own fond memories of Angkor. It’s dusk and I’m smoking a spliff and watching the sun melt into the horizon, high up and alone amid the turrets of Angkor Wat. The next day, in the first warm light of dawn, I’m on the roof of the Bayon, a Gormenghast pile of rock jostling with enigmatically smiling faces. They’re fond memories, and I have them because I was fortunate to have been sent on assignment to Cambodia at a time when most other people thought the country too dangerous to visit. There’s no point resenting their passing, and I think it’s a problem when travelers do: particularly when guidebooks, other travelers and the locals—especially the locals—are blamed for it.
BACK WHEN I was on the trail of Across Asia on the Cheap, I spent ten days in Kuta. I wrote at the time that it had “become so various and generous in its offerings that it was less a definable place than a sprawling cliché.” But that didn’t mean I didn’t enjoy myself. I went to a kecak dance, in which a male chorus chants accompaniment to a dance of entranced nymphets. It was so bad it was funny. The nymphets wobbled on their feet. The monkey king had a hole in the left armpit of his white-cotton jumpsuit. The chorus scratched its sides, slapped off mosquitoes, and grinned slyly at the camera-toting audience as if to say, “You’ve been suckered.” I managed to trap myself on a rock face at a place called Adrenaline Park and had to be rescued as an amused crowd looked on. I dropped an E with some travellers I’d met and danced the night away in the only club I’ve ever seen that was big enough to house not only an Olympic-size swimming pool but also a bungee jump. I would even have joined a camel safari—what were camels doing in verdant, well-watered Bali?—if my inquiries hadn’t led to the discovery that the camels had all died. It wasn’t Bali perhaps—more Butlins with Balinese characteristics—but it was a fascinating collision of cultures, and I found it difficult to dislike the place.
The hardcore travel element would hate it. A decade ago, on Khao San Road, a young Frenchman moaned to me about the disappearance of penis gourds in remote Indonesia and the profusion of Seven-11s in Ayuthaya, Thailand’s ancient capital. They were tired grievances, and they have no place in the modern travel experience. Penis gourds—until they start featuring in summer collections—are passé, and convenience stores are here to stay, at least until somebody comes up with something more convenient. I listened, and I mostly felt sorry for him. Asia in transition from penis gourds to 7-Elevens is as interesting as what he was looking to find; he simply didn’t get it.
He wasn’t the only one. The interviewees of Tomory’s A Season in Heaven often found themselves frustrated by the locals’ unwillingness to play ball, to play the exotics, the primitives and mystics. At one point I called Tomory’s cast of characters “post-colonialists” and “humble seekers”. I was being disingenuous. Genuine seekers don’t head off into the beyond with their minds already made up about what they are going to find there. Post-colonialists don’t impose their vision of what’s best on the countries they visit. Seekers find what they find, and if that’s that the people in the places they visit want the very things they were seeking an alternative to perhaps that’s the answer: there is no escape into the past from the modern world, and if it appears to be so it is a momentary chimera.
The legacy of the Season in Heaven era—although it goes far deeper in time than that to the age of the continental gentleman traveller—is a travel ethos that has a lot to answer for. And if guidebooks are to be blamed for anything, it’s the way they buy into that ethos. When guidebook writers attack, say, Kuta for its drunks, resorts and tacky fire-dance ceremonies, they’re glossing over their own role in bringing such things about. Worse, they’re ignoring the fact that in a globalized world divided by extremes of wealth and poverty, the poor have a right to fight for a share of all we take for granted. There’s no demanding stasis of their world when mobility defines ours.
Perhaps the challenge is as simple as resisting nostalgia and accepting that we travel in a world defined by mobility and change. Travel is a defining experience for all of us, and no longer the preserve of an elite. The travel ethos is cut through with a sense that the travail of getting to special places is somehow ennobling, and the discovery of those places by the masses and the changes that take place as a result are corrupting. Perhaps this is true, but there’s no room for any of this when all of us are on the move, interacting with each other on the way and changing everything as we do.
The mobility of everything makes the old-fashioned, glamorized idea of travel seem a little quaint, and more than a little absurd—Paul Theroux in first class with a pipe and a copy of Hawthorne; Bruce Chatwin chasing a strip of dinosaur skin around the wastes of Patagonia. To travel today is to be somewhere between travel and tourism, and the revolution of the past few decades has been their convergence. Whether we do it with a guidebook on the cheap, or whether we do it in the five-stars without, there’s not as much difference between us as we’d sometimes like to imagine. The problem is the travel ethos has failed to catch up, as if post-modernism, which has relieved us of so many of our cultural certainties and hypocrisies, slinks away the moment we check in at the departure terminal.
ONE RESPONSE TO THIS dilemma has been to dismiss travel altogether, to announce its demise. And when the Hollywood version of The Beach hit movie theaters, journalists descended on Bangkok’s Khao San Road to do exactly that. One writer called Khao San “an apt symbol of a travel revolution that began a decade ago and has almost been completed.” But the revolution has been underway for much longer than a decade, and far from being completed, it’s just getting started. It simply needs another manifesto—or perhaps a reissue of one that appeared three decades ago.
Because if a new travel ethos is emerging it has been doing so for a long time, and it’s there in the playfulness of Across Asia on the Cheap, which implicitly recognizes that travel is a creative act that should come with the accepting, childlike curiosity that is play’s preserve. See it today in the youngest generation of travelers, who slip blithely between the full moon parties and more adventurous forays into, say Laos or Cambodia. See it also in the Bill Bryson’s self-deprecating journeys through Middle America, Europe and Australia, in which the joke, more often than not, is on the traveller. But in Asia, where the exotic and the occasional hardship conspire to give the illusion of a last frontier, it’s often shouldered aside by a prescriptive ethos that’s blind to the fact that, despite the those hardships, what many of us call travel—especially in the third world—is simply a democratized version of the Grand Tour, that Victorian gentleman’s educational rite-of-passage journey through the cultural highlights of Europe.
Except perhaps today it should be called the Grand Trip. The parties, the booze, the drugs, the temples, the batik and massage courses, the tattoos, the encounters with amazing people, the losers, the good places gone bad, the good places going bad, it’s a trip, and we’re all just trippers.
Many years ago, I took an old friend who hadn’t visited Thailand on a tour of Khao San Road. It was already home to a branch of Boots and a couple of 7-Elevens, and what was once a tiny bar called Buddy Beer had morphed into a four-star hotel with an attached shopping mall. The chill-out crowd still lolled in the cafés, sipping Cokes and picking at stir-fries, and the street side shoppers are still riffled through second-hand books, and haggled over sarongs and disco balls (I don’t know why either). The newbies were still getting into character (braiding their hair, getting their crannies tattooed and pierced), and all and sundry logging onto Facebook and Gmail, glancing up on occasion to glance wonderingly at the never-ending parade of backpacker life. But increasingly the Thais were making it their playground too.
“One of these days I’m going to ask one of those Lonely Planet writers what’s so fucking lonely about the Khao San Road,” an angry travel snob says famously in The Beach. Well, as an ex-Lonely Planet writer, no, there’s nothing lonely about Khao San. What’s wrong with that? The “Not in the Lonely Planet Café” is only a block or two away. If you stumble across it, enjoy it while it lasts and remember there’ll always be another one when it’s gone.
One of the last research trips I made to write up a guidebook was to Kathmandu. I sat in the Third Eye Restaurant and watched a steady stream of travelers top up their funds at a Grindlays 24-hour cash-point, and recalled the old days—the traveler’s checks, the trip across town to the bank, the forms in triplicate, the shuffling queues. I got together with Stan Armington, Lonely Planet’s longest-surviving writer, who at the time had just finished the eighth edition of his Trekking in Nepal guide, and we shared jokes about mad Lonely Planet directives, and mused together at how the scene had changed over the years. Stan took me to a small bar that he and the authors of Lonely Planet’s general Nepal guidebook, had agreed to keep out of the guidebooks; it was full of travelers. “Maybe a big trekking tour’s in town,” muttered Stan. But we both knew the truth.
After Stan left, I stayed on and got talking to Jim, a warehouse worker from Manchester, who wiped a tear from his eye as he told me about the skyline flight he’d taken that morning. It circled Mount Everest “so close I thought the wing was going to clip the summit”. He told me about the guide who had taken him and his wife, Julia, trekking. “Heart of gold, the boy has. He’s had some hard knocks. If some of the lads I know in Manchester had been through what he’s been through, there’s no way they’d still be smiling.”
I told him about Across Asia on the Cheap and how all those years ago it had described the Asian travel circuit as “a groove in the map”. “It is a groove,” he said, “but that’s good. It means that people like me can come out here and experience it.”
The next morning, I went on a flight of my own—in a hot-air balloon.
Floating above the Kathmandu valley, the silence was broken only by the occasional windy roar of the balloon’s hot-air burner. A patchwork of rice paddies and villages lay at my feet; the world’s most awe-inspiring peaks crowded the horizon. I was sailing high above the groove. I could almost see it snaking away over the Himalayas to the monasteries of Tibet and down to the gray push-and-shove cities of lowland China; zipping by way of the jumbo air-routes to Kao San Road and down through the jungly islands of Indonesia; meandering southwards by way of the great railway bazaar that shunted through the heaving cities of Varanasi, Delhi and Bombay all the way to Goa, where the groove became a rave.
The balloon swept down from on high, grazing the rooftops of an ancient village the guidebooks were yet to discover. The villagers thronged the flat rooftops of their homes to wave at the airborne advance scouts of the invasion to come. I waved back.
Harvest Season, a novel, is now available in print and digital formats.