There's No Escape

When the first `Lonely Planet' guide was published 26 years ago, travelling was a very different story. Andrew Stalbow on how the trail became a trial

MID-AFTERNOON, and I was sitting alone outside a cafe in Ko Phan Ngan, an island off the eastern coast of Thailand, looking out over the sea. I had just finished a plate of banana pancakes, a popular snack with hungry backpackers. To my right, a girl with a nose-ring was sipping on a Sprite and racing through the pages of The Beach, the best-selling novel by Alex Garland. I had been on Ko Samui, the neighbouring island, the day before, and under every palm tree had lain a traveller tucked into the same novel. Their backpacks, though, contained an even more seminal volume.

A traveller at the table to my left called over to me. "You also found this place in `the book'?" he asked. "No," I said. This wasn't the first time I had heard the Lonely Planet guidebook referred to in its abbreviated form. "I didn't realise it was in there."

"Where have you come from?" he asked.

"Ko Samui."

"I've travelled here from Manikaran in India, a very strange, spiritual place. I spent a few weeks up there, just reading and smoking," he confided.

"What were you reading?" I asked. From his red eyes, I could tell what he'd been smoking.

"The Beach. Read it? Gripping adventure about backpackers." And then he said something that remained with me. "But adventures like that never actually happen to us - everything's boring in comparison. Anyway, gotta go. I'm catching the ferry to Surat Thani."

He crammed his Lonely Planet back into his Karrimor, transferring three juggling balls, a sarong and a packet of bindis into a side pocket to make some room. His guidebook seemed unnecessarily bulky for someone travelling light. He stuffed his tobacco and cigarette papers into his baggy cotton trousers, picked up a bottle of purified water, placed a Kullu cap on his head, hauled his rucksack onto his shoulders and made to leave.

"See you around," he said, knocking his pack into the waiter.

"Probably," I sighed.

EVERY YEAR, 200,000 British backpackers travel round the world with their Lonely Planet guidebooks reassuringly nestled in their rucksacks. I had expected travellers to be a non-conformist breed, keen to embrace foreign cultures and visit isolated, far-flung corners of the world. Far from it.

Joanna Ingram, 24, spent two years working and travelling around Asia after finishing her degree. She returned home to London disillusioned by what she had found and the people she had met. "The route into Nepal through Tibet is a great example of the Lonely Planet mentality," she says. "People think they are so cool for making it over all these borders but really everyone just follows the directions in the Lonely Planet, as though it's a step-by-step recipe for travel." Accompanying millions of travellers on jaunts to destinations as far apart as Lombok and Long Beach, Lonely Planet, the guidebook that helped whet our appetite for low-budget travel in the first place, means that some of the unlikeliest locations are overrun.

Legendary British travellers Tony and Maureen Wheeler founded the Lonely Planet series 26 years ago. In 1972, they left London and followed the hippie trail to Asia in a decrepit van. Kathmandu was the principal destination along the trail; a town that had become infamous for the stoned Europeans who gathered in Jhochhe Toal (later dubbed "Freak Street") to smoke dope and read esoteric literature. If they weren't ploughing through the Bhagavad Gita, travellers were dreadlock-deep in On the Road, which preached journey for journey's sake.

The Wheelers began their own journey with $1,200 in cash and arrived in Australia months later with less than a dollar between them. Desperate for "bread", they wrote Across Asia on the Cheap and the Lonely Planet series was born. It was an instant hit and a sign of the times. The health section, for example, discussed the relative merits of Kashmiri and Afghan marijuana. Singapore was "groovy"; backpackers were "freaks".

Fast-forward a generation, and the Lonely Planet series, with its 250 titles, sells more than 3 million books each year. A million people visit the Lonely Planet Internet site every day, making it as popular as Ko Pha Ngan in the days leading up to the full moon. The Lonely Planet series is so influential, such a powerful tool, that in 1994, Bill Gates enquired about buying it. And like the Wheelers - who have become more business than bohemian - modern travel has lost its radical, adventurous side. Back in the Wheelers' day, there were estimated to be 1,500 travellers in mythical Kathmandu at any time. Most had arrived by overland bus on a tortuous journey through the Middle East and western Asia. Nowadays, the city is visited by a quarter of a million foreigners every year, most of whom fly in on round-the-world trips. And the Kathmandu Guesthouse, a famed backpacker oasis in the Thamel area of the city, is like a university hall of residence. "Gap years have become an extended management bonding exercise in Epping Forest," says William Sutcliffe, author of Are You Experienced?, a novel about the idiosyncrasies of a gap-year student in India. "And backpackers are treating the world like an adventure playground."

Yangshou, a village deep in the heart of Guangxi province in southern China, used to be a backwater but is now one such playground. On the banks of the Li River, set amid towering coronet mountains that rise like cones from the drowned paddy fields, Yangshou turns up in most backpackers' Chinese itineraries. "Yangshou may not seem like the `real China', but who cares?" asks the guidebook. "It's a great spot to relax, see the scenery and grab a good cup of coffee - the perfect antidote to weeks or months on the road." Then follows some old-fashioned Lonely Planet advice: "Don't make this your first or second stop coming from Hong Kong. Save it for after knocking around Guangzhou or Guangxi for a spell. You'll appreciate it much more."

Tony Wheeler agrees that the Lonely Planet can make travelling too easy, but only "if you treat our books like a bible instead of a guidebook - or act like a sheep instead of a traveller". The sheep-like tendency can be witnessed first-hand in Yangshou, where the best restaurants are found on either side of the cobbled street that winds down to the river. There is Minnie Mao's, MaoDonalds, and various cafes with a view of the river which serve pancakes, pizza, muesli and milkshakes. Every Western taste is catered for. And the most popular restaurants among backpackers? Why, the ones which get a mention in the Lonely Planet of course. One disgruntled Yangshou restaurateur, who understands the impact the guidebook has on the backpackers and on his town, told me over pork balls and steamed rice that he was convinced other estab-lishments paid the Lonely Planet writers to ensure inclusion in the book. I knew that this was not the case, but the book's power is such that backpackers are innately distrustful of anything that isn't in its hallowed pages. In Peru last year, my travelling companion wouldn't stay in a hotel unless it was vouched for by "the book".

In short, the Lonely Planet guidebook is a blueprint for the modern package holiday. It doesn't simply direct travellers around town: if you read between the lines - and most travellers do - the book dictates where to stay, where to eat, which day trips to take, what to buy. Lonely Planeteers end up joining a transient global social club whose members are linked by Hotmail. (Internet cafes are at the centre of backpacker society and an e-mail session helps to pad out the day.)

Now, despite being wealthier, travellers are encouraged to be more tight-fisted. Tony Wheeler deplores what he describes as the "I-spent-less-than-you syndrome, the urge to make economy the be-all and end-all of travel". Yet his books are price-obsessed: "Yangshuo Park ... You may just want to look from outside - it now costs a pretty hefty Y15 to enter." And in the guide to India: "Kullu Places to Stay ... Prices aren't too bad, as you can shop around and get a good discount." It follows that Lonely Planet readers should be mean and preoccupied with cash-flow, falling victim to a daily cycle of budget drudgery. The first hours at any new destination will be spent trying to find the cheapest hotel. There might then be a cafe stop where the pros and cons of different kinds of accommodation are debated over a cup of tea and a cigarette. Once the hotel has been chosen, it's off to the bank to change some traveller's cheques. (Backpackers avoid carrying large amounts of cash because that would mean they could spend it.) Next there's the visit to the travel agent: a happy opportunity to haggle over fares. Today's traveller hasn't the time, inclination or money to visit many of the local points of interest. In Beijing, friends I had made on the road missed out Mao's mausoleum and the Forbidden City in an effort to save a few precious yuan. So, instead of the tourist traps, it's back to the cafe for something to eat and another roll-up, and then off to bed. The next day begins early with a long bus journey, and the cycle endures.

Like wildebeest migrating across the African plain, today's travellers don't only follow routines; they follow the other travellers. Take Ko Pha Ngan, where Hat Rin, the main resort, bustles with backpackers seeking a little island life, secure in the knowledge that they'll be in like company. At the quayside, there are girls with beads in their hair selling bindis impreg-nated with LSD, and jugglers wearing traditional traveller's garb (bright baggy trousers; loose-fitting vest; sandals; barbed wire or Chinese characters tattooed around left arm; long sun-bleached hair; goatee). Just before the full moon, even more travellers converge on Hat Rin in preparation for the party on the beach. This is Glastonbury festival without the mud; a Free Tibet march without the politics. On the island there are restaurants and hotels and travel agents. If it seems purpose- built for travellers, that's because it is. And if it all feels a little familiar, thatmight be because you've been somewhere like Ko Pha Ngan before. Borocay in the Philippines, for instance, or Byron Bay on the Australian coast. Cusco in Peru, or Nha Trang in Vietnam, or Manali in northern India. The planet becomes less and less lonely ...

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