No matter where you travel in the world, guaranteed you will find someone sitting next to you reading a copy of Lonely Planet.
There you are on Khao San Road in Bangkok, 12,000 miles from home, wandering down the street marveling at the outrageous atmosphere and crazy people, wondering where you will find a room for the night, and you pull out your LP Guide to Bangkok to check the listings. Look around; every other backpacker in every caf? is thumbing through a copy as well.
In a new book titled Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?, Lonely Planet guidebook writer Thomas Kohnstamm exposes the hidden story behind the Lonely Planet books, and how that one series of books alone has changed the way the world travels. No matter where you go, young Australians, Germans, Brits, Japanese, Dutch, Italians–and yes, even Canadians–are travelling like never before, armed with the knowledge that there are cheap hostels, bargain bagels, muffin shops and beer parlours around every corner, and Lonely Planet is happy to tell you exactly where they are.
As Kohnstamm is eager to point out, there is a serious downside to all this wonderful information being accumulated and passed from hand to hand. As soon as a formerly pristine beach or exotic village is written about in Lonely Planet, droves of backpackers from around the world descend on it, immediately changing that little piece of heaven into something tawdry or tacky. No place in the world exemplifies this more than Khao San Road in Bangkok, Thailand, once a charming little neighbourhood in the north of the downtown core, which has now become the backpackers’ centre of the universe.
Along Khao San Road you’ll still find some charming little Thai restaurants where you can buy a bowl of pad Thai at a modest price, but that’s not why the district is jammed with backpackers from around the world. It’s because there is a Burger King, a 7/Eleven (7/Eleven stores are everywhere in Thailand), German beer garden, British pub, pasta at every second cafe, fish and chip shops, bookstores, and a T-shirt shop sporting images of Che Guevera… and on it goes.
In his expos? of the travel industry, Kohnstamm readily admits that there is no way that travel writers on tight budgets and extremely tight deadlines can actually visit all those hotels, caf?s and darling little CD shops selling cut price, counterfeit copies of the latest U2 releases that are listed in the LP guides. Truth is, the writers often do no more than look at the menu, get tips from other backpackers, or stick their head in the door. They have no time for anything else. Lonely Planet has also made its money from specializing in budget travel for young people, so its guide to Khao San Road is loaded with information about hostels and hotels where you can sleep for $5 so you can spend the rest of your budget on beer.
There is a lot of beer drinking and pizza eating on Khao San Road. Bangkok is the centre of the Asian backpacking experience, and everyone who travels around Asia passes through Bangkok at some time, and if you are a Westerner it’s inevitable you will end up on Khao San Road during your time in Bangkok. It’s world famous. Surprisingly, for such a famous place it’s actually quite a small district, and by noon everyday–when the party hounds wake up from their bash the night before and the tourists arrive–it’s a guaranteed carnival. Cars are banned by late afternoon, and the main street becomes a complete zoo, with music blasting out from the bars, musicians strolling the street, people shouting and vendors yelling out their wares. If you plan on ever getting any sleep, make sure you find a hotel on a side street.
In fact, while a day trip to Khao San Road seems to be de rigueur for all tourists to Bangkok, you might be better off finding a hotel elsewhere in the city and making a pilgrimage during the day.
Khao San Road has finally become what happens to all hip and happening neighbourhoods, a tourist trap. Like Haight Ashbury in San Francisco, anyone expecting happy smiling hippies is dwelling in the wrong decade. Bring a camera, keep a hand on your wallet and prepare to goggle at what has become one of the largest outdoor zoos on the planet. And if you’re looking for a bacon cheeseburger with fries and a Coke, be sure to bring a copy of your Lonely Planet guide with you.