Far from the beaten path

Every week Edward Hasbrouck, who runs a website called The Practical Nomad, posts a commentary about that week’s episode of the CBS television programme The Amazing Race.

Hasbrouck works in the travel industry and describes himself as “the world’s best-known authority on around-the-world travel.” His essays use the events of the episode as a jumping off point, and he discusses general and specific travel topics. They’re always interesting, and if you’re a fan of the show, especially so.

In this week’s commentary he writes, in part:

Anywhere listed in a guidebook as “undiscovered” isn’t — the guidebook will have taken care of that. You aren’t likely to get off the beaten path by going anywhere that’s even mentioned, at least not in any detail, in a popular guidebook. (That’s actually an advantage to using a less well-known guidebook: the most popular ones are the victims of their own success.)

My own experience bears this out:

Travelling in South Korea with my younger brother Steve in 1998, we ended up in the small southern port town of Mokpo, described in our Lonely Planet guidebook as being uninteresting. It wasn’t actually all that spectacular a place, and we ended up storm-stayed there briefly, as we were trying to go further south by ferry. But it was our jumping off point for a great adventure to the east of Mokpo looking for an Islander named Annie Shipman that took us to the small community of Haenam, and then later into the hills above Haenam to a wonderful temple.

Later that same year, Catherine and I were travelling in the Czech Republic, and after hitting two tourist highlights — Prague and Cesky Krumlov — we spent our last night in the country in the small border town of Cheb (which is pronounced with the ch as it sounds in the word Loch). After the hussle bussle of the more touristic areas, Cheb was a nice respite, and we enjoyed ourselves in an entirely different way.

This spring in Thailand we repeated this approach, spending 2 days in the mid-country city of Phitsanulok, which is halfway from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. As far as I could tell, we were the only westerners in the city at the time, and, again, we got an entirely different experience of the country.

What Hasbrouck says about guidebooks is true: as soon as something hits a guidebook, especially the Lonely Planet, it goes from being obscure to being in the centre of it all. I’ve heard tales of small towns where the Lonely Planet-recommended guest house is packed, while a perfectly nice guest house in the neighbourhood, unlucky enough not to appear in the guidebook, sits empty.

I know why this is, of course: when you are a stranger in a strange land, don’t speak the language, and are tired, hungry and without your usual reference points, having any information to go on, even if it’s “some travel writer from Australia stayed in this place and lived to tell the tale” can be awfully comforting.

Unfortunately, if you only follow that path, your adventure quotient will almost certainly be much lower. And why do we travel if not for the adventure of it all?


Alan's picture
Alan on November 14, 2002 - 17:39 Permalink

So right. My travel habit was to work or spend a month somewhere to get to know the place. I did that in Holland, Poland, London, Scotland, Brussells and Paris in the days of Al the single guy. When I now pick up, say, the Rough Guide to Poland which I carried with me, I see that it really only got me through maybe the first three of four days. By then you know your chleb from your lodi. Next March we are in Scotland for 2 and a half weeks so — sheeplike — I bought the Rough Guide even though I will be staying entirely with relatives. After about 7 minutes reading, I realized I would find about 4 facts in the whole thing of any use.

steve rocker's picture
steve rocker on November 17, 2002 - 17:18 Permalink

I think guidebooks are useful soley for practical information, like the location of ATM’s or train stations. But I’ve found several times that things that the guidebook says are “must-see” are perhaps of historical import but completely boring. Conversely the guidebooks sometimes miss out on really interesting places. Guidebook advice is kind of like film reviews, which are subjective and usually written by people who have seen too many movies…they shouldn’t be taken too literally.