The World is an amazing place .... go and be in it

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Guided by History

Today, I started packing in earnest for the trip. Still no date or tickets yet… but it’s just around the corner. We’re just waiting now for our passports to come back home from their small wander around the Myanmar Embassy in Canberra. I’m hoping they'll come back with good news - visas to visit this wonderful country. In the meantime, it’s on with stuffing the Mamapacca with all the essential needs for a trip.

I’ve laid out the powerboard and international socket, asmoke detector and spare battery and a rubber doorstopper alongside my all important jar of vegemite, heavy duty tropical strength mozzie repellent and my guidebook - Lonely Planet “South-East Asia on a shoestring” printed in 1989. 

Yes that’s right, I did say 1989. It is the first guidebook I ever owned, a relic harking back to my younger self, where dreams of carefree endless travel crashed head on into the reality of business ownership.

 It also became the catalyst for my passion in collecting guidebooks. I have shelves filled with countries I’ve been to, would like to go to and for places that will forever remain just a name to me. They range from the yellowing pages of vintage 50s to today’s prints, all the keepers of my journeying desire. 

The first “South-East Asia on a shoestring” published in 1975 by Tony and Maureen Wheeler was originally born from a small quirky 1973 guide called “Across Asia on the Cheap”. It quickly became the bible of backpackers worldwide. I love the story of the Wheelers and the birth of Lonely Planet, envying them in discovering like modern day explorers, the world at our feet and ever so grateful that they did. My quest one day is find original editions of both these titles. 

Unfortunately it’s not an original idea by me to explore with an old guidebook. I have shamelessly borrowed this idea from one of my all time favourite travel writers, Brian Thacker. Last year I was lucky enough to meet Brian whilst he was promoting his latest book “Sleeping Around” a look into couch-surfing (something Big M and I had tried once in NZ many years before I’d even heard of the term, but that’s another story for another time…) and in my wide-eyed giggly groupie voice asked him what his next endeavour would be. He told me he’d just finished a trip with the Tony Wheeler re-tracing the 1975 version of LP SEA Shoestring. I was enthralled and annoyed all at the same time – what an amazing trip that must have been…..and damn, why didn’t I think of it!!!!

So why take a twenty-two year old guidebook? After all, as the LP’s warn, things change, prices go up, places close down and yesterdays “off the beaten track” is today’s tourist trap. And a glimpse into the 1989 Asia certainly shows changes. 

In 1989 Burma had become Myanmar and Cambodia was still Kampuchea. Hong Kong perched precariously on it’s own, countdown to reunification with China was just a short eight years away... and long hair in Singapore was very much frowned upon. Thankfully Big M no long needs to worry about this.  

The book itself speaks volumes to the changes in guidebooks. This copy is thinner from todays, and its cover entices not with glossy photos of palm trees, beaches and beautiful dancing temple girls but with an almost childlike illustration of a simpler time in the world. It’s faded yellow boarder an indication of the colour of the dust that coats the traveller in Asia. This is overlaid with a watercolour painting of patchwork rice paddies in various dull greens, a pencil sketch of temples and to the front, a woman - probably from a hill tribe - is depicted with a basket strapped to her head.

Inside, it is void of photos – not a one – no invisible fingers to hypnotise and wrap around you and say “come, put yourself into this picture”. Even the maps are simple. Cities, towns and countries are depicted as uncluttered with few streets shown. And they are beautiful maps too, very much from a bygone era. I particularly love the maps of Burma, intricately illustrated and scripted, as if Rudyard Kipling himself had drawn them.
Flicking through, I discover in 1989 Brunei was described as a comic-book country and I find myself almost agreeing with that. 
We had visited the country in 1999, some ten years after its quirky penned nickname and found a country of indeed comical contradictions. Immaculate streets ran side by side to black rubbished rivers where debris from forest logging caught the plastic garbage of the sewers. Stunning shopping centres of marble and glass sold luxury items of electronics, perfumes and designer wear for the cheapest prices I’d ever seen. Colossal mansions overlooked neighbours of rickety floating kampong villages that could go up in flames within six minutes of catching fire. During our week there, two kampongs burned down and many families left homeless, the newspaper reported it with little interest….as if it were a regular occurrence. And “nodding donkeys” (oil pumps) sat in people’s back yards, turning endlessly, pumping out the black gold that made Brunei so rich. It was indeed a bizarre world here. This was also a strict religious country where women were rarely seen and definitely not spoken to. I spent the whole week being conversed to thru either Big M or “the Bud”, including in one instance, Big M receiving congratulations for having a good wife who had given him a son. I also spent the whole week unable to personally buy a cup of coffee from a coffee shop. These were “men only places”. Brunei, an alcohol free country has no pubs …. men instead enjoy their man-bonding in coffee shops where they sip strong thick black liquid in between smoking the hooker pipes. I was enthralled by the intricately exotic pieces of glass and silver that left a trail of apple and cinnamon spiced haze. In contrast to women being kept under wraps, sitting in port was the beautiful yacht the “SS Tits” along with its Nipple One and Nipple Two tenders. Opulent watercraft of bawdiness’, these were the pleasure boats of a Brunei Prince. His brother, the Sultan was celebrating his 53rd birthday and the whole country was invited to the party. Brunei in July glowed like a December christmas tree, its streets festooned in hundreds of garlands of colourful lights. If in 1989 Brunei was a comic-book country, in 1999 I found her to be a country of wonder.
As I continue to peruse the pages of travel past, I find myself becoming increasingly intrigued. Other than a name change, I’m keen to find how Myanmar has changed in twenty years. I read in 1989 I could only get a 24hr or a 7days visa, and “the Lady” is not even mentioned. Much to Big M’s interest, he discovers that back then the exchange rate of Kyats (pronounced Chats) is 6.2 to 1US and a beer – made by the proudly named “Peoples Brewery and Distillery” would cost K17. Today the exchange rate is K1050 to 1US….he’s hoping however the beer has remained close to the same. And a glimpse of yesterday’s LP Laos doesn’t appear too much different from today’s guidebook. The Land of a Million Elephants “is only just stirring” according to my 2010 LP….I’m praying I’m not too late for its awakening.
Yes, even though it’s not my idea and it’s already been done and written about, I’m curious to compare the pages of travel history with the discoveries of today. 

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