Book Review: Lonely Planet's Southeast Asia on a Shoestring

It is a common sight to see Western backpackers in Southeast Asia armed with their Lonely Planet: Southeast Asia on a Shoestring guide books. For many, it is like the Holy Book and they are devout followers of it. They won't stay at any guesthouse or hotel without first consulting their Lonely Planet. They will only eat at Lonely Planet recommended restaurants. They will only go to Lonely Planet recommended sights. They will follow Lonely Planet recommended itineraries, and so on. Doing anything not mentioned in the Lonely Planet truly makes them uncomfortable. And god forbid, if their Lonely Planet is lost, then they would be lost too! Indeed, Lonely Planet has taken the fun out of backpacking, i.e. exploring a new place.

What not to use Lonely Planet for?

Do not use it for budgeting. Most prices in the book are outdated, especially transportation ticket prices. Also, keep in mind that as soon as any guesthouse, hotel or restaurant makes it in the Lonely Planet, their prices are likely to go up! The business card of a hotel in Hanoi that I stayed in actually mentioned that they are "working to be in the Lonely Planet". Indeed, it is lucrative for businesses to make it in the book.

Do not use it for deciding which restaurant to eat at. C'mon people, it is not difficult to find a restaurant in Southeast Asia.

Do not use it for deciding which hotel or guesthouse to stay in. Several Lonely Planet recommended guesthouses that I stayed in turned out to be absolutely filthy. Overall, I had better experience staying in places that were not in the book.

The Golden Rule to remember is that just because something is in the Lonely Planet does not mean it is good and if something is not in the Lonely Planet does not mean it is bad.

So what is Lonely Planet good for?

Hands down, the most useful thing in Lonely Planet are the detailed maps (location of bus depot, train station, monuments, post offices etc. are clearly marked on the maps). The books are also good for getting information on the various sight seeing places. The books also contain some historical information, which can be interesting to read. That is all that I recommend using Lonely Planet for.

What are your thoughts on the Lonely Planet books?

Update: In Sapa, Vietnam

Xin Chao (hello) from Vietnam! I'm been here a couple of days now. I'm taking the overnight train to Hanoi tomorrow.

After my last update, I went to Luang Prabang, Laos - a UNESCO World Heritage town - on the banks of the mighty Mekong river. I spent 5 days there just relaxing and taking in the sights.

On June 26th, I left Luang Prabang for a long journey to Sapa, Vietnam. On June 26th, I traveled from Luang Prabang to Oudomxai (6 hours by bus) and then to Muong Khoa (4 hours by bus). I had the company of a couple of French-Canadian girls from Muong Khoa onwards.

After spending a night in Muong Khoa, a picturesque riverside town in the hills, we took an early morning bus to Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam (10 hours by bus, including 2 hours wasted in road blocks). We reached Dien Bien Phu too late to catch a bus to Sapa the same day.

On June 28th, we took the 5:30 AM bus to Sapa via Lai Chau (10.5 hours by bus). The mountainous road to Sapa was under major construction and there were major delays because of it.

Sapa is a picturesque small hill-station and is a popular holiday destination for the Vietnamese. I checked into the first hotel that I saw - from my 3rd floor gallery, I have the view of the lake and mountains; I was won over right away. I was invited to have lunch with the hotel owner girl's family; it was hosted as a farewell lunch for her uncle who was leaving. She's 26 years old and has 4 children - but can easily pass for an 18 year old. She and her family are very nice to me and even lent me a raincoat for my trek to Mt. Fansipan (aka Phan-xi-păng).

Speaking of which, I climbed Mt. Fansipan (3143m) yesterday; just me and a guide. It is the highest peak in Vietnam and is known as the "Roof of Indochina". I did it in 1 day; it is normally a 2 or 3 day trek. The last half hour of the trek was in pitch darkness and I had to cross a few streams that had a very strong current. In hindsight, I would've liked to do it in 2 days especially if the weather was nicer. I was totally beat and shivering when I got back to my hotel. Even if one has the stamina, I wouldn't recommend to do it in 1 day. It was cold, windy and raining hard during the whole trek. I was fully drenched in spite of my raincoat. However, the cold would've been unbearable without it. Due to the persistent foggy weather, there were absolutely no views at any time.

Despite all this, the strenuous trek was enjoyable. I will forever remember the flooded trails, big waterfalls and the many cold water streams that I crossed.