Most travelers on the hippie trail preferred to travel light. However, no overland trip would have been complete without books. Which you would read during endless train rides, while waiting at the local bus stand or in your lonely room. As books tend to be heavy it was difficult to decide which ones to bring along. I usually chose cultural travel guide books such as the French Guide Bleu or the German Polyglott series. And of course novels like Paul Theroux’s The great Railway Bazaar, Somerset Maugham’s books and – not to be missed – Kipling. As good as these books were, their use was rather limited when it came to practical information.
The cultural travel guidebooks were meant for an upscale clientele. Good to know that the Ritz Oberoi in Calcutta cost 80 dollars a night but most of us had to be content with the dumps in nearby Sudder Street. However, sometimes I treated myself to a piece of black forest cake and a cappuccino at that hotel’s restaurant. And as the upscale travelers had money but no time they usually traveled by plane. Extremely popular among them was the infamous ‘hanging belly’ Delhi – Agra – Jaipur – Khajuraho- Benares – Kathmandu. India and Nepal in two weeks! We had time but no money.
In the 60s and 70s it was quite difficult to get practical travel information. Where is the Afghan embassy in Tehran? Where can you find a decent place to stay in Benares? When does the ferry sail from Rameswaram to Talaimannar? And so on! The only sources were local travel agents and fellow travelers. Mostly the latter, as the locals frequently tried to rip you off. So everybody was happy to get information wherever he or she could. It could be quite tiresome and dissatisfactory, too. This started to change in the seventies. In 1973 Tony Wheeler’s ‘Across Asia on the cheap’ came out but it wasn’t well known among travelers from Germany, France or Italy, just to name a few.
In the second half of the 70s a plethora of guide books hit the market. Among the French the Guide du Routard was very popular, German speaking people liked Robert Treichler’s ‘Der billigste Trip nach Indien’ (The cheapest trip to India). Heribert Seul’s ‘Weltführer für Reisen mit dem Rucksack’ covered the entire world in just 168 pages! 1977 Tony Wheeler published ‘The yellow bible’ a.k.a. ‘South East Asia on a shoestring’. Others followed. Suddenly, many people realized that there was a market for books of this kind and the shelves in the book shops groaned under their weight.
As convenient and helpful as these books were, they had one serious disadvantage: Everybody popped up at the same ‘insiders’ tips’ restaurants like ‘Poppie’s’ in Bali or the ‘Yin & Yang’ on Kathmandu’s Durbar Square. And everybody wanted to stay in the same place. Tiresome! After wasting a lot of time and money on taxi fares etc. one arrived there just to find out that every backpacker in town seemed to have had the same idea! Nowadays you don’t buy these guide books not any more to know where to go but to know where NOT to go! Just kidding … And it was amazing to see how these guidebooks grew in volume. In Heribert’s guide book Bali was granted a few lines! Not much later entire guide books were dedicated to this beautiful island.
Now, one thing I disliked about these guidebooks was the patronizing attitude in some of them. Like: “When you come to Labuhanbajo (Flores) give my regards to captain Leo who’s running the ferry to Komodo Island!” Strangely enough, the good captain didn’t even know that guy – and so you had to pay the full fare! The all-knowing authors of those books sometimes treated their
readers like children: “Don’t forget to take off your shoes when visiting a local home!” Wow, really? Wouldn’t have occurred to me! But believe it or not: I’ve written a guidebook myself, or better: co-written! About Burma, of course! But we tried to avoid these blunders as much as possible.
Nowadays’ travelers don’t seem to have these problems anymore. Smartphones, internet café and the like have made life on the road easy. When I see them at Rangoon’s internet cafes I sometimes could not help but feel that for many of them their experiences and adventures only became real after having been published on facebook and other media. Sign o’ the times, I guess. What a change compared to them good ol’ days when we spent hours at the poste restante counters in Kabul or Kathmandu. I haven’t seen an aerogram in ages! Or remember how it was if you had to make an urgent phone call home when you were running low on money? Even in a metropolis like Bangkok you had to go to the telegraph office at Charoen Krung. Which was quite a way from the Sukhumvit area where I used to stay. And it used to cost a little fortune. Days bygone!