Lonely Planet Writer

Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, 20 years (and a child) later

When we bought our 1992 edition of Southeast Asia on a Shoestring to start making travel plans, there was no Internet. No social media, no hostel booking sites, no Thorn Tree, no TripAdvisor. Not even Hotmail.

When we saved enough and packed up that guidebook, my girlfriend and I put everything in storage and hit the road for a year. For that first trip, both our planning and our travels depended heavily on a book that many travellers referred to as ‘the bible’. Travelling through multiple countries without it was extremely difficult.

Southeast Asia on a Shoestring then and now, 1992 and 2012

That original guidebook still included Hong Kong and Macau, but Vang Vieng wasn’t even listed for Laos. The cover was amateurish and inside there’s not a top-10 or ‘best of’ list in sight. A prominent request at the front of the book asks for letters of clarification from travellers, promising a free guidebook for the most helpful ones.

We carried travelers’ checks and lots of $100 bills stashed in hidden places. ATMs were a novelty still in much of Southeast Asia. Our guidebook said, ‘Money sent by telegraphic transfer should reach you in a couple of days.’

Sometimes we scored a terrific deal thanks to our guidebook’s advice. Other times the recommended guesthouse had gone downhill or our shoestring budget led us to a real hovel. With no online feedback, reputations good and bad took time to spread.

After getting warmed up all over Thailand, we traveled by train to eastern Malaysia. After Kota Bharu, we chilled on the blissfully rustic Perhentian Islands back before the word was out, checking in at Abdul’s Chalets, the place our guidebook listed as ‘the quietest and one of the best places to stay.’ We paid $4.80 a night double, with an oceanfront view from our verandah.

We made our way through Malaysia to Singapore and across Indonesia to Lombok before circling back to Thailand and flying west to Nepal. Along the way, our trusty book led us to $3 motorbike rentals, great $1.50 meals, and the occasional travel agency that could be trusted. It also clued us in on how to get a driver for the day for $5 without also getting caught in a gem scam.

The author and then-girlfriend Donna at the top of Mt Merapi, Java (top), and after a batik class, Yogyakarta (bottom), 1994. Photo: Tim Leffel.

Changes in guidebooks, changes in us

In the summer of 2012 we went back to Asia—that girlfriend turned wife and I—but taking along the daughter born 11 years ago. This time we had a vacation budget and a youngster’s attention span to factor in. Twenty years ago our budget was $20 a day for two after flights. This time we were aiming for $150 a day for three. We’d gotten older and a litter wiser. Had we also gotten a bit, well, softer? We would see: for old time’s sake we packed the latest edition of the old standby, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring.

Comparing the old book to the new, many things were cheaper then, but not all of them. Back then, it cost a staggering $120 to visit Angkor Wat – if you could manage to make it there. With almost no hotels to choose from in the midst of a civil war, the few budget doubles in Siem Reap were listed from $12 to $30.

Fast forward to 2012 and the world has changed as much as we have. We headed out for a three week trip to Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam packing tools and information that were unthinkable back then. We had apps with maps, booking services in the palm of our hand, and the ability to see what other travelers we’d never met experienced at any hotel we’d want to visit. We could log in from any computer and find train schedules. Now we could, with a few taps and a credit card, book a double room at one of 50 hotels in Siem Reap, Cambodia listed for under $30 a night.

Part of the fun of looking back at that original trip is the differences of course, but it’s kind of comforting to return and recognize the essential elements that haven’t changed. The street food is still as varied, the markets are just as frantic, and the bargains are still as prevalent no matter what your budget may be. And here’s a journal entry from Chiang Mai in 1994 that could have been written yesterday:

'Sidewalks are not meant for pedestrians. Sidewalks are a place to park your car, leave your motorbike, sell vegetables, set up a food stall, store your merchandise—anything more productive than walking from place to place.'

We appreciated our guidebook’s background info on the Grand Palace of Bangkok, the best parts of Angkor, the royal tombs of Hue, and the old city of Hanoi. We had apps for that, but they always felt more like a brochure than a resource: too brief, too fragmented, with no narrative flow. Like us though, LP guidebooks have changed and grown up too. They have gotten wise to feeding readers what they want (like itineraries and highlights) and have figured out how to appeal to a wider audience, including families.

We used our book daily, especially for maps, but things were different now for us vacationing parents and their child. Looking at accommodation recommendations 20 years later, we felt…old. We’ll pass on that fan-cooled room with a shared cold-water shower for $7 a night, thank you. We’ll take the hotel with air-con and a private bath with nice towels.

Like Lonely Planet, two decades later we’ve grown up, gotten wiser, and yes, perhaps gotten a little softer.

Alina, Donna and Tim Leffel at the Silom Thai Cooking School, 2012. Photo: Tim Leffel.

Tim Leffel is author of 'The World’s Cheapest Destinations' and editor of PerceptiveTravel.com, home to monthly travel stories from book authors on the move.

Lonely Planet's Southeast Asia on a shoestring - all grown up but still the definitive guide to budget travel in Southeast Asia.