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Keeping a Low Profile

Before leaving home and flying to Thailand to start work on my current research assignment for Lonely Planet, I noticed an email that one of the company’s long-time authors had posted on the private LP author’s message board. I can’t remember the note well enough to quote it, but the main gist was that Thailand-based authors on assignment for LP would do well to keep their profile low whilst working. As I was due to leave for a Thailand assignment in only three or four weeks, my Spidey-sense naturally went into overdrive. I sent the author of the email this message:

Hi, Dan Eldridge here — I’ll be updating the Thailand chapter of the next edition of SEA. I’m getting in touch because I saw your post about the new authors-on-the road photos. My interest was naturally picqued when I saw your mention of the importance of keeping a low profile while researching in Thailand. I’m assuming you mentioned this only because LP authors are hounded by guesthouse owners in Thailand with a bit more fervor than in less backpacker-friendly countries. But is there some other reason(s) that maybe hasn’t occured to me?

A few days later, I got this response:

Hi  — Nothing in particular to Thailand. Actually the main reason I find to keep a low profile is to avoid all the complaining backpackers more so than the guesthouse owners. Except for the tuk-tuk drivers, Thais are pretty laid-back about business. My main point for the post was to point out that I can sit amongst the LP-reading public and listen to all their belly-aching without a soul knowing who I am. Sort of like being a double agent.

I was admittedly a bit doubtful after this exchange, and I decided that when I got to Thailand, I would look into its veracity for myself. As of this writintg, I’ve been in-country for about five weeks, and I’ve let on to quite a few friendly backpackers that I am an LP author, currently on assignment. Perhaps not surprisingly, I’ve gotten almost the exact same reaction — from almost every single person — every single time. Initial response? Somewhat impressed. Surprised, maybe. Immediately afterward, the questions start: How did you get the job? How long do you stay in each place? Etc. And then — inevitably — the criticism starts. Everyone, it seems, has a sharp word of advice for Lonely Planet, and by extention, for myself as well. The most common complaints? The book’s maps aren’t good, and the Shoestring guides are useless. (Although interestingly enough, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, the book I’m currently updating, has enjoyed its ranking as the third-most shoplifted book in the entire country of Australia for some 15 years now.) 

At any rate, if all this squabbling about the merits (or non-merits) of travel guidebooks interests you in any way, be sure to take a look at this rather well-argued Slate article about the impossibility of travel without a guidebook. I suspect this particular piece, written by a Columbia Law School profesor by the name of Tim Wu, will have the backpacking trustafarians up in arms before too terribly long.)  

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