‘Bangkok City Guide’ by Andrew Burke and Austin Bush. Nonfiction — print. Lonely Planet, 2010. 304 pgs. Library copy. ‘Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos’ by David W. Lloyd with Andrew Spooner. Nonfiction — print. Footprint Handbooks, 2015. 576 pgs. Library copy.
The first leg of my upcoming trip to southeast Asia — or second, if you count a twelve hour layover in Hong Kong — will be centered around the capital of Thailand, Bangkok. Burke and Bush’s guidebook — written under the Lonely Planet label — was the only book dedicated to the area published in the last ten years available at my local public library system, and I checked out a copy under the motto that beggars cannot be choosers. I wish I could have had more choices.
The content itself is fine; the guidebook begins with the glossy pages of beautiful photographs and lists of must sees standard in the Lonely Planet series. The background information on the founding of the country and to the city in 2010 helped explained why certain places were included in the must see list, and I unexpectedly found myself scribbling down the names of novelists hailing from the country in the lengthy section dedicated to Thai arts and cinema.
(Kukrit Pramoj’s Four Reigns is considered a classic of contemporary Thai literature and one of the few Thai novels available in translation. The city has also become a favorite setting for crime novels, including John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, which features a half-Thai, half-British detective named Sonchai Jitpleecheep.)
Yet I never felt like I could orientent myself properly with this book in order to plan out an iterinary. Our hotel is located in the Lumphini neighborhood, which, sadly, is an area Burke and Bush are largely devoid of suggestions for. Fair enough, if I had been in charge of booking the hotel, I would have taken that obvious gap into account. But how difficult is it to reach the areas where Burke and Bush do have suggestions for? What are the must sees when you have a limited amount of time? How can I avoid zig-zagging across this sprawling city?
Such questions are why I turn to guidebooks in the first place, and why I found myself wishing Rick Steves would take a vacation from Europe and create a guidebook for Thailand. Or, that I hadn’t been so cheap and sprung for the Rough Guide to Thailand.
Thankfully, I had the exact opposite reaction to the guidebook I picked up from the library on Cambodia and Vietnam. My traveling companion and I will be taking a guided tour through Cambodia that ends in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where we will spend four more days before I return to the United States and she continues on to northern Vietnam, Laos, and Malaysia.
Although the Cambodia portion of our trip will be fairly structured, we do have the opportunity to pick from a list of optional activities at a number of stops along the way. Hence the need for a guidebook.
Lloyd and Spooner’s guidebook provides a short introduction to each region of the three countries covered — Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos — and includes a Top 5 Must See list before delving into the details of what each city, town, or region has to offer visitors. The structure allowed me to fill out the days of our trip where we aren’t on the tour without feeling geographically lost (as I felt with Burke and Bush’s book); overwhelmed by the number of options and the fact that I won’t get to see everything; or, worse, underwhelmed by how little there is to do on certain segments of the trip.
The level of historical detail in this guidebook was particularly appreciated. As with most guidebooks, Lloyd and Spooner explain why a site should be visited because of its beauty or importance in the local culture. Yet they also interweave the historical narrative into their selections — I made copies of the pages devoted to Angkor Wat in order to have the history on hand during my planned visit — and the final chapters on the history of the three countries were my favorite part of the guidebook. I even read the chapter on Laos despite the country, sadly, not being apart of my itinerary.