Get lost: following the original Lonely Planet guide

For decades, travellers worldwide have been carrying the all-encompassing `traveller's bible' that is a Lonely Planet guidebook in their backpacks. They take them overseas and even into their own backyards for up-to-date information and advice on the best places to sleep, eat and visit.

Yet Brian Thacker has done things more than a little differently to the rest of the pack. He borrowed the original 1975 South-East Asia on a Shoestring from Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler and used it as his only guidebook.

Forget what's trendy along the Banana Pancake Trail now, Thacker wanted to find out what was still left and who was still around - minus the bell-bottoms.

And what an adventure he had. He broke bread with a gang of ravenous rats, swam with a goat-eating crocodile and got hopelessly lost while traipsing through Portuguese Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Burma and Singapore.

Thacker followed in the footsteps of Tony and Maureen Wheeler for his latest travel narrative Tell Them to Get Lost. Thacker, who's visited 77 countries, is the author of six other travel books, which include tales about being a tour leader around Europe and couch surfing around the world.

The idea for Tell Them to Get Lost came when he and Tony Wheeler were at a book signing. After discovering that no one had used the 1975 guidebook to travel with decades after it was written, Thacker asked to borrow the original. A month later the pair met up and Wheeler regaled Thacker with memories of the regions he'd visited and people he'd met.

During Thacker's trip, for which he did no planning, he became hopelessly lost on a number of occasions. In Dili, in East Timor, the maps in the old guidebook didn't have street names and the places that were listed no longer existed, Thacker said.

"I was disorientated or lost, you could say, quite often; there's lots of walking around in circles," he laughs.

Over the 12-week adventure Thacker became obsessed with tracking down guesthouses and restaurants that were listed in that first shoestring book.


When he was in Ubud in Bali he met a little old lady that, 35 years on, was still cooking in the same tiny kitchen she had been using when the Wheelers visited.

"There were so many real buzz moments when finding a hotel or a restaurant that was still there; it was great," Thacker says.

He also met a man in Jakarta who had been told he was crazy by locals because he'd opened the first hostel in the area. Yet now there are about 40 guesthouses and restaurants in the same street, Thacker says.

"It's the backpacking street of Jakarta."

One of the great things about the trip for Thacker was meeting people and hearing about their lives.

"It was just really interesting to see how their lives had changed in that time."

Backpacker trends also became obvious as Thacker made his way across South-East Asia while thumbing through the guidebook. There were places he came across, like Koh Samui in Thailand, that only had one sentence written about them in the old guidebook, but in the current edition have several pages, and vice versa.

Because Thacker was following a book that was 35 years old, many of the guesthouses that were still standing were decrepit, however he wasn't deterred, no matter how seedy they were.

"I'm sort of a backpacker traveller anyway," he says. "I remember I read this great quote once: `A bed's a bed, the magic is outside'.

"I'd rather spend the money on a great meal or doing some great experience."

Even so, Thacker admits some of the hotels were dodgy and he'd spend the least amount of time in the rooms as possible. Every now and then he also likes to stay somewhere relatively nice - that is, a hotel with a hot shower and clean sheets.

In Phuket, Thailand, he stayed in a five-star hotel because it was listed in the 1975 guidebook. He says some of the accommodation was a surprise, like the Majestic Hotel in Malacca, Malaysia, which was a $2-a-night old crumbling place in 1975 but was now part of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World chain.

Most of the time however, Thacker slept on beds with sheets so stained he would cover them in clothes. But he insisted on following the Wheelers every step of the way.

After all, "Lonely Planet is the travel bible".

Tell Them to Get Lost by Brian Thacker is published by Random House, rrp $27.95.