Backpacking to the future: Modern traveler follows original Lonely Planet guide
A British travel writer created a time-warp and journeyed through Southeast Asia as if he were in 1974 -- an adventure that peaked on psychedelic mushrooms in Indonesia, eating grasshoppers with exploding heads in Myanmar, falling madly in love with a backpacker and discovering that 37 years of modernization have not tamed this exotic region.
Brian Thacker describes his adventures in his newest book, "Tell Them to Get Lost," which is now on sale.
He used only the 1975 edition of Lonely Planet's "Southeast Asia on a Shoestring" guidebook, obsessively following its advice, maps and hotel listings.
"I'm always on the lookout for different ways to travel," says Thacker. "I have couch surfed on every continent, went to countries that most people haven't heard of without any research or guidebook, and I took this journey out of curiosity to see what had changed and to mostly see what was still around from a 1975 guidebook."
But attempting to recreate the backpacking experience of 1974 -- the basis for Lonely Planet's 1975 book -- resulted in some culture shocks.
"Meeting folk who were written about in the old guidebook, who were still running restaurants and cooking in the kitchens and manning hotel desks, was the most fascinating experience," says Thacker, 49, who is based in Melbourne, Australia.
"The most exciting experience, which wasn't really about the book, was meeting an American girl in Bali, who then traveled with me through Malaysia and Thailand. Beth has since moved to Australia, and we are getting married in Minneapolis in January next year."
Indonesian pizzas and Burma dives
On Indonesia's Samosir Island Brian admits he naively "ordered a mushroom pizza," which soon caused "a buzzing head sort of strange. Or even a happy type of strange," he says.
"I'd eaten a magic mushroom pizza. I was high -- how so 1974 of me."
During a flashback, he realized, "Some of those groovy hippies back in the 1970s would have felt like this for most of their trip, so to speak. No wonder they were so chilled, man."
Thacker also had some bummers.
"The worst hotel I stayed in was the Sabai Hotel in Mandalay, Burma. Out of all the cheap run-down hotels that I'd stayed in on the trip, this was the most disgusting room I stayed in.
"The room was dim and dirty, with splintered wooden furniture and the walls and floor were covered in thick grime. And so were the sheets on the bed. The stains in the bathroom looked like the crime scene from a triple murder-suicide that involved machetes."
The 1975 guidebook "dared" backpackers to eat fried grasshoppers in Myanmar's then-capital, Yangon, or Rangoon. So he did.
"It was dry and crunchy. Except for the gooey and slimy bit in the middle," he says. "I couldn't eat the last two, though. They were burnt to a crisp and their heads had exploded."
In 1974, Thailand's islands of Samui and Phi Phi were relatively undeveloped. Bali was not heavily visited, nor was Luang Prabang in Laos and many of the other "untouched paradises" which Brian said he would have enjoyed much more if he had traveled then.
Today, however, Southeast Asia still thrilled Thacker.
"I loved East Timor, especially Baucau. The beaches were stunning, and stunningly empty, and there are a couple of wonderful places to stay.
More on CNNGo:6 reasons to visit East Timor
"Also, I did love Samosir Island on Lake Toba in Sumatra. Again, it was beautiful and blissfully quiet."
A seachange in travel ethos
The goals and dreams of backpackers circa 1974 appear to differ from the typical budget travelers of 2011, Thacker says.
"Getting stoned seemed to be high on the list -- no pun intended."
In 1975, Lonely Planet author and founder Tony Wheeler offered strategic advice to readers of his guide, which would not be found in most books today.
"The old guidebook gave advice on how and where to get stoned," says Thacker.
"At many of the restaurants in Kuta, Bali, you could order the 'special pizza' with the 'special' ingredient being mushrooms.
"Tony also kindly advised his readers to 'get in early because there is quite a rush on them at mid-afternoon to ensure a good high by sunset time.'
"The overland travelers of the 1960s and 1970s did have other reasons for going to Asia. Some sought spiritual enlightenment, some were seeking freedom from the moral and social restraints of home, and some just wanted to drop out.
"Or just take lots of drugs. The hippie hot spots on the overland route were full of cheap guesthouses that were, in turn, filled with the sweet smell of marijuana."
"Backpackers today travel for many reasons. Some are seeking out real cultural experiences, or adventure, some are simply 'seeing the world', while others just want to party and drink lots," Thacker says.
More on CNNGo:Why we travel
But at the end of it all, Thacker says that "although many places had changed, it was gratifying to see that really places hadn't changed at all."
"Besides modern technology, travelers still travel the same and experience the same thing," he says. "They just don't wear bell-bottom pants any more."
'My least favorite was Patong'
Thacker's favorite site in Thailand during his recent journey was the beach town of Krabi, especially the night market, restaurants and hotels where locals gathered.
"My least favorite was Patong," he says, referring to a tacky, commercialized beach zone on Thailand's Phuket island which offers bars, hotels, restaurants and other entertainment.
"In 1974, Tony Wheeler dubbed it a 'mini-freak center'," Brian says. "It is now a major freak center full of go-go bars and old Westerners and their very young Thai 'girlfriends'."
Thacker, an experienced travel writer, was born in England and grew up in Australia. Over the years, he has worked at a London advertising agency and as a group tour leader across Europe, plus as a ski guide in Switzerland.
He has visited 77 countries and written several travel books, including: "Rule No. 5: No Sex on the Bus," "Planes, Trains and Elephants," "The Naked Man Festival," "I'm Not Eating Any of That Foreign Muck," "Where's Wallis?" and "Sleeping Around."
Travel guidebooks through the ages
The Lonely Planet story begins with Tony and Maureen Wheeler, who met on a park bench in London and married a year later.
"For their honeymoon, they headed overland across Europe and Asia, all the way to Australia. They arrived in Sydney with 27 cents," says Thacker.
"Back in 1974, you could travel around Southeast Asia on US$2 a day. Today, you could do the same trip for around $25 a day, if you budget wisely" -- Brian Thacker
"Urged on by their friends, they stayed up nights at their kitchen table writing, typing and stapling together their very first travel guide, 'Across Asia on the Cheap'.
"Within a week they'd sold 1,500 copies, and Lonely Planet was born. Two years later, their second journey led to 'Southeast Asia on a Shoestring', which led to the Lonely Planet empire."
Today, Lonely Planet has offices in Melbourne, London and Oakland, with around 450 employees and over 200 authors.
"Lonely Planet produces over 600 titles and over US$6 million of sales a year," says Thacker.
Thacker was only 13 years old when Lonely Planet published its 1975 guidebook. He began traveling in 1987 by hitchhiking around Europe before arriving in Southeast Asia in 1989 for three weeks in Thailand.
"Back in 1974, you could travel around Southeast Asia on US$2 a day," says Brian. "Today, you could do the same trip for around $25 a day, if you budget wisely."
Though Lonely Planet's 1975 book focused on Southeast Asia, there was an earlier, much more fabled route, fondly known among mischievous backpackers as the "hippie trail to Kathmandu."
That road trip was filled with escapades during the 1960s and early 1970s along a rugged, cheap, overland link from Europe across Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India into Nepal.
That route, however, would be extremely problematic today because of the difficulty in getting visas for Iran, and the dangers of war in Afghanistan.
But back in 1970, there were no Lonely Planet books, so backpacking freaks reverently passed around a red-covered, stapled-together, typed, mimeographed "BIT Guide: Overland to India and Australia."
Its authors have been forgotten in today's world of slick, commercialized guidebooks, but they enabled earlier pioneering backpackers to survive.
The now-vanished "BIT Guide" was created in London by Terry Phelps, Nicholas Albery and other unsung altruists, and sold for less than $1, thanks to support from the BIT organization funded by the Beatles' John Lennon.
"We had -- unknowingly -- collaborated to produce the first overland guide to India," wrote Terry Phelps on The Generalist blog.
Terry had given Nicholas obscure "details of how to get from Istanbul to Delhi overland using public transport, buses and trains," for a total ticket fare of about $15.
Nicholas "was then attempting to compile the first overland to India guide for hippies, and was delighted to receive this information, which was duly incorporated into the guide," Terry wrote.
"According to Nick, he then gave/sold it to Richard Branson -- who then ran an organic restaurant in Westbourne Park Road -- who in turn gave/sold it on to Tony Wheeler, and the rest is history, save for the fact that Wheeler made a mint and we didn't."
To experience more about backpacking in years gone by, visit these websites:
An excerpt from Brian's book, and information about his life and work: Brianthacker.tv
BIT Travel Guide (1970s) Overland to India and Australia: Hqinfo.blogspot.com
Hippie Trail on Facebook:Facebook.com
A Journey Overland from England to India and Nepal in 1973:Realtravel.com