In 1973 the very first Lonely Planet guide, Across Asia on the Cheap, written by the company’s co-founder Tony Wheeler, was published. The previous year, Tony and his wife Maureen had driven an old people carrier from London to Afghanistan, sold it in Kabul, before continuing to Australia by whatever form of transport they could find.
The book, which explains how to do the classic “hippie trail” or “overland”, via Turkey, Tehran, India and Bangkok, on a shoestring budget, offers an eye-opening and often amusing snapshot of a continent – and the priorities of the young travellers exploring it. Forty-five years on, here are a few of the more curious excerpts for each country.
Backpackers still go to Asia to get high, of course. But today’s guidebooks wouldn’t dream of condoning it, and they certainly wouldn’t advise scoring drugs in Afghanistan. But before the late Seventies, when instability took hold of the country and discarded it from the travel map, it was heaven for travelling pot heads. Across Asia on the Cheap explains: “Weed, of course, is the big seller in Afghanistan; so long as you only buy in small amounts you’re extremely unlikely to run afoul of the law.”
An anecdote from Wheeler hammers home the point: “We rolled up to the Afghanistan border at Islam Q’ala and could find no sign of officialdom. Eventually we found a group of rather stoned looking Americans sitting on the floor in one building. ‘Where’s everyone?’ we asked, and got the obvious answer ‘gone for lunch’. ‘How long have you been here’ we asked – ‘about six hours’. ‘Good grief what have you been doing all that time?’ – ‘blowing a little dope with customs’. Of course.”
Drugs could even be procured from local bakers: “Hygiene in the Afghan bakeries is not all one could ask, but many of them can supply extras like hash cookies.”
Tony and Maureen drove across Afghanistan to the capital, Kabul – something few sensible travellers would consider today (at least not without an armed guard). “Toll booths are usually marked by a sleepy soldier guarding a pole over the road,” says the book. “You park and in one of the huts find an equally sleepy toll collector. Wake him up and he’ll write out a ticket – it’s probably worth bargaining on the toll!”
Kabul, known back then as the “Paris of the East”, was a very different place. So popular was it in 1973 that Lonely Planet fretted about it becoming a “tourist trap”. Highlights included the city’s markets, parks and gardens. “Use it as a place to wander about, talk and rest in,” suggested Wheeler. He added: “Get an Afghan suit made up, in bright colours instead of Afghani grey-white and with western style trousers. They cost about 150 to 200 Afs (about £1.80) and are very cool to wear. A big, cheerful German had a bright red suit made up, which he brought back to the hotel and put on to show us. All the Afghanis lounging around proceeded to roll around clutching their stomachs with laughter. Beyond us until one of them explained that no ‘man’ would wear red!”
Over the border in Iran, the advice for stoners couldn’t have been more different. “Don’t even consider taking drugs across the border,” warns the guide, before explaining that a nasty new prison in Mashhad is filled with travellers who did.
For those wishing to save money exploring the country’s beautiful cities, there was a fine option in 1973: camping. “In its efforts to attract even our type of tourists, the Iranian government has opened a number of excellent campsites,” says the book. “You don’t even need a tent at most of them as they have pre-erected tents with beds. Isfahan has two sites – one a central and pleasant youth hostel with camping in the garden, but exorbitantly expensive – like US$1.50 per night for two people.” $1.50? That’s about $8.50 (£6.40) today. Exorbitant, indeed.
As for souvenirs, it has to be a Persian carpet, says Wheeler – who added a tongue-in-cheek aside today’s publishers would almost certainly remove: “If price is all important you may do better in a regional centre such as Tabriz or Isfahan. Stricter child labour laws are gradually weakening the industry so buy now while children are still being exploited!”
After Turkey, the route typically took travellers through Syria and Iraq, two nations that are well and truly out of bounds to modern tourists. And if you didn’t have a car, Wheeler advised hitchhiking; it was really considered safe to do so in the Seventies. Indeed, English travellers were warmly welcomed. Wheeler said: “[Iraq] is a very hard line socialist Arab country so watch what you say and never mention arch enemies, Iran or Israel. Despite English interference in the past, English speaking people still seem to be popular.”
Should you be running low on cash or supplies, Kuwait was a good bet: “You can stock up here on everything at very cheap prices and get free medical care. Price for blood in Kuwait is probably the highest in the world, sell a pint or two if you are broke. Only hitch is, if you are broke you won’t get in as visas can be difficult, make up a good story about being a student of religions or cultures.”
The first stop for those coming from Australia, the last for those going in the opposite direction.
“Many Balinese keep fighting cocks and you can often see them sitting by the roadside watching passers by – in order that they don’t get bored between fights,” says the guide. “You’ll often see an owner giving a little mouth to beak resuscitation between rounds.”
Getting around by plane? Wheeler suggests Zamrud – long since folded. Its “ancient” DC-3s offer “entertainment all by itself and cost no more than one of those shiny jets!” He adds: “[It is] the most interesting, least reliable airline – they have the unfortunate habit of shutting down fairly frequently. Never believe they’ll be flying until your plane is actually in the air!”
As for getting to Singapore, ignore the “flying freaks”. “The usual route is by the weekly ship to Tandjunpinang, an island about 70km south of Singapore. It takes about 36 hours and costs 4,700 rps deck class. Just unroll your sleeping back on deck and make yourself at home.” Your ticket includes food, however. “Fine if you can contemplate life on fish heads and tails.”
There follows a note on Indonesian WCs, probably wise if you subsist on fish heads: “One thing you’ll have to get used to in Indonesia is the toilet position you’ll be adopting all the way to Europe. A toilet is two foot holds and a hole in the floor. Don’t worry you’ll soon find squatting quite natural and it’s physiologically better for you – half the constipation is western civilization is caused by our habit of performing bodily functions from a sitting position. You’ll also get used to Indonesian washing facilities – a large water tank and a plastic dipper. You scoop water from the tank and pour it over your head, don’t climb in the tank!”
It’s a “groovy place once you’ve got in”, says Across Asia on the Cheap, while Sir Stamford Raffles is described as “quite a cat”. Tourism is “a big deal”, it adds, with annual overseas arrivals over half a million [today the figure is more than 17 million].
“Unfortunately Singapore’s approach to tourists is ambivalent,” reckons Wheeler. “The clean up Singapore campaign is excellent in that Singapore is just about the only place between Greece and Australia where you can drink water from the tap and that the streets are so clean you can be fined for dropping a cigarette end. It also cleans out certain types of foreigners – Singapore wants tourists who arrive by air, clutching Samsonite luggage and handfuls of dollars. Most importantly they’ve got to have short hair. If your hair can remotely be described as long they’ll probably want to see considerable proof of your financial viability and/or a ticket out of Singapore – preferably for that afternoon! Hassle-avoidance means a haircut – or a short hair wig.”
There’s a particularly bizarre suggestion in Singapore’s “Things to Buy” section: “Chicks can pick up easy money working for the escort services – they’re quite respectable.”
Hitchhiking is recommended as it’s the best way to meet the amazing local people – particularly those with curious names: “Travelling by thumb through Malaysia we spent a day in a Land Rover with an Indonesian mining engineer called Golden Hoff. Golden was an incredibly good guy and our Malayan ride was a real culinary trip as we sampled every local speciality along the way. We thought Golden Hoff was a really far out name – until we visited a Djakarta airline office and spoke to someone whose name tag prominently announced ‘Wham Bang Valihali’.”
One Bangkok hotel is recommended – with a caveat: “Efforts may be made to pad your bill out (if you are male this is) with local talent. Beware – Bangkok has developed some heavy breeds of VD.”
Mountainous Nepal was in equal parts fascinating and repugnant, according to the 1973 guide. It is “in many ways still as medieval country to tourists,” Wheeler writes. “An indication of the backwardness of Nepal is that slavery was not abolished until 1926! Nor was suttee: the practise of burning the living wife with her deceased husband stopped until 100 years after the Indians prohibited it.”
Of the capital, he says: “Kathmandu must rate as one of the dirtiest holes in Asia – but a cheap and fascinating hole”, adding: “You will be unlucky (or lucky?) if in a week in Kathmandu you don’t witness at least one animal sacrifice in the streets.”
The food isn’t up to much, either: “Birgunj, the town at the Indian border where everyone seems to spend the night before the bus ride or on the way down, is so miserable I wouldn’t recommend anything. I had a meal there which was so bad I heaved it (still on the plate) onto the floor of the kitchen and no one was surprised.”
And then: “Never trust the water. Unfortunately that old H2O standby, Coca-Cola, is imported from India and expensive. The Nepalese excuse for tea, the other H20 standby, must be the worst in the world.”
But it’s not all bad: “For a small valley, there are an amazing variety of things to see – apart from the facility of getting cheaply stoned. Swayambhunath – a Buddhist stupa perched on top of a hill – is the grooviest place in the whole valley. Climb the steps up the hill and you will soon realise why it is called the monkey temple. Down the centre of the steps runs a metal bannister which the monkeys treat as a slide – they come down one at a time, upside down, piggy back, and in convoys. The best free entertainment in the valley.”
Think Indian trains are a hassle? Consider the experience 45 years ago. “The next time I go to India I intend never to see a railway station,” says Wheeler. “The trains are slow, crowded, dirty, uncomfortable and any other unpleasant adjective you can find.” He then describes the process of queuing for a student concession, then queuing for a ticket, then queueing for a seat reservation (“they don’t guarantee but they do increase your chances of having a place to sit”), and then joining the crowd running up and down the platform screaming and shouting and looking for their seats.
“Of course the train will be hours late… you arrive at your destination covered in coal dust, a once only experience.”
Just as stressful was crossing the border into Pakistan: “There’s only one land crossing. In 1972 the border was only open on Thursday mornings, three hours per week.”
As for destinations, Goa was the hippie destination of choice: “At Christmas each year the Goa beaches become the world freak convention centre.”
Wheeler also recommends visiting an Indian cinema and makes an interesting observation about the country’s movie posters: “In a country where starvation is just around the corner, there is no glamour in being thin, an Indian film billboard looks like the before half of a dieting advert.”
Vietnam and Laos
Parts of Asia couldn’t be visited in 1973, of course. The guide explains: “Due to the continuing effects of the American charade in South East Asia, travel to other South East Asian countries is either difficult, not recommended or impossible. It’s an extra special pity that Cambodia is ruled out at the moment as Angkor Wat is, of course, one of the world’s real wonders. The most visited ‘other’ country is Laos… but Laos is having an anti-hippy drive so look good. Most people don’t go much further than Vientiane, often just to try the Laotian grass.”
Sikkim and Bhutan
Sikkim [part of India since 1975] and Bhutan were also all but off-limits: “These small Indian protectorates sandwiched between India and China in the Himalayas are difficult to visit. India is very touchy about anything to do with China and the border with China, so a pass to visit these countries usually require a blood relationship to the local Maharajah or some equally pressing cause.”
There’s a word on the student card “racket”. Owning one entitled travellers to discounted flights, rail travel and attractions, and the guide explains where best to find a good counterfeit. “At any freak hangout there will always be somebody selling student cards or knowing someone who is. Travel agents are also a good source.”
Your own embassies are generally “hopeless”, it says, and other people’s may be out to get you. “Throughout Asia last year just about every embassy seemed to get its kicks by hassling Japanese kids. Indian embassies all hassle Americans on principal, the principal being that Nixon didn’t support India over Bangladesh. If you wonder why Canadians are so patriotic with maple leaves of every pack, it’s so people won’t mistake them for Americans!”
Expect to get sick: “No matter how you eat and how adroitly you avoid assault on your digestive system you’ll end up losing weight. In fact the overland trip beats any crash diet hands down.”
Dope? “If that’s what you want then you are going to the right places! Starting from Australia, grass is easily obtainable in Indonesia and Sumatran grass has a particularly good reputation. In Bali mushrooms go down well… In India, Pakistan and Nepal hash and grass can be found just about everywhere. Connoisseurs say the quality in Nepal is not the best, but rave over Kashmir grass. Afghanistan is the pot heads’ paradise… Opium is also widely available if you are into heavier stuff.”
There’s a word of warning about “women hasslers” in many parts of Asia – still a problem today. “There is really no way to avoid the feeling hand,” says Wheeler. “It’s humiliating for the girls and frustrating for the would be protective guy. So if you can lay hands on one of the bastards take advantage and rough him up a little.”