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Travelogue: Serendipity vs Travel Guides, Do They Discourage Discovery?

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Balinese Adventure Part 1

Michael Taylor is about to embark on his latest adventure – four weeks exploring the Indonesian island of Bali. As he prepares for his departure, he ponders the usefulness of travel guides. Are they a help or a hindrance?

 

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Three of Bali's most popular travel guides. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

I've never been a big fan of travel guides. Not sure why, but I tend to rely on 'serendipity', which my Oxford American Dictionary defines as 'the making of pleasant discoveries by accident' or 'the knack of doing this'.

And, in fact, in my earliest days as a travel writer, I DID often make very pleasant discoveries that were completely by accident.

I would be sent on assignment to these nondescript little hamlets in China. The local tourism authorities would want to show me this, and – as we were driving there – I would look out the window and scream, “OMG! What's that? Could we please stop?”

If they were sometimes surprised by what I found interesting, I was sometimes disappointed by what they wanted to show me. Did we really need to drive all this way just to see THAT???

The stuff that they thought was their little town's answer to the Eiffel Tower, I thought was tacky. The stuff that I thought had character, they thought was run-down.

But not always … Sometimes I DID like the stuff that they wanted to show me. And if they hadn't taken me there, I would have never found it.

Balancing Chance with Useful Information

So there needs to be a balance between discovering things by chance and relying on the information provided by others.

Travel guides can, in fact, give you a useful overview of what's on offer - even to places that you think you know. They can provide all kinds of useful information as well as addresses, phone numbers, and websites.

But they can also mislead. On more than one occasion, guidebooks have led me on wild goose chases, sending me half way across town to places that had either closed down or moved to another location.

The same thing has happend with information provided by hotels. You really need to make sure that the information they offer is up to date. Ask the concierge to call ahead to verify addresses and opening hours before you venture out.

Restaurant Recommendations

And then there's that issue of restaurant recommendations. During a visit to Central Vietnam, I noticed that several restaurants were proudly displaying xerox copies of their mentions in guidebooks. They were full of foreign tourists.  

As I was eating lunch in one of these recommended eateries, I couldn't help but wonder if the travel writer that had recommended the place had really tried several restaurants and thought that this was better than the others.

Or had he simply stumbled upon the place and  then recommended it in the guide? 

A trip to the toilet - which had no running water - convinced me that he had discovered the place by chance. No standards were involved. There was no reason why I should have eaten there rather than at any of the other little cafes that lined the same street.

Bali by the Book

Since this will be my fifth trip to Bali, I've done something that I'd never done on previous trips to the island. I've invested in three travel guides, and each one is very, very different.

So Lonely Planet Indonesia (Travel Guide), the LUXE Bali (LUXE City Guides), and Bali (Step by Step) have been added to my already massive collection of books.

I could have purchased Lonely Planet Bali & Lombok (Travel Guide), but I decided on the whole country guide in case I get the chance to travel to other parts of Indonesia in the future. I looked on it as a sort of investment.

At more than 800 pages, it is thick - and heavy. So you would probably want to do your research in your hotel room rather than carrying it around with you on treks.

It does seem packed full of useful information - a very comprehensive guide, with lots of maps, charts, and cultural insights. The only drawback is there aren't any pictures.

LUXE Bali (LUXE City Guides) was recommended by A Listers that I met on a previous trip to Bali. It's a compact guide that fits in your shirt pocket, with very terse recommendations of activities, accommodation, bars, boutiques, and spas - and those all important addresses and phone numbers.

I thought it was a bit pricey for what you got, but my friends swore by it, saying that everyone who was anyone in Bali had one.

Bali (Step by Step) gives a well written overview of the island followed by 12 full day walks and excursions, which form the heart of the book. I'm hoping to do some of them on this trip - and I'll be sure to write about them if I do.

There are lots of lovely pictures and maps. It also comes with a large folding map, which could be framed and hung on your wall after you return from your adventure.

Recommended Reading

If I had to recommend just one, I'd probably go for the third. It gives you just enough information, without overwhelming you. It's lightweight and conveniently sized so you can carry it with you. I like all the maps and pictures. And the price represents the best value of the three.

Reading novels set in the places you visit is always a good idea. I had already read Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia and seen the movie.

The section on Bali is highly recommended for anyone thinking about visiting the island. (If you get bogged down in India, as I did, just fast forward to the part on Bali.)

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