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Lonely Planet finds new orbit

120601_05

Photograph: Mike Hodgkinson

The latest edition of the famed guidebook is, like Cambodia, moving up-market and may leave backpackers digging deeper into their pockets

What is the modern traveller’s most valued possession: iPod, Kindle, first-aid kit, sleeping bag, or a well-thumbed copy of a Lonely Planet guidebook?

Love it or loathe it, the Lonely Planet is the ubiquitous backpacker bible, a pocket-sized guide to a foreign adventure.

Its latest Cambodia edition will be re-published next month and has been subject to a bit of a redesign.

Since being bought by the BBC Worldwide, the entire Lonely Planet catalogue is being gradually tweaked and repackaged. The brand spanking new design sparked a furious debate on the Lonely Planet website last year, but how does the new Cambodia edition measure up?

Aesthetic changes are the most noticeable and arguably most superficial, but they do impact on the way in which the book is used. Changes to make street maps easier to use by simplifying and introducing colour have been successful. The use of colour in the text is largely superfluous and switching the tabs from the tops of pages to the outside edge is a little clunky.

More significant is the chapter re-jig and the introduction of a few clever features. The Understanding Cambodia section has sensibly been moved to the back – removing the need to flick through 40-odd pages in order to reach the meat of the content – but the table of contents has been moved to page 50, which makes quick navigation very tricky.

A “nice regions at a glance” page, monthly guide to events and “if you like” feature will be extremely helpful for itinerary planning, especially for those travellers with time on their side who don’t want to miss something special. The Lonely Planet team has done a lot of homework on the redesign. Talking to target groups, they discerned that in the internet age, readers wanted an easy access and multi-platform resource. The book itself is now carefully integrated with an up-to-date and comprehensive website that will be a joy for those gleefully planning their journey from their office desks.

Organisational changes aside, the Lonely Planet is really about the nitty gritty; the amassing and sifting of detailed information on the sights, activities, accommodation and cuisine across the country. Cambodia is on the move and opportunities for tourists are developing rapidly; a lot has changed in the two years since the last edition and it’s good to see that the content reflects this progress. The updates are thorough and clearly carefully done.

The research and writing was done by experienced Cambodian traveller Greg Bloom and Phnom Penh dwelling Nick Ray.

Ray has been travel writing since 1998 and when not penning guidebooks he works as an adviser to a travel company and (adding a touch of glamour to his CV) acts as a location scout for big budget TV and film.

Ray says that living in Cambodia is a big advantage when writing about the country: “There are no time constraints or budgetary concerns. I can be thinking about writing the guide in the back of my mind all the time.”

The revisions to the eating and sleeping sections are clearly well-researched, but irritatingly for those on a budget, options are no longer listed in price order. Indeed, particularly in Phnom Penh, there are few options priced under US$15. Should this be interpreted as a sign that the Lonely Planet is looking to appeal to a broader market, targeting holiday makers as well as backpackers?

Ray says that actually, it’s a sign of development in the capital. Particularly with the loss of the popular backpacker haunts around Boeung Kak Lake, a lot of the cheaper accommodation has disappeared in recent years. Places like the relocated Number 9 Guesthouse are now kitted out for “flash packers” (backpackers with credit cards and trust funds) and are pretty swanky. He also explained that the Cambodia landlords who could afford to invest in their accommodation in order to charge higher prices and boost profits.

Reflecting on the changes that have come about in Cambodia over the last 10 years, Ray believes that, particularly because of improved infrastructure, it is more difficult to get off the beaten track. Still, “there is adventure out there, you just have to scratch a little deeper below the surface to find it,” he says. He recalls a time when the trip to Ratanakkiri was a “three-day ordeal” that involved taking a lot of risks and was even traumatising for the locals.

Although there may no longer be such easy access to adventure, there are big advantages to the opening up of the country. “Now, when planning an itinerary you cannot limit yourself, but it’s possible to see all of the country on a month-long tourist visa.”

He laughs good-humouredly at the idea of the “Lonely Planet kiss of death”, the idea that when mentioned in the Lonely Planet a venue will get overrun by tourists and lose its charm. “Special places will always be discovered,” he says “and Lonely Planet’s voice is becoming less impactful now that there are so many more guides in print.”

When asked about his favourite spot in Cambodia, after all he’s visited most of them, Nick cheats and names three. His choices sum up Cambodia: the ancient glory of the temples of Angkor Wat at the heart of Cambodian heritage and culture, the natural wonders and diversity of Mondulkiri in the wild east, and the beauty of Prasat Preah Vihear, set in the scarred and troubled north western border territory.

The Lonely Planet takes you to all three.

To contact the reporter on this story: Anna Brown at anna.brown@phnompenhpost.com

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