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South-East AsiaTitle: South-East Asia - The Graphic Guide
Author: Mark Elliott
Copyright: © 2003
Publisher: Trailblazer Publications
ISBN: 1-873756-67-4

Relevance: Any journo, correspondent or writer posted in the areas covered by this book will appreciate the unusually useful and up-to-date travel information. Although the book is primarily aimed at budget travelers and backpackers, it is crammed with reliable information about how, why and when to move around in some potentially dangerous countries. Highly recommended.

Review: Rather than a standard travel book filled with fluffy commentary, subjective text and attractive natives appearing in traditional costumes, South-East Asia - The Graphic Guide is a refreshing look at the areas of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma (Myanmar), Yunnan, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The book also provides valuable -- but shorter -- overview information on Indonesia, Brunei, East Timor, and the Philippines. The book includes hundreds of facts, useful observances, schedules, maps (actually, lots of maps) and generally, a feel you've been in-country for a few weeks before you leave your home bureau.

Author Mark Elliott takes readers exploring with him in each country he visits. As he does, one gets the feeling he is there providing personal, experienced guide advice on where to stay and how to trip in this region. Reporters will find his insights into the local travel scene, bars, hotels, guest houses and other "real-world" necessities a huge advantage when first entering a country chasing a story or beginning a new bureau posting. Visas and best travel routes are also explained and, where applicable, actual bus, train, boat and plane schedules are given. Even those familiar with the terrain from previous trips can benefit from using this book as a quick reference: facts, schedules, prices and various geopolitical intrigues seem to be very up-to-date.

Money details (such as ATM access, credit card coverage, and any mandatory foreign exchange requirements) are also provided throughout the book as are places to find really cheap accommodation. One of the more innovative charts we encountered in South-East Asia is a page that graphically outlines each country's rainy season superimposed over when each major festival occurs. Reporters unfamiliar with the various religious holidays in the region will appreciate the book's listing of each country's cultural and religious festivals. This is especially helpful for any reporter trying to figure out when to travel in the countries covered -- and what to expect when he or she arrives.

Key facts
In the process, the book offers up great information on a series of key questions on each country. When, for example, is the "best" time to go to Thailand? What weeks should be avoided when doing a story in Cambodia? Why? What is the best border crossing to use between two adjacent countries? Is it best to travel by bus, train or plane? Indeed, is crossing the border even possible between some adjacent, yet antagonistic, countries? How are certain border crossings best handled? Often there is a specific order or best path to follow when traveling in this region and this book gives key advice on this type of in-country information. Sometimes it is better to follow a clockwise travel pattern; other times the reverse is true.

Without local, on-the-ground knowledge of the situations, reporters can stumble into awkward or even dangerous situations, complicating their travels and possibly delaying their story. Sometimes, as Elliott's book points out, it is easy to enter one country from another; yet it can be impossible (or even dangerous) to make the same trip from the opposite direction. South-East Asia provides much of this needed information and will be invaluable for anyone planning to be in this region for any length of time.

Throughout the book, readers come to feel the author has direct, intimate knowledge of the region -- something that many guidebook writers seem to lack in comparison. Not only does Elliott explain, for example, what cities to visit, when to travel, what attractions to see, and what trinkets to buy (if you must), he also gives specific advice on how to avoid being scammed in specific towns -- and even on specific streets within each town covered!

Few travel books have the level of detail showcased in this book A great example of this can be seen in the "Jungle train timetable" for Malaysia on page 206. Need to get from Tumpat in the north to Kuala Lipis further southwest? There are three buses that travel this route daily and an additional one that runs on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The first bus leaves Tumpat at 5h10 in the morning!

Need to know what attractions are on the island of Kapas? Simply look at the east coast peninsula map for Malaysia on page 207. Here you'll find a small annotation for Kapas suggesting the town is a "lovely beach island" but is "very busy on weekends." Elliott also notes that the local lighthouse is a dorm and the island makes a nice day trip from nearby Marang (15 minutes away by speedboat).

Specific dates are given for crucial events such as the Chinese New Year, Tet, and Ramadan. By outlining key events as well as their timing, reporters (and others) can avoid the logistical and cultural problems of dropping in during the wrong time in the year. During some holidays, no business will be conducted as the particular country virtually shuts down. In other cases, travel is downright dangerous. The South-East Asia guide pleasantly surprised us by the level of detail included about holidays, celebrations and festivals.

Maps, maps and more maps!
Elliott's maps litter the book and the marketing fluff on the book cover proudly claims there are 210 maps inside. Although we did not actually verify this claim, we can attest to the fact that the many, many maps are both easy to read and provide truly useful information. We were initially confused by the non-standard use of symbols within the book's maps but within about 10 minutes we were cheerfully breezing through each map, fully understanding the various annotations.

Of course, the South-East Asia contains much more than detailed maps and insider advice. The book also features the standard traveler info for each country covered such as time zones, religious tone, health problems and special dangers. For example, the section on Yunnan notes that a "few lone trekkers have been robbed in the otherwise idyllic parks (e.g. Tiger Leaping Gorge), but generally Yunnan is very safe."

In Burma (Myanmar), special dangers include: "Insurgency in some outlying areas. Rebels groups don't seem to target foreigners and you're unlikely to be allowed anywhere near a 'problem' area anyway." Clearly, this flowery advice doesn't apply to reporters -- especially American or British-based correspondents who may be specifically targeted by hard-liners -- but it is useful for those keeping a lower profile.

The book also presents useful (but rather tame) social conventions and cultural expectations (for example, Elliott writes that "Indonesian bathrooms typically have a mandi tub rather than a bath or shower; use the scoop to pour water on yourself -- don't get in! Especially in Muslim areas (the majority of the country) conservative dress is important -- no shorts, bare shoulders, etc. except in beach areas. Cover your mouth when yawning or using a toothpick."

If we were pressed for suggestions on how to improve this already excellent book, we might suggest the South-East Asia's format should be enlarged, allowing larger and more detailed maps. Although the publisher has clearly struck a good balance between book size and the amount of useful information that is stuffed inside, some travelers might appreciate a larger format book that would allow maps of more detail.

On the other hand, some travelers might question this suggestion arguing, quite rightly, that the larger the book, the less likely it will be carried and used in-country. After all, how many beginning photographers have we seen who've packed one of those beautiful "how-to" books in their camera bags, only to never open it in the field?

One of our reviewers was disappointed to find that the author chose not to include much of his country-specific information arranged by train (or bus) stop, as other books in the Trailblazer series have done (such as the Trans-Siberian Handbook and the Siberian BAM Guide). This is completely understandable since the two train guides represent the only ways to travel in these former-USSR areas, while there is a multitude of possibilities in the countries covered in South-East Asia. Had we not previously read the other books in the series, however, we certainly would not have known we were missing this specific city-by-train-stop information in South-East Asia.

Although the book is clearly aimed at budget travelers and not specifically written for reporters, South-East Asia is an unusually brilliant addition to any traveler's library and will be especially helpful to those who need someone's experienced and trusted advice. Many travel books covering the same countries seem to be written by people overstaying their air-conditioned package tour by an extra week in order to collect more colorful brochures and then writing up their "experiences" in travel book format.

In contrast, author Mark Elliott has obviously traveled throughout this large and wondrous region; actually experienced the things he writes about; stayed in many of these places he describes; spent time puzzling over local bus and train schedules; learned when and when not to travel; and what to eat from direct experience. Reporters (and other travelers) would be unwise not to heed his good advice. Highly recommended.

End of Review

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