It’s hard to believe the Lonely Planet guide to Thailand is in its 13th edition; having first graced the shelves of alternative bookstores and organic co-ops in 1982, a full month before the guidebook that started it all, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring (or the ‘Yellow Bible’), hit the stands. Lonely Planet was a little known mom-and-pop (literally — Maureen and Tony Wheeler started the LP juggernaut in 1973 after an overland trip through Turkey, India, Iran, Nepal, and Afghanistan) publisher in Australia and Thailand was largely unmapped for tourism, although streams of well-meaning backpackers were trickling into it without any idea of where to find a grimy hostel short of Khao San in Bangkok.
Now, Lonely Planet is the ONLY guidebook most people will carry — I saw so many of the blue-and-red Morocco covers when I was there in 1999 that we all started waving at each other. Their 13th edition Thailand guidebook is a masterpiece of slick publishing: gorgeous pictures, well-laid-out maps, and all.
As always, the nicest things about any LP guidebook are the little asides made by the author;Thailand‘s numerous informational boxes offer historical or ethnic notes (“Who are the Mon?” reads one, and gives a brief history of the indigenous group), as well as specific sublists of things travelers might be interested in: Gay and Lesbian Thailand, vegetarian cuisine, and art galleries. The boxes are more common for the chapters on Bangkok, southwestern Thailand (near Chiang Mai) and the island beaches, since these are the most heavily-touristed areas.
And I do say “touristed” and not traveled, because anyone with an LP guidebook these days will have to submit to being one of the masses; you’re not in a funky club of elite backpackers, you’re doing exactly what all the other kids are doing: going to Ko Samet for the Full Moon Party, rock climbing at Railay Beach, and the Bangkok floating Market. A beautifully illustrated section right in the front of the book refers to the Ang Thong Marine Park as being lovely and “totally unspoilt”…which offers the illusion that it might remain so now that it’s been put in the guidebook.
As always, the guidebook’s maps are stellar — easy to read, marked with interesting hotspots using a complex but decipherable legend, and often numerous for larger cities. Bangkok has loads of smaller and smaller maps, detailing not just the city itself, but various regions within it — like the very popular Banglamphu neighborhood — and even streets within neighborhoods — like Khao San.
There is a load of cultural, historical, political, and geographical information crammed into the front of the book, which I never read before I go anywhere, and mainly serves as a way to entertain myself on long bus trips when I’ve finished my other books. The Thailand essays are in-depth without being pedantic, although definitely skewed towards a liberal bias (one section remarks, snarkily, “Don’t hand out candy unless you can also arrange for modern dentistry.”).
I would prefer to see the “Transport” section moved to the front of the book, since my neatly-organized librarian mind wants to see information in the order I might need it; figuring out how to get to Thailand by flipping to the back of the book seems counterintuitive. I’m also less than fond of the little sidebars offering weblinks to Lonely Planet “hand picked” sites that sell you gadgets; they read less like recommendations and far more like pop-up ads. Except you can’t click these ones closed; they just sit there begging you to go spend some money.
The pronunciation guide for the short Thai phrasebook included at the end of the guide is as in-depth as it’s possible to go into a tonal language; it makes a strong effort to denote tones where necessary, and offer Roman transliteration options for Thai letters. It probably still won’t help you be understood, but that’s not Lonely Planet’s fault.
Overall, the Thailand guide is another example of Lonely Planet’s high-quality guidebook offerings. My only regret is that they have become very sleek and modernized, which loses some of the original flavor of the grimy, let’s-just-stick-some-hotels-in-here guidebooks. But you know what everyone says: everything is always better before you get there. Since this is what we have, and it’s an excellent (if not lightweight) option, I couldn’t recommend any other guidebook to Thailand more heartily.