It’s been 50 years since the publication of the original guide book that launched Lonely Planet.
Across Asia on the Cheap was published in 1973 by Tony and Maureen Wheeler after overlanding from London to Australia. The publication of the guide book has become the stuff of legend. They typed and stapled the guidebook on their kitchen table, and they sold 1500 copies within a week.
The book sold for $1.80 AUD, so that is $2,700 AUD. Working that figure out today, 1 AUD in June 1973 was 1.4155 USD, so 1.8 AUD = 2.55 USD. Using an inflation calculator, that works out to $17.47 USD in 2023 money.
$17.47 x 1500 = $26,205 USD in 2023 money.
The immediate popularity was incentive enough to do it again, and two years later South-East Asia on a Shoestring was published. Southeast Asia on a Shoestring is still sold today, and copies of “The Yellow Bible” can be found in hostels and guesthouses across the region.
I have a copy buried in storage somewhere so I couldn’t take a photo for this article. By pure chance I moved to a new place when I was writing this article, and there is a copy on the shelf.
It is displayed here like a collected ornament, a curio from another era, like your grandfather’s phonograph record player that no longer has a purpose (or if you are a young person, your grandfather’s Walkman).
This is the 2004 edition with 972 pages. I think mine was from 2006, and it has the same chonky heft to it as this one.
Can you believe that it wasn’t that long ago when we used to have these in our bags.
Lonely Planet is turning 50 this year and I happen to be in Thailand at this time, so I thought I would go through the Thailand section to see what has changed.
Across Asia on the Cheap – Thailand (1973)
Across Asia on the Cheap has 94 pages, of which 4 pages is dedicated to Thailand. Of that, there is about a page dedicated to things to see. It gives the most amount of printed real estate to Wat Po (about 1 paragraph) and mentions the mother of pearl inlaid soles on the reclining Buddha.
[Pretty sure this view has not changed in 50 years.]
Other temple mentions include Wat Phra Keo (the temple of the emerald Buddha), Wat Arun, and Wat Benchamborpit across the road from Dusit Zoo (which closed in 2018).
The guide also mentions Bangkok’s prime attraction of the floating market as being “virtually tourists only”. It doesn’t say which market in particular, but I have heard the refrain of the floating markets being too touristy ever since I have been coming to Thailand. Perhaps this is a long-held tradition to gripe about tourists. I imagine sailors disembarking on the docks of the Chao Phraya River in the 1930s complaining about the tourists as well.
The only other places that are mentioned are Chiang Mai, Ayuthya, the bridge over the river Kwai, Nakorn Pathom, and an elephant round up in Surin.
The Thailand section includes a grand total of 4 hotel recommendations for the entire country, all of which are in Bangkok. I was surprised to find that 3 of the 4 are still in operation.
The first listing is for Thai Song Greet with a description you wouldn’t see in a 2023 guide book:
“Next to the railway station is Thai Song Greet, cheap at 30 bahts a double, but incredibly noisy from the traffic outside, The good restaurant downstairs is the Bangkok bottleneck point for overlanders, 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.”
[Thai Song Greet Hotel 1980 from oldbangkok.com.]
The next listing is Starlight Hotel:
“Rather better accommodation is the Starlight Hotel at Soi 22 Sukumvit — Soi 22 is the 22nd road off the Sukumvit road, Air conditioning and a private bathroom for 40 bahts is reasonable, but during the rush hour it can be a long ride from the centre, Buses are so cheap that transportation in and out is no financial problem.”
I wasn’t familiar with Starlight Hotel but I knew the location so I went to look for it. It was amusing to read that it was located “a long ride from the centre”. Sukhumvit 22 is now near what is arguably the new city centre at Asok.
Starlight 22 is down an alley lined with girlie bars.
Starlight 22 is at the end of the alley, and behind it is the gargantuan Emsphere Mall project.
Room rates start at 400 THB, so it is still a bargain in today’s money. In keeping with the old days, this hotel is not listed on any booking sites so you have to walk in or book in advance.
[Starlight room rates.]
The Atlanta gets a brief mention, and it has been trading off this claim to fame ever since. From the guide:
“The Atlanta at Soi 2 Sukumvit is about the same level although we hear that bad scenes take place there with the cops on occasion, Around the railway station area are a number of other cheap hotels.”
The Atlanta is right down the end of a dead-end street, so there is very little traffic.
I have never seen the building but I have seen the entrance sign “Sex Tourists Not Welcome” posted online before.
I was pleasantly surprised to see the foyer decked out in art deco style. The hotel celebrated its 70th anniversary last year, and the hotel has a website looks like it is about to celebrate it 20th anniversary, giving me some sweet HTML coding nostalgia.
Interesting to note that it isn’t listed on online booking sites either. One of the things about being listed in Lonely Planet was that if you got listed you were guaranteed a steady stream of walk-in traffic. You would never need to advertise if you were listed in the Lonely Planet. The name of The Atlanta must be so well known that they can fill their rooms without relying on booking agents.
Here is another review from Travelfish to get an idea of it.
The last hotel that is still running is The Malaysia:
“We spent one night in quite a different class of accommodation in Bangkok. The Malaysia, a very flash looking place, was doing some special deal whereby you could have the first night at 40 bahts and thereafter at 60. Our theory was that with Viet Nam R and R business disappearing a lot of Bangkok hotels are looking hard in other directions for business.”
I stayed here after reading that it was listed, and here the review of my stay.
[The Malaysia Hotel in 2023.]
The hotel has been renovated again since I was there, and I have met other people who have stayed there or know about it.
The hotel is near Soi Ngam Dupli, which ended up becoming the backpacker street of Bangkok (before Khao San Road was the backpacker street). I am wondering if it became the backpacker street on the strength of the Malaysia Hotel listing. Did backpackers turn up to The Malaysia to find it solidly booked out, thus guesthouses started springing up around it to catch the overspill?
For the rest of the country the book just mentions “Elsewhere in Thailand”:
“you can generally find reasonable accommodation for around 20 bahts a double and very good places for 40 to 60 bahts, As in Malaya cheap hotels can be very noisy in the small hours. You can frequently stay free in Buddhist Wats, so long as you’re willing to let the monks practise their English on you. You’ll be doing that anyway!”
Tourists staying for free at wats is now the last thing Thailand wants.
As someone who writes about transport in Southeast Asia, I found the transport section to be a fascinating insight. Keeping in the spirit of the hippy trail and the simpler times, there are many references to hitchhiking,
There is a reference for getting the Butterworth-Bangkok train for $6 AUD. Unfortunately that train stopped running in 2016, reducing the number of international train in Southeast Asia. It mentions that the Hat Yai to Bangkok train is $5 AUD, so we can use that to compare.
5 AUD in 1973 = 7.08 USD. In 2023 dollars that is about $48.50 USD.
Checking train tickets from Bangkok to Hat Yai in 2023 I found a 2nd Class Sleeper AC ticket for $40 USD, so it is theoretically cheaper to travel by train now than it was 50 years ago. The 1973 guide book doesn’t mention what kind of seat it was, but there definitely wasn’t AC.
Thailand has had train ticket prices frozen on some routes for decades, which is why prices are so cheap (and partly why the State Railways of Thailand are losing so much money). That is a topic I will cover on Future Southeast Asia (subscribe here).
One of the biggest changes to the way people travel is how cheap flying has become. The demise of overland travel as championed by this guide book can be partly attributed to cheap flights.
The guide book lists a sample of flights, and I will use the Bangkok-Calcutta fare as an example.
The ticket here is $76 AUD, so that is 107.58 USD in 1973 (in 2023, 76 Dollarydoos gets you just 51 USD 😭 ).
I had a look on Kayak for flights from Bangkok to Kolkata (as it is now known) and here are the sample fares:
The cheapest fare is about $130 USD, so not really that much different in real terms from 1973. Adjusted for inflation, the 107.38 in 1973 would be $735.04! No wonder that overlanding was so popular if airfares were so expensive.
It gets even more absurd for longhaul flights.
Sydney to Bangkok is listed as $344 AUD (486.93 USD in 1973). Here is a sample for Sydney to Bangkok flights I found on Skyscanner (in USD).
Even if you add bags and fees to the AirAsia flight, that would be about $250 USD. The Thai Airways flight is cheaper than the 1973 flight. Adjusted for inflation 486.93 USD in 1973 would be about $3,335.33 🤯.
Other countries on the cheap
The guidebook lists countries from Australia to Europe, so I will revisit this guide if I happen to be in other countries this year. Subscribe to get updates of future posts.
I used this historical currency converter to get 1973 rate.
I used usinflationcalculator.com to get an estimate of 1973 USD in 2023. I present these calculations as ballpark figures for illustration, and it is not presented as precise.