A Travel Writer’s Experiences Across the Globe

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Veteran travel writer Chuck Thompson believes that the widely respected Lonely Planet guidebooks have ruined more travel destinations than the tourists its writers criticize. Smile When You're Lying cuts past the clichés of travel writing and presents the interesting stories that are often left out of the guidebooks.

Weigh in: We want to hear from listeners who have recently done some traveling. Did you go to a travel destination and have your expectations subverted?


Chuck Thompson

Comments [35]

sell timeshare from india

Finally, the cult of the exotic is a myth, I mean I have been in jungles of South East Asia only to bump into Dunkin Donuts stands. One can discover the exotic at home.

Nov. 01 2010 03:06 AM
Connie Munro from Juneau Alaska

Chuck: Connie Davis (yes, daughter of Trevor and Carol) handed me your book to read while in Seattle (I'm still here and can't get home until Friday) and it made my trip-couldn't put it down. You can write, keep going. Your words echo so many and I laughed, cried and felt the pangs of another person who seeks truth. Your critical thinking words should be required reading for the young. By the way I am a senior elder who traveled around the globe and echo your expereiences (well almost). As a retired educator and volunteer at the Juneau City Museum you can imagine the fun with all the cruise ship visiter's. I send them to Bullwinkles, Silverbow and the Fire Department!!! I am pretty sad not to get their tonight but have called friends to go. PS My daughter Jean just called from Highline College where she works and ordered Smile When You're Lying.

Feb. 21 2008 04:47 PM
Hank M from Marin County CA

Chuck is right on! i visited Bali a few years ago and i am no stranger to Asia having lived and attending high school in the Philippines and also as a Vietnam Vet.

Bali was painted as this lush, sparsely populated, tons of rice patties, eco friendly Hindu spiritual island. Balidash i say! the Big Island is much nicer and closer. so are Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippiines and many many more places.

Bali is polluted, crowded, noisy, starving for tourists along their money, and cheap which attracts cheap Aussies or is that redundant? additionally Bali has no money so the Japanese government subsidizes the infrastructure. tourism is off by as much as 60% due to the bombings but the Bali tourism website, Frommers etc are not going to tell you that.

one travel writer calls it Hindu Disneyland and i second that!

Feb. 13 2008 01:36 PM

Fo everyone bashing Austin, if you look to drink you will find places to drink. But there are a lot of other aspects to the area, including the nearby Hill country, Barton Springs- even catching a glimpse of the largest bat colony in the US go out en masse in the summer evenings under the Congress Bridge. I have lived in Austin for five years and I avoid Sixth Street- but realize that there are many nice things to do in the city and surrounding area than just drink. When folks visit- I am more likely to take them to the Wildflower Center than to take them for some booze.

Jan. 08 2008 02:38 PM
Fly to los-angeles from Hyd

Travel writing involves a lot more than just a staid description of what to see. It has to go beyond and enthuse the reader who want to see. There is a pleasure in wandering to lonely and far off places which have not been frequented by tourists. Such places seem to reveal so much about themselves.

Jan. 03 2008 11:58 PM
Greg from Washington DC

And here I just wanted to rant about holiday travel. I even wrote a long kai-ku. And now I just don't want it go go to waste. Apologies if it's off topic.

United Air ruined
My new year's with same six friends
That we do each year

This year was San Fran
Previous years in New York
and Maryland twice

Tickets from DC
Transferring in Chicago
Then on to San Fran

Chicago. O'hare!
Obscure maintenance failure
No flights for two days

After one long day
We find ourselves back at home
No friends. No champagne.

Jan. 03 2008 01:23 PM
Barbara Pickell from Greenlawn, NY

Regarding CANCUN & corrupt police. Best way to avoid this is to rent a private driver with a car. The police will not stop a local. In July 2007, I prearranged a rental car with a driver. He took us to Chichen-Itza & other sites. In April 2000, I rented a driver with car in Dominican Republic ($50/day). In the DR, I used the driver of a diplomat friend. In Cancun, I paid more, but it was worth it. The only company I could locate was "Brant" & they were great:

Jan. 03 2008 01:11 PM
Tony M from Boulder, CO

I must second Mr. Thompson's comments regarding college towns like Austin being overrated. As a resident of Boulder, CO, I can attest to the fact that once you've been to one college town, you've been to them all - plenty of places to go and drink, but not much else.

Jan. 03 2008 01:03 PM
Debbie V. from NJ

I agree with Leonard regarding Singapore's reputation as authoritarian. I was there in the late 1990's and I was very careful when disposing of my cigarette butts and gum! It is a very clean place on the whole, but the out-of-the-way alleyways are dirty and cramped. I agree with the author about the good food. Lots of expats.
The review of this book sounded better than listening to the author speak about it, sorry to say.

Jan. 03 2008 12:48 PM
jknyc from manhattan

Regarding travel and anti-Americanism, first of all, the idea that 20 years ago an American passport made you a beloved traveller was not my experience at all. I was a student at University of London 20 years ago and I was really surprised by the intial feelings of anti-Americanism there. Secondly, I recently spent some time in Slovenia for an arts festival I was participating in. I was nervous going to Europe as an American in the current geopolitical climate. On the trip over I sat next to one of the most obnoxious people I ever have in my life, NOT American. Once there, I was shocked by some of the homophobia and anti-Semitism I encountered. It made me feel good about being American. Or at least about being a New Yorker.

Jan. 03 2008 12:39 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I did summer studies in Spain in 1974. One of the weekend trips the program took us on was to Benidorm, which was a fishing village before its beautiful beaches were "discovered." We could see from the bus that the town itself was full of tourist trap-type places--it had US-style burger joints & many of the signs were in English.

Four of us decided to just spend the day at that lovely beach w/its smooth sand & gentle waves & had a great time. When we all got back to the bus, the ones who'd gone into the town told us we'd made the right decision.

Jan. 03 2008 12:38 PM
Michael Wong from Montclair, NJ

Having just come back from Peru, we stayed in Cusco and Machu PIccu, and while an experienced traveler might be able to navigate the various intricacies of buying tickets to get to Aguas Calientes, our private guide was invaluable to telling us what we were eating, where to go and when, and getting a fixer to get us tickets on short notice to get to Machu PIchu.

Jan. 03 2008 12:38 PM
SF from Manhattan

When traveling to Peru, do not take guided tours. You can even get to Machu Pichu sans a guided tour. Get yourself a lonely planet and do peru by yourself.

Jan. 03 2008 12:37 PM
Barbara Pickell from Greenlawn, NY

My main complaint about travel articles is that they rarely address the hazards and dangers and how to handle them. For example, many articles hype African Safari trips but without mentioning how dangerous it can be to wander in a city alone. I went to Kenya in Dec 2004 and stayed with friends in Nairobi. They made sure we were aware that car jackings are common and one cannot safely walk around the block of even the nicest looking neighborhood. The safari's are heavily guarded which is why tourists survive the experience.

Jan. 03 2008 12:36 PM
naomi serviss from tucson-formerly of New York

By the way, the only time I used "Nestled" is when I wrote it in the comment....and I DID NOT write favorably about my Hot-Stone-On-Head treatment.....I used it as a cautionary tale about novice therapists who call themselves "experts."

Jan. 03 2008 12:32 PM
Jennifer Hickey from Queens, New York

I'd have to disagree with the author on Austin. There is a thriving musical and artistic culture in this city. I'd recommend checking out the Broken Spoke for fantastic live music and two stepping as well as the Continental that spotlights local musical talent. What about Austin City Limits?

Jan. 03 2008 12:31 PM
RC from queens

Also what does he think about the Travel Channel and shows like Globe Trekker and Anthony Bordain.

Jan. 03 2008 12:31 PM
Travel Editor from ramsey, new jersey

As a loyal listener, I'm surprised that the Leonard Lopate show would book someone like Chuck Thompson to represent the travel writing industry. He's an embittered, passed-over, has-been who writes about edgy, adventure travel--what he's on your show trashing is the luxury market, romance travel--the bread and butter of the travel industry--what people want to read about. And why did you book him? Because his book was reviewed by the Times?

Jan. 03 2008 12:30 PM
Susan from New York City

I spent a month in Mali, West Africa in Nov/Dec 2007 and I also used guides. While I was enjoying discovering Mali, I argued endlessly with the guides about hotels, restaurants, etc. It took me a while to realize that the guides were getting backhanders--including free accommodation--from hotels, restaurants, vendors, which is why they pushed me constantly towards more expensive hotels, "tourist" restaurants, artisan vendors who knew exactly where I was all the time--including coming out to a Touareg encampment in the Sahara at 6.30 a.m. where I felt so trapped that I was forced to spend $40 or so on jewelry I didn't really want in order to ensure safe passage back to our hotel for myself and my child who was travelling with me. When we got back to Timbuktu I ripped into our guide for getting us into this position and despite what was a pretty humiliating public dress down for him, he continued the practice for the rest of our trip. No word of this in any travel article or book I read but it seemed as if it was business as usual when I was there.

Jan. 03 2008 12:29 PM
reuven from cincinnati

lonely planet is pretty decent as far as travel publications are concerned. i get the impression that lonely planet, has no hesitation refering folks to places which are off the beaten path.

Jan. 03 2008 12:25 PM
RC from queens

What about blogs written by english speaking natives in the countries? Would they have conflicts of interest? If so what are his favorite travel blogs.

I view travel writers like I would movie critics. If I feel that the critic or writer reflects my tastes, I am more likely going to listen to their advice.

Jan. 03 2008 12:24 PM
Mark Kalan from Valley Cottage NY

As a writer/editor/publisher in motorcycle enthusiast niche publications I will certainly admit that its tough to write bad things about a motorcycle/location after I've just had three days of first class hotel/food/companionship riding.

my stuff is at:

Jan. 03 2008 12:24 PM
naomi serviss from tucson-formerly of New York

As a freelance travel writer I've taken comps because, let's face it, how can a freelancer afford to go anywhere these days? BUT, I have never been afraid to tell the truth and let the proverbial chips fall where they may.

As a result, I've dissed a certain famous rodent (for the Boston Herald), had hot stones dropped on my head at a spa and wrote about the experience, and still get invited to places otherwise out of my price-range.

My most-loathed, over-used phrase which I even hesitate to use now is "NESTLED." What the hell is nestled and has ANYONE ever used it conversationally?

Excuse me, but I have to check out the cozy, sun-kissed Tuscon sky.

Jan. 03 2008 12:23 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Off on a tangent: I didn't know that meaning of "food porn"--I know the term from Nutrition Action, where it's the title of their back-page feature on obscenely unhealthy food (paired w/"the right stuff" for the thumbs-up side--balanced reporting!).

Jan. 03 2008 12:22 PM
Gordon from Inwood, Manhattan

I am in the process of planning a trip to Peru and I have checked out several travel guides from the NYPL but I find, especially for this trip, that they all seem to push guided tours. I, being a somewhat experienced traveler, find this a huge turnoff because I feel that the guided tours don't allow you to see and experience the local culture and are extremely over priced. I plan to arrange my own hotels and transportation throughout Peru and hopefully gain a much richer experience than I believe I would get by booking a whirlwind tour package.

Jan. 03 2008 12:22 PM
Debbie from Woodmere, NY

What do you advise travelers regarding Cancun -having been pulled over this past summer by police for going 5 miles above the speed limit and being told to pay him $200 cash or go to the police station - I was on my way to the airport to catch my flight home!

Jan. 03 2008 12:21 PM
Ben from Richmond, VA

It seems as though travel magazines only write to the wealthy. Where can we go to find information about a city/location other than the accommodations they provide. For example the New York Times listed recently the best places to go. When listing Prague and many others it was all about star level of hotels and restaurants. Price doesn't make something better, experiences do.

Jan. 03 2008 12:20 PM
Waldo from Manhattan

Re - restaurant referrals in other countries. I ask "Where do YOU eat?" rather than "Which restaurant do you recommend?"

Jan. 03 2008 12:20 PM
Graham from Paris

A LOT of published writing is bad, not just travel writing.

It's hard to understand how anyone could expect good writing in a genre which is essentially a mercenary one.

Good travel writing comes from people who wrote of their travels without any expectation that it would be sold to Conde Nast Traveller or some commercial brochure use.

Jan. 03 2008 12:19 PM

One of my favorite pieces of writing about travel is "The Art of Travel" by Alain de Boton. It is one of the few things I have read about travel that really discusses the aspect of disappointment that can come from travel. I love to explore new places but know not everything is going to be great. Travel is an experience, not always wonderful, not always what is expected. I hate that most travel writing makes it seem like something is wrong with you if you don't have the best experience.

Jan. 03 2008 12:18 PM
Amantha May from Brooklyn

I'm also a fan of Lonely Planet and wonder if Chuck Thompson has a recommendation of where to get real travel information?

Jan. 03 2008 12:17 PM
Stephen from Brooklyn

I have stopped traveling because I had an epiphany concerning how travel contributes to cultural imperialism and ecological waste. Finally, the cult of the exotic is a myth, I mean I have been in jungles of South East Asia only to bump into Dunkin Donuts stands. One can discover the exotic at home. When wa s the last time you walked around Todt Hill or Hunts Point?

Jan. 03 2008 12:17 PM
Christina from Clinton Hill

I like reading travel guides, but I agree with what Mr. Thompson is saying. That being said... have you been to Tunisia? Any tips, places not to miss? Thanks!

Jan. 03 2008 12:16 PM
Rose Lance from Connecticut

Every time I hire a guide in Asian countries, they want to westernize the experience. I was in Vietnam last fall and the restaraunts the guide took me to were terrible versions of Vietnamese made for tourists. When I complained and ate where he ate, the food was wonderful, local and inexpensive. Typically, I don't hire guides, but sometimes you have no choice because of infrastructure in remote places.

Love your show - listen almost daily.

Jan. 03 2008 12:07 PM
In Chicago

It's like breaking a bottle of champagne on the prow of a ship to buy a Lonely Planet country guide and then crack the spine and rip out the forty or fifty pages you'll actually need on your trip.

I doubt that anything Mr. Thompson could say will diminish my affection for the books. I have at least a dozen of them covering Mexico and Brazil, bits of Europe and Africa.

Anyway, love the show Lenny.

Jan. 03 2008 01:13 AM

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