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The Amazing Race 1, Episode 10 (21 November 2001)

Krabi (Thailand) - Railey Beach (Thailand) - Ao Luk (Thailand) - Koh Dam Khwan / Chicken Island (Thailand) - Pai Plong Beach (Thailand)

“Everybody laughs at stupid Americans!”

Notwithstanding this remark, Kevin and Drew seem to spend at least as much time laughing at themselves as anyone else spends laughing at them, or at any of the other Americans in “The Amazing Race” on CBS-TV. By now, all four of the teams that remain in the race — this week was the last non-elimination episode — are pretty savvy travellers, and being able to laugh at yourself is an important travel skill.

Language skills haven’t figured heavily in the televised race around the world, but being willing to make a a fool of yourself is even more essential to communicating successfully when you know a language imperfectly. You will make mistakes while you’re learning a new language, and some of them will be embarrassing, laughable, or both.

It hasn’t always been clear, as each pair of contestants / cast members was eliminated from the race, whether their elimination had to do with their travel skills or merely their bad luck that week. But some patterns emerge: for example, all four of the remaining teams have made regular use of guidebooks they picked up during their “pit stops” or during waits at airports, stations etc. Many of those who’ve been eliminated were never seen with a guidebook.

Aren’t guidebooks passé in the Internet world? As “The Amazing Race” proves, not at all. There are plenty of cybercafes in Krabi, but they aren’t much use when you get the clue clue to your next destination while you’re between islands in the Andaman Sea in a long-tail boat. Even as someone who’s been writing on the Internet for a decade, and whose last book was entirely about the uses of the Internet for travellers, I still find a guidebook much more useful than the Internet or a PDA while I’m actually in the field (or at sea).

The four remaining teams on “The Amazing Race” had the right idea: they all researched destinations in advance on the Internet (they knew some of the countries they might visit because they had to sign visa applications), but they also used guidebooks while on the road.

Some techies, of course, get carried away and forget about books. Earlier this month, for example, I was in Miami Beach at the PhoCusWright conference of Internet travel executives. (Most of the attendees were optimistic that the downturn in travel after September 11th will put their competitors, especially offline travel agents, out of business.) I was surprised by the results of an elaborate and expensive survey — commissioned by Microsoft — that didn’t list guidebooks in the top 6 sources of information used by travellers to plan their trips. When I asked, it turned out the researchers hadn’t thought to include guidebooks in the multiple-choice answers!

The continued relevance of “old-fashioned” ink on paper is one of many ways the world is moving more slowly, as well as more quickly, than we sometimes imagine. Yes, Thailand has lots of cybercafes for foreigners. But but wages for locals still average less than US$2 a day, as they do for most people in the world — about the price of an hour or two of Internet time. And it’s these low wages that make places like Thailand ideal locations for labor-intensive industries like paddy rice growing and garment-sewing sweatshops — and services like tourism. Ordinary Americans in Thailand can afford activities like rock-climbing with private guides and instructors that most of them would find prohibitively expensive back home.

The availability of these services — cheap for foreigners but out of the question for most locals — exacerbates the tendency of too many travellers to make their way from one escorted and manufactured tourist “adventure” experience to the next, ignoring the culture and (except as servants) the people of the places they came to visit.

One of the common themes of “The Amazing Race” participants, in their interviews on “The Early Show” after being eliminated from the race, is how much they regretted their lack of opportunity during the race for relaxed conversations with local people. The high-tech kayaks and technical rock-climbing on this week’s episode of “The Amazing Race” have little to do with the lives of almost anyone in Thailand outside the tourism industry. Take a lesson from the racers, and take time to talk to local people and pay attention to their lives.

By far the best guidebooks to Southeast Asia, in my experience, are the Moon Handbooks. I’m biased, of course, as a writer for the same publisher as Moon. But I’m not alone in my opinion: My friend Carl Parkes has won two Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers for best guidebook of the year, once for “Moon Handbooks: Southeast Asia” — IMHO the best guide to the whole region in a single volume — and once for “Moon Handbooks: Thailand”. Not to mention the years of acclaim for “Moon Handbooks: Indonesia” by Bill Dalton, and more recently for “Moon Handbooks: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos” by Michael Buckley.

Here’s part of what Carl Parkes has to say about Krabi province, where the latest episode of “The Amazing Race” takes place: “Pranang Cape [which includes Railey Beach, this week’s first destination] is … an amazing landscape of soaring limestone mountains, aquamarine waters, and squeaky white sand in an outlying corner of paradise…. Few places in Thailand offer such a stunning combination of water, sand, and land…. Pranang is still somewhat off the beaten path, but the pace of change has accelerated in recent years, and it seems inevitable that serious damage will be done unless government officials stem the uncontrolled development. Bungalows are now packed together and occupy almost every square centimeter of available land, while discos blast away until dawn. Pranang … is a very small places that has quickly become overwhelmed.” It’s one of the signs of a good guidebook that it actually tells you why you might not like a place, instead of just making everywhere sound idyllic.

Meanwhile, back in Marina del Rey…

In other travel news you didn’t read in your newspaper this week, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) finally revealed the details of its plans for a new top-level domain (like .com, .org, and .edu), “.aero”, exclusively for air transportation.

Domain-name politics is (deliberately) confusing and (inevitably) boring and technical. All this makes it easy for large, rich corporations to get their way over the interests of consumers, the public, and the little guy. To make a long story short, the current issue is that SITA (a cooperative owned by the airlines) wants to be allowed to control “.aero” and to exclude from it all travellers (that’s you), consumer advocates (that’s me), and anyone who criticizes the airline industry (that’s both of us). Bad. Very bad. Yet another oligopolistic power grab by the airlines, this time on the Internet.

Letters to ICANN’s Board of Directors are in order: the “.aero” proposal will be approved without debate or public hearing unless at least one member of ICANN’s Board of Directors objects by next Tuesday, 27 November 2001. The gory details, including my analysis of the “.aero” proposal, are here on my Web site. I’ll let you know the outcome next week.

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"Don't believe anything just because you read it on the Internet. Anyone can say anything on the Internet, and they do. The Internet is the most effective medium in history for the rapid global propagation of rumor, myth, and false information." (From The Practical Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace, 2001)

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