Publish and Be Damned?
covering burma and southeast asia
Thursday, June 01, 2023


Publish and Be Damned?

By Jim Andrews/Chiang Mai FEBRUARY, 2007 - VOLUME 15 NO.2


Lonely Planet and Rough Guide compete for readers o­n opposite sides of the Burma divide

It’s that time of year again when travel book publishers hold editorial board meetings to discuss what titles to update, launch or abandon. As always, Burma is high o­n the agenda.

The discussion is invariably lively, ruled by often incompatible moral and financial considerations. Two of the world’s leading travel guidebooks, Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, find themselves o­n either side of a fence that follows the moral high ground as well as the depths of pragmatic commercialism. Many smaller, newer publications sit warily o­n the fence.

The moral issue facing publishers isn’t confined to the question of whether or not to encourage Burma tourism. For Lonely Planet, in particular, the core issue lies even deeper, in the protection of a publishing company’s right to print whatever it sees fit, within the restrictions a civilized society places o­n itself.

That right, say some editors, is threatened by a book boycott move led by the Burma Campaign-UK, which recently placed Lonely Planet o­n its “dirty list” of enterprises doing business with Burma. The London-based organization called for a boycott of all Lonely Planet guidebooks, not o­nly those covering Burma.

Tony Wheeler, founder of the Lonely Planet guidebooks and author of the first three Burma editions, dismisses the boycott campaign, saying it “actually makes me more determined. I am not going to be told by anyone what I can publish.”

Lonely Planet devotes the first 10 pages of the current guide to the debate, under the general heading: “Should you go?” Both sides of the argument are clearly stated, with a section o­n democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition to tourism while the generals are in power. It quotes the regime line with the succinct tip: “For a fascinating glimpse into the world of propaganda (if not outright self-deception), check out the government’s take o­n Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD”—referring readers to the regime’s Web site,

Lonely Planet readers are sent o­n their journey into Burma well aware of the evils they are likely to meet, but the guide gets into trouble itself when advising travelers to avoid government-run hotels, restaurants and any services with regime involvement. It conscientiously tries to sift privately-run establishments from those which feed the regime’s coffers—but how is a guide to Burma able to ignore historically important places like the Strand Hotel, the colonial era building that was refurbished and restored to its previous splendour with an injection of government money? The answer is: it can’t and it doesn’t.

The current Lonely Planet guidebook devotes a half page to the Strand, a gleaming white monument to the glories of the British Empire. “Though well beyond the budget of many visitors to Myanmar as a place to spend the night, the Strand is well worth a visit for a drink in the bar, high tea in the lobby lounge or a splurge lunch at the café,” says the guide. Some independent travel writers find themselves splurging in uncomfortably close proximity to expense account government spooks.

Downtown Rangoon’s other leading hotel, the highrise Traders, is also very difficult to overlook, in every sense, and Lonely Planet gives it generous coverage. Yet the hotel was built by a former drug lord and his son.

Wholly government-owned hotels are easier to spot, and Lonely Planet attempts to tag them. In Kengtung, for example, it alerts readers that o­ne establishment, the Kyaing Tong Hotel, is a government property they might want to “bypass.”

A far more complicated task set for itself by Lonely Planet is to steer readers away from using transport operated by the government. Getting in and out of Burma presents no problems to discerning travelers if they fly with a Thai airline, but o­nce there they could find themselves grounded by their own very conscience. The national airline, Myanmar Airways International, is government-owned, and o­ne of the two smaller carriers, Air Mandalay, is a joint venture between the Burma government and Malaysia. The other, the rapidly expanding Air Bagan, is run by arms dealer Tay Za, who has close ties to the regime.

The railroad network and many river ferries are run by the government. There are many private bus operators, but it can be a tough task to root out those that have no links with the government.

The Lonely Planet’s main competitor, Rough Guides, doesn’t have to worry about the problems involved in publishing a travel guide to Burma.

1  |  2  next page »

Please read our policy before you post comments. Click here
E-mail:   (Your e-mail will not be published.)
You have characters left.
Word Verification: captcha Type the characters you see in the picture.

more articles in this section