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AUGUST 21 - AUGUST 28, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 7/8

Illustration for TIME by Harry Harrison.

Experiencing Asia Strictly by the Book

Traveling can be arduous business: just ask the Time Asia editorial team that traveled from Sapporo to Surabaya to report this week's special issue. Long journeys take it out of you. The sun blisters your skin, your stomach churns with unfamiliar food and you sleep in a different bed every night, sometimes sharing it with the local flora and fauna. Sounds like too much of a bother? Well, you can skip the hassles and airport taxes—and travel around Asia simply by turning the pages of a good book. There's nothing like enduring hardships from the comfort of your own home.

Where to start? Go back two centuries with Isabella Bird, a pioneering Victorian travel writer who was, first, a woman and, second, seemed actually to enjoy her journeys. Much of early travel writing is of the "filthy savages" variety, conveying too much of the writer's prejudices and not enough about the world around him. Bird's series of intelligent travelogues written in the late 1800s offers insight into Asia as it was then. She ventured into remote areas that were a stark contrast to the Edinburgh drawing room society she'd left behind. The tiny dynamo—she stood only 1.5 m—traveled through Malaysia, China, Tibet, the Korean peninsula, Kurdistan, Persia, the Moroccan desert and the American West. Of her numerous titles, readers interested in Asia should delve into Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880), which is being re-released this fall by Travelers' Tales.


Experiencing Asia Strictly by the Book
Traveling can be arduous business: just ask the TIME Asia editorial team that traveled from Sapporo to Surabaya to report this week's special issue

Travelers wanting to see where contestants in CBS' popular Survivor show played out their prime-time Robinson Crusoe fantasy can now visit the remote Malaysian island of Palau Tiga

Web Crawling
Billing itself as an "anti-tourism" travel site, Split rips into the travel industry with gusto

Travel Watch Archive: Browse hundreds of Asian travel tips

While some books inspire you to follow in the author's footsteps, others simply make you glad to have stayed home. Into the Heart of Borneo by Redmond O'Hanlon falls squarely into the second category. A literary reviewer for the London Times, O'Hanlon discovers a world of exotic diseases, voracious parasites and a diet of worm goulash as he plunges into jungles and rivers in search of the mythical albino Borneo rhino. He and his reluctant companion, the poet James Fenton, never find the beast, of course, but O'Hanlon brings a naturalist's eye and a humorist's touch to his account of their trying journey.

Paul Theroux's writings crisscross the globe and, while they often read like a misanthropic alien's adventures among the human race, they are deftly rendered. The Great Railway Bazaar and Riding the Iron Rooster are two favorites. China has certainly changed immensely since the mid-1980s, when Iron Rooster was penned, but Theroux lends great insight into what its people were thinking in the aftermath of Mao's death and the Cultural Revolution. Theroux obsesses over the latter, constantly relating the China he sees with the brutal events of the late 1960s, usually via the horrific memories of the people he meets along the way. In between character sketches and criticism are rich descriptions of the places he visits.

Where can a woman be chatted up in a bar with banter about the state of the currency peg? In Hong Kong, as described in Pico Iyer's Video Night in Katmandu. This collection of snapshot essays from around Asia is a compelling take on the nature of global culture and its effect on emerging Asia. Both biting and sympathetic, Iyer's observations, now a decade old, still ring true. Heeding a Hong Kong fortune-teller's warning not to fly in 1993, Tiziano Terzani, Asia correspondent for German magazine Der Spiegel, spent the year traveling only by land or by sea. A Fortune-Teller Told Me is the product of his (slow) journeys through Southeast Asia. Part travelogue and part mystic quest, the book offers a unique perspective on the ever-changing region. As much as the skyscrapers of Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur suggest that ties to to the past have been broken, Terzani reminds us that not all connections are as visible as architecture. He checks in with the "most famous" local fortune-tellers wherever he stops, and his face-to-face encounters with witches, mystics, palm-readers and their ilk provide glimpses of a world most travelers never see.

Not all good travel writing is non-fiction: think of Homer's Odyssey, one of the first travelogues. Fiction can be as evocative of place as fact. W. Somerset Maugham left his mark on Singapore and the Raffles Hotel with his short stories. Graham Greene's The Quiet American puts readers firmly into the political intrigue of wartime Vietnam, while Christopher Koch's The Year of Living Dangerously is a gripping tale of Sukarno-era Indonesia. If those sound a bit heavy, you can always go behind the walls of Singapore's Changi Prison with James Clavell's King Rat. That's one place you want to visit only in a book.

With reporting by Aryn Baker, Sheela Sarvananda, Jennifer Toy and Eric Tucker

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