Monday, July 29, 2013

Review of Insight Guides: Laos & Cambodia

As you may know by now, I am planning a trip to Cambodia this October, and I am really excited about it. Really, really excited - so excited that I've been getting advice from all over Twitter about what I should do while I'm there (I'm always open to more ideas, by the way!).

And I was lucky enough to not only receive great advice, but I was also sent ma an Insight Guide to Laos & Cambodia.* I am usually a Rough Guides kind of gal, or Lonely Planet if I can't find the right RG. So Insight was pretty new to me, and I was actually psyched to have the opportunity to try out a company I hadn't used before, without plunking down $25.

I'm old-school about travel guides - I love having a hard-copy book, to write on and make notes in, to bookmark and flip through and read in a focused way. It's easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of digital travel information, and also to lose track of what advice came from which sources. And I don't love reading on digital interfaces - I don't own an iPad, I don't like whipping out a smartphone if I don't understand how to report crime, and I generally feel like a prat if I'm somewhere less developed and I'm fiddling with digital devices that cost hundreds of dollars. And I like being able to tear out city maps and carry them in my pocket, so I can discreetly check an address rather than pulling out the whole book whenever I'm lost.

Every publishing company has their niche. I remember getting a Frommer's book when I backpacked through Europe, and being BORED because the only attractions it seemed to list were museums and fine restaurants. No matter how many kickass talks the Frommer family gives, that brand will always be stuffy in my mind. Not to mention that this was a time when mobile devices were still pretty rare, and so I was really relying on my book for accommodations advice - no dice. Expensive hotels only. Meanwhile, the NatGeo guides are always so full of history and culture that they tend to neglect the day-to-day advice that I need (especially when I'm digitally disconnected). And while I love my LP and RG books, they are so popular among budget travelers that the advice they dispense tends to pull hordes of them to attractions. Hordes.

So, the positives: my Insight Guide is gorgeous. Printed on glossy stock, with a durable cover that softens and lies flat properly, it is chock full of color photographs (for not much more than those $22 RGs, by the by). This book lends itself to daydreaming, with the occasional double spread of a landscape photo. The photographs and colorful maps on the end-papers make following along as you plan an itinerary more captivating, and I find I am thinking my plans out more carefully when I can dive deep into a guide like that.

The layout also makes it easier to follow along when you're reading about history. It's important to be an educated traveler - and if I'm going to Cambodia, I want to know about the arts, the language, the interaction of the Khmer with the Thai and Vietnamese, and the different religions. I sure as hell better have a working knowledge of the Khmer Rouge, and some idea what conversational topics might be taboo. So I appreciated the in-depth history and culture sections offered by Insight, especially designed as they are with colorful sidebars and graphics to help the information absorb.

However, there are a few downsides to Insight. For one, this book is HEAVY. That gorgeous stock they're printed on makes for a ton of extra weight. So unless you're wheeling your suitcases around, I can totally see wanting to leave the tome at home. Also, there is a very cautious overtone to its descriptions of cities - every traveler evaluates risk differently, and so it's always worth checking out a few different sources before traveling somewhere new to get a handle on exactly how much danger everyone seems able to agree upon.

This is something I won't be able to report back on until I've actually visited for myself, but when I compare my Insight Guide to my RG, I'm finding really different interpretations. The Insight Guide is telling me to avoid all sorts of areas and time of day in Sihanoukville (a coastal town popular with travelers), while my RG is saying it's a fun and lively place to hang out. Audience matters, yes (backpackers versus business professionals, for example), but I wonder if it isn't time the various publishing companies came together to come up with some sort of metric for objectively evaluating the risks of certain locations - crime rates against local police corruption, etc.

I did appreciate the variety of attractions featured by Insight, it was definitely more than museums and eateries, but it could have offered a few more off-the-beaten-track ideas, and more seasonal information (instead of just a bland weather chart).

All righty, there is my indie review of my new Insight Guide (thank you, Insight!). 

What is your favorite guidebook brand? Do you even use them anymore, or are you all-digital, all-the-time?

*This is where I put in my requisite disclaimer: I am NOT sponsored to write this review. The book was gifted to me, but there were no conditions and I am freely writing this review.

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