Saturday, May 19, 2012

Lonely Planet's "Bhutan": Book Review

Compared to Francoise Pommaret's Odyssey guide, Lonely Planet under the team of Bradley Mayhew, Lindsay Brown, and Anirban Mahapatra for its fourth ed. (2011) looks far more user-friendly. Charts in blue and white leap out, icons direct, sidebars beckon, and the data are chosen for practicality. For instance, Pommaret generally tells what medication to bring; LP tells you specifics in far more detail for what with one limited hospital in a challenging terrain and high altitude can be a daunting journey.

Contrasting, while far fewer color photos entice (a few in the front compared to many in Pommaret), the small size (a half-inch off her guide's size) and compression of information for the day-to-day trekker more than the armchair traveller I confess to being (and at the rise to U.S. $250 per diem from $200 will likely remain indefinitely) do not offer as much a visual feel for the place. Lacking photos and excerpts from past explorers of this Himalayan kingdom, the traveler will not gain from the pages as much of a cultural introduction as the Odyssey travel guide provides in more leisurely narrative fashion. Yet about 40% of this LP guide is given over to non-itinerary information, so it can balance the necessary facts with nature, religion, history, do's and don'ts, and a short glossary of terms, as you'd expect in such a guidebook from a familiar and reliable publishing firm.

I'd opt for both books to take on my imaginary visit, Pommaret to read up on in my lodgings before seeing the sights and LP to take along on the excursions as it's packed with prices, phone numbers, hours places are open (not often perhaps off the main road), and the type of rapidly retrievable data needed on the go. It sounds as if the "low volume, high value" motto leads one to expect that this cultural heartland and wildlife reserve (35% of the land is protected) is less unpopulated than its small native populace may make it seem, oddly, given the limits that its few highways and places to stay in such dramatic settings have to as it were channel visitors into a east-central-west pattern of movement, unless treks take the hardier off the highways, themselves sounding harrowing despite their lovely vistas. This is a less polished and rougher realm to navigate, part of its charm, after all.

These treks, 25 of which are government approved, are emphasized along with mountain bike trails. A chapter details some treks, and the tilt of some of the contents shows an expectation that many visitors will welcome the chance to get outdoors. Of course, festivals held at the many temples, filled with art and color, will invite many visitors to another form of elevation, and these are described too.

There's useful summaries of where to stay and eat, naturally. As Bhutan requires a guide (why that per diem tariff is fixed), there's perhaps more give-and-take with a personal guide than on a tour, but both options are presented along with many itineraries fixed into how long one will stay. I finished this still curious about how the guides work with one to plan, or if plans are best made in advance, given what I imagine can be unpredictable challenges with weather, arranging transport, and finding suitable accommodation. "Booking Your Trek" is generally written, when it might have been more focused. It seems that group tours are common and nudge aside individual travelers, reading a bit between the lines, so this guidebook may be more essential than one may imagine if elsewhere. Despite an inevitable generality in this essential, mandatory planning section, certainly nobody visiting this realm could leave without this guide in their backpack. (Amazon US 5-11-12)

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