The Lovely Planet of
14 January 2017
Musician, writer, great traveler and former major contributor to the famous Lonely Planet guide, Joe Cummings knows Thailand like the back of his hand – or nearly so! Latitudes met up with the author between two of his adventures, following the release of The Hunt Bangkok guide.
Born in New Orleans and raised in California, France and Washington, Joe Cummings arrived in Thailand in 1977, initially to study Buddhism. In 1981, he started writing for Lonely Planet in the first “modern” edition on Thailand, since the previous guide in English dated all the way back to 1928! Since then, Joe has written over 35 books, the latest of which is The Hunt Bangkok, a paperback presenting 80 of the best spots in the Thai capital. In the meantime, waiting for the release of his next collection of recipes from the Baan Pad Thai restaurant, we met up with the one who after 40 years as a travel writer, still refuses to get a wheeled luggage. “It seems so bourgeois,” jokes the perpetual nomad.
Why did you decide to come to Thailand?
When I finished my graduate degree in the USA, I started to play professionally in a music band. After a few years, I got fed up with the music scene, I felt really like I was doing an error, I couldn’t see the world because I was just playing all night, sleeping all day… I had a good time but I wasn’t learning anything, so I started to read books about Buddhism and then I just felt I had to check it out, so I came to Thailand for the first time in 1977. I studied for a year in different temples and I started to like Thailand, less about Buddhism and more about the country. I came back to the USA, did another master degree and came back to Thailand to continue to study Buddhism and at the same time I started to write the first edition of Lonely Planet Thailand in 1981. And then I stuck here because I had to do the Lonely Planet for 25 years!
Was it the only reason?
No, I wanted to stay. I was doing a few guide books for some other countries like Laos, Burma, Indonesia and the Philippines, but I’ve always seen Thailand as my base, in Chiang Mai. I didn’t move to Bangkok until 2008.
What has changed in travel books since 1981?
Before, Lonely Planet was a really small company, more like a family, I could write about what I want. But it started to get bigger and bigger, until they reached 300 employees and then it really changed when the editors in Australia, who had never been to Thailand, started to tell me what to write about the Kingdom. It’s why I decided to quit. I left at the right moment, when guide books were still important. Now, people use the Internet and apps, books are really old fashion. Who buys guide books? I guess some people do, I see people with these books…
What about the Bangkok edition of The Hunt?
It was fun to do it, I was completely free. I had to pick 80 venues about everything except accommodations. It was like I was doing my personal guide. Actually, I just can give this book if I have friends coming to visit Bangkok and I will tell them, “use this”. It’s all of my favorite places in one book. But I doubt that many people gonna
buy this guide, I hope they do.
Do you personally think that printed guide books are still useful?
For most things, it’s better to have an app or a good website that keeps updating, also people could use it all the time and download just a few chapters. I still download some chapter of Lonely Planet, I did when I’ve been to Morocco. The problem with Internet is that everything is so crowded, like Tripadvisor, you really have to trust some other people’s opinions and maybe they just wrote shit about places, so it’s not reliable. To prepare my trips, I can spend hours and hours doing research, so guide books save time. For me, the best website about Southeast Asia is Travelfish.com, they are beating Lonely Planet. It’s more personal, more reliable because they are just a few people, they always have been to visit the destination, they are expert. When you travel, you should trust people because they visited the regions. Some guide books don’t work with experts so you can’t trust their opinion.
Do you keep some places secret?
Sometimes. I always figure out if the people could find the place anyway and what could be the impact of tourism. If I feel a lot of tourists could fuck up the place, then I don’t write, I did that a few times. I also think about the people, the village, would they like to have more tourism? Do they need the income? I thought about keeping Pai secret.
The first time I’ve been there it was amazing, now it’s pretty overruns, so I was almost about not writing about Pai, but people were very poor so I thought it could be good for them. And for some place, I wrote a lot, like Phimai, it’s amazing there and still not so many people are going there because it’s a cultural place and travel guide books don’t have any effects, people are not so interested in culture, they want to go to the beach, to go to party in Bangkok, Phuket or Pattaya…
How many books have you written?
35 something, like that, I never really counted. There are two books I’m really proud of: Buddhist Stupas in Asia: The Shape of Perfection and Sacred Tattoos of Thailand. For these books, I did real research, collected the information, see how theoretically the system work… About tattoos, there was almost nothing written in English, I couldn’t find the information I wanted to have. Thai people can’t understand these tattoos either, it’s just a lot of magical, there was no anthropology study so I had to do everything.
How many Sak Yant (sacred tattoo) do you have?
Just 3, two smalls and one bigger between my shoulders. I try not to do anymore but it’s so tempting. The first one, I did it when I finished the book, I wanted to have like a closure and also because many of my Thai friends said, “are you not worried that you contract the black magic?” When I talk about that to Ajarn Gop, he said, “I don’t really worry about that, but I saw you at the beginning and you didn’t really understand the system, sometimes I think you might offend a few masters, you should get a tattoo for forgiveness.”
Your next project?
I’ve just finished the cookbook for Baan Pad Thai and I’m working on another one about food culture in 15 countries. I’ve been already to Portugal, Morocco, Mozambique, China, Vietnam… still a few countries to do and then in January I will have to write, I will not leave my house for a few months!