Interview - Lonely Planet - Tony Wheeler

Travelling Man
Interview with Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler
Pictures courtesy of Lonely Planet Publications

When Tony and Maureen Wheeler left London in 1972, all they wanted to do was see a bit of the world and make it to Sydney in time for Christmas. After six months of roughing it on the open road, they rolled across the famous Harbour Bridge with less than a dollar to their name but a wealth of experience. They wrote up the information they had gathered and Across Asia on the Cheap was born. More than 30 years later, Lonely Planet Publications boasts more than 500 titles and the man the New York Times once dubbed the “patron saint of backpackers’’ is a very wealthy man.
We caught up with Tony in Bangkok, where he had come to speak at a travel industry conference about the growing threat of climate change. An engaging, slightly built man, Tony talked candidly about how he feels Thailand has coped with mass tourism, Lonely Planet’s sometimes contentious image and selling the company to the BBC.

So, here we are sitting in the Author’s Lounge at the Bangkok Oriental, one of the finest hotels in the world. It’s a long way from the flophouses you used in the early Seventies. Is it first class all the way now?
[laughing] Mostly, but not all. I’ve actually stayed in two backpacker places in the last month, in Colombia. There was a particular town I wanted to go to that was famous for scuba diving, and it was a backpacker place. You know, if you want to go this town, you’re going to be staying in a backpacker place. But I started and finished my trip in Bogotá, where I stayed at a very nice 4-star hotel.

You’re here in Bangkok to talk at a conference on climate change. Do you think that the travel industry is doing its fair share to address the problems?
Global warming and climate change are a reality. There are some people who deny it, but I’m certainly not one of them.
The travel industry as a whole is getting a lot of criticism at the moment, and rightly so. The industry has to help improve things, but so far it has been very bad about dealing with its environmental impact. It has said, “Yes, we’re worried, we’re concerned,” but then they’ve put their heads down and done nothing about it.
It’s been particularly bad in this region; trying to get an Asian airline interested has been almost impossible. It’s been like “Oh no, it’s not us.” At least Cathay, and maybe one or two other airlines, have been interested.
I think airlines and other sectors have to show they’re doing something positive. I mean, there’s no question that airlines have improved incredibly. Planes are certainly much more fuel efficient than they were 20, 30 years ago. But the industry needs to show what’s already been done and what they plan to do in the future.

Towards the end of last year, after more than 30 years of running your own company, BBC Worldwide acquired a majority share of Lonely Planet. Why the change?
My wife, Maureen, and I were ready. We’ve been backseat drivers for several years now, and we felt we were no longer doing as good a job as we wanted. So the time was right to bite the bullet and make a change. And just at that moment, BBC Worldwide popped up.
In many ways my role hasn’t changed that much. My wife and I are still shareholders in the company, so we’re still bonded with Lonely Planet. I go to meetings and I do a fair amount of travelling and talking about the company and I’m still very much the face of the company, but we’ve given up the day-to-day role.
I’ve always enjoyed road-testing the guides, you know, seeing if they work and seeing if they do what they should do. I also write a lot myself – articles and blogs mostly – but I’m not doing the big guides any more. I’ve had enough of that.
We’re happy to have more professional people doing it, and we’re only going to stay as long as they want us around. Likewise, if the BBC does anything we’re not happy with, which they have every right to because they own it, I’d be out the door. But so far, it’s been very good. We’ve been very happy.

Is Lonely Planet going to continue to publish books on Burma?
Yes, that would be a deal-breaker. If the BBC succumbed to pressure and decided to drop the Burma guide… it wouldn’t be the Lonely Planet that I started, and I wouldn’t want to be involved with it.
While I respect [Burmese opposition leader] Aung San Suu Kyi as much as you possibly could, I don’t think anyone’s going to go to Burma for the beaches; I think anyone who goes there is going to be very aware of the situation there. Overall I think there are positive reasons that outweigh the negatives.
We did the Burma guide for 20 years before anyone complained. I think it was around the late ‘90s before we became a target of protests, portrayed as an evil company along with TOTAL oil and so on. So I went back, purely because of the complaints. I was thinking, you know “Have I misread this? Have I missed something?” But no, there was nothing to make me think I had misread the situation.

Some people say Lonely Planet is partly responsible for destinations losing their magic and creating a “banana pancake trail” — the so-called Lonely-Planetisation of the world.
Oh, there’s no question we are responsible. It’s true. But on the other hand, we didn’t expand Thai Airways’ fleet from ten aircraft to 100, you know. We didn’t build 50 new hotels in Bangkok. I don’t think you’d find many Thais saying, “Oh, let’s go back to the days when I didn’t have a motorbike, and if I had a job I was lucky.”

How do you think Thailand has handled the tourism explosion?
I think in many ways Thailand has managed tourism very well. But on the other hand, the industry here is now a lot bigger and a lot more competitive. I doubt that if you had a little hostel on Khao San Road, back when there were only three or four places to stay, you would like to think that in five years time there would be so much competition.
But, overall, I think it’s a country that’s done amazingly well out of tourism. In ’72, it was an incredibly exotic destination. I only really knew about the musical The King and I and Siamese cats before coming here. If you wanted to eat Thai food in 1972, you had to come to Thailand.
There weren’t many Thai restaurants outside Thailand. I was in San Francisco in ’85 when the first Thai restaurant opened and we all went.
Now it’s a justifiably loved destination. It has its problems like anywhere else but I think it does most things well and some things exceptionally well.

Citylife, July 2008

Feature - Burma - Karen

The Longest Fight
After 57 years of fighting for independence from the Burmese, the Karen National Union is beset by internal divisions, a lack of resources and an aging leadership

When Gen Bo Mya arrived at a ceremony marking 57 years of the Karen people’s fight against Burmese rule, a crowd soon formed. Having joined the revolution as a humble corporal at its birth in 1949 and risen through the ranks right to the very top, Bo Mya—now 79 and in failing health— is very much the face of the Karen movement.

Lauded by some as the father of the Karen movement, dismissed by others as a bloodthirsty butcher, Bo Mya’s impact on what is generally recognized as the world’s longest active civil war is beyond question.

With his son, Col Ner Dah Mya, holding a microphone to his lips, Bo Mya addressed the hundreds who had traveled to the remote jungle camp of Pu Bo Mya Plaw (also known as Mu Aye Pu) near the Thai border. His voice wavered and he lost his train of thought on several occasions, but the message was the same as ever: “We must never surrender our homeland.”

The struggle for autonomy is getting harder, though. While the troops who marched across the parade ground wore immaculate battledress uniforms, their weapons were old and their numbers few. It appeared not so much a display of military might as a show of defiance.

“We don’t need men, we need equipment,” says Ner Dah Mya, speaking after the ceremony. “If we had 50,000 weapons, tomorrow we would have 50,000 soldiers.”

Despite his almost robotic insistence that politics and military—the Karen National Union and its military wing, the Karen National Liberation Army—have to work together to achieve Karen dreams of independence, when Ner Dah Mya lets his guard down, he is very much his father’s son: a military man.

“If we had bullets and weapons we could get rid of this regime,” he says. “We can never solve this problem at the [negotiating] table, everybody knows that. They [Burma’s military government] only listen to you when you have guns. If you are only strong in politics and nobody is fighting in the front line, then it is like a bird singing in a tree—nothing happens.”

KNU general-secretary Mahn Sha, the diplomatic face of the KNU, recognizes the need for a strong military but has a more conciliatory, long-term approach. “We need to try for political dialogue,” he says. “To get [that] we need pressure—both internal and international—and we need unity and strength. With no unity, there is no strength.”

The division between the movement’s political and military wings often blurs. In January 2004, Bo Mya, then commanding officer of the KNLA and vice-chairman of the KNU, led a 21-man delegation to Rangoon for talks with the Burmese junta. He returned with a ceasefire of sorts, a “gentlemen’s agreement,” whereby government troops would desist from military operations in Karen-controlled territory. The reality is that government troops are still active in Karen territory and while both sides avoid conflict in certain areas, skirmishes are common elsewhere.

More recently, in December 2005, a group of KNLA representatives from Brigade 7 and former KNU executive committee member Mahn Nyein Maung went to Bangkok to hold ceasefire talks with the Burmese government’s military attach? to Thailand, Col Tin Soe. The central KNU committee had not sanctioned the meeting, and rumors were rife that Brigade 7 was going to break away and seal an independent truce with the junta.

No such agreement was made, and Brigade 7 returned to the fold. But while prominent KNLA officers dismiss the meeting as a mere charade, or “delaying tactics, to avoid fighting,” for others, the Bangkok visit reopened some painful wounds.

The meeting was orchestrated by Pastor Timothy, a humanitarian worker who is reviled by many in the KNU’s top echelon for his criticism of their leadership and his continued work with the breakaway Karen group the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. The DKBA broke away from the KNU in 1995 following a dispute over bias towards Christians, and was promptly assimilated by government forces.

The DKBA’s inside knowledge allowed the Tatmadaw (armed forces) to breach the KNU base camp at Manerplaw, thus forcing the Karen to retreat into the jungle. The withdrawal from Manerplaw radically altered the way the KNU could operate, and it turned to guerilla tactics as opposed to the positional warfare previously employed.

“The big fights do not happen any more,” says Ner Dah Mya. “Now we only fight for five minutes then withdraw.”

On his return from Rangoon in 2004, Bo Mya was rushed to Bangkok and hospitalized with a foot injury, which was exacerbated by his chronic diabetes. Now unable to walk, and requiring constant medical attention, the general’s position is tenuous, with many leaders wanting him to step back from official duties and take a sinecure. The old campaigner, however, has refused to retire and is clinging to his position as defense minister. Such is the regard in which Bo Mya is held, his reluctance to be pushed upstairs is politely tolerated by his peers.

Indeed, time is catching up with most of the Karen leadership. Bo Mya’s successor as KNLA commanding officer, Gen Mu Tu, is understood to have stayed away from the Revolution Day ceremony because he could not bear the indignity of seeing Bo Mya being pushed around in a wheelchair. KNU president Ba Thin Sein, 79, was too ill to attend the ceremony, sending only a speech to be read on his behalf. Vice President Tamla Baw is already 85. Only Mahn Sha, now 62, could reasonably be expected to have a significant role to play in the KNU’s future.

With a distinct lack of new blood, both the political and military wings of this resilient movement know tough times tie ahead.

Irrawaddy, March 2006

Feature - Education - Distance Learning

Going the distance

There was no elaborate ceremony or gleeful tossing of mortarboards at Heather Abel's graduation ceremony. Instead, a helpful secretary at her Australian university simply handed over a blue plastic envelope containing her Master's of Education certificate, and offered a polite smile.

Then again, not much was traditional about Heather's degree. For a start, she earned it while working full time as a teacher in Bangkok. Unable to make any of the official graduation ceremonies in Hong Kong, Singapore or mainland China, Heather picked up her papers on a flying visit home to see family and friends.

"I wasn't sure about where I wanted to work in the future," says Heather, who is now settled in London with her husband. "But I knew that the extra qualification would help, no matter where my career took me."

It wasn't an easy ride. Heather found it tough to return to the world of essays and deadlines after years in the workplace, and found herself spending all her time either studying or working: "I was ever so grateful for the number of public holidays Thailand has!"

There were also certain factors beyond her control. Despite the obvious benefits of the Internet in modern distance learning, books and manuals are still fundamental to most courses. When a study package failed to turn up at the start of one course unit, Heather got worried. By the time the package turned up, Heather had too much catching up to do and decided to defer the semester by six months.

Juggling act

Distance learning is an increasingly popular option for people living and working away from their home countries. With an ever-expanding range of courses available and the awesome communications network afforded by the Internet, there is really no reason why a move overseas should spell the end of your education.

It is important, however, to understand exactly what is involved, especially with regard to time management, which is a key consideration when committing to a course. Juggling work, family and social commitments with essay deadlines and a reading list the length of a Rotiboy lunch queue is not for everyone.

"You have to be really serious and committed," says Michael Morrissey, a 32-year-old full time English teacher in Bangkok. "The work isn't going to do itself."

Mindful of changing regulations for foreign teachers and feeling that he still had room to develop professionally, Michael took the plunge and enrolled on a teaching diploma course run by distance learning providers Eurolink and accredited by the College of Teachers, London.
"Get organised, make a study plan and stick to it," he says.

It sounds simple; but Michael admits it was not always easy. Working long days, he saved most of his coursework for weekends and holidays, and found that he rarely had a day off.
"When my parents were here on holiday two years ago, I took them to Kanchanaburi," he says. "They went off and did stuff by themselves, with me spending four to six hours a day sitting outside the bungalow working on my assignments."
He ploughed on, though, and a year later received his diploma.
Global network

A freelance political journalist based in the north of Thailand, Toby Hudson agrees that balancing work and study time is one of the biggest challenges of distance learning. Nevertheless, she recognises that studying this way affords opportunities she might not otherwise have.

"Being able to live overseas while I'm doing [the course] means being able to get an on-the-ground feel for what I am studying," says Toby, who is working towards an MA in International Relations, provided by Deakin University in Australia.

"The other great thing about my course is that it brings together students who are living and working in a variety of places." There are students on her course, for example, based in such political hotspots such as Cambodia, Lebanon, India, East Timor and Iran.

"If I need to write a paper on the situation in Israel," she says, "there are three students on my course working there who I can bug with questions."

Lectures for each unit of Toby's course are audio-streamed through dedicated portals on the university's Internet site. Students keep in contact with each other via the portals' online discussion forums and frequently arrange real time conferences using an email messenger service. Although Toby says she largely manages to fit her studies around her work obligations, sometimes her job has to take priority.

"When it comes down to it, I can't study if I don't have any cash," she says, speaking the night before heading off to hunt stories for a month in Internet-barren Burma.
Down to business

Business degrees are now among the most popular distance learning programmes. Manchester Business School (MBS) Worldwide is one of several organisations to have launched MBA programmes in Thailand in recent years. As director of MBS Worldwide's Southeast Asia centre, Singapore-based Gabriel Lee oversees distance learning MBAs in the region.

"I cannot emphasise [enough] that students need to be prepared to run the race," he says. "Completing an MBA is a marathon and not a 100 metre dash." Gabriel says that almost all of MBS Worldwide's distance learning students - more than 2000 globally - have regular jobs in the business sector. They are typically between 30 and 35 years old and about 70 percent are married and more than half of those have children.

Because of students' outside commitments, institutes are typically very flexible when it comes to pacing. For example, MBS Worldwide and U21 Global - a distance learning network including universities such as Edinburgh, Virginia and Melbourne - allow up to five years to complete their MBA programmes.

Dr Helen Lange, MBA programme director at U21 Global, says that flexibility is crucial to their students, most of whom tend to be senior executives and professionals who simply don't have time to attend lectures.

"Online learning is most suitable for the mature, adult learner, who is increasingly unable to engage in full-time or even part-time study at a traditional academic institution," she says.
Given the average student's busy schedule and overseas residency, access to materials is vital. Study packs including required guides, texts and case studies are usually dispatched ahead of course start dates, but sourcing extra materials can prove tricky - especially if students are based far from big cities and their attendant specialist bookshops.

To this end, online libraries have become essential. MBS Worldwide, for example, provides access to the University of Manchester online library, which carries a staggering range of journals, databases, company profiles and other publications.

"Students can access Harvard Business Review journal from the first issue in 1922 to the latest on the newsstand," says Gabriel.
Democratic learning

Whereas most programmes require students to attend residential workshops or occasional seminars at regional centres such as Singapore or Hong Kong, U21 Global's four postgraduate degrees are fully online. Even the final exam - which Helen describes as "open-book, open-web" - can be done from your living room.

Helen also describes studying online as "the most democratic form of learning." She points out that the online classroom negates such traditional classroom obstacles as shyness, or domination by louder students. All students have an equal opportunity to participate in class.

"This is beneficial for the student and for the class as a whole," she says. "In traditional education, the brightest students don't always speak out, but in the online class, all do, and so the class gets the benefit of the better students' comments and views. It also develops the individual student much more, as they feel freer to exchange and discuss ideas."

Round two

"It wasn't easy," says Michael, reflecting on his year of coffee dependency and looming deadlines. "But in a slightly masochistic way, I enjoyed it."

It couldn't have been that bad: With a teaching diploma already under his belt, Michael is now working on his second distance learning course, an MA that will allow him the title Fellow of the College of Teachers.

"When I got an A for my first short research paper, it was a great feeling," he says. "I'm waiting for a grade on the second paper now, checking my email every day. Still no news."
Bangkok Post, September 2006

Humour - Movie extra - Elephant King

So, finally The Elephant King ( is released in Thailand. I went to work as an extra on this movie when they were shooting in Chiang Mai nearly 4 years ago and wrote a silly piece about my experience. I didn't know what the movie was about or what the heck was going on. I think that much is obvious.
The film's pretty good, by the way. And you get to see the back of my head for a few seconds. Oscar!
The Final Act

Wanted! Overweight farang past his best to sit around in a bar all night doing nothing much. We are making a movie here in Chiang Mai and need ecktra. Fame and fortune guaranteed. Free beer and food, reasonable pay. Send photo.

At least, that's how I read the advert.
"You don't look much like your photo."
He was sharp this casting director. Not sharp enough to recognise the picture of David Hasselhoff I had swiped from Google and sent in, but sharp nonetheless. It was his own fault, that he offered me the work I mean. Didn't he realise that no one except The Hoff wears that kind of underwear any more?

"Here's your wow-cher," he said.

"I'm sorry?"

"Your wow-cher. Show it for food and drinks every time."

I took the wow-cher and studied it more closely. Milk Arkin, West Man 1. Cool, a screen name and my first character name. West Man 1 might not quite be up there with Charles Foster Kane or Travis Bickle in terms of celluloid gravitas, but it's worth remembering that all great actors started somewhere.
Mister Al Pacino's first role, for example, involved singing the radio jingle for meat flavoured gum-drops ("Pork Candy, Pork Candy, oh boy, so chewy!") while Nicole Kidman got her big break by dressing up in a rabbit costume and holding a placard outside a carpet warehouse in Nabbler's Twitch, New South Wales.

I looked around the bar beer centre they were using for the night's filming to let my first impressions of the world of cinema sink in. On the far side of the boxing ring, a group of men in dire need of the Goatee Support Group were standing about, stroking their chins and staring at a Pantip-Plaza-load of electronic equipment that quite possibly went beep, while the other big group of people loitering around was the crew. I knew they were the crew because they were all wearing baseball caps on back-to-front and those funny trousers that have so many pockets, you wonder how the bag industry will survive. They were also wearing T-shirts that read 'crew'.

"Please wait with the ecktra," the casting director said.

"I'm sorry?"

"The ecktra. Please wait with them."

I looked around but couldn't make out any ecktra among the beards and pockets. Could it be that I was the only ecktra? Surely not! Chiang Mai is absolutely packed to the moat with ecktra. Walk into any bar or cafe and you're almost guaranteed to get cornered by some Welsh hairdresser or other who's practically wetting himself in desperation to tell you how he has just spent 12 hours eating sticks of cold pork fat while dressed in a loincloth for a film called Zombie Kid 4. There had to be more here.

Then I spotted them. Dotted around the room, all at separate tables looking as protective of their territory as a double-seat-hogging Brit on a train. Not exactly laying out the welcome mat, but these were my people. We were the ecktra.

Fitting in is a peculiar thing. In schools up and down England, you aren't really accepted until you've smoked a cigarette behind the garages, flatulated volcanically during morning assembly and paid a girl called Claire Knowles three pounds to look at her knickers.
In America, it's different. You're not truly one of the gang Stateside until you've learned how to take three minutes to order a coffee and have had at least one girlfriend with a unisex name like Bobbi, Toni or Alan.

In Asia, and Chiang Mai especially, there is a similar social phenomenon. In order to make the cut out here, every foreigner must have appeared on screen at least once. It doesn't matter what you actually appeared in, just as long as part of your body has been visible on screen for at least half a second. And this... this was to be my 'in'.

"Position one, places please," called the director beard.

"PLACES!" screamed the assistant beard, whose job seemed to be to say what the director beard had just said. But a whole lot louder.

My first scene involved sitting at a table with a gorgeous young lady, miming a conversation as a beautiful person walked by. We were duly served nice cold bottles of Singha and asked not to look at the camera.

"And, action," said the director beard. ("ACTION!" bellowed the assistant beard.)

The beautiful person flounced by, Gik and I mimed a conversation and the director beard said something. (And, of course, the assistant beard repeated it, very, very loudly: "CUUUUUT!")

When we had re-shot the scene fourteen times and the director beard announced that he liked the first take the best, I realised that it was going to be a long night.

The hours ticked by. We broke for dinner - "You have wow-cher?" - we watched the beards re-shoot scenes and the pockets electrocute themselves and giggle. We watched beautiful people walk past us from the left, and beautiful people walk past us from the right.

Then, after a good ten hours of being walked past, the final scene for the night was announced. It was to be a boxing scene, in which the movie's farang hero had to get his head kicked in by a mountain of a Thai guy while the ecktra whooped and hollered in the background. The panache I had shown earlier obviously impressed the director beard.
"Ok, can the little fat guy come over here," he said. "We need an ecktra for close up." ("FAT GUY HERE!")

"Okay," said the director beard. "We want you to shout at the white guy. Tell him he sucks. Curse him out. Let him know you're happy he's losing." ("SHOUT! SUCK! CURSE! HAPPY!)

The photographer beard got down behind me, and aimed what is known in the trade as a ca-me-raa over my shoulder and at the boxing ring. The poor farang got belted from one end to the other, and then, when he got knocked over in front of me, I readied myself. I felt a little tap on my shoulder, my cue, and I was off.

"You f*&y#ing t@$t" I yelled. "Stay the f*%$ down, or I'll get in there and rip your f$%^ing head off myself, you worthless…"

"Cut" (CUT!)

The beards were all looking at me funny, the ecktra all had their hands over their eyes and the pockets had even stopped blowing themselves up. After a period of stunned silence, during which several tumbleweeds rolled past and some trees even shed their leaves, the director beard announced that it was a wrap ("WRAP!") and that we could all go home.

Collecting my money from the casting director, I asked if everything had gone alright and whether they wanted me to come back the next night. He put down his pen, handed me my money and said, in a bewildered kind of way, "give me your wow-cher."

I don't know if West Man 1 will make it into the final cut, or whether I'll ever work as an ecktra again - never mind see another wow-cher - but at least I'll be able to hold my head up next time I see that bloody Welsh hairdresser!
Citylife, March 2005