Lonely Planet's Travel Atlas Series

by Steven K. Bailey, Jul 1, 1998 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi

Travelers love maps, and I am no exception. For obvious reasons, travelers also need maps and tend to acquire large collections of them. Again, I am no exception; I have an ever-growing cartographic library diagramming everything from the street grid of Lodz, Poland to the route of the trans-Saharan highway. I've become a sort of cartographic connoisseur, interested only in those high-quality maps that combine pleasing aesthetics with accurate detail. I'm happy to report that the maps found in the Lonely Planet travel atlas series provide both of these things.

Lonely Planet produces travel atlases for regions all over the world, but the three most useful to me are those for Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. This trio functions as an interlocking set, with each atlas laid out in an identical format and for a very affordable price. Obviously, the color maps remain the heart of the atlases. These maps are easy to read and quite detailed. An index and corresponding grid coordinates make it simple to look up specific locations. Brown shading indicates topography; color-coding distinguishes different types of roads. The maps also mark the locations of railways, airports, national parks, ruins, temples, beaches, caves and waterfalls.

The maps and index comprise the bulk of each atlas but there are also plentiful color photos and some cursory travel information in English, French, German, Spanish and Japanese. Each travel atlas is specifically designed to dovetail with the corresponding Lonely Planet guide and phrasebook that contain all the travel information you could ever want to know for a given country.

Lonely Planet produces the most popular series of guidebooks for Southeast Asia. Their yellow-covered Southeast Asia on a Shoestring has become a classic and remains an essential part of any backpacker's travel gear. The atlases are designed to provide the large-scale detailed color maps that the individual LP guides lack. Likewise, the atlases do not contain city maps because those are found in the guidebooks. The country guides, phrasebooks and atlases are designed to work together as a package. Lonely Planet suggests, for example, that you take their Thailand guidebook, Thai-language phrasebook, and atlas when you visit Siam, because they are three parts of a whole.

One useful feature is that both the guides and atlases use the same place names. I find this to be a particularly good idea, given that there is no standard way to render Lao and Thai place names into the Roman alphabet. The Laotian city of Luang Prabang, for example, is also known as Louangphrabang and Luang Phabang. (Lonely Planet prefers the first version).

Before printing each atlas, the authors hit the roads to double-check their maps for accuracy. Highly reliable and detailed cartography resulted from this effort. I noticed only occasional errors and omissions-for example, the Lao border town of Huay Xai is inexplicably absent from the Thailand atlas. To further increase the reliability of the atlas series, the authors ask that readers notify Lonely Planet of any inaccuracies they discover in the course of their travels so that these errors can be corrected in future editions.

One thing I appreciate about these atlases is that their book format prevents all the classic hassles of dealing with a foldout map. If you've ever tried to unfold a map on a crowded bus while a 60-mile-per-hour slipstream blasts through the open windows, then you know what I mean. In addition, the atlases won't wear out like maps do. All that folding and unfolding in sweaty, humid tropical heat eventually causes traditional maps to rip along the crease lines into a dozen equally useless rectangles. The atlases, however, will hold together indefinitely and you can always copy the relevant pages and take them on your trip instead.

I highly recommend the Thailand and Vietnam travel atlases. I recommend the Laos atlas a bit less so for the simple reason that the maps contained in the other two atlases already depict most of Laos. And the Laos atlas does not provide place names in Lao script. The Thailand atlas, however, does provide Thai-script place names. This feature can come in quite handy when trying to buy tickets in a chaotic Bangkok bus station, as you can simply point out your destination on your map.

As is true of all maps, these travel atlases can distort reality. For example, the Laos atlas depicts Route Two from Muang Xai to Pakbeng as a fat yellow stretch of highway. I know from personal experience that Route Two is actually a narrow, twisting, potholed torture test. It took me seven grueling hours in the back of a bucking, dust-coated Toyota pickup truck to cover this 60-mile ride. (According to my notes, I shared the little truck with nine Lao men, two Lao women, one English journalist, one mountain tribesman, one monkey and five cases of 999-brand Chinese flashlight batteries.) By the same token, the thin maroon strip of Thai Route 1174 from Chiang Khong to Chiang Rai suggests a modest country road, but I found it to be a fine, two-lane paved roadway.

Maps can also leave out key details. For example, the atlases emphasize Southeast Asia's road network with a dramatic webbing of yellow, pink, and orange lines, but understate the importance of waterway transport. In Laos rivers remain the primary mode of travel for a large portion of the population, but you'd never know this from looking at the atlas. The atlases do not indicate what happens to roads in the Vietnamese rainy season or during rush hour in Bangkok either. Cartography simply can't tell the traveler everything, which ensures that every trip will have a few surprises no matter how many maps you carry.

For me the question has always been whether I enjoy maps more before a trip or after a trip. Poring over a map before departure lets me plan, imagine, and anticipate where I'm going. Reading it after a trip lets me retrace my route in my head, which can be a pleasant way to daydream on a gray winter morning. What I am certain about, however, is that maps are useful during a trip. I lacked a map while in Laos, for example, and had to let my travel companions navigate. I never had any idea where I was going and felt a bit like a blind man being led by a seeing eye dog. In Vietnam, on the other hand, I had a full complement of maps and could plan my trip more effectively.

Be forewarned: reading maps of Southeast Asia almost always leads to purchasing an airline ticket. See you there.