Lonely Planet’s Korea update adopts more grown-up tone

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Lonely Planet’s Korea update adopts more grown-up tone

The latest “Lonely Planet: Korea” guidebook is part of a tidal wave of titles being relaunched by the publisher this year catering to a broader spectrum of traveler.
No longer is the typical LP reader an unshaven, Dumpster-diving vagabond; those folks have grown up, they have fatter wallets and they want more from their guidebooks than where to find cheap hostels and grub.
Consider this: The sixth edition’s Seoul lodging ranges from a 15,000-won ($13) dorm bed at the rundown Inn Daewon in Jongno to 392,000 won at the Westin Chosun.
“We now cater from 19-year-old college students on their gap year to millionaire ex-civvies,” said Michael Day, commissioning editor for the guide at Lonely Planet’s Melbourne office.
With that shift comes a fresh visual design and more meat in the same number of pages as the 2001 edition. Practicalities about visas, health, flight information have been buried in the rear, and the book opens instead with tempting trip itineraries for travelers with limited time in-country.
Fuzzy maps have given way to razor-sharp cartography, embellished with icons. And by including legends on the same page as the map, there’s less page-flipping on the road. Only one caveat: The map text is so tiny as to be unreadable by folks with less than 20-20 vision or while being jostled in a packed subway car.
The writers are more enthusiastic in this edition, having benefited from the largesse of the Korea National Tourism Organization, whose staff escorted them to some sites, offered advice and proofread all the hangul copy. In 2002, the KNTO complained to LP about inaccurate and negative information in the prior edition ― for good reason.
“The message was coming out quite clearly that a lot of readers felt the fifth edition was a bit jaded, a bit cynical,” Mr. Day conceded. “That’s just not the kind of tone we want to fit for the guidebook.”
For example, the old guide noted that, after whiskey and beer, Koreans will drink “anything they can get their hands on, short of paint thinner.”
And Korean food is no longer compared to Japanese; where doenjang jjigae was described as a soup that “resembles Japanese miso,” now it’s simply “soybean paste stew.”
The fifth edition described bicycling as “almost suicidal in cities,” but we now learn that “cycle paths line both banks of the Han River and bicycles can be rented in many of the parks along it.” Two self-guided walking tours of Seoul, with maps, are also included.
Lead author Martin Robinson’s even-handed approach is captured in this comment on culture: “Computer gamers may spend all their spare time sitting in front of a screen and live on instant noodles, but many Koreans are very health-conscious. The millions of hikers who stream into the mountains on weekends are not only enjoying nature but also keeping fit.”
An in-depth description of food dishes in both Korean and English will come in handy, as will a chart of do’s and don’ts at the table. But some information on what to expect at restaurants (“upon sitting down you may receive a wet washcloth; during hotter months, these are refreshingly cool”) seems a bit didactic.
Overviews of history and culture are solid, however, and the book is peppered with boxed information on quirky topics like old-time court eunuchs and the status of half-moon bears in Jirisan National Park.
Delving into the heart of the guide, the prose alternates between dry, tightly worded recitations of bus travel times, ferry schedules and museum overviews, to more colorful depictions of love motels, fish markets and natural wonders.
Elements of youth culture are also sprinkled across the pages, with information on adventure sports like bungee jumping and mountain biking as well as the lowdown on room culture and some DVD picks. The authors’ tone may have changed, but it’s true that Korea has also matured in four years and many improved evaluations of tourist facilities are well deserved.
Where the book comes up a bit short is in the heartland. Sections on provincial cities, towns and rural areas, and their historical background, is limited, at the expense of lengthy food and lodging listings.
Korea’s two famous palgyeong, or “Eight Sceneries” ― one set around Danyang, the other on the East Sea ― aren’t mentioned, while information on hiking is threadbare. Some attractive regions, such as Namhaedo, an island that is described as “a terrific place for travelers to stretch their legs,” get just a few paragraphs.
And while everything’s up-to-date for now, the book does contain a few factual errors. A photo of Silla-era tombs is described as from Baekje, while descriptions of the famous pagodas, Dabotap and Seokgotap, are flipped around.
All quibbling aside, the sixth edition marks a big step forward for Lonely Planet on the peninsula. And the 40-page ghostwritten chapter on North Korea is also well researched and should provide more than you could need for a sojourn north of the DMZ.
Moreover, these writers can tickle your funny bone, and laughter beats antibiotics any day. Consider this gem about a boat ride to watch Jejudo’s famous diving women: “They only sail when demand is sufficient and the sea is calm enough so that your gimbab stays where it belongs.”

by Joel Levin
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