Lonely Planet Thailand Author Joe Cummings - An Excerpt from Brian Gruber's book Full Moon over Koh Phangan

28 Aug 2022
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Phangan resident Brian Gruber published an oral history of the island earlier this year titled “Full Moon over Koh Phangan: What Adventurers, Dancers, and Freaks Seek and Find on Thailand's Magic Island.” Phanganist is publishing an exclusive series of interview excerpts. This week, we feature Brian’s conversation with longtime Lonely Planet Thailand author Joe Cummings. 
 
The ebook is available for 270 baht ($7.50) at https://amzn.to/3B75ssb or directly from the author (briankgruber@gmail.com) for PDF or ePUB versions. An expanded version with chapters on each island village and favorite local spots will be released later this year.

From Full Moon over Koh Phangan:

There may be a professional observer of the Phangan scene with more credentials, more coverage of both Thailand and the island from a westerner’s perspective, and more insight into backpacker culture and the unique draws of Thai islands, than Lonely Planet’s longtime guide author Joe Cummings. But it’s unlikely.

For 25 years, Joe Cummings WAS Lonely Planet Thailand, writing the country’s popular guidebook for 25 years, dating from his first visit to Koh Phangan in 1981. He has been a frequent visitor in the years since. 

Brian Gruber  
Why was Lonely Planet founded? You were there in the early days. 

Joe Cummings
Tony Wheeler went from London to Australia overland in ’73, and from that trip he put together the first mimeographed, stapled-together version of Across Asia on the Cheap, selling it on street corners in Australia. 

Brian Gruber  
There was someone who created a mimeographed document that attained mythic status. You'd go into Kabul or Tehran and you'd find copies of the thing. 

Joe Cummings
There was another guide back then too, called BIT, run by Australian Geoff Crowther, who later joined up with Wheeler. 

When I first came in '77 to Thailand, there hadn't been any English language guidebooks since 1928. And, when I left Thailand to go back to the States in ’79, I traveled through Asia, to India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, planned but didn't go to Burma, and I picked up these two guidebooks. He (Tony) had distribution by that time and the first two country guides were Sri Lanka and Burma, very small. Tony wrote both of those. After the hostage crisis ended the great Asia Trail, he replaced Across Asia on the Cheap with Southeast Asia on a Shoestring.

I immediately recognized LP guides as a new paradigm. I had grown up traveling around Europe, based in France with my family and using the more strait-laced Fielding’s and Fodor’s guides. 

Brian Gruber  
What was new about it? 

Joe Cummings  
It was the first series for those who traveled on a budget and off the beaten track. You could use any guide and figure out a way to make it, but this was going to obscure places, not the main tourist routes, and closer to local cultures. 

In the first Thailand guide, for example, I wrote about where to get the best Thai stick. Within a few editions, Lonely Planet had already started to become more bourgeois and they dropped the drug references. It was just an alternative, in all kinds of ways.

Brian Gruber  
What did Lonely Planet mean to you, that brand name?

Joe Cummings  
That we've only got one planet to live on. It was still kind of an obscure brand, very roughly put together. I wrote to them and said, I'd like to do one on Thailand, I know it very well, I've read the Thailand chapter in South East Asia on a Shoestring, it's pretty good, but there's a lot more to see. He sent me nine thousand bucks to do the first edition. I got lost, what was the question?

Brian Gruber  
We talked about what Lonely Planet meant.

Joe Cummings  
I asked Tony about this. He was listening to a famous Joe Cocker hit back around that time, mid-’70s. And in that accent of his, Cocker says “lovely planet.”  Tony misunderstood, he heard it as “lonely planet.” He took it from that song, he just thought it sounded cool. So, he didn't have a concept in mind.

Brian Gruber  
How do you get your arms around an assignment like that? Thailand's a big place. I think you said the first was ’81 or ’82...

Joe Cummings  
Eighty-one, yeah, I did the research in ’81 and it came out in ’82.

Yeah, I just travelled my ass off and I did that forever. Most of my research was original. I read a lot, but most of it I got firsthand. My Master’s degree was in Southeast Asian Studies, with a focus on Art History and Thai Language. So, I hit what I thought were all the major temple sites. And then I went to the beaches. I went to Samui and Phangan for the first time in ’81 and a few other islands. I have a slide I took that year on Haad Rin in Koh Phangan, using a telephoto, where there's a farang girl in a bikini walking away from the camera, and nothing but palm trees in all directions. It was in the first guide.

It ran just 128 pages. It was kind of scattershot. I was taking all the local red and orange buses back then, no aircon buses, and carrying just one yaam (Thai-style cloth shoulder bag).

Brian Gruber  
You went to Phangan on that trip. What were you expecting? 

Joe Cummings  
I took a longtail boat from Bophut. I saw it on a map. I hadn't heard of it but, while I was in Samui, some of the backpackers would say, “Ah, you think this is cool, you should check out Phangan,” and I was, like, how can it be better than this? Samui was a fucking paradise. They said, well, it's more of the same, a little more rugged, more hills and virtually no paved roads. There might have been one from the pier to Ban Kai or Baan Tai and then it was dirt all the way down Haad Rin and all the way north across the island.

Brian Gruber  
What did you find there? 

Joe Cummings  
Nothing.

Brian Gruber  
Nothing? No bungalows?

Joe Cummings  
Very few. There were like ten people there. It was the last three months of my MA program. I was doing field research at the same time, so I was able to dovetail my field research with the first LP Thailand guide. I spent a lot of time in the south anyway because my subject was Ajahn Buddhadasa the famous monk and founder of Wat Suan Mokkh. He died in '93, but he’s super-venerated now, and there’s a big international meditation center next to the temple. I spent six weeks with him and so I got to know Surat Thani and Nakhon Si Thammarat. 

And I went to Phatthalung because I had a Thai friend I knew from America, from grad school, his family said come visit. I stayed with his family, everyone lived in their rice mill. It was amazing. Yeah, everything was just kind of undiscovered. 

The way I would research stuff without written references, maybe I'm on the way, say, to Phanom Rung, the famous Khmer ruins way up in Isaan, Buri Ram, and I'd stop - you can only travel so far in one day - and go to a night market. I'd talk, I'd drink some whiskey with the locals, and say, “What's to see around town?” And they'd say, “There's a great waterfall outside; I’ll take you there tomorrow morning on the back of my motorcycle.” Along the way I’d find a few restaurants. There were virtually no English menus, but I knew Thai pretty well by then. 

One of my secret references for a long time was the late Thai food critic Thanadsri Svasti, whose son is McDang, today a famous TV chef. His father was really objective. He did a series of columns in Bangkok’s Siam Rath newspaper in Thai. Once a year, he published a volume collecting all of his reviews. They were just hole-in-the-walls, all over Thailand, and always amazing.

Brian Gruber  
Those people who you met on Samui in ’81, after the closing of that Asia route with the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. People were carrying around copies of Herman Hesse, Siddhartha, A Journey to the East. Why were these kids coming East at that time? 

Joe Cummings  
It started in the mid-’70s. Eastern mysticism kind of got into the counterculture in the west, with young people looking for meaning outside their own societies. Nowadays, the Asia travel scene is much more party-oriented. I noticed the trend really start to shift in the early 2000s, with people’s motivations for traveling in Thailand. It went from the inner search to the party search.

You hardly meet people like that anymore. It was like half the backpackers, whether they said it or not, whether they even knew it or not, were on a spiritual or inner quest of some kind.

And leaving these villages, people seemed so happy, even though they had nothing. Of course, that was a bit of a facade. That was just the way Thais are. They don't show suffering, they don't make it obvious. They keep it in and put a nice face on it. And they're satisfied with their lot in life. I think they were looking exactly for that.

- - - - - - - - - - - 

For the complete interview and all 25 oral histories:

“Full Moon over Koh Phangan: What Adventurers, Dancers, and Freaks Seek and Find on Thailand's Magic Island” is available at https://amzn.to/3B75ssb or directly from the author for PDF or ePUB versions. Watch the Phanganist for new interviews in the coming weeks.