A trip to Asia involves some planning even though many destinations have packaged tours. Nonetheless, with the aid of books and/or maps, you'll find that you can arm yourself with information that will make your trip more unforgettable and enjoyable than if you didn't educate yourself.
Below are books and maps that we've used. We've also included other books in the literature that may help you find what you need. The list is by no means complete, but hopefully it is enough to get you going on your quest to inform yourself on your travels.
China (Lonely Planet):
This thick guide was primarily our trip planning resource for China because of the depth of information. In typical LP style they pretty much cover the whole country and you really get the sense that the many authors have actually been there in person. The maps are excellent and are keyed with legends so if it's described in the blurb, then it should appear on the map so you can find it. Of course I also enjoyed the writeup on Chinese history especially its recent history. But I guess the price for telling it like it is results in this book being hard to find in China (I think it's banned), so you better get a copy of this book before
going to China if you plan to go there.
China (Eyewitness Travel):
When it comes to this book, it's all about the pictures. Heck, sometimes I think Julie just wanted to reproduce some of the photos in the book in person as the goal for many of the sights we visited. But when it comes to content, I'm not real fond of the amount of research and thought that goes into it as it seems more like they merely regurgitate the China Tourism blurbs (some of which is false regarding waterfalls) and you really don't get the sense you're learning a whole lot besides what you can find what's already out on the internet by reading. So as a trip planning resource, it works as a complement to LP, but on its own, it falls quite flat.
India (Lonely Planet):
This comprehensive guide of the country was a critical part of both our trip planning when it came to dealing with the tour operator and working out the logistics (as well as cost) of our trip. While the LP guide is indispensable if you're a truly adventurous backpacker wanting to go about it independently (you have to be REAL flexible and have LOTS of time to pull this off and make your trip meaningful), we did the country as a customized guided tour. And based on this objective, we were able to count on the maps and the descriptions to a degree to find the sights we wanted to see and especially the restaurants and accommodations when we were left to our own devices to pay our own way for dinner or lunch. The history write-up was fascinating if not a bit dense since you're cramming centuries of history into a handful of pages. Thus, it can get a little harder to follow in my mind. Still, they were spot on regarding some of the accommodations (you will want to go to the higher end in this country unless you don't mind living in dumps) and even the restaurants (like Karim's in Delhi's Chandni Chowk was a real winner). Of course there were some parts of the country we visited that weren't in the guide book, but I feel you can't always be slaved to such guides and let them define your trip. Still, when you need to get oriented and have a good idea of what you're getting yourself into, you can't beat this guide.
India (Eyewitness Travel):
Because India has lots of architectural sights, that is when picture-based guides like this one help a lot. For if you want an idea of what sights are worth seeing during your trip planning and if you're trying to check and make sure you're seeing what you set out to see during your trip, then you'll want to bring this guide along with your LP guide. While their write-ups tend to be less insightful, this guide is really about the pictures. Plus, the breadth of their coverage is lacking as some parts are either not mentioned or they're superficially covered but the famous parts are well covered and deep. I guess that's the trade-off when you have a picture-based guide versus LP's text-based philosophy. As for the maps, we used the ones in this book as supplementary information if we weren't totally sure about LP's maps (since they tend to go into more detail; especially regarding restaurants and accommodations).
Japan (Lonely Planet):
This comprehensive guide of the country was a critical part of both our trip planning and trip navigating as we were completely on our own with practically no usable Japanese to communicate with the locals. Still, we were able to count on the maps and the descriptions to a degree to find the sights we wanted to see and especially the restaurants and accommodations. The history write-up was a little harder to follow in my mind. Still, I swear some of the restaurants they recommended were so obscure or humble with no English that the writers must've had some knowledge of Japanese as your average foreigner wouldn't have a prayer of finding some of these places. It kind of gives you some idea of how good LP did Japan.
Japan (Eyewitness Travel):
Again, we used this book as a complementary resource to the LP Japan. So the plethora of photos in here helped to verify if we indeed visited the correct site or if we were planning, it helped us determine if we should put it on our itinerary or not. Again, the blurbs are uninspiring though they did cover some things that didn't show up in LP. But I'm sure as Julie chose to follow this book for the Gion District, it resulted in her regretting not visiting a particular street that was explained in LP but not in this book so she missed it.
Japan By Rail (Trailblazer):
Prior to committing to a trip to Japan and buying the JR Pass (Japan Railways Pass), we didn't have any immediate access to the rail schedules. And if you're trying to plan a trip, that made things quite difficult. So we picked up this book. And even though the schedules change, the book at least gave us ideas on what's possible and what might be a pain. It's not until you pick up schedules from Japan or you learn how to use Hyperdia will you start to master the art of knowing the schedules of the very efficient and fast trains in Japan. But this book will hold you over until then.
Japanese Phrasebook & Dictionary (Berlitz):
When it became apparent that we'd have lots of difficulties with communicating in Japan, this book at least allowed us to make some very basic and rudimentary requests and questions. We found it ended up being far more useful to flip through the index and pages of this phrasebook than to rely on the audio 7-language dictionary, where the interface was such that it took much longer to even find the desired sayings. And given its small size, it's quite portable. It's definitely worthwhile in Japan (if you haven't acquired any usable Japanese) since the vast majority of locals don't speak English.
Thailand (Lonely Planet):
This was the primary resource for our trip planning. Even though it's primarily catered towards independent travelers and backpackers, it was a handy resource to try to get acquainted with the country without ever having been there. The maps are exquisitely detailed and there's a bunch of little things you can read about to try to maximize your familiarity with each region in the country. Of course, it could use more pictures (but all LP guides suffer from this in a trade for info vs. space and cost) and it doesn't protect you against instances during the trip when you find something that wasn't in the book, but don't have the flexibility to pursue it when you're tied down with a pre-arranged custom tour. It didn't get too much use during our Thailand trip though since we had gleaned as much as we could prior to the trip already. All in all, a must have for those serious about planning a trip to Thailand.
Thailand (Eyewitness Travel):
This was the other guide Julie and I used to complement the Lonely Planet guide during our pre-trip research. However, this book also got plenty of use with its illustrations and pictures (especially useful when trying to explain something to locals with limited English) during our trip. While the explanations and depth of coverage is lacking in many respects, the illustrations ensure you're getting what you want when you're actually there and there's little room for misinterpretation and misunderstandings (especially if you're getting scammed by your guide, which thankfully didn't happen on our trip). Again, in the info and illustrations vs. cost and space trade, the DK guides went with the illustrations more than the info given the limited resources of cost and space. All in all, we think this is an excellent complementary guide with the LP guides though it might leave something to be desired as a standalone guide.
Vietnam & Angkor Wat (Eyewitness Travel):
Because we only visited Angkor Wat in Cambodia and not Vietnam itself, we can only speak about the Cambodia coverage (even though we did look at Vietnam as we considered adding it to our recent SE Asia Trip). And as in the usual DK style, there's no shortage of photos and illustrations to keep you in the know about whether you're seeing the real thing or not on tour while giving additional fodder for discussion with the tour guide who may not be as proficient in english but knows the area well. The Angkor Wat and other Siem Reap ruins were quite adequate and got the job done. We didn't complement this with an LP Guide, however, so we weren't as thoroughly in the know about this area as we were about Thailand.
Learning Chinese Characters (Tuttle):
If you're serious about learning how to read and write Chinese, this is an excellent book to get you started and on the way to proficiency. Now I'm not saying that I'm proficient or anything, but this book really helped me along from knowing nothing to knowing at least 800 characters. The key is that they make it fun and quirky by associating various illustrations and silly stories to help you remember the most common characters and radicals. They're pretty consistent with their stories and characters involved to help with the pronunciation as well as meanings, and I'm sure if you persevere for at least 6 months (that's how long I took to get through the book), you'll be able to at least partially read signs in China!
Integrated Chinese Level 1 Part 1:
To complement the Tuttle book, I used this textbook along with the CDs to gain some proficiency in terms of listening and reading comprehension. This is especially important when used in conjunction with the Tuttle book because you'll at least be able to recognize characters in context whereas Tuttle teaches you vocabulary. It takes a bit of patience to get through the book (I tried to read it on the train to work) and it's one of those things where you have to peck away at it instead of trying to cram a bunch of things at once. All in all, it's not the greatest book, but it gets the job done.
Integrated Chinese Level 1 Part 2:
Unlike Part 1, this book covers more useful topics like travel and sickness. Plus they even cover dating where one poor guy got rejected by the main character "the Chinese way." Same format, same style, and I had to buy the CDs separately, but the learning approach remained the same as I did for Part 1. And I still had to peck away at it to learn little by little. You'll want to finish Part 1 before going on to this book.
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