Rickshaws I have loved

Wanderlust editor Don George talks with Lonely Planet founder and head Tony Wheeler about his new book, 'Chasing Rickshaws,' and the company's future plans as it celebrates its 25th year of publishing.

By Don George
October 23, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
main article image

I knew Tony Wheeler before he knew me. Twenty years ago, when I was wanderlusting around Asia, Tony and Maureen Wheeler's "Southeast Asia on a Shoestring" was my constant companion. Dubbed the "Yellow Bible" by backpackers, that intrepid and imaginative alternative guidebook became the foundation of the now globe-girdling Lonely Planet publishing empire. Tony was in San Francisco recently promoting the newest Lonely Planet title, "Chasing Rickshaws," his own celebration of Asia's people-powered transport, which Wanderlust excerpted yesterday. He stopped by our office to talk about the book and Lonely Planet's other projects as the company celebrates its 25th year.

What first inspired you to do "Chasing Rickshaws"?


We only first thought of the book five years ago -- the idea of tracing rickshaws around Asia and seeing where they came from, what their story was and where you still found them. It was a combination of a genuine interest in them and wanting to track down this little corner of Asian history before it disappeared completely. What also interested me was how colorful they were and how the riders -- as well as the people who used them -- were interesting characters.

Do you remember the first time you ever saw a rickshaw?


I had thought it was when I was traveling in Asia in the early '70s, but the other week I was going through my mother's photo album, and I found a photograph of me sitting in a rickshaw in Pakistan when I was a child. So it goes way back.

How did you decide which countries to include?

That was part of the problem with this book. Some places were obvious -- like Hong Kong, because the rickshaw is dying out there, and Bangladesh, because there are more there than anywhere else in the world. And we had to go to Rangoon because the ones in Rangoon and other parts of Burma are totally unique. We could have gone on and on with Asian cities, but we decided to do 12 -- this gave us the variety we wanted and enabled us to cover all the basic types of rickshaws. There are basically four or five types, and although there are modern ones in San Francisco, San Diego, Oxford, England, and Berlin, we decided to focus on the older ones found in Asia.


You had to cover so much ground for this book. Did you take one long trip, or --?

We wanted to do it in different seasons, so we did the book in three trips. We deliberately chose going to India during the monsoon, because we wanted to get shots of rickshaws in the rain. But there we were, in the middle of the monsoon season, and it just didn't rain. Finally, on our last afternoon, it just bucketed down, and that was perfect because we got just the shots we wanted. Also, we wanted to go to Beijing in the winter, so we decided that we'd leave Beijing for the last trip, so we'd get there and it would be cold.


Did people open up to you once they found out what you were doing -- devoting a whole book to this type of transportation?

That was really one of the most surprising and pleasant things about it -- as soon as they found out that I really had a genuine interest, and that I wasn't just going to be there for only five minutes taking photographs, they were amazingly open about it. They got really into it. When we were in Yogyakarta, the very first place we went to, we agreed to take these two rickshaws for the whole afternoon. And once we got talking to the riders and asked, "Where do they make these?" -- 15 minutes later, we were at a rickshaw factory. It was just perfect, and very photogenic. And in Hanoi, someone said, "Have you seen the place where they take the confiscated ones?" and we said, "Where?" and 10 minutes later, there we were.

Historically, when were rickshaws most prevalent?


Well, yaks were the dominant form of transport for a while. Then there was a time between the horse carriages and the start of the railways, buses and trams when the rickshaw was the No. 1 means of transport. It's interesting why they never caught on in Europe: Partly it's because in Europe there wasn't enough money to pay for more sophisticated personal transport, and at that time, technology wasn't good enough -- the roads weren't smooth enough for them, and there wasn't steel for making spoked wheels and things. In Asia, it just happened that the economy and technology were each at the right stage -- the two coincided. The other thing that's interesting about it is that it's one of the very first examples of Japanese technology spreading to other places. Although it probably wasn't a Japanese person who invented it, it seems clear that the rickshaw was invented in Japan.

Who did invent it?

The general consensus is that it probably was an American missionary who invented it for his wife. But very quickly, other people saw the idea and perfected it. Before long there were Korean ones, Chinese ones and other ones -- but it was the Japanese ones that looked the best. And it was sort of a Toyota and Hyundai thing. You know, "What's a Hyundai? It's a Korean Toyota."


In your decades of Asian travel, you must have taken a lot of rickshaw rides. Is there one that stands out in your mind?

Ten years ago, when I was in Indonesia with my two kids, we'd been out to see a shadow-puppet play on the outskirts of
Yogyakarta. By the time we were on our way back to the hotel, it was getting on toward
midnight and the traffic was light, so we
thought, "Let's take a rickshaw back." Now if we were Indonesians, it would have been two adults and two kids all crammed into one rickshaw. But we
thought, "Oh, poor guys, we'll take two rickshaws." So we split up, two in each rickshaw. The two guys immediately got this idea to race back to our hotel. So they were charging all over, weaving in
and out of each other, and getting up a serious sweat. I mean, it was hard
work, but the kids thought it was fantastic and it was all
good fun. The Indonesian rickshaws are the last ones you want to race in.
They're a sort
of heavy, sedated rickshaw. There are other designs that are more race-worthy.

One of the things I like about "Chasing Rickshaws" is that it dovetails with
the whole Asian theme of Lonely Planet's history -- how your first book was on Asia 25 years ago -- and then the fact that
it's a people's transportation system: very traditional, rooted in the
ground; it seems very Lonely Planet-ish to me.


Yeah. It would have been so easy to go and take a thousand photographs, and do a book on "Beautiful San Francisco," "Beautiful Thailand" or "Wonderful Anything Else," but I didn't want to do that. You can't get the photographs and then make an idea from them. You really have to have some sort of theme that
chases all the way through and then get the photographs.

The Lonely Planet "empire" started out with the guidebooks and then
went into other areas, including literary books and TV specials. Is there any other direction Lonely Planet is branching into?

Yes, we are now producing a series of in-flight videos, in conjunction with one airline, that they'll play just
before you
arrive in a city. We're doing this with one airline, but we own the videos, and our intention eventually is to offer them to other airlines as well. I mean, why should an
airline want to make an arrivals video for every city they go to? So we'll do it for them. This seems especially good for smaller airlines.

What's the biggest challenge for Lonely Planet now?


I suppose the competition -- we've got to
keep on
top of that all the time. You've got to
constantly be
looking at what's good and what isn't, and how you can improve things all the
I mean, technology is constantly hammering at your head.

How do you see the Web site dovetailing with the rest of what you

With a Web site, you can't have it not cover everything. You can't have, well, blanks on the map. When you click on the map, something has to come up. So we've ended up researching
some things for the Web before we had them on paper yet. For example, on our site we had to cover all the islands in the Caribbean, even though we
quite got a book on every island in the Caribbean yet. One sort of drives the other.

And there's a lot of talk about electronic versions of books, and updating books
electronically. We're producing on-the-Web updates now. If you bought
the book six months ago, here's an update you can just
download off the Web. But we don't want to compete with the bookstores. The books are still for sale there, and the update of them is available on
the Web.


What other things are you doing with your content?

of what we've been doing in recent years involves the reuse of existing material. You do a San Francisco guide, and then San Francisco goes
a California guide, and then it goes into a U.S.A. guide, so you're
using the
same thing three times and sometimes even more. But I also think there's the increasing
that so much stuff which you produce in one fashion, you could reuse in
another. And if you're doing it in one language, why not do it in another
We use it in English, and then we use it again in French. I mean, it's
going to go the
opposite way, the books that we're doing in French are going to come into
English. There's lots of potential in all those things.

How much of the year are you on the road these days?

I travel about six months a year. Actually, I started writing a diary of how much I travel and what I do every day in June 1996. It was meticulously time-consuming; it took me about 20 minutes
every day to write this damn thing up. It was a record of every day that
year, of where I'd stayed, when I'd been at home and when I'd been in
hotels and when I'd spent nights on planes. One of the things I learned is that I spent an amazing number of nights on planes -- 12 -- which is a fair percentage of the year. Once I'd done it for a year, I didn't keep the diary
up anymore, but I did continue to note down where I stayed every night to see how many nights were at home, how many nights camping,
how many nights on planes. I mean, the second year was also 12 or 13 nights
in planes. It's like losing a night a month, basically.

Do you have any other personal dreams like "Chasing Rickshaws" that you want to work on?

Oh, I've got no shortage of projects. Earlier this year, I had a go at writing
a book
for our "Journeys" travel series, about a particularly memorable trip I once did. The editors sent it back to me saying it's not
good enough yet. So I better work on that some more. It may never come out; maybe I'm just not cut out for that sort of writing. But I'm not going to publish it just because I wrote it; it's got
to be
good enough.

Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

MORE FROM Don George

Related Topics ------------------------------------------