Book Review: Smile When You’re Lying

Chuck Thompson’s book Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer is a delicious collection of travel stories and rants. In addition to recounting his own adventures, in endlessly original and engaging language, he also directs missiles at his fellow travel writers and the travel industry more generally. Anyone who’s read guidebooks or travel memoirs will sympathize with Thompson‘s take-downs. He rails against their trite, superlative-laden descriptions; their tendency to remarkable-tize everything and anything; their collusion with the very people they’re supposed to be writing about in an objective manner. His thoughts here reminded me of my visit to India a couple years ago when I was comparing what my Lonely Planet guide was telling me and what the, um, messy reality outside actually was.

His own stories are entertaining, if a bit hard-to-believe at times. One chapter it’s hookers in Thailand, the next it’s the “Penis Olympics” in Japan. Through and through, though, he tells the stories with striking vividness.

Some favorite excerpts below. I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys international travel.

On Manila, Philippines:

Like Bangkok, Jakarta, and a handful of other festering, beggar-laden Third World megatropolises, Manila is one of the great sprawling shitholes of Asia, a reeking mess of poverty, traffic, smog, crime, corruption, and filth. Bursting with people who somehow maintain a bulletproof optimism in the face of decay, disorder, and daily tragedy, these are frentic slum-cities where anything, from blow jobs to military coups, can happen at any time. Cities that you love just slightly more than you loathe.

Rules on life and travel:

  • Clean up your own mess, no matter how tough a job it is.
  • Foreigners are almost never as bad as you think they’ll be.
  • A lot of interesting things can happen when you run out of gas.
  • If the world can forgive the Germans, it can forgive anybody.
  • Just when you think you’ve seen the best the world has to offer, there’ll always be Canada.

One of many hits on travel writers:

Their bidding is done by an army of doltish travel writers whose inability to seize upon anything beyond the obvious and trite is based on either a profound inexperience abroad or by the kind of tittering acceptance that turns everything foreign, no matter how mundane or evil, into a “charming,” “authentic,” or “hilarious” cultural experience.

On Thailand and sex:

There are two kinds of girls you have sex with in Thailand. Those you pay and those you marry.

On why we should be more grateful for one of the “most complex, cooperative, and successful private systems ever constructed”:

At DFW Airport in Dallas, a wildlife control office keeps a room filled with birds — barn owls, doves, geese, and so on — collected from troublesome avian populations that refuse to be driven from runway areas. Because birds can damage and potentially bring down a plane if enough of them get sucked into an engine, autopsies are performed on the salvaged birds to determine what they’ve been eating to eradicate their food source. That’s called obsessive attention to detail, and an A-plus commitment to safety rarely seen by the public.

On why Chinatowns anywhere are overrated:

Every Chinatown distills the worst of the obligatory tourist trap: worthless trinkets, no public bathrooms, impossible parking, hit-and-miss food. Most of the guys cooking aren’t even real chefs; they’re recent immigrants dragooned into manning the grill. Chinatowns have stolen more time from weekend vacations than weather at O’Hare.

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