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The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - SU­SAN KURO­SAWA

WHEN Redmond O’Han­lon de­cided to set off into the jun­gles of Bor­neo in 1983, he was warned that vipers, cholera, crocs, ticks, tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, malaria, ra­bies and at least 1700 types of par­a­sitic worms awaited him and his scep­ti­cal trav­el­ling com­pan­ion, the poet James Fen­ton.

The chaps sur­vived, al­though Fen­ton, af­ter one too many sup­pers of worms, de­clared he would never travel again with his ec­cen­tric friend. O’Han­lon’s book Into the Heart of Bor­neo is a clas­sic, the kind of travel nar­ra­tive that rarely gets writ­ten any more — there are too few bound­aries left to cross, vir­tu­ally no realm un­ex­plored.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t visit dy­namic re­gions, such as Asia, in con­tem­po­rary com­fort and style and ex­pe­ri­ence (and con­trast) myr­iad places through the eyes of the great ad­ven­tur­ers who’ve gone be­fore us. I am think­ing of Colin Thubron in China and Ti­bet, Nor­man Lewis in In­dia and In­done­sia and, of course, Eric Newby travers­ing the Hindu Kush and Pico Iyer in Nepal and Ja­pan. Oddly, among the most in­sight­ful books about late 19th-cen­tury Ja­pan are by the Greek-born writer Laf­ca­dio Hearn, who’s still hon­oured in his adopted coun­try in much the same way as the peri­patetic Lord By­ron is an abid­ing hero in Al­ba­nia.

Fic­tion with a strong sense of ge­o­graphic con­text also plays its part in il­lu­mi­nat­ing des­ti­na­tions and I be­lieve a lively novel based in, say, Mum­bai or Manila can re­veal more telling de­tails about those cities than a con­ven­tional facts-and-fig­ures guide­book.

There has been a boom in cosy crime fic­tion set in Asia and to find out what makes Laos tick, for ex­am­ple, dip into Colin Cot­ter­ill’s se­ries star­ring na­tional coro­ner Dr Siri; sim­i­larly, Shamini Flint’s nov­els about Sin­ga­pore’s In­spec­tor Singh serve up Asia on a plate as her po­lice­man gads about to Bali, In­dia, Cam­bo­dia and Malaysia (so far). Mind you, while no one was ar­rested, Fen­ton would prob­a­bly call his es­capade with O’Han­lon a crime against all known stan­dards of com­fort.

There are too few bound­aries left to cross, vir­tu­ally no realm un­ex­plored

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