Never really understanding the point of guestbooks before we left, I must confess that my journey to South East Asia has done little to clear up the issue for me. Two incidents in particular have left me questioning the wisdom of those who keep them, and especially those who write in them.
The first happened in a little French restaurant in Hoi An, Vietnam. After sitting down and ordering from the staggering two options we were offered, the restaurant manager plonked down two huge books on the table. At first assuming that this tiny business had a drinks list well out of proportion to the amount of food it was offering, I was surprised when he whipped open the pages and asked us where we had come from.
Going through my usual machinations about whether it would be safer to pretend New Zealand heritage in this instance, my partner chipped in with an ‘Australia’ and we were immediately being shown comments from what must have been every Skip guest this gentleman ever had.
Oddly, one of the first he showed us merely said “Didn’t try the food, but my beer was good. P.S Rob is a c*nt”. Now, I don’t know Rob, and I’m not about to speculate here whether in fact he is, or is not, a ‘c-word’. The case against the author of this message seems pretty open and shut though.
And this is what I don’t understand. Why show us these? Particularly after we’ve already decided to stay and eat. Is it some sort of insurance policy? Say I was to make a complaint along the lines of “I enjoyed the soup, but am a little annoyed by the fact you tried to pass off taro as beef in my casserole”, would I have the book shoved in my face? “Really? Well………Cheryl, from Adelaide claims this was the best meal she had in all of Vietnam. Are you calling Cheryl a liar? HMMMMMMM?”
The second strange experience was in the National Museum in Vientiane, Laos. Like the vast majority of museums we have visited in SE Asia, it relied heavily on the 3 G’s. That being guestbooks, geology and guns. The guns never seem to really be in context either, there’s usually just a huge rack of them with the word ‘Guns’ on a plaque underneath, which for people with working eyes, would seem a redundant didactic. And by geology of course, I mean rocks.
The guestbook however, far from containing the usual “had a wonderful time” or “the guns were great” platitudes, had become an ideological battleground. Somebody had made the mistake of questioning the honesty of the Laos governments historical record, which led to another person decrying the imperialism of the French and, following them, the Americans. Then all hell broke loose, claims of propaganda and genocide were thrown about like confetti, and it soon resembled the comments section on The Courier Mail website.
Now anyone who’s visited Laos would know that it’s no advertisement for the joys of communist governance. Nor could any right thinking person who’s been inside the Hanoi Hilton or the war remnants museum in Saigon suggest that the American and French occupiers behaved like boy scouts.
Whatever one’s views though, what possesses a person to write them in a museum guest book that they’ll never see again? There’s a saying that if you argue on the internet, regardless of who wins, you’re both losers. If that’s the case, what possible insult could there be for someone who rages in a guest book?
As such, I’m yet to be persuaded that anything good at all comes from the guest book tradition. And I have absolutely no doubt that Rob the ‘c-word’ agrees with me.
Kevin O’Faircheallaigh is 28 and in 2009 decided to abandon all domestic commitments and to have one last big adventure before the impending doom of 30. With that in mind, he and his partner packed an ambitiously small backpack each and headed out to spend a year exploring Asia and Europe, with a brief sojourn into North Africa.