Forget the Guidebook, This is the VICE Guide to Travel

Dolores Park: "You would think VICE Magazine threw up there."---SF Comedian Ali Wong

At the risk of sounding like a gold-lame-wearing, ironic-mullet-sporting Dolores Park denizen, I’m gonna say it: I like VICE Magazine. And I fucking love the VICE Guide to Travel.

Quick run-down, in case you don’t know: VICE grew from a Montreal zine into global empire of youth counterculture, serving as a kind of hipster voice of a generation in what some could argue was the next CREEM magazine. By 1999, VICE had exploded on to the hip-slick-and-cool scene. A free, glossy magazine peppered with American Apparel ads, you’d find issues at trendy clothing stores and serving as coasters on your friends’ coffee tables, or stacked beside the toilet for inspirational reading material. Having reached new heights of hipness, VICE was nearly immediately deemed as have “been better” in previous years, in the perennial way that everything was better before it got big. But here’s a little secret about VICE: it’s got some killer articles. Some are better than others, for sure, and many breach a little too far into the snarky, too-cool-for-school realm. But I’d argue a good half of the magazine is usually filled with quality journalism, covering super interesting international cultural phenomena.

Which leads to the VICE Guide to Travel. It’s not Rick Steve’s, or even Lonely Planet. VICE goes to some of the most fucked locations on earth, “the kinds of places that nobody else wants to visit”; digs up shocking and bizarre stories; sends sweaty dudes in v-neck t-shirts to interview warlords/cannibals/other locals; films it all, and sets it to a soundtrack of doom, gloom and rock. It’s “edgy,” it’s “off-the-beaten-path” (to say the least), and it’s some of the most bad-ass travel journalism out there.

First, some clarifications on the meaning of “bad-ass.” Empty, self-serving sensationalism with no emotional depth or historical perspective is not bad-ass. And there’s plenty of that out there in the travel world.

A couple months ago, I complained about this kind of trying-to-be-bad-ass-edness in a post blog and subsequent Matador article. Later, I came across an article titled “5 Totally Bad-Ass Travel Experiences” that made me want to vomit. The article listed 5 “daring” travel experiences, two of which capitalized on some of the most heinous aspects of a country’s history. The perspective reeked of a privileged disconnect with the suffering caused by events like genocide and drug wars:

Home to one of the biggest genocides and mass killings in modern history, Cambodia is awash in guns and weaponry. It’s a pretty peaceful place these days but there are still opportunities to get a taste of the weapons of war.

Oh, well, bummer the murdering is over, but at least there’s still cool guns to shoot off. I wanted to reach through the computer and punch the writer. Granted, the article struck a personal nerve; I guess when you know people who escaped the Khmer Rouge, but who’s families all died in the killing fields, well, that takes the thrill out of shooting war weaponry in Cambodia.

What separates the VICE Guide to Travel from lame travel “journalism” like this is skill (they hire professionals)—but more importantly, approach. Traveling to some of the most depraved and damaged places in the world, VICE toes the line, certainly runs the risk of lapsing into one-dimensional exhibitionism and aren’t-I-cool pats on the back. Some in the series are stronger than others, but I’d argue that all stay true to the basic purpose of bringing obscure, untold stories from the gnarliest corners of the world to a Western audience. The liner notes of the original 2006 DVD explains:

The news is all bad. Sitting in our Western comfort, it’s easy to forget that most of the world is hell. War, disease, famine, genocide, and poverty dot the globe like big chunks of cancer. Basically, humans are fucked.

We thought we already knew something about current international events, but we didn’t really know shit until we set out and started doing some serious traveling. These aren’t vacations to Disney World, Paris or even some Outward Bound safari. These are trips to the places that you see once in a while on TV and think, ‘No way in hell am I ever going there.’

Well, we went so that you never, ever have to go for yourself as long as you live. We went, and we’re glad we did. Here are the stories to prove it…

What the VICE Guide to Travel offers is what some of my most difficult, but ultimately most illuminating, travels have: a new perspective on this crazy-ass world we live in. It’s tough to watch—the visit to the shell of a high school in the episode in Chernobyl made me tear up—but I think it’s some of the most interesting and important stuff out there in the travel world.

Which brings us to the new series, the VICE Guide to Liberia. The 8-part series is being released on their website; currently, the first 4 installments are up. Prepare yourself: this is some severely brutal material.

While I don’t think I’ll be going to Liberia any time soon, I’m glad that these guys did, and that the stories they found are getting told. In a world of SEO, Twittered trends and Top-10 lists, the VICE Guide to Travel gets down to the unmarketable, inconvenient bone of what travel (for me) is all about: seeing how other people live, and glimpsing into the strange stories that compose this world.

(Okay, so, it may or may not be a secret fantasy of mine to one day tag along on one of these installments. But for now, the website’ll due.)

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9 Responses to “Forget the Guidebook, This is the VICE Guide to Travel”


  1. 1 Shawn January 23, 2010 at 6:50 am

    This may be the first time I have ever wanted to go to Disneyland. Being tits deep in idiot tourists sounds pretty damn good right now after watching the first 2 Liberia eps and the trailers. These Liberia videos are crazy. I definitely see what you mean, they’re not for tourists and on the other hand they’re not Jackass Travel. It’s almost a mis-classification to call them travel videos because they’re not exactly demonstrating how you too can enjoy those locations. They’re really cool though! As with a lot of good documentaries, you almost have to stop once in a while and remind yourself that it isn’t fiction.

    Ok, time for Liberia #3… I hate the way their videos are organized on the site. It’s a pain in the ass to find the next video in a series.

  2. 2 laurenquinn January 23, 2010 at 11:12 am

    I hear ya. The first DVD series was more explicitly “travel”; the subsequent ones seem to have branched out into more general journalism. But I still think they fall within the classification of travel—it’s not all about how you can enjoy locations, where to stay, what to eat, you know? I guess I’d call them more journalistic travelogues, most definitely not service-oriented.

    Yeah, website’s a pain. Still love it tho!

  3. 3 Craig January 23, 2010 at 11:23 am

    Lauren:

    If you ever have the opportunity to travel to Cambodia, you’ll learn that many travelers visit the shooting ranges there. In some strange way, those ranges and the opportunity to shoot weapons may actually bring more awareness of the genocide. Why? Because most travelers who visit the ranges also make trips to the landmine museum near Siam Reap, the SR-21 prison and the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. I’m well versed on the history of the genocide but that wasn’t the point of the post, it was merely to present five unique (yes, “bad ass”) travel experiences.

    What I’m completely confused by is that you say the idea of shooting weapons in Cambodia makes you want to vomit, yet, there’s a photo of you holding an AK-47 in Colombia! WTF?

    I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that more than 250,000 people have lost their lives in the conflict there at the hands of the FARC, ELN, right wing paramilitaries and Colombian military…so you go there, pose with a pretty smile and an AK-47 then post it on your site with the caption “Good times with the Colombian military.” Seriously?

    You further say that “There’s a certain romance with violence and danger that people who have no real experience with violence and danger have. It’s exciting, enlivening, visceral and real.” Are you kidding me?

    Go talk to some campesinos in the countryside and ask them if they’re having “good times with the Colombian military.” Ask them if there’s any “romance” in the danger that they face on a daily basis?

    Now I’m the bad guy for writing a simple graf about shooting weapons in Cambodia? If that’s not total hypocrisy, I don’t know what is. Before you try to punch me through your computer screen you might want to take a glance in the mirror.

    Now having said that, I love your site and you make some great posts here! You’ve dug up some great video links too. Keep up the good work and I actually do appreciate your honest criticism and feedback. Seriously

    • 4 laurenquinn January 23, 2010 at 12:09 pm

      Well, that’s some honest and deserved feedback. A couple clarifications:

      In regards to the photo, I posted it out of context, so I can see how it gave a completely hypocritical impression. The photo was taken at Ciudad Perdida, where the military is stationed to guard the site from looters. Our trekking group ate dinner with some of kids in the military, got to talking, the boys were asking them about their guns, one thing led to another. The photo certainly toes the line, perhaps going over, though because I was there for the whole interaction, I feel like it doesn’t. It was actually a really nice evening, and I got to learn a lot more about what it’s like to be a young kid in the Colombian military. (For the record, I was offered to go on one of those cocaine factory tours during the trek, but declined.) But thanks for saying I have a pretty smile.

      Your gripe with the quoted text doesn’t make any sense at all to me—you’re saying exactly what I’m saying. “It’s exciting, enlivening, visceral and real” is written to capture the romanticized perspective mentioned in the previous sentence. I realize it’s slightly more complex writing than one encounters in a simple service piece, but was it really that opaque?

      You’re right that I vilify the perspective of your piece, and that’s not fair. Like I said, it struck a nerve; no one else I showed it to got that riled. I suppose more than anything, it was the simplistic and haphazard execution of the piece (for instance, not researching the cocaine tours, and making an incorrect reference to slang: “yeyo” instead of “yayo”) that I had a problem with. I feel subjects as intense as these deserve a more complex treatment, not nuggetized paragraphs under a perky umbrella of “totally bad-ass travel experiences.” In the piece I used the Colombian photo in, I was trying to explore the deeper ramifications of extreme tourism; seeing such travel experiences presented in a simplistic service piece bummed me out.

      Your description of the gun range visit in conjunction with broader explorations of Cambodian genocide was a lot more interesting the hey-isn’t-this-cool approach of the piece. I think it’d make a fascinating piece that would do the horror and complexity of the issue justice. (For instance, VICE shoots guns in Chernobyl, but gives equal treatment to visits to the rubbled remains of towns.) I know we’re all under pressure to write round-ups and top 5 lists, but some subjects deserve more than that. Which is what I like about the in-depth and unflinching approach of VICE.

      (PS—you look like you’re a lot bigger than me, so the punching comment was probably not a strong move on my part.)

  4. 5 Craig January 23, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    That’s the problem with the web and blogging, anything can be taken out of context and you don’t always have time to explain. I’m sure I could write a 3,500 word feature on the ranges in Cambodia but this was a simple round-up…And, I’ve got no problems with your trip in Colombia, I was just pointing out some irony. I might be there in March.

    As for the cocaine, it’s technically llello in Spanish but I’ve seen it spelled both yayo and yeyo.

    Again, awesome blog and thanks for the comment! Being from Oakland, I imagine you’re pretty tough and can throw a good punch. I’m pretty quick though so I’m certain that I’d be able to dodge your fist;)

  5. 6 laurenquinn January 23, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    Thanks to E-40, us Bay Area kids are pretty wedded to “yay.”

    You should write a 3500-word feature on the ranges of Cambodia. I’m serious.

  6. 7 Ekua January 24, 2010 at 9:14 pm

    I love hanging out it Dolores Park… I can’t think of many other places where there is a constant stream of free entertainment 😉 Thanks for sharing this stuff. Although two things stand out that kinda bother me: 1) The people involved on the Vice Guides end look a little too homogeneous for my tastes and 2) I’ve only seen the trailer, but it seems like it focuses on the extreme which could present a somewhat unbalanced view of the countries they’re exploring. But of course I still have to watch some full episodes.

  7. 8 laurenquinn January 26, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    I don’t think VICE is trying to present a balanced view; they’re trying to go to “the places in the world no one else wants to.” That’ll inherently present an unbalanced picture—definitely important to keep in mind! And while there’s some racial diversity among the hosts in the series, they’re almost exclusively 20/30-something uber-hip men. Which I guess is their target audience. I just like that they’re doing something a little different—and have the funding and wherewithal to do it.

    How bout this for a fantasy: you and me team up, and make our own offbeat travel series. I like that idea!

  8. 9 Ekua January 28, 2010 at 12:08 am

    I like your thinking about this offbeat travel series…


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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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