Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘brent crane

Bangkok & Chiang Mai

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Last month I went to Thailand, for the second time this year.

I was in Bangkok for about a week in total, and several days in Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second city and about an hour away, by plane, north of Bangkok.

Jungle and hills surround it and it doesn’t feel like a city at all, more like an overgrown village with a temporary leasehold over the jungle.

Quite a few of my friends told me about their love for Chiang Mai. It’s a very chill, laid-back place with lots of cafes and guesthouses. But for me it was too chill. I prefer the raw energy of Bangkok which feels alive and visceral — intense — like life has been crammed into every inch.

In Chiang Mai I happened to meet up with Brent Crane, a fellow freelancer, who was on a journey traveling overland from Cambodia, where he’d spent a year at the Phnom Penh Post, to Nepal. Brent’s a prolific freelancer (and a guest contributor to the site) and by the time I’d met him in Chiang Mai he’d already sold features to The New Republic and Men’s Journal, making more than enough to cover his travel expenses.

I was taking it easy; reading and writing more of my novel. In Chiang Mai I didn’t do much of the things you’re supposed to do (elephant riding, trekking, jungle zip-lining, etc). I didn’t really have the appetite to do them so I didn’t.

If you’re there though try Counting Sheeps (sic) hostel. It’s comfortable, centrally located, and very good. Say hi to Goieurh too, who taught me how to play checkers. And you really should check out the Sunday evening market in the old town.

In Bangkok, I made a new friend who I came across playing Pokemon Go. It was on the steps next to Paragon, a shopping mall in downtown.

I also spent a couple of nights in Sofitel Bangkok, a five-star hotel. Having written for travel publications such as Wanderlust, CNN Travel, and NineMSN, I got a deal.

The suite they gave me was grand and lovely. It was the biggest hotel room I have ever stayed in. I was chauffeured to and from the airport in a Mercedes, which had WiFi and hot towels. I had my own personal butler and access to the VIP lounge, where there was served wine, canapes, fruit, cakes, cheese, prawn cocktails, and other beverages. There was a cool swimming pool, and breakfast buffet with a rack of honeycomb. The bathroom had Hermes toiletries.

It was the best I’ve ever been treated — a truly luxurious and memorable experience at the Sofitel Bangkok. Did I mention dinner on their rooftop restaurant L’Appart? It was elegant French fare — delicious scallops — and I had great company.

Having twice stayed in five-star hotels this year, the experience is rather agreeable I have to say and checking online the expense for these hotels in Asia isn’t as extravagant as you may think so it’s worth spoiling yourself sometimes. The experience really does linger long in the memory.

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Top six most popular posts 2015

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Carly J. Hallman has a degree in English Writing & Rhetoric from St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. She lives in Beijing, China. Year of the Goose is her first novel.

Here are the six most popular posts of this year, that were also published this year, in ascending order:

Coming in at number six, it’s A freelancer’s journey in payment: my first five paid-for articles. This blog entry was a journey through my proto-freelancing career and how I took the first tentative steps into getting paid for my writing. The idea for this post came from a reader, and I enjoyed remembering those early days.

In at numero cinco, it’s Six dream gifts for a freelance journalist. Does what it says on the tin.

We’re at number four of the most popular blog posts 2015 and it’s another one about freelancing and payment. It is — Part one: freelance journalists on their first ever paid commissions. The post is filled with useful tips about how to pitch and how to contact editors. Part two is equally good.

And we’re getting close to the top. In at number three is Brent Crane’s guest post for the site, a doozy of a read and an inspiring tale for all budding freelancers, it’s A Writer’s Journey: The Adventures of a Roaming Journalist in AsiaIt’s the story of a fellow freelancer and his travels in Burma and China; failing and failing better; success and triumph and hanging out with KIA soldiers in the jungle of northern Burma. Read it.

The second most popular post is: How I became a novelist in Beijing. Written by my friend Carly J Hallman, it’s her tale of how she came to write her debut novel Year of the Goose which has just been released, incidentally. Her novel has been featured by the BBC and Mens Journal as a recommended book for December. Her guest post is a fantastic evocation of what it means to be a creative writer in a city far from home, in a country capitalized by the outlandish.

And……the number one most popular entry of 2015 is………

Top five mobile phones for journalists

My personal favourites of this year:

Burmese Days

Why did I move to Beijing?

How I learned to love reporting (and life) again while in Burma

Satisfying moments when freelancing

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

December 16, 2015 at 6:33 pm

A Quick Trip South: a newspaper reporter in Cambodia takes a weekend break — by Brent Crane

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I wanted to get out of the city last weekend so I went down to Kampot, an old colonial town near the coast and the Vietnamese border. I left Saturday morning and would be meeting friends from work who had arrived there the day before. I took a Sorya tour bus that left at 8:15 AM for $7. It was to be a four hour drive. The seats were spacious and well-cushioned, with a generous air-con and Khmer music was played only intermittently and at a fair volume.

I was anxious to get out of Phnom Penh. It is an odd thing for me to be gainfully employed in an Asian country or to put it another way, to be immobile in one. Had this been China a year ago I would have seen the whole south coast by now. As it is, I’ve barely been able to explore Phnom Penh.

The other day, in preparation for future travel, I bought a fold-out map at a bookstore. When I open it up and gloss over the names they make me hotfooted: Battambang, Ratanakiri, Kratie, Sihanoukville, the Cardamon Mountains—how exotic, how alluring! But for now, they remain destinations for weekend jaunts and precious vacation days.

On the road to Kampot I took in the scenes and tried to make sense of them. In Phnom Penh I could learn a lot but a huge part of the Kingdom remained outside city limits. Being in a capital city is often more useful in showing you what a country isn’t than what it is. It is most always a haven for the elite, the middle class and, certainly it is true in Phnom Penh, the expats. The true face of the country is in the boonies. In Cambodia, eighty percent of its nearly fifteen million people are farmers. They live in stilted huts and look to the cycle of the rains like an investment banker watches the stock market. Life has changed little there. Mother Nature still rules supreme and superstition is prevalent. In China they would call it “backwards”. It is a place of witchcraft and magic, where authorities might accuse a man of trying to murder his neighbors with a bewitched plant; where victims might respond to an unjust land-grab by cursing the thieves. Some aspects of the modern world have trickled in, like cellphones and TVs, but they tend to be absorbed into the belief system rather then change it, being presented as offerings to dead ancestors or becoming possessed by spirits.

Being in a capital city is often more useful in showing you what a country isn’t than what it is

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A response to “DSLR vs Point-and-Shoot” — by Brent Crane

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The author with rebel soldiers in Laiza, Kachin state in November, 2014.

The author with rebel soldiers in Laiza, Kachin state in November, 2014.

I first started getting into photography while I studied abroad in southwest China in 2011. I had a Sony Cybershot HX9 point-and-shoot camera. With that I was able to get some really strong, high-resolution photos, arguably as good as any mid-range DSLR could do. A couple of years later I upgraded to a Nikon D5100 DSLR, which is my main piece today. There are differences.

As Lu-Hai said, the DSLR is less discreet. You have very little time when you arrive on a scene to snap truly candid photos before people notice that a photographer is in their midst. The point-and-shoot is not immune to this, but it’s easier to sneak by undetected with one than a DSLR, if that’s what you’re trying to do. Typically, I don’t worry about hiding my picture taking. If someone doesn’t want their photo taken they should be able to see me doing it and let me know themselves (and many people have).

Another point. It’s assumed DSLR photos are always going to be of a superior quality but this isn’t true. Point-and-shoot technology is really fantastic these days. Makers like Sony and Leica produce some superb point-and-shoots that can capture as good or better images than mid-range DSLRs. Really, what makes a DSLR better depends on the lens you have on it.

I was unimpressed with the stock lens that my D5100 came with so I bought a $140 Nikon 50mm prime lens from Best Buy. It was incapable of zoom or auto-focus but it took in a lot of light and produced some really high-resolution photos—when you got the focus right. Its limited frame, inability to zoom and manual focus made it a challenge but also a teacher. I learned to take care in each image and, while I lost a lot of potentially good photos to blurriness, that lens made me a better photographer.

It was the only lens I had on a recent jaunt through China and Burma and I got a bunch of photo essays published with it. I was able to capture images that I probably wouldn’t have thought of taking with my compact. It didn’t necessarily allow me to take better photos, but its limitations forced me to adopt a different perspective. In photography, that’s everything.

Brent Crane is a journalist with bylines in The Atlantic, Daily Telegraph, Aljazeera, Roads & Kingdoms, The Diplomat and VICE, among others. He can be found tweeting @bcamcrane

His previous guest post is here.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

May 25, 2015 at 6:05 am

A Writer’s Journey: The Adventures of a Roaming Journalist in Asia – by Brent Crane

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Brent Crane (pictured) is an American journalist who traveled through China and Myanmar for six months. Along the way he published stories with the DailyTelegraph, Aljazeera, Roads & Kingdoms, The Diplomat and VICE, among others. He also shot for the BBC. This is his guest post for the site.

Brent Crane (pictured) is an American journalist who traveled through China and Myanmar for six months. Along the way he published stories with the Daily Telegraph, Aljazeera, Roads & Kingdoms, The Diplomat and VICE, among others. He also shot for the BBC. He can be found tweeting @bcamcrane and his blog is thecongeechronicles.tumblr.com. This is his guest post for the site.

I landed in Beijing on June 16th, 2014, in the early afternoon on a one-way ticket from Boston. I had just turned 24. China was not new to me. I’d been before in 2011 when I had studied in Kunming and also before that in 2010 for the Shanghai World Expo. But this was my first time in the nation’s capital and I thought it’s very grey here.

I stayed with a friend from a study abroad program at the Beijing University of Science and Technology. When she and others asked what I was doing in China I’d get shy and mumble, “freelance journalism”, and felt like a five year old saying, “I want to be an astronaut”.

I wasn’t confident because I really didn’t know what a freelance journalist was or if I could even be one and I usually stumbled when I tried to explain anything. I’d come to China off a whim and depending on who I was talking to they’d either be impressed or think I was an idiot.

Now, seven months later I can answer people with more assuredness. I have written and shot for the Diplomat, the Daily Telegraph, VICE, Al-Jazeera and the BBC, among others. In the name of “journalism”, I have been smuggled into rebel-held territory in Myanmar from China, toured refugee camps, reported on one of the year’s largest and most daring democracy movements, sampled hairy stinky tofu and tracked down a Hunanese peasant who claimed that a tea brewed from animal feces had cured her cancer. I sampled that too.

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Freelance Journalism: Adventure & Travel (Getting to Know Asia)

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I'd like to do more of this. But without the cameras. A notebook will do.

I’d like to do more of this. But without the cameras. A notebook will do.

Hello. By the time you read this I should have already arrived in Beijing, after flying from England which is where I have spent the past 27 days. Time to get back to the Big Beige.

January is a busy month for me, with a couple of commissions, and most urgently the planning of a trip to Myanmar. I’ve talked about it in previous posts but finally it should be on the cards. I have a story related to it that I’ve been developing for a while now. But the biggest reason I want to go there is simply to look around and make it less unwelcoming: to get to know it.

Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) was once a British colony and is the second largest country, after Indonesia, in southeast Asia. That fact alone, its bigness, is beguiling.

It is a Buddhist country, nominally now a democracy after decades of military imposed rule, filled with unspoilt landscapes, and yet riven with hate crimes and ethnic conflict, as well as drug barons, mines and smugglers. A perfect recipe then for a journalist.

This year I intend to go out more from my Beijing hub. I want to have bases spread throughout Asia. Once you’re familiar, once you’ve mapped out and made a place previously unknown known, it’s so much easier to grasp the geography of traveling.

It’s part of why I like this idea of freelance foreign correspondence: the adventure. I’d gotten complacent, too comfortable and sequestered in Beijing. It was seeing a fellow freelance having so much fun that spurred me. He has been journeying around China and Myanmar traveling and writing and getting published. Goddamit! I want some of that! Some of that momentum and adrenaline and the wild experiences. Brent Crane, I salute you!

I hope to ask him to write a guest piece about how he did it, how he traveled and wrote at the same time. Did he first travel somewhere and then look around for stories or did his successful pitches determine his itinerary? Hopefully he will oblige and teach us, because I haven’t actually done it yet and it would be good to know.

Part one: freelance journalists on their first ever (paid) commissions

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Brent Crane is an American journalist who moved to Asia in 2014. He has since traveled around China and Myanmar, scoring bylines in the Daily Telegraph, Vice, Aljazeera, and Roads & Kingdoms, among others. He can be found tweeting @bcamcrane and his blog is thecongeechronicles.tumblr.com

I first got paid for writing in a place where writers typically never get paid: an internship. I spent last winter in Washington DC writing for an international affairs journal called the American Interest. My main gig was producing short 200-400 word news analysis posts for their online blog. At the end of my time there I wrote my first-ever feature story and that is what I got paid for ($200).

Photo courtesy of Brent Crane.

Photo courtesy of Brent Crane.

My chosen topic was the unprecedented dangers of freelance reporting from the Syrian civil war and how this related to the sea change that was taking place in the world of journalism in general. I’d been turned on to the idea from a book that I found in the AI office, a memoir by freelance photojournalist Paul Conroy called “Under the Wire”.

It took me forever to narrow the subject down from “the problems faced by freelance war reporters” to “the problem faced by freelance war reporters in Syria and why this matters for journalism as a whole”; but I had a lot of help from the editors at AI.

Pitching is something you can only get better at with practice, but that experience did teach me to never stop asking myself “Yeah but why should anyone care?” when formulating a story idea. A topic being interesting is not enough. It must be newsy in some way if an editor is going to bite.

My 1500-word feature went through numerous edits. It was a major learning experience for me.

To research it I spoke with eight highly accomplished freelancers, most of whom had reported from Syria. Being able to pick their brains about how they operated as freelancers was invaluable to me as an aspiring journalist. And also they made for great first-time interviewees, having all been in my shoes at some point. Talking with them humanized the field.

Before that, a freelance journalist in my mind was a kind of mysterious character and freelancing was more of a theoretical career choice than a realistic one. Actually meeting some lone wolf writers I had a kind of lightbulb moment: If these people can do it, so can I. That was a huge confidence booster for me and a major push for me to take the leap.

And for the first time in my life I’d actually made an actual sum of money writing. Holding that check for $200 in my hands I thought anything was possible.

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