Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘Thailand

Retreating into smaller comforts

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In the month of February, I spent too much money, and made it worse by not doing any work. I spent a full 30 days in Thailand (I arrived in January) and ate, drank, and indulged. It was enjoyable. But now, in April, I am paying the cost. I’m stuck in Japan, living in a hostel, and as I write this I am in arrears.

So, I’ve drastically reduced spending and have been budgeting hard. I’ve been spending £25 or less per day, including my accommodation costs, which is not bad for Japan. I’ve also enjoyed these quieter days and I have enjoyed working more. Every day I’ve been pitching more and working hard on commissions. I need to earn that cash and the side effect has been a leaning-in to the work, which I’ve embraced, gotten into a routine, and enjoyed the process.

Meanwhile, I’ve also been watching a lot of Netflix and listening to music. I am reading less, but writing more, which is how it should be. Consuming less of other people’s words and creating more of my own. I’ve been working on an essay, a piece of short fiction, a couple of commissioned news features. It’s weird because I am averaging a huge six or seven hours of screentime per day. But it’s because my iPad Mini — one of my best purchases ever — is my entertainment centre as well as a capable computer. In fact, sometimes I prefer working on my iPad (using it with a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard) over my laptop, although for serious writing and editing the laptop still reigns supreme.

My days look like this: getting up around noon, coffee, laptop. Work until around 4pm, eat brunch. Have dinner around 8 or 9pm. Yes, it’s not very healthy. But it has felt good, if sometimes stressful. I’ve been getting by on one or two meals a day. I’ve lost weight. But I feel more focused than I have for some time. It feels like I’m trimming off the fat and regaining focus.

These quieter days, with less busyness, have inspired a quietness within me too. What were we all so busy for anyway? I mean, really. What was it all for? Consumerism encourages you to spend beyond your means, to buy things you don’t need. During these pandemic times, do you really need that Gucci bag, that expensive watch, the latest gadget? The people who have the most have the most to lose. But there is a joy in appreciating the things that cannot be so easily bought. Having a Zoom pub quiz with some of my oldest friends, over three different time zones. Daily calls with K. Enjoying the fact I have writing as my job, passion, and money maker.

We have been spoiled. As an expat in Beijing, I would eat out all the time. Partly out of necessity (I did not cook often and eating out is cheap in China) and partly for enjoyment. Socialising with friends on the weekend and we’d go to restaurants and bars. Our parents would not have dreamed of such luxury, especially on such a frequent basis. What I miss though are not the luxuries. One of the memories I’ve been feasting on is when I was in Chiang Mai, in February, walking alone around a square filled with tables, people, and the conviviality of early evening. I wandered around looking for something to eat and found a stall and ordered off of their limited but specialised menu. It was northern Thai cuisine and I ordered a dish of liver with rice. It arrived after a while, while I checked out everyone, people watching. The liver was tender, the spicing delicious, and the rice gave the soft background the dish needed. It didn’t cost the earth, but my memory lingers over that dish (my mouth is watering as I write this!) — it is not just the food, but the feeling of pure freedom that accrues in retrospect. The freedom was the ultimate luxury. The memory of it a moveable feast.

Lately, I’ve survived on sweet potatoes (nourishing, nutritious, feel-good food) and I have been cooking more. Egg-fried rice, cup noodles, these cheap fairy cakes that offer great calorie-to-yen value. But I also cooked fish. Splashed on pineapple. And lately, I have bought beef. I season the beef well, heat the pan with a generous amount of oil. I whisk a couple of eggs in a bowl. I place the beef into the hot oil, to sizzle the outside on both sides, and then put the beef into the eggs. I make sure the beef is properly drenched in the egg, covered with its yellowy goodness, then finish off the beef in the pan, and put the eggs in with them, and scramble those eggs with the beef. I serve my steak and eggs, and reader, it tastes fantastic. Simple, pleasurable, joyful. Each mouthful a world of savouriness.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

April 26, 2020 at 4:56 pm

Chiang Mai, productivity, and the need for fixity

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I have been in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for two weeks. We have entered February and I have begun to feel the need, urgent and rising, to start getting my nose to the grindstone.

January was taken by time spent in Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Thailand. And it was a wonderful month.

The time I’ve spent in Chiang Mai, so far, has been good. I have succumbed to all the sensations this country, and city, is so well-equipped to provide. But I remember now why I didn’t quite gel with this place in the first place (I first visited Chiang Mai in 2016). It’s to do with the blissfully chilled-out vibe; the sultry heat; the jungle air. This place pulses with a certain energy, like a powerful narcotic, that makes it extremely difficult — for me at least — to be productive.

It really does feel like straining against a strong drug, or a seductive spell, that has slipped over me, and I need to fight and make enormous effort in order to break free of this enchantment. As a freelancer, and a traveling one, I need to work and to slip back into productive schedules otherwise I can kiss this lifestyle goodbye.

Different people gravitate towards different energies. Some people fall in love with Chiang Mai: attracted to its wonderful combination of nature, cafes, traveller, hippie/Thai qualities. Although many people have remarked that my own personality would be a good fit for this place (I generally seem laidback, easy-going, and even, perhaps, lazy) it is a misjudgement. I find myself leaning more towards grittier, dirtier places with dynamism to spare. There are limits. Manila, capital of the Philippines, probably has too much grit than I can take.

But Beijing, where I was based for six years, was gritty and dirty, until it was cleaned up in the past few years. Most travellers are not very fond of Bangkok, preferring natural Chiang Mai or the lazy paradise islands of the south, but I like Bangkok and its superior energy, the pace, the grittiness of its daily life.

Chiang Mai has wreaked havoc on my productivity and I find myself wanting to leave this place.

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Last year, when I travelled to five different places over four months, my most productive time was spent in Taipei, Taiwan. There’s a good reason for this. I was living in a hostel, which I ended up staying in for over a month. The hostel allowed residents to be quite self-sufficient and I quickly found local landmarks. I fell into a routine. Oolong tea to wake up with, brewed in the common area at my hostel. Go out for a sweet potato bought from the nearby convenience store for breakfast. Walk around for a bit. Return to the hostel to work, or else head to a nearby café to work. Lunch at a local cafeteria which was cheap as chips. Have a bubble tea in the afternoon. Nap. Or swim at the local gym. Evening, head to the night market for dinner. Night-time: work in the kitchen of my hostel, which was quiet and low-ceilinged, and which was conducive to long bouts of writing.

The month I spent in Singapore was also fairly productive; ditto for the half-month I spent in Seoul. But Taipei was king of a productive me.

I find myself in want of this kind of schedule now. I will continue to travel, but I am aware that I may need to make some kind of big change. To find a spot to settle in, in order so I can work and achieve the goals that are important to me. I cannot stay in Chiang Mai. This place destroys my sense of achieving goals. But today, I am faring better, as I write this blog post. But having a fixity — a fixed place; a stable routine — is something I will need to find again. But where shall I go? What city shall I call my temporary home? This is the other question that haunts me. Recommendations welcome.

My writing life

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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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A week in Hong Kong

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We met in Thailand when I asked you “where are you from?” and you replied “I’m from Thailand”. We agreed to meet again in Hong Kong, an island in-between us. You work in Bangkok and I work in Beijing.

We walked along the promenade of Kowloon harbour, looking at the lights that light up the sky. It’s a sight I’ve seen many times but it was the first time for you. You took photos and I was glad that you were there. That first night in Hong Kong was slow and easy, the next day we’d ride the ferry and watch the clouds reflect in the water.

The escalator is the longest outside escalator in the world. It transports you up the hill while either side are cafes and shops, bars and restaurants. Buildings are called needle buildings, tall and slender, reaching up. I look at them and marvel at their vertical structure, holding occupants whose lives I don’t know, each window a room.

We took a taxi to The Peak, which offers wide angle views of the city stretched out before us. I laugh when I hear an English friend refer to it as “the bay area” when I return to Beijing.

We stay up there, on The Peak, until the evening. The night is beautiful. We take a bus back down. Trying to remember chronologically now is not easy. Events in the memory just pop into my head. There was a cafe we stumbled into just before it started to rain. I ordered a latte. Outside the water drummed onto the streets and the cars. Inside the air conditioning made it a little too cold. It was an afternoon, just a week ago, and it’s already receding. The coffee was damn good though.

I ate a lot and felt hungrier than usual. You noticed. You were also sad sometimes and I couldn’t figure out why exactly.

On one of the days we took the metro to the island where the big Buddha sits. He was wreathed in fog looking majestic. I also took you to the Wisdom Path. I first went there nine years ago as a youth embarking on my first year abroad. I was eighteen and carried with me a copy of On the Road.

We sat and chatted one evening at the hotel. You were lying against the headboard of the bed while I sat at the desk. The TV was on. I said I liked Thailand because everything is so cheap. And you ranted (in your soft, gentle way) about how you didn’t like how foreigners said that, and you really didn’t like how your Korean boss would go to an expensive restaurant and order a lot and you had to join in and pay. “She don’t care about me, about us”, you said. I listened and smiled. I really appreciated that conversation. It pays to just listen sometimes.

I left the hotel first while you had to spend a day alone. My flight was earlier. You hugged me close and kissed me. You said “see you” and “bye bye” while I said nothing as I looked at your eyes and your head softly laid on the end of the bed. And I was gone.

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

June 3, 2016 at 5:50 pm

February 20th — in Thailand

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I’ve been to Thailand before. It’s a fun place.

It’s 5.17am and I’m in my hotel room, just off the road, in some seedy town on the island of Phuket.

I’ve been here a few days and I’m still jetlagged, operating English hours under the hot, Thai sun.

I’m here for a week, making the most of cheap flights and southeast Asian weather, before returning to the grim cold of Beijing.

Today I woke up, went to buy a ticket to go to Krabi (I need to catch the boat in a couple of hours), had some food and then went back to my hotel.

I then slept until early evening, whereupon I took myself to the beach and swam, bobbing up and down until the sun sank into the ocean. I jumped up at that moment, the moment it disappeared, as if I could jump higher than the horizon.

I went back to the hotel and showered, and had dinner and then walked the length of the beach and back. (I did the drinking and the partying yesterday). Then I binge watched the show Californication. I took a break to write the rest of chapter one of a novel I’ve started writing. And continued my binge until I felt the urge to write again, which is where the past meets the present in this blog post.

I’m here alone, traveling solo. Several people have asked me about how it’s been, traveling alone — from the guy at the check-in at Heathrow airport, to the travel operator I bought my ticket to Krabi from, it seems like it’s almost a predicament rather than a position of possibility.

But I like traveling alone. You can do whatever you want. And right now, it’s unalloyed freedom. Balance is important and this week in the sun and the sea and the palm trees and the delicious pad thai and the sense of feeling you get from detaching from “reality” (which is often a reality spent staring at a screen and endless, pointless updates) is a week worth its weight in gold.

It’s a week that will sunny up the weeks to come, and help the creativity flow. I’m a writer and so I chose a week of sun. It seemed like a good idea.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

February 19, 2016 at 10:42 pm

Satisfying moments when freelancing

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Written by Lu-Hai Liang

September 20, 2015 at 6:12 am

VIDEO: A year in the life of a freelance journalist abroad

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In early 2014, I decided to buy a new camera. With it I started to take short videos that captured how life unfolded. I would record at dinners, while I was commuting, when I’d travel and so on. It wasn’t every day, but over a year I’d collected enough footage to make a short film about my life as a freelance journalist.

The video shows what Beijing is like, my horribly cramped former living quarters, what I get up to on my off-hours, and includes footage from my North Korea reporting trip and other travels. I hope to make more videos for my YouTube channel this year, so please consider subscribing.

This blog is a guide on becoming a roving freelancer, as well as a chronicle of my journey. The above video, I hope, fills in some of the blanks: a visual record. A written round-up of 2014 can be found here: Freelancing in Beijing: One Year On.

The video was shot on a Canon S120 and edited in Windows Movie Maker. These are the tools I currently have, and I intend to make the most of them. For more on this, see these posts: 6 journalism resolutions for the new year, and getting into video storytelling: using a cheap compact camera.

Traveling + Writing

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China is big. Very big. Asia – or East Asia to be more precise, is bigger still. It includes the economic powerhouses of Japan and South Korea. It includes the cultural stew and rapid developments of south-east Asia, of which Indonesia is the most feted. It includes the basket case of North Korea and the fortress of Burma.

One of the draws of being based in Beijing was the relative ease of traveling to all these exciting locations. In the reality, the distances and airfares involved in flying around Asia is not so convenient. But still, I have spent the past week in the idylls that are Thailand’s islands.

Originally my plans were to incorporate travel & journalism – to go somewhere and experience the country while digging up stories, interviewees and new angles. It was a very appealing idea.

This time I didn’t do that. I just wanted to relax. It was a very valuable vacation. I read, wrote and jotted down notes and ideas, scraps of articles and blogs while sipping on a coconut, mango and lassi shake. I wrote the intro for an article, this blog, and wrote down a couple of pitches in detail, and jotted down ideas for others.

Sometimes, a holiday is exactly what you need to refresh the freelancing imagination…

In Koh Lanta, Thailand.

In Koh Lanta, Thailand.