Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘travel writing

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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Burmese Days

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I hadn’t done much reading or planning before I went to Burma. I had a very rough idea of where I’d travel to, but nothing was laid out — these days I don’t even book accommodation. For some reason I thought I’d take a month for Burma, which is far too long. I spent 18 days there in the end.

It was February when I went, a cold and damp month in Beijing. I left the city at night, on my way to the airport, sleet falling on my face, two days after Chinese new year. I remember that I was feeling a little down, for wintry reasons.

Trepidation was accompanying me. The country was an unknown, a chasm only to be filled in by retrospect.

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Let’s talk about these “digital nomads”

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Recently, I’ve seen a few articles describing a new trend. They’re about so-called digital nomads. They are people who travel the world, jetting from one place to another, doing work that requires simply a good WiFi connection. They might be web designers, graphics artists, app developers, or freelance writers.

What they do is location independent, not needing to punch into an office. Some do like shared office spaces, in Bali for instance. Many are freelancers. And all they need is a computer and the Internet to communicate and to transfer the work. They don’t make huge amounts of money because it’s freedom they prioritize. Southeast Asia is a hub for these nomads because this region is cheap, well-connected when you want to move on, from Vietnam to Thailand say, but still possessing coffee and WiFi.

I’ve never tried this kind of lifestyle. I work from Beijing, from where I contribute China-related journalism to various publications around the world. Sometimes they are articles that aren’t contingent on the fact I’m based in China. This is an example — I could have written that from anywhere in the world. Journalism isn’t a hugely well paid gig, especially when you’re freelance. I’ve mentioned numerous times how living in China helps as things are cheaper here, but, the truth is, Beijing, and the many enjoyments it offers, makes it only slightly better in that regard.

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I just remembered travel journalism

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Writing about traveling is a lot of people’s dream job, combining the joy of expressing the experience of travel and getting paid to do it — it’s occupational paradise (I guess).

I’ve only done one piece of pure travel journalism in my career. A long time ago now.

But I haven’t pitched travel article ideas since I’ve been freelancing from my base in Beijing. Why not? I don’t really know.

Travel journalism is incredibly competitive, and it’s a shrinking industry. With bloggers, vloggers, and hundreds of tips, listicles and guidebooks out there it’s a saturated market.

However the market for unique travel stories, as well as the more literary travel narrative still exists.

I’ve been re-reading a travel book recently, one which I highly recommend. (I bought the book years ago but have been delving into it again as I want to write a travel narrative and want to glean clues about structure and detail).

Rolf Potts’ collection of travel stories ‘Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer’ is both one of the best travel story reading experiences and one of the best travel writing manuals.

The reason why the book also serves as a guide for travel writers is because of the ingenious decision to add a postscript to each story in the book. These postscripts fill you in on the details of the process of writing the travel story; why the author left some details out, and how the narrative came together; little asides on certain experiences; and thoughts on travel itself and modern tourism. The details contained in the postscript are gold-dust and worth more than reading a dozen Q&As with travel writers, simply because the postscript is closely paired to the travel story, so you can gain a kind of skeleton key into how a travel story is formed.

One of the standout stories in the book is about when Potts decided to try to invade the set of The Beach; the 2000 film set in Thailand starring Leo Dicaprio. His attempt is zany and born of a simple desire for adventure.

Adventure…I really should try to do more travel writing.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

May 15, 2015 at 6:04 am