Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘travel

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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18th May — In Beijing

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It’s 28 degrees outside and hazy. Beijing’s spring is the shortest season. Soon the sweltering heat will arrive. Blue skies have been fairly common and it’s always good to see the city suddenly green.

I finished two books recently: John Updike’s Rabbit Redux and Evan Osnos’ Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China. 

The latter is a nonfiction title that is the most comprehensive, evocative, and insightful book on contemporary China I have read. The author was China correspondent for the New Yorker. He is widely regarded as brilliant.

His book is a page-turner, written with narrative drive, and telling the China story with great human stories. He had incredible access to some of China’s most notable and influential figures. And the story he has carved out; of rising fortune, middle class excess, and, later on, spiritual searching, manages to capture China with something approaching the greatness of a novel.

Checking out the book’s Notes on Sources I was awed by Osnos’ depth of research and reading. This guy seemed to have read everything. Was he just reading and writing all the time?

I put this question to a friend of mine, someone who has met Osnos, and who knew his Chinese assistant. My friend told me that the assistant told him that Osnos just wrote all the time, from morning to night.

And it was such a basic realization: to be outstanding, you have to work extremely hard.

It’s obvious of course. But we kid ourselves by imagining secret elixirs, fabled shortcuts, magic ingredients. It’s baloney. Only through work can accomplishment be achieved.

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I haven’t been working so hard. I’ve been having a great time.

I’ve been socializing with friends, drinking and partying. We went to a music festival that was very enjoyable. I’ve been working out and tried out boxing and Muay Thai. This year so far has been a hoot.

I’ve had very little journalistic published this year.

Last week I finally finished an essay I spent two months laboring over. It’s 2000 words long. I sent it to the editor but he has not deemed to reply yet, not even to acknowledge that he’s received it. I know editors are busy people. But for a freelance it can be demoralizing and frustrating to hear such silence. All I can do is patiently wait. And hope.

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Next week I am going to Hong Kong to meet up with someone. It’ll be a vacation. Someone asked not long ago how can I afford to travel so much. I didn’t know quite how to respond. Truth is I don’t really know. I do not receive parental handouts. And the money I make is not by any means a great amount. In fact it’s only around a little more than double what my rent is.

I think it may be psychological. It is true what many of those travel bloggers say, that travel actually is not as expensive as what people may imagine. And that as long as you account for accommodation and things like flight tickets travel is just like being home — you still have to eat and get around and the usual expenses but you’re just doing it somewhere else.

I think that mindset is good to have. You always have to buy things to eat and in Asia that’s usually cheap. Hostels and even hotels can also be similar to what you pay for a monthly apartment. So travel is only restricted by time and busyness, your conceptual perception of how much time you have. For a freelance, who thinks in freelance ways, it comes easily. I don’t burden myself too much though, on the frugality, while traveling. Because, what’s the point?

4 weeks in Yunnan — in pictures

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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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Part two: what exactly is a freelance foreign correspondent?

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Riding the Pyongyang Metro.  Going to North Korea has so far been my only instance of travel + journalism. I aim to remedy this.

Riding the Pyongyang Metro. Going to North Korea has so far been my only instance of travel + journalism. I aim to remedy this.

So far this year I have traveled to Thailand twice, but entirely not for journalism reasons. But I have also traveled to North Korea and this was for journalism. I filed two stories and a photo gallery. But they were features. I did not seek out war zones or conflict areas, natural disasters or political turmoil. I did not attend any riots or charter a plane to any typhoon-hit areas. When news happens, foreign correspondents will scramble and make a dash to the area affected.

Later this year I am planning to go to Myanmar. It seems a fascinating country (the second largest in southeast Asia) on the cusp of so many developments. I want to go and explore, seek out stories and get to know the place better. I had been developing a Myanmar story for months now, checking up on it, cultivating a source, and a major newspaper was interested in the story. But then someone beat me to the punch with a similar but not-quite-the-same story and the newspaper declined, so now I will attempt to sell it elsewhere.

There’re a lot of unknowns so I feel like I have to go there to get a better nose for the angles that might sell, that might interest editors who don’t really care. They worry not about how interesting something is, but how relevant and resonant a story might be.

I should do a lot of background reading (and video watching) to get a better sense of the country, arrange to go there, talk to as many people as I can find while there, and travel around inside. It might take a month or so. I cannot simply parachute in and expect to write things.

Should a freelance foreign correspondent be expected to dig into time and funds in pursuit of stories while living awhile somewhere new?

I don’t know. I only know what I want to do. And that’s to go to Myanmar. To see what it’s like, find stories and write them. But I will have to try to ensure the best chance possible of being published and being paid. Travel without publication and payment for a traveling journalist is not sustainable and an untenable luxury.

For part one in this series go hereA post on travel + journalism is here.