Travelling vs. Travel Writing: A Deeper Connection

“Once you know you are worthy and your story is worthy, you fight for other stories.”
― Jedidiah Jenkins

I’m gonna go ahead and say it: there’s a difference between the great travel writers and the troves of travel bloggers on the web.

The former you go to for a soul education, to live and learn through their experiences in the world and the contemplative connections they draw so thoughtfully in words. They don’t draw conclusions, they ask questions… which in turn create more questions. To them, the place itself is paled to people, situation or feeling that colours it in (and isn’t that the lesson most serial travellers learn in the end?)

The latter you might read more for practical education, maybe to learn about the intricacies of a place, the best spots to visit, how that cracked conch in the Bahamas tasted, why you shouldn’t go caving in Guatemala. To view a place through another’s eyes so that you might be enticed to venture there too.

Thailand—and actually all the expeditions I’ve done with Outpost, from Quebec to Canmore—have changed my relationship with how I write about travel. These two worlds have become married in my mind. In part, it’s my job as a journalist to describe the place, to give the audience a practical understanding of the location they’re heading to and the history that informs it.

But it’s also my job as a writer to breath life into the facts, to humanize them, to not hide my bias or objectives, but to lift my chin so that my jugular’s exposed and you too can feel the pulse there. One part fact the other part feeling, this dual sense of obligation hasn’t just changed my writing, but it’s changed the way I travel too.

Here’s how:

Travel writing makes you look for the commonalities

When I started travel writing, everything was shiny and new to me. Every difference was noteworthy. It was a beautiful time to be in my mind; the beginner’s brain, it’s inherently filled with childlike wonder and fascination that we lack too much as adults. But now, it’s not that sunsets have become less vibrant or rituals less curious, it’s just that less shocks me, I suppose.

But an equally beautiful thing has happened now, which is why I opened this post with Jedidiah Jerkins’ quote on fighting for the story of others: while I was first entranced by differences, I am now fascinated by the similarities; that despite differences in ideology, religion, or upbringing, the human condition prevails. Take Khun ya Poon for example. We couldn’t communicate with words. We could hardly pronounce each others’ names. And yet, we taught each other. And yet, with her silken hand on my shoulder, she was so eager to share her a small part of her world with me, to share her feeling of loss for the late king, to share her language and Thailand’s food. And I wanted to know. I wanted to understand, and connect and feel with her. I found in her the same compulsion my grandmother feels to fill the belly of whoever she meets, to give them something small to remember her by, not a physical thing but a feeling. I think some would call that a type of love. Now, I’m less concerned with telling my own story, less concerned with describing “the lolling hills and azure sky” and more concerned with telling my experience of others.

Travel writing makes you pay attention to the nuances

Because I feel that I must balance information with feeling, I go into every location looking through the forest for the weeds. Writing that, “Baan Dam is known as the Black Temple. It is located in Chiang Rai. It was created by late Thai artist Thawan Duchanee who had a controversial legacy during his tenure. Visiting hours are 9 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. daily, closing for an hour at noon,” is valuable information, but it doesn’t tell you that, “at first glance, you might expect to find stalls of horses or bear witness to a quick draw duel. Gator skins run the table tops and, upon closer inspection the barn like structure is held up support beams emblazoned with phallic symbols of fertility.”

Even more so, it doesn’t tell you that the artist, Thawan Duchanee was the kind of man who supported his students. Like Cherd, the man with the tinny guitar who spoke so reverently of his teacher and was given the opportunity to showcase his own art inside. You would never know that Duchanee was the kind of man who would also support an unknown food vendor by securing him a spot outside one of the most popular attractions in Chiang Mai. When you explore the details, the Black House isn’t just an off-beat temple, it’s a human legacy.

It makes you more curious

In the end, I owe a lot to travel writing. As a traveler before I started writing, I don’t think I would have asked “Who made this burger?” in Win’s shop. Or inquired any further about Apple’s pork lollipops and how he got there. Or had the guts to ask twenty strangers about their hopes and dreams at the Yi Peng festival. I would have been too absorbed in my own experience. Likely I would have been too busy looking out the window or reading a book to chat with Khun ya Poon or any of the ladies who befriended us on the train from Kanchanaburi. All these things that came to create my experience and deep affection for Thailand, I would never had have without the sense of responsibility I felt for my writing and for Outpost and for the readers.

And for that, as I go forth in my daily life as a more curious, open, attentive, you-focused human being, I am so grateful for.