Time to freshen up the website for the new year, so I’ve made a few additions and changes. Firstly, I’ve added a few scans of stories that appeared in printed magazines (an increasingly rare form of media!) during 2016. These are:
- Deep in the Delta, a photo essay on the Mekong Delta for Jetstar Asia magazine.
--Strange Town, a focus on Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar, for the South China Morning Post.
--Blissful Bloom, a story about the sacred lotus for Morning Calm (Korean Air inflight).
I’ve also changed the sample story from my collection ‘Searching for Shangri La’. ‘Sweeping Meditation’ is a chronicle of my changing attitudes to the fascinating activity of sweeping leaves. There’s also an audio version of the story, so rest your eyes for ten minutes and listen to the tale unfold.
When I was about seven years old, my Dad took me to the cinema to see a film called ‘Dunkirk’ starring John Mills and Richard Attenborough, about the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of British soldiers from the beach at Dunkirk as the Germans overran France in the Second World War. It was one of the first times I had been to the cinema, and the film made a strong impression on me, particularly the scenes of helpless, terrified soldiers trying to take cover in the sand dunes as German planes dropped bombs on them and strafed them with machine-gun fire.
A few days later at my primary school, our teacher asked us to write about a book that we had read or a film that we had seen. I picked up my pen, opened my notebook and started writing about Dunkirk. Somehow the next 40 minutes flashed by and at the end of the class I had written several pages, but still hadn’t got beyond the introductory stages of the film.
The following week, when the rest of the class was given a different task, our teacher suggested that I continue with my story of the film, which I did. Again the time melted away, but at the end of class I still hadn’t finished recounting the events of the film. This process continued for several weeks, until finally I finished my account of the film, using up about 30-40 pages of my notebook. The teacher expressed great pleasure when I was done, and told me she was going to put my ‘book’ into the school library.
I had completely forgotten about this incident until a few days ago, when I was watching a film called ‘Atonement’, based on a book by Ian McEwan, who incidentally is one of my favourite writers. Near the end of the film, there was a scene of the same events at Dunkirk that suddenly unlocked my memory of all those years ago. I remembered bending over my notebook as a young boy and going into a kind of trance as the words tumbled onto the page, sensing a thrill of creating the story anew and feeling great satisfaction as I completed the last sentence.
I can’t say that I made up my mind there and then that I was going to be a writer when I grew up, but some kind of seed was sown, which gradually grew into a love of literature and of writing. I can’t even remember the name of the teacher who set us our writing task on that day so long ago, but I’ll be eternally grateful to her for unleashing a passion that I never knew existed within me.
Usually when I travel, I’m updating a guidebook, so I’m rushing around from dawn to late, checking hotels and restaurants for inclusion in the next edition of the guide. But a few weeks ago I lucked out, spending ten days on a Pandaw cruise around Ha Long Bay and the Red River Delta in Vietnam in order to write and photograph a story about it for the company’s magazine, as it was a new route that they wanted to publicise.
Loved it! Sprawled on a sun lounger, taking in the endless change of view, from towering karst outcrops to container cranes, brick kilns, fields of rice and passion fruit, locals waving from the riverbank. Wandering around small villages, watching water puppet shows, seeing conical hats made, listening to traditional songs sung by teenagers. Writing a few notes about the experience and getting to know my fellow passengers, gorging on gourmet food three times a day. Following are a few images from the trip.
If you want to read the full story, take a Pandaw cruise and read it in the Pandaw Magazine while aboard, or sign up as a subscriber on their website—www.pandaw.com.
To be a successful guidebook writer, you need not only good research and writing skills, but also a good sense of direction. This is one area of the job in which I normally feel quite confident, as I spent a few years driving minicabs in London as well as driving buses for London Transport, and I reckon if you can find your way around London, you can find your way anywhere.
When I’m on the road researching a guidebook update, I often have a list of 30 or more hotels, restaurants, bars, spas, pharmacies and so on that I need to locate each day in order to decide if they are worth recommending for the new edition of the guide. With the help of maps in the guidebook and online, I usually manage OK, but sometimes things go wildly wrong, and I always get messed up in Mae Sot.
Restoration at My Son
The My Son complex of Cham temples located in a lush valley around 40km from Hoi An is one of Vietnam's World Heritage sites and brings a steady stream of visitors every day to view the ruins of a once-powerful civilization. However, many of the ruins were in such a decrepit state that they gave little idea of how the site once was. Now a sensitive restoration project by UNESCO has brought back to life Group G of these temples, and ongoing work is transforming the ruins of Group E, which dates back to the 8th century.
Don’t you just hate the internet? I mean, the worldwide web is amazing, with more information and entertainment out there than any of us could cope with in one lifetime, but when bugs start creeping in with unwanted attachments to emails, or suddenly your cursor freezes with no warning, cyberspace can become a real drag.
One of the worst problems for email users is spam, but I see on Wikipedia that my current problem, people spamming on my blog, is now referred to as ‘blam’. I’m now being blammed on a daily basis, and although it’s rather irritating, it has its amusing moments too.
The life of a guidebook writer can be full of surprises, such as world-famous clients suddenly disappearing overnight.
I was just about to go out for a Friday evening meal with a few friends, to enjoy a few beers and some witty conversation, then thought that before I left home I should check my email to keep my inbox clear for the weekend.
As with many writers, I find there's always a gap between what publishers want me to write and what I'd really like to write myself, which leads to a fair amount of frustration. However, I've spent the last couple of weeks struggling with re-formatting the text and images for this new publication, Searching for Shangri-La, and now it's been released both as an ebook by Amazon Kindle and as a print-on-demand paperback from Create Space, another branch of Amazon.
Searching for Shangri-La consists of a collection of short writings culled from over a couple of decades, describing unusual places or experiences that I have come across on my travels. Since they are very personal and opinionated pieces, they are the kind of stories that are difficult to sell to magazines and websites, which prefer their travel stories crammed with hard facts.
Nevertheless, I have confidence that there are readers out there who will be intrigued by such writings, which are (I hope!) both entertaining and informative. So please consider splashing out $2.99 (for the ebook edition) or $4.99 (for the paperback edition) to read the entire collection, and if you find it a worthwhile read, please tell your friends! To see a sample, click here.
As my book Walks along the Thames Path has just been released in its fourth edition, I got to pondering the magical attraction that the source of a river has, and in the case of the Thames, the nagging doubts about its true origin. Then the pondering turned into a story, called...
SEEKING THE SOURCE OF THE THAMES
Locating the source of a river is not as simple as it may seem. For a start, most rivers have dozens of tributaries, all of which originate at springs, so just how do you decide which is the main source? Interestingly, there is no internationally recognized method of determining such an essential fact, though logic would suggest it is the spring that is furthest from the mouth of the river, or at the highest elevation above sea level, or that produces the greatest volume of water; yet this logic does not always apply.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.