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.
In November 2014 I finally got to visit a country that’s been on my ‘to do’ list for decades—Burma, or if you prefer, Myanmar. Though I’ve lived very close for many years. I’ve not been able to visit as I’m on a press visa in Thailand, and the powers-that-be in Burma don't issue visas to members of the press, but the introduction of e-visas in October 2014 suddenly opened the possibility. Then new flights opened between Chiang Mai (my home town) and Rangoon (Yangon), as well as Mandalay, so I found myself packing my bags and chanting the words of Kipling’s poem:
“No! You won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm trees an’ the tinkly temple bells;
On the road to Mandalay…”
I spent two days in Rangoon, two in Bagan, two at Inle Lake and four around Mandalay and had a fine old time, being reminded every day just how different Burma is to everywhere else. And in an effort to capture the diversity of the place, I’m posting the following images from the trip.
Immediately on returning from Burma (see previous blog), I began my current job—updating two chapters of The Rough Guide to Thailand (Northeast and Central Plains) for the new edition (October 2015). After plotting my route around the Northeast, I headed south from Chiang Mai to Khorat, then east to Ubon Ratchathani, and from there zig-zagged across the ‘elephant’s ear’ of Thailand, commonly known as Isaan. I spent a few weeks visiting every town, looking at lots of hotels and restaurants, as well as bus stations and hospitals, but I also found time to check out a few places that were previously not in the guide.
My favourite place, as a photographer who loves shooting nature abstracts, was Sam Phan Bok (Three Thousand Holes), a surreal section of the Mekong River bed where rock pools are exposed during the dry season (Nov-May). Check out the images in the gallery below.
Isaan is Thailand’s least-visited region and gets short shrift from most guidebooks. Yet it’s also a great place to travel, for a host of reasons, not least of which is that there are no other tourists around to spoil your enjoyment. Add to this the Khmer temples, the mysterious Mekong River, the fiery food, the quiet, country roads and the hospitable, generous people, and you’ve got the recipe for a memorable adventure.
The Ebola virus has certainly captured the world's attention, especially now it's moved into Europe and the USA. The first outbreak of this deadly virus occurred in 1976, when it was more commonly known as the Green Monkey Disease, since it was thought to have originated in a particular type of monkey. I happened to be travelling in South Sudan at the time, and was devastated to find many villages deserted, their inhabitants either struck down by the disease or having fled to escape its contagious grip.
Some years later, when I was preparing a book of short stories as part of my M.A. in English (Creative Writing) at San Francisco State University, I used my visit to this obscure part of the world as the basis for a story called...
THE GREEN MONKEY’S TALE
The truck ploughed to a stop, sending clouds of red dust swirling into the dense jungle of the Central African Republic. As the haze cleared, a small boy became visible at the roadside, holding out the body of a dead monkey by the tail. He squinted at the driver and shouted.
“Hey, mister! Fresh shot today! Only fifty francs!”
“Let me see,” the driver responded, a gleam in his eye. “Fifty francs, hey? Well, take this for it.” He pushed three ten-franc notes into the boy’s hand, and swung the corpse onto the dashboard of the cab. The boy ran off into the undergrowth, pushing the notes into his ragged shorts, while the driver pulled away again, grinning at Chris, his English passenger.
“Hey, man, now we have a feast tonight. You eat monkey before?” he asked, his white eyes shining from the deep caverns of his cranium.
“No, Emille,” Chris answered, wincing at the thought. “I’ve eaten some strange things lately – snake, elephant, locusts – but never monkey.”
The tiny skull of the animal seemed to sneer at him as it rocked on the dashboard like a stuffed toy. Its minute hands still clung to an imaginary branch and its green fur bristled.
This last week I've had great fun throwing out a load of junk from my office...stacks of brochures and magazines accumulated on various research trips over recent years. I think I enjoy this activity so much as it's a way of re-defining myself, through making decisions about what's important to me and what isn't.
I've also been streamlining my website. If you've visited before, you might notice that my home page has disappeared. I realized that most people who visit this website are not so interested in me as in the words I write and the images I take, so I've just shifted my introductory audio slideshow to the top of my blog page and done away with the rest. I've also been making changes to other parts of the site, mostly on my periodicals page, where I've deleted the story I had posted on the Loy Krathong Festival in Thailand, and added scans of half a dozen feature articles that show the variety of topics that I write about and photograph.
I hope that you find this streamlined version of ronemmons.com fun to browse, and if you have any suggestions of things you'd like to see more or less of, just drop me an email via the button at the foot of the page. Thanks for visiting!
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.
You might think that in a Communist society, the government would want to take from the rich and give to the poor, but in Vietnam, it's the other way round. Take the case of...
I was nearly finished with my update of Danang for the new edition of the guide. I had checked out the Cham Museum and Cao Dai Temple to make sure there were no major changes, I had carefully marked on the map the location of new bridges crossing the river, including the spectacular, fire-breathing Dragon Bridge, and had stood on the 20th floor of the new Grand Mercure and Novotel hotels, listening to PR reps wax lyrical about the benefits of spending £150 a night to sleep in their rooms perched high above the city. I had also found some new restaurants that cater to Westerners' tastes, and a couple of reasonable mini hotels to recommend for people looking for mid-range accommodation. All I needed was a hostel or some cheap lodging to list for backpackers, who are now visiting Vietnam in droves, before I could head off to Hoi An, one of my favourite towns in the entire country.
I read an intriguing book recently--Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. It’s a kind of ‘1984’ for the 21st century, a post-apocalyptic novel (date unspecified) that mentions various factors, such as rising sea levels flooding major cities, holes in the ozone layer and a pandemic along the lines of the Ebola virus (which has just re-appeared in Guinea in the last few days), which have wiped out virtually all life on the planet. All that remains are a few human survivors and genetically-modified life forms gone wild, like wolvogs, pigoons, and rakunks.
‘Tis a strange island, shaped like a pregnant woman dipping her toes in the sea, where I happened to be born.
It seems especially strange to me, having lived in voluntary exile abroad for nearly 40 years, and only popping back for short visits to see family and friends every few years. I always leave bemused by recent developments and wondering where this country is headed.
This visit is no exception. Though the climate and countryside is familiar enough, the towns and people wandering the streets are oddly alien. The high street of Maidenhead, my home town, is a commercial wasteland, a windy corridor bordered by charity shops and empty premises, which are now brightly decorated with artwork extolling the town’s merits, compared with white-washed windows on my last visit. Meanwhile the people I pass are speaking Polish, Romanian, Urdu, Hungarian, Russian or Chinese—anything, it seems, but English.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.