Writing a guide book

Starting in September of last year, I was on assignment for Travelfish updating their online guide to Laos. It was an epic adventure which only just ended and I’m now trying to process it all! It included perhaps the worst month of travel I’ve ever experienced, a 2 month break due a family emergency and some excruciating days when travel just wasn’t fun anymore.

Scenery on the Thakek Loop
Scenery on the Thakek Loop

The thing is, everyone expects that writing guidebooks for a living is the best job in the world. Every traveller I meet has a little chuckle and says something along the lines of “so basically you get paid to travel”. And you know what? It’s true. I do get paid to travel. But the joy of travelling is not just about seeing things and ticking off lists. It’s also about relaxing, having the choice to change plans at the last moment, meeting up with other travellers and joining in on their travels, delving deep into the local culture and coming up with your own mini-projects such as trying as much local food as possible or blogging and tweeting your way through a country.

This is how it feels sometimes writing a guidebook
This is how it feels sometimes writing a guidebook

When you’re a guidebook writer, you need to have your work face on all the time. And I do mean all the time. Rather than waking up lazily at 10am, stumbling across the road for some rice porridge and then heading back to the hotel room for some relaxation, a guidebook writer is constantly thinking about how all of these experiences are going to fit into the guidebook. Waking up at 10am isn’t an option as there is work to be done. So when I generally wake up at 7am, I start writing up my notes from the previous day’s research and start thinking about what research needs to be done in the coming day. So I’ll head across the road and have that delicious rice porridge just as I might have had if I hadn’t been a guidebook writer. But I don’t really have time to fully experience the stall — chat to the owner at length about the process, observe the kids running around. I’m more likely to try and get a bit of info from the owner about the place, eat my soup and write my notes up. Sure, I do have a great experience eating the soup, but it is just not the same as if I am a regular traveller. My mind is elsewhere.

Rice porridge still tastes good when writing a guide book
Rice porridge still tastes good when writing a guide book

Writing a guidebook is work. There’s no two ways about it. I have deadlines, a boss that has requirements I need to meet, I have to get out bed whether I feel like it or not and I have to push myself every single day. It sucks sometimes to be honest. Just like when you were in high school and your parents forced you to get out of bed and go to school even though you couldn’t be arsed. But if you want to travel and get paid for it, writing guidebooks is a great way to go about it.

Waking up to a spectacular view over the forest in Bokeo
Waking up to a spectacular view over the forest in Bokeo

The plus side is that I saw more of Laos in those 4 months than 99.99% of visitors to Laos. I did experience the culture, the food, the people. I did ride a motorbike over 2000km across some of Asia’s worst roads (aside from Bandung in the wet season), I did fall into the Mekong and ruin my new iPhone 5 and get Dengue Fever. Oh, I’m moaning again. Sorry. Back to the positives.

Gratuitous rice shot
Gratuitous rice shot

So what is good about writing guidebooks? You are forced to go to places and do things that as a regular tourist you are so unlikely to do because of the hassle involved. But it’s ‘crappy adventures into the jungle to find a half ruined Buddha’ that actually stick most firmly in the mind. You know those places listed in the lonely planet at the end of a section that say XYZ temple is 56km by motorcycle from the centre of town and is little more than a pile of rubble? Well, those places on their own are crappy tourist attractions. But getting to these places is usually quite fun! And when you’re there, you are generally the only foreigner there meaning silence. And you do come to appreciate the quirkiness of such attractions. A couple of favourites of mine were the Prince Souphanouvong Bridge which was bombed by the US in 1968 located 30km along a dirt road from a town (Salavan) that gets virtually zero tourists and the Russian-made missile located about 30km from another town (Attapeu) that few tourists visit. They were craptacular, but fascinating all the same. When I compare these B-grade attractions to the headlines attractions of Laos such as Vientiane and Luang Prabang, for me there is a clear winner.

Prince Souphanouvong Bridge - a strange attraction
Prince Souphanouvong Bridge – a strange attraction
Missile made by the Russians, used by the Vietnamese, located outside of Attapeu
Missile made by the Russians, used by the Vietnamese, located outside of Attapeu

I made a conscious decision to take on this latest Travelfish task. I didn’t do it because I needed the cash. I did it because it once again adds to what I want my life to be: Interesting. Those who have been following along for a while know that I quit my regular 9-5 job in 2009 not only to escape the rat race, but also to lead a more interesting and more purposeful life. I think this latest guidebook update fits into those categories nicely and at the end of the day, I’m glad I did it. Just don’t tell me that I have a dream job or I might just have to go all Muay Thai on you.

If you’re interested in knowing what a dengue fever patient looks like, check out this video of me in Luang Prabang “hostpital” (death camp).

2 thoughts on “Writing a guide book

  1. Hi Adam – great to hear about your guidebook-writing adventures. This post is especially interesting for it’s refreshing honesty. Readers can leave their rose-tinted specs at the door!

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