30 years ago, there was no guidebook to Thailand in print. Hard to believe isn’t it? Teaming up with Lonely Planet founders, Tony and Maureen Wheeler, Joe Cummings wrote the first travel guide to Thailand since 1928, ‘Thailand: A Travel Survival Kit’ in 1981. He continued to work for Lonely Planet for the next 25 years. To date, he has written over 40 guidebooks and books about Asian culture and continues to write extensively about travel related themes in his role as Deputy Editor of the Bangkok Post’s TheMagazine. We met up with Joe in Bangkok at a very swanky ‘flashpacker’ hotel to find out more about life as an iconic travel writer…
Joe Cummings on the banks of the Chao Phraya River in his home city of Bangkok
Were you interested in Asia from a young age? How did your fascination begin?
My father was in the military and travelled all over the world. He would bring back interesting objects of art from faraway places like China; masks, artefacts, paintings. As a child they stirred my imagination immensely as I made stories up about the places where each object came from. I guess that is where my passion for travel began. As I lived in France from age 10 to 13, I travelled all over Western Europe from there. Later, when I was about seventeen, I began reading about Buddhism and became extremely interested. Consequently, Thailand was the first country in Asia I visited to learn more about the religion.
Was writing always a passion? Or was it born from an interest in becoming a travel writer?
As school I enjoyed writing and I was always good at writing essays, but I never seriously thought of it as a profession at that time. I wrote for the school newspaper until they censored what I wrote and so I started my own student magazine called ‘The Judgement’. I was very political in those days, not so much now… Later, when I became interested in Asia and travel, I started to write a column called ‘Asia in Print’ for a newspaper in the US called the ‘Asia Record’.
How did you get your ‘big break’ with Lonely Planet?
Lonely Planet began in 1974 with their first three books; ‘South East Asia on a Shoe String,’ a guide to Sri Lanka and one to Burma. I contacted them by writing a letter, (there was no internet back then!) and suggested a guide to Thailand, seeing as it was a country, even then, with more tourists than Burma and Sri Lanka put together. I was one of their first paid authors and ended up writing for Lonely Planet for 25 years.
Tell us about your first guidebook ‘Thailand: A Travel Survival Kit.’ How long did it take to put it together?
As you can imagine I was very energetic and enthused about writing my first guidebook! I traveled around Thailand for two months visiting every place and doing research and I actually managed to write the entire book in just three weeks!
How did you find out about new places and things to do at the beginning? What was the first thing you did when you arrived in a new place?
I would head straight to the night market to chat with the locals! They’d invite me over to share a bottle of whiskey or I’d ask if I could join them. Then I’d ask about the places to see and things to do around the area. They would recommend waterfalls, museums, monuments… and more often than not they’d take me there on the back of the motorbike the next day.
Joe trying his hand at elephant riding in Northern Thailand
Be honest, was there ever a place, a beach, a restaurant or anywhere you found that you thought ‘No, I’m not going to tell anyone about this. I want to protect it and keep it this way’?
Yes, quite a few times actually! Although it never worked as the places were always discovered through word of mouth eventually. Even today, word of mouth is more powerful than a guidebook or travel writing anyway. But then I guess that the modern day forum / Twitter / Trip Advisor is today’s word of mouth.
To ask the obvious, was travel 30 years ago more adventurous without all today’s modern technology / guidebooks / tour packages?
Hell yeah! Traveling back then in Asia, if you saw another backpacker walking down the road you would run over and wrap your arms around them!
Have guidebooks changed travel to become less adventurous? Did the Lonely Planet make places less ‘lonely’ so to speak?
At first, guidebooks opened up places that people may not have considered travelling to before, so called ‘risky’ third world countries. So, you could say that guidebooks contributed to an expansion of tourism in these places, but I don’t think that a guidebook actually affects the choice of someone wanting to visit the country. For example, people don’t see a Thailand guidebook and then decide to go. They decide to go first and then they check out more information.
How do you feel about ‘over-touristy’ places that some people may say are ‘ruined’ by tourism? Do you think guidebooks are to blame for this?
Places that are the most desirable to the greatest number of people are going to have extreme pressure put on them to become over-developed and ‘ruined’. On the other hand, places that only fit a niche market, like Isaan (North Eastern Thailand) receive only 2% of tourists, despite the fact that I write about it all the time. Being the number one driver of tourism, beaches and islands are always under the most extreme threat of becoming over-popular. At this point, the responsibility really falls on the shoulders of not just the travel writers providing the information, but the local communities with legislation to protect the area. And then of course, travellers themselves need to be aware to not demand services which may overtax the environment. It continues to be a big problem.
On the flip side, does tourism have its benefits?
Yes certainly, tourism can be a force for good. For example, before Phuket relied on tourism, the main industry was tin mining, which was ravaging the island’s environment much worse than tourism is doing now. There are also examples of dynamite fishing destroying coral and other bad practices going on in so called beautiful spots way before tourism arrived, many of which have been stopped now as the environment becomes more protected to ‘show off’ to tourists… Sometimes tourism can help to preserve a place; even in things like locals becoming proud to show off their culture and traditional ways if they notice that foreigners are interested. But yes, it still remains a double-edged sword.
Where are your favourite spots in South East Asia?
I love Laos. I would say it is my favourite place in Asia as it just has so much wonderful nature, mountains, history, not to mention the friendly people. The country is under-populated with only four million people, so there are a lot of open spaces, which I love. Second would be Burma. Despite the terrible government, which we’re all aware of, the people are so beautiful and the landscape is incredible. I was actually blacklisted to go there by the Myanmar government for many years after writing the Lonely Planet Guides to Myanmar 1986-98. Although there are concerns about travel there supporting the government, I would definitely encourage more people to visit! When I was travelling there I didn’t meet a single person inside Burma who said that they didn’t want tourism. They were just so happy to see me! Why punish the large civilian population to target a small group of people at the top.
Is there a country that you haven’t been that is still on your list?
Morocco has been on my list for ages so I’m excited to be finally going there soon! Other than that I’ve never been to Turkey. Er… Mongolia. Probably some more countries in South America; Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina one of these days… oh and Eastern Europe! Romania, Bulgaria, Albania… quite a lot of places actually!
So after 25 years working as a travel writer, you do still very much have a passion for travel I see!?
My passion for travel has never ebbed. I just got a little tired of the travel writing industry. Like everything these days, travel publishing became more corporate. It used to be that the writer decided everything to put in the book. Then, it became little suggestions from editors which turned into 60-page briefs about where to go and what to see! Next, there became marketing ‘focus groups’ which would result in the editor saying “Hey Joe, we notice you have this little town in Northern Thailand that none of the other guidebooks are mentioning, Rough Guides doesn’t have it, Frommer’s doesn’t have it, Fodor’s doesn’t have it… so I don’t think we really need that!” Another time they said, “Hey Joe, a restaurant that you mention here, you say has no sign or menu in English – do you think tourists really want to go to a place like that?” “Jesus!” I remember saying, “how do you think Lonely Planet made its name in the first place? We went to places that no-one had been before.” It all became so corporate that they couldn’t take a chance. And, for the travel writer, this meant that the job became less creative with less freedom of style.
Do you still use guidebooks? If you go to a new city?
No, not anymore I have to admit. Perhaps if I was going to a place to live for a month or longer I would, but for just a holiday, I use the internet. I’m going to Morocco next month and I’m downloading Lonely Planet chapters, printing them out as pdfs to take with me – just to get exactly the part I want rather than the whole book.
Do you still hang out with Tony and Maureen?
When they were bought out by the BBC for 260 million US dollars there became somewhat of a wealth gap between us – as in I could no longer afford to drink in the same bars!
What are your other interests besides writing? I hear you are in a band?
I was recently in a band called ‘Tonic Rays’ that broke up in 2008 but are actually reuniting next month for a brief set of gigs in Chiang Mai. I play lead guitar and I write songs. Also, I’ve been playing recently with a band visiting Thailand from Mexico City and we play ‘Cumbia’, which is a latin-american, progressive urban sound… really exciting and tropical, similar to salsa but more upbeat.
How do you manage to blend passions of writing and music? Could it ever be one or the other?
I love music more to be honest. Many times I actually thought that I wanted to quit writing and pursue a musical career. I tried ‘making it’ once in my early 20’s and then later, in 2006, I quit writing guidebooks for three years and all I did during that time was play music. But it was just so difficult to make a living. During the whole time I was writing I never gave up playing privately but I guess it just isn’t in the cards for me.
Tell us about your latest book, Sacred Tattoos of Thailand? For people who know nothing about tattoos in Thailand – can you enlighten us?
It is a really fascinating subculture. Unlike in the West, tattoos here in Thailand are not just for decoration, but are spiritual. People get them to make adjustments in their life, fix their karma, get more personal charisma, wealth or courage, even protection from bullets! There is a lot of ritual involved in getting the tattoo and the strength of the tattoo comes not just from the ink design but from the power of the master who plants the magic in you when he is creating it. The tattoo acts almost like a portal for the energy to come through. Finally, you have to protect that energy by following certain rules which if you don’t adhere to, the tattoo loses its power. This is what happens to 99% of people in Thailand, which is an easy outlet when the bullet does pierce the skin! Rules include the basic five Buddhist principles of not killing, lying, stealing, abstaining from sexual misconduct and becoming intoxicated. Every tattoo master has different rules, for example Ajarn Noo, the tattoo master who did Angelina Jolie, has 19 unique rules. There are some really strange, archaic rules such as dont eat purple ‘gourd’ (vegetables) or star-fruit or don’t walk under a bridge without a cap on!
Sacred tattoos of Thailand, Photo by Dan White
Have you visited the Tattoo Festival here in Thailand?
Yes it is incredible. It is usually held in March / April about an hour outside of Bangkok at Wat Bang Phra which attracts around a thousand people each year. People who have tattoos go into trances and become tigers, bears or other wild creatures. In essence what is happening is that they are recharging their tattoos and the power that they have lost during the year from breaking all of the rules.
Are there any tips you have for our readers in getting into a career as a travel writer?
Well I would have to say it is tough these days… much harder now. I think that there was a peak in travel guidebooks and travel publishing in general in the late 1980’s to mid 1990’s. I started to notice less titles being published in 2000 and the pay coming down for travel writers – which was the same for freelancers in newspapers and magazines. It started to become a lot tighter. Having said that, the talented writer will always find a way to get published!
Joe’s latest book ‘Sacred Tattoos of Thailand’ is out in book stores in Thailand this November. You can also order your copy on Amazon right now!