Travelfish has grown to become probably the best online-only guide to backpacking in South East Asia. Don Morgan is Travelfish’s man in Vietnam, continually scouring the entire country for up to date info. Here he explains what it’s like to work as a travel writer for Travelfish
[This is the second in a series of interviews with travel writers. Check out my previous interview with Lonely Planet's Simon Sellars too if you're interested in becoming a travel writer yourself].
Can you give a brief outline about who you are, and where you come from
I’m from the States — grew up in New Jersey, and went to college in New York (Music), Grad School in New Orleans (Sociology). I stayed there and worked as a program coordinator at a race-relations institute for several years, then I moved to LA and worked as a screenwriter of no particular note before moving to Korea for 2 years to teach English. After that I migrated to Southeast Asia. I tell people I’m from New York because it’s the place I liked living in the best, besides Seoul, but I can’t actually claim to be Korean.
Do people recognise the Travelfish brand when you’re travelling? Do they say “Wow, you’re a guidebook writer – that must be the best job in the world!”? Is it the best job in the world?
When I first started working for ‘The Fish’ two years ago, maybe one in ten people knew the site well, but now I’d say that’s up to 25 or 35%. It depends on how online savvy they are. I’ve been meeting a lot of people lately that used my Halong Bay coverage to plan their trip, and that’s always nice to hear. I met couple who threw away their Lonely Planet and used it exclusively to travel Laos, and they were very happy with it. Travelfish has been laying low and building slowly, but I it looks like it’s getting ready to bust out onto the scene.
I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who DIDN’T say, “Wow, that must be the best job in the world!” And when I’ve just spent the day slogging through traffic in Ha Noi to visit five bus stations and three train stations, cajoling harried ticket vendors to give me accurate information against their will, with a camera full of snaps of timetables that I’m going to have to scrutinize for hours, translating Vietnamese transport lingo, and distilling the useful essence for the benefit of our users – well, sometimes it’s hard to say, “Hell, yes!” But if I’ve just spent the day finding amazing stuff that no one’s written about yet, then I answer a good bit more enthusiastically.
The problem is, people are so captivated by the romance of the idea of being a travel writer, I never want to tell them, “Yeah, it’s great, but, you know, at the end of the day – it’s a job.” I feel like I’m telling them their kitten just died.
Regardless of that, it is a great job, certainly the best job I’ve ever had. It’s way better than being a screenwriter, I can tell you that, and I think most people would find that surprising.
How did you get your break to write for Travelfish? How many years ago was that? Have you written for many other travel publications? How do they compare?
My standard joke is, “Becoming a travel writer, like excellence at pool, is the sign of misspent youth.”
I was running out of funds in Thailand and I wanted to stay so I was looking for teaching jobs out of desperation. I went on to Ajarn.com and TF had an ad up looking for researchers. I looked at the qualifications–applicants must have lived in Thailand for at least a year, speak Thai, have writing experience, have travel experience, etc. I thought, “Holy crap, I’m actually qualified to do this.” Who saw that coming? And it didn’t matter that it was my fourth try at a career, or that I had degrees in irrelevant fields of discipline. I applied. It was the first time in my life I didn’t have to lie on my resume.
That was almost two years ago. One assignment has followed the next pretty much non-stop since then, and I’ve covered parts of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Supposedly I’m ‘freelance,’ but I never had any travel writing published elsewhere, and I’ve never even tried. They’re keeping me too busy to even think about it!
4) What was your own motivation to write for Travelfish?
Money. More specifically, to make money by writing, which has been my goal, in one form or another, for a long time. It’s tough to make a living by writing, especially what you might call ‘creative writing’ rather than technical writing. You have to pass up a lot of other work, and play chicken with the rent monster, but if you hold out, eventually something pops up.
Can you describe the preparations you make for doing an Travelfish trip? How do you sketch out a schedule, estimate time to gather info etc? Can you give an idea of the major trips you’ve done over the last couple of years?
For Vietnam, I bought a phrasebook and learned how to count to ten on the plane from Bangkok to Hanoi.
Seriously, I do do a lot of preparation for the big jobs – I had to cover the entire island of Phuket including 13 beaches and Phuket City, so I took other guide books and did a break down of their coverage in terms of accommodation, eateries, and activities that were typically mentioned, and then I pulled a bunch of stuff from the internet for possible additions. My goal is generally to do as much as has been done before, and then find some new stuff that’s unique to Travelfish.
I’ve tried to schedule things, but it seldom works out. You never know what you’re really getting into until you get there. Luckily, Travelfish is flexible and if I find more to do in a spot, I stay longer than expected (which is usually the case). Also, laptops crash, cameras get busted, motorcycles mysterious grind to a halt, and a westerner in Asia is constantly doing battle with the microbial population of the region. There’s no way to schedule that stuff.
In terms of big jobs, I did the island of Ko Phi Phi last year and visited every single solitary place to stay on the island. I spent nine days doing the Halong Bay tour in Vietnam four times (budget, mid-range, luxury and independently) for a five-part feature story. I did every province in Southern Laos which is now part of TF’s downloadable PDF guide, and I did an update for the city of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. But Vietnam has been my biggest job: TF tried for a long time to find people ready, willing, and able to cover Vietnam, and everyone they tapped ended up crapping out. So, basically, I’m having to do work that would ideally be done by four or five regionally based researchers–pretty much everything from Mui Ne to Lao Cai.
Is there a system or special handbook given to Travelfish writers to help them organise themselves most efficiently?
No! I know Stuart (one of my TF overlords) wants to have one, and I would like to write one, but we’ve been too busy doing the work of building the site content to sit down and do it. So, in terms of figuring out what needs to be done, I just look at what other researchers have done before and use that as a template. But in terms of process, I’ve just been learning as I go. It’s kind of good, though, because that way, it’s less about ticking off a check-list and more about experiencing a place and deciding what information travellers will need in order to get the most out of it. It differs from place to place. Pleiku, Vietnam, for instance, is a crap hole, so I set out to find things to do for anyone who’s stuck there. I found a bowling alley that doubles as a cafe and has live music in the evenings. Hue was all about plotting specific directions to all the sites so people could visit them independently. But I didn’t realize we’d need that until I visited and discovered that all the available maps are inaccurate and nothing is well-marked.
Can you describe how a typical day might go in terms of researching a new town or city?
Right, well, there is no typical day! But I usually like to start by just driving around on my motorbike–where does the city begin and end, what is it bordered by, where are the areas of interest? Then I try to look for accommodation and food that’s convenient to those areas, as well as banks, internet, medical services, etc. Then I try to find some out-of-the-way options for people that might be looking for peace and quiet or a more local ‘Vietnamese’ experience. All the while, I talk to a lot of locals, and try find somebody well-informed that I can tap for more info, especially about activities. I ask a lot of questions I already know the answers to, and if I get the right response, then I know I’m talking to someone knowledgeable. Sometimes I’ll hire them to take me around–even if I have my own bike, it saves a lot of aggravation and I can focus on working and not driving. Also, it gets boring doing everything on your own and it’s good to have company, so personality figures greatly in my selection of a guide. Then, once I know all the places people might want to go, I’m ready to tackle transportation–figuring out the best way to get around for travellers with different budgets and different travel styles. Finally I plot everything I’ve done on a map.
How do you find out about the Things To Do so quickly?
If the city has any kind of tourist infrastructure, someone will tell me before I even ask. But I do also go by what others have done in the past, and then I just ask a lot of questions, “Is there anything else to do? What’s the best place here that tourist never seem to go to?”
Do you ever get moments on the road when you think – why am I doing this? Does it become a grind? Do you take trips where you’re not guidebook writing and feel a palpable difference?
I have moments when I think, “Why do I have to do this right now.” Especially when I’ve just met some great people who are about to go kayaking, and truth be told I don’t actually have to go kayaking to write, “Kayaks can be rented for 100 THB per day, and snorkelling gear can be rented for an additional 20 THB.” But sometimes I’m like, “I want to go kayaking! How come they get to go kayaking and I have to go to the bus station and look at timetables? God, this job sucks.”
But I have to say, it’s gotten to the point where if I’m travelling to a place I’m not writing about, I feel like I’m not getting the full experience! I end up sort of researching it anyway, just out of habit.
What are some of your most memorable experiences travelling as a Travelfish writer?
Most of them involve falling into rivers. I did a half-gainer into the water when I lost my footing while pushing my motorbike onto a ferry in Ninh Binh. I had my camera, cellphone, and all my research in my bag on my shoulder. My first instinct was to immediately raise my bag up above the water, even as the boat was threatening to pin me in the mud. It was a travel writer’s worst nightmare come true. Miraculously, nothing got very wet or damaged–I pulled my bag out of the water just in time.
In Laos, a boatman was putting my bike on a platform ferry while it was still running, hit the throttle, and he and the bike went over the ferry into the river. We got it running again but it crapped out the next day in the worst possible location as I was riding through the jungle up the rim of the Boulevan Plateau.
But actually, the most memorable experiences have to do with the friends I’ve made on the road– I’m still in touch with a number of them.
How does Travelfish calculate the money they give you to make the trip? Do they give you a big chunk and tell you to get on with it? What dire warnings do they put in place to stop you spending it all and not returning with a decent script?
Stuart has a general idea of what needs to be done, and I get back to him with an estimate of how many days I think I’ll need in each place. Usually we try to plan it out two-weeks or a month at a time. Then he sets a rate for the whole job and gives me half up front, and half on delivery.
Given the nature of the job, and the fact that we work in foreign countries, I doubt that Travelfish has any recourse if someone screws them over. It has, apparently, happened in the past. But an Australian company based in Jakarta can’t do much about a British national that’s disappeared in Laos with the advance money! My first couple of jobs I did all the work up front and got paid on delivery, but once a relationship of trust has been built, they start advancing money. No dire warnings are issued – Stuart knows he’s taking a small risk with each new writer and I think he just hopes for the best. Probably best to be philosophical about these things and see occasional losses as a part of doing business. But once you’ve proven you’re trustworthy, at least in the case of Travelfish, they go above and beyond to make sure you’ve got what you need, and are quick to respond with additional help if you’re in a jam. They’ve stuck with me though a prolonged illness, the death of a friend, and any number of nervous breakdowns.
The NY Times highlighted the downward trend for guidebook pay and suggested that writers were becoming fact gatherers who could be paid less and their copy shaped by editors back home – do you agree with this analysis? Is it true of Travelfish? Can you make a living working for Travelfish?
I don’t know much about trends in the industry. I’ve never actually even met another travel writer face to face, besides Stuart and Sam (my bosses). But, to me, the strategy of divvying up the work into ‘fact gatherers’ and ‘writer/editors’ sounds like a recipe for mediocrity. In order to write meaningfully about a place, you absolutely must experience it first hand. Even though an editor may have been to the actual place in the past, things change constantly. Not just details, but the whole spirit of a place can alter in the space of a year. Going by what others have written in the past is also a huge mistake. They may have rushed their research to meet a deadline, they may have made mistakes, or they could just be a lacklustre, unimaginative writer.
On top of that, each writer has their own agenda and their own biases. To me, good travel writing is a matter of seeking fresh answers to old questions. No matter how well-travelled a place is, I show up and ask myself, “Is this place really worth visiting? Does it live up to it’s reputation? Is it improving or declining? How are the culture of the country and the culture of the world traveller interacting at this particular moment in time, and what is the result?” It’s true, travel writing is a mutt – it’s a mix of technical writing and creative writing. But there’s really no good way to separate the two. You have to observe, reflect, and come up with a point of view about a place in the course of doing your research. Otherwise you’re just writing a phone book.
How much do editors guide or dictate what you send back? Is there much conversation between you on the road?
We communicate mostly via e-mail, and occasionally by phone. When we’re planning out a job, we discuss what needs to be done, and then while I’m doing it they may feed me more info, or I might ask a few questions, but basically we all know what needs to be done. And if I get inspired to do something a little different for one job, I usually just submit it and let them decide if they’ll use it. For instance, I wrote a few paragraphs for our Hue coverage about how to choose a guide–no one asked me to, and it’s not a standard part of our coverage, but it just seemed like it would be useful. Bigger ideas, I pitch them as features and get paid for them separately if they sign off on them.
They never, ever tell me what to say about a place, and they never edit my content to change a good review to bad or vice versa. Occasionally I write something and think, “There’s no way they are going to use that!” But they always do.
I remember this one guest house on Don Dhet in Laos. The owner figured out I was a travel writer, took me aside, and said, “Do you think could write that my guest house is gay-friendly? Only make sure it’s in English and not in Lao, because my parents don’t know, but they don’t speak English.” So I wrote about it my review, and now it’s up on the site with the description, “Gay-friendly, but don’t tell his folks!”
What do you think is the biggest hurdle for people who want to become Travelfish writers?
Applying. I talk to people all the time who say they want to be travel writer, so I tell them to just click on the ‘Jobs at Travelfish’ link at the bottom of the homepage, and they never seem to do it. The big hurdle, if you do apply, is that you must be well-travelled in order to get the job. People want to get hired as a travel writer so they can travel, but if you haven’t done it on your own first, you’re not really qualified. The other hurdle is writing. The problem is, people underestimate what it takes to learn to write. Everyone thinks they are a writer, and especially with the internet nowadays, everyone writes like crazy, but that doesn’t make them writers. The task of expressing yourself effectively and keeping a reader engaged is not the same as blogging for your friends. In my case, it took years of hard work before I developed a writing style that really worked in a professional context. It’s like the difference between being able to tell a funny joke and being a stand-up comedian.
And the biggest misconception people have of the job?
That I spend all my time bungee jumping or sitting on the beach sipping mimosas or something. Also, people often think I use my position to get freebies. In reality, I never take freebies, and if I did, I’d lose my job. And I’ve never even been bungee jumping. I’m afraid of heights.
What Travelfish guide will you be working on next?
I’m currently finishing up in Hanoi, which may be a guide in itself, and then I have to tackle the entire north of Vietnam from here up to the Chinese border before my visa runs out.
Big thanks to Don for taking the time to give such a thorough insight into being a travel writer. Don will be contributing a couple of articles about Vietnam to Travelhappy soon as well.