First Travel Journal Wrap-Up

Today I reached a milestone in blogging about my travel experience. At the beginning of this year I set out to write blog entries about the experience from a trip that actually happened about a year before. I decided to write about the trip in chronological order and covering experience I remembered about the trip. There was no other pre-planning on topics to write. 244 blog entries later, I finally reached the end of writing about this trip. It is quite significant because not only it’s the first time I wrote about a trip in its entirety, but also the trip itself was the first multi-country trip I had ever done in my life. I’m looking forward to writing more about other trips I had done (domestically or internationally), but to wrap up this series, here are some thoughts about the trip and about the blog writing experience.

Some thoughts about the trip:

  • Culture sensitivity: It is very important when traveling to be prepared and be sensitive about the local culture you’re about to immerse yourself into. Doing a little bit of research and learning prior the trip would help you understand what people value in the places you visit, the similarities and differences between your culture and theirs, and avoid committing cultural faux pas.
  • People to meet: One important part of a trip that enrich the experience is the people who you meet during the trip. This could be fellow travelers, the hosts or guides, people who provide services to you, or just random local people. Sometimes the interaction you have with them makes your experience unique and memorable.
  • Share experience: One great way to learn about the local culture is to share your personal experience or something from your own culture with the locals whom you meet. What you consider as ‘normal’ day-to-day experience at home might be a fascinating, novel thing to learn for the locals. Conversely, the ‘normal’ things for the local might be something new and fascinating for you to learn.
  • Overcome language barrier: I’m not naturally an outgoing person, and if you take out one tool I’m comfortable with (e.g. ability to communicate in a language I’m fluent in), then it becomes even more challenging to interact with others. But I need to constantly remind myself about the previous points above regarding people. There is more to the trip than just taking in the scenery or experiencing things yourself. And sometimes all it takes is the willingness to risk of making a fool out of yourself by attempting to say few words in the local language or using hand gestures, and keeping things lighthearted with a smile to break the ice and connect with the locals.
  • Don’t sweat small stuff: There will be things that don’t go according to plan — flight delays, bad weather, place closings, etc. Don’t let these ruin your trip, instead look at the unexpected as an opportunity to experience something different. Make the best use of your time to ‘make lemonade from lemons.’

Some thoughts about the travel blogging experience:

  • Ultimate souvenir: Dave Fox in his book Globejotting calls travel journal as the ‘ultimate souvenir.’ in a way, I think he is right as this is a great way to share your experience with others, and it’s a wonderful way to relive and cherish the experience.
  • Photos and notes to remember: If you want to write a travel journal, you need to keep things that help you remember the details about the trip. Photos are good visual reminders of what you experienced, but there are also things that are difficult to capture in a picture like emotions, smell, taste, sound, or even details like names. For those, it’s helpful to keep notes. The notes don’t have to be long or perfectly written; they just have to be enough to remind you about the experience.
  • Appreciate every moment: When you start reliving the travel experience, it’s amazing to think of a lot of little details that you would otherwise forget or overlook if you don’t come back and rethink about it. These add up to make your trip unique and memorable in comparison to others’ trip to the same places.
  • Learning more from writing: When I thought of a topic about my trip that I wanted to write about, I often did additional research about related facts to make sure what I’m writing is accurate. During that process, I often times learn about some facts or trivia that I didn’t know before. This made the process of writing even more interesting to me as I love to learn about things.
  • Taking time to write: Some people would write their travel blogs during the trip itself or only write random things the think or feel about the trip. I guess it’s a matter of personal preference or style, but to me, it is more worthwhile to take my time and think about what I’m about to write, as it would make it richer both to the readers of the blog as well as to me as the writer.

So that’s it about my Southeast Asian trip in 2010-2011. The photo below is a page from my passport with stamps from the countries I visited during this trip. Prior to this, my passport was pretty much clean and empty.

Stamps on passport

Writing about Phnom Penh

If you’ve been reading the posts on this blog from the few weeks, you might have noticed that the majority of the posts were about the places I visited during the one full-day we had to do a day trip in Phnom Penh, Cambodia during my trip to several Southeast Asian countries with my cousin about a year ago. The reason why we included Phnom Penh in our itinerary in Cambodia was to learn about the country’s history. We did accomplish that, but what I personally didn’t expect was the impact it had on me after the trip was long over. So, before continuing on with more blog posts from other places we visited during this Southeast Asian trip, I thought I’d write a little bit about my experience remembering, processing, and reflecting about this one day visit to Phnom Penh.

A travel writer named Dave Fox wrote in a book called Globejotting about the meaning of the word souvenir as a remembrance (or something to remember an experience with). Coming into this trip, I had an objective of creating a photojournal about the trip that I could use to tell the story about my experience as I visited places and experienced the culture. So, during this trip, in addition to taking photos, I also took short notes using my Blackberry so I would remember the interesting details I learned from the visit or those that are important to remember (like the names of the people we met).

When I got back home in the United States and worked on the photojournal, the short notes were very helpful in remembering the details of the trip, as without it, I would’ve mixed up many details that were somewhat similar between places we visited (e.g., there is a wall with ramakien frescoes at the Grand Palace in Bangkok, and there is a similar looking wall with ramaketi frescoes at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh). The one photojournal I wanted to create ended up to be too big to have as one album, so it ended up getting split up by cities that we visited. I was quite happy with this souvenir once it was done (around 600 photos divided into eight albums), but as I went through the process of putting together the captions to go with the photos, I realized that while a photograph may ‘speak a thousand words’ there are some things that it cannot convey (e.g., feelings, thoughts). So then I thought may be it would be an interesting exercise to take the short notes and the photos (including the thousands that didn’t quite make the cut for the photojournals) and retrace my steps during the trip and recount the experience in writing.

There is a site called TravelBlog that is similar to WordPress as a blogging site, but it’s specifically oriented towards travels (e.g., it’s indexed by travel locations). A lot of people use it to blog as they travel to provide a nice update to people they know who want to follow their journey as it happens (very nice especially for folks who are doing epic journeys like the Round the World travels). In my case, I didn’t use it during my actual travel, but I thought it would still be nice to write entries about my daily experiences during the trip after the fact.

I started writing the entries, and it went fine until I reached the day in Phnom Penh. The challenge with this one day is because of the emotional nature of the experience, and recounting the horror seen at Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek was very difficult. If you go to TravelBlog and read entries from people who visited these places in Phnom Penh, the majority of them would either simply post photos they took there, or only summarize their experiences with words like ‘sad’, ‘angry’, ‘depressing’, or ‘appalling’. If you know even only a little bit about these places and their role in the Khmer Rouge genocide, those are the right words to describe these, but someone reading the story wouldn’t necessarily know much or learn about it beyond that. So rather than simply doing the same thing, I tried to write down more descriptively what I saw and experienced there, and added relevant facts around it so even those who had not heard of the Khmer Rouge atrocities (like I was prior to the trip) would at least take away something after reading it.

The process of writing the ‘one day travel entry’ for Phnom Penh ended up taking me almost three months to do. I could picture the experience very clearly in my head, but it was very difficult at times to find motivation to sit down and put those in writing, especially when it’s difficult to find words to express what I felt about it. In some cases, I ended up browsing through sites on the Internet to learn more about the historical aspects of this and the impacts it had on people, rather than writing the entry itself. It also caused me to reflect on what I think and believe about some very difficult topics that the Cambodian people had to struggle through, such as the idea of forgiveness and retribution, and how to deal with hardships.

In the end, I did manage to finish writing about that one day in Phnom Penh, and in the last few weeks, the posts in this blog, especially those that are related to Tuol Sleng and Choeung Ek, were largely based on what I wrote last year.

The photo below was one that I ended up selecting as the cover photo for my photojournal on Phnom Penh in flickr. It’s the memorial stupa at Choeung Ek that from far away it looked quite majestic, and served as a wonderful way to honor the victims at this site (it housed the remains of the victims found in the nearby mass graves).

Memorial Stupa