South by Southeast: New directions in Southeast Asia

What is it about Southeast Asia that so captivates our attention? For many Westerners, Southeast Asia has attained an identity of exoticism and escape, enchanting travelers as a destination “off the map” of global tourism. It’s a myth readily fed by popular culture. From Graham Greene’s The Quiet American to Alex Garland’s The Beach we’re painted a picture of a magical world, unsullied by the realities of real life – and we’ve taken the bait, hook, line and sinker.

Southeast Asia, we’re told, is where we’ll go to forge new identities. We’ll quit our jobs back home, find a bungalow on the beach in Thailand, and live out our days drinking 25-cent beers, sunning ourselves under a palm tree. Our problems back home? Distant memory. For anyone struggling with the vagaries of career and post-collegiate life, it’s a powerful fantasy, bandied about during late-night drinking sessions or anytime life becomes “too much of a drag.”

But what’s it really like to travel through Southeast Asia, circa 2009? Does our fantasy match the reality? Though plenty is left to explore, the romanticized destination of deserted beaches and bumpy bus rides is experiencing a dramatic shift, further connecting itself to global tourism and the world economy. Luxury boutiques dot the streets of “communist” Vietnam. Thousands of travelers show up for Full Moon Parties on the beaches of Koh Pha Ngan. Even Lonely Planet’s hugely popular Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, the defacto “bible” for independent travelers, is nearly 25 years old and 14 Editions in print. How does the region today look after this huge influx of new money and visitors?

It was these very questions that had me thinking. Was there still adventure to be found in Southeast Asia? And how did it match with the visions of escape and personal reinvention I had in my mind? Encouraged by books like Rolf Potts’ Vagabonding, I left behind my full-time job in New York and created a plan. I would spend the next few months traveling through the region. After a stopover in Seoul, I head to Bangkok and then on to wherever luck will have me. Not only is it a chance to reinvent the direction of my own life, it’s also an opportunity to observe the rapidly changing direction of this fascinating destination.

Over the next few months, I encourage you to join me as I investigate Southeast Asia with a fresh eye. We’ll return to familiar stops on the “Southeast Asia tourist trail” to survey the terrain, and introduce you to places you never knew existed. We’ll also be taking a closer look at the art of long term travel, and some of the rewards and challenges encountered along the way. We hope through our mistakes and successes you’ll have a chance to truly understand what traveling through Southeast Asia is all about. Ready to go? Let’s chart a course, South by Southeast…

You can read future posts from Gadling’s travels “South by Southeast” through Asia: HERE.

Talking Travel with Rolf Potts, author of the new book “Marco Polo Didn’t Go There”

Rolf Potts has inspired more people to travel than any writer working today. His first book Vagabonding motivated my first long-term trip, and I’ve run into countless travelers who have said the same thing.

Rolf’s newest book is a collection of stories called Marco Polo Didn’t Go There: Stories and Revelations from One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. He recently took the time to answer a few questions about his newest book, his favorite places in the world, and his upcoming show on the Travel Channel.

1. Your new collection of stories and essays has a rather puzzling title: Marco Polo Didn’t Go There. Where does it come from?

I’ll give it to you straight from the introduction chapter:


The title of this book is not my own creation: It is a direct quote from an inmate I met at Bangkok’s women’s prison in January of 1999. At the time I had been a full-time travel writer for less than a month, and I’d been telling people I planned to travel across Asia in the footsteps of Marco Polo.

Looking back, I’m not sure why I found it necessary to say this. I guess I was just following the presumed formula of what travel writers were supposed to do.

Indeed, at the very moment I was setting out from Asia, various travel scribes were researching or publishing books that diligently traced the international footsteps of Captain Cook, Che Guevara, Moses, Sir Richard Burton, William of Rubruck, John Steinbeck, Lewis and Clark, Robinson Crusoe, Ibn Battuta, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Herman Melville. Journeying in the footsteps of others had, it seemed, become the travel-literature equivalent of cover music – as common (and marketable) as Whitney Houston crooning Dolly Parton tunes.

As it turned out, my own “footsteps” ruse lasted less than one month before I found my way into the visiting room of a women’s penitentiary just outside of Bangkok. As unusual as it might sound, visiting Western prisoners was all the rage among backpackers when I’d arrived in Thailand. In cafes and guesthouse bulletin boards along Khao San Road, photocopied notices urged travelers to take a day off and call on prisoners at the various penitentiaries around Bangkok. Figuring this might be an interesting deviation from the standard tourist-circuit activities, I went to the American embassy and received a letter of introduction to an unlucky drug trafficker named Carla.

Brief acts of presumed kindness carry a whiff of narcissism: As I took a series of buses through the snarl of Bangkok traffic to the edge of the city, I imagined Carla to be a weary, desperate woman who would thank mefor the small gift of magazines and the encouragement to keep persevering behind bars. In reality, Carla was a tough, pretty Puerto Rican woman who arrived in the visitor’s room fifteen minutes late smelling like shampoo, and regarded me with ambivalent cordiality. After speaking for a while about her own situation (her fateful decision to make a quick buckdelivering Thai heroin to New Jersey for an acquaintance; her plans upon her release in nine more months), she began to steer the conversation toward me.

“Why did you come to Thailand?” she asked.

“My primary goal is to follow the route of Marco Polo through the Orient.”

“Oh yeah?” Carla said. “Where are you going after Bangkok?”

“North,” I said. “Probably to Chiang Mai for a while.”

“Chiang Mai?” Carla raised a skeptical eyebrow at me. “Marco Polo didn’t go there.”

Though I didn’t know it at the time, this simple observation was to change the way I traveled, far beyond Asia.

2. Are you looking forward to the upcoming book tour? Do you have dates and locales picked out yet?

I’m definitely looking forward to the book tour, as I always enjoy meeting readers and talking to audiences. I’m in the middle of my Kansas leg at the moment, and when that’s finished I’ll continue on to Chicago, New Orleans, Minneapolis, New York, Camden, Portland, Bellingham, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. This will take me right up to Thanksgiving.

You can check out the details on the events page at my website.

3. Asking a seasoned traveler which are his favorite places in the world is a bit like asking a mother which is her favorite child. But can you take a shot at sharing some of your favorite countries or cities?

You’re right — it’s always a tough assessment. Since the early days of my international vagabonding I’ve been a big fan of Laos, Burma and Mongolia — though I haven’t been back to any of those countries since 2003. I go to Paris every summer to teach a creative writing workshop at the Paris American Academy, and I’ve really come to love that beautiful city, despite my weak French language skills. Last year I went to Havana and really came to love Cuba. And there are some other places I want to go back and get to know better — Argentina, Ethiopia, India, Australia. The list could go on.

Of course the place I’m really getting to know better these days is Kansas, where I’ve had a little farmhouse on 30 acres since 2005. I’m actually not there very many days a year, but when I am home I learn a lot about slowing down and getting to know one place.

4. Several of the stories in your new book originally appeared on the internet. What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks of writing for an internet audience?

A big benefit in my experience has been narrative flexibility. At places like Salon and World Hum and Slate I’m really able to take stories in my own personal direction, without the space or photo considerations that might come with writing for a glossy travel magazine. These stories also have more reach, since they’re available worldwide and can be accessed as easily now as the day they came out.

As for drawbacks — well, I’ve been writing for online venues for so long that I really can’t think of any, off the top of my head. I’m used to the format, and it works for me

5. Rumor has it you’re working on a new show for the Travel Channel. Can you give us any details about it?

You bet. The working title of the show is “American Pilgrim,” and it takes a look at the travel conditions of the Mayflower Pilgrims. I’m the host, and basically I travel around the United States meeting with the descendants of those first Pilgrims and talking about the challenges they faced. If all goes according to plan, the one-hour show should debut on the Travel Channel on Thanksgiving Day around prime time. I fly to England at the end of this month for a couple days to record voiceover narration.

Of course, people who are familiar with my writing might wonder why I’m doing a show about American cultural history when I’ve established myself as an independent and international travel guy. I wondered the same thing at first, but I guess they wanted a younger host to inject some energy into what might be seen as middle-aged subject matter. It was a good way to get some experience in front of the camera, and I actually had a really great time shooting it. I can’t imagine I’ll turn my career over to television anytime soon — I will always be a writer first and foremost — but I look forward to doing occasional TV documentary work in the future.

Help Rolf Potts make “Vagabonding” v.2 the best it can be

Most hardcore travel junkies have read Rolf Potts’s book, Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for? I’ve given it a few reads at least, and gifted it countless times.

In between advice on how to negotiate time off from work for travel, adjusting to life on the road long-term, and “meditation on the joys of hitting the road for months or years at a time,” as USA Today put it, Rolf offers up resources — website links, books — to help make your journey down the vagabonding path easier and more enjoyable. Within the year, Vagabonding will be going in to a second edition, and Rolf and crew are tasked with updating the resources section. It’s a daunting job, no doubt, which is why we put the call out to readers of Rolf’s blog (full disclosure: of which I am the managing editor for) to help us find the very best resources for future vagabonders.

“Over the next 10 weeks,” I wrote on Vagablogging today, “we’re going to be posting roughly one chapter each Monday, and asking you to contribute any links or resources you feel are missing or need updating.”

So if you’d like to help make the second edition of Vagabonding the best it can be, offer up your favorite books and web links every Monday for the next 10 weeks at

What’s in your pack, Dave Lee?

Dave Lee of recently saved $30,000, quit his full-time job, and hopped on a plane to travel the world for a year or more. “While I’m not going to be the lightest guy on the road, weighing in at a total of just 20lbs fully packed, minus the clothes on my back,” he wrote in an email late last month, just 48 hours before departure. “It’s hard to avoid carrying technology now that it’s so small, light, and inexpensive, though I know I could drop a few pounds if I ditched a bit of it.” So, Dave, what’s in your pack?


Clothes and Packs

  • Gregory Chaos backpack (2,800 cubic inches, from Summer ’98 Europe)
  • Patagonia daypack (new, not pictured, replaces green Jansport canvas bag)
  • Merrell hiking boots (I might regret taking these, from Spring ’05 Costa Rica)
  • Saucony running sneakers w/custom molded orthotics
  • Brazilian flip flops (from Spring ’05 Costa Rica)
  • North Face windbreaker (from Spring ’05 Costa Rica)
  • North Face khaki cargo pants (from Summer ’98 Europe)
  • North Face khaki cargo shorts (from Summer ’98 Europe)
  • Bathing suit
  • 2 T-shirts
  • 3 pairs of socks (2 new crew Smart Wool, and 1 Ingenius liner hybrid)
  • 3 boxers
  • 2 bandannas (from Spring ’05 Costa Rica and ’06 Belize)
  • Baseball cap – DC Nationals camo (new, not a fan of the team – just like the design)
  • Eagle Creek money belt (from Summer ’98 Europe)
  • Oakley sunglasses
  • Prescription glasses w/case (new, though I have 20/20 vision)

Toiletries and First Aid

  • Small paktowel (from Spring ’05 Costa Rica)
  • First Aid Kit – homemade w/Tupperware. Includes assorted band aids, gauze, Q-tips, digital thermometer, Sudafed, Imodium, Gas-x, Benadryl, moleskin, healthy travel and first aid booklets.
  • Toiletry bag – toothbrush, dental floss, nail clippers, Motrin, Aleve, Gold Bond powder, Centrum vitamins, 2 safety razors, 1 roll toilet paper.
  • 1 quart Ziploc bag with <3oz/bottle – Campsuds, suntan lotion, Neosporin, Cortizone, shaving cream, toothpaste, eye drops, bug spray, skin lotion, Prep-H

Electronic Gear (I think I crossed into official flashpacker territory)

  • Canon PowerShot Digital Elph SD700IS camera w/soft case (new)
  • 2 camera batteries and 2 memory cards (new, 2gb each)
  • Canon battery charger (new)
  • Petzl Zipka LED headlamp w/2 AAA batteries (new)
  • Casio Pathfinder digital watch (new, love it!)
  • Creative Zen V Plus 8gb MP3 player w/headphones, cloth pouch (new)
  • Universal Adapter/Power Converter (new)
  • Universal Charger by Creative (new, specific to mp3 player)
  • Card reader (new)
  • E*Trade digital security token (new)
  • SanDisk Cruzer Micro 1gb Flash Stick (new, loaded w/Skype and Firefox + my personal bookmarks)
  • Cheap headset/mic for Skype (new)

Documents and Money (all items to be scanned and e-mailed to self, copies left at home too)

  • Passport w/Chinese Visa
  • Photocopy of passport info page
  • Printout of Australian electronic Visa
  • 9 extra photos (for Visas)
  • Driver’s License
  • Anthem health insurance card
  • WHO Immunization card
  • 4 flight e-ticket receipts, NYC bus reservation
  • Lonely Planet Tahiti, Rough Guides New Zealand
  • E*Trade Visa debit card
  • Suntrust Visa debit card (back-up, expires 9/08)
  • Capital One Visa credit card
  • 3 paper E*Trade checks
  • $150 in travelers checks
  • $300 cash (USD)


  • Notebook and pen
  • Camera and watch manuals
  • ~ 70 Moo/Flickr mini cards w/blog and e-mail address
  • Sewing kit (from Summer ’98 Europe – yet to be used!)
  • Gum

Thanks, Dave! If you’d like to be featured in our What’s in your pack? series, send me an email: justinglow (at)

Video: Rolf Potts Speaks at Authors@Google

Our good friend Rolf Potts, author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, was recently invited to speak at Google’s New York office as a part of the Authors@Google program. Fortunately for us non-Google employees (or is it open to the public? I can’t tell), each talk is filmed and posted to YouTube. What you have above this paragraph is nearly an hour’s worth of Rolf talking about his book and sharing various experiences on the road. He then fields questions from the audience. Here’s a few of those questions:

  • When your traveling in case you get hurt? What kind of documents do you carry with you?
  • What are attitudes have you experienced when you travel as an American post-9/11?
  • Is it possible to not be a tourist? How do you get off the tourist’s trail?
  • How do you deal with coming home after a long trip?

Check it out — well worth an hour of your time.