An Interview with Joe Cummings
Mr. Guidebook Talks About How He Does It and Why
by Joshua Berman
Catching up with travel guru Joe Cummings is not an easy task. On my first trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand, one of the many cities in the world where Joe has made his home, I found that he was in Pai for the weekend, a village three hours to the north where his band is performing all weekend. The next time I called, he answered his phone from the Bangkok Film Festival, which he is covering for Variety magazine. Later, I found that he had retreated into the hills to work on his latest Lonely Planet deadline (Sri Lanka). Not that Joe was the least bit discourteous responding to my pursuit—on the contrary, each time we spoke, he offered casual travel advice, contacts, and once, when I phoned him from Luang Prabang, Laos, he suggested a remedy for my wife's illness—right before hanging up to interview actor William Dafoe.
Just how many books has Joe Cummings written? “I've never really counted,” he said, “but someone from an American newspaper recently told me I've written or contributed to 37 guidebooks and phrasebooks and have written 13 coffee table books. I think there are probably a few he missed but that sounds about right.” The countries and territories he’s covered include Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, western Malaysia, Singapore, China (13 provinces, including Tibet), Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia (Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi), Mexico (Baja, Northern Mexico, Mexico City), and Texas. His first book, Lonely Planet Thailand, recently hit the two million copies sold mark, an extraordinary accomplishment for a guidebook.
Despite his busy schedule, Joe Cummings runs on Thai time, accompanied by an easygoing mai pen rai (“no problem”) outlook on things. When we finally got together (for dinner in Chiang Mai), he was all too happy to share with Transitions Abroad his thoughts about guidebook writing, tourism, and “jackalans.”
Transitons Abroad: Is guidebook writing a satisfactory end-in-itself, or a means to take you to other kinds of writing and books? Can you talk about some of the new directions in your writing?
Joe Cummings: I do think that guidebook writing is its own form of literature, though I have to qualify that by saying it depends on whether the content is mostly author-determined or editor-determined. Some guidebook publishers have such strict templates and thick predeparture editorial briefs that there is very little room to come up with something fresh and creative. But some guidebooks do stand on their own as pieces of literature.
As guidebook series have become more standardized and comparatively more sterile and “politically correct” I've found myself drifting towards other kinds of writing. The kick I used to get from pioneering new areas—that is being the first to write about them in English—I can't sustain forever.
I'm really enjoying doing coffee table books and magazine articles as there is usually more free rein to stretch one's writing muscles. I have a novel in the works but it's still a good ways from “The End.” I've also enjoyed collaborating recently with movie productions in Thailand, as a production and location consultant. I would love to move into script-writing someday.
TA: How has your guidebook writing style changed in 25 years?
JC: My instinctive approach really hasn't changed much. Beating the street with a micro cassette recorder day and night, then boiling it all down and drawing out the essence, that's what I do.
However I can say that guidebook editors today tend to demand a different type of approach. They still want the facts but they want them sugar-coated. It used to be we authors tried to get under the skin of the country, but most editors these days seem to want us to take a more ethnocentric view, one that imposes Western values on non-Western societies. Going native seems to be frowned on; its like, “Hey don't enjoy yourself too much, don't fraternize with the locals.” Party content is big, too. “Find out where the parties are, the discos.” Basically places where you meet other tourists are big now.
Also the smaller towns and off-the-beaten-track places are getting less attention. It's a market-driven approach; publishers look at what the other publishers are putting into competing guides, and they want the same coverage. There's less incentive to be a maverick and do something different.
TA: What are the ethical responsibilities of a guidebook writer?
JC: To tell the truth, period. I don't believe in preaching to the reader, although I am guilty of having done so; I think you need to give readers the facts and let them decide what it all means. Of course the way you select and synthesize the facts can carry a lot of weight, but here again the intention should be to deliver an accurate overall picture, whether it's politically correct or not.
TA: Do you ever keep secrets from your readers in order to “protect” a place?
JC: I've tried, but it doesn't work. Word of mouth travels much faster then a book can get through production, printing, and distribution.
TA: Where is home? Do you feel like a permanent out-of-place expat or are you at home wherever you?
Home is Thailand nowadays but it's true, I've pretty much always felt like an expat. I suppose I feel closer to the Thai mentality than any other.
TA: Can you talk a bit about your band and the role of music in your life?
JC: I'm in a band called The Jackalans right now. Jackalan is northeastern Thai slang for grasshopper. Our four-piece group is led by a 22-year-old British singer named Marie Dance, and we play everything from Nirvana and Razorlight to Pink Floyd and Neil Young, plus a few of Marie's own tunes. Even the covers we perform in our own way – usually harder-edged and louder than the originals! We're playing regularly in Pai nowadays and may do a 3-month tour of India at the end of this year. I tried swearing off rock guitar a few years ago, but it always comes back to haunt me. I have bad dreams if I don't play.
TA: You’ve been asked about the role of the Internet in travel before, but I imagine the answer keeps changing. What are your views on this now?
JC: The Internet is a great tool for researching trips. Unfortunately, the commercial content linked to hotel commissions and so on still dominates, but if you're patient you can find some very helpful gems on the web.
TA: Tourism is on a roll—the world’s biggest industry by 2020—is this an inevitable steamroller that will eventually blanket the planet with tacky postcard stands and t-shirts—or do as many places fall out of favor as new places are discovered?
JC: That's a good question but one I really don't have an answer to. I do think that we're still a very long way from saturating the whole globe. Here in Thailand you can drive 15 minutes outside of Chiang Mai and find towns where you won't see a single other tourist.
TA: Out of all the countries you’ve covered, which ones are doing the best job at integrating tourism in a sustainable way? The worst?
JC: The hard thing is not killing the golden goose by raping natural and cultural attractions until there is nothing left. In SE Asia I think Malaysia and Laos have succeeded best, so far. That's looking at it from the standpoint of a prospective traveler. It's easier to control tourism when you have an authoritarian government. I'm sure many residents of these two countries would love to see tourism open up more. There's a tension between what citizens want (typically more tourism than they have) and what visitors want (typically less), at least in developing countries. I don't have that much experience in developed countries but even in Texas I never heard anyone living there say, “I wish we had fewer tourists.” Still, you need strong leadership to put policies in place that preserve the golden eggs.
Joe Cummings has a website (www.joecummings.com) which provides a sampling of his books, articles, photography, and some recommended soundtracks for trips abroad. He also offers a trip consulting service — which has included Mick Jagger, Tony Bourdain of a Cook's Tour, and Lonely Planet TV as clients.
Joshua Berman is a guidebook writer, photographer, and international trip leader. His website is joshuaberman.net.