I don’t always have the luxury of “vagabonding”, a term coined by travel writer Rolf Potts to describe the art of long-term world travel.

When I took to the road for 9 months in 2011, I didn’t do much planning at all. Partly because I lived out of a 42-litre backpack (so there was no room for guidebooks), and partly because I had no access to WIFI in many parts of the world. My itinerary was thus planned very much on-the-go, by chatting with locals.

I totally enjoy that approach to travel. To me, travel is not about making a list of tourist attractions you need to tick off one by one, or jostling with crowds to get that perfect shot to prove you’ve been there and done that. To me, that’s what tourists do, not travellers.

For the record, I did the tourist thing too: Jostling with crowds at Versailles, looking out for famous names on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, taking photos at the Rialto in Venice, Tigers Nest in Bhutan, Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu.

A snaking queue to enter Versailles.

A snaking queue to enter Versailles.

Jostling with tourists at the Rialto, Venice.

Jostling with tourists at the Rialto, Venice.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad thing. But I’ve realised – on hindsight – that when I was writing Adventures of 2 Girls (published by Marshall Cavendish), none of those visits to tourist attractions made the final cut. They were just not strong travel narratives.

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The stories that make for good travel writing are often not about “destinations” but “journeys”; not so much about “tourist attractions” but “unique experiences”. And because of that, travel writing requires just the right balance of planning and non-planning.

You want to know enough about a place to appreciate it, but not too much so that nothing surprises you. Research shapes one’s expectations. And injecting expectations and preconceived ideas into a travel experience can be a double-edged sword.

With Google, TripAdvisor, and online social media platforms proliferating the Internet, it’s so much easier these days to do extensive research, get peer reviews, and plan a detailed, hour-by-hour itinerary for our trips.

While I admit that isn’t my preferred style of travelling, I do see the value of it especially if time is of the essence.

I’ve done FAM trips where the schedule is so packed, we were herded from one place to another without enough time to walk around and explore, to take photos, chat with locals, or even have a proper pee break without breaking into a run!

But that is sometimes the life of a travel writer, and you don’t want to give up an opportunity to experience a new place just because you’re stubborn about your preferred style of travel. On such trips, it’s work. Period.

It’s counter-intuitive, but for such overseas assignments, I’ve learnt that prior research is even more important. Sure, you often have a tour guide and maybe even a translator, but such trips are often planned around convenience rather than common sense.

Take for example a city like Paris or Rome. Often, you see architecture from different centuries standing side by side – from the ruins of Ancient Rome to a cathedral built in the 1600s. Your planned itinerary stipulates that you visit them one after another because of their geographical proximity. But isn’t that more a matter of convenience than common sense?

Roman ruins in juxtaposition with old buildings

Roman ruins in juxtaposition with old buildings

Wouldn’t it make more sense to run all over the city to pursue consistent story threads – like Julius Caesar’s Ancient Rome, or the Paris of The Da Vinci Code – so that you really appreciate a city, with its superimposed, multi-layered dimensions of time?

We all know that’s often impractical.

So the next best thing is to be so familiar with the historical background of a place that you can do this time-mapping and time-layering in your mind. So that when you tumble out of the tour bus and stand before Borobudur or Prambanan, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Yogyakarta, you already know what to look out for and what to ask beyond the obvious.

Because at the end of the day, travel writing – at its best – is Literature.

And the best travel writers are storytellers. They bring together different elements – from past and present, from fact and fiction – and weave them together so that you are taken on a journey. And when you’re done reading, your mind has shifted, your ideas expanded, and you find yourself in a new space.

Travel writer Pico Iyer in Kyoto, Japan.

Travel writer Pico Iyer in Kyoto, Japan.

And this new space is often a new consciousness, a new awareness. And as Oliver Wendell Holmes puts it, “A mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”

Good travel writing does that to you.

As a writer, I am still struggling to find that fine balance between research and going with the flow; between following TripAdvisor and letting conversations with locals lead; between planning or throwing caution to the wind.

Perhaps it’s a balance that only we can define for ourselves? Being aware that a slight tweak this way or that can result in a very different experience.

Perhaps good travel writing needs to have that constant tension. We need to be reminded that our travel experiences are always shaped by broad strokes and fine; that it is never about ticking items off a pre-made list, but trusting our instincts at every turn how much to stay on the worn and well-travelled path, and how much to side-step off to the road less travelled.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost