Keeping a Journal When Traveling

Keeping a Journal When Traveling

Prepared by Harold Stephens
Travel Correspondent for Thai Airways International

What are the rewards of travelling?  Obviously, it's memories. Memories bring back to mind those strange and distant places we have visited, the people we have met and the experiences we have had. Without memories travelling would be pointless.
To help keep those memories alive, we take photographs, or perhaps videos. More often we bring back souvenirs and small reminders.

Or, as some travellers do, we take notes. We can keep a diary or a journal of our travels.  It's quite impossible to remember everything that takes place on a long vacation, especially after the passing of time, but the written words are there forever.  And like wine, the older a journal becomes, the more valuable it seems to be.

English philosopher, Francis Bacon, noted in his essay "Of Travel," written over 400 years ago, that during sea voyages when there is nothing to be seen but sky and sea, travellers keep diaries, but on land journeys, where there is so much to be observed, they hardly even keep notes. (Bacon also noted "Travel, in the younger sort, is part of education; in the elder, a part of experience.)
Those who have taken long sea voyages will agree with Bacon.  Aboard ship we have the leisure time to reflect upon our past and we get a chance to look at ourselves introspectively.  But from the travel point of view, such diaries are of little value, with one exception being Robert Louis Stevenson's "In the South Seas."

Many of our famous writers, both past and present, kept notes when they travelled.  John Steinbeck (“Tobacco Road” and “Grapes of Wrath”) made a trip around America with his dog Charlie in a campervan and wrote a delightful travel book about his experience, which he called "Travels with Charlie." It made the best-seller list.
James Michener went to Spain and wandered around the country for several months gathering background information and jotting down notes for a book he intended to write about Mexico.  The notes proved to be so interesting he wrote a book called "Iberia" instead of one on Mexico.

I often wonder how many books come out of notes that travellers keep.  I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Homer hadn't kept a journal back in 450 B.C. when he wandered around the Mediterranean.  It was from his travels that came two lengthy poems called "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," both Greek classics and travel books.

It happened much the same way with Mark Twain, the famous American humourist and author of "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." While travelling on a liner from San Francisco to Honolulu, Twain kept a travel log which his family had published in their local newspaper.  Readers liked what they read.  Twain continued his journey around the world, and kept up his log, and from it came another American classic—“Following the Equator.”

Twain became just as famous for his travel writing as he did for his fiction and humour.
A raft of travellers has turned their travel adventures into profit by writing about them. One of the early European travellers in Asia, who wrote about her experiences, was an English lady, Isabella Bird.  In 1879, she travelled by steamer from Hong Kong to Saigon, down to Singapore and then up the Malacca Strait to Penang. Her travels appeared under the title "The Golden Chersonese, Travels in Malaya in 1879."

  "The Golden Chersonese" is today a valuable documentary on life in Singapore and Malaysia a hundred years ago.  The book, as Miss Bird admits, is the result of detailed notes she took along the way.

Paul Theroux is another author who did not set out to make his mark as an author of travel books but circumstance has made him so.  His latest book "To the End of Earth, selected travels of Paul Theroux," has recently been published and is already a success.  It's a collection of travel vignettes.

In the early 1970s, frustrated by the lack of response and remuneration generated by his novels, Theroux decided to take a train journey through Asia, which he chronicled.  His editor got hold of the notes and published them in book form, and called it "The Great Railway Bazaar."

Overnight the book catapulted Theroux to fame and continues to sell 20 years later. Although his novels that followed have fared well, he is best known as a travel writer ever since.

Theroux maintains that "the journey not the arrival matters" and that "travel is a creative act—not simply loafing and inviting your soul, but feeding the imagination, accounting for each fresh wonder, memorising and moving on."  For Theroux, memorising is writing it down as it is happening, as an artist takes his easel on to a busy thoroughfare and paints a street scene.

Unlike travelling with expensive cameras and videos, keeping a journal requires no more than pen and paper. Or if you want to be more sophisticated, you can use a laptop computer that's the size of a briefcase.  But nothing can beat a soft-cover notebook that you can bend or fold and stick into your pocket.  It's so much easier sitting in a coffee shop in Penang with a notebook than with a laptop. A laptop is certain to get attention.  No one seems to bother when you keep hand-written notes.

Keeping a travel journal has some marked advantages. You take a long journey but after a few years names and even places elude you. But the written word, kept in a journal will always be there

One of our best accounts of life in the South Pacific during the latter part of the last century comes from a 300-page book called "In the South Seas" that I mentioned. It was written by Robert Louis Stevenson, author of "Treasure Island."  Stevenson had chartered a sailing schooner and spent several months cruising the South Pacific, looking for a place where he could live in peace and quiet and write.

Stevenson sailed from Hawaii to the remote Marquesas Islands and then on across the Pacific to Tahiti, Samoa and the Gilbert Islands. He finally settled in Apia, Western Samoa where he lived out his life and is buried.

During the entire voyage Stevenson kept a journal, jotting down descriptions of the islands, conversations with the natives and other bits of information such as local legends and superstitions.  After his death, his journal was found and published by his widow. It's a masterpiece of travel writing, yet Stevenson never intended to write a travel book.  Even he didn't recognise the value of the notes he had kept.

The great British novelist and storyteller, Somerset Maugham, gathered all his notes together after more than half a century of writing and published them in a book called "A Writer's Notebook." The book gives us an excellent insight on the author and his habits, including bits of information that were to later form the plots for his many novels. The book begins with random notes that he put down on paper when he was eighteen, years before he turned to writing as a profession.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Great Britain began taking notes when he first entered politics.  After his retirement he was able to compile the history of "The Second World War" in six volumes.  He certainly could not have achieved the feat had he not kept his own journal throughout the war.

Take notes when you travel. Who knows, a day may come when your notes become literature.

Q. Dear Mr. Stephens. My husband and I are planning a vacation in Thailand with our two sons, age eight and ten. Both are interested in riding elephants. In fact, that’s all they talk about. Where would you suggest would be the best place?

Stephanie Alexander, San Francisco

A. Dear Stephanie, Just about anyplace in Thailand you can find elephant rides. There are short rides for an hour or longer treks into the hills that may take a full day or longer. The elephants are even back on the streets in Bangkok. —HS

Harold Stephens
E-mail: ROH Weekly Travel, hstephens_1 @yahoo,con
Note: The article is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited.


Harold Stephens
E-mail: ROH Weekly Travel (

Note: The article is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited.

Author’s schooner at the mouth of the river

Men of the river

Many caves are deep   and unexplored

Boats everywhere in Thailand

Some caves are open

Not to miss are the Royal Barges