Peace Corps Writers
Talking with . . .
Joe Cummings
View the lengthy bibliography of Joe Cummings

Travelers' Tales Thailand

An interview by John Coyne
I FIRST READ ABOUT JOE Cummings in the March 1993 issue of Outside magazine. It was a feature on him entitled “FarangPrinter friendly version Correspondent,” part of which also appeared later in Travelers’ Tales Thailand, the first book in the Travelers Tales series, as well as in Michael McRae’s book Continental Drifter. Joe got in touch with me when he read the Talking With interview with Tom Brosnahan (Turkey 1967–70), another RPCV travel writer for Lonely Planet.
     Joe has been an extremely productive writer, especially on South East Asia, and later, Mexico. He is winner of major travel writing awards, including the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Gold Award 1995 (for Lonely Planet Thailand); the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Gold Award 1993 (for Travelers Tales Thailand); and a Thomas Cook Guidebook of the Year finalist in1991 (for Lonely Planet Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia) and 1984 (Lonely Planet Thailand). We caught up with him, via e-mail, several months ago.
  Where were you a Peace Corps Volunteers and what was your job?
    I served as a PCV from early 1977 to late 1978. My assignment was teaching English at King Mongkut’s Institute of Technology in Bang Mot, a couple of hours southwest of Bangkok.
How did you get started writing — really publishing — your material?
 Lonely Planet Thailand

There is a copy of Guide to Bangkok with Notes on Siam available at Rare & Used books.

My first professional break came when I started writing the “Asia in Print” column for the monthly Asia Record in 1979. I wrote for them through 1982 while I was a student at UC/Berkeley. At UC I wrote a paper on tourism in South East Asia, as seen through the eyes of communist insurgencies in Thailand and Malaysia. During that period I read every book published in English on SE Asia, including travel literature and guidebooks. My first travel feature, on Ko Samui, was published in 1982 in the San Francisco Examiner, and my first guidebook (Lonely Planet Thailand) was published that same year. It was an exciting moment for me because this was the first Thailand guide written in English and devoted entirely to Thailand since the 1928 Guide to Bangkok with Notes on Siam by Erik Seidenfaden. There were a couple of French and German guides available in translation, but they were very much geared towards hiring your own car and driver and staying in first-class hotels all along the way — culturally insulated travel.
     I just complete the 9th edition of the Lonely Planet Thailand guide, which has remained in print for 19 years now.
  What’s important about a travel guide book? Really accurate information? Obscure facts? Or a good prose style in the narrative?
A good guidebook strikes a balance between all these elements. A competent writer ingests mountains and mountains of information about a place, then evaluates and filters it on behalf of the reader for usefulness and accuracy, and finally organizes it into comprehensible text. It’s sort of a cross between writing a how-to manual (“here’s how Thailand works”) and a restaurant/hotel review-and-rate guide (“for the best green curry, go to Thanom’s”).
  Did you travel much while a PCV?
  I traveled every chance I got. When I first had to write a sample guidebook entry for Lonely Planet, I wrote about one of my favorite PCV getaways, a little-known island near Bangkok called Ko Si Chang.
     I don’t know what policy might be these days, but when I was a PCV you weren’t allowed to leave the country except for emergency reasons. Then once you finished your service you had to leave the country within 72 hours. I stayed in Thailand a month or so afterwards, so Peace Corps staff came by my house one day and took away my no-fee passport. Luckily I had another passport with me — albeit without a Thai visa in it — so I was able to continue on to India and Nepal, then back to Thailand. I didn’t return to the US until three months after completion of service.
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