Some quick thoughts on travel writing (well, service writing really)

I was recently in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, doing a badly needed update of our coverage of the city. I thought it would be interesting (to some) for me to write up what something like this actually involves.

I arrived in Phnom Penh on the afternoon of January 5 and left early in the morning on January 20. While there I filled my days with visiting sights and tours and such like, inspecting hotels (I looked at over 40 altogether), eating a lot (please don’t ask me how many meals I had) and dedicated many a night to bar research—often with the guiding hand of my friend Nick Ray who seems to have been to every bar in the city—side note, Phnom Penh has a LOT of bars.

Each day I would set aside some portion of the day (generally early afternoon when it is the hottest) to write at least short versions of what would end up being the final reviews on Travelfish. Not all of these would see the light of electrons though, as I’d stay in a hotel, then find somewhere better, so ditch an old review and so on. Same goes for food and, to a lesser extent sights.

Thankfully the transport section had already been updated by another Travelfish writer (Mark Ord) as it was really badly out of date, so I didn’t have to bother with that, save a few minor updates or changes.

I stayed in thirteen hotels and hotels all up, some for more than one night, some for no nights (yes, it was that bad), and while many of these places made the cut, not all did. In any event I deleted about 30 of our existing listings–not so much because they were all terrible (though some were), or had closed (as some had), but mostly, as we’re really moving towards listing mostly places that are really great, I see little point writing up a review of somewhere that is just ok. This isn’t a strict rule, but the accommodation scene in Southeast Asia is just so competitive now, I see little value adding in spending time looking at 15 mini hotels all on the same street.

My average spend across the stay was US$31 which is quite high for me (I’d say $20ish about right for me normally), but Phnom Penh has so many delicious places to stay at around the $50 mark I just had to try a few. Cheapest night was $5, priciest $55. Also, as I was working, I really wanted a bit of space and privacy so I could throw by papers all over the place and get stuff into the laptop—hard to do in a $5 dorm.

F&B wise, Phnom Penh is a cheap town that can get a bit pricey fast, meaning it is an easy town to spend a bit of dosh. I think the priciest meal was around $30, but mostly I floated around the $5 to $10 mark. But, as I eat multiple times a meal, on one occasion four lunches in a day (no Mum, I didn’t eat all of each meal), my spend is absolutely atypically high. The bar research also adds up—booze is cheap in Cambodia, but when you’re covering three or four bars (or more) in an evening, the incremental costs add up—yeah I know, my job is hell. Much of Cambodia is still a very much cash economy, so I don’t have a figure on my actual cash spend on food and drink, but $25-30ish on food, another $10 on booze a day sounds about right—those bloody cocktail bars will be the death of me.

The other cash black hole was tours and activities. I spend around $160 on three street food tours. I hired a tuk tuk for a coupla days for some out of town stuff at $20ish (I paid for his beer and food) a day, and another evening to the Khmer kick boxing ($20), an architecture tour ($35), a sunset boat cruises ($8 bargain!), a performance of Cambodian dance ($25) and plenty of other random $5 and $10 drops here and there. Also museum admissions, lots of $5 and $10 costs there.

A typical day for me is starting early (6am ish) out and about just wandering, take some pics, eat a bit, perhaps a market. It depends. See a morning sight, perhaps a museum or torture centre. Ten am to midday is looking at hotels and hostels, then I eat again, then back to my hotel to write up the morning and previous evening’s material. Once the heat drops back to tolerable levels, more hotels, another sight or two, then food and bars.

Rinse and repeat.

I used to (like five years ago!) be able to do three weeks without a break at this pace before the wheels started to fall off, but now closing in on two weeks, I start going a bit around the bend. When you are doing this kind of work it pays to keep an eye on your mental state, not only to be fair on yourself, but importantly also on the properties/restaurants/bars/whatever you’re reviewing. Stuart, take a mental health day when you need it.

What hasn’t changed, at least for me, is the write-up math. A day in the destination (generally) equates to a day at home writing it up (this includes me doing crib notes and posting some stuff during the trip). Obviously when I am home I have a whole raft of other responsibilities, be it school pick up and drop off, cooking dinner, feeding the cat (that is a big fat joke), or whatever, but still, taking all that into account, at least for me, one day away to a day writing up is about right. By writing up I mean including sorting and filing pics, and posting onto the Travelfish site, both of these are also considerable time sucks, but I’m bundling them all as one.

My overall spend in Phnom penh was about $1,400 (including accommodation), or around $100 a day. This is before flights to get there and so on.

So. What does all this mean?

It means doing the legwork, in person, checking all this stuff, is both expensive and freakin time consuming—which is why some publishers don’t bother with it anymore, relying on “desk updates” instead. A desk update is where you update your travel guide to wherever by not leaving your desk, just using the internet (you bookmarked Travelfish right?) and (oh gawd do I have to call a person?!) the telephone, to fact check stuff.

Is it important to verify this stuff in person? Well, that’s a good question. In the age of TripAdvisor and Google Travel (but not yet, it seems, antitrust) how much value adding is there in having some sentient being going and looking at the whole shebang in person? Obviously I think there is, as otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it, but more generally, I still think there is a lot of value in having a more rounded view of a destination. Should you go to Kien Svay or Koh Dach? Killing Fields or Tuol Sleng? Pavilion or Plantation? Annnnnd so on.

Much of our Phnom Penh coverage is available online for free. Members get all the sights and a mega 185-page PDF to the city. Do you need a 185 guide to a city? No, probably not, but the font is big, there are a tonne of pics and it will give you something to read through on your tablet on the flight. Membership is A$35 a year, or about US$2ish a month—think about that, that’s the cost of a third of a martini at Juniper Gin Bar—or just about as big a bargain as an $8 sunset cruise. You can sign up here. (Yes, I know three links to the signup page in the final par, do it!)

A last word, just in case you’re not familiar with Travelfish, we do no freebies, no media rates, none of that stuff. We pay our way every time and have been doing so for 14+ years.

Thanks for reading.