Profile: Ron Gluckman, a travel writer in Asia

Ron Gluckman is an American journalist who has been based in Asia for 16 years, working out of Hong Kong, Beijing and Bangkok. He’s travelled around Asia extensively and written for publications including Time, Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal. Ron’s break in travel writing came by accident when he was researching background for a book for his journalism fellowship at Oxford University back in 1990. He wound up in Hong Kong with no money, just the bag on his back, and he started working for Asian magazines. He never looked back.

Ron said: “When I was stuck in Hong Kong I sent faxes to half a dozen editors on a Friday, got a call on a Saturday and was covering stories by the Monday. I just got lucky and I’ve never looked back since.”

Ron feels that writing and travelling go hand in hand with each other, and he finds it hard to define himself as either without crossing over into the other field.

He said: “I’ve been a writer or journalist for a long time, and think one is just an extension of the other. My first real travel writing was done for newspapers. Reporters were always looking for some way to extend a road trip or get out of the office on an exotic excursion.

“I started traveling on my own as a teenager and was hooked. I pretty much made up my mind that writing was what I wanted to do about the same time. It was only a matter of time before the two came together and I was working as a travel writer. I don’t really consider myself a travel writer so much as a general reporter.”

“My usual routine is to arrange a story somewhere, like Mongolia or Vietnam, then I see what else is interesting. My approach to travel writing probably stems from this reporter background.

“I really hate all these identical stories about beaches or blah blah blah. When I read a story, I don’t want to read a travel story, I want to read a story, meaning I want to learn something interesting that I didn’t already know. The best travel writing unquestionably involves fantastic writing and interesting travel.”

The best thing about being a travel writer for Ron is the ability to travel here, there and everywhere. He hates the concept of a holiday, he’d much rather be working.

He said: “I absolutely hate holidays, meaning going somewhere to not work, where I have to pay for everything myself, get treated poorly and don’t learn anything. I much prefer going to exotic places with a purpose, where everyone wants to take me
to their favorite spot, the most secluded waterfall, or to visit some distant tribe, or to eat some incredibly tasty local dish, and then return to some luxurious resort and have a soak in a six-star spa under the stars – and get paid for it. Talk about a dream job!”

The current state of the media business is the most frustrating part of Ron’s job, he feels that editors just aren’t willing to commission exciting pieces anymore, they’d rather play it safe.

“For me, it’s a continual adjustment to new editors”, says Ron, “who are always dealing with their own preoccupations: the new design, new direction, new demographics.

“I find it such a world away from what I do, which is hanging out with monks in Mongolia or Bhutan, or trying to get on board new train routes to Tibet. But all the difficulties in the field are minor compared to the lack of editorial ambition; before magazines really took chances. Now they all want to play it safe, covering the same ground between Bali and Phuket. It’s hard to get them to push things.”

Ron finds it hard to put his finger on his top five destinations, but it’s Asia that dominates his list.

He said: “My motto is the weirder the better, so I look remote places where people wear funny things on their heads. It’s getting harder and harder to find really remote places these days, and I’m not a danger junkie, but I do like different.

“Hence, you cannot beat North Korea. It’s as out-there as you can get in an intellectual sense, and while there are definite
drawbacks in the access and being unable to travel freely, everything you see and do works well in terms of story telling.”

“Next, I’d say Bhutan, which is one of the nicest places I’ve ever been, still mostly unspoiled and inspiring. You feel privileged just to be there.

“Mongolia is still special, really one of the Last Great Places, as it’s been called. I like the endless space and complete contrast to the ways of the rest of the world.

“Here’s a funny observation: Everyone I’ve talked to who has been to Mongolia has either loved it or hated it – but always for the same reason. The last time I went, I got as sick as I’ve ever been in my life, totally destroyed for three weeks. But as soon as I got better, I was straight back on the train to Mongolia again.”

The next two of Ron’s picks are good places for first-timers in Asia to visit.

He said: “The two most accessible places are: Goa in India, which surprises everyone with its laid-back charm and old-world architecture.

“And, for ease of travel, and value for money, it would be hard to beat Thailand, my present home. We have great weather, great beaches, fantastic food, and wonderful people. Even with all the tourists, it’s still a wonderful place to visit.”

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