"Not all who wander are lost." -- J.R.R. Tolkien


Joe Cummings / © Rune Kippervik

© Rune Kippervik

An Interview with Joe Cummings
Mr. Guidebook Talks About How He Does It and Why

by Joshua Berman, Transitions Abroad

Catching up with travel guru Joe Cummings is not an easy task. On my first trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand, one of the many cities in the world where Joe has made his home, I found that he was in Pai for the weekend, a village three hours to the north where his band is performing all weekend. The next time I called, he answered his phone from the Bangkok Film Festival, which he is covering for Variety magazine. Later, I found that he had retreated into the hills to work on his latest Lonely Planet deadline (Sri Lanka). Not that Joe was the least bit discourteous responding to my pursuit—on the contrary, each time we spoke, he offered casual travel advice, contacts, and once, when I phoned him from Luang Prabang, Laos, he suggested a remedy for my wife's illness—right before hanging up to interview actor William Dafoe.

Read the interview here.

The Texas-Asia-Mexico Connection: A Conversation with Joe Cummings

Ron Mader, founder of, the world's best eco-tourism-related website, interviewed Joe for the Mexico City News. Now archived on, the interview delves into Joe's views on why Mexico and Southeast Asia are similar.

A conversation with Rolf Potts

One of Joe's favorite travel writers is Rolf Potts, who combines a knack for careful observation with fresh angles on wanderlust. Not to mention eliciting quotes such as:

"I was such a precocious brat in 5th grade (at international school in Orleans, France) that the teacher gave me my own corner of the classroom with not one desk but four put together, where she allowed me to write short stories for that entire year, instead of doing the regular work."

Read the rest of Rolf's interview with Joe.

An interview with

The "official website" for Khao San Road,, contains an interview where Joe talks about the history of Bangkok's infamous strip of guesthouses, bars, cafes, tattoo parlors, tarot readers and drawstring pants vendors.

Read the interview.

The Sacramento Bee Speaks with Joe Cummings

"If Joe Cummings were writing novels instead of travel guidebooks, the world would know his name. His best-selling book, Thailand: A Travel Survival Kit (published by Lonely Planet), has sold more than 1 million copies and been translated into a half-dozen languages. Legions of travelers -- many of them budgeteers touring with backpacks and minimal funds -- loyally follow his word on where to eat, sleep and play. Entire neighborhoods of Bangkok have been transformed as a result of his recommendations..."

Part 1: Road to Travel Writing Smooth for Trailblazer
Part 2: Writer Calls Desire for "Undiscovered" a Western Conceit talks to Joe Cummings

Search for items by Joe Cummings. How did you begin writing? Did you intend to become an author, or do you have a specific reason or reasons for writing each book?

J.C.: I started writing mystery short stories in the fifth grade. In high school I switched to publishing a very political underground paper called The Judgement, which my friends and I distributed in the Washington, DC area. That was in the Indochina War era, and much of the content was directed at US policies in Southeast Asia. Later I traveled extensively in SE Asia myself and decided there was a market for a guidebook to Thailand. I approached Lonely Planet in 1980 and have been writing guidebooks every since. What authors do you like to read? What book or books have had a strong influence on you or your writing?

J.C.: I particularly like reading novels with descriptive travel settings, rather than travelogue style books. In this vein my four favorite authors are Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Cormack McCarthy. and Alvaro Mutis. In more traditional essay-format travel books, my favorites are Tom Miller (The Panama Hat Trail) and Charles Bowden (The Secret Forest). Could you describe the mundane details of writing: How many hours a day do you devote to writing? Do you write a draft on paper or at a keyboard (typewriter or computer)? Do you have a favorite location or time of day (or night) for writing? What do you do to avoid--or seek!--distractions?

J.C.: Let's face it, guidebook writing is more sweat than inspiration, though I like to think a little creativity creeps in from time to time. The hard part is balancing all the information one can gather on the road, on the internet, and in the library, with what I perceive a reader really needs to know about a place, and would enjoy learning about. My writing schedule is absurd, often stretching from early morning till midnight, with stops only for meals and exercise. It's a very monk-like existence in many respects. Do you meet your readers at book signings, conventions, or similar events? Do you interact with your readers electronically through e-mail or other online forums?

J.C.: I like doing author events. It's an opportunity to meet readers and travelers face to face, find out what's on their mind, what they like about my books, what they don't like. When and how did you get started on the Net? Do you read any newsgroups such as rec.arts.books and rec.arts.sf.written, mailing lists, or other on-line forums? Do you use the Net for research--or is it just another time sink? Are you able to communicate with other writers or people you work with over the Net?

J.C.: I started early on the Net, beginning in 1987 when I was hired to establish an Internet node for a California school district. It was a terribly boring medium in those days, with few graphics and content mostly limited to education-oriented material. After a couple of years doing that job I quit using the Net altogether, then started up about three years ago. I do lots of research on the Net now, though it doesn't compare with being out there on the road. I think some guidebook authors rely too heavily on Internet resources, which are still notoriously unreliable in some cases.