A short history of the dangers of travel writing

I posed for my first passport photo at the age of two months. My eyes are barely open, and you can see my mother’s brown hand tilting my head towards the camera. I don’t know how many times I’d been on a plane by the time I started school, but travelling by air was as commonplace as travelling by road.

At nine years of age I came home laughing at the discovery that my Year Four teacher was getting on a plane for the first time in her life at age 40! To travel to Bali! Not even somewhere distant or unexpected, but Bali.

I’ve always had strong ideas about how one should approach travelling.


The first travelogues were written hundreds of years ago. Travel record literature became popular in the Tang (618–907 AD) and Song (960–1279 AD) dynasties, with emphasis on place, literature, art, history, politics, religion and society. This popularity continued, with well-known logs in later centuries by Xu Xiake, who incorporated scientific observations in his narrative, such as the effect of wind speeds on certain plants, with geographical and topographical information. There was Su Shi, who popularised the daytrip essay, a form of travel literature that used place and time to argue morals and ethics. And the scribe for Admiral Zheng He’s expeditions, Ma Huan, who documented the geography, politics and customs of Southeast Asia; his work is one of the few records of early Chinese naval history.

Then there’s that most famous of Chinese road trips 西游, or Journey to the West, perhaps better known in the West as Monkey – what is that tale if not a traditional travelogue discussing ethics, morality, religion and the contours of the continent?

The Arabic-Islamic travel genre also spanned centuries, was critical to Arabic culture, and remains an essential influence on modern literary writing. Imru’ al-Qais, in approximately the sixth century AD, wrote poetry that described his weeping over the ruins of abandoned campsites and comparing his journeys to greater themes. Ibn Jubayr (in the twelfth century) and Ibn Battuta (in the fourteenth) depicted their travels in great detail. Many of Jubayr’s peers kept journals of geographical notes, but in his Jubayr wrote of culture, religion and politics, noting especially the hybrid culture of Christian Sicily, directly influenced by its time under Muslim rule. Battuta is known to history only through his narratives, which included autobiographical accounts woven into the recording of his hajj (the annual religious pilgrimage) and other travels. Indeed, the hajj influenced the prevalence of travel writing in Arabic cultures. Over those centuries, Arabic travel narratives were used to develop personal stories within the universal vastness of life.

This tradition continues today: tales of finding oneself, of learning who we are in the world, of improving ourselves and the world.


A travelogue tells you about a person, and a place, and, sometimes, a travelogue tells the reader something about herself. I love travelogues. I love travelogues of Australians in Australia, non-Australians in Australia, Australians not in Australia. I also love travel tales of people in China and Malaysia and Singapore, the other places of my heart and my ancestors. Whether these are accounts of people in their homes or on the road, these stories are always new to me, and there’s always the joy of exploration and unfamiliarity. They’re beautiful stories, no matter how tragically they may end, and they carry the reader along on the journey, too. Travelogues are about giving voices to the world’s people. Travelogues take place in one location and many. They can tell the story of the journey home or the striving to never return. They’re about escape and safety.


When I read Western travelogues, I know that I’m not the audience. Despite growing up in Perth, when I choose to leave the comfort of my inner-north Melbourne home, secure with my Australian passport in hand, it’s for the comfort of the family home in Malaysia, with its squat toilets and mosquito netting and five grown adults in two bedrooms. I’m a person with a name that is, to many in Australia, unpronounceable (certainly, many people mispronounce it). My food is, many have suggested, indigestible. Things that are familiar to me, that are comforting, are put on display in the modern western travelogue and found alien. So in the dichotomy of the audience and the other, I’m pretty comfortable in assuming I’m the other, despite having an Australian passport and loving a good travelogue.

In Australia, and in English-language travel writing more generally, a travelogue is about the traveller and their experience – the ways in which the travel is different from being at home. This requires a dichotomy: an assumption around who is the audience and who is different, the alien, the one to be saved. There are few other ways those with whom the narrative and narrator comes in contact are represented. But this line is artificial, the dichotomy ideological.

Contemporary travel writing, by its very nature, is about the porousness of nations and boundaries; it’s a demonstration of the freedom of movement across imposed, ideological borders. The benefit of an Australian citizenship is the ability to traverse boundaries and then, if we wish, write about it. Citizens from certain countries (for example, Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia) are less likely to write travelogues because their passports and visas don’t get them through most borders.


The very earliest travel writing comes to us from Herodotus, who wrote of his travels in the Mediterranean around 440 BC. He is a classic example of the flawed travel writer, viewing and consuming ‘the other’ for one’s own benefit. Herodotus’ Histories are judgement and documentation wrapped in parchment. These days we think of him more as mythmaker, but he came from a wealthy family, and his work covered travel to distant lands, recounted troubles with translators, and engaged in hyperbole and storytelling. Herodotus feigned impartiality, but has also been called ‘the Father of Lies’ for things that could be misinterpretations, or misrepresentations.

Herodotus sent his words home, as all travel writers do, to give others a foundation upon which to base their understanding of the world. The lot of all travel writers is that verdicts can be read in every sentence, whether those judgements are intended or not.


Perth is closer to Bali than it is to Melbourne and Sydney and some of us think it makes us worldly. (Perth is closer to Bunbury than Bali, but the constant air traffic makes it feel like the distance to Bali is minimal.) Our magazines tell us to travel to broaden our minds, to volunteer to both find ourselves and help the world. But the world is not there to be helped, and those of us in it are already helping ourselves.

The voluntourism narrative, like in Three Cups of Tea, is a harmful lie. To document the voluntourist in the poor third world, to list their achievements and stress their necessity, emboldens the reader at home, encouraging said reader to adopt a similar, do-good-in-the-world mission – but all they’re doing is well-meaning damage. The Find Yourself narrative, where locals line the road and point the way to salvation, is a lie. Top ten travel memoir lists are white – so white! – they too are a lie, maintaining the myth that other people don’t travel.

But people have always felt the desire and need to travel! Anh Do’s The Happiest Refugee is a travelogue. Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence is a travelogue. Migrant narratives are travelogues. We’re called aliens – of course our stories are about travel. Yet, in our bookstores and our magazines and our adverts, the faces of travel narratives and travellers are perplexingly white.

A couple of recent(-ish) case studies:

Case Study One: Bruce Chatwin, The Songlines (1987)

(or An Englishman is wrong and privileged about Australia)

In The Songlines, cited by many an Australian travel writer as influential, a white man goes on a voyage of adventure and discovery and exploration – and shares it with readers in the form of a pretentious pile of racism. It’s beautifully written and has a lovely style, but in the end it’s an Englishman who believes all humans are nomads, who insists on creating analogies for every element of the lives of the Indigenous Australians he meets, gains permission from a white Russian man to be patronising, and portrays Indigenous Australians as ‘unknowable’, as if they’re mysterious otherworldly beings.


Case Study Two: Patrick Holland, Riding the Trains in Japan: Travels in the Sacred and Supermodern East (2011)

(or A white Australian is wrong about Asia)

Holland establishes his authority to write a travelogue by including translations to and from Mandarin Chinese that imply he’s bilingual, but uses his privileged position as a white Australian to transplant his views and morals onto the scenes around him, much like the Christian missionaries who went before him and contributed heavily to the field did. ‘What is the point of travel?’ he asks himself as he loiters on the shores of Lake Lugu. Disappointingly, he never seeks to answer the question. Instead, he befriends a beggar with palsy in Vietnam, and then proceeds to appraise his lifestyle. When Cuong tries to help Holland out by taking him to a brothel, Holland gets all colonialist and patriarchal (even as he admits he’s previously enjoyed himself in brothels). ‘Cuong had never been told that a prostitute was not the same as a girl you met in an office,’ Holland notes, as his anger fades to compassion.

Holland fails to reflect on why a beggar might take a white man to a brothel, or if his presence is taking advantage of the local community in any way.


We continue to accept the myths thrown at us by travel writers and assume them to be true. Perhaps this is why books like Benjamin Law’s Gaysia are so exciting: they are an acknowledgement that we can be experts in things about us, that we don’t require some clueless white traveller to reveal ‘truths’ for locals, or an equally clueless audience.

Travel writing forms a small part of the panels for the upcoming Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in October. Of nine panelists speaking about travel writing at the festival, one is Indonesian, one is Indian and the other seven are white. Five of them are Australian. They have their reasons for being able to write about the other, I’m sure, but my heart aches to think about the voices we’re not hearing, especially in a place like Bali, where Australians go so freely and thoughtlessly.

I have the great privilege of currently travelling around Southeast Asia, working with environmental community groups and having a grand time. It’s a fine line for me: it’s a place where my loved ones have lived and live still; one in which my Chinese name gains me entrance and my passport provides a safety net.

It’s a privilege for us as Australians to travel with such little concern for or fear of borders. Australians, white Australians especially, can, for the most part, travel without worrying about escaping from something, secure in the knowledge that there’s a home to return to. Australians still travel to find ourselves, to save the world, to grow, without stopping to think why that’s the appeal for us, about the colonial implications and the lie of superiority that idea feeds into. Our ability to travel freely and write about those travels – and thus map and define those places and peoples for others – makes us dangerous. If only we knew that.


 Image: ‘Sitting with travel trailer at St Petersburg Beach’ / flickr

Stephanie Lai

Stephanie Lai is an Australian of Chinese descent, and a left-handed archer. She is paid to train people in surviving our oncoming climate change dystopia. She likes penguins, infrastructure and Asian steampunk. She has had fiction and nonfiction published in The Lifted Brow, The Toast and Peril. She hates everything you love. You can find her at @yiduiqie and stephanielai.net, and talking about drop bears and popular culture at No Award.

More by Stephanie Lai ›

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  1. How ironic you use both Chatwin (not ‘Chatham’) and Patrick Holland as your two recent case studies.

    Holland was critical of Chatwin’s The Songlines, writing in Tourists with Typewriters that it’s a “blatantly aestheticised portrayal of … Central Australian Aborigines” in which “foreign peoples and cultures, and the stories they offer, deliver themselves up as aesthetic objects for the delectation of a delighted, but conveniently detached, spectator” (38).

    Holland seems to have fallen into the same trap as Chatwin (as you’ve shown), despite all his prior critical work.

  2. This article was interesting until it got to the ‘case studies’, where lies the laziest, most appalling misreading of Patrick Holland’s ‘Cuong’ imaginable. That story is not ‘about Asia’ at all, but about one man’s love for another, despite their differences. The beggar in question isn’t trying to ‘help’ Holland, but defraud him, and then Holland, by his own admission, commits an equally shameful act against his friend, when he effectively accuses him of theft. At the close, when Holland goes to find Cuong and can’t, he’s distraught and can’t say why. It’s one of the most subtle (hence the misreading) and beautiful stories I know, and I’ve seen Holland literally in tears reading it at a Whispers event in Brisbane. There’s nothing remotely patriarchal, let alone colonial. This is very much a case of twisting the data to fit the hypothesis.

    1. I haven’t read Holland’s book and was therefore going on what Stephanie Lai wrote, which now seems way off the mark and grossly unfair. Ditto with Chatwin. Lai calls The Songlines “a pretentious pile of racism.” Such a lazy dismissal. Actually not that different to book burning and censorship. Chatwin’s book is a great opportunity to debate cultural appropriation. Reading Lai you wouldn’t know that The Songlines is actually quite a complex book.

    1. In its occupied habitat, the white Australian immediately strikes a defensive posture, worried that it may now be identified as a racist colonialist wherever it roams.

      1. Well, Charli, that is the problem here, can’t you see? Being identified as racist colonialist simply because you’re a white male, and apparently it’s worse if you write a book! Such blanket denunciations!

  3. Interesting arguments here. Actually, Charli, it would seem that you have missed the point, for the above commenter has only used the logic of the article “a pretentious pile of racism” (a rather extreme view closer on a spectrum, one would think, to censorship, than to other more open-minded things like debate and critical thinking), has only used this logic of the article to Reply to Rebecca. If the commenter doesn’t like her statement being dismissed as “a pretentious pile of rubbish” then maybe she might begin to be able to understand what it means to similarly dismiss a book as “a pretentious pile of racism.”

  4. I haven’t read either Chatwin’s book, or Holland’s travel book, (I might well read them both now) but I have read Holland’s novel, The Darkest Little Room, which is set in Vietnam and is written with extraordinary sensitivity. I promise I do not write this simply because of the present problems between my own birth nation and China in the “South China Sea” (Biển Đông I should say!), but I can promise you this ‘pan Asian’, POC, identity Miss Lai invokes does not exist in Asia at all; only, in my experience, among the children of migrants. Miss Lai, as a person who belongs to the largest racial majority the world has ever and will ever know, whose nation is a (the) world power, and is not in a post-colonial phase, but very much in the colonial phase (see Tibet, Xinjiang, S.E. Asia and the South China Sea, might take a moment to reflect on her own right to say who says what about Asia.

    What is very strange, and worth discussion, is not the cursory dismisal of the books in the so called ‘case studies’ but rather the anxiety I think almost all non-indigenous Australians feel, that perhaps we do not quite belong, that we are cut off from the well springs of Culture, which causes people such as the author of this article to find some touchstone for identity beyond the borders of the country they live in, even when, in the case of this, ‘us and them’ ‘pan asian’ identity, that touchstone is located in terra incognita. Asia is a universe unto itself. Who can speak with authority on all that it contains, where the limits of its stories are, and who may report them? I have only read one of his books, but based on that reading, one person I can safely say would never comit the error of considering Asia a cultural monolith, is Patrick Holland.

  5. Great article. ‘Do Travel Writers go to Hell?’ is another example of a writer who sees the faults in other cultures when they travel but can’t see the same problems in their own culture or perspective.

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