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The massive Banteay Chhmar temple is one of the most important and least understood archaeological complexes from Cambodia's Angkor period. (Photograph by Dennis Drenner/Alamy Stock Photo)

The Art and Heart of Travel Storytelling

Telling stories is one of humankind’s abiding, defining impulses.

The cave paintings at Lascaux in France and the Aboriginal wall paintings in Australia’s Kakadu National Park are very early examples of this—of people trying to make sense of their experience, and trying to share the sense they make.

So when you become a travel storyteller, you’re tapping into one of the deepest and richest veins of the human experience.

For me, the fundamental art in storytelling is focus. And the art of focus has two layers.

The first is the experiential one. As I’ve said before, in order to write deeply, you have to live deeply. This means that your primary mission as a storyteller is to see keenly, taste keenly, hear keenly, smell keenly, feel keenly.

The second layer in the art of focus is evoking your experience vividly through carefully selected details that elucidate the points you’re trying to convey to your reader. Details such as these are the building blocks of any story.

Beyond these steps, you should strive to give your experience a larger context. Ask yourself: What’s this all about? What’s the meaning here?

Truly great stories succeed in extracting meaning from the everyday.

They are also the record of two corresponding journeys: a journey in the outer world and a journey in the inner world. And the travel writer’s story is built upon the interplay between these worlds and journeys.

This, of course, is not a license for self-indulgence. Great storytelling is not about length; it’s about saying precisely what needs to be said, in precisely as many words as are needed to say it. Your anecdotes and examples must always be in the service of your point. And your story must have a point—a lesson. It should answer the question: What did I learn, and how did I learn it?

To be a great storyteller, you must first cultivate the fine art of vulnerability—opening yourself up to a place and trusting in its people, saying, in effect, “Here I am. Do with me what you will.” This is a kind of corollary to being able to evoke a place only as richly and deeply as you have lived it.

You can penetrate and absorb a place only as richly and deeply as you open yourself up to it. When you do so, you enable and forge deep connections that will ultimately become the subject of great travel storytelling—and the effect of great travel storytelling as well. You connect with the places and people you write about, and then, if you write about them well, you connect your reader to those places and people, too.

And so the world becomes infused with a little more appreciation, a little more open-mindedness, a little more kindness, with every story you write.

This notion was brought home to me on a trip I made to Cambodia a year ago, which I described in an article called “Piecing Together Puzzles in Cambodia.” I was planning to visit Siem Reap and Angkor Wat when I learned about an intriguing place called Banteay Chhmar, a tiny village with impressive temple ruins hidden in the jungle, but no hotels or hostels.

I decided to add Banteay Chhmar to my itinerary, and after three days in Siem Reap, a wonderful taxi driver named Mr. Kim agreed to transport me the three-and-a-half hours north it takes to get there. He ended up becoming a character in my story.

At the end of my homestay in the village, when Mr. Kim picked me up to drive me back to Siem Reap, he asked if I’d first like to see two ancient temples on the Thai-Cambodia border, temples that had been the site of border disputes just a few years before, but now were places of harmony. I’d love to, I said.

At the second of these temples, Mr. Kim knew the local commander, and we were accompanied by a military escort of a half dozen soldiers up a winding jungle trail to the temple grounds, where contingents of both Thai and Cambodian soldiers were sharing cigarettes and talking easily—in a setting where they had once been shooting at each other.

After a half hour of cigarette-sharing and photo-snapping, the commander led us to his post and brought us tea. He then gathered a dozen of his soldiers, including the six who had accompanied us to the temple, and gave a speech welcoming us and telling us what an honor it was to have us visit them. He also described the history of the border conflict and how happy everyone was to have peace in the area now—and how they hoped the only future visitors would be tourists and not soldiers.

Everyone applauded, then I rose and gave a brief speech, which Mr. Kim translated, saying how very special it was to be welcomed at this ancient, important site, and how moved I had been to see the Cambodian soldiers and Thai soldiers talking with such amity. I told them how inspiring that was to me, and how that kind of peace and understanding between people was why I believed so fervently in the power of travel to transform the world. I ended by saying that I would always treasure my visit with them.

Then something profoundly moving happened.

Here’s how I described it in the story:

All the soldiers burst into smiles and applause, and then, quite unexpectedly, a very young-looking soldier at the end of the table got up and began to speak. His voice quavered at first, but as he continued to speak, the words flowed out of him with a pure passion. ‘I am just a simple soldier,’ Mr. Kim translated. ‘I have not traveled far or seen much in my life. But today is a very special day for me.’ He looked directly at me. ‘Our honored guest is the first foreigner I have ever seen in my life, the first foreigner I have ever met…This makes me think how big the world is, and gives me a kind of hope.’

What a moment! A year later, this brave soldier’s open-hearted words bring tears to my eyes. Reflecting on them now, I realize that they perfectly express for me the ultimate potential of great travel storytelling and the sacred mission we storytellers share: to make us all think how big the world is, and to give us all a kind of hope.

Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of The Way of Wanderlust and Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel WritingHe has also edited award-winning travel writing anthologies, including An Innocent Abroad. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.

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