The weird and dark side of being a travel journalist

Ronan O’Connell is an Australian travel journalist and photographer

People are often envious when I say I’m a travel journalist, but the popular perception that this profession is glamorous contrasts with my sometimes dark and bizarre experiences at work.

From being threatened by deadly snakes, crashing a motorbike in dense jungle, getting sick from eating tarantulas, and sleeping in a drug den, my nine-year career as a journalist travel is littered with dim lights.

Slumming it up in Belgium

Woken from his sleep, a stranger shouts in my face as I crawl under his bed in the dark. We’re in a revolting hostel in Brussels and now the lights are on, everyone in our dorm is looking at me. Let me explain.

When I arrived in Belgium I realized that I had forgotten to book accommodation and due to events in the EU capital the only rooms available were in expensive hotels or cheap hostels. I chose the latter and was greeted by a seemingly stoned manager who led me into what looked like a drug den. Littered with rubbish, it had several soiled mattresses and was populated by drunken young men.

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The manager pointed to my spooky bed, which collapsed under me as I sat up. Annoyed, he directed me to another bed, more solid because supported by a concrete block. In the middle of the night I needed the toilet and as the bathroom floor was 1cm deep in what appeared to be sewers I didn’t want to go in barefoot.

It was only then that I remembered that I had left my shoes under my first bed, which had since been repaired and given to another guest. Faced with walking barefoot through the effluent or climbing under a random man’s bed, the choice seemed obvious. Then all hell broke loose.

Fried tarantulas are considered a delicacy in Cambodia.

Ronan O’Connell

Fried tarantulas are considered a delicacy in Cambodia.

An eight-legged nightmare in Cambodia

As I lean against a sink viciously sick, a memory repeats itself – the sickening sensation of a crusty spider’s abdomen exploding in my mouth. This had happened half an hour earlier in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Not a non-threatening little house spider either, but a nightmarish variety – a long, thick, hairy tarantula.

While most tourists visit Siem Reap to explore the majestic ruins of Angkor Wat, I came to do a story about local cooks teaching foreigners how to make fried tarantulas, a local specialty. Such a talented Cambodian, Yin Lucky, gave me a bag of over 100 huge spiders. He said they were caught in the hand by daring men raiding tarantula nests and selling them to cooks.

Yin taught me to douse the spiders with sugar, salt, water, and chicken powder before frying my unique lunch in a wok. The tarantula actually had quite a pleasant, crab-like taste. But it looked awful and weird, his hair tickling my tongue before his gooey insides filled my mouth. It was this psychological element, rather than the food itself, that made me nauseous.

Adrift in China

I’m on the verge of a panic attack at a small Chinese airport and a series of hypotheses are to blame. It’s midnight and all of us travelers are whisked out of Shijiazhuang Zhengding International Airport, which locks its doors until the next morning.

This is a giant problem for two reasons. First, I had mistakenly assumed that after landing here from Hong Kong, I would be able to sleep on an airport bench until the morning I would take a train to Beijing. Second, I had mistakenly assumed that there would be an ATM at this airport.

Instead, I stand in the cold, outside a closed airport, with no local currency, in a town where hardly anyone speaks English. Security tells me to leave, pointing to taxis that I have no way to pay for. I plan to walk, but the airport is surrounded by empty streets with no signs of shops or hotels, let alone ATMs.

I am overwhelmed with anxiety as I wander past the airport looking for a spot where I can hide and sleep. Then a savior appears. A young Chinese traveler asks me if I need help. He calls a nearby hotel, then asks a taxi to take me there, where the staff will pay for my journey and add it to my hotel bill, which I can pay with my Australian bank card.

If not for this friendly stranger, I would have spent the night dodging airport security while sleeping on the streets.

The women of the last Thai tribe in

Ronan O’Connell

Women of the last “long neck” Thai tribe historically wore brass rings to lengthen their necks, which was a sign of beauty.

A disaster in the jungle in Thailand

Deep in the remote jungle of northern Thailand, blood pours from my legs and water rushes over me as I lie under an overturned motorbike. I head to a village near the border with Myanmar to meet Thailand’s last “long-necked” tribe, the Karen people, whose women historically wore brass rings to lengthen their necks, which was a sign of beauty.

Near this community, the road I was following was overrun by a flooded river. I saw several Thai people riding safely in this running water about 30cm deep. It looked simple enough. What they knew, but I didn’t, was that underwater the road had become mossy and slippery.

This required a rider to pick up speed on the dry road, then take their hand off the throttle and roll over that watery section. Instead I tried to accelerate through the water, my wheels spun and the bike flew off. I broke my head on the road, the bike shattered, my camera fell in the water and my ego fractured. Still, the long-necked village was fascinating.

Mark Pelley is an experienced snake hunter.

Ronan O’Connell

Mark Pelley is an experienced snake hunter.

Creeping terror in Melbourne

“Where the hell is he?” I scream at Mark Pelley as a poisonous snake disappears under the bed I’m standing next to. I’m so scared that instead of fleeing this room, in a Melbourne show house, I’m staring at my feet praying that the red-bellied black snake won’t reappear.

Fortunately, Pelley is an experienced snake catcher. He soon pockets the snake he’s been called here to retrieve by a panicked real estate agent, then smirks at me, clearly amused at how I handled the situation. I’m writing a story about ‘a day in the life of an Australian snake hunter’ for an overseas newspaper, and I got way more than I bargained for.

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