Ah! Allow me catch my breath for a couple seconds because today’s guest is absolutely unbelievable! He’s Leighton Thomas, an English Travel Blogger born in Hammersmith, London and he is currently based in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Leighton plans to spend the rest of 2020 travelling around Asia, focusing on Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar.
First off, let me say that I was totally blown away from the moment Leighton agreed to jump on this. And as a matter of fact, I think this interview will not only be a good read but also an educative one for you, your friends and I that share blogging related aspirations. Documenting more than twenty seven countries isn’t a joke guys. Sit back, relax, let’s learn.
1. What inspired you to become a blogger?
In 2014 I was freshly divorced and back in China for my second English teaching contract in Beijing. The job gave me a heap of free time and I was a little bored in Shangdi, the nondescript local neighbourhood I lived in. It was an exceptionally tough period for me as I grappled with the conflicting emotions of a major breakup while also trying to figure out a long term path forward. Somewhere along the way, I got to reflecting on my colorful life journey thus far.
At 36 years old I’d lived in a bunch of countries, including England, Scotland, Qatar, Slovakia, Belgium and The Netherlands. From these places I’d travelled a whole bunch more. I realized the wealth of stories I’d amassed and just how many experiences I had to share. So I decided to start sharing these experiences online. Thus (the now defunct) Leighton Literature was born, a platform for me to a) write my memoirs in short story form and b) to build an exhaustive library of travel reports detailing all the sights I’ve seen from twenty years living, working and travelling the world.
2. For how long have you been blogging?
I’ve been blogging ever since, so for about five years now. In the beginning I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, hence Leighton Literature was little more than a self-indulgent hobby. You know, just something for myself, friends and family. In fact, it wasn’t until my 3rd stint in China (2017 – 2019) that I began to take the blog more seriously. I started reading other blogs and learned what a professional travel blog looks and reads like. I began to see the potential of what I could do and started taking everything more seriously.
I wanted to create a prolific resource of travel reports like no other on the internet and make my short stories highly personal. An honest account of my life’s trials and tribulations through my travel experiences. I started taking better photos and worked on my writing style. I subscribed to Nomadic Matt’s Superstar Blogging course and began going over all my old reports/stories and redoing them. In late 2019 I relaunched Leighton Literature as Leighton Travels, the blog you see today. The process of going back over my old content and bringing everything up to standard is still ongoing.
Sometimes I wonder if I will ever finish, especially as I continue to publish new travel reports along the way. Currently I have over 600 location reports published, along with 6 collections of short stories. There is so much I want to do and it often feels like I don’t have enough time/hands. I just keep plugging away daily.
3. Why be a travel blogger?
After years of teaching English full time in language schools, I finally realized that this is what I want to do. I love travel and I love writing and I simply woke up one morning and thought: This is what makes me happy, let’s really go for it! It was a liberating albeit scary revelation, but I knew I had to follow my heart.
In 2017 I started simplifying my life. I scaled down most of my possessions and sold my beloved music, film and book collections. It was tough and maybe a little heartbreaking, but totally necessary. Today what’s left of my belongings lives in half a dozen boxes in the attic of my friend’s laundry business in the Scottish town of Fort William. Now my life consists of a backpack and a small suitcase. Living out of bags can get tiring, but this is what allows me to move around and go wherever I want. As long as I’ve got my MacBook, my phone and a few technical gadgets, it’s all good.
4. How would you describe your style of travel and your travel blogging content?
My travel style is all about taking my time. I like to go deep in the places I visit and get right into the food, the landscapes, the people and aspects of the culture. In addition to the main sights, I’m always looking for those off the beaten track places most people don’t know about or bother with. I want to come away with amazing experiences, long lasting memories and a body of work I can be proud of.
I meet a lot of travelers who say “I’ve been to 60+ countries” and seem very hung up on how many countries they’ve been to. I’ll never be able to compete with that and I wouldn’t want to. So far, I’ve been to 32 countries, but I feel like for many of these countries I’ve gone deep. I’m not interested in going to Australia for a week, or spending 48 hours in Sri Lanka on my way to a fortnight in India. I spent four years of my life just in China, hence you can find over 150 travel reports from there, plus I’ve got a whole bunch I still haven’t gotten round to publishing!? One day…
As for blogging style, I think I just want to stay true to myself and hopefully that comes across on the page. My life travel journey is a very personal one and I want that to be reflected in my articles. I always try to make sense of my travel experiences within the context of what’s going on in my life and how I process everything moving forward. This is especially true of my short stories, where for the most part I put it all out there, for better or for worse. But I would like to think it’s also there in my travel reports. This is what I saw and this is how I felt about it.
Honesty, I have no interest in writing these 7 Things You Must See In… 10 Best Activities In…. It’s just not me. It’s quite possible I’m missing a trick, as this is what the most successful travel bloggers seem to do. By the same token, while I’m always looking to improve my photos, I don’t want heavily doctored images showcasing some alternate reality, dali-esque landscape. I just want people to see what I saw and hopefully retain a sense of time and place. Easier said than done of course, but hey, I just do my best.
5. Briefly describe what you use your different social channels for and what is your dominant channel for you personally.
I’ve been waaay behind the curve when it comes to social media and, let’s say, promotion in general. Currently, I promote my articles on WordPress, Facebook and WeChat Moments (a Chinese social media platform). I have been putting a huge amount of work into the SEO side of things. This has seen my organic search engine traffic slowly but surely increase over the last six months.
That said, I fully recognize that I need to raise my game in the area of social media. As such, I am now drawing up plans to launch Leighton Travels on Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest by the end of 2020. I just have to push myself as this stuff is really not my forte! Luckily, my girlfriend is much more switched on in this regard, so we’ll be working on it together.
6. How do you balance your day job and blogging?
I’m fortunate really because at the moment I’m blogging more or less full time. I do teach English online, but it’s just 3 hours a day in the evenings. So I finally have the time Leighton Travels needs to move forward.
7. Where do you get your travel inspiration from, who gives you the advice?
Travel inspiration comes naturally really. There are just so many places I want to see and go and it doesn’t take much to whet the appetite. It could be a movie, another blog article, a look at my girlfriend’s Instagram feed. I am only too aware that at 41 years old my time on this earth is finite and I really have to seize the day and see as much as I can while I’m relatively young and healthy!
As for advice, I take onboard feedback from all over really. Friends, family, my girlfriend, other bloggers, forums. All that stuff keeps you questioning what you’re doing and stops you from slipping into cruise control.
8. Name the location that was 1. Most fun, 2. Most Inspiring, 3. Most Challenging.
This is tough! Most fun was probably Tokyo with my travel accomplice Daryl Wonderboy. We saw dancing robots, met gorgeous owls, held samurai swords and took in live sumo. Best of all, The Park Hyatt Tokyo invited me to stay as a special guest, including a behind-the-scenes tour of the filming locations for my favorite movie, Lost In Translation.
Most inspiring? Probably the few days I spent searching for ancient covered wooden bridges in the isolated Taishun County region of China.
Most challenging? I’d say India, because it was my first ever bout of independent travel. I was so young and so clueless.
9. What is still on your bucket list?
Oh Lord, where to begin? I can just about cobble together a top 10, in no particular order. California, Mexico, a few Scottish islands, The Faroe Islands, Peru, an African safari, Jordan, Myanmar, Nepal, The Balkans.
10. Have you had any celebrity encounters while travelling?
Ha, I actually used to interview Hollywood stars for a living! You can read about some of these experiences in my short story collection Notes From The Netherlands.
11. What’s the biggest thing you’ve learnt about yourself since you started travel blogging?
I think my travel experiences have taught me what it is I want from life and to fully embrace that. Just live on my own terms as much as I can. I spent so many years telling myself I needed to be more like everyone else. But the typical grounded life of 9-5, mortgages, kids, sofas, lamps, owning a car and having a few weeks in the sun once or twice a year just isn’t for me. The more I travelled the more I realized who I am, what I want and what I don’t want. It was a long and complicated journey.
12. What was your very first travel blogger destination that you produced some content for?
The first stuff I ever published was my short story series The Qatar Collection. Eight bite sized tales from a year spent living and teaching English in Doha.
13. If they were to ever make a movie about one or all of your adventures, what would the title and plot summary be?
It would be an epic Martin Scorsese production about the craziest year living in China one could imagine. It would star young versions of Robert De Niro, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johansson, Renee Zellweger, Edward Norton, John Hawkes, Matthew Broderick and many mores of my favorite actors.
The plotline? English teacher tries to retain sanity among professional chaos, death, jail and dysfunctional romance. The movie would be called Lost In TransLeighton.
14. What is your most embarrassing moment while travelling?
So, so many. Screwing up a hotel booking in Tokyo and having to sort out a place to stay last minute. Losing multiple cameras and getting scammed even when I should have known better. One experience that particularly comes to mind involves a manic Indian ear cleaner and a determined pair of shoe repair boys. You can read about this in my short story Come Ear!
15. What is a little naughty secret you have not openly told before?!
16. Do you have any funny stories to tell?
So many. Again, I can only refer people to the short stories. And there are so many more I need to get round to writing one of these days.
17. What key lessons do you have for everyone based on what you have learnt from the gift of travel blogging?
If you want to do well in this business educate yourself right from the beginning! Do your research, take a course, read read read and save yourself a whole heap of time. But most importantly of all, be true to yourself and make your blog as personal and honest as it can possibly be. If people think you’re for real, your audience will grow. Oh and you have to keep on going, don’t give up no matter how many setbacks you experience. All those problems, challenges and failures will make you a better blogger in the long run.
The Sum Up…
Hmm I feel so inspired by Leighton’s own travel writing/blogging journeys and experiences and I’ve got so many takeaways. Before I kicked off this blog, I read a lot and subscribed to many WordPress, SEO and Social Media Marketing websites just to get through a successful start. It’s still a work in progress but I’m definitely glad Leighton affirms the underlying importance of research.
Again, it shouldn’t have to be about touching down in all the countries but experiencing their cultures and livelihoods. And have a voice, your style, don’t fake it. People always know who’s real or not.
Over to you! Did you learn anything new about travel blogging today? I did! I’m open to more fun collaboration posts like this one, email me at – firstname.lastname@example.org or better still, leave a comment below if you’re a travel blogger who wants to make an impact.
Leighton mentioned that he’s working on switching up his social network and he’s done just that. Connect with Leighton on Instagram – @leightontravels and Facebook – Leighton Travels. You can catch his girlfriend on the go – @quirky.soul on Instagram.
Many thanks for reading. Have a great day!