Meeting travel blogger Katie McKnoulty in Phnom Penh happened as most amazing new friendships here start: through friends of friends of friends. And this friend happened to be the very talented designer, Jane Heng. And boy did we all have a good time. The Travelling Light started in November, 2013, but a meteoric rise has happened in the last year since Harper’s Bazaar named Katie’s gorgeous website as one of the top travel blogs to follow in 2015. The self-described digital nomad has spent the last two years travelling the world and recording all of her discoveries online of the world’s special and hidden places. You can find Katie, not only on the Travelling Light, but also through her writing for Fathom, Pepper Passport and Hostel World.
This past Monday, I got to spend one more evening with the bright and sunny Brisbane native. We went on a fun little pub crawl down the fun street cum alley 308, where I got to creep on her while she worked and ask her about her story, her style and some tips!
How did you get into travel writing?
I guess I got into travel writing because I always worked in travel. I also traveled around growing up, and was always obsessed with moving overseas. I suppose all my career decisions have been based on working overseas. Following university, I worked for the tourist board in Brisbane, doing marketing with them and there was always a lot of writing, photography and design involved with that.
After that, I moved to London and I worked for [a major international airline], and that was more on the business side of things. But I guess being on the business side, you’re sort of told what you have to write about and are told what you have to promote. So I wanted to work to tell more of a real story of what was coo. So I started my travel blog from there.
I guess I never really considered myself a travel writer. Since I started the website, different people have asked me to write articles for them, so I guess it’s happening.
What we your background in before you started The Travelling Light?
My degree was in marketing, economics and French. Then I happened to find this amazing job at the Tourism Board in Brisbane. It was a huge impact on me because we didn’t have external creative agencies, we did everything in house, so it was sort of like we were an advertising agency, a marketing company and a tourism board, It was an ‘all hands on deck’ situation with everyone pitching in where you can, and learning on the job, so it was a really creative place. So that was amazing and I was working there with copywriters, graphic designers, photographers, filmmakers, all these really creative people. So it was this creative business, but it was a business that had creativity in it. I just learned so much there. It was a baptism of fire. It was really hard, but it was amazing.
In London at the bigger airline, it was great too. But I learned about traditional marketing and how creative it wasn’t; and that I was more into being put into a “baptism of fire.”
I was also just a bit burnt out there, so I decided to quit and I didn’t have anything to go to, but I knew I wanted to start this travel website, and I didn’t have a plan. And I started receiving life coaching from my best friend’s older sister. She asked me: “what is it you want to do?” And I said I want to do branding, I want to do this travel website, and she said need some help So I started doing some work with her, and that was my first foray into freelancing. I just really started from there.
The Travelling Light focuses on ‘hidden places.’ What does that mean to you?
Well, it started as ‘hidden places,’ but then I was faced with the dilemma that ‘sometimes places aren’t hidden, but they’re really good as well.” So I think it’s expanded for me from ‘hidden places,’ to places with a heart and a soul behind it; where the person who’s creating it has a good intention, they’re doing something really unique and innovative and they’re creating from their soul. You would know it because it comes out, you can feel it, you can see it. It’s something special. So it’s ‘special places’ now and sometimes it’s also places with an interesting history behind it, and maybe that story isn’t being told. So certainly I’d never tell someone to go to the Eiffel Tower because I think those stories are always being told. I am trying to tell the stories that aren’t being told, of places that are really special, something feels good about them.
How did your distinct style of photography develop? (pardon the pun)
It was definitely when I worked at the tourist board for Brisbane, the photographers we worked with had a really distinct style and I think I took a lot from that. I was in charge of cataloging all the images, so I saw these images every day, all day, and it just put an imprint on my brain. I loved what I saw because it was the first time I was interested in photography. There was a huge impact on me.
I do remember also when I started the site, I had a drink with this really amazing and successful filmmaker I had worked with. We were talking about photography and he said: “just always ask yourself before you take a picture: ‘why am I taking this picture?’ Is it because I’ve seen someone take the same picture before and that’s why I think it’s cool? Or am I actually digging deep inside and asking myself for what I do I think is beautiful? What do I think is interesting?’ ” So I try to do that as well. You can definitely very easily fall into that trap of thinking “I need to take this picture because I saw it on Instagram and it’s a cool set up.” It’s unconscious. I try to be conscious about what I think? Because people want to know your perspective.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
I think it’s more just from the actual place. The most excited I feel about photography is when I arrive in a new place and I’m in the taxi, taking pictures from the window, and I’m thinking “oh my god.” I think that clean slate of seeing something you’ve never seen before and feeling it, and even similar places. There’s that new feeling. That’s what inspires me: walking around the streets and that’s when I’m most inspired: when I’m new in a place. But also when I’m most overwhelmed. So it’s all about finding a balance.
Where have you felt overwhelmed?
Here. Because there is so much stuff going on. The architecture is so interesting and I didn’t expect that at all. It’s all beautifully coloured, but it could be quite ornate. Equal parts “take a picture take a picture,” but also “oh my gosh, I’m so lost, I don’t know where anything is. I don’t know what anything is.”
And the opposite can happen. But I think in any place where it’s a new city, you always have to remind myself: “give it two weeks, or at least one week.” Because you’re always going to feel really weird and it’s always going to look different and you’re not going to feel settled and you’re going to think “I don’t like it here.” I always have the one to two week rule of giving a place a chance. I don’t think there is any place I could go where after that time I think “I don’t like it here, I’m leaving.”
You also have a distinct writing style. What do you think is the most important element when you’re writing about a place?
I want to describe how it feels to be there and what is that special quality that makes your heart beat a little faster or make you light up and think: “Oh that place is really special. This is what I want to write about.” I don’t want to write about the menu like it’s a product description. They’re describing, say for a hotel: “there’s a safe in the room. And there’s a double bed.” I just think that sort of thing is for the company website. But for me, I just want to write about what it feels like to be there.
What does authenticity mean to you?
It’s probably two things. One component is the authenticity of the travel: did you really go there? Did you really want to go there? Did you really find it amazing? Did you really stumble across it? And then there’s the other authenticity of a place being authentic in its place or in its city. Not being a copycat of another hipster joint they’ve had in another place in the world or catching up on some trend. But it’s more authentic like what we talked about before; someone creating something unique, something that fits in with the city and its environment, serves a purpose, locals go there, expats go there.
What is a digital nomad? What does it mean to you?
I guess a digital nomad to me, is someone who is living out of a suitcase but working online to support themselves. They have a lifestyle of moving around nomadically and not really having a plan or security blanket.
I think I read recently that this digital nomad culture has arisen because this generation now growing up in their twenties and thirties cannot commit to anything. I totally feel like that: I just want to see everything. I’m young and if I can work online and work from anywhere, that’s really great and I can just soak up everything the world has to offer me. I can see everything and meet all these different people. I think the thing I liked about the concept is that it breeds a certain kind of person who is courageous, has confidence in themselves and doesn’t need a security blanket of a house or a stable background. People who are willing to throw themselves off cliffs and see what happens. I think they’re a group of really passionate group. So I really like meeting all those people. It’s the same for me for expats too I think.
What’s the most risky thing you’ve done since starting this career as a travel blogger?
I think every day is a risk. Because you don’t have a stable income. I have bigger clients and regular clients. But you don’t know when that is going to stop and nothing is guaranteed. But it always works out. I think if you’re on the right path and you’re doing it for the right reasons, it just seems to work. But you can’t let your ego take over and say: “This isn’t going to work. What are you doing? You’re not going to have money.” Because logically, it never looks good for me.
Now that I’ve been jumping off cliffs for 2 years now, I sort of have this track record of “okay well that was pretty scary, but I did it and it worked out. So why can’t I do it again?” So I keep jumping off cliffs and keep hoping it will work out and it always does and it always gets a bit better too. So I think “ okay, I’m going to be fine.”
Since you live out of a suitcase, what are some of your essential items?
I just pick my very favourite things and really cultivate all these things from my toiletry bag: “these are the essential things I need and I went and found them all.”
I am kind of a weirdo because I try to follow an Ayurvedic lifestyle even though that’s quite hard while traveling. So I do things like use Ayurvedic massage oils while traveling. I also bring incense and a yoga mat. It makes me feel at home. I travel with spices and some things to cook with. So there’s a few things that I do, try to cook and eat that create a bit of a routine for me.
Also just having a proper keyboard to attach to my laptop and having a mouse. Having earphones. And having a little journal to write in. It’s just about having some physical things that create a stability and routine in your mind; that you can travel and move and maintain a stability and groundedness inside you. Because you can go crazy really easy living like this. And sometimes I do.
Do you have any tips for someone interested in going into travel writing?
There are two camps. One camp would say: just start and start developing your style. But that’s not how I did it. I actually sat on the idea for maybe 2 years; and really thought about how I wanted to present it and what was the real intention in what I was doing. I also considered how it was going to be different and something uniquely coming from me and not something everyone else would write about.
So from my experience I would say: first figure out why you want to become a travel writer/blogger, and what is the special thing you think you bring even if it seems weird or you don’t think it’s going to work. Try to figure out that unique point of view and go forth with that. But also just spend hours and hours and hours doing it, which you probably already are if you are trying to be a travel writer. It’s all about the hours in everything. Just putting in the hours.
Thanks so much for your story, Katie! We can’t wait to see where you put your feet down next!
All photos by Tiffany Tsang. Please request permission for use.