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Some wail, some moan, others scream. You’d scream too if giant frogs were ripping your back apart. Or if dogs started gnawing bits of your body that aren’t normally mentioned in polite company.

Lovely! I immediately knew I’d found a Thailand story to thrill an editor. Run by Buddhist monks, Wat Pa Lak Roy’s Hell Garden might well be the world’s oddest theme park.
 
Drop a coin into a slot, and your chosen sculpture of the damned goes into tortured animation — with sounds to match. Parents and offspring alike goggle at nightmarish scenes Hieronymus Bosch would think twice about painting. Some kids are only seven or eight.

A Hell Garden seems an odd concept for Buddhist teachings, but ancient texts tell of eight hot Narakas (hells) and eight cold ones. It’s designed to warn families against straying from the righteous path. Every evil or vaguely immoral deed exacts a terrible punishment. Introducing children to graphic visuals of sex and death is bizarre to westerners — certain body parts are enormous — but Thais have a different mindset about such things.

This amusement park of horrors is in Isaan, a land-locked province of eastern Thailand. Few foreign visitors or travel writers ever venture here. Sure, you can sell articles about normal vacation pleasures such as white sandy beaches, riding elephants, or plunging into Bangkok’s frenzy. I did that, too. But it’s often the unconventional stories that catch an editor’s fancy. Plus they set you apart from the crowd.

Here are two powerful keys to unlocking numerous publication doors:

  1. Explore a quirky-sounding place that few writers have covered.
  2. Do something most other travel writers won’t do.

Maybe the thought of male and female strangers pressing their naked, sweaty flesh against you is horrifying. It’s not horrifying to International Living’s editor — at least not when they’re pressing against me and not her.

I’ve just submitted a story about German sauna culture. Not every visitor realizes the country’s thermal spas are divided into clothed and unclothed areas. It’s swimwear in the pools, but you go naked in the saunas. Entirely naked. And German saunas are also mixed gender.

Most Americans never experience rampant nudity in public places — though I’m sure they’d enjoy reading about it. But I can’t explain to readers how it feels to be embarrassed about baring all to strange German men. (As nothing makes me blush, I don’t get embarrassed… so that’s a story for someone else to write.)

Since I’m not religious either, the maddest thing I’ve ever done for a paycheck is the Lough Derg pilgrimage. Americans tend to love all things Irish, but travel writers seem reluctant to visit the priests of St Patrick’s Purgatory. The site of the pilgrimage, a gray collection of buildings, lies on a tiny lake island in Ireland’s remote and rainy County Donegal.

Lough Derg’s pilgrimage dates back centuries. I knew there would be lots of history to weave into a story. And the idea of renouncing “the World, the Flesh and the Devil” for three days appealed to my inner weirdo.

It’s as well the inner weirdo didn’t know exactly what awaited…

On landing on the island, you remove all footwear — I was barefoot until I left. There’s an all-night Vigil, which means staying awake for almost 48 hours before collapsing into a monkish bed. Days are spent trudging ritualistically around circles of sharp rocks while mumbling prayers (and surveying your bleeding feet).

The food? Pilgrims only get one meal a day: dry toast and black tea. But you can drink water and there’s always “Lough Derg Soup” — a cup of warm tap water sprinkled with salt and pepper.

I sold versions of the story to four publications in the States, and three more in the UK and Australia. It’s an ordeal I don’t intend to repeat, but as a personal experience, it’s one I’ll never forget.

Sure, I’ve experienced more than my fair share of pampering in luxury accommodations, sipping complimentary champagne and the like… but for me, it’s the offbeat adventures that make the travel writing lifestyle so rewarding.

[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]

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