American writer Harold Stephens ran away from home at the age of eight when he heard that there were caves in the woods near his home in Bridgeville, Pennsylvania. "I have been travelling all my life," Stephens says.
Harold Stephens deep-sea fishing off the coast of Phuket in 2005.
He certainly didn't stop as a child. As a machine-gunner for the 29th US Marine regiment in Okinawa, Japan, during World War II, he also sneaked off often and went down to the beach for a swim while other troops were fighting.
The 86-year-old author _ he has published over 30 books _ and a grandfather of five admits that adventure is always part of him.
He has crossed northern Afghanistan in a caravan of camels. He has trained with New Zealand explorer Sir Edmund Hillary. According to his website, he has "searched for lost cities of Southeast Asia, hunted for sunken treasures in Southeast Asia waters including locating battleship HMS Repulse, fought pirates of Southeast Asia, tracked Southeast Asian Big Foot, explored forgotten caves of Southeast Asia". And he drove around the world in a Jeep, and with his schooner sailed in search of World War II wrecks.
The amazing thing is that he isn't making any of this up.
With his schooner, Third Sea, that he built together with a group of Peace Corps volunteers, he sailed throughout the south Pacific, Honolulu, Tahiti and some major rivers in Asia. Though he lost his ship during a typhoon, his spirit never sank.
"The best part about travelling is you get to discover new things. The problem these days is that you don't get to see young people travel by bus or train. They would rather travel by plane," Stephens laments.
The father of three successful sons also admits that his children travel by plane, shuttling from one country to another, and do not venture into historical places like he would because they are too busy with work.
"I can't blame them. We live in a different world, we are not from the same generation," says Stephens with a knowing smile.
After years of adventure, Stephens settled in Bangkok with his family. His grandchildren visit he and wife Michelle every weekend.
Asked what made him stay in Bangkok of all the places he has been to, Stephens claims that apart from being the centre of Southeast Asia, "it's the people".
How do writing and travel fit together in your life?
They combine. When I travel, I take notes. What people like about my books is they stick with history. Even when I write a modern book, I refer back to the history all the time. It makes it interesting when people read it. I have all the notes and tapes, and I hate to lose them. When I write something, I really get involved very deeply. Like diving, I have to be the one that goes down. When they were making movies, I had a part in it.
Which one of these passions could you not live without?
If necessary, I can give up everything and walk away. Maybe I would just take my old computer. When I was in Honolulu with a big typhoon coming I left my schooner there. The boat fell on one side and sank. I could have dived in and taken things back from it. But I didn't. Just let it go completely. With my Toyota that I drove around the world, I put it on my ranch and somebody stole it. My heart broke. But you have to let it go. You can't take anything when you die anyway. So forget about it.
How do you describe your way of writing?
I put myself into a mood. If I want to know my father in the war, I have the picture and I see how it was. I can get the way they were dressed. I read all the little details. And I have to go back to do the research. Fortunately now everything is online. So you can make everything authentic when you write. I try to incorporate everything into my writing, I put it into myself. I forget everything when I am writing. The hardest part is that I have to put a lot of dialogue into my books. If I describe the ruins in Ayutthaya it can be very boring, but if you put two people walking and talking there, you can put all the emphasis into the writing. But this is difficult.
Thailand is famous for its beaches, so far which beach is your favourite?
Phuket. I kept my boat there; it's a nice place.
You have been to a lot of dangerous places, have you ever been really worried for your own safety?
My wife is very worried about this. Last year, my nephew bought a boat in California. I said to him, 'Let me sail it back to Singapore for you'. This is difficult _ 12,000 miles [19,300km] of sea. I was also planning a trip through Inner Mongolia; I planned to arrive there before a big festival, so I was making a motor trip. The question was, what if I die on the way, where to bury me there? Well, you accept it. You just say, 'Hey! Your husband died and was buried in Mongolia!'.
That becomes natural. Your family worry about you. My father had that worry too.
What scary experiences have you had on the road? How do you take precautions?
There were a couple of tough times I had to make a decision. One time I was hunting in New Zealand, I followed a tahr through the hills, and got down on the glacier. It was getting dark. I thought I will never make it back. You had to jump and go fast, you couldn't stop. If I slipped into one of the pools and got wet, everything was finished. So you make up your mind, if this happens, you don't even think about it or you might end up shooting yourself.
There are couple of experiences like that in my life. It really came close, I had a reason to give up. But that's the odds you are against; I would never take a chance. I will stake the odds in my favour.
Which country's food do you like best?
Mexico, unlike Chinese food which is always the same. For example, when you go to weddings, you can be sure the food being served would be the same, but in Mexico, when you make a chilli, every place is different, you have such a variety. As a country, I like Mexico too. It has ancient woods and Mexicans are unique people. But it is not the same place today.
Do you prefer the company of other foreigners or locals?
I don't hang out with farangs. I don't belong to any club. There are networks [that] want me to get involved. They want to talk about books and everything. The thing that kept me out is they are really forward. You don't have to hang around with other writers; you do on your own.
Can you give some tips to the amateur traveller on how to get as much fun as possible from their trips?
This is difficult to influence because there are cheap airlines now. People fly back and forth. I tell people go to Chiang Mai by bus, and they say, 'Come on. We can be there in half an hour by flying, why waste time?'. When we first went to Phuket, it took two days. But you find more and feel more. Young people don't want to do it.
No, I have travelled so long. I can sit down and tell you streets in Manila, Beijing. Paris is home to me, I know all the streets and cafes in Paris, because I spent two years there. Every city in the world I can picture in a nice way. If you look at things, you can find the past which is the most interesting.
Why do people travel? A lot travel because they want to go places and then go back and say, 'I was there, I did it.'. Some people go for the historical part; they really feel a part of it, they want to study it and they love it. For me, I don't go to a place to write about it, I go to a place to find it, to discover it, and then I write about it. There is a big difference. People criticise that I always write nice things. But why should I write about the bad? I am looking for the beauty of the world, not the ugliness. It comes out in my books that we live in a beautiful world.
Is Bangkok still the same city in your eyes as the one it was before?
I like both; it's still an impressive city.
About the author
Writer: Zhang Qi