Travelfish #414: A year in stories

Some of my favourite stories from a year many would love to forget

Hi all,

Oh boy what a year. This is the second to last Travelfish newsletter of the year, and for both this week’s and the newsletter next week, I’m taking a different approach.

This week I’ve got 50 stories from Southeast Asia I liked this year which have nothing to do with Covid19!

Give me one of everything please. Kota Bharu, Malaysia. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Next week will be a reading list, and then I’ll be taking a break for a couple of weeks into the New Year.

Just in case you’re looking for something to stick under a virtual Christmas tree, I’ve released the first 175 days of Couchfish in PDF format. There is something like 170,000 words there—I really need to learn to touch type.

They’re formatted for ease of reading on a phone, and I’ve broken them up by country to keep everything a bit more manageable. You can pick and choose which you want to download here. They are 100% free—there are even Couchfish discount coupons inside them.

The year 2020 in a single photo. Bukit Lawang, Indonesia. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Over on David’s Thai Island Times, the regular weekly wrap is, as always, worth a read.

The pics this week are just some selections from across the entire year.

Good travels



PS: Looking for a Christmas present? On a whim I made a 2021 calendar of photos from Sumba, Indonesia for one of our writers who is missing Indonesia.

If you’d like one as a gift, it is available on Lulu for just US$12. Bargain!

50 stories from Southeast Asia I liked this year which have nothing to do with Covid19

Well the end of this year many would dearly love to forget is on the horizon. For the second to last of this year’s Travelfish newsletters, I want to share some of the more interesting stories I’ve read through the year. Best of all, not one of them are about Covid19.

Doing good work well

I’m going to start with three organisations I think are doing tremendous work in the region.

Hi Magwa! Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Anna Schaverien writes for the New York Times about Magwa, the giant rat who works on de–mining in Cambodia. I first encountered some of Magwa’s mates on a visit to the APOPO office in Siem Reap and was so taken with the concept I sponsored one for my daughter’s class back home. They still send me regular updates. I’ll never look at a rat the same way again. Heroes indeed. You can sponsor a rat here.

Blue Dragon is a children’s foundation working with kids in Vietnam, and they do tremendous work. In this piece, Michael Brosowski tells the story of Tan, a seven year old H’mong boy who walked out of his abusive home life and ... just kept walking. You can make a donation to support the ongoing, and invaluable, work here.

M’lop Tapang work with vulnerable and at–risk children in Cambodia. They’ve been particularly busy in Sihanoukville, which has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. If you can afford to support a single organisation in Cambodia, they belong on your shortlist. You can make a donation here.

Lifting the carpet

The undiscovered, or at least what you’ve never heard of—is always a good way to get the feet itching right? Here’s my pick of a few that lifted the corner of the carpet for me.

Get remote. Photo: David Luekens.

When you look at a map, Vietnam looks kind of small, but it is deceptive. Vietnam is big! While many travellers hit the same spots, lift the rug and you’ll find a lifetime’s worth of other distractions. And so it was with this National Geographic piece by Mike Ives on Hoang Lien National Park—a place I’d never heard of. Terrific photos too. Ives writes:

“I wondered how these exquisite specimens had managed to survive here for so long, even as large swaths of northern Vietnam’s forests were logged for timber.”

Then to swing from the unknown to the very well known, at least to me. This piece by Joe Cummings for CNN looks at The Sanctuary, a long running hippy chic joint on Thailand’s Ko Pha Ngan. This was where I first got into fasting, float tanking, and, well, all that other hippy chic stuff.

As much as I think I know Thailand, one of the best things about it, is there is always somewhere new to find. And so it was with this story by John McMahon for the BBC. Set in a remote district of Kanchanaburi province, it tells the story of a guesthouse I’d never heard of in a town I’d barely heard of. How can this happen?!

Perhaps not as little visited as the above destination, Songkhla delivers plenty of charm, yet see few foreign visitors. Mark writes for Thai Spicy on the charms of this southern Thai city.

Changing universe, from laid back hideaway to city–state Singapore, two stories appealed. First, this one by Toh Ee Ming for SoutheastAsia Globe, on cycling Singapore—at night. Lovely photos, and as the author says “Every trip out felt extra precious.” How is that not a sign of great travelling?

Ivan Wu writes about seeing Little India with new eyes for Rice Media. I’ve had many a memorable stay in that district, but there was plenty more to learn in this. And, Singapore being Singapore, there was a raft of ingredients I’d never heard of.

Circling back to Vietnam, I’m not going to pick a single story. Instead, I’ll just say if you want to get off the beaten track on two wheels, Vietnam Coracle needs to be in your bookmarks. Here’s a sample.

Still on Vietnam, when I was in Hue last year I planned to go here and then forgot. How does that happen? Alberto Prieto writes for Saigoneer on Hue’s abandoned water park.

You are what you eat

Talking about lifting the carpet, destinations are one thing, but what about the food? To be honest, I love to eat, I’ll eat anything, and half the time I don’t even know what it is I’m eating. If I can stuff it in my mouth, I’ll try it—and if it doesn’t kill me, I’ll probably suggest it.

So what if I ate all of it? Porking in KL. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Others though, are more nuanced. I’m going to start with my friend Austin Bush, who knows a thing or two about Thai food. In this story about his book The Food of Northern Thailand, Bush explains there’s more to the fare than khao soi. Undigested grass with bile used for flavouring? Why not? His book, by the way, is excellent, and would make for an excellent Christmas present—you buy it here.

With food, it can be easy to boil it down (geddit?) but then you read something like this piece by Marianna Cerini for the Economist, about tempe. Tempe is more complicated than you might think ($).

The first time I went to Burma I went with all the baggage of friends saying the street was too oily and not great. Wrong! Then I got there, and all I wanted to do was eat more of it—and I did. This piece, by Mimi Aye for Great British Chefs, is a great introductory piece on what you need to know.

Still on Burma, Thin Lei Win writes for Kite Tales from the viewpoint of being overseas and missing noodles. How does one compensate for missing ingredients? Try anchovies for Burmese salted fish. I loved this line:

“Even cooking something new could conjure memories of childhood—of tagging along on my grandfather's weekly wet market runs where he would chat to butchers and grocers he had known for years.”

Then I’m back to Singapore again—my God the food in that town. In this piece, Amandeep Kaur for Goya takes kueh and turns it inside out. I don’t have an overly sweet tooth, but if you do, this one is for your bookmarks.

Salt—it sits on the table—goes well with fries right? Yup. Learning about how the stuff is made will help you understand what people mean when they talk about salt of the earth. This piece, in Tuoi Tre News has some magnificent photos by photographer Nguyen Ngoc Hoa, who recorded the process in Vietnam.

This is as close as I’m getting in this issue of the newsletter to talking about the plague, but here Scott Anthony writes for the BBC on a Javanese dish to banish the plague. Perhaps we all need a serving of sayur lodeh for Christmas lunch.

Lastly, on what we drink rather than eat. This piece, by Medieval Indonesia, asks, did people in Indonesia drink tea in the Middle Ages? Read it and find out!


Southeast Asia is no slouch when it comes to unusual stories.

Easily the story of the year, possibly decade as it has been running that long, is that of the Con Queen of Hollywood. I first came across this via a Hollywood Reporter story in 2018. At the time I thought “holy hell this story is bananas”. Late this year things escalated with the con–person arrested and facing extradition to the USA.

Watch out. Craziness ahead. Photo: Sally Arnold.

What does Hollywood have to do with Southeast Asia? No spoilers in this newsletter—but there is plenty to read. Start with this Hollywood Reporter piece, then read the two Vanify Fair pieces here and here. If like me, you want more, listen to the dedicated podcast. The twist—wait for it, do not jump ahead—is an absolute cracker, so do yourself a favour and read them in order. In summary, I can’t wait for the Netflix series.

Leaving Hollywood behind, lets move to North Sumatra, Indonesia, for what is at its core, a distressing story of missing children. By Aisyah Llewellyn and Tonggo Simangunsong for the South China Morning Post, they found locals believed it wasn’t a simple case of missing kids ($). They write:

“He said he was bestowed with paranormal abilities after being born prematurely. ‘When my mother was pregnant with me and went for a check-up the technician told her that there was no baby in her womb, but a large snake instead. I didn’t meet my father until I was seven years old, as he was in prison, having beaten the technician to death,’ he said.”

Who doesn’t like a good ghost story? Chris Schalkx writes for CNN on a walk he took through some of Bangkok’s spookiest sites.

From the paranormal to the naive meets irresponsible, this Mark Healy yarn is just bonkers crazy. Healy tells the story of an American hemp farmer and his crew getting all tangled up in Burma. I remember reading some blowback about this piece after it came out, primarily regarding the people who were left behind in Burma holding the can, but I can’t find the links sorry.

Next there is the story of that hotel on Thailand’s Ko Chang who didn’t like a series of online reviews. Thankfully the reviewer is no longer in jail, but suffice to say this could have been handled better. I wrote about the case in this newsletter, though the New York Times also has a good wrap on the case here ($).

Travel writing

This year has seen most travel writers (along with everyone else) stuck on the couch at home. So, taking a glass half full approach to the year, it has been a good period for taking a look at the craft and how to improve it.

Four guys, four different answers, but still, talk to locals more. Photo: Sally Arnold.

This piece, by Intan Paramaditha takes a look at the genre and how travel writers need to do better. On a similar tilt, Meera Dattani, for The Telegraph, wrote on reversing the colonial gaze ($). Dattani’s piece was probably my favourite piece on the genre through the year. While not Southeast Asia specific, this piece by Michael Press for Aeon asks “Who really owns the past?

Our debut Travelfish long read, by Julia Winterflood, took a look at Bali and travel writing, and how we all not only need to do better, but also spend more time talking to locals ($). Writes Winterflood:

“For a shared sense of reality, the ideas, desires, and perspectives of Balinese from all walks of life and from across the island must be prioritised.”

Travelfish regulars will be familiar with our writer Cindy Fan. On the heels of International Women’s Day, she wrote this great piece on, well, what it is like being a female travel writer.

On a lighter note, travel writer Mark Baker writes about the pleasures of seeing someone use his work in the wild. I still remember the first time I saw someone I didn’t know using Travelfish!

Finally, Samira Shackle for The Guardian looks at how travel writing and “influencing” gets complicated fast. In this case the author is looking at Pakistan, but the message is global. Do better.

Saving the world

Much was written this year about 2020 possibly giving the planet a breath as overtourism withered on the vine. Sadly, decisions continue to be made today which will have devastating and lifelong ramifications. One of the most pressing issues? The Mekong River. This New York Times story by Hannah Beech was one of a flood of stories through the year on the state of an amazing river.

I’m sure I’ve seen this show before. Photo: Cindy Fan.

Further downriver, Stefan Lovgren, for National Geographic looked to Cambodia’s Tonle Sap. The lake is running dry, taking forests and fish with it.

On the subject of forests, two pieces. Ashley Lampard for SoutheastAsia Globe looked at the challenges of trapping and snaring. How does one protect when “one wouldn’t be far off to estimate one in 10 people are consuming wildlife”?

Then, this cracking longread by Drew Ambrose for Aljazeera. Ambrose looks at the appalling situation in Papua, where land is going for as little as $5 a block. Ancient forest gone forever, replaced by, you guessed it, palm oil plantations.

Stick with palm oil with this must read by Margie Mason and Robin McDowell for AP. While the environmental costs are enormous, so are the human costs. Those hit the worst? Those who can least afford it. They write:

“In some of the worst cases of abuse, migrant workers said they fled one kind of servitude for another, detailing how they were trafficked, sold and enslaved not once, but twice.”

Even when efforts are made to try and protect, matters don’t always turn out as planned. We looked at this for one of our Travelfish long reads. A Malaysian UNESCO site languishes in the face of vanishing funds, corruption and neglect ($).

In this interesting piece for Lapham’s Quarterly, Jay Griffiths asks maybe there is something to be gained by talking to the animals. Reporting from Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Sticking with the natural world, I found Katy Kelleher’s story for Longreads on orchids fascinating. “Explorers” would dig up graves to collect the flowers—giving the people a few glass beads to pay for the desecration. Who knew?!

People and places

Continuing on a pillaging thread, Tess David writes about “The Man Who Pillaged Cambodia” for The Diplomat. Douglas Latchford’s looting exploits were near legendary. Yet, in passing away in mid 2020, he is another added to the list those those who will forever escape punishment.

I so love this photo. Photo: Tom Vater.

If you’ve spent much time in bars in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, chances are you might know Jun, the founder of Zeppelin Bar, which closed its doors this year, writes Julius Theimann for the Phnom Penh Post. Jun was famous for remembering the favourite songs of his eclectic clientele. A great bar missed.

People know Ko Pha Ngan for the parties, but Tom Vater took a more nuanced look at the island and its people ($). Based on a wide range of interviews, Vater writes the island is far more than a party venue with beaches.

Filed under “stories on people I should have heard of, but never had”. This New Bloom piece by Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal profiles Muay—a Lao influencer. Sentenced to five years after posting a video criticising the government’s delayed response to a flood, her story is a worth your time to read.

This story came out in 2019, but I only saw it this year, so I’m allowed to include it! Sushma Subramanian writes for Hakai about the Bajau people and how they have adapted over the generations to an aquatic way of life. This has been written about quite a bit over the years, but this is a great piece, with terrific photos.

If you’re into profiles of some of the ethnic groups through the region, you may enjoy this one. In SoutheastAsia Globe, Graeme Green tells the story of his quest to record the cultures of Vietnam’s 54 tribes.

This long read, by Oliver Slow, looks at Burma’s Mandalay and how it is changing with Chinese influence. The thing is, the Chinese have always been an important ingredient in this melting pot of a city ($). The British, who get all the column inches, were but a brief interlude.

This piece, by my friend Karla Cripps for CNN, had me laughing for all the wrong reasons—sorry Karla! We were all 20–sumthin once—and wear a helmet people!

The most fascinating piece I read through the year? This piece by Mike Dash on an Australian Aboriginal community in Makassar, Sulawesi. The result of Bugis trepanging voyages, writes Dash:

“They seem to be as much a part of 19th century Makassar as anybody else.”

Last but not least, I’ll finish with this amusing piece by Connla Stokes—on Hanoi, “back in the day”. Where back in the day was really not all that long ago at all. You should have been here yesterday right?

Phew, that was exhausting!

Good travels


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Photo of the week

The road forward is not always lined with coconuts. Sometimes though, it is. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

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Travel light!

Stuart & the Travelfish team