Travelfish #416: The Lightning Rod

Think before you hit publish.

Hi all,

It isn’t too late to say Happy New Year right?!

This week I’m writing about a recent drama in Indonesia involving an American and a Twitter thread. To my mind it raised some solid questions about tourism and the voice local communities should have—but often don’t. Many of those voices were heard last week.

On New Years Day, we published our latest long read, taking a look at how maybe we need to rethink Vietnam. You can read the full story here.

On reimagining Vietnam—our latest long read. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

On Couchfish I’ll point you to three posts you may find interesting. The first is an interview with Indonesian food guru, Arie Parikesit about, you guessed it, Indonesian food! The second is a long post on how I think travel writing needs to do better. The third an interview with an old friend (and ex–Travelfish writer), Caroline Mills, about what it is like running a small resort on an island in Vietnam.

Elsewhere, David kicked off 2021 at Thai Island Times with a great news wrap on Covid19 in Thailand along with his regular wrap on all things beaches and islands. Enjoy!

I hope you all had a great break over the silly season and lets hope this year is better than last.

Good travels


The lightning rod

Earlier this month, a queer Black American woman posted a thread on Twitter about her time in Bali. Pre-Covid19, threads like hers were dime a dozen, Twitter was full of posts about what a fantastic place Bali was, and is.

At risk of stereotyping, the top five features of these past posts were along the lines of:

1) Photos of Instagram hotspots, hotels, beaches etc

2) Plenty of suggestive language around why you too should hit Bali

3) Comments about the affordable price of living and travelling

4) Generic stuff about how welcoming the Balinese are

5) Comments on how it is a great place to work/freelance/whatever

This stuff was never–ending—pre Covid19.

One extra facet of the author’s thread, arguably the most irresponsible—or at least most uninformed: That Bali was LGBT friendly. To a point it is—for foreigners visiting—but the country as a whole is not widely considered to be a LGBT–friendly one. Highlighting this point was perhaps the most egregious of her entire thread.

Talking Indonesian food with Arie Parikesit—give it a listen! Photo: Sally Arnold.

Then, in early 2020, Covid19 came. Tourism collapsed. Tens of thousands of Indonesians lost their jobs. Indonesia closed all visas designed for tourism. It did though keep other visas open, through an array of visa agents. The Indonesian government was also extremely understanding and generous in letting foreigners stay in–country and extend their visas on an ongoing basis.

Meanwhile local groups have been busy raising money and collecting supplies for those in need. In a country where official help can sometimes be a little late to the table, local communities stepped in. They’ve done some amazing work.

Indonesia will officially hit 1,000,000 cumulative Covid19 cases tomorrow. One million cases.

It was in the above environment, that the American author published her thread. When I first saw it, I thought, “wow that is some tone deaf writing there”, and went back to whatever I was doing. I didn’t think about it again.

Then the post exploded on social media—and when I say exploded, I mean Exploded.

Tell me your secrets. On how travel writing needs to get better. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

At first, I couldn’t understand the scale of the outrage. Sure, the post was dumb, offensive, and tone deaf, and she appeared to be perhaps doing some work illegally, but I couldn’t understand why it was going as viral as it was. I assumed (wrongly) she was a celebrity—they’re hardly immune from doing stupid things in Bali.

The social media chat ramped up. The woman and her partner argued back. Eventually they deleted their posts and their accounts moved private. It was too late though, they’d all been screen–shot for posterity. The waves of schadenfreude that washed over the whole drama were pretty off.

That the author described Bali as being LGBT friendly came in for particular attention. As did that she was selling an eBook, not only covering LGBT, but also how to enter Indonesia through the above–mentioned agents.

What is it like running a small resort on an island in Vietnam? Photo: Caroline Mills.

A tweet which said they were not paying tax in Indonesia, added fuel to the fire. Visas and taxes are complicated—this isn’t an excuse of course—but these details got blown away in the storm.

A separate stream of commentary focused on wider issues revolving around North and South. Around gentrification, rising land prices, new colonialism. All strands common to discussions around tourism globally. In this area, there were plenty of valid points being made.

The whole drama gained the attention of the immigration department. Long story short, the couple were deported a few days ago.

Indonesia deported around 1,500 foreigners in 2020. Aside from tabloid idiocy, I can think of only one other case, of a foreign journalist, that, as this one, made the New York Times.

Take a breath. Photo: Caroline Mills.

People across the globe, are bitterly unhappy about the ravages of tourism. It isn’t only seeing the crawl of concrete over rice fields. Or the crass commercialisation placed on cultural locations and events. It isn’t only the drugs, crime and trash. It isn’t only the over development. It isn’t only the treatment of local people and the neo–colonial attitudes being levelled at them.

It is all of these things. To my mind though it is also the loss of feeling like you are in control.

The loss of feeling like you have a say in how where you were born, or where you have chosen to live, gets developed. That decisions are made with little, if any, consideration for you and your community.

At its best, tourism can bring increased wealth, and cross cultural understanding. It can deliver a greater learning between people who live across the water from one another.

At its worst, it is a cancer. A gangrenous wound that starts with a cool beach shack and morphs into an illegal beach club owned by a foreign criminal.

Everyone needs some beach time. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Tourism needs to do better. Tourism and tourists alike, need to more be responsible, or, in the least, aware and educated about, the carnage they may be contributing to.

But tourism and travellers are only one side of the equation. They don’t exist in a void. The flip side of the coin are governments. Find some vision. Work to protect places for people’s children and grandchildren.

I’m not speaking particularly to Indonesia in this regard—this problem is global.

The incessant desire for never ending tourism growth is only a road to mayhem and despair. Tourism boards need to think about sustainability and what matters to local communities and their environments. Education, tolerance and understanding can be assisted with the right forms of tourism.


I’m a strong believer that travel, done right, is a great way to help make this world better. That said, this cannot be a one way thing.

Visa laws must be revisited. Look at the difficulty (almost none) faced by the above American in coming to Indonesia. Compare it to the challenges an Indonesian faces heading in the opposite direction. Visas should be 100% reciprocal. It should be as hard (or easy) for an American to get into Indonesia as it is for an Indonesian to go Stateside. Learning and understanding—and the benefits that come with them—should flow both ways.

Hello Lembata. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I’ve seen an excellent (though unpublished) lengthy one–on–one interview with the author concerned. In one part, the author voices, what sounds to me, like a sincere and heartfelt apology. She apologises to the people of Bali, greater Indonesia, and, in the extract below, the Indonesian LGBT community.

The author is quoted as saying (reproduced with permission):

“I am very sorry for offending those suffering in Indonesia. I am Black. I am a woman. I am queer. It was never my intention to bring attention or harm to a group that is marginalized and living in fear. Naturally, I feel terrible that while I am free to be who I am, those in Indonesia cannot. … I acknowledge I may have offended and exposed those in the community and for that am very sorry.”

An apology like this seems a decent way to kick off a period of repair and renewal from this sad and sorry drama.

Covid19 is a wrecking ball. Many are at home, going stir crazy, gazing through a window at the outside world. But I firmly believe, this time indoors is an opportunity. A chance to rethink what tourism and travel should be—not just for the travellers, but especially for those in the destinations.

I’d like to think when we all cast the windows open again, we’ll be looking at a smarter, better tuned, travel landscape.

Good travels!


Ten things worth reading

Aerial photos of 1953 Indochina

Get out your time capsule.

'It was life or death': the plane-hijacking refugees Australia embraced

“Da Costa, the attendant at the airport snack bar, might have been the last on board. He had been helping UDT at the airport during the civil war, and feared the arrival of Fretilin. As the passengers climbed on to the plane, he had gone over to bid farewell to some acquaintances. My grandfather and his friend and future colleague on the Melbourne tram network, José Cruz, told Da Costa to jump on the plane, and in a split second, his life changed.”

The transcendent bissu

“The Bugis people thought that when a being became a woman or a man, that being could no longer communicate with the gods. Men and women were in some sense cut off from the gods that made them. But the gods had a means of communicating with humans: the bissu.”

Luang Prabang is dead

“The monks still emerge at sunrise to collect alms, but the crowds of selfie-snapping international tourists are no longer there to put sticky rice and confectionery in their bowls. This may be a blessing for those monks who treasure peace and quiet, but it is a disaster for Luang Prabang’s 97 hotels and resorts and 400 or so guest houses. Most are now closed, some probably forever.

Lese-majeste keeps Thailand in the dark ages $

“This makes lese-majeste much more than a mere defamation law, and more like sedition and blasphemy rolled into one. The harsh sentences reflect this, with each count carrying a maximum sentence of 15 years. A defendant can face multiple counts at once, leading to decades in jail. Trials are conducted behind closed doors. Of the few countries in the world with similar laws protecting heads of state, none carry such harsh penalties or convict people as regularly as Thailand.”

How Singapore lost trust on contact tracing privacy

“These revelations triggered public anger and criticism, not necessarily because Singaporeans are particularly privacy conscious—in fact, state surveillance is largely normalized in the country—but because people felt they’d been subjected to a bait-and-switch.”

What’s to become of Hanoi’s last green holdout ‘Banana Island’?

“Both agree that the soil was richer then, and it was possible to grow more than just bananas on the south side. Le said that he wished the land would flood so it would once again enrich the soil. “We can’t control it, so the plants survive only for a short while,” said Le.”

Koh Trong: A Mekong island showcasing rural Cambodia at its most lovely

“Elsewhere, the island’s Chinese-Cambodian heritage is displayed by the distinct grave mounds that rise from the fields. Where normally the graves would be adorned in Chinese characters and decoration, those on Koh Trong are all in Khmer script, pointing to a less-frictioned melding of the both cultures and assimilation — the widespread following of Chinese New Year had to come from somewhere!

Is Canberra the new ghost town of Singapore?

“Throughout the day, I started hearing more and more of this same narrative. Online, netizens paint Canberra as a place that has nothing, and is only set to gain from the new developments. But individuals who have lived here for decades tell a different story. ”

A tour of Bangkok's spookiest sites

Who doesn’t like a good ghost story?

Something worth reading

The meaning of travel

I’m reading this at the moment, and it is excellent! Full review in a week or so, but in the meantime, if you have an interest in what travel “means”, go buy it!


Thank you

Thanks again for supporting Travelfish through reading and sharing both this newsletter and the site.

Good travels