Travelfish #421: The flip side

Travel need not be bad ...

Hi all,

Sorry—three weeks between emails! At least I’m on time this week and I’ve added double the usual number of things worth reading.

Matters in Burma sadly continue to deteriorate. If you’re looking to keep abreast of matters there, start with Frontier Myanmar for well considered and excellent coverage. If you’re after breaking news, on Twitter the WhatsHappeningInMyanmar hashtag is super–handy, and the Twitter list I made on the first day of the coup is still going strong.

Please do consider subscribing to Frontier—they’re doing excellent work.

Exploring the back blocks of Angkor. Photo: Nicky Sullivan.

As it has been three weeks, I’ll just cover the free to read posts on Couchfish, as there has been too many on the paid list. If you want to see the itinerary (the paid list) see here for a map showing the madness.

On the “Good trip with kids” I had parts 6 (Ko Libong), 7 (Ko Lao Liang) and 8 (Ko Bulon Lae). Tomorrow is the final piece in this series—I think!

Aside from these, I wrote A Tilting Point, on what travel writers perhaps should be writing about. I also ran an interview with Travelfish writer Nicky Sullivan. Titled “A Beautiful Day” we chatted about what Nicky described as one of the best days of her life—in Cambodia. It was an uplifting chat.

More hardship. Ko Lao Liang. Photo: David Luekens.

Couchfish turns one on March 31

The day after tomorrow is the one–year anniversary of Couchfish. To celebrate, I’m offering a 50% off deal until April 14 on annual subscriptions. So this means it costs US$35 instead of $70—for the year. Already a subscriber? First, thank you, second, feel free to send the link to your friends!

Get 50% off Couchfish

Over on Thai Island Times, David has been far more punctual than me.

His piece on what will it take for Thailand to reopen was excellent—please read it. If you like jungle curry, you must read this. His two island wraps, first this one, then this looking at the Phuket bubble concept are well worth a read.

If you’re not already a member, sign up—David’s newsletter remains free ... for now!

Thanks for reading and see you next week


The flip side

Pre Covid19, there were no shortage of woes which the tourism horse was being flogged over. Overtourism, trashed coral reefs, people smuggling, slavery—the list goes on and on ... and on.

All this criticism is valid, by and large mass tourism is guilty as charged. But, yes there is always a but, it isn’t all that way. Sometimes, when properly managed, implemented and controlled, tourism can have a positive impact.

Agal waterfall near Merente is a bit of ok. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

A few years ago I was in West Sumbawa and heard about a Community Based Tourism (CBT) scheme out of the village of Merente. Where? Yeah, I’d never heard of Merente either. The scheme was still in a nascent stage—the walls of my room were plastic sheets and I slept on wooden floorboards. The hook though was a magnificent waterfall.

To my mind the thinking behind it was solid. Sure, you could visit the waterfall on a long trip from Alas (if there was ever a town with a fitting name, Alas is it). The real goal though, was to encourage people to stay in the village. Just a night, but I’d imagine those with time might stay longer. The money, be it on the accommodation or hiring a guide to the falls, stays within the local community.

Off for some night safari–ing. Photo: Cindy Fan.

A more developed programme is in far northern Laos—the Nam Nern Jungle Safari. In this case, visitors are taken on a night safari—in a pirogue—and local guides spot wildlife. A careful record is made of everything spotted and the numbers are tallied at the end of the trip. A bounty for each sighting is paid into a fund which is then dispersed to local villages. The longterm goal? First: Reduce poaching. Second: Provide a financial value to preserving wildlife. Smart.

In Burma, the Living Irrawaddy Project is reminiscent of some of the work done out of Kratie in Cambodia. Give local fishers a reason for taking more care about how they fish. Financial incentives work—some travellers will come to see the results.

Sticking with Cambodia, the fancy river lodges in Koh Kong may get the column inches, but the solutions need not be high–end. Far longer running, and arguably supporting far more local people, is Chi Phat. To my knowledge, this is one of the longest–running CBT schemes in the country. It shares the wealth by rotating guests between different family houses. Like the above, it also demonstrates the value of protecting the environment.

Koh Kong has more than upmarket digs. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Across the Gulf, in Thailand, I read about this very interesting scheme in Baan Talae Nok. Out of the ruins of the tsunami, a CBT scheme was established giving travellers a taste of what local lifestyles entail.

In our recent long read on Vietnam, Joshua Zukas wrote about a CBT scheme near Dien Bien Phu. What I love about this is where he notes that a CBT scheme can be an effective way of introducing nuance to a guest’s understanding of the country they are in:

“Dien Bien is an ethnically diverse province, with Thai, Hmong and Khmu minority groups living in small, traditional villages dotted around the countryside. Many Thai families still build impressive wooden houses on stilts, and Hau’s team worked with two of these families to set up homestays just outside of Dien Bien Phu, the province’s capital. Here visitors can get a sense for what life in a traditional Thai village is like. They sleep in a stilt house wrapped by rice terraces and enjoy local food with ingredients sourced from the garden. Despite the former battleground setting, the product has virtually nothing to do with war.”

All of these schemes are low scale, born out of working directly with local communities. You may not read about them in Travel & Leisure, but you will read about many of them on Travelfish—we think they’re projects worth supporting.

Hello Dien Bien province. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Yes, they’re putting money in local hands, and that is undeniably important, but there is far more at play. These projects (and many others like them) give travellers a far better insight into how local people live. These are an educational experience—not just for the traveller, but also for the local people.

A well–run CBT scheme can foster better understanding on both sides of the equation. Chances are, you’ll come out of them with a few new Facebook friends in the process.

Nobody is saying an entire trip should be built around this kind of thing, but if it is—more power to you. Rather, they form an excellent add–on to a more traditional vacation.

Once you’ve experienced this kind of thing once, you may be surprised just how often you’ll be hankering for more of the same on your next trip.

Good travels


Ten things worth reading

Myanmar politics must be re-made, not restored

“Following the coup, I have joined many pro-democracy protests in Yangon. I believe the current moment offers not only a chance to fight against military dictatorship, but also to bring better understanding between the Bamar and other ethnic groups, so that we can join together to end the decades-long civil wars and build a federal democratic union.”

Is Thailand's Full Moon Party over for good?

Short answer? No. If you enjoy this piece, please do give our longread on Ko Pha Ngan a read too.

Would the pandemic stop Paul Theroux from traveling? $

“What he most wants to do is return. There is value in making your way back to a country you visited when you were younger. It both marks time in your own life and acts as a sort of gauge for how a society is changing.”

How many antiquities in Australian museums are stolen from our neighbours?

“The next scandal for Australian galleries, he said, likely won’t stem from a dubious collector being exposed — it will come from countries like Thailand and Cambodia demanding their items be returned.”

Vaccine ‘passports’ aren’t perfect.

“Both remarks struck me as misunderstanding the situation: what we want is irrelevant; what we need is responsibility.”

A chat with Susie

I did a fun interview with Susie from Our Tribe Travels.

What solo travel was like before smartphones and Google Maps

“Owing to their huge commitment to family and sheer determination, the internet arrived in Sam Neua—and boy did they embrace it. The rest of Laos slowly followed years later.”

Activists decry ongoing deforestation at Prey Lang Forest

“Heng Sros, a forest activist in Cambodia, said natural resources in the Prey Lang forest were being lost at a rapid pace, often in collaboration with corrupt local officials.”

Karaoke or torture? In Vietnam, loud singing becomes public enemy No 1


Is Gunung Padang evidence of the world’s oldest civilization?

“Additionally, they do not naturally form horizontally, as they occur at Gunung Padang. This alone is proof of human involvement, not even taking into account the structure made with them. ”

In Laos, children kept from learning by among world’s most expensive internet

“The most recent government statistics reveal that as of 2017, just 7% of people in rural Laos aged 15-49 have used a computer, and less than 20% have used the internet in their lives.”

Walking the Green Mile Bangkok

“As it slices through the heart of the city, you get to see a cross-section of Bangkok daily life carrying on below and around you, from the tightly packed, wood and corrugated iron shacks along the klongs to the insta-happy photo crowds snapping away around you. ”

Small-to-medium size businesses fail in Laos as tourism drops amid Covid Fears

“In Vang Vieng, a major tourist attraction in Vientiane province, one small business owner is still unable to open his hotel, he said.”

As the Mekong delta washes away, homes and highways are being lost

“Pham Thi Phi, 80, and her family had to move five years ago from their house by the water because the erosion was worsening. Her former home and several neighbours’ houses no longer exist, while the river continues to eat away at the island, taking precious mango trees with it.”

Hue to Dong Hoi on back–roads

“Characterized by calm blue sea and long arcs of bright sand where fishermen pull up their svelte-looking wood-and-weave fishing canoes, this road trip takes you on paved and dirt back-roads along an incredible coastline strewn with royal-style tombs.”

Notes on the philosophy of travel, with Emily Thomas

“Asking questions about travel, and exploring ways philosophy has changed travel, can help us think more deeply about our journeys.” I reviewed Emily’s excellent book here—easily my fave read of the year so far.

The muddied waters of travel bubbles

“Across South East Asia and throughout Asia Pacific, talking up travel bubbles is in vogue once more after disappearing off radar since the Hong-Kong Singapore bubble burst last November. So what’s different and what’s still the same this time?”

Why tourism desperately needs a new performance metric post-pandemic $

“Surely it cannot continue pretending that its success lies in arrival numbers and contributions to gross domestic product?” Uh huh.

Woman buys traditional house for $8,000, ships it across Indonesia to create Bali dream home

“Seeing the property fill with coffee, cacao, durian, mangosteen, and avocado, all grown organically, Denham felt her dreams meld effortlessly with those of the community.”

Seeking Samui

“Arman explains that when the first tourists started arriving in Samui many years ago, some in search of a slice of serenity, others looking for Buddhist enlightenment, they headed for the south of the island—for the strong traditions, bountiful nature, and sense of spirituality.”

Something to read

The Fever : How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years

I just finished this excellent book which traces the history of malaria from ancient times through to today. It is an excellent read—especially in these Covid times.

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Good travels