Travelfish #423: Kenya, elephant buying, coffee, hornbills and more

This week’s wrap on a few things worth reading

Hi all,

Before anything else, thank you for the many kind emails after last week’s “yes I’m still kicking” newsletter. My apologies for the late replies—it turned out the emails all went into a folder that I only found today. Ops.

The pics this week? A couple of places I like in Kuala Lumpur. I’ve been going through photos of dishes I can’t eat at the moment, so I thought I’d share a couple. Sorry.

At Restoran Sun Huat Kee, Kuala Lumpur. Photo: Stuart McDonald

If you missed the newsletter last week, I detailed a few changes that I’ve made. I’ve repeated them below, but I’ll remove this bit from next week.

I have taken the opportunity of the break to change the focus of this newsletter a little. The big change is I’m ditching the Soapbox, as most of my editorialising is now on the free version of Couchfish, so if you’re not already on the free list there, you may want to consider signing up.

Subscribe to Couchfish

Each week will start with two weekly charts. The first covers where vaccinations are in the region and the second deals with borders, flights and so on.

Then we’ll have a long read, which may or may not be travel-related and may or may not be Southeast Asia related. Think of it as the most interesting thing I read in the last week.

Lastly, they’ll be one story from each country we cover in Southeast Asia, with a brief excerpt.

So, shorter than the old newsletter, but hopefully more informative and quick to read.

Feedback, as always is appreciated.

Thank you!


Vaccinations snapshot

The following chart is per capita—not total numbers. The dark green bar is the one that matters—it represents the percentage of the eligible population that is fully vaccinated. You can see a full-size and interactive version of the chart here.

Source: Our World in Data

Travel summary

So where is open and where is closed? This chart by Hannah Pearson at Pear Anderson summarises the state of play in the region as of Sunday, August 29, 2021. If you’re after a detailed weekly report on the region, Hannah’s report is the absolute business.

To receive Hannah’s report in your email mailbox every Sunday you can sign up here (it is free!). This is my go-to report for where things are at in the region. Please feel free to contact Hannah with corrections!

Source: The Impact of Covid-19 on the Southeast Asian Tourism Industry (PDF)

⭐️ The big read: Illuminating Kirinyaga

By Tristan McConnell in Emergence Magazine on October 7, 2020

I’ll be upfront and say I knew nothing whatsoever about Kenya before I read this story, but I learned a lot from it, and even if I hadn’t, it is a beautiful and enthralling read. There is a podcast option at the bottom of the story where you can listen to the author reading his own story. I highly recommend grabbing a coffee, putting the feet up, the earphones in, and drifting away for the 30 minutes or so it will take McConnell to tell you this tale.

Long before scientists understood the astonishing alchemy by which trees draw carbon from the air and turn it into wood, or suck water from the soil and release it into the sky, communities living with forests knew their trees to be rainmakers—beliefs that safeguarded the forests, safeguarded the people who depended upon them. But beliefs are fragile things, as are those who embody them: Thureinira, still strong as a cedar’s trunk, slowing steadily as if moving on a timescale more akin to trees than humans as age stretches and remolds the experience of time; or Mbaya, younger and more vigorous, yet looked at askance for his strange, old ways.

🇲🇲 Burma: On war, reincarnation, and the changing names of Myanmar

By Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint in Literary Hub on August 27, 2021

I really wanted to include something Burma-related this week that wasn’t yet another induction into a depressing and distressing situation. Then I found a series of excerpts from Names For Light by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint. The following one leapt out at me, but they’re all worth a read—as is, I’m sure, the book.

“My great-grandfather was reborn in a woman’s body, in my body, my mother said, because he had been a vain, arrogant, and comfort-seeking man. He died of a blood vessel that ruptured in his brain. In Bamar, to have a stroke is to have wind cut off. Cut, severed, or crossed over, as when my great-grandfather crossed over to death, or when my family crossed over to Thailand and then the United States, and never returned. Strokes are caused by high blood pressure and high blood pressure is caused, in part, by stress. In moments of stress, people cut themselves off, or are cut off, from a family, a culture, a nation, even from a life.”

🇰🇭 Cambodia: Inside Cambodia’s online scam gangs $

By Shaun Turton in Nikkei Asia on September 1, 2021

If you’re reading something bleak out of Cambodia—and frankly there’s no shortage of material—Sihanoukville invariably gets a mention. This story, by Shaun Turton, is no exception. The coastal city’s boom and bust cycle has been well chronicled, but this piece stands out not only for the individual stories but for the hard work volunteer organisations are doing to help the victims who are often ignored by Hun Sen’s dysfunctional state apparatus.

“Li is part of a volunteer network of Chinese businessmen living in Cambodia. While authorities do target the groups, the work of helping the victims to escape has fallen largely on this network, which raises funds from the Chinese expatriate community and arranges transport, safe hotels, food and, in many cases, medical treatment.”

🇮🇩 Indonesia: How your cup of coffee is clearing the jungle $

By Wyatt Williams in The New York Times on August 12, 2021

Williams covers a vast range of touch-points in this piece, from the multinationals driving prices down, through the middlemen taking their cut, to the subsistence farmers, who collectively are perhaps taking bigger bites than ever out of Indonesia’s long-suffering rainforests. The only real player missed? The steering hand of officially influential people. Then there’s the glacial pace of change—but a forest is a funny place:

Forests have long attracted people with urgent hopes and needs. Our oldest stories, the ones about how we began, often feature a tree, the fruit that it offers and the knowledge — often terrible — that comes with taking it. We have written this conflict into our oldest books. One way to read the worst chapters of human history is to see how so many of them involve food and farms. … The horrible knowledge of the fruit, of course, is that we are forever responsible for growing it. To tend a farm requires hope — hope that even if we know how the arc of history has bent, we still have to wake up in the morning and believe that the plants will grow better this season, that the conflict between us and nature, whatever you want to call what it is outside us, might one day be resolved.

🇱🇦 Laos: I bought an elephant to find out how to save them

By Paul Kvinta in Outside on November 12, 2019

I thought last week’s story on a proposed plan to flush 4,000 Islands down the toilet would be hard to beat, but this long read by Paul Kvinta comes close. Essentially it is two stories in one. The first half looks at people working to protect and rehabilitate elephants and is full of hope. Here Kvinta quotes a mahout in the middle of a Lao jungle:

“I have a GPS here and here,” one of them told Falshaw, pointing to his head and then his heart.

Then it switches to China, and boy oh boy ... just read it.

All these elephants are from Laos, Samrit says, as we move down the row. And yes, these last four arrived the previous year. Pretty much all elephants imported into China come from Laos, he says. If we want, Ammann and I can even buy an elephant from this zoo, Samrit says. A baby would cost around $100,000, an adult $80,000. Unfortunately, we can’t buy any of the elephants we see here. They’ve already been sold to a zoo near Shanghai called Dream of Dragon, and they’re scheduled to be transported next month. They’ll be replaced by more elephants from Laos.

🇲🇾 Malaysia: The collapse of Malaysia’s middle class

By Amrita Malhi in The Diplomat on August 1, 2021

I was in Kuala Lumpur last year when things started to close up in the first spasms of Covid19. Sorting out some visa issues, I had my papers done on the last day the embassy was open for a spell and flew out the next day. A friend who lingered ended up with an unplanned year in KL.

Compared to the column inches spent on foreigners stuck in Bali, Malaysia seems to fly a little under the radar. Regardless, this piece by Amrita Malhi leapt out. I don’t subscribe to The Diplomat, so couldn’t read the full magazine piece, but this was a good primer.

There is no sugar-coating the situation: Many Malaysians are either sliding into poverty, while those who were already in poverty before the pandemic are watching their prospects grow even worse. In June, sounding exasperated, former government adviser Muhammed Khalid argued on national broadcaster Astro AWANI that Malaysia has lost its middle class. “There are no more savings,” he said, not for asset accumulation, and not for investing in education. Indeed, many Malaysians have even drawn down their superannuation savings to top up their reduced or non-existent wages, cleaning them out of pension funds for when they grow old.

🇸🇬 Singapore: The super-rich are choosing Singapore as their safe haven $

By David Ramli and Lulu Chen in Bloomberg Wealth on May 27, 2021

If you read the Malaysia story above, then yeah, what a difference a stretch of water makes right? For a country that maintains an image of doing so well for itself off the back of trade and open borders, Covid19 looked like the speed-bump of speed-bumps, yet it seems there are plenty of people still making dosh hand over fist. Including the uber-wealthy from some of its closest neighbours.

One Indonesian businessman who continues to live and work in his home country said his parents have spent more than a year sheltering from Covid-19 in the city-state. While they previously knew about five other Indonesian families living in Singapore before the pandemic, the number has since mushroomed to about 25. … Singapore makes it relatively easy for the super rich to settle. Through its Global Investors Program, the country grants a fast-track to permanent residency to qualified business owners or families if they invest S$2.5 million in a local business, certain funds or a family office with at least S$200 million in assets.

🇹🇭 Thailand: Poached for its horn, this rare bird struggles to survive

By Rachael Bale in National Geographic on September 2018

I came across this story when I was researching a national park in Pattani for Couchfish. I’d been to the park years ago but couldn’t remember the name of the waterfall. This story popped up when I searched for the park and as soon as I saw it I remembered I’d read it before. That didn’t matter—I dropped everything and read it again—you should too. A fascinating read, reaching from the tiny Thai national park and right across Indonesia. Features beautiful photos from Tim Laman.

My reverie is broken by a rush of air overhead—Whoosh-whoosh-whoosh! The gaps between feathers in their wings make hornbills some of the noisiest fliers around.

Hoo. Hoo. Hoo-hoo-hoo, Hahahaha! It’s the maniacal laughter of a helmeted hornbill. By the sound of it, this one is only a few trees away. We hold our breath. And suddenly, there it is: A living dinosaur, some four feet long (not counting its foot-long central tail feathers), perched on the protruding knot, a large stick insect dangling from its mouth, its beady eyes observing the surroundings.

🇻🇳 Vietnam: A long way from Vietnam

By Nga Pham in BBC Radio 4: Seriously on August 27, 2021

In late 2019, 39 Vietnamese trafficking victims were found dead in the back of a van in Essex, UK. They’d suffocated. In this fascinating and at times haunting podcast, Nga Pham talks to Vietnamese undeterred by the 2019 tragedy and still desperate to leave.

She also looks at the complexities, the slippery slope to realising you’re being trafficked, the slavery, the nail salons, right through to the deportation—when the victim is caught and sent back with nothing to show after years of slave labour.

At Seng Kee, Kuala Lumpur. Yes, I ate all of it. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

See you next week!

So that’s the wrap. I hope you are all in good health and weathering Covid19 as well as possible.

See you next week,