Travelfish #425: Falling off the couch

Campuccino + Couchsurfing + Elephants in a jar + Madness in Malaysia + Singapore sand & more

Hi all,

So this week I’ve got an inside story on what did (or didn’t) happen at Couchsurfing.

There’s also elephants in jars (no, not literally), more on eco-tourism in Cambodia, the brutalising of tuna fishers, dishes to stuff face with in Laos, madness in Malaysia, sand in Singapore, a fishy tale with a Thai angle, and a look at why there are solo babies flying to Vietnam. 

This week’s photos are from Cambodia as is the featured newsletter—Darathtey Din’s Campuccino—please do sign up.

Please feel free to share this newsletter with all and sundry, and suggestions, as always are appreciated.



I miss you Kampot. Photo: Nicky Sullivan

Newsletter of the week: Campuccino

Sometimes the best things are worth waiting for, and so it is with Campuccino—a fortnightly newsletter looking at all things Cambodian by Darathtey Din. Fortnightly? Yes, only once every two weeks! 

Subscribe to Campuccino

Despite the long waits, each issue is worth the wait—particularly if you have an interest in Cambodia. There are current events and news, but also often interesting stories you may not otherwise come across—like this discussion between Khmer artists about their connections to nature and architecture, or this piece, regarding sand mining in Cambodia (which ties in with this week’s Singapore story).

The newsletter is free and the next issue is out sometime today, so sign up quick!

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 are 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, September 20, 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. If you have any queries or suggestions about how the chart could be improved, please drop her a line via the Pear Anderson website here.

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

⭐️ The big read: The rise and fall of Couchsurfing

By Andrew Fedorov in Input on September 15, 2021

If you were ever a Couchsurfer and wondered what happened, this long read by Andrew Fedorov should answer most of your questions. It is an interesting blow-by-blow account of the transition of the site from its earliest days through to where it is now. As the funding came in, things changed, and not in a manner that appealed to many of the people who got it off the ground in the first place.

There was a massive spike in users on the site under Espinoza, but because they’d been attracted in part by an advertising push and there was an easier onboarding process, they were less committed and slower to adapt to the pay-it-forward spirit of Couchsurfing. Suddenly, there were a ton of people who were active surfers and relatively few who were actively hosting. So it started taking surfers longer to find hosts

🇲🇲 Burma: Elephants in jars

By Bertie Alexander in Mekong Review in February 2021

The Mekong Review is always a reliable read for something a little different, and this story by Bertie Alexander of Sampan Travel, ticks that box. Sometimes it feels like Burma is stuck in this cycle dominated by wars and juntas, and Bertie’s conversation with MiSuu shows how the cycle can do a loop in a single lifetime. There is hope though. 

In a country as wracked by ethnic conflict as Myanmar is, the education system comes as close to a silver bullet as anything else in the quest for national reconciliation. I ask MiSuu how her promotion of Inthar heritage plays into the ethnic tensions that continue to plague the country. In her answer, she takes me back to her time in France, where a celebration of one’s culture doesn’t come at the expense of other cultures.

‘Those days in Europe made me understand about inclusivity and diversity. The French put those seeds in me. Protect by promoting. And if you don’t practice it, it will be lost. It is a life. You cannot hang it on the wall like a painting.’

🇰🇭 Cambodia: Emphasis will be on eco-tourism

By Marissa Carruthers in The South China Morning Post on September 20, 2021

Yes I know, last week’s story was on Chi Phat too, but this is more recent—out today actually! It is good to see Chi Phat, running since 2007, getting some column inches along with the fancy pants projects that have been getting so much of the limelight. It also has some good comments in it from Nick Ray—someone who knows a thing or two about Cambodia. I guess the one frustrating thing is while the World Bank is throwing US$54m at this scheme, it would be better if they stopped supporting dam projects.

“Before the CBET was established, people were suffering from intense poverty, with malnutrition, no access to education and families were too indebted to take relatives to the hospital,” says On Sovann, a former poacher who became involved with the project in 2008 and is now its chief. “Money lenders were involved in illegal trade of timber and wildlife, and many locals were hunters and loggers.”

Since 2007, 337 families have been employed and given a helping hand to develop eco-lodges and homestays, jungle treks, boat and mountain biking tours and other activities by the CBET. Local farmers have stopped slash-and-burn practices in the forest.

🇮🇩 Indonesia: How a Chinese tuna juggernaut crushed its Indonesian workers

By Mongabay and Tansa and The Environmental Reporting Collective in Mongabay on September 13, 2021

It seems like barely a year goes past without another report of slavery on the high seas, and this very long read by Mongabay is worth your time. It is a staggering read.

They usually caught 15-20 tuna per day, weighing around 30-40 kilograms (66-88 pounds) each, but if they encountered a school of tuna, as happened a few times a month, the captain pushed them harder, making them work for up to 30 hours straight. At such times, when they could land 50 tuna a day, the captain would have them cut the mainline in two so that setting and hauling could proceed simultaneously. Sometimes he’d toss candies down at them from the boat’s upper level as they toiled below. “The captain was like a pharaoh, and we were his slaves,” Rizky said.

🇱🇦 Laos: Essential noodle dishes

By Austin Bush in Saveur on July 13, 2019

News broke the other day that the Lao capital was going into a hard lockdown due to Covid19, so what better time than now to concentrate on reading about Lao noodle dishes? Austin covers eight here—good luck not salivating.

In particular, noodle dishes in Laos are served with an almost comical abundance of condiments—from overflowing baskets of herbs and vegetables to multiple bottles and caddies of seasonings—and the Lao people use them all, spiking their bowls with mint leaves, a squeeze of lime, a splash of fish sauce, a spoonful of dried chile powder, a dash of MSG, and a dollop of shrimp paste. Even if you don’t speak the language, it’s easy to see that the Lao people are serious about flavor.

🇲🇾 Malaysia: Proposed ski slope in scenic Malaysia highlands alarms locals

By Ashley Yeongin Southeast Asia Globe on June 11, 2020

I’m no great fan of Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands—the woods are pretty and make for some pretty walking, but the town towns that most venture forth from are armpits. Ok, perhaps not Sihanoukville-grade armpits, but I could happily never step foot in either again. Many disagree. Regardless of my personal opinion, the plans to build a ski slope there are batshit crazy. Not only a ski slope of over a kilometre long, but the project would also include five European-style villages—I mean who doesn’t expect to see a Bavarian village in the middle of a Malaysian forest? Not surprisingly, the Malaysian Ministry of Tourism think it is a great idea—a literal “breath of fresh air” writes Ashley Yeong for Southeast Asia Globe. I’d rather hold my breath,

If the resort is approved, the atmosphere would be altered to include the ski slope and five accompanying European-style villages – featuring Iberian, British, Balkan, Nordic and Alpine themes – on a private stretch of land owned by real estate company Hektar Muda Sdn Bhd.

🇸🇬 Singapore: Singapore’s growth built on the brutal extraction of Cambodian sand

By Robert John and William Jamieson in Failed Architecture on March 3, 2020

A few years ago I was at a homestay in Vietnam’s Long Xuyen province and the homestay owner took me to the river and pointed to a barge dredging sand. “It’s going to Singapore,” she told me. The island-state continues to grow (25% of its current land area is reclaimed) and if you’ve ever wondered where the sand comes from, read this story. The authors detail how Singapore’s need for firm foundations have destroyed the foundations of entire communities elsewhere in the region.

Over the last ten years, at least 80 million tonnes of sand have made their way from Cambodia to Singapore. Bearing the brunt of the mining operations was the fishing village of Koh Sralao, where extraction was wanton, often occurring without environmental impact assessments, in contravention of existing regulation. The dredging caused a steep decline in fish, crab and shrimp catches; fishing communities could expect to bring in 150 kilograms per day before, which was subsequently reduced to 10 kilograms a day. Unable to make a living from fishing, more villagers sank into debt, funded either from other members of the community or from micro-finance loans from the bank, to pay for daily supplies and equipment. As a result, 25 per cent of the population left the village to find work elsewhere.

🇹🇭 Thailand: The 1,000-year secret that made Betta Fish beautiful $

By Annie Roth in The New York Times on May 14, 2021

People just can’t leave nature alone. I had always assumed that Siamese Fighting Fish were so coloured because that is how they are—not because that was what they were turned into. This story details how, much like breeding a boutique dog, fighting fish have been being domesticated and “fine-tuned” for at least 1,000 years. Pretty pictures of the fishies too.

By the end of the 19th century, breeders began focusing on creating ornamental varieties of the fish, which had become extremely popular in the West. “This history has shaped the ornamental bettas we see today — a really beautiful fish with a temper,” she said.

🇻🇳 Vietnam: Inside the international flights filled with solo babies

By Soraya Kishtwari in The Daily Beast on December 20, 2020

I had to file this excellent long read under the “things I never knew existed” file. When Vietnamese leave their country to work abroad, some are doing so undocumented. When workers’ stays are prolonged, they fall in love and have children, often the babies are sent back to Vietnam, for the grandparents to raise while the parents keep working—often in exploitative situations. A whole industry has appeared—of adults who agree to take responsibility for the child for the flight—for a fee. 

Of the families I spoke to, the parents all envisaged staying on in South Korea until their babies were at least of school-age. As a minimum, everyone said they wanted to be able to build themselves a house and set aside enough money to cover their children’s education, and a few also wanted to save enough funds to start a business once back in Vietnam. Most were unable to put an actual figure on these ambitions, but prompted for an answer, Tran and her family agreed they would need in the region of $80,000. If these calculations are correct, it’s difficult to imagine how the parents will make it back within the next decade, much less by the time their daughter reaches school age.

Wandering Wat Maha Leap, Kompong Cham. 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,