Travelfish #426: Art worth nicking

Letters from Bangkok + Looting + A long Lao walk + UNESCO mess + Cats to pat & more

Hi all,

So this week I’ve got a great piece on one of my favourite topics—looting.

There’s also a fascinating podcast featuring Ma Thida, an explainer on why Angkor was never “lost”, a profile on a gig worker in Java, a tale from a very long walk in Laos, a UNESCO mess in Malaysia, cats to pat in Singapore, some eating in Phuket Town and some wonderful photos from the far north of Vietnam.

Today is World Tourism Day. I don’t know what that actually means in real life, but, well, happy World Tourism Day to you all.

This week’s photos are from Bangkok as is the featured newsletter. Prolific Thailand-based writer and traveller, Richard Barrow has a brand spanking new newsletter.

Over on free-to-read Couchfish, you may enjoy my piece on the destruction of Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree. RIP.

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



Night night Bangkok. From Loy La Long. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Newsletter of the week: Letters from Thailand

When it comes to Thailand, I don’t know anyone quite as prolific as Richard Barrow. I mean the man has to have 68 million different Twitter accounts (though this is the main one, I think) and I have no idea how he keeps up with the commentary on his Facebook page. It is exhausting just to read the comments—forget about trying to answer them!

Subscribe to Letters from Thailand

But he has the followers for a reason, if it is happening in Thailand, chances are he is covering it ... somewhere. There’s also plenty of travel material. He recently launched a weekly newsletter, it is kind of a wrap on some highlights of the week, plus reader competitions and more. Best of all, it is free.

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 26, 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: A history of looting in Southeast Asia

By Max Crosbie-Jones in ArtReview on September 14, 2021

On Couchfish I’ve written a few times on the challenges of looting in Southeast Asia, and this story, by Max Crosbie-Jones, was a satisfying read. He covers a couple of the great scoundrels, including Malraux and Latchford, and I loved the plates in the story depicting colonialists packing priceless relics and floating them down the river on bamboo rafts!

Meanwhile, with the trade in large relics generally stemmed, online sellers are now prioritising smaller, cheaper antiquities that are both easier to ship and easier to loot. This trend is particularly concerning given that, as Mackenzie told the UNESCO conference, ‘the amount of archaeological damage or harm caused [by looting] isn’t necessarily reflected in the value of the object stolen’.

🇲🇲 Burma: You are not alone - Ma Thida prisoner of conscience

By Ma Thida in ABC Earshot on September 27, 2021

I’m a big fan of the ABC’s Earshot programme presented by Miyuki Jokiranta (and also its sister show Conversations presented by Richard Fidler and Sarah Kanowski). If you’re a podcast listener, both shows are well worth a listen. This week Earshot had Ma Thida talking about her time in prison after the 1988 uprising. Spellbinding stuff.

Ma Thida is a major figure in the struggle for democracy in Myanmar.  A surgeon and writer she was initially happy to go to prison to gain experience to write a prison memoir.  However after years in solitary confinement it was only mindfulness meditation and books she had smuggled into jail that got her through.  She speaks to Earshot for this special series marking the anniversary of PEN International from an undisclosed location she has fled to after the February coup in Myanmar.

🇰🇭 Cambodia: Angkor was never a “lost city”

By Alison Carter in Alison in Cambodia on September 23, 2021

There’s no shortage of tropes in travel writing on Southeast Asia, and I’m sure I’m responsible for more than my fair share over the years, but this one, on Angkor being “lost” is, well, about as big as Angkor. Step by step, Dr Alison Carter explains why Angkor was never a lost city with plenty of links off to further reading. These kinds of pieces are getting longer legs nowadays thanks in part to people looking at travel writing with a more critical eye, so more like this, please. Now please excuse me while I go search Travelfish to make sure I never called it a lost city!

To call a place lost then is to downplay local indigenous knowledge in favor of elevating Western awareness as the only knowledge that is valid. Going hand-in-hand with this is the colonial agenda. Colonial powers frequently framed these once great ancient cities as having been forgotten or abandoned in order to highlight how the contemporary population had somehow lost its greatness and needed the civilizing colonial power to guide them into the modern era.

🇮🇩 Indonesia: The global gig workers

By Adi Renaldi in Rest of World on September 21, 2021

This is the Indonesia section of a series Rest of World produced looking at gig workers in Columbia, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, South Africa, South Korea and Sri Lanka. It tells the story of Apriansa, a 36-year-old truck driver from Bekasi in West Java. The gig economy is sexy like no other in Indonesia, with the founders receiving no shortage of fawning press while they make money by the truckload. For the people driving the trucks though, as in many countries, the business model is exploitative in the extreme.

At first, the pay was good. But as more trucking apps have come into the market, my income has fallen. More app competitors means there’s an ongoing price war, and it’s no secret that the fares have gotten lower and lower. The rate when I started was around 4,000 rupiah per kilometer. Now it’s only half that.

🇱🇦 Laos: Going for a walk

By Lao Bumpkin in Blogspot on December 19, 2006

I came across this very old piece by Travelfish member Lao Bumpkin while I was procrastinating the other day. It details a bit of a wander in the woods finishing up at Xieng Kok. While he mentions some villagers mentioning “tou-ah” groups, this is the untrodden by foreigners path and makes for a very interesting read. I wonder how much—if at all—things have changed.

Most of the people of the household stayed home and talked about things with the mom seeming to lead the discussion. The headman sat furthest from the fire and seldom took part as his thoughts seemed elsewhere. A lot of responsibility making decisions that affect the very lives of the over 200 people that you have known all your life. Even if mortality rates are only normal that’s four deaths per year at 2%. I saw posters from the government on safe methods for drinking water, and waste disposal, as well as mosquito nets in every house. The headman told me that currently there was no malaria in the village.

🇲🇾 Malaysia: A Malaysian quagmire

By Anon in Travelfish on November 1, 2020

This story was one of the Travelfish long reads published last year (there are more on the way), looking at the state of a UNESCO Heritage site in Malaysia. People think that a heritage listing brings with it prosperity and protection, but sadly it doesn’t always work out that way. This story is paywalled, but the links here will let you jump through.

Adrian is offering his expertise to help the local council by creating a one-stop tourism portal including a database of local tour operators and homestays. He also plans to set up a ride-hailing service to connect local drivers to domestic and foreign tourists. “But even collecting details is hard because the locals are slow or don’t want to work together,” he explains. “People can get jealous if anyone does better, and the pie is so small that every tourist dollar is so valuable to any of them.”

🇸🇬 Singapore: Providing comfort and companionship

By Kirsten Han in Southeast Asia Globe on May 28, 2018

Despite me being allergic to cats, we have, I think, 68 living in our house, and I could identify with this story from 2018. Sure I could just stop looking at Facebook to bring down the stress levels, but, when you have 68 cats on hand it is easier to grab one for a pat. This is a feel-good piece about how our furry friends can bring a little bit more joy to people’s lives—and who couldn’t do with a bit more of that in these times?

For 80-year-old Mainam Binte Mahmood, the therapy cats trigger memories of a time long gone. “I’m happy because it reminds me of the old days when I had cats in the kampong,” she says in Malay, referring to the days of her youth, when Singapore still had village communities where cats roamed with abandon. “[It makes me] reminisce about the time when I would boil fish for the community cats.”

🇹🇭 Thailand: A vibrant feast for all the senses

By Mark Burton in Thai Spicy on September 5, 2021

I’ve been to Phuket a bunch of times over the years, and on a whole, it never really struck a chord. While some of the far northern beaches appeal, the more mainstay ones, not so much. Phuket Town on the other hand is much more to my liking. The Straits eclectic shophouses, the food, the narrow lanes and pokey hole in the walls. There’s a lot to love in that town. So I enjoyed this piece on Thai Spicy—one of the better pieces to emerge from all the coverage as Phuket staggered through its bubble trouble.

What emerged from that grill and from the curry pots out back was, for me, a little slice of heaven. Two rotis per head, crisp-fried and then artfully smashed to smithereens, alongside unctuous curries for dipping, plus the obligatory sweet Thai tea or Olieng black iced coffee.

🇻🇳 Vietnam: Daily moments across Vietnam’s northern highlands

By Nguyen Huu Thong in Vietnam Express on September 26, 2021

I couldn’t find any social media presence or personal site for the photographer Nguyen Huu Thong, so I’m not sure if it is a pseudonym, but regardless these pics are well worth a look. The first and the second to last were my favourites—yes of course they involve food. Snow in Vietnam—yes it happens!

People in Dong Van Plateau always suffer water scarcity from October to March every year. Each family has one to two people in charge of collecting water, most of whom are women and children. Every day they spend two to four hours getting clean water for daily use, which greatly affects children's class time.

Bar-hopping in Chinatown. 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,