Travelfish #427: Cleaning up the mess

Mountains of waste + Inside the Renakse + Plant a fig + Singapore stealth coup + Eat Vietnam & more

Hi all,

So this week I’ve got a great two-pronged Aljazeera piece on the mountains of waste Covid is leaving behind.

There’s also more bad news out of Burma, an interesting tale about a fall-down Cambodian hotel, some Indonesian ghosts, a railway trap in Laos, figging your way out of a crisis in Malaysia, a Singapore-style coup, more Thai island dreaming, and a piece of Vietnamese food that will have you dashing out for a bowl of pho as I did this morning.

Over on the free-to-read section of Couchfish, I started off suggesting travel publishers need to ask the right questions, and finished with a look at enough greenwashing to choke a dolphin.

This week’s photos are from Malaysia as is the featured newsletter from Emily Ding.

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



PS: No Covid summary this week as Hannah is taking a well-earned break. Back in November.

I don’t care what is in the bowl. Bring it to me now. Penang. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Newsletter of the week: The Great Affair

How to describe Emily Ding’s newsletter The Great Affair? I forgot to have lunch yesterday so I’m going to go with food—it is my nasi campur of newsletters. There’s a bit of everything and depending on my mood this or that will be delicious. The newsletter is about having a sense of place and storytelling, but there’s something else to it. There’s an occasional guest piece, like this one from my friend Kate Walton on getting deported from Indonesia, while others, like this, are a glad bag of stuff worth reading—and where I found this great piece on note-taking (something I’m doing a lot of nowadays).

Subscribe to The Great Affair

But everyone likes a different bit of nasi campur, and all eat it in a different order. I don’t know about you, but I always leave the rendang for last. So sign up and see what tickles your fancy—unlike nasi campur, a subscription is free, though there is a paid flavour too.

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

⭐️ The big read: Indonesia’s pandemic-fuelled problem: Mounds of medical waste

By Adi Renaldi in Aljazeera on September 21, 2021

The other day I was looking at vaccine statistics in Indonesia (I mean, what other way is there to pass the day?) and I noted the nation had reached 44% for first vaccination and 25% fully vaccinated. That in itself is pretty spectacular when you consider the numbers involved. Then it hit me, those percentages equate to around 150 million used syringes. Where do they all go? This story looks particularly at the situation in Indonesia—it is not good. There is a video to go with this story, which also looks at Cambodia. Well worth a watch.

He says, “Fifty percent of the urban population are wearing disposable masks. It’s a big number. Indonesia has 270 million people and if half of them are wearing disposable masks, we would have 130 million. And if they change masks every day … we tried to calculate it and found that it produces more than 100 tonnes of disposable masks waste per day.”

🇲🇲 Burma: Tortured, executed, shot: a junta’s way of death in post-coup Myanmar $

By Min Ye Kyaw in South China Morning Post on October 2, 2021

Burma is going nowhere good—fast.

Another expert, Yanghee Lee, said the tactics bore resemblance to the genocidal atrocities committed against the country’s Rohingya minority in 2017. Said Lee: “If you juxtapose the pictures of recent massacres with those of 2017 in northern Rakhine, you cannot see any difference. No one has been held to account for those terrible crimes, and now people are being massacred and villages burned up and down the country.”

🇰🇭 Cambodia: Inside the decrepit Hotel Renakse

By Alistair McCready in Southeast Asia Globe on June 4, 2021

If I had to pick one building in Phnom Penh as a metaphor for the city, the crumbling Renakse would be near the top of my list. As Alastair McCready points out in this interesting read in Southeast Asia Globe, aside from slowly falling apart, the hotel did play a role in other more important events in Cambodia’s recent history.

McDowell talks of a small community of journalists in Phnom Penh then, centred around the Foreign Correspondents Club on the riverside. But as the newcomers in town, the Daily found itself the younger brother to the more established Post, and a sibling rivalry between the two newspapers quickly arose.

🇮🇩 Indonesia: Indonesia still hasn’t escaped Suharto’s genocidal legacy

By Michael G. Vann in Jacobin on September 29, 2021

Indonesia: It is complicated. It’s a challenge to wrap a country’s history in one story, even one as young as Indonesia, but this long read in Jacobin gives it a decent go. Look past the ghost trope, and it makes for an interesting read. The recurring heavy metal theme which I didn’t realise was quite so widespread was great—that Jokowi gave back the Metallica guitar but paid for the boxed set is an absolute classic.

The anti-PKI media campaign was so well coordinated and so detailed that it left many people speculating that it may have been prepared in advance, possibly with guidance from some sort of centralized intelligence agency.


On the beautiful tourist island of Bali, the TNI and its local allies killed some five percent of the population. The bodies of many Balinese victims were purposely desecrated to achieve a profound cultural impact. Rumors persist that several high-end beach resorts are built on the bones of Suharto’s victims. Of course, all mass graves are home to angry ghosts.

🇱🇦 Laos: Belt and Road starts and stops in China’s backyard

By Bertil Lintner in Asia Times on October 3, 2021

Much has been written about China’s infrastructure investments in Laos and the very real risks of a debt trap lying in wait at the end of the line. The numbers in this piece by Bertil Lintner are mind-boggling. In one of Southeast Asia’s most mountainous regions, they’ve built 75 tunnels, 165 bridges and 20 stations.

Unable to make repayments in hard currency, Laos has already turned to repaying loans to China through debt to equity swaps. In September last year, Vientiane ceded majority control of the debt-ridden state utility Électricité du Laos to China Southern Power Grid Co to cover debts owed. Reports noted at the time that means Laos’ national power grid is now de facto controlled by a state-owned Chinese company.

🇲🇾 Malaysia: How planting fig trees could make Sabah Asia’s top wildlife tourism destination and help restore its forests $

By Marco Ferrarese in South China Morning Post on September 12, 2021

Reading the South China Morning Post is such a god-awful experience—it is as if their web designers hate the readers, or just want them to feel like they’re chewing on broken glass while trying to read a story. It is though worth persevering to read this interesting piece by Marco Ferrarese on some environmental endeavours in Borneo. Now they just need to roll similar projects out across the country.

Their example should encourage authorities in other parts of Borneo, tropical Asia and the wider world to rethink their reforestation strategies, for it only takes the right type of tree to both ensure the satisfaction of future visitors and reap ecological and economic benefits.

🇸🇬 Singapore: Shanmugam’s stealth coup in Singapore

By Thum Ping Tjin in New Naratif on September 29, 2021

I’ve long thought the creeping authoritarianism of Singapore gets a pass from a fawning travel press, one of the reasons I was so keen to have Kirsten Han write our long read on the joint last year. It is time to stop writing about that bloody waterfall at Changi and start blasting them over this nonsense. New Naratif’s PJ Thum has had more than his fair share of hassles from the State and he pulls no punches in this excellent piece on New Naratif.

Ultimately, Shanmugam would not even need to abuse FICA. Just the threat of this law being used to dig into your personal life would stifle media activity and political activism. No one, including his cabinet colleagues, would oppose Shanmugam, allowing him to claim that there was no opposition to the law and no criticism of the PAP government. These powers effectively turn Shanmugam into a behind-the-scenes dictator, able to stick a finger into any pie, look into anyone’s affairs and freely threaten anyone with complete impunity.

🇹🇭 Thailand: A spin through the beaches, farms, viewpoints and villages $

By David Luekens in Thai Island Times on October 2, 2021

I featured David’s newsletter a few weeks ago and at the time noted he was making some of his posts for paying subscribers only, so, if you’re a fan, I hope you signed up, as this is a good one, with lots of beautiful photos. In part one he looked at Thailand’s Ko Sukorn, taking a look at its history and folklore (it is free to read here). In part two, he explores the island—it is beautiful in an understated way. I laughed out loud when I read the following (and for the record, while David may walk and cycle the loop in this piece—I definitely recommend a scooter!):

An Australian traveler squeaks her own bike to a stop when she happens to ride by at the exact moment that I emerge out of the rubber trees and rejoin the sealed lane. As it turns out, she opted to cycle after reading one of my first-ever blog posts for Travelfish. My travel-writer pride is swiftly negated by the realization that Travelfish is pretty much the only publisher that covers Ko Sukorn at all.

🇻🇳 Vietnam: The rest has to be eaten...

By Connla Stokes in A story from Connla on October 1, 2021

I briefly met Connla a few years ago in a Ho Chi Minh City expat bar cum cafe that most definitely didn’t serve the type of grub he is writing about here. This piece makes me miss Saigon so bad. Originally published in the Mekong Review.

Because, it’s not just the food, or even the context, that makes us love Vietnamese food. It’s the informality of it, the commensal spirit of the place. Even if you are on your own, you’re never alone; it’s knowing the ‘owners’ are never not there.

Diet starts tomorrow. Kuantan. 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,