Travelfish #428: The case for staying put

Kill the travel bug + An undammed river + Cambodia land grab + An enormous bird & more

Hi all,

So this week I’ve got a lead on a piece that asks why are people still travelling?

There’s also a piece on Burma’s Salween River, yet more bad news out of Cambodia, and an appalling story about mistreated elephants in Indonesia. Then there’s a great story on a positive outcome in Laos, an enormous bird in Malaysia, some musing on old buildings in Singapore, more Thai national park problems and comics doing good work in Vietnam.

Over on the free-to-read section of Couchfish, I look at yet another case of “high-value tourists” and the threat of artificial intelligence (I’m being generous here) towards local tour guides.

This week’s photos are from Vietnam as is the featured newsletter from Mike Tatarski.

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.

Royal tombing near Hue. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Newsletter of the week: Vietnam Weekly

I’ve plugged Mike Tatarski’s Vietnam Weekly in the past—and for good reason. If you’ve got an interest in Vietnam (or love emails that finish with a dog photo), Mike is your man. He’s been covering the Covid situation there, (focused on Ho Chi Minh City) in admirable detail, but he also writes about other stuff too—really!

Subscribe to Vietnam Weekly

The newsletter comes in both free and paid flavours, so if you’re not already receiving it, give it a go and see what you think. It’s my first stop for coverage out of the country.

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

⭐️ The big read: Kill the travel bug: The case for staying put

By Lucy Ellmann in The Walrus on October 4, 2021

I think it is fair to say the author is not a huge fan of flying, and there are some points I agree with in this piece—others, not so much. Worth a read though!

My beef is with frivolous travel of the selfish kind, the act of inflicting yourself, uninvited, on other cultures, this constant movement to and fro of the chronically rich, with their taster menus of destinations to which they’re attracted purely due to their own lack of direction, humility, and self-knowledge.

🇲🇲 Burma: Indigenous understanding of Salween River key for biodiversity

By Saw John Bright in The Third Pole on October 11, 2021

Many words get written about rivers with dams—there’s no shortage of them after all. One of the interesting things about this piece is it is all about a river with no dams—for now. To be honest, I assumed a river as grand as the Salween would already be dammed, but it is in fact yet to be dammed—or damned—but perhaps not for much longer. Give this story a read for some insight into the people who live along it and their social and religious beliefs that are so interwoven with it.

In the Karen context, Lu Htee Hta is one of the most important ceremonies performed as part of our relationship with the water, a ‘founders’ ritual’ which “maintains a social contract with the more-than-human owners of the water and land”. If the next generation is not able to conduct these rituals, the social contract will be broken. Without the continuous interactions between animals, humans, and non-humans in the Salween basin, Indigenous knowledge will cease, and with it practices that have sustained the rich biodiversity we see today.

🇰🇭 Cambodia: The great Koh Kong land rush

By Gerald Flynn in Mongabay on October 7, 2021

Sometimes it is worth getting tangled in the weeds, and this story, looking at what sounds like a well dodgy lot of land speculation going on in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province, does it well. Plenty of interesting quotes from Khmer people living in the area, that point not only to yet another pit of corruption in the capital, but also how they have been so baldy let down by their leaders. A long read—but worth your time.

Now, with Sub-decree No. 30 seemingly turning formerly protected areas of Koh Kong into the subject of a bidding war, connections remain key — not only for locals seeking to retain control over their land, but for investors looking to profit from the delisting of some 127,000 hectares of protected land.

“Before, I could get $1,500 to $3,000 per hectare, but now it has increased to $20,000 per hectare. It got more valuable because it’s next to the main road that they have just built,” said Samnang, who lives in Chroy Pros commune and requested his full name not be published. “Some people could sell at $30,000 or $40,000 per hectare now and it’s the commune chief who coordinates the sales.”

🇮🇩 Indonesia: Bali elephants left to starve

By staff writer in Al Jazeera on October 7, 2021

This story has all the ingredients for a shit-sandwich of tourism gone wrong. Elephants (which are not native to Bali) in a crappy safari park just outside Ubud were milked for all they were worth, then abandoned when Covid hit and the owner “couldn’t afford” to feed them. That would be the same owner who was charging US$230 for a half-hour elephant ride in better times. The elephants have now been relocated and are in better shape, but it highlights some of the awful practices continuing to take place in Bali (and elsewhere) as a part of the tourism trade.

Haas says all of these problems were created by demand from tourists for elephant rides: “That one ride, that one selfie, it means a life sentence for these animals and now that Covid has hit it’s even worse because no more money is coming in and some elephants are starving.”

🇱🇦 Laos: Meet the doctors who helped rock climbing take off in Laos

By Wesley Grover in National Geographic on June 10, 2019

Some days it seems like every tourism story has a bad angle to it, then you stumble across a story like this and everything feels better. A really encouraging piece about travel done right—in, of all places, Tha Khaek. A great read.

While their trips to Laos are focused more on the hospital and less on climbing these days, Volker sees immense potential for further development of the sport as the country looks to reshape its identity into an adventure tourism destination.

🇲🇾 Malaysia: An enormous bird has a real-estate problem

By Yao-Hua Law in The Atlantic on December 16, 2020

Hornbills are magnificent birds—there’s nothing like standing in the forest hearing them before you see them. As this great read says repeatedly, they’re enormous, and well, an enormous bird needs an enormous home, and that, sometimes, is a problem.

She applied to study veterinary science at university, but was instead offered a place in a conservation-biology program—her last choice. “I liked dogs and cats, not wildlife,” she told me. During her first year, upset about losing her dream career, Ravinder sat at the back of the class and was so miserable she lost weight. But when she took a class trip to the rain forests of Danum Valley in Sabah, she experienced the joys of studying wildlife: sleeping under starry skies and giant trees, following elephant trails, and listening to orangutans swing through the canopy. After graduation, she was hired by the Malaysian Nature Society, where she worked to conserve endemic butterflies and plants. When it came time for her to choose a new project, the leader of the society’s hornbill program invited her on a field trip, and Ravinder was intrigued by the unusual birds. “I didn’t pick hornbills,” she said. “They picked me.”

🇸🇬 Singapore: Is Singapore a dementia nation?

By Zachary Hourihane in Rice on October 11, 2021

Thought this was a really interesting story about some of Singapore’s older buildings, what is replacing them, and the complexities involved in preserving them. As the author asks, “what do we lose when we pulverise the past?”

The architect of Pearl Bank described his creation (and other modernist buildings, like Golden Mile Complex & Tower, and People’s Park Complex) as part of a “rich patina of social memories, which gives the city a sense of character and uniqueness that cannot be replicated elsewhere.”

Has the invasion of futuristic and formidable structures like Reflections, The Interlace, Marina Bay Sands, and Star Vista, reduced our capacity to admire the hallmarks from the past?

🇹🇭 Thailand: New World Heritage Site forest imperils Thai indigenous people

By Rina Chandran in Reuters on October 8, 2021

The showdown between residents whose traditional lands predated the gazetting of Kaeng Krachan National Park in Thailand have been at loggerheads with both the Thai government and the park authorities for decades. A contentious UNESCO listing earlier this year has not improved the people’s situation. Again environment, traditional lifestyles, and tourism intersect, and the results are not pretty.

“We are worried that if more tourists come, we will have even less land and that the river and the forest will be spoiled. We have a right to live in the forest - we are not here just for a photo opportunity or as a tourism attraction.”

🇻🇳 Vietnam: Drawing the disappearing

By Govi Snell in Southeast Asia Globe on October 4, 2021

Art meets emotion meets conservation meets education meets tourism. Comics and art turn some light on a bad trade with the hope that things will one day change.

Lê volunteered to draw murals of turtles on An Binh island during an event in 2017 held by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Vietnam is home to 25 species of turtle, two of which can’t be found anywhere else in the world. The effort sought to raise local and tourist awareness in protecting marine turtles.

Ever since Lê volunteered on the island, she has continued to centre her illustrations on the country’s critically endangered species and some, like the Javan rhino, which have already disappeared completely in Vietnam.

Lost. Again. Lai Chau, somewhere. 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,