Travelfish #429: Staying aloft is hard

Hard times for flying + Cleaning up Bali’s rivers + Lao drug tourism + Peranakan culture + Impunity in Thailand and more

Hi all,

So this week I’ve got a lead story on jet planes and climate and all that.

There’s also a piece on more tragic madness in Burma’s, a terrific piece on antique smuggling out of Cambodia, and a feel-good story about cleaning up the rivers in Bali. Then there’s a very old story on drug tourism in Laos, a death penalty case in Malaysia, an interesting story on Peranakan culture in Singapore, hi-so deadbeats getting away with murder in Thailand and an old story on places changes to try to please tourists, but not really pulling it off, in Vietnam.

Over on the free-to-read section of Couchfish, I’ve got a couple of Thailand focused pieces—one looking at some great places to go and then another which argues why you should skip the plane and take the train.

Also sticking with Thailand, David wades into the “quality tourist” debate.

This week’s photos are trains as I’m on a bender on that topic at the moment, and so it seems fair the featured newsletter is from James Clark, as it is all about trains.

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.

Between Da Nang and Hue on the train—gorgeous. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Newsletter of the week: Future Southeast Asia

I’ve known James Cark, the author of Future Southeast Asia, for years, but I have to say I didn’t realise he was quite so obsessed with trains and stuff. He describes it far more eloquently as “a guide to construction, infrastructure, urban design, heritage conservation, and transport in Southeast Asia”. It is, pretty much what it says on the can. He often links across to his main site, which has mind-bending pages like this one on Bali’s rail system ... do not hold your breath on that one!

Subscribe to Future Southeast Asia

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. If you know a train-spotter, take my word for it, you just found their Christmas present.

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: Inside the airline industry's meltdown

By Samanth Subramanian in The Guardian on September 29, 2020

This long read on the airline industry is just over a year old but is well worth a read. Not just for the challenges the airlines face, but also for how they are looking to “reinvent” themselves as the reality of their role in climate change firms up. It is easy to be cynical and say what they’re offering is a bandaid on gangrene, but it is becoming increasingly clear even the best of their planned improvements are simply going to take too long. Half the problem is, while many don’t need to, most people do simply want to keep flying—regardless of what might be due to the piper down the track.

Brandon Graver, a researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation, has seen that most of the money from offsets goes into administrative costs, not into actual projects. It’s even doubtful if these projects result in a permanent reduction of carbon, he said. “You hear, ‘Tree planting, tree planting, tree planting’, but only a certain percentage of these trees end up living past a year.” He called offsets “modern-day indulgences”. We pay for our sins to be forgiven, but also for the licence to sin again.

🇲🇲 Burma: Churches, clergy targeted by Myanmar military

By Nu Nu Lusan and Emily Fishbein in Al Jazeera on October 14, 2021

The situation in Burma (Myanmar) continues to deteriorate. This story looks at the dreadful situation facing the Christian minority within the country. As Seng Ja finishes the story saying: “We are in a living hell caused by this military junta and their mentality.”

The September 19 incident is one of at least 20 cases documented by human rights groups and the media, in which Christian churches, church leaders and volunteers have been targeted or caught in the crossfire of military attacks since a February 1 coup. The incidents include shelling churches, detaining pastors, and using churches as military bases.


It is among numerous ways that Kachin churches have been caught up in the post-coup crisis. On March 8, a Catholic nun in the Kachin State capital knelt in front of police and soldiers and begged them to show mercy towards a group of protesters who had gathered in front of her church; she also served as a first responder that day when security forces opened fire, killing two.

🇰🇭 Cambodia: The hunt for Cambodia’s looted heritage

By Malia Politzer, Peter Whoriskey, Delphine Reuter and Spencer Woodman in ICIJ on October 5, 2021

I know I’ve recently linked to quite a few excellent stories on the antique trade, but this long read is the best yet—a true show-stopper. Until the buyers, auction houses and museums start seeing the inside of cells, it is hard to see how anything will change.

The origin of antiquities in private collections can be even more of a black box. A 2008 Architectural Digest article included photos of more than a dozen Khmer statues displayed in an opulent Palm Beach, Fla., mansion owned at the time by billionaire George L. Lindemann who has since died.

Reporters showed the magazine photographs to a team of 12 art experts and archaeologists and others working with Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture. They said that six of the pieces, which they consider among Cambodia’s most important cultural treasures, were “definitely looted.”

In another photo, a larger-than-life figure gazes serenely over Lindemann’s dining room. According to experts, the piece is so significant that its empty pedestal is on display in Cambodia’s national museum. The Cambodian recovery team believes it is one of three statues still missing from the Mahabharata battle scene.

Lindemann’s widow and sons did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

🇮🇩 Indonesia: Solving Bali’s rivers of trash

By Theodora Sutcliffe in Hakai Magazine on October 12, 2021

Sungai Watch is a great example of something that probably started as a simple idea, realised just how complicated some of the problems were, and yet, with time and dedication, nailed it. What is super smart is how they work with local communities. Yes, this is about cleaning the rivers, and by extension, getting at least some of the crap (literally) off the beach, but far more importantly, this is an education scheme—and, like all education schemes, is looking farther ahead than this coming weekend at the beach. I love how the goal is to eventually have each community running the scheme instead of Sungai Watch. This may well take generations to get on top of, but this is a tremendous start.

At their headquarters, down a sleepy road surrounded by rice fields, not far from the surfing beaches of Canggu, Sungai Watch employees process around two tonnes of river trash each day. Beside a traditional Indonesian wooden joglo house, screeching angle grinders flood the air with sparks as men assemble trash barriers and women clean, sort, and audit plastic waste, some destined for resale to recyclers. Murky water churns in homemade machines that wash the river mud off plastic bags for resale. Organic material, which spans the gamut from driftwood, Hindu offerings, and green coconut shells to rotten produce from the markets, is processed into compost in neat piles and baskets.


But, even as he begins expanding his venture to Java, Bencheghib remains aware that hearts, minds, and habits take time to change. “Things go very slow here on Bali,” he says. “And that’s something that we tend to forget. In terms of changing mindsets, it’s not going to be one event, it’s going to be maybe 10 or 15 or 20 different events for that one person.”

🇱🇦 Laos: Exploring drug tourism across Southeast Asia

By Eve Turow in The Atlantic on March 7, 2012

Ok, this is very old story, and yes, even pre Covid19, Vang Vieng had been through a few incarnations and no longer resembled the Vang Vieng described in this story, but that isn’t to say this piece isn’t worth a read. While the story is about the drug scene and why some travellers become so preoccupied with getting high in Southeast Asia, it is about a lot more than that. It was also yet another lesson in the fickle nature of travel—how places change, slip out of favour with one demographic, only to be replaced by another, and again, and again, and again.

Hedonistic behavior while traveling is nothing new. It is the foundation of leisure tourism. Drugs, though, are providing a new frontier, extending the boundaries of pleasure-seeking vacations. Researcher Rob Shields refers to these leisure spaces as "liminal zones," where societal norms and values are suspended; activities generally viewed as deviant become acceptable by the surrounding population. Psychologist Erving Goffman called these environments "backspaces" or "action spaces," where travelers are encouraged to partake in adventurous behaviors. "Tourism is inexorably tied up in notions of freedom," Robert Caruana and Andrew Crane from the University of Nottingham and York University wrote in the Annals of Tourism Research. "The promise of 'getting away from it all' is predicated both on the desire to be free from the drudgery of everyday life, and the seductive possibility of freedom to engage in novel or forbidden behaviors."

🇲🇾 Malaysia: Single mother with nine children sentenced to death

By Koh Ewe in Vice on October 18, 2021

Not so much a long read as an enraging one (though if you want a very long read on the same topic, see this New Naratif story). A high court in Tawau, Sabah has sentenced Hairun Jalmani, a 55-year-old mother of nine to death by death by hanging on drugs charges. Malaysia’s drug rules, like neighbouring Singapore and Indonesia, are stone-age, ludicrous and abhorrent. As is often the case, the people who pay the ultimate price are the vulnerable.

A 2019 Amnesty International report found that many defendants of drug-related offences in Malaysia were denied access to fair trial. From tardy legal assistance—in many cases, defendants are left without legal aid during the interrogation process—to incompetent legal representation, various gaps in the legal processleave defendants unfairly vulnerable to a death sentence.

🇸🇬 Singapore: A gilded history lies hidden in plain sight

By Rachel Ng in National Geographic on October 8, 2021

This ties in (slightly) to last week’s piece on Singapore demolishing itself, in this case though, thankfully some of the madness was stopped. Why? In part due to tourism. Singapore was apparently drifting from the orientalist fantasy many foreign tourists adored. The story is about more than manufactured tourism though—give it a read and learn a bit about yes the pretty houses, but also the people, their food, and their Peranakan culture.

However, in the 1980s, a task force of preservationists and civic leaders raised concerns that by demolishing architecturally significant buildings like the historic shophouses, Singapore no longer reflected an “Asian identity;” a decrease in tourism was attributed to the fact that Singapore had “removed aspects of (its) Oriental mystique and charm.”

Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority, a development and conservation government branch, launched a program to preserve the colorful turn-of-the-century shophouses around Orchard Road and Emerald Hill Road. Built in Chinese Baroque style with decorative floral tiles and carved wooden shutters, these narrow two- to four-story structures held businesses on the first floor and residences on the upper ones.

🇹🇭 Thailand: Did the heir to the Red Bull empire get away with murder?

By Martha Mendoza in The Walrus on September 4, 2019

Short answer? Yes. While Vorayuth Yoovidhya killed motorcycle police office Sergeant Major Wichean Glanprasert way back in 2012, his family wealth and connections, off the back of the Red Bull empire, gave him impunity like only the Thai uber-wealthy get. All charges were dropped against him in July 2020.

Corruption is defined by the abuse of power for private gain. It erodes public trust and undermines institutions. In Thailand, many residents assume the wealthy elite can break the law with impunity. Over generations, people have grown used to giving mandatory “gifts” of cash to judges, police, and government officials in exchange for building and business permits, as well as favourable court decisions. They’ve watched as rich and influential families win lucrative contracts and avoid prosecutors.

Here’s who gets arrested in Thailand: citizens gathering for nonviolent protests to denounce the coup-installed junta government, bloggers posting social-media messages critical of the king, journalists carrying bulletproof vests and helmets for protection at riots that at times turn deadly.

🇻🇳 Vietnam: The tragic destiny of Lang Co Bay

By Etienne Bossot in Maptia (undated)

Sadly long in hiatus, the Maptia archives are still going strong and I liked the pics in this piece about how Lang Co Bay was changing. Another case of governments trying to improve on places that need no improvement—or none at least from a tourist’s perspective. The author has a more recent (and very long) piece on the state of play for travel photography.

Because of us, the noisy tourists who parked their van behind people’s houses without saying hello, they will run out of job. The local government thinks that tourists want a clean lagoon, and I do not know why. Everyone I have talked to actually come to Lang Co for its seafood, and the beauty of its wooden sticks coming out of the water. The little wooden shacks built on the water to keep their equipment, and the long boats that slowly cross the lagoon early morning.

Don’t make them like they used to. Chiang Mai. Photo: Mark Ord.

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,