Just because you’re on the couch doesn’t mean you can’t travel
Use either the map above or the stories below to read the Couchfish free to read posts. These cover a wide variety of topics, and I’ve tried to place them where most relevant.
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It was late November 1993 and I’d flown in from Kathmandu the previous evening. I’d swapped low-lit, dusty streets for a neon capital where everyone owned a motorbike. I was already in love with Bangkok.
Fresh from the tuk tuk scam that I wrote about last Friday, I wandered up and down Khao San Road aimlessly. Just past the old Nat Guesthouse, an Indian guy stepped out of a laneway, made hard eye contact with me and said:
Ko Samui has been on the mass tourism dance card for decades. It was the first Thai island I ever visited. I lazed away on what was then low-key Lamai Beach. Back then, a beachfront shack with a shared bathroom at Amity Bungalows cost 60 baht. Really. This was, by the way, just after the dinosaurs left the face of the earth (so yeah, 1993).
So says Captain Willard at a pivotal moment in Apocalypse Now. He and a crew member had got off their boat to look for mangoes and were almost attacked by a tiger for their efforts.
I wake up in Phnom Penh at a bit of a loose end. I’ve been busy ticking off the main sights for days and today I want something different. Still work, but more play ... what could be better than Kien Svay? Hey that rhymes!
With a couple of exceptions, the further east in Indonesia you go, the better it gets. One of the places out east that is closest to my heart is a blip of an island off the west coast of Alor called Kepa.
I’m in Mai Chau, a few hours west of Hanoi when I post a photo of lush rice fields in the valley on my Instagram account. The rain has eased, but the mist is still entangled with the peaks ringing the valley. It is lovely.
The “traveller fixer”. Many second–tier traveller towns in Cambodia used to have them. Mr Leng in Banlung and Mr T in Stung Treng were near legends on the traveller trail back in the day. Guys who could arrange anything—for a fee.
When you live in Indonesia’s most heaviest touristed destination, where is a decent diversion? If I’m happy to jump on a plane, Flores or Sumbawa are no brainers, but if I just want a weekend getaway bereft of crowds, where do I go? I go to Munduk (map link). And this is how I do it.
Phongsali is Laos’ northernmost province. Wedged between China’s soft belly and Vietnam’s northwest peaks. It is also where I escaped a robbery/murder attempt some years ago.
People say they remember where they were when they heard that Lady Di died, or the 9/11 attacks. Me? Yes, I have those, but I also remember when I first watched Jaws. I didn’t get in the ocean for about a year after that.
We’ve been lazing on Ko Libong for a few days when the kids ask, “Where’s next?” We’ve already been to see the dugongs, walked up and down the beach a bit and visited a nearby fishing village. They’re idle and looking for new distractions.
The official boat departure time from Monywa in Burma’s Sagaing Region was 4am (yes, ayem), so we got there at 3. A and I had spent the previous night exploring Monywa’s nightlife scene. As there was none (that we could find), 3am didn’t seem like a push.
When you’re on the ascent of Mount Kinabalu, it can seem like time stands still. That whole one step forward, two steps back thing. Your guide says there is just ten minutes to go, but you’re sure your watch says that was 18 minutes ago. Or 48 minutes ago. Time takes on a whole new meaning—and not in a good way.
Tim and I walk out of our guesthouse in Bac Kan, northern Vietnam. It is 7:30 am, early 1995, and we’ve spent the previous few weeks hitching Vietnam’s northwest. We’ve now turned to the far north and while parts of the northwest were challenging, the far north is moreso. We don’t really talk to each other much anymore.
If you’re killing time in Bangkok, Ko Samet to the east or Kanchanaburi to the west are the logical options. I say go west, break it with a night or two in Kanchanaburi, but then keep going—to Sangkhlaburi. Spitting distance from the Burmese border, it’s an ideal diversion from the Thai capital.
What am I doing writing about the Boxing Day Tsunami? In June? Good question. Having lived through one cataclysmic event you hope you won’t experience another, yet here we are. The events of December 26, 2004 have been on my mind for a while now—I don’t think they ever really left—and the more I’ve thought about it, the more I can see a parallel between it and Covid19.
Less diversion and more stopover, Labuan Pandan sits on the east coast of Lombok, a little north of the ferry to Sumbawa. A blink and you’ll miss it village, it boasts scenic black sand beaches and excellent offshore islanding. Perfect for small budget families.
Lembata resembles a flying dog in Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands. The island is home to a “traditional” whaling village on the south coast and Ile Api volcano on the north. It also has glorious beaches and that laid back vibe that makes Indonesia so great to travel in.
You know the story. You’re sitting around in some traveller cafe and you get chatting to another traveller who has met so and so who was working for so and so as a travel writer. The tales are often not complimentary. This story is a little different.
Most first–time visitors to Hue set up camp south of the Perfume River, crossing it only for the occasional bout of sightseeing. I suggest doing the opposite, making the Old City your diversion—don’t be surprised if you don’t cross the river at all.
Last year I was in Phnom Penh and needed to be in Siem Reap in a few days, but I had some loose time up my sleeve. So where to break the trip? I like my ruins, but didn’t want loads of people, and so Kompong Thom was the ideal choice.
When keen travellers have their first child, travelling changes somewhat. I’m a firm believer that having kids on this roller coaster of life delivers higher highs and lower lows. The same goes for travel.
I first met Ariel* in Prachuap Khiri Khan, a low key beachfront town on Thailand’s south coast. Robbed recently, he had lost everything and was helping out in a grimy guesthouse for food and board.
Fred*, an Australian media celebrity, and his wife were in Thailand to Do Good. They’d raised a significant amount of money down under and were here to disperse it to the “poor people of Thailand”. A mutual acquaintance in Bangkok had hired me as their guide.
I like to surf. I’m not very good at it, but I enjoy it. Actually, it is not so much the surfing as the sitting out the back, behind the break.
It is 2 am when Jones* shows up—he’s only two hours late. To Pete*, Matthew* and I, waiting at the less than salubrious nightclub at Bangkok’s Grace Hotel, those two hours feel like an eternity. Jones is drunk and short on apologies—both typical of him.
You’ve been baking on the beaches of Lombok’s Gili Islands for the last week or so and your next notch to mark off, is Komodo. There’s a problem though. Your guidebook says Sumbawa is kind of crap. So, you’re edging towards a backpacker boat to Flores instead.
At the time the road from Luang Nam Tha to Huay Xai in Laos was a scar in the earth. A long bauxite trail running southwest through towns and hamlets, you’d never read about. Vieng Phou Kha and Ban Donchai some how stick in my mind, but there were plenty of others.
Towards the end of last year, before the madness hit, I was in Cambodia for a spell on two Khmer islands. Personally, it was an extremely rough trip, but two beaches on two islands made the whole trip almost worthwhile.
The first time I went to Ko Tao in the Gulf of Thailand was in the early 1990s. It wasn’t a very successful visit. I didn’t dive at the time and was just looking for a quiet island. It turned out to be quieter than I planned.
Seems weird to have four thousand islands to choose from but pick from one of four. Ok, I am being unfair. Many of the other 3,996 are but low tide rocks with a tuft of grass. Still, it seems like a bunch of wasted real estate. So which of the four should you go for? I say Don Khon, the southern most of Laos’ inhabited 4,000 islands.
Sometimes a good diversion is a side–trip or a weekender, other times it is a way to break up a longer trip. Châu Đốc, just shy of the Vietnamese Cambodian border falls into the latter category.
We’ve all been there. A spectacular feat of traveller idiocy on Facebook or Twitter watched through half–closed fingers. Thinking no no no ... nooooooo what are you thinking?!
I met Kate * in Battambang, a city in Western Cambodia. She was, I guess, in her late forties, and had lived her life in Vancouver, Canada. We got talking at a breakfast cafe and shot the breeze about Battambang and what we liked and disliked. I asked her if she was travelling alone, and she said no she wasn’t alone—she was travelling with her daughter.
When you inspect hotels for a living, there are two grand truths. First, you’ll have the privilege to visit some amazing properties. Second, you’ll have the opportunity to see places that are memorable for the wrong reasons.
Every now and then in my travels I stumble upon a spot that is so perfect—for me—that I think I never want to leave. Then I meet the people behind it, people who manage to make the perfect even moreso, and I know I never want to leave.
It doesn’t matter if you’re travelling, or at home, everyone eats. If you’re at home, think about the meals you have had over the last few days. What does what you ate and drank say about you, your culture and the country you are living in?
Decades ago, I was in Thailand on one of my six month trips and two close Australian friends had joined me for a stretch. They’d never been to Southeast Asia and the whole joint kind of blew them away.
Malaysia’s Perhentian islands sit off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia. They’ve long been popular for offering some of the cheapest diving in Southeast Asia. There are two islands, Perhentian Besar (Big Perhentian) and Perhentian Kecil (Small Perhentian). The latter has a free–wheeling vibe, distinct from the conservative states onshore. And so it was I found myself there ramping up my dives under the guise of Travelfish research.
I’ve always been always baffled by the few international tourists Indonesia’s Java attracts. Of course there are few (if any), at the moment, thanks to Covid19, but even pre–plague there were few. While it is popular with Indonesians, foreigners are few and far between. Why?
I wrote a few days ago about a “single serving friend” and a reader got in touch asking what I meant. They wrote “I can’t decide if you’re being snarky or affectionate, can you tell me what you mean?”
I wrote ages ago about when I learned to dive on the Togean Islands in Sulawesi, Indonesia. It had taken me years to work up the courage to learn, and that first breath underwater had me sold. Barely two years later, I stopped for good.
What is it about rivers? The first time I set eyes on the Mekong was in Nong Khai, a provincial capital in Northeast Thailand. It was 1994 and the first bridge over the Mekong had just opened. From my riverside garden at Mutmee Guesthouse, I could look upriver and see it in the distance.
The other day on paid–for Couchfish I wrote, talking about Ho Chi Minh City, that it was a “great walking city”. Many did not agree. Later, I tweeted “What is the most interesting/unexpected thing you found walking in a foreign city?”
A few years ago, I was on a night ferry from Bali to Lombok. Depending on the weather conditions, the trip takes around four and a half hours. For much of the first half, Bali fades from view. For most of the second half, Lombok approaches. In both segments, as with the landmasses, a phone signal first fades, then rises.
This week, something new—a podcast! I chat with Indonesian food guru Arie Parikesit about how Indonesia offers a continent’s worth of eating. Please click on the play symbol above to listen!
A spoiler up front. Don’t panic, Nakhon Nowhere, in name anyway, doesn’t exist. Rather it is a play on a common prefix in Thailand for towns and provinces. In this case I mean an off–beat, less–visited spot. It doesn’t matter where you are in Southeast Asia, Nakhon Nowheres lie everywhere in plain sight.
A couple of years ago I was in Eastern Indonesia and I caught a ferry from Baranusa on Pantar to Lewoleba on Lembata. The trip is roughly 100 km and it took around ten hours or so. It was slow travel.
For years, no decades, I’ve hated Surat Thani. If you’re not familiar with the city, it is a southern Thai provincial capital often used as a gateway to the Gulf islands. I had a particularly unpleasant time there one trip years ago, which only served to cement my loathing of the place. It turns out though, I was doing it wrong.
I’ve been so wound up following the sad events in Burma that I’ve forgotten what I was going to write about today. So, I’m going to write about something fun—I need something upbeat goddam it! So, I’m going to write about a trip I did with my kids a little over a year ago. Yes, pre–Covid19—remember then?! I’m going to break it out over a series, a new one every Tuesday—there is plenty to write!
A few times a week, I try to get down to the beach to write. I love the ocean, and the sound of the surf helps me drown out everything else in my head. Our closest beach, Batu Belig, in South Bali, is five minutes away on a scooter.
People travel for all sorts of different reasons. Some love the beaches, others the jungles, others still the cities. Grab three island lovers, and you’ll probably get three different islands. With this in mind, before I started writing this piece, I asked the kids what they loved the most about Ko Kradan.
Across our few days on Ko Kradan, we spent our fair share of time watching the sinking sun’s rays garnish Ko Muk’s peaks. The island is famous for being home to the Emerald Cave, but has also long been the backpacker island of choice in the area. Both my wallet and I are keen to get there and a morning longtail is in order.
As I wrote last week, Ko Muk, in southwest Thailand, is best known for the “Emerald Cave”. If you turned your imagination towards a hidden pirate’s lair, you’d struggle to come up with a better image. Hidden away on the west coast of the island, approachable only by boat, the cave has hidden treasure written all over it. It is to the cave we’re heading today—but first we need a boat.
As you may be aware, over the last year and a bit, tourism—in just about all of its flavours—has collapsed. The heady days of overtourism put on hold (one hopes for good), chit chat has turned to what the scene will look like at the other end of the tunnel.
As I wrote the other week, Ko Muk’s main village backs onto a working beach lined with a gaggle of beach bars. The beach is no great chop, but the bars are a comfortable spot to while away the late afternoon and catch the sunset’s shadow. In the distance to the south, lies the rising hills of Ko Libong.
I’ve written before on how when I was living in Phnom Penh I needed to return to Bangkok once a month for a work meeting. I’d overland it via a hodge podge of share taxis, passing through Battambang and Pailin. From Pailin I’d cross into Thailand near Chanthaburi. I did the trip every month for a year or so—until the paper in Bangkok finally let me go.
As I mentioned last week, most of the resorts on Ko Libong are clustered around one beach on the island. Each has its own restaurant, but a walk along the beach took me to a ramshackle beach cafe/bar—Rimlay Restaurant.
Don’t fret, the end is within sight on this multi–part Thai island sojourn—just a few to go! Today we leave Ko Libong for the longtail trip south to Ko Sukorn. As I’ve written about Sukorn previously, today I’m going to write about where we broke the journey at—Ko Lao Liang.
The end is in sight my island–hopping friends! As I wrote last week, our next stop after Ko Lao Liang was Ko Sukorn, but as I’ve written about Sukorn here, I’m jumping south. To Ko Bulon Lae.
Alright so we’re trying something different this Friday on Couchfish. I’ve got in touch with with Nicky Sullivan, who wrote for quite a few years for Travelfish. She’s now in northern France at the moment and she’s going to be talking about a heart warming moment.
As I mentioned last week, Ko Bulon Lae in far southwest Thailand has long been a popular budget spot. This is particularly the case with travelling families, and this visit is no exception to the rule.
While all of our island hopping so far has been short hops from island to island, our last is a long jaunt north, to Ko Ngai. It is a last minute addition as I’m not keen on hitting Ko Lipe, and it will give us a convenient out back to Trang for the train to Bangkok.
So today I have a special podcast—a near hour–long chat with David Luekens—the founder of the best email newsletter on Thailand’s coast and islands, Thai Island Times. We talk about Covid in Thailand, sustainable tourism, David’s newsletter, and, of course, his pick of the crop.
In early February 1992, when I left Australia on what became a two year overseas trip, my first stop was Hawaii. My companion and I spent a couple of days being silly on Oahu, then took a short flight over to Maui. We were both keen windsurfers at the time, and Maui was one of the top spots for the sport.
It took me about fifteen years of living in Southeast Asia to cross the equator on the ground. Sure I’d flown over it numerous occasions heading to and from Sydney, Australia, but on the ground? Never. It wasn’t until I was returning from an uber–relaxing stint on the Togean Islands that I managed it.
At the height of my bad fashion sense, I bought a fake lapis necklace off a street vendor on Bangkok’s Khao San Road. I write “bad fashion sense” but at the time everyone wore fisherman pants, fake Birkenstocks and Hmong–print vests. Right? Oh.
Technology is all about making life easier right? I must confess today has not been a day made easier by technology. Fact. It started at 2 am with an email (thank you dear sender!) and my day has been careening downhill ever since.
There’s a beach bar a five minute bike ride from where I live and I head there most afternoons to write—I’m there now actually. I like it because it is right by the crashing ocean, but also because, even pre Covid, it was almost always empty. Save the staff of course, but half the time they’re not there either—I leave the money under a book on the bar when I leave.
A few years ago I helped out a group who were in Bali looking for something “different”. I bring on board a high caste local friend who is better versed and connected than I’ll ever be, and we explore.
The other day, referring to Thailand’s Ban Krut, I wrote “On a travel writer’s watch, somewhere like Ban Krut earns about four hours.” It earned me an incredulous email from a reader asking how could one hope to gain the nuance of a place in four hours.
I’m standing with Richard in knee–high grass looking across the water towards Adonara. There’s a long stretch of sandy beach and a beautiful shade tree set just back from the high water mark. His block runs a long way back up a gentle rise from the sea and he’s explaining what he wants to build.
Let me preface this by saying, while I’ve always thought the Phuket Sandbox was a flawed and premature concept, I did want to see it succeed. Through fault not entirely of its own though, Phuket’s sandpit is doomed.
It is four in the morning. We left the wooden bungalow doors open overnight, forgoing the chilly air–con in favour of the sea breeze. Outside it is still pitch, but the fishermen are already up and about, pushing their jukung into the sea. The jukung’s keels rumble over the rocks, waking me.
One side effect of Covid19 is it has brought out the inner statistician in pundits–a–plenty—yours truly included. This can be a good thing—numbers matter. They can provide often missing context and help educate readers. It helps though, if the numbers are correct.
On the northwest corner of Indonesia’s Sumbawa, a peninsula juts into the Alas Strait like a stray chicken leg. Along the leg’s east side, a narrow road runs up to Pelabuhan Pota Tano. From here car ferries shuttle back and forward, night and day, to Lombok.
Doom–scrolling through the Friday morning news isn’t a great way to finish the month—and what a shocker it has been. I thought 2021 was going to be better than 2020, not worse! To be honest, I’m not getting my hopes up about 2022 either—I’m on the 2023 train, and here’s why.
The north of Thailand has plenty to offer on the touring front, be it by scooter, car, or even bus. Often the first trip people try, and with good reason, is the Mae Hong Son loop. Starting and ending in the northern centre of Chiang Mai, you can cover it in as little as two days, or as long as two months. Here’s how you do it.
With all this staying at home and wondering when one will be able to jump on a plane again, I often find my mind straying. To the destinations yes, but moreso to the food. Here’s eight meals from eight countries I’d be making a beeline for.
The other day I gave a short talk to a travel organisation on lessons from Phuket’s Sandbox experiment. At one stage, I said short stay tourism will be the last segment to come back on stream. Today I’m going to expand on why this is an opportunity—not a cost, but it needs a change in governmental thinking.
Those who follow me on Twitter will know I now have a dog. A Bali dog, around four months old. Friends found her litter on a building site, they cleaned up the pups and housed them with friends. So it is that Skye Govinda came into our household.
First used way back when in 1682, the Oxford Dictionary of English defines knick-knack as “A small worthless object.” The dictionary is one hundred percent wrong on this. Knick-knacks are invaluable.
We were playing cards on a train from Tangier to Rabat in Morocco when the two local guys sat down. In no time they struck up a conversation with the five of us. Slipping between French and English, they joked and we all laughed.
Years ago, I was at the Jolly Frog Guesthouse in Thailand’s Kanchanaburi. The guesthouse was a backpacker haven. It had a lawn garden and rooms running around the edge with a few more down floating on the river. The lawn had hammocks strung and deckchairs scattered. The restaurant was cheapish and the beer cold. Many a stay was extended.
As it is about time to say goodbye to Thailand, I thought today I’d take a look at where we’ve been. Given this is a summary piece, I’m making this one free-to-read, as I have with any of the Couchfish posts I’ve linked to below. Enjoy!
Back when travel was still a thing, I had a sideline in travel consulting. People would pay me to help them plan out their holiday. They’d come to me with a date and a wish list and I’d help them fashion it into a trip that would hopefully be better than it would otherwise have been.
Dear reader, I’d like you to cast your mind back a few years—so 1993 to be exact. By chance, that year was the first time I visited Thailand, but that isn’t why I’m highlighting it. In that year the Environmental Conservation Section of the Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT) sent a memo to the government. The title was “An Outline of Problems and Remedies of Tourism Impact on the Environment”. It makes for a rather interesting read.
If you’ve ever seen a baby learning to walk, the phrase “baby steps” will need no explanation. The baby starts off crawling, then, with wobbling not in short supply, takes their first steps. Then, more often than not, falls flat on their face. They do get up though, and try again, and again. Eventually, they walk, then run, then dance. Well, some never quite manage the last bit. And so it is with travel in the age of Covid19.
So I found out yesterday that Lonely Planet has nuked their Thorn Tree forum. Wiped it off the face of the internet. Once easily the largest and most popular message board for independent travellers, it is a sad day. They locked the forum in April 2020 in the early days of Covid19, but most assumed it would re-open—alongside travel.
I’ve written before about how a silver lining to Covid19 is for destinations to rethink how they “do” tourism. When you think back to 2019’s travel headlines, there isn’t much better a candidate than Cambodia
The other day I came across a Travel & Leisure story titled “Top 10 Southeast Asia Resort Hotels”. If you’d like to read it, click here, then close both pop-ups, the autoplay video and the full-screen interstitial, and you should be set.
Is there a better time to introduce a tourism tax than as you’re staggering out of a once-in-a-lifetime Covid-induced hiatus? Those at the Tourism Authority of Thailand brains-trust think the answer is no.
A while ago I was in Phnom Penh and revisited Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge-period torture centre. I’ve visited a half a dozen times over the years, and if you’ve been there, chances are it is not something you’ll forget.
So with all this talk of Thailand sort of reopening come November, if you could go for a month, where would you go? I asked myself this question this morning, thinking it would be an easy post to write—turns out it wasn’t.
Planning fingers are itching. Countries are starting to sort of reopen, each in their own, very individual manner. Google Maps is getting opened, wish lists peeled open. Before you go any further, I have some advice: Take the train—not the plane. Here’s why.
When I was in my twenties I kicked around Spain for a bit, but I never made it to Barcelona. I know little of the city, other than pre-Covid19 it was often trotted out as one of the over-tourism all-stars.