Ten thoughts on ten years with Travelfish
First published 13th July, 2014
We've told the story many a time: Travelfish was conceptualised over a couple of lazy afternoons on a Ko Maak beach in eastern Thailand. We had a couple of false starts, but when the site finally "officially" launched on July 12, 2004 it was primarily a collection of our favourite places in the region. As is the case now, it was a bit of an eclectic mix, from backpacker stalwarts like Khao San Road and Ko Phi Phi through to more off the beaten track destinations like Phrae, Phayao and Salavan.
Ten years later, the site covers -- to some degree -- more than 500 destinations across eight countries. We've hitched, motorbiked, bussed, planed, trained and even yachted across the region. When we launched the site, we had a $20 rule -- if the place cost more than $20 a night we didn't list it. Over time, though, that faded away as we swapped fan-cooled for air-con and beach for horizon pool. Then later, as two became four, we took a greater interest in destinations and lodgings that would appeal to those with rugrats in tow. Today, from flophouses in Burma to horizon pools in Bali, Travelfish offers a broad range of experiences and opinions for travellers across the region.
The biggest change over the ten years has been that Travelfish has become bigger than just us. Today the site is a product of more than a dozen current writers across the region, all of whom live in and are passionate about Southeast Asia. Over the years we've had more than 40 writers pen words for us -- and you -- regularly, and our team just gets better and better by the day. Some were friends who helped out, others were Travelfish members who joined the team, others again were people we just met on our travels and asked, "How can I be a part of this?" Thank you all.
An early favourite, Hin Wong on Ko Tao.
Ten years is a long time and sometimes it feels like we've experienced more than our share of travel in the region. So, with that in mind, without further ado, I thought we'd share some of what we've learned about travel in the region over the past decade.
Sun sinking, two hours to go - never a dull moment.
Caving in Nan
We were motorbiking from Nan to Doi Phukha National Park when, a little shy of the park centre, we saw a small sign to the left reading "Bamboo Huts" and decided to investigate. It turns out Bamboo Huts was an old-school guesthouse perched on a ridge with views as spectacular as the huts were basic. The affable owner William joined us for coffee and asked if we'd like to go for a walk and see some caves. We ended up doing a two-day caving trek that had us trapping wild rat for breakfast and caving through a mountain, emerging in a sinkhole of rainy jungle that remains one of our most spectacular memories of Thailand. While Bamboo Huts has sadly closed, don't hesitate to let your travels lead you to unplanned experiences -- they can be as exhilarating as William's iced showers.
Emerging in Nan.
If you can do something today, do it
Slow boat to Vientiane
When we first started travelling in Laos the passenger boat network was far more comprehensive than it is today, primarily due to poor roads. The boats heading south of Vientiane were all finished, but boats were still running between Luang Prabang and Vientiane. So after a stint in the northern capital, having already seen Vang Vieng, we opted for the boat. We were the only foreign passengers on the boat and while it took three days rather than the advised two, it was a memorable trip -- both for the scenery and also for the unexpected need to sleep on the river bank somewhere between Pak Lai and Vientiane. The boats stopped running the next year. (River sand gets very, very cold.)
Slow boats on the Mekong.
We had high hopes for our six-week family holiday to Sulawesi, with an ambitious itinerary that read like a top shelf of Sulawesi's attractions. With two kids in tow we rapidly discovered just how unrealistic we'd been -- had we maintained our planned itinerary we'd have needed a holiday at the end of it to recover. So when we got somewhere we really liked, in this case the Togean Islands, we threw the plan away, put our feet up, and didn't move for two weeks. It was probably the most relaxing trip we've ever had and the kids absolutely loved it -- we can see the rest of Sulawesi another day. When something isn't working out as you'd hoped, don't hesitate to start from scratch -- travel isn't a competition.
Our kids exploring with new friends on the Togeans.
Some places never change
Adam & Eve Beach, Perhentian Kecil
Some of our favourite places visited in the 1990s are unrecognisable today. It was 17 years between my visits to Malaysia's Perhentian Islands, and I was delighted to see Adam & Eve Beach, on the back side of Perhentian Kecil, remained utterly untouched on my most recent visit this year -- not one iota had changed since 1997 and it remains one of the most beautiful beaches in Southeast Asia. Don't assume that you should always merely savour the memories -- sometimes it is worth heading back.
Perfect for lovers.
Savour the memories
The first time we ventured Ko Lipe, there was but a handful of places to stay -- perhaps four or five, with just one on Pattaya Beach. There were no roads -- just a dirt goat trail from one beach to the other, no internet cafes and, well, not many people. We revisited a few years later and there were perhaps a dozen places to stay. Today there's well over 50, and it's appealing to an entirely different crowd. In some cases, you're well advised to savour the memories.
When Pattaya Beach was less developed.
Get up early
Dawn at Ceningan
I've always been more of a morning person than a night owl, and when travelling in Southeast Asia it can really pay to get up early -- really early -- like dawn early. The markets will be pumping, monks collecting alms (not just in Luang Prabang!), the light will be soft, the weather crisp and the views often spectacular. While some of Asia's big cities are famous for their nightlife, be sure to experience the other half of the day and get up early -- the roosters and dogs should help. There's nothing quite like the crisp morning air after a night of heavy rain, like one morning we had on Nusa Ceningan where we felt we could see volcanic peaks halfway along Java.
Just another Ceningan sunrise.
It's a guide not a gospel
The road to Lak Xao
They're called travel guides not travel gospels for a reason. Be they traditional guidebooks or online resources, no travel guide is infallible. So when you've been crammed on the truck bus from Tha Khaek to Lak Xao for ten hours rather than the expected two, it's because Lak Xao is actually 20 kilometres from the Vietnamese border -- not 20 kilometres from Lak Xao. Didn't it seem odd there was just one truck bus a day and that it took two hours to load (with you wedged in it)? Didn't you think to ask someone? Sometimes it's as much your fault as your guidebook's.
Banlung: Best researched in dry season.
Decide for yourself
For years we avoided Phuket like the plague. The guidebooks (see above) made it sound unappealing to say the least, and every traveller we met was also skipping it -- full of sex tourists, scammers and package resorts, expensive to boot, they'd say. When we finally visited, we kicked ourselves for not going earlier. Fantastic food, a rich culture, terrific beaches and while a little more expensive than elsewhere, only marginally so. Sure there are some spots we'd skip, but Phuket is a big place and it is popular for a reason -- parts of it are fabulous. And if someone is telling you that you absolutely shouldn't go there, do check to see they've been there themselves.
Khanom jeen in Phuket Town - not a German sausage in sight.
Experience a festival
Bun Bang Fai
Southeast Asia boasts a rich variety of festivals from the traditional through to the religious and cultural events. Some, like Buddhist Lent, are not particular crowd pleasers, but others, like Bun Bang Fai -- better known as the Rocket Festival -- are must sees. Many hinge on the lunar cycle so the exact dates fluctuate year to year, but keep abreast of what is happening where. Many overlook festivals, working to get their cultural and societal insight through museums and chatting to locals, but festivals can deftly tie the two together and, well there's nothing quite like a 20-foot long PVC pipe packed with explosives exploding 30 metres away from you.
Only in Thailand.
The magic of Asia
Knai Bang Chatt
Sometimes it is the one-off, totally unplanned for experiences that get seared into your memories and stay with you the longest. An icy early morning motorbike ride along the bank of the Mekong, crouching at the summit of a volcano, taking a moment in the jungle listening to it breathe, flanked by skyscrapers flying down Bangkok's Sathorn Road at 3am on the back on a motorcycle taxi. For no two people is the magic the same, but magical these moments are -- be present so you remember them.
Just add an elephant.
For me, a magic moment came at a friend's wedding at Knai Bang Chatt in Kep, Cambodia. In the fading afternoon light I was floating in their lovely pool, separated from the Gulf of Thailand by a lawn and some trees. I heard some heavy breathing and water splashing and looked up to see an elephant. It was standing right beside the pool -- slowly being watered and rubbed down by the mahout. It was, I think fair to say, the thing I least expected to see, and sitting there in the pool, watching the elephant swaying in the light, was utterly magnificent and I'll never forget it.
We've been ever so privileged to have been able to travel for as long and as extensively as we have been over our years in Southeast Asia. We hope that through the site, via both our experiences and those of our fantastic team of writers, we've been able to help you get more out of your travels here.
Read 3 comment(s)
Add your comment
Feature story quicklinks
- Giving back in Southeast Asia (17)
- All stories
- Angkor Hospital For Children
- Blue Dragon Children's Foundation
- COPE: Helping people move on
- Epic Arts
- Free the Bears Laos
- Helping Phuket's children in need
- Helping Siem Reap's rubbish dump families
- Helping Singapore's transient workers
- Helping the Karen of Burma
- Humanitarian Services for Children of Vietnam
- Lifestart Foundation, Hoi An
- MyME Yangon
- Soi Dog Foundation
- Swim Vietnam
- Thai Freedom House, Chiang Mai
- The Samui Prison Project
- The SET Foundation
- Burma (9)
- Cambodia (23)
- All stories
- A Cambodian Eco-lodge
- A honeymoon in Cambodia
- Angkorian traffic woes
- Battambang weekend
- Elephant riding in Cambodia: Should you?
- Great places to stay in Siem Reap
- Is Preah Vihear safe to visit?
- Kampot or Kep?
- Koh Rong: Trouble in paradise?
- Kompong Cham escape
- Northeast Cambodia in photos
- Oh Poipet!
- PEPY:Sustainable Cambodian tourism
- Phnom Tamao Wildlife Refuge
- Sihanoukville beaches lure expats
- Spas, shopping & seers in Siem Reap
- The best islands in Cambodia
- The best places to stay on Cambodia's islands
- The Death Highway
- Trekking in Virachey National Park
- Trekking the Cardamoms in Cambodia
- Which Cambodian island is right for you?
- Why you should go to Cambodia
- Indonesia (14)
- All stories
- A funeral in Toraja, Sulawesi
- Climbing Rinjani
- How to hire a boat in Indonesia: Without drowning
- Learn to surf in Bali
- Medewi: A great Bali getaway
- Mountain biking in Bali: A ride in the woods
- Pasola, Sumba
- The Gili islands: Which is the right one for you?
- Ubud bird watching: From waterhens to witchcraft
- Ubud shopping guide
- Village trekking in Tana Toraja
- Weekend in Nusa Penida
- Yogya's student scene
- Laos (19)
- All stories
- A breeze through Luang Prabang
- Best budget rooms in Luang Prabang 2013
- Elephant trekking in Laos
- Exploring Laos' Bolaven Plateau
- Huay Xai to Pak Tha by slowboat
- Is Lao Airlines safe to fly?
- Laos' vanishing elephants
- Luang Prabang escape
- Luang Prabang for kids
- Muang Ngoi Escape
- Photos of Luang Prabang, Laos
- Pi Mai Lao in Luang Prabang: In 1999
- Southern Laos by scooter
- Temples in Luang Prabang
- The Gibbon Experience
- The Phonsavan adventure
- Vientiane's Chinatown
- Weaving and textiles in Luang Prabang
- What to buy in Luang Prabang, Laos
- Malaysia (10)
- Singapore (10)
- All stories
- 10 great hostels in Singapore
- Singapore on a budget
- Singapore's best happy hours
- Singapore's Hip Haji
- Singapore: Escape the urban jungle
- The best hostels in Singapore: 2013
- The best places to stay in Singapore
- The Festivals of Singapore
- Top 10 Hawker Centres: Part 1
- Top 10 Hawker Centres: Part 2
- Thailand (81)
- All stories
- 10 Bangkok galleries worth a look-see
- 10 Thai treks aside from Chiang Mai
- 24 Hours in Bangkok: Sukhumvit to Siam Square
- 31 Thai islands
- 5 Southern Thai towns to lose time in
- A Thai homestay in Ayutthaya
- A weekend in Phra Phradaeng
- A weekend on Ko Samet, Thailand
- An extra day in Krabi
- Andaman Sea island hopper
- Are Thailand’s cheap guesthouses disappearing?
- Ayutthaya temple tour
- Bangkok craft villages
- Bangkok for art lovers
- Bangkok's Charoen Krung Road
- Bangkok's Thonburi: exploring the west side
- Brilliant Bangkok
- Chiang Dao getaway
- Chiang Mai's temples
- Corruption in Thailand
- Day trips from Bangkok
- Eating on the edge
- Elephant's World Kanchanaburi
- Exploring Lamphun
- Exploring the Lungs of Bangkok
- Far southern Thailand: Go or not?
- Five days in Khao Lak, Thailand
- Floating markets around Bangkok
- Great Thai food blogs
- Highlights of Chanthaburi province
- How to do Khao Yai National Park
- Khao San Road safety and scams
- Ko Mun Nork: a nearby paradise
- Ko Pha Ngan 7-day detox:Colonic fast
- Ko Pha Ngan's best beaches in 2013
- Ko Phi Phi on a budget
- Ko Tao for non-divers guide
- Ko Yao Noi or Ko Yao Yai?
- Ko Yao: the islands you're looking for
- Learning Muay Thai in Bangkok
- Motorcycling the Chiang Rai loop
- Narathiwat: residence of good people
- Navigating Bangkok: The BTS Skytrain
- Phuket by night
- Phuket for Kids
- Phuket heritage walk: Car parts to saris
- Phuket's secret beaches
- Planning around Thailand's civil unrest
- Roll your own Kanchanaburi
- Should I book for the full moon party?
- Should I cancel my Thai holiday? No.
- Should I cancel my trip to Thailand? No.
- Soi Thong Lo, Bangkok
- Sorting out Suvarnabhumi Airport
- Staying at a Thai monastery
- Thai islands for nature lovers
- Thai islands to lose yourself on
- Thai visa FAQ
- Thailand tsunami wrap
- Thailand's Full Moon Party
- Thailand's Mae Khlong market
- Thailand: Where to from here?
- The best beach on Ko Samui
- The best places to stay on Ko Kut, Thailand
- The bridge over the River Kwai festival
- The road to Sangkhlaburi
- The road to Sangkhom
- Travelling through north-east Thailand
- Trekking in Thailand
- Trisara -- decadent luxury at its best
- Two days in Kamphaeng Phet
- What are the alternatives to Bangkok?
- What is the best beach on Ko Tao?
- What is the best island in Thailand?
- What's a good beach on Ko Pha Ngan?
- What's a good beach on Ko Samui?
- Where to stay at Railay Bay, Thailand
- Where to stay in Sukhothai?
- Where to stay on Ko Samet, Thailand
- Which beach on Ko Samui?
- Which island in Trang?
- Vietnam (33)
- All stories
- A short break in Nha Trang
- A Weekend in Can Tho
- Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam
- Buying a touring motorbike in Vietnam
- Con Dao escape
- Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi
- Doing the DMZ from Hue
- Exploring Kon Tum
- Exploring Vietnam's Mekong Delta
- Great Hanoi cafes to chill out in
- Ha Long Bay conclusions
- Ha Long Bay for backpackers
- Ha Long Bay for budget-busters
- Ha Long Bay for flashpackers
- Ha Long Bay or Sapa?
- Hanoi escape
- Hanoi or Saigon?
- Hoi An -- Walking over the dragon
- How to do the Dien Bien Phu loop
- How to enjoy your time in Vietnam
- How to pick a good Ha Long Bay cruise
- Is the Hoi An culture tour worth it?
- Motorbike Vietnam's Central Highlands
- One day in Hanoi
- Responsible shopping and eating in Hoi An
- Saigon's top 10 cafés
- Sapa or Bac Ha?
- Saving Vietnam's bears
- Street food safety
- The DMZ: Traveller tactical briefing
- Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013
- Two Wheels & Ricefields: A review
- Which is the best street food tour in Hanoi?
- Accommodation guides (21)
- All stories
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2005 Top guesthouses in Chiang Mai
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Hanoi
- 2006 Top guesthouses in Phnom Penh
- 2006 Top guesthouses on Ko Phi Phi
- 2006 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top Bangkok airport guesthouses
- 2008 Top Luang Prabang guesthouses
- 2008 Top spots on Phu Quoc Island
- 2009 Top guesthouses in Bangkok
- 2009 Top Phnom Penh guesthouses
- 2011 Best places to stay in Kuala Lumpur
- 2011 Best places to stay on Ko Phi Phi
- Best places to stay in Hanoi 2012
- Cheap Phuket guesthouses & hotels
- Five special hotels in Cambodia
- Ko Lipe's best budget guesthouses 2012
- The best hostels in Bangkok 2014
- The best places to stay on Ko Chang, Thailand
- The changing face of Khao San Road
- Where to stay on Koh Rong Samloem
- Travel with kids (7)
- Opinion & advice (16)
- All stories
- 10 reasons to do an adventure tour
- 10 reasons to travel independently
- A year's worth of travel for 2013
- Beach hideaways in Asia
- Christmas and New Years in Southeast Asia
- Do I need reservations for my holiday?
- Evil man of Krabi
- Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia
- Getting a cheap airfare to Asia
- Hotels should never charge extra for WiFi
- Long distance buses in Southeast Asia
- Mass tourism in Southeast Asia
- Nine Asian upcountry hideaways
- Planning a Gap Year? Some advice.
- Ten Southeast Asian trips for 2008
- Ten thoughts on ten years with Travelfish
- How do I? (11)
- All stories
- Bangkok to Ko Samui, Pha Ngan & Tao
- Bangkok to Siem Reap
- Catching a train in Thailand
- Catching a train in Vietnam
- Cheap flights with Discovery Airpass
- Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang
- Crossing the Cambodia Laos border
- Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island
- Siem Reap to Ko Chang
- Stops between Bangkok & Chiang Mai
- Visa run from Thailand to Burma
- Cycling Asia (13)
- All stories
- 24 hours in Bangkok
- An Angkor cycling guide
- An introduction
- Battambang, bamboo trains & guides
- Confessions of a "cheating cyclist"
- Cycles of all sorts
- Ha Long Bay independently
- Ko Samet Vs Pattaya
- Muay Thai night
- Phonsavan and Luang Prabang
- The hills of Vietnam
- The road less travelled
- Tubing in Vang Vieng
- Health and safety (6)
- Money and finance (4)
- Diving guides (6)
- Photo essay (3)
- Guest blog (2)
- General (15)
- All stories
- 10 Christmas days in Asia we're yet to have
- 10 dumb things I've done while travelling
- 34 ways to travel greener
- Asian animal experiences
- Call me Mr Massage Magic
- Chefs Without Borders
- Flying is fun!
- Mr Golden
- On being a travel writer
- Teaching ESL in Asia
- The 211 country honeymoon
- The Boxing Day Tsunami: 5 years on.
- To Teach or Not to Teach
- Travel writing scholarship 2012
- Tuk to the Road Charity ride
- Book reviews (5)
- Interviews (8)
- Explore Bangkok by BTS (18)
- All stories
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ari
- Bangkok by skytrain: Asok
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chid Lom
- Bangkok by skytrain: Chong Nonsi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Mo Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: National Stadium
- Bangkok by skytrain: On Nut
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phaya Thai
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phloen Chit
- Bangkok by skytrain: Phrom Phong
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchadamri
- Bangkok by skytrain: Ratchathewi
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sala Daeng (S2)
- Bangkok by skytrain: Sanam Pao
- Bangkok by skytrain: Saphan Taksin
- Bangkok by skytrain: Siam
- Bangkok by skytrain: Surasak
- Bangkok by skytrain: Thong Lor
Sign up for Travelfish Burp!
Our weekly wrap on Southeast Asian travel.
Click here to see a recent newsletter.