Ten thoughts on ten years with Travelfish

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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.

Travelfish Beta.
Travelfish Beta.

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.
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.
Sun sinking, two hours to go - never a dull moment.

Be flexible
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.
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.
Slow boats on the Mekong.

Slow down
Togean Islands

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 local kids on the Togeans.
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.
Perfect for lovers.

Savour the memories
Ko Lipe

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.
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.
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.
Banlung: Best researched in dry season.

Decide for yourself
Phuket

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.
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.
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.
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.

Just go!
Just go!

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.


About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton and he spends most of his time in Bali, Indonesia.


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