On Cambodia and Nauru

I’ll keep this short and sweet as otherwise I’ll start swearing and stuff, and, well it’s not really Travelfish related, I’m just extremely embarrassed/infuriated/whatever with the imbeciles that run the government down in the “lucky country” and don’t have anywhere else to put it.

The Guardian:

“The opportunity to settle in Cambodia is now available to you. The first flight from Nauru to Cambodia for refugees will be as soon as 20 April 2015. Moving to Cambodia provides an opportunity for you and your family to start a new life in a safe country, free from persecution and violence, and build your future,” the letter says.

Human Rights Watch:

The authorities detained hundreds of people they deemed to be “undesirable,” without judicial recourse in so-called drug treatment centers, where they face torture, sexual violence, and—in at least two centers—forced labor. Authorities locked up alleged drug users, homeless people, beggars, street children, sex workers, and people with disabilities in these centers for arbitrary periods.

People held during investigation, or prosecution for common criminal offenses, or convicted in court, were still routinely tortured, or otherwise ill-treated. The police and prison authorities, beat, pistol-whipped, used electro-shock, kicked, slapped, and punched inmates, often until they become unconscious. Much of the torture was aimed at extracting confessions or extorting money.

The Guardian:

“Cambodia is a diverse country with multiple nationalities, cultures and religions. They enjoy all the freedoms of a democratic society including freedom of religion and freedom of speech.”

Human Rights Watch:

The past year saw determined and often-violent efforts by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to suppress mass protests against the deeply flawed July 2013 parliamentary elections, and force the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), to accept the election results, and end its boycott of the National Assembly. The government imposed bans on peaceful protests, including strikes by trade unions campaigning for increased wages. In some cases, protesters engaged in attacks in response to security force repression.

The Guardian:

“Cambodia is a safe country, where police maintain law and order. It does not have problems with violent crime or stray dogs.”

The DFAT (ie Australian Government) website

“Rabies can be found in animals across Cambodia.”

Managing travel photos – is this possible?

A common problem we have at Travelfish is managing photos. Managing author submissions is no major issue – we use Dropbox for that – they share a folder on their laptop/desktop with us via Dropbox and we see the pics, then we pull them off and into local folders so we can use as needed.

We struggle more though with our home setup. Basically there are two Macbooks – Sam and mine – they’re not networked. Each has their own distinct photo library local to that laptop. These two libraries are organised differently — mine by location, Sam’s by a different method. This is ok when we are in range of each other’s laptops, but when one of is is away and needs a pic from the other’s machine, it is a hassle.

An ideal solution would be to mirror the image organisation system onto the two machines, and introduce a third machine, which would automatically sync with my and Sam’s machines, making a central copy of everything, plus copying images from Sam’s to mines and mine to Sam’s to fill any blanks, update with new images and so on. Essentially they’d then be three collections of the same image library, so if one of us were away, they’d still have a copy of everything the other had — at least up to the moment we went away.

We don’t want to use Dropbox or some other Cloud solution as we’re often where internet is poor and the combined gallery is about 50,000 pics.

Is the ideal situation I describe above possible? Or is there a better way?

Any suggestions much appreciated!

Request for link removal

A Saturday morning exchange with a Phuket villa operation that has been slammed by Google for dodgy link building aka spamming. Start from the bottom.


So what you’re trying to say is something along the lines of:

“We’re sorry for spamming Travelfish in a boneheaded attempt to try and game Google. To be honest, we’re not actually sorry at all, but, as Google caught us at it and busted our chops we’re feigning sorrow. You can tell we’re not actually sorry at all as we imply in the email that Travelfish added the link themselves rather than fessing up that it was our moronic link building actions that saw it there in the first place.”

When what you really should be saying is:

“We spammed Travelfish in order to try and game Google. Google caught us. Please remove our filthy spam and we’re truly sorry for any inconvenience this caused and it most certainly will not happen again.”

Let me know


On 3/22/14 5:43 AM, XXX wrote:
> Dear Webmaster,
> I am contacting you on behalf of XXX. We noticed that you
> have links to our website XXX on the following
> pages:
> While we appreciate the links, we are currently attempting to recover
> from penalization by Google Penguin. I am respectfully requesting that
> you remove these links to our website, as they are no longer in line
> with our Internet marketing goals.
> Please do not hesitate to contact me should you have any questions about
> removing these links.
> Thank You,
> XXX on behalf of XXX

Stuart McDonald

Travelfish — the website other travel writers use
email: stuartmcdonald@travelfish.org

Twitter: http://twitter.com/travelfish
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/travelfish
Flickr: http://flickr.com/groups/travelfish/

We want travellers to love Southeast Asia as much as we do.

Cheap hotel in Istanbul

Very quick rant here as have to dash for P&T night, but spurned by a piece on ianditravelmedia regarding Google softening Panda stuff, I went and googled “Cheap Istanbul hotel” (note the singular).

Here’s the result:

I'm an artist at heart.

I’m an artist at heart.

The top few are, as we have come to expect, blended in ads., as is the stuff at the bottom, you know, just before the organic listings.

But in between, look at the other listings. These used to go to Google Places, which I assume Google has along with everything else rolled into +. Over half of them go to travel agents.

I Googled “hotel” not “hotels”. With a plural, yes an OTA may be a reasonable result as I’m looking for a selection, but with the singular, absolutely not.

And really, when people have come to expect “places” to be in “places” listing travel agents in a location map for a query on hotels seems well off the bat.

Think some Istanbul travel agencies are taking the piss here. Try your home town – do you get a result for a single property?

Preah Vihear: What’s the story

So you’d need to be living in a news-free-zone to have not heard about the fighting on the Thai / Cambodian border — while what you’re seeing today is primarily being driven by domestic political dramas in Thailand, the background issues go way back — wayyyy back.

So, to try and make sense of it all, we had a piece written to attempt to explain what it all really is about. So if you’re wondering is Preah Vihear is safe for tourists, read on. There’s some great pics too!

Interview: Watching out for the future of Cambodia’s past

Through 2011, every Monday we’ll feature an interview with a person working in the travel, tourism and hospitality industries across Southeast Asia. From masseuses to restaurateurs, princesses to paupers, we aim to bring a diverse range of voices here to Travelfish.org to shed some insight into travel in the region or the region itself.

Our first interview of 2011 is with Dougald O’Reilly, an archaeologist and the founder and director of Heritage Watch, a non-profit organisation dedicated to the preservation of Southeast Asia’s cultural heritage. We chatted with Dougald by e-mail in a conversation that traversed looting, antiquities trafficking, Cambodia’s struggle to preserve its history and, well, he did mention Tomb Raider once.

Antique smuggling, travel writing and a jaunt around Luang Nam Tha

Fruit for sale in Luang Nam Tha

When your day starts with a bowl of offal you just know it is going to get better and better — as mine did when I found the above fruit vendor as I choked down the last of the intestines…

I’d caught up the previous evening with a researcher for another travel publisher and had swapped notes on Laos and gossip on where the industry is headed. Against the odds, the most common complaint isn’t so much about the money as much as the time restraints — publishers are often expecting ridiculous coverage in short periods of time.

This gelled neatly with another researcher I had met the previous week in Bangkok who does a lot of work for a very well-known US travel guide publisher. Their “letter of appointment” included a line explaining that just 20% of the properties needed to be revisited — I bet they don’t brag about that on the half cover!

But jokes aside, if you’re effectively allowing someone three weeks to cover all of central Thailand (from Sangkhlaburi in the west to Ko Kut in the east — including Bangkok) then that is probably going to show in the finished product.

Back to the fun side of travel.

I lapsed and opted for the tourist minibus service over the local bus from Huay Xai north to Luang Prabang, but with only three passengers it seemed like 400B very well spent (even if it did leave an hour late). The trip, striking more or less straight north for the duration passes some scenic secondary forest and quite attractive mountain vistas — all the easier to enjoy as I wasn’t crammed into a local bus. The trip was over and done with after just three hours — a fraction of the 12 hours it took me last time.

Last time, none of the road was sealed, rather it was packed red dirt — or dust. In dry season it was one of the dustiest trips in Southeast Asia, in wet season one of the muddiest. But I was in luck. Hanging out in a cafe in Luang Nam Tha I met a Swiss aid worker who offered me a ride in his six wheeler “personnel carrier”. I jumped at the chance, all I needed to do was buy the guy a beer and I didn’t even need to pay. Afterall, he was carrying what he described as “special cargo” and I was intrigued.

The special cargo wasn’t a pound of smack but rather something ever more valuable (in my eyes anyway). An ancient frog drum and it’s Thai dealers. They’d purchased it off a minority village north of Luang Nam Tha and were sneaking it out of the country — a highly illegal activity. They’d paid the village a mere US$500 for the drum, while the middle man they’d pass it over to in Chiang Khong was paying them $1,500 for it. Final destination was perhaps Rivercity in Bangkok or a savvy private collector who’d snap it up — it was in mint condition, and you’d expect a significantly higher final value at end of sale.

Sad days indeed — a priceless artifact leaves Laos forever for essentially just $500.

Luang Nam Tha scenery

The trip took us 12 hours — I hate to think how long it was taking regular transport — but a friend who did the trip a year earlier (without six wheels) saw it take two full days — with an overnight stop in Vieng Phuka.

Why has this road improved so much? There’s a large coal mine near Vieng Phuka and as in most Lao cases the roads are built to assist the extractive industries — be it Route 3 for coal, or the eastern routes for lumber to Vietnam. Yes the road from Vientiane to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang has improved over time, but this was always an arterial route and probably (guessing here) the first sealed long distance route in the country.

Enough of roads.

Luang Nam Tha is often put on stage as the poster child for eco tourism in Laos. This was largely kicked off by considerable efforts coming out of the Boat Landing Guesthouse and today there is a wealth of trekking activities operating out of the provincial capital.

Around Luang Nam Tha

One of the easiest things to do is hire a bicycle and ride around the outskirts of town — something I’ve just done. I have no idea how long the ride was — it felt like about 600km, but it was probably more like 20-30km and the first third of it was lovely. Lots of, dare I say, bucolic paddie scenery with the hills rising behind them, and absolutely no shortage of chatty Lao students who’ll ride along with you for an impromptu English lesson. It’s a relaxing and peaceful ride.

Tomorrow I’m going back to my backpacker roots, doing a two day trek — should be interesting. It’s a two day walk that starts only 15 minutes out of town and is run by well regarded Green Discovery Tours. Green Discovery get a bad rap from a lot of budget travellers because of their higher prices, but it seems we’ve got close to a full contingent of eight punters, so it isn’t toooo expensive.

More to come after the jungle adventure!

The Travelfish iPhone app: Angkor

Want to stay in the loop? Sign up for our iPhone mailing list here.

As we moved our first app into beta testing last week, we thought now would be a good time to let you know about some of the features of the app and show you a few more screenshots — just so you are completely tantalised!

First, a special thanks to those who volunteered to help with the testing. We had more than 100 people volunteer — thank you to you all. Unfortunately it wasn’t practical to get everyone involved in the testing, so we whittled the list down to a dozen or so to put the app through its paces.

I can’t really discuss anything in more detail without letting the cat out of the bag: Our first app covers Cambodia’s Siem Reap and Angkor Wat.

The app is called “Angkor”.

Keeping it simple
One of the tempations with the iPhone/iPod Touch is that few limitations stop you cramming whatever you can into the device, so our immediate approach was to put everything bar the kitchen sink in. The problem with this is that you quickly develop a massive dump of information that is both intimidating and unwieldy for the poor guy on the street that just wants to find a cheap noodle joint.

There’s nothing worse than opening an app packed to the lintels with information, only to get a list that goes and goes and goes and goes some more. So we tossed the list out the window and went with eight simple top level categories:

Background | Sleep | Eat & meet | See & do
Transport | Walking tours | Photos | Maps

Each section contains sub-categories and sections, but at a glance, you should know exactly which section of the app you want to head to. Here is a screenshot:

Screenshot of the navigation

Makes sense?

Delve a little deeper
Each section then has sub-sections. In the Background section, for example, you’ll find information under the headings of History, About Cambodia, and Planning. Each of these may contain smaller sections themselves. History for instance is broken up into more than a dozen chapters, each talking of a specific period and where appropriate matched with a picture. About Cambodia has chapters on Food, Language and Safety (among others), with these often broken into sub-sections — food has Eating Khmer Food, Snacks, Insects and so on. So it’s four levels of fun.

Before you recoil from what sounds like a hellish conflagration of lists, listen to this: No lists are involved. Well, there is a list if you want to use it, but the important thing is you don’t need to. Instead we make use of the great iPhone swiping feature to allow the reader to flick through the sections looking for one that catches their eye — sort of like how you’d leaf through a book. Here is a partial screenshot showing a couple of history snaps.

Screenshot of the history snapshots

What this means is that you can dig deeper and deeper into various subjects, learn a bit (we hope!) and be helped along with the photos.

If you’re scratching your head and thinking “Hey I didn’t read any of this on the Travelfish website!” you’d be right. The app contains around 40,000 words of extra content that we have written purposefully for the app.

Save time and money
As you probably know, many guesthouses and hotels can be booked online. Within the accommodation section, all the contact details are clearly displayed, but if a place works through property resellers (like Agoda or HostelWorld) then we also give the reader the option to click through to that site to make a reservation.

The problem is, resellers often have different rates, meaning that if you’re looking for the cheapest option you have to go check each provider and compare rates. We save you the trouble and show you the cheapest rate in our records that is available at each reseller. See the screenshot below for an example.

Screenshot of the accommodation

Decide where to go before you get there
Most of the sights, especially the Angkor ruins, have been matched with a photo. There’s nothing worse than reading about a site that sounds at least half interesting, only to get there and find four laterite blocks and a sleeping pooch. By matching the sights with pics, and with our straightshooting write-ups, you’ll be able to decide quickly what you do and don’t want to spend your time doing.

Screenshot of the sights section

This is further buttressed by a handful of walking tours that give you a range of different options and routes — helpfully marked on the maps — to help you get the most out of the app.

Stay on the straight and narrow
It’s just not an app without a map right? We’ve packed up some neat bundled maps with the app. You’ll get down to the ground detail for Siem Reap and Angkor Wat along with a bird’s eye view of the rest of Cambodia — including the capital and border crossings. This means you’ll have all you need to plan without needing to get online once, so no need to fret about totally insane roaming bills.

Screenshot of the maps

The maps are annotated with markers that lead you straight to listings (so click on Angkor What? bar and you’ll be taken to their review in the Eat section). It also works in reverse, so if you’re reading about Two Dragons Guesthouse, you can click on the map icon and have the map pop up to show you just where you need to go to pick Gordon’s brain.

And there’s more
The app also contains a photo gallery with hundreds of photos along with the standard stuff like bookmarking, help, glossary and FAQs. Results also can also be reordered and sorted to make it even easier to find what you’re after.

On the subject of search
There isn’t one.

We don’t mean to brag, but we reckon the information is so well organised and so easy to find that there is no need for a search facility in this app.

We thought it was better to eschew one totally rather than go for what would have been nothing more than a glorified filter — a solution that has been much derided in other travel apps. If you can’t find something in this app, we’re willing to bet that is because it isn’t there.

That said, if you’re reading this and just happen to be able to write a natural language search algorithm for the iPhone, please do get in touch 😉

So when is it going to be available
We’re planning the final beta-build tomorrow (Tuesday) and as long as no last-minute problems flare the app should go to Apple shortly afterwards. Once they have it, we need to bide our time while it runs through the approval process.

Once it is available, we’ll be celebrating and will be giving away coupons for the app at the iTunes store. If you’re a blogger interested in receiving the app for review purposes, contact me at stuartmcdonald@travelfish.org.

Want to stay in the loop? Sign up for our iPhone mailing list here.

Sustainable tourism in Cambodia

I’ve just added a new story onto Travelfish — an email interview with Daniela Ruby Papi of PEPY Tours.

PEPY runs “educational adventure tours” to rural Cambodia with a focus on supporting development in Cambodia’s educational system.

The interview may be of interest to anyone with an eye on the development scene there and with opinions on what forms good sustainable tourism.

You can read the full story here:
Sustainable tourism in Cambodia with PEPY Tours