New year, new Travelfish

We hope you all had a happy silly season and managed to fit in a stack of travel. Just wanted to let you know that here at Travelfish.org HQ (our front veranda) we’ve redesigned and relaunched our site anew as of January 20… And we have been busy fixing things ever since! We’d like to spell out all the new features of the freshened up site and invite you to comment or suggest even more improvements you’d like to see in the future.

**First things first: Navigation**
No longer will Travelfish readers have to have degrees in Southeast Asian geography in order to find places they’re looking for on the site. On the old site, everything was arranged in a country->region->province->location hierarchy. That seemed sensible to us at the time, but not to just about anybody else because it meant, for instance, that to be able to find Nha Trang in Vietnam you had to know it was in Vietnam, on the south central coast and in Khanh Hoa province (it was the last jump that always threw people). Now all you need to know is it’s in Vietnam, and by mousing over the menus on the left, you’ll see everywhere on the site in Vietnam is no more than a click away.

The navbars on the left may be a little slow to load in Internet Explorer: You have to wait for the whole page to load before they’ll work. So be patient, or better still, change your browser to Firefox!

*Navigation part two*
We’ve added a new level of navigation at the top that gives you quick hops to our destination planning section and to the Shop for our swanky Travelfish Guides. The destination planning section will be expanding quite a bit shortly.

*New layout*
You noticed huh? Yes, it’s much bigger text. Maybe I’m getting old, but I reckon this is a lot easier on the eyes. It’s in two columns, so for lengthy sections there will be some scrolling, but for the shorter pages, none at all. The new site has been designed with newer laptops and computers in mind, so people with older screens — especially 800*600 and below — will have problems with the new site. This remains one of the issues we’re working on.

*New content*
We’ve added a “beginners section” that can be accessed via the country page for each country. It includes basic stuff like visa and border crossing information and other very basic trip planning issues.

*New content part two*
Not new content so much as new sections. We’ve added “Orientation” on a destination basis. Here you’ll find vital information such as bank hours, internet cafe addresses and what not. It isn’t there for all places, rather just ones that need it. For small places, it may remain in the old introduction as before.

*New content part three*
We’ll be adding two main sections for most destinations in coming weeks: “Onwards destinations” to suggest where you should go next and “Our recommendations”, some shots from the hip on particular places.

*New content part four*
Yes, it just keeps coming. We’ll be bringing the work of some very talented bloggers into the site. They’re just tasters really as their work will still primarily be on their own sites, but we’re hoping to point you in the right direction of some real writing talent. That said, if you reckon you fall into that category (the talented blogger one) contact Samantha at sambrown @ travelfish.org.

*New content part five*
OK, no more after this, but we’ve redone the islands page so it now covers islands in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. It’s a veritable one-stop-shop for island and beach lovers!

*New ratings*
Our overall ratings now better take into account user ratings for accommodation. This should lead to better shifting opinions as places go up- and downhill.

*New photos*
Travelfish is a travel website so let’s paint a pretty picture! You’ll see more and more pix coming onto the site in the coming weeks as we upload our collection to Flickr. And if you want your photos to appear on Travelfish, it’s far easier than travelling overland from Luang Prabang to Hanoi. All you need do is upload them into our Flickr pool. You can join the Travelfish group here: http://www.flickr.com/groups/travelfish/

*New eFish*
First the bad news. All your old eFish are gone. The good news is you can generate them again. We’re very sorry about that, but we needed to nuke the old ones as a part of the upgrade.

*New Member Centre*
The Member Centre has a bunch of new features including:
You can edit your accommodation reviews
You can track all your reservation enquiries made through Travelfish
You can rate how quickly a place got back in touch with you
You can track your forum posts
You can manage your eFish
You can access your Travelfish Guides
You can manage your scrapbook (which you are going to be able to print soon)

*Revamped forum*
You’ll see the forum should be a bit easier to use, and for regular posters, we’re now using BB code which means you can post links, bold, italics etc. This becomes available only after you’ve passed a certain posting threshold (in order to keep spammers a bit under control).

*Guesthouse reviews*
We’ve revamped the reviewing process, which should make it a little easier to post reviews. The reviews are also displayed in a different manner — still a bit of a work in progress here.

*Travelfish search*
Big news here. You’ll notice here and there across the site a “Search for accommodation” feature which will allow you to search for accommodation in a particular destination (on a country basis). What is very cool about this though is that now you’re not only searching the places listed on Travelfish, but also those listed with some of our reservation partners — at the moment HostelWorld, Agoda, WHL and Sawasdee. What this means is that you’re searching a pool of over 5,000 properties — and as many of the places listed on Travelfish are listed nowhere else online, you’re getting a pretty comprehensive little searching tool. You can sort by name, Travelfish rating or cost — by default it only searches places that can be booked online, but you can change that setting to search the whole kit and caboodle.

*Travelfish gets social*
We’re also getting more active on the social side of the internet. If you’re into the social web, you can find us both on Facebook and Twitter.
Travelfish group on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2390743505
Travelfish on Twitter: http://twitter.com/travelfish

Sihanoukville Travelfish Guide released

We’ve just released out latest Travelfish Guide — this one to Sihanoukville, on Cambodia’s south coast. This 14-page ebook is the perfect addition for somebody contemplating a trip to the Cambodian coast and is far more up-to-date than traditional guidebooks. It’s available for sale now in the Travelfish store for a mere US$3.95 — how’s that for value!

We’ve also bundled up a Cambodia Pack — all our Cambodia-related Travelfish Guides into a single download and on sale for US$11.85 — a 25% discount off their regular price. You can buy the Cambodia Pack here.

Sihanoukville updated

We’ve just finished updating our Sihanoukville coverage, including new coverage of Otres Beach and thoroughly revised work on everywhere else. You can read it here.

That said, there’s more on the way, as we’re dispatching a researcher again shortly to cover a few new destinations on some of the province’s many islands… we’ll keep you posted.

On Preah Vihear

Start with one ancient temple crouched on a disputed border, wrap in a questionable French map, sprinkle with dodgy politicians, stir in a pending Khmer election, lather the whole mix up with some Thai political opportunism, then complete with a few hundred armed soldiers, ASEAN and a World Heritage listing. There you have it: one well-done Preah Vihear.

For the last few weeks the Thai press and politicians have been obsessing over the grand Khmer ruins that sit atop the escarpment of the Dangrek Mountains on the Khmer/Thai border. Tensions have escalated in the last few days — with Thai troops entering Cambodian territory and Cambodian soldiers asking them (so far, very politely) to please go home. The situation has been greatly exacerbated by nationalism on both sides: Cambodia has an election this weekend while Thailand is in the throes of a long-running political crisis.

So what’s it all about?

Construction of Preah Vihear commenced in the 9th century, but most of what you see today was built between the 10th and 12th centuries. The temple is dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Back in those days, the temple was within territory controlled by the Khmer Empire (which, on a much-reduced scale, forms the basis for modern-day Cambodia).

Much later, in 1904, Thailand (then Siam) and Cambodia (then ruled by the French) worked to demarcate their border. At the time, officials decided that the border would follow the watershed line of the Dangrek Mountains. What’s a watershed? It’s a ridge of high land that divides two areas drained by different river systems — some may know it as a water parting. The watershed embroiled in this case runs along the highpoints of the Dangrek Mountains — water can’t flow uphill after all. And this decision firmly put Preah Vihear within Thailand’s territory.

However, in 1907, after the survey work was completed, French officials drew up a map that was supposed to precisely delineate the frontier. This map, which was sent to the Siamese, clearly marked Preah Vihear as being in Cambodia. One would have expected the Siamese to get in touch with the French and let them know that the map didn’t conform to their agreement on demarcation following the watershed.

But, for whatever reason, the Siamese didn’t. These two errors — first by the French in drawing the dodgy map, and then by the Thais in agreeing with it — are the root of the debacle now spilling out, 101 years after the fact.

Following the completion of the 1907 map, little more was said of Preah Vihear for the next almost half century. But in 1954, Thai military forces occupied the site after the withdrawal of French troops from the country. Cambodia protested the occupation to the international community and in 1959 asked the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to rule on where the temple lay.

On June 15, 1962, the ICJ ruled 9 to 3 that Preah Vihear indeed belonged to Cambodia. In the ruling, the court noted that over the preceding five decades Thailand had made no effort to object to the map. That the Thais had not understood the map was wrong, nor that they possessed the only practical access to the temple — both points the Thais argued — were insufficient grounds to refute the map. You can read the ICJ ruling here. Thailand wasn’t happy.

So here we are 40 years later and Preah Vihear is once again in the news.

In 2007, Cambodia submitted an application to UNESCO to have Preah Vihear listed as a World Heritage site. As a part of the application, the request included the immediate surrounding land, which Thailand believes it has jurisdiction over. The Thais protested and the Cambodians withdrew the application.

In 2008, the Cambodians again submitted the application, but on this occasion the application sought designation for the temple only — not the surrounds. The Thai government failed to protest — an odd move, as to this day the Thais still assert that the temple is rightly theirs — and signed off on the map Cambodia presented in support of its application. Thailand’s support was seen as crucial for the application to succeed.

The Thai opposition then alleged that a backroom deal had been done, pointing the finger at deposed ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who has substantial business interests in Cambodia. The opposition claimed that his former personal lawyer, Noppadon Pattama, who just happened to be the Thai Foreign Minister and who signed off on Cambodia’s application, manoevred the deal. Noppadon has since been forced to resign.

Despite the Thai political posturing, the Cambodians lodged the application, and on July 7 Preah Vihear was inscribed on the list of World Heritage sites.

Since then political posturing has flared further in both Thailand and Cambodia, with the Cambodians describing the current stand-off between hundreds of soldiers on either side of the border as “an imminent state of war”. Cambodia has asked both the UN Security Council and ASEAN, who are currently meeting in Singapore, to intervene on their behalf.

Where to from here?

It’s difficult to see either side backing down. If blame needs to be assigned, most rests with Thailand. From 1907 to today their approach to the temple has been erratic and error-prone. They never protested the original map and also missed a decade-long deadline to argue the ICJ judgement. While the allegations of Thaksin’s involvement certainly don’t defy belief, no hard proof has emerged to support the claims made by the Thai opposition, who have proved themselves repeatedly to be political opportunists.

Perhaps following the Cambodian election the rhetoric will subside, but in Thailand, the opposition People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) show no signs of cooling off. One would hope that sooner rather than later the PAD will come to grips with the facts — but until then, the magnificent Khmer temple remains off-limits.

Further reading:
Border areas in question
Detailed analysis by Bangkok Pundit
Historical perspective in the Bangkok Post
ICJ ruling
Summary of events in the Christian Science Monitor
UNESCO listing for Preah Vihear

How do I get from Ko Chang to Phu Quoc Island?

With the 2007 opening of the Prek Chak / Xa Xia border crossing between Cambodia and Vietnam it’s now possible to travel from Ko Chang in Thailand all the way along the Cambodian coastline and into Vietnam. For beach and boat lovers, this is a great trip as from Ko Chang you’re able to visit Ko S’dach, Sihanoukville, Ko Russei, Kampot, Kep, Ko Tonsay, Ha Tien and Rach Gia, before finishing off on the glorious Phu Quoc Island. Here’s a step by step guide taking you through the entire trip, commencing in Trat and finishing on Phu Quoc.

Fifteen tips for a great holiday in Asia

This November we celebrated our 10-year anniversary of living and travelling in Southeast Asia. In that time we’ve had the good fortune to live in three of Southeast Asia’s most interesting countries (Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand) and to travel extensively throughout the region. We arrived from Sydney, Australia back in 1997 with just the two backpacks, and by the time of our most recent move (Phnom Penh to Jakarta in 2005) the two rucksacks had bred — giving birth to a 20-foot container. In the past decade, aside from accumulating enough flotsam to fill a very big metal box, we’ve collected the following 15 pieces of advice that we hope will help you get the most out of your trip.

Nine Southeast Asian upcountry hideaways

Everyone knows about Pai, Muang Sing, Siem Reap and Sapa but what about if you’re looking for somewhere a little bit more off-the-beaten-track when it comes to exploring Southeast Asia’s great interior. Not surprisingly there’s loads and loads of places that you’ll read precious little about in your guidebook, that could be just the spot you’re looking for. Here’s a few of our favourites across the countryside.

Asian beach hideaways

December arrives and with it peak season. Guesthouses fill up, train tickets get harder to find and, of course, cheap airline seats vanish. Simultaneously, traveller message boards across the web light up with people asking after unspoilt beaches, deserted valleys and pristine hideaways. So here’s the scoop — here at Travelfish we’ll be sharing a few of our favourites — pointing you in the right direction to find some of those unspoilt beaches, deserted valleys and pristine hideaways. Lets start off with some strips of sand to keep you sane.