The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
Couchfish: The Stochastic Parrot Guide To Luang Prabang
A month or so ago, my friend James sent me a link for a travel guide to Cambodia. James has a particular talent for sending me stuff that ruins my day, and this one, well, it was a doozy.
It was one of those typical “how to” travel blog pieces, with blow-by-blow instructions on how to do something. In this particular case, it explained how one can travel from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh by train. Over three thousand words long, it had everything—it even detailed the restaurant and drinks car.
There was though, one problem. There is no train—and never has been—from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.
“You want a what to where? I’m telling you there’s no train man.” Photo: Mark Ord.
I wondered, why would anyone write this? I could see no useful reason to. The more I read it though, the more I thought, was this the pointy end of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) stick? I emailed the site, and asked after the reasoning behind the piece, but never heard back. I ran some of the text through GPTZero, a tool (yes, an AI tool) designed to detect AI written text and it said:
“Your text is likely to be written entirely by AI.”
AI has been flavour of the month for a while now. It was a few years ago I first saw it in action, and it wasn’t great. Even then though, with improvement inevitable, its potential was clear. I remember writing at the time something about it being the death knell for low-end copywriters. Late last year, ChatGPT opened up its playground for free. It is the brainchild of OpenAI, a startup which includes Elon Musk and Peter Thiel—neither renowned for putting humanity first—among its funders. The opening (now partly rescinded), brought the tool to the masses, and was no doubt the first step towards the funders’ inevitable mega-payoff.
Lets get ChapGPT to write a travel guide for Luang Prabang.
Social media filled with screenshots of the tool’s efforts to “answer” questions. Many, (not only from ChatGPT) veered between bad and iffy to awful and offensive, yet others were eerily good—including poetry, though not poems about athletes foot. To get decent answers, the right questions, in the right way, with the right degree of post-output massaging, were needed. In no short time stories by the dozen ran—sometimes of dubious quality—pointing out AI often displayed a racist and/or sexist tilt with a tendency to surface hate speech (which OpenAI pays Kenyans $2 per hour to address) and disinformation. This is all true, but you could argue if it aims to mimic humanity, this is sadly it doing its job.
Let’s return to the train example for a sec.
With the right collection of keywords, a bit of programming skill, and a dose of patience, AI could write a travel guide. I’ve tried to illustrate this with the (unedited) screenshots in this story. As you can see, AI can already manage a good bit of the process. The finished product isn’t great, it is often boilerplate bare bones, with a few factual errors, but as a collection of lists, it could be far worse. With this text generated, all I need do is dump it into Wordpress and I’m done. I’ll do another city over lunch. In that time, AI may well have improved yet again.
Note the different results when I complicate the question about Saffron Hostel.
How will it improve? To answer this, you need to look at how AI works. Boiled down, it crawls a bazillion websites then regurgitates the information it distills. This means it is only as good as the information it has devoured. If it hasn’t ever crawled information about the mating of the Mongolian Butterfly, it can’t tell you anything about it. As far as I know, there is no such thing as this specifically named butterfly.
Now for the important bit. This crawling of information sources took place without any consent from the creators. Nobody asked Lonely Planet, Getty, or other creators for permission and it should come as no surprise that courthouse queues are growing. It boils down to consent. The
Couchfish: Bring Me Your Carbon
One of the many aspects travel gets flogged over are its carbon emissions. As I’ve written in the past, if you’d like to over-contribute in setting the planet on fire, getting on a plane works best. What about if you don’t? What about if you’d prefer to minimise your emissions? Skipping domestic flights is the obvious first step, but what next? With this in mind, over my recent three-week trip to Vietnam, I decided to track my carbon. Here’s what I found.
Before anything, I needed to decide what I should measure. Transport was a no-brainer, but what about food and accommodation? With flights removed, both can be significant contributors, but how significant? Well, it depends. How do you travel? What do you eat and drink? Where do you stay? It turns out no two travellers are the same.
Taking train-spotting to the next level. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
I needed a system that would track not only flights, but other transport, food and hotels. In the end I settled on two, one an app that I could use as I went, and the other a website I could populate at the end of my trip. There were pros and cons to each, and neither did everything I wanted to my satisfaction. That said, both show promise, and it will be interesting to see how they develop over time.
The two systems I tried out were the Capture app and the Path Net Zero calculator. While Capture has some usability issues, it is the more appropriate for travellers looking to measure their emissions as they go. If you’re a tour company wanting to figure out the emissions of a trip, Path Net Zero is by far the better option. I used Capture as I went, then at the end of it, inputted the data from Capture into Path Net Zero.
Capture would wake me each morning with an update on my environmental vandalism. Happy days.
There are some important differences between the two. Capture doesn’t include accommodation while Path Net Zero does. Each takes a different approach to food. In both you can calculate transport by distance or time, and as I used time for Capture, I used the same for Path Net Zero. Despite this, the results were often quite different.
As an example, Capture suggested 1,229.80kg for my two flights while Path Net Zero scored it at 824.52kg. This highlighted how tricky flying can be. How full was the flight, what class was flown (Path Net Zero allowed me to nominate class, Capture doesn’t). What type of plane was it? How was the weather? These can all impact the amount of emissions allocated. That said, in the scheme of things, does it matter? Probably not—flying is the wrecking ball. Using Capture’s numbers, the two flights accounted for a whopping 74% of my total emissions.
Tuk tuk versus Airbus at a glance with Path Net Zero.
Ok, so we all know flights suck for the planet, but what about if we removed flights? Then it got more interesting. With flights removed, train travel jumped to first place, at 43%, then food (26%), motorbike (15%) and car (12%). What about accommodation you ask? A mere 5%. Why? I stay in small hotels and homestays.
If you thought flights were hard, measuring accommodation was a veritable snake pit. For most hotels, electricity is the main emissions source—air-con, kitchens, laundry, pools, hot water, all need power. The more rooms, the more pools, the more restaurants, the more power. Despite what five-star resorts might proclaim, more often than not they are abject wrecking balls environmentally. They’re also some of the worst greenwashing scoundrels on the planet.
With an environmental vandalism pie-chart, air-travel wins.
I stayed at six places during my trip, all but one with twelve rooms or less, and only one had a pool. When it came to figuring out hotel emissions, rather than ask the check-in desk for their meter readings, I turned to the books.
The most useful was Carbon Footprint Assessment of Home-Stays in Thailand by Koiwanit and Filimonau. It looked at homestays in Ranong province, using actual data, and threw out
Couchfish: The Erosion Of A Dream
Note: Our exisiting coverage for Cửa Đại and An Bàng on Travelfish which were researched and written in 2017 serve as good counterpoints to the following piece as they illustrate now much has changed in just a few years. I’ll be updating them to bring them in line with the following in the coming days.
Let me start by saying I’ve seen more than my share of great beaches. The flip-side of this is I’ve also seen my share of not so great, dare I say, awful, beaches. A product of travelling in circles in Southeast Asia for the last thirty years is that I’ve seen many a beach shift from the former to the latter. Few—if any, move in the opposite direction.
Despite this downwards shift, beaches remain one of the major calling cards for many a Southeast Asian destination. There’s the palm trees, the blue skies, the powdery sand, the warm and lapping turquoise water. You get my drift right?
What we need is a “no building” sign. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
I’ve written before about the perils that rising sea levels hold for the not too distant future. Yet, tourists’ favourite holiday spots washing away are the least of the concerns. The economic and social ramifications of a vanishing coastline will be as vast as the ocean that submerges them. Yes, the calamities associated with this are down the tube a bit—give it another twenty years give or take.
Yet, in some spots you don’t need to wait twenty years. For those who want front seats on the calamity, come to Vietnam. To An Bàng and Cửa Đại beaches, a short bike ride from tourist hub Hội An. I made the trip today to save you the bother, and the beach is an unmitigated disaster area.
What could go wrong? Photo: Stuart McDonald.
First a brief history.
I first visited Hội An’s beach strip in 1993 or 1994. As best I remember, at the time there was nothing tourist-facing on An Bàng, and Cửa Đại had three hotels—the Victoria and two others. The beach, still quite duney in places, went and went and went. To the south, the (then with no dams) Thu Bồn river emptied out to sea, while offshore, the Chàm Islands glimmered. You could walk all the way to Đà Nẵng’s Mỹ Khê Beach and see barely any construction whatsoever. I did it—once. Yes, 1993 was a lifetime ago.
Vietnam’s coast around Hội An catches a bit of weather in October-ish most years when tropical cyclones blow in. While the town often floods and has for decades, the beach districts bear the brunt of it. People die. For the rest of the year, thanks to current, wind cycles and the Thu Bồn, the sand returns—ready to get sucked away again. This combination of islands, estuary and storms create a complex and unique system. Still, this cycle of erosion and accretion (when the sand returns) has been going on forever. Well, almost.
What a difference 19 years makes. First two images (source), third image, Stuart McDonald, via Google Maps.
In recent decades, An Bàng, and Cửa Đại have boomed—a search on AirBnb for “An Bàng” delivers results for hundreds of “homes.” Many sit on what was once the sand dunes that formed a natural protective element for the beach. Off beach meanwhile, at least seven dams now sit on the Thu Bồn. Illegal sand dredging on the river is rife. In a few short decades, a system that has worked forever and a day has started to malfunction. The cycle of erosion and accretion isn’t what it used to be. Add to this, a worsening of the storm cells that hit the region each year, and none of the news is good.
But wait, there’s more!
At the southern end of Cửa Đại Beach, where the Victoria was once the southern-most resort, more resorts went in. Built within metres of the high tide mark, it should come as a surprise to nobody that they started to wash away. At the southernmost tip, everyone’s favourite enviro-vandal Vin Group dropped in the VinPearl Hoi An Resort. Built at the cusp of the Thu Bồn’s mouth, even by Vin Group standards,
Couchfish: Stay Another Day, Huế edition.
Broad strokes, destinations want tourists to do three things. They want them to come, to spend, and to leave. In visiting somewhere—anywhere—a tourist does all these things by default, so the bar is low. The Holy Grail though, is to add another item—to stay—and more often than not, tourists do that too. But then the challenge becomes how to get them to stay longer. Not forever—after all we’ve all had guests camped in the spare room tooooo long—but to be sure, longer than a night is good. How does a destination get people to stay another day?
The Stay Another Day concept is far from a new one. Both Siem Reap and Luang Prabang have run initiatives built around this. But today, I’m writing about Huế, located more of less in the middle of Vietnam.
Slow down to xích lô speed. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
An ancient capital in times past, Huế is not short on attractions. There’s the Citadel, tombs, pagodas, museums, a beautiful riverfront, a fascinating “old city,” and a fabulous food scene. And yet, many foreign visitors give it but a night. This isn’t because they’re not interested in what the city has to offer, but rather two other reasons—both of which are out of the city’s control.
The single biggest reason is, as I’ve written before, travellers trying to see too much in too little time. Vietnam is a bigger place than most realise, and, particularly if travelling by train (which, by the way, everyone should), time goes fast. When one is trying to cram eight places into two weeks something has to give, and often that extra night in Huế is the first thing to fall off the wagon. Why Huế? For that answer, you need to look to the second challenge—which lies roughly four to five hours to the south—Hoi An.
Aside from Hạ Long Bay and Sapa, Hội An is the heaviest promoted destination in the country—and, to a point, with good reason. There is a lot to love, be it the shopfronts, the international food scene, the river setting, or (or a good day when they’re not covered in trash of washing away) the beaches. But all—Hạ Long, Sapa, and Hội An, among others—have been battered by the overtourism bat.
How about some offerings to keep overdevelopment at bay. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Sure Da Nang sits between the two and that’s a destination in its own right I guess, but it is interchangeable with many other overtouristed beach resort strips in the region. What Hue and Hội An offer though, can’t be seen and experienced in the same way elsewhere. They’re each unique in their own way.
In looking for other “things” to convince people to stay longer in Huế, there is a concerted effort to add a “wellness” arrow to its quiver. It has a pretty hinterland and there is plenty of scope for spas, retreats, cycling tours and so on. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but some will require a considerable chunk of change to do right. With this in mind, I’d suggest two other simple approaches that won’t break the budget, worth consideration.
The Citadel ticket has to change. From a historical point of view, Huế’s most marketed attractions are the Citadel and the Royal tombs that surround it. The former is downtown, a short walk from the city’s tourist hub on the south side of the Perfume River. The tombs are scattered around the surrounds, not all in the same direction and are generally visited by van or motorbike.
Hurry up, the clock is ticking. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
The Citadel and each tomb has there own admission fee, but you can also buy a variety of combination tickets. These allow you to visit a mix of the palace and tombs for a reduced overall price. This in itself is smart, but what isn’t so smart is the ticket is only valid for two days. In most cases what this means is a visitor will see the Citadel on one day and, best case, on the other day, see as many tombs as they can cram in. Take my word for it, after a long day of tomb wandering, the value add
Couchfish: In The Land Of The Godless Communists
Xin chào from Phan Rang in South Central Vietnam. I’m typing this after an extremely wet scooter day, and while this is only my fourth full day, it feels like double that. In a good way!
I’m in Vietnam to speak at a four-day conference in Huế, but I decided to turn a four-day commitment into a three week trip. It seemed like the right thing to do, but already I feel like I’m running out of time. The conference is on religious tourism and pilgrimage, which might not sound like it belongs on my page, but ... what is travel but a pilgrimage?
Hai Việt Nam. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
Titled “A sense of faith builds a sense of place,” my talk looks at the important role backpackers play in slow tourism. If, by chance, you’re in Huế next week, come along!
A few years ago, I was in some bar talking to some guy. The guy, he was aghast at my plans for a motorbike trip to the north of Vietnam. He compared it to Burma, Cambodia and Thailand’s predominant Buddhist faiths, Vietnam? No, no, no, no way man—he wasn’t going. “They’re all godless communists, why would you go there?” he said.
As we were not travelling together I wasn’t too fussed, but his thoughts were curious. He wasn’t, as far as I could tell from his behaviour over the hour I’d been talking to him, a religious guy at all. At all. And yet here he was getting all biblical on me. People can be odd.
First meal off the plane. Half hole-in-the-wall half motorcycle repair shop. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
When I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City the other day, I got a xe ôm from the airport to my hotel in Phú Nhuận District. I’d not stayed in the area before and wanted to explore somewhere new. I spent the first day in meetings and catching up with friends, but the second morning, I went for a wander.
Leaving my hotel, I walk down Trần Huy Liệu for about half an hour, past the coffee shop by the dozen, till I reach Lê Văn Sỹ. There I take a left, walking south to Chợ Nguyễn Văn Trỗi, a thriving fresh produce and a million-other-things market. After a walk through the shopping maze, I grab a street side coffee and continue south to the “river.”
Demarcating Phú Nhuận from downtown District 1, the Thị Nghè Canal, was once one of the city’s most polluted waterways. Now that’s saying something. Thanks to an almost US$400m World Bank project an enormous reworking was undertaken starting in 2002, and taking a decade to complete. A ten-year length this story blames on “unyielding clay [and] crooked Chinese contractors.” Cough splutter.
It is amazing what you can do with almost half a billion dollars. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
As a part of the process, some 7,000 houses, most belonging to the urban poor, were razed. Those with title had a chance at subsidised apartments, but many ended up landless, pushed to the periphery of town. Out of sight and out of mind and all that. Today, grass lawns and frangipani replace the grounds where the houses once stood. Lining both sides of the waterway, bench seats with canoodling lovers dot the lawns. Fishers dangle lines (no thanks!) and, by the lawn, on both sides, coffee-shop-lined roads run.
There’s also houses of worship. As I reach the canal, on my left sits Chùa Pháp Hoa, a large Buddhist temple with attention-grabbing cannon-ball flowers. Known for its bright lanterns, the name Pháp Hoa means “magic flower,” but I’m not sure if that refers to the lanterns or the flowers.
A little further east, on the south bank of the canal, lies Chùa Chantarangsay, a Khmer Buddhist temple. Walking around its grounds you could close your eyes and open them again only to find yourself in Phnom Penh. Further east still, lies Công Lý Church, one of a few in the area.
Love me a cannon-ball flower. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
After the church, I backtrack a little, and head to a cafe. My plan is to pull up a red plastic chair and have a coffee while life rolls by. Clearly the hang-out for a bunch
Couchfish: 2023 Will Be The Year Of ...
Blink and you’ll miss it right? I feels like only yesterday that 2019 was drawing to a close, yet here we are on the cusp of 2023. It has been, it would be fair to say, a sub-optimal spell.
Last time I got into predications, I suggested the pandemic would stretch for years rather than months—broken clocks and all that. So what do I see on the cards for 2023? Smash all the clocks within reach and read on to find out.
1. The return of the queue
In the heady days of early on in the pandemic I was one of a group interviewed about what it all meant. One of the others, a technologist investor, declared it would be a shot in the arm for “contactless.” By that they meant the technologies built around removing human contact in travel. Driven by the fears of human contact driving Covid, they, along with others, argued for the removal of humans.
Screenshot from The Serpent: Stuart McDonald
Thankfully, and for a glad bag of reasons, this hasn’t happened. What is back with vengeance though, is queues. If you thought queues were awful in 2019, expect 2023 to be a special surprise.
2. The return of China
If you think queues are bad now, wait till China comes back on stream. The teat Southeast Asia’s tourism industry welded itself to will start pumping in quarter two. By the middle of 2023, Chinese outbound tourism will be back big time. I’d like to say this will pump needed income into regional economies, and to a point it will, but ...
3. ... the structural problems of tourism will remain unaddressed
Much of the income China’s tourism brings will beat the passengers to the departure gate. The leaky boat that tourism is will continue to leak and vast amounts of money that should be staying in the destination will continue to get offshored.
The only leakage here is the roof. Literally. Ko Chang Noi. Photo: David Luekens.
The industry at large remains patently uninterested in addressing the exploitative financial arrangements that underpin it. Or at least that underpin the wealth of the CEOs whose decisions perpetuate it. There is though, hope for change in at least one area—greenwashing.
4. Greenwashing will see court time
The passing of Australian laws aimed at reigning in greenwashing are welcome indeed. Expect in 2023 to see a high profile operator, a media outlet, or more likely an influencer, to have their day in court. Taken to task for deceptive claims around their activities, this could be a watershed. Bring the hammer down hard please.
If you’re not convinced this is true, check this out about the tourism industry deciding to measure their carbon emissions a different way in order to be able to crow about what progress they’ve already made.
5. Destination communities will get involved ...
... though not in a way one might expect. The days of being nothing more than background for Instagram photos are over. Expect legal action much as you already see against natural resources firms. After all, is there that much difference between the coal and travel industries? Communities will point the finger over the environmental, social and economic ravages tourism can bring.
Pave it over baby. Sapa, Vietnam. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
There are no shortage of regional destinations that would make for test cases in this regard. Residents have seen a tourist-free world, and while most would like some degree of tourism, nobody sane wants 2019 back. The industry meanwhile, is racing back to 2019’s madness—pushback is inevitable. Head to court, today—well, on January 1 please, so this prediction counts.
6. Tourism’s spots will not change
Many, myself included, argued that the pandemic provided the opportunity to “rethink tourism.” Many, again myself included, argued that this was a pipe dream—and it was. There are exceptions, but by and large, tourism is not going to change its spots. As mass tourism comes on stream through the middle of 2023, expect the industry to both encourage and embrace it.
7. Flying is t