We chat with Stuart McDonald, founder of online Asian travel website Travelfish.org, about exploring the unexplored. As a tourist destination, Asia’s getting busier by the day. More and more people have money to travel, visa restrictions are disappearing and traveling by plane is more affordable than ever. Once tranquil sites like Angkor Wat, Kyoto and others are today packed with tourists. But the good news is there are still tons of wonderful places to visit that are void of crowds. On this episode we’ll chat with Stuart McDonald, founder of online Asian travel website Travelfish.org, about why so many unexplored places remain unexplored?
Trevor: When I first worked for Stuart it was in between some of those early travel guidebooks I did for Fodors. Although I’ve written about Bangkok a number of times over the years, this was exploring the explored… I remember the Travelfish project because of the maps. Travelfish has pretty good maps –this was before Google Maps so I thought their online maps were great (and easily printable) and I remember printing them out and adding dozens of new places I knew about or had heard about from other work I’d done and then going out to do hotel inspections. LIke hundreds of hotel inspections. I think in the Khao San Road area alone there were more than 50. I actually stayed in a guesthouse in Khao San and did the hotel inspections by day, taking notes on the maps and then doing “nightlife” research each evening. And then it was off to Silom for a few nights to check out all the places around there. I lived in Bangkok of course, but more than just to get in character, it was convenience, simply because there are SO MANY HOTELS in Bangkok.
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Scott: I’ve known of Stuart for many years, consulted Travelfish semi-regularly, but only met him in person in June 2018 when he was in Bangkok and we met for a smoothie. It was a bit of a ‘fan-boy’ meeting for me as I’ve greatly appreciated and respected his work for some time.
Trevor: Working for Travelfish also made me aware of the changes that were occurring in the travel guide industry, namely from print to online and how well Travelfish was adapting (from pay-to-print pdfs to downloadable iphone apps with offline maps) and now offering advice for travel all across the region.
Scott: Nowadays it seems like there is information out there about everywhere. Just Google maps alone has photos and reviews of every little waterfall, beach, viewpoint, temple, you name it. At the same time, people obsess over the world’s best beaches lists and city’s like Bangkok and Paris remain on everyone’s bucket lists. Regardless, it’s easier than every to learn about and explore the most remote places, so are more people going there or is everyone just following each other’s advice and visiting the same places?
Guest Intro: Originally from Australia, Stuart McDonald is now based out of Indonesia. He is the founder of Travelfish.org, one of the best, most comprehensive, unbiased sources for Asia travel information. He joins us by Skype from Vinh Long, Vietnam.
- Scott: Tell us about yourself, your background and what brought you to Asia.
- Trevor: How long have you been operating Travelfish.org and where did it all start?
- Scott: How is Travelfish different from other online websites like TripAdvisor or LP.com
Trevor: When we were chatting about topics to discuss, you suggested “why do so many unexplored places remain unexplored?”
- As a starting point, you mentioned you recently took a trip to the Mekong Delta and there was almost nobody (tourist wise) there—at least no more than when you first went there 25 years ago. Why is that?
- Scott: What makes one place ‘click’ with travelers and others not-so-much-so?
- Trevor: I always found some irony in the fact that, while I produced travel guide content I always encouraged people to explore more: to leave the guide behind. Do you think there’s some flaw with this system in that everyone following advice to go to a ‘Must see” place makes it less of a must see place simply because everyone is then going there?
- Scott: What are the ingredients that come together to make a destination ‘hot’ and soon-thereafter filled with travelers? Example: the laid-back town of Pai, Mae Hong Song Province which is very busy versus Chiang Dao, in northern Chiang Mai province isn’t so busy?
- Trevor: is it just challenging enough to get people off the beaten path a bit. Like, there are some I really like some little temples here in Cambodia that I always tell people to check out and they’re typically too zeroed in on going to the main sites. beaches in Bali I wouldn’t like hordes of people going to, but at the same time, Do you ever feel like you want to keep some things secret. Or more secret. Or
- Scott: What are the signs that a destination is over-touristed and as a resulted no longer what made it attractive and famous?
- Trevor: What’s your best advice on exploring a new destination so that you get away from the crowds and discover something a bit more unique?
- Scott: With over-tourism becoming a major issue in tourism, what do you think the future of travel in the region looks like?
- Trevor: What are some of your favorite, not-so-known places in Asia to visit?
- Scott: How do you find places to visit – what attracts you?
To learn more about Scott & Trevor: