03 October 2009

Inspiring Travels - An Interview with Travelfish.org's Stuart McDonald

While trying to navigate the myriad guidebooks for SE Asia S and I were lucky enough to have travelfish.org recommended to us by a friend. Travelfish is a godsend for independent travelers who want accurate, interesting and thorough reviews that are also - gasp - up to date. Possibly the most important tool that we used for our year in Asia - can you tell that I love it?

I had a ton of questions that I was dying to ask founder Stuart McDonald and I figured that you guys might like to hear 'em as well!

What gave you the idea for Travelfish, and how did you begin to execute it?
I had written guidebooks to Vietnam in '94/95 and Thailand in '96/97 so that gave me some grounding in what it was about. After a few years working in Bangkok, Samantha and I threw around various ideas as I wanted to get back out of the office and travelling again. I had taught myself web design at one of the Bangkok jobs and so we brought that and the travel writing together to create the idea behind Travelfish.

At the time it was just a few scratchings of pen to paper -- very, very broad strokes -- but the central tenet was to take advantage of the internet to get good travel information out there for travellers to use. The idea has developed a lot since then, particularly with regard to our very successful Travelfish Guides, but the main idea is still the same: helping travellers get the most out of their trip to Southeast Asia.

At the start, execution involved really just me -- I coded the site from scratch and did all the research. Sam kept a full time job and I maintained a consultancy I had. We started very slowly, just covering a couple of places we really liked, but it has been over five years now and the site has expanded dramatically.

It obviously left a good impression on you – where was your first trip to Asia, and how did it go?

Thailand was an after-thought on my first solo trip away. I had a round-the-world ticket ex-Australia to the US, Europe, India and Thailand. India was the focus for me, but in the end I had a pretty hard time there, and Thailand turned out to be the classic "Eastern" experience I had been looking for. That was in 1993 and I've been returning ever since. My first Thai sojourn was a pretty typical jaunt -- partying on Khao San Road, trekking in Chiang Mai, lazing on Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Phi Phi, taking 10B tuk tuks in Bangkok and getting shuffled through dodgy gem stores -- generally all the things I now tell people to skip!

At the time, information was more limited. Sure, there were guidebooks -- and I'd say the books on Thailand at the time, the blue Lonely Planet and Carl Parke's book for Moon, were easily the last good guidebooks to the country -- but generally you didn't see the same degree of trip-planning and research that you do today. It was more of a "choose your own adventure" thing.

There is a dearth of information online for Indonesia, Philippines and Myanmar (not to mention India). Any plans to start covering these destinations?

We won't be covering Burma as a destination, though we do have a Burma section on the messageboard that has some very knowledgeable people posting to it. We live in Indonesia and may be making an announcement about this in the coming months. I've never been to the Philippines, so if we were to look at expanding to there, I guess I'd have to do a few trips up there to have a look around first! India -- ahhh that definitely falls into the "way too much to chew" department. IndiaMike.com does a pretty good job on it.

Could Travelfish become global, or do you see it staying solely in Southeast Asia?

That's a good question, but I think one of the appeals of Travelfish is that we cover just one part of the world, and cover it well. We could hardly write with any authority or experience on travel through Chad, Peru or Portugal and while I think there are a lot of of websites out there that are trying to take a global view of things, there are none that I would say are doing it successfully from the reader's point of view. Six or seven countries home to a few hundred million people is enough to keep me busy.

Stuart catching a boat with a cow in Champassak.

Which travel blogs do you read?
Well Madness and Beauty for starters! Food is an integral part of the Asian experience and one of the best places to start are the food blogs -- not only will you get an inside angle on what to eat, you'll probably learn oodles about the country and culture as well. Austin Bush's food blog is Thai focused, but probably the best in the region. For Malaysia, Eating Asia by Robyn Eckhardt is excellent, while for Vietnam look no further than Sticky Rice. Cambodia Phnomenon is where it is at for that corner of the world. While not food blogs, Lao Bumpkin and Lao Miao are very useful for facts on the ground and "off the map" travel.

Some non-food blogs:
http://thelunaticexpress.com/ (I admire that this terrific idea was undertaken with so little noise online)
http://www.ephemerratic.com/ (their Asia stuff is very good)
http://itinerantlondoner.wordpress.com/ (good writing and pics)
http://primitiveculture.blogspot.com/ (good writing and pics -- disclosure: this author used to work for us)
http://nomadic-tendencies.blogspot.com/ (not so much to read but to look at)

A side note about personal travel blogs, is there's often a tendancy for the writers, as they develop a wider readership, to get waylaid trying to cook up an earning out of the blog. While I certainly understand the desire to make a bit of dosh on the side, I think it's an unfortunate distraction and often adversely affects the blog as it switches from good interesting writing to a more "Top 10 things to pack for whatever" style -- often with little more than a nominal reward for the writer.

Given the internet's obvious strengths for planning, do you think that the travelfish model will force the big travel companies to re-evaluate their way of doing things?

I think the big travel publishers are already re-evaluating how things get done, but not always in ways that improve the product for the traveller. Yes the internet can be a very handy tool for planning, but as I said in an open letter published over on Matador, the internet isn't infallible and the best info is often gathered by talking to a traveller who has just been where you want to go.

The big publishers often use a team of writers from outside the region, who all fly in and cover the country in as quick a time as possible (they're mostly paid a set fee so it pays to do the ground work asap to keep costs down). The information is then boiled down, edited and published perhaps nine months to a year after they were there. This is a broken model and should be changed. They could take advantage of the internet and a wider variety of locally-based authors/researchers to put the product together -- it would be faster and certainly more accurate and you'd no longer have researchers put in the position where they have six weeks to cover Indonesia. Is this going to happen? Probably not.

Lonely Planet has been doing some interesting things with its BlogSherpa program, but not all are satisfied with it from a blogger's point of view, and, well, a lot of the writing isn't too hot. I think they'd be better off having their writers creating this content to retain a more professional angle.

I don't subscribe to the idea that the internet will kill guidebooks. People will always need them -- and (thankfully) the internet isn't everywhere. And who wants to throw their Toshiba notebook at the rat chewing through their pack -- that's what a guidebook is for!

What are the site's statistics in terms of contributors and visitors?

Travelfish at the moment has six paid researchers in the field. It varies depending on what is going on -- we've had as many as 12 and as few as one. All live in the region and most have other jobs (which is why the number fluctuates month to month). Site-wise we do around 1.5 million page impressions a month via around a quarter of a million unique users.

Are people using travelfish over the big name guidebooks?

Most are using both. Some are using just Travelfish. We don't see Travelfish as a replacement for your guidebook -- rather as complement. We cover places that no other guidebook does, so for those who really want to get off the beaten track, Travelfish can be especially useful. Researchers for Lonely Planet and Rough Guides use Travelfish, so that's a good sign I guess!

You have traveled extensively in Asia. Any new destinations that you're dying to visit?
I'm just about to start doing regular exploratory trips in Indonesia, which I'm very excited about -- heading to Southern Sulawesi next week. While we've been living here for a few years, we've also just had two children and they're now getting old enough (one and nearly three) that I'm more comfortable taking longer trips away from them. So I've got a lot of travel in Indonesia planned.

What is your number one piece of advice for first-timers to Southeast Asia?
Less is more. Planning a trip is like packing a bag. When you're packing, lay everything you want to take out on the bed -- then put half of it back in your cupboard. The same goes for route-planning. Plan out an itinerary then cut half the destinations (or ask the boss for more time off!) so that you can spend more time in each place. Southeast Asia doesn't lend itself well to whistlestop tours.

You are a long term expat. Do you think you'll ever move back to the West?
My answer depends on whether my Mum is going to read this! I think we've probably got another 6 years or so in Indoneisa before we need to make a serious decision about our kids' schooling -- at this stage that is what would take us back to Australia.

What is your absolute favourite Southeast Asian city, and why?
Phnom Penh. We lived there for two years a few years ago and it really struck a chord with me -- as did Cambodia as a whole. For a place so wracked by pain and suffering the people are an amazing lesson in human spirit. I found it a fascinating place to live, though very depressing in some ways -- especially regarding how the city is being developed. There was something about just sitting around on the riverfront that will always stay with me. I also asked Sam to marry me there -- that counts for something!

A Beer Lao in Attapeu.

I am a dyed-in-the-wool foodie when traveling. What is your top priority when you visit a country?
Eat, eat and eat some more. But I also like to get the lay of the land -- just to take a wander around wherever I'm staying helps to get a feel for the place -- if there is waterfront -- be it river or sea, I'll spend some time down there. It's always interesting to see how others relax.

As I am a foodie, I need to know – what has been your most memorable meal in Asia?
The one dish I wish we had ordered was "Black Male in Ash", listed on a menu in Lak Sao in Laos. The best I ate was in the Mekong Delta on my first trip there (1994). My travel companion and I took a frieghter from My Tho up to Chau Doc on the Cambodian border. Late in the afternoon, the boat stopped at a fish farm-like thing -- it was really just a floating deck that had an absolutely massive wok with boiling oil on it. They caught the fish and they went straight off the hook and into the oil -- they didn't ever touch the ground -- a matter of minutes later we had these steaming clunks of fish with condiments and a batch of cold beer. With the sunset coming and the constant drumming of the Mekong, I'll never forget it.

When writing a guide for a city and researching all of the nitty gritty details is it possible to still relax and enjoy the destination, or is it more like a business trip?
Well it certainly takes some of the pleasure out of it. But at the same time you get to do stuff you may not otherwise have bothered to do -- there is an upside and a downside to this kind of work. I tend to pace myself, so if I allow a week for a city I'll be working half the day and then doing my own thing (which may or may not double as research) the other half. I tend to eat dinner then write-up the day's work, then do bar research -- not the other way around!

Finally, for all of my readers who haven't used travelfish, why should they start? (shameless self-promotion is allowed...)

If you're looking to get off the beaten track in Southeast Asia, Travelfish is, simply, the biggest repository of independently researched information online. We've got more than 4,000 anonymously reviewed places to stay across around 400 destinations in six countries. The forum contains a wealth of travel planning advice -- from myself, other Travelfish researchers and travellers and expats. And best of all, it's free. There are PDF guidebooks you can buy (or even Travelfish T-shirts!) but just about everything you need is available on the site 100% free. Travelfish has also launched an application for iPhones - check it out here!

Well sold, Stuart! Thanks again for the interview.

Stuart, pictured with partner Sam (who is also an integral part of travelfish)

(Stuart previously lived in Thailand and Cambodia for around eight years between them, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer and various other stuff. Before all those non-travel jobs he authored two travel guides, one to Vietnam and one to Thailand. He still spends a lot of time travelling and can sleep anywhere, anytime - even on the road to Bokor. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. He lives in Bali, Indonesia.)


Grant said...

Awesome Q&A. Whether it's kitchy crabshacks, tales of the fishermen, saliva inducing photos, and now this, you are truly a magnificent purveyor or all things piscine! I think your readers would be interested to know that your last name, had it not been changed by your grandfather would have been "Scales". Coincidence? I think not.

nodebtworldtravel.com said...

The fact that they focus on only one region of the world is great. Too many websites try to be all encompassing to all interests. Do one thing (or in this case, area of the world) and do it well.

Lunatic Express said...

Thanks for the mention and link!


kanmuri said...

Great! I'll check them out soon, as I'm going to S.E.A in December :)

Lauren said...

Thanks so much to you and Stuart for the mention of www.ephemerratic.com.

We're not inactive, just slower since we returned to the U.S. and the reality of looking for jobs and filing back taxes!

We've got new post about Thailand, including about an elephant sanctuary, an intense cooking class, and catching a muay thai kickboxing match.

Kirsty said...

Excellent interview with lots of great advice and info. I admire what Stuart has accomplished with Travelfish. Where it has come from, where it's going and how he's doing it. As a web developer he is one of the leaders in the area of travel and it's great to get inside his head a bit.

the fashionate traveller said...

I loved this post too, especially all the blogs in it to follow up :) I loved Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos - and their food!!