In this month's Industry Interview we chat to Stuart McDonald who's the founder of the popular go-to site for all things Southeast Asia, Travelfish.org. Stuart launched the site in 2004 along with journalist/editor Samantha Brown, both of whom have been based in Southeast Asia since 1997. Along with their two children, they live somewhere between a volcano and the sea in Bali.
How would you describe Travelfish?
Travelfish.org is a travel planning site for travellers heading to Southeast Asia. It allows people to research and plan their time in the region, drawing on our personal experience of 15 years in the region along with that of our dozen or so writers and on the greater Travelfish.org community. There's also plenty of scope for people to armchair travel on the site.
What do you love about Southeast Asia?
From a travel perspective I love the wide range of experiences, people and food available to be explored. I've always been a big fan of being on the move and Southeast Asia is great for that. There's boats, buses, trains and planes, each with their own distinct appeal.
It's also a region that you can make of what you will. Want a lazy beach holiday with cold beers and fresh pineapple brought to your deckchair – no problem. Looking for a more challenging motorbike trip through remote mountains – you can do that too.
In what order do you recommend to explore Southeast Asia?
For the first timer to Southeast Asia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore are by far the easiest. Cambodia and Laos are also not too challenging, though the timetables are more of a guideline there.
While it hasn't been my experience, some find the Vietnamese backpacking experience to be a bit abrasive and difficult to deal with, meaning that some find it a challenging mirror to laid back Laos or Cambodia.
Indonesia though is where I'd say things are "at" for independent travellers looking to get off the beaten track. It's a vast archipelago encompassing a tremendous variety of cultures and landscapes. It can be a little uncomfortable going at times, but the rewards more than compensate. If you've been to mainland Southeast Asia and find it a bit too "easy", you want to hit Indonesia.
What changes have you witnessed in Asia since your launch in '04?
Big changes! The traveller demographic has changed. We're seeing a lot more short-term visits (people visiting the region for under a month) and, courtesy of low cost airlines like AirAsia, it is far easier to cover a lot of miles. We regularly see people trying to cover five countries in three months, where when we first arrived in Asia you were much more likely to meet people doing three countries in five months.
You used to be a hard-copy guidebook writer - what are your thoughts about them now?
I think there will always be a place for them and it need not be an either/or scenario. Paper has been around for a long time. I think what some of the traditional publishers have in their favour is their talent pool of extremely experienced, knowledgeable writers, and they should be leveraging that to produce quality product that can be regarded as essential. The last guidebook I was truly happy with was a '92 Lonely Planet guide to India.
You've been based in Bali for some time - do you think you'll ever head back to Australia?
Is my Mum going to read this?!
While we're very happy here in Indonesia, we have two young kids and at some stage we'll probably consider shifting back to Sydney to see they get the best education we can manage. That said, we've probably got another five years here or in the region at least.
Check out our other posts in the Industry Interview series: