Couchfish Day 300: How I do what I do

Couchfish Day 300: How I do what I do

What I need is a pensieve.

So where did that all go? For a brief moment I thought about writing 300 things worth doing in Southeast Asia, but be thankful I came to my senses. After all, the last 300 days’ worth of itinerary posts does that already. Well, except for Sihanoukville.

So far we’ve been through a large chunk of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore. Looking back over the itinerary so far though, what jumps out at me is how much I skipped over. Southeast Asia is a big place, and an easy one to get waylaid in.

Are you dizzy yet? Try writing it!

A while back the question popped up, how do I plan out and do Couchfish? The 300th post seems as good a place as any to do just this. Here we go.

It should come as no surprise I started with a map. In the beginning, Covid-19 was yet to gather momentum—at least in Southeast Asia. Who knew how long it would go for, and what form any restrictions would take?

Still, I had a pretty typical mainland Southeast Asia route in mind. North through Thailand into Laos, then down Vietnam, across Cambodia, then back into Thailand. Then south, more. By the time I was in Laos though, it was clear the pandemic had quite a spell to go, most likely years, so I slowed down the pace.

This is far from all of them. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Not the pace of my writing (though that fluctuated a bit) but rather the pace of travel slowed down. It took me four weeks to get from Bangkok to the Lao frontier in the early days of Couchfish. Four weeks across the top of Laos, and later, another two weeks in the south. Vietnam blew out to around 80 days—with a helping hand from Cindy Fan. The thing is, even slowed down, the itinerary still covers a vast number of destinations in a short time. Please do not try to recreate the itinerary in real life!

For the most part, the itinerary is an amalgam of past trips I’ve done, from 1993 onwards. So do I have the memory of an elephant? Far from it! Anyone who knows me knows my memory is more akin to that of a goldfish. So what is one to do when they can’t tell you what they had for lunch yesterday?

I have diaries. My oldest dates back to 1993—a thief on a French train lifted my earlier ones. Throughout those that remain, are the notes that often kick off an entry. Some of these are personal diaries, others are notebooks from research trips. They’re stuffed with scraps of thoughts, sketch maps of random towns and so on. There are also keepsakes—coasters, business cards, napkins and whatnot. Each has a memory tied to it—all I need now is a pensieve.

Thief: “So I nicked this crazy guy’s diaries.” Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I also have about sixteen bazillion slides, which are helpful in reminding me of what places looked like back when people took slides. More recently I have about 150,000 digital images—no, they are not all of my dog—which is handy for settling more recent memories. Thank god I have a good filing system for them all—yes, that is a joke.

Being somewhat disorganised though is how some of the real fun entries begin. I’m looking for one thing, say the name of a restaurant, only to find a wine bottle note and remember the time I behaved like an idiot in Udomxai. Some things are best left forgotten, take my word for it.

There are also the bookshelves—I have a library of a hundred or so texts on the region. There are plenty of old guidebooks, but also biographies, fiction and other collections. These can be handy for anecdotal historical references and quotes to add a bit of an educative spin to the story. Sometimes I build a whole piece around some piece of history I read, it can be fun weaving experiences with the past.

Tidy desk, tidy bookshelf. Etcetera. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Then there is this travel website you may have heard of, called While the material there is for you dear reader, there are many memories cooped up in that there content. Often, reading between the lines, there are notes referring to events that, while of no use to travellers, help pull my memory strings.

But, there’s more still! There are the two guidebooks I wrote in the mid-1990s (to Vietnam and Thailand), which, while embarrassing in places, likewise serve to jog memories. There are also a few travel mags laying around with stories I sold over the same period. You know, from back when Ko Lipe was nice and all that.

There are also plenty of learning experiences raking over these old coals. I’m older and a little more sensible than I was in my 20s, and sometimes writing Couchfish feels like undoing a bit of the damage. There’s something cathartic about revisiting places with a more nuanced approach. “Yeah I was well wrong in my take as a twenty-something—I was doing it wrong,” has been an all too frequent thought.

“Did that happen in Nakhon Phanom or Nakhon Pathom?”

Last but not least there are the people. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, email and the phone, it has been fun to dig out old contacts to clarify what did or didn’t happen on the road. Near always, I change people’s names and other distinguishing features, but they all exist!

Which brings me to my final point—how true is Couchfish? It is all true, well, sort of. At times I’ve moved a meeting from one place to another or reversed a trip to better fit with the itinerary. The conversations I recount I wouldn’t take as verbatim, but they are as best I can recall them—sometimes I’ll never forget them. Memory is a funny thing, on more than one occasion I’ve contacted someone to double-check something only to have them say it never happened. Yet, I remember it clear as a bell—maybe they forgot it.

Which is to say there are many a Couchfish entry on the cutting room floor. They lay there, waiting for me to better remember, because, if it wasn’t already obvious, I never throw anything out.

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The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.