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Super globetrotters: 3 Singaporeans who visited more than 100 countries

The Sunday Times talks to three Singaporeans who have been to more than 100 countries

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Benson Ang on 29 Apr 2018

The Straits Times

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Singaporeans are a well-travelled bunch, helped by the nation's passport, which was ranked the world's most powerful earlier this year.

 

This year's Henley Passport Index, which was updated in February, placed Singapore's passport in top spot, alongside Japan's.

 

Citizens of both countries have visa-free access to 180 countries worldwide. It is widely accepted that there are 195 countries in the world.

 

Singapore's passport has consistently been one of the most welcomed in the world. Another index, the Passport Index developed by global advisory firm Arton Capital, also placed the Republic's passport in top spot.

 

The Singapore passport, say avid travellers here, help them see more of the world.

 

"Visas are a necessity in many countries, but with the Singapore passport there are fewer restrictions," says Ms Kelly Cheng, 47, co-founder of SGTravelCafe, a club for travel enthusiasts formed 11 years ago.

 

"A powerful passport matters to those of us who love to travel a lot, especially to exotic countries.

 

"Some of the far-flung places have no visa services and getting the document can be cumbersome, it can put off many. Our passport makes planning much easier," she says, estimating that close to half of the club's 100 core members have visited more than 80 countries and territories.

 

Most travellers are driven by curiosity.

 

"We want to find out a lot more about what is going on outside Singapore. We're driven by new experiences and adventure," says the senior manager in the education sector, who is not married.

 

She adds that the rising trends of couch-surfing and Internet bookings have also encouraged more globetrotting.

 

"All this makes travel arrangements much easier and there are so many options, such as couchsurfing, that have brought the price of travel down," she says,

 

The Sunday Times speaks to Singaporeans who are champion travellers, chalking up more than 100 countries each.

 

GATECRASHED A NOMAD'S WEDDING

 

Mr Tan Wee Cheng, a "country collector", as his friends call him, has visited 183 countries.

 

The 47-year-old has joined Inuit people on a seal hunt in Greenland, hopped on the Trans-Siberian Railway across Russia, explored prehistoric cave paintings with Tuareg tribesmen in Libya, walked on a salt flat in Bolivia and gatecrashed a nomad's wedding in Mongolia.

 

The adjunct associate professor at the National University of Singapore Business School is so well-travelled that he entered into the Singapore Book Of Records in 2008, under the category of Most Countries Travelled By A Single Person.

 

The bachelor says that he was bitten by the travel bug at the age of 25, when he went on his first backpacking trip to Western Europe with three of his friends. The quartet covered more than 10 countries during that month-long trip.

 

Fascinated by breathtaking sites such as the Grand Mosque of Cordoba in Spain and the Uffizi Gallery in Italy, he soon planned a trip to Eastern Europe, then to the Middle East, then to Africa.

 

The rest, as they say, is history.

 

He says: "I love travelling because the world is big and there are many exciting places. I particularly enjoy historical sites and spectacular scenery located in the middle of nowhere."

 

One day, he hopes to visit all the countries in the world and, for now, he has his eye on Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.

 

As to how he managed to tally up 183 countries, the author of two travel memoirs - Hot Spots And Dodgy Places (2009) and Exotic Lands And Dodgy Places (2010) - admits he arranges his life around travelling. He also runs a website (weecheng.com) where he writes about his trips.

 

In his 20s and 30s, the former chief financial officer of an industrial chemical firm would spend all of his annual leave travelling. Eschewing package tours, he preferred travelling on his own so he could wander about at his own pace.

 

Since he started working, he has taken two year-long breaks, during which he - no surprise - went overseas.

 

"It is a matter of priorities," he says, adding: "I found jobs that provided some flexibility in terms of leave and holidays. I also don't spend money on branded goods, which allows me to have more money to travel."

 

When pressed for his favourite destinations, he mentions Iran, Peru and Spain.

 

"All three have a diversity of landscapes, cultures. They are also rich in history, heritage, and the people are very hospitable. But every country is unique in its own way," he says, adding that the nickname "country collector" does not bother him.

 

He says that his parents, a retired Chinese teacher and a retired clerk, do worry for his safety when he is overseas, but they have come to accept his passion.

 

Over the years, he has made friends with fellow avid travellers and, in the last decade, he has been travelling mostly with them, often hiring a car or local driver.

 

When asked if he was ever afraid to travel to exotic countries, he replies: "After doing your research, you will realise that many places in Africa, South America and the Middle East are not as dangerous as they seem.

 

"Although I would not recommend travelling to Syria right now because of the possibility of violence and conflict breaking out, there are many other countries in the Middle East, such as Iran and the United Arab Emirates, which I would consider safe."

 

Even for countries he deems unsafe, he says, reassuringly: "They will not stay dangerous forever."

 

Citing Croatia, he adds: "In the mid-1990s, there was a war for independence. But now, it is perfectly safe for tourists to visit."

 

His advice for fellow travellers: Be brave and do your homework.

 

"You will find travelling to many places is not as difficult or expensive as you imagine."

 

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH TRIBAL PEOPLE

 

Madam Tham Yew Chin, 67, a Chinese writer better known by her pseudonym You Jin, sees the world as a giant residential building, with each country a different household.

 

"I want to knock on the doors of every household. People in other countries may live, act and think differently from me and travelling lets me observe them, learn from them, and appreciate their perspectives," she says in Mandarin.

 

She has been to 116 countries. Travel experiences, she says, help enrich her writing.

 

On a 1995 trip to South Africa, she met a restaurant chef who told her that he carried a loaded gun with him at all times for self-defence.

 

"It made me think about how we often take the safety we have in Singapore for granted," she says. "There are some countries where guns are readily available, and it is just not safe. The trip taught me a lot about the importance of gun control."

 

Among her favourite countries is Ethiopia, which she visited in 2016.

 

"I love its rich culture," she says, adding that the country has more than 80 tribes, each with its own way of life. "In one tribe, the women have large discs inserted in their bottom lip, as this is regarded as a form of beauty.

 

"To me, this aspect of their culture is fascinating. Visiting the tribe was an eye-opener."

 

The former Chinese teacher also enjoyed Sri Lanka, which she visited in 2012. "Everywhere I went, I felt a warmth from the locals that made me feel at home," she says, adding that the school holiday breaks allowed her to leave the country for up to six weeks at a time.

 

After she stopped teaching in 2009, she continued travelling, usually with her husband James Lim, 72, with whom she has three children.

 

In 2013, the couple went on a round-the-world trip for four months.

 

"Especially when writing fiction, I have to paint characters and descriptions for the readers to immerse themselves in. Some of these descriptions are inspired by scenes and experiences I have encountered in real life while travelling," she says.

 

The prolific writer of travelogues, essays, opinion pieces, short stories and novels received the Cultural Medallion in 2009. One of her works is the 2015 collection of travel stories titled In Time, Out Of Place, inspired by her experiences such as trekking through the Amazon rainforest and exploring the caves of Granada in Spain.

 

She says: "I always feel that if you travel an inch, you gain a foot of knowledge. In this way, travel is a great form of educating oneself."

 

HE NEEDED TO HIRE A CABBY-BODYGUARD

 

Mr Tristan See, 42, felt that he needed more time to travel, so he quit his job as a secondary school teacher.

 

The move in 2006 allowed him to fast-track his travelling ambitions. The bachelor now has 151 countries under his belt, and counting.

 

These days, the part-time mathematics and chemistry tutor makes one major trip - which can last up to five weeks - each year. He travels with friends, family and, sometimes, alone.

 

A major challenge, says Mr See, who lives with his parents in their executive Housing Board flat in Hougang, is not burning a hole in his pocket. To keep costs in check, he stays in hostels, couch-surfs, flies budget and takes local buses.

 

In December last year, he spent less than $2,000 on a three-week trip to Europe, visiting countries such as Belarus and Azerbaijan, taking 10 flights.

 

The key to thrifty travelling, he says, is proper planning.

 

"Before the trip, I always do my research to find out which accommodation and airline are the cheapest," he says, adding that he is willing to stay at low-cost accommodation as it allows him to spend a longer time in the country. "I would rather forgo comfort for more time at a location because this leads to a richer overall experience."

 

Research, he says, also helps him stay safe.

 

"For many countries, only certain areas are unsafe, such as the inner city slums, or near train or bus stations. If you do your homework, you can find out which places are dangerous and avoid them," he says. "As travellers, we have to do our due diligence and find out more about these countries instead of writing them off completely.

 

"I think the key is being able to take informed, calculated risks."

 

Nonetheless, there were times he felt unsafe. When he was in Venezuela with a friend in 2014, they noticed the cities were deserted, even in the daytime.

 

"If we wanted to eat in a restaurant, we had to knock on the door and hope someone opened it," he says. "We also had to hire a taxi driver, who could also function as our guide and bodyguard, to get anywhere."

 

However, the crimes he has encountered while travelling tend to be in well-trodden destinations. He has been pick-pocketed in Belgium and Turkey and mugged in Spain.

 

But these negative experiences, to him, are par for the course.

 

"There are bound to be bad people out there. But there are plenty of good people too."

 

His favourite country is Iran, which he visited in 2004.

 

Mr See was initially hesitant to speak to Iranians who tried striking up conversations with him on the street, worried that they were goods peddlers about to launch into a hard sell.

 

However, he soon realised that they were just being friendly.

 

He says: "They were very curious about me, my job and what Singapore is like. They hardly see any tourists, so some felt honoured that I chose to visit their country. Others even invited me for a meal or to spend the night with their families."

 

By the end of his two weeks there, Mr See was taking the local bus and hitch-hiking rides from strangers.

 

While he feels Singaporeans, having been brought up in a safe environment, can be reluctant to leave their comfort zone, he encourages them to venture beyond the usual destinations such as Bangkok, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

 

"I think it is a waste to have a Singapore passport and not use it to travel. But I think there are more Singaporeans, especially the young ones, who are more adventurous and hungry for new experiences."

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.