Thursday, March 09, 2017

Wee Cheng as reported on issue Nr. 108 of the 

4 Dec 2016

TBT Suggests - Wee Cheng

Wee Cheng is one of the few Asian travellers we are aware of who is consciously attempting to go to all 193 UN Countries in the World - and he is only a few steps away from this. In his very rich website, this native of Singapore gives his detailed impressions of his peregrinations, which include some very distant and difficult to get to lands. He also doesn't ignore his own country, to which he dedicates a special section. Countries are searchable by name in the menu, which makes it easy to find what you are looking for. So join this great traveller and see the world through his eyes...

Wee Cheng Tan
Wee Cheng, you are probably Singapore's biggest traveller. Does that mean you are famous in your home country? 
I was interviewed by Singapore’s main English newspaper in 2009, as the “most travelled Singaporean”, after being proclaimed as such by a publication known as the Singapore Book of Records. And I also briefly championed the inscription of Singapore’s first World Heritage Site and was widely interviewed for a few years. I also co-founded a travellers networking group that continue to meet monthly – we are going to celebrate 10 years’ anniversary next year.  Am I famous? I don’t think so.  That’s merely 5 minutes of fame. In the last few years, there has been a number of emerging young travel bloggers who have received wide following through their travels and imaginative marketing. They are much more prominent and are doing a great job in promoting off  the beaten track travels.
How did your passion for travel start and how did it develop into a fully-fledged venture?
I was born in a middle class family in Singapore. Travel was never a big thing in developing Singapore when I was growing up.  It was simply too costly and considered the pursuits of the rich. I have always been fascinated with faraway places and exotic lands. Mum worked in a firm that had clients from around the world, and she would pass me stamps stuck on the envelopes sent to her office from various countries. I was intrigued by these tiny treasures from the most exotic countries, and even more so by the legends behind the colourful images on these stamps.

My first holidays were with my parents and sister to Malaysia and China on guided package tours. I enjoyed myself and thought that I could try be more adventurous and backpack later on, just like the young many white backpackers that pass through Singapore on their way around Asia.

When I was about to complete university, I wanted to do Western Europe before starting work, just like the typical undergraduate of the day. My parents offered to pay for the trip as a reward for completing school. So, that was my first backpacking adventure, and I was hooked on the travel bug. In the years to follow, I would use all my annual vacation entitlement to travel. Eastern Europe followed, then Turkey, the Middle East and Indonesia. Even then, I thought I would only go to the most touristy destinations. There were more than enough such places to do in my lifetime, I reckoned then.

In 1997, I went to graduate school in London and joined an investment bank in the UK thereafter. With a constantly concerned family faraway, the floodgates of frequent travel were opened. Before long, I found myself in the Baltics, Patagonia, Central America, Central Asia and the Caucasus. Every new trip lifted my threshold for discomfort, uncertainty and even danger. It was in a Vilnius hotel lobby when I bumped into an elderly Spanish man who exclaimed that he had just done his 100th country. At that point, I was 30-odd countries away, and I thought why couldn’t I do the same. Perhaps I could even aim to complete all the countries in the world.

By 2002, when I decided to head home for good, I hit on spending a year on the road. That was something I used to think only mad Englishmen would do. I spent half a year in Latin America, and the other half year overland from London to Singapore via Trans-Siberia – after all, I have told friends I would go home by land one day.  And so it all took off. Before I knew it, I quickly aspired to do all the countries and unusual non-country regions around the world.
Timbuktu, Mali.
You have a travel blog -  tell us something about it and what are your aims with it?
I set up that website in 1995 as a way to share my travel stories with friends. That was before they called it blog. I even established a yahoo group to circulate emails on the road. It was only a few years ago that I converted the website into the format of a blog as that seemed to be the fashion of the day. I have no grand aims for it – it is merely a way to share stories.  Over the past few years, however, I have been spending time on Facebook and have practically stopped updating my blog/website. I am contemplating switching entirely to Facebook as I use it for many more purposes other than just updating friends on my travels.
Northern Peru.
What is your preferred way of travelling?
My travelling style has changed over the years. I used to travel alone and really enjoyed the freedom of making changes to my plans according to my whims and fancies. Over the past decade, however, I have gotten to know many people in Singapore who share  a similar interest in travelling to unusual off-beaten-track places. And I have also learnt to appreciate the joys of sharing my observations with friends.  Maybe this is also an age issue. Increasingly, as I become older, I begin to appreciate some comfort even when venturing to remote places.  Travelling with like-minded friends allows the sharing of costs.

Whilst I used to travel extended distances on public transport, I now prefer to spend more for customized arrangements that would bring me to places faster and with more comfort. I also enjoy road trips and food trips as well. In fact, both street food and gastronomical fine dining have become dedicated pursuits on my travels.
Machu Picchu.
How do locals in far away places react when you tell them you are from Singapore? Any memorable stories about this?
Singapore is a small country and outside of mainstream US, EU and Asian destinations, I am often the first Singaporean people have met. In fact, they sometimes think I am from China, Japan or Korea even after I tell them where I am from.
Which countries have been very different compared to what you expected before you visited?
Mexico – popular impression is that it is a country with high crime rates, drug lords and tricksters at every corner. When I visited Mexico, however, I found a great nation with a colourful culture, great history and architecture, and a wonderful cuisine that is so different from the tex-mex fast food variety I was used to.

Another example is Iran – an ancient civilization with much diversity and impressive sites. The people are amongst the friendliest I have met, and the hospitality not only heart-warming but even slightly oppressive as you wonder how you can ever reciprocate such hospitality.  This is so different from the religious extremist mass media love to portray.
Tell us a travel story that is especially memorable.
In 2008, with a friend, I took a cab to the city centre of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, and suddenly we found ourselves driving in a junction guarded by a young man with a black hood and mask over his mouth.  He shouted loudly, then set fire to a pile of tyres with the huge burning torch he was holding.  To the left – fifty meters away - were tense crowds, clearly agitated, waving clenched fists, gesticulating wildly or swaying red flags.  Our driver, his dark face now pale with horror, turned the steering wheel sharply to the right.

But it was difficult to find a sanctuary. Ahead of us were a squadron of riot police with helmets and high shields heading for the crowds. We were half expecting the smell of tear gas and the sound of bullets to whistle past.  Our driver held his cool, drove slowly but steadily towards the police, then another right turn down a narrow alley.

That half minute felt like eternity and a day. A few dozen, possibly fifty, or even a hundred metres down the road, we heard the sharp blow of police whistles from where we left; and loud bursts that sounded like cannon shots, to be followed by another burst, then a series of restrained explosions. White smoke rose above the neighbourhood of tin roofs; the sound of ambulance sirens; more explosions and quite possibly the rattle of a few gun shots rang through the air; followed by the screech of braking heavy trucks and a sudden loud bang probably caused by a collision.

The driver made a few turns and dashed across the neighbourhood. We spied a few vegetable stalls and the odd hardware shop, all open for business. We knew we were safe.  The driver breathed a sigh of relief, then sent a bubble of air out of his mouth, and then gave us a mocking smile.  What a narrow escape!  I wouldn’t want to get caught in a riot again.
Libyan Sahara.
You are close to completing all 193 UN countries. Which countries do you have left which are challenging you to reach this goal? Do you have a timeline in mind?
I’m left with Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau in the North Pacific; Sao Tome and Principe, DR Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Angola and Nigeria in Africa; Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in West and South Asia.  No definite timeline. Apart from these countries, there are also many places I have yet to visit within countries I have been.  I would like to do these as well. Ultimately I would take my time to travel to these places, perhaps opportunistically wherever I go to.
Asia is becoming a great 'exporter' of tourists but frequently people travel in groups or to major highlights. Do you think Asians will also become independent travellers or not, and why?
Asian backpackers and independent travellers are already appearing.  In countries such as Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and Korea which became prosperous and where people began travelling much earlier, independent travelling is already common or even the norm.  People from China started overseas holidays about a decade or so ago, and like everywhere else, joining package tours is the initial trend. But like everywhere else, they begin to realise that package holidays do not necessarily give them the excitement and freedom. Over the last few years, I have gotten to know many young adventurous Chinese who have made their way across the world, including some pretty off-beaten-track places. Given the size of the Chinese population, it is a matter of time before Chinese independent travellers hit your neighbourhood.
Give us 3 gems of Singapore that are not all that well-known!
1) Bukit Brown Cemetery: The largest Chinese cemetery outside China. Established in the 19th century and shut down in the early 1970s, this is an amazing oasis of green space and wildlife within a metropolis. In addition, it is an interesting kaleidoscope of the different cultural mix that is Singapore: Chinese tomb architecture with Peranakan tiles and brightly coloured statues of Sikh guards.  Visit soon before the government bulldoze this place for development.

2) Ubin Island: A sleepy island off the coast of northeast Singapore. This was the old rural Singapore before malls and condo projects.  One can visit a sleepy village, deserted temples and cycle through country lanes to visit abandoned quarry cliffs and a wetland reserve.

3) Tiong Bahru: A cool residential area with art deco buildings, traditional eateries, hipster cafes and odd shops.  The district has attracted a fair bit of attention in recent years, but remains relatively serene and hidden gems still lie at its many hidden corners.
Finally, if you could have one super-power, what would it be and why?
I would love to travel back in time.  Maybe to accompany Christopher Columbus or the great Chinese admiral, Zheng He, on their voyages of discovery. Or to have a conversation with Marco Polo about the splendor of the court of Kublai Khan.  Or to visit the courts of Charlemagne and the Medicis, and indulge in the wonders and flamboyant treasures of that era.
The photographs accompanying this interview and from WeeCheng's private collection.

Monday, June 08, 2015

Chasing 193 - The Quest to Visit Every Country in the World

I am one of the 34 persons interviewed in this book.

There are 193 official countries on Earth. Fewer than 100 people have seen them all. The 34 people interviewed for this book have made it their life mission to visit every last one of them. 

Jam-packed with nearly 500 pages, these revealing Q&A interviews examine the lives of ordinary people who have undertaken extraordinary travels in their quest to visit every country in the world. Learn about their adventures and explore the highs and lows of what it means to be an extreme traveler, from near-death experiences to moments that have left even the most jaded traveler speechless. 
  • How did they do this?

  • What have they sacrificed?

  • What compelled these people to go beyond the realm of the ordinary tourist to see the entire world?

  • The answers to these questions and more are contained in this rare look inside the minds of some of the world's most-traveled people. Their stories, ranging from being questioned by U.S. Special Forces while doing a solo tour of war torn Iraq, to showing a Costco ID card in order to tour a restricted launching place for space satellites in French Guiana, to entering Libya during Arab Spring and getting caught in the cross fire of cigarette smugglers, and many more, are guaranteed to fascinate and entertain every travel fan.

    Sunday, June 07, 2015

    Sarawak 2015

    This is what I'm looking forward to - a 4 day family trip to Kuching, Sarawak. A nice revisit after a decade. I'm also looking forward to the gastronomical delights there.

    Tuesday, May 26, 2015

    Wednesday, May 20, 2015

    Historic Songkla

    I visited the historic city of Songkla, once the Sultanate of Singgora, later an important provincial centre in the South of Thailand. The old city centre of Songkla reminds me a bit like the historic core of Melaka - narrow streets, old Chinese clan houses and temples and Sino-Portuguese shophouses. In fact, Songkla is working towards Unesco World Heritage listing as well. A few old shophouses are already converted into eateries for the occasional visitor. The streets are still very quiet. The overall state of preservation is still mixed and some new structures do threaten the integrity of the whole site.

    Let me set aside my heritage purist cap and put on my b-school hat - if you are Thai citizen and have some spare cash, maybe this is a place to buy a few old houses and convert them to heritage inns and restaurants in due course. The return may take longer than elsewhere to realise as Songkla is far from other major moneyed population centres; but the potential is there.

    Monday, May 18, 2015

    Nakhon Si Thammarat: Kingdom of Red Penis

    Kingdom of Red Penis: This photo was taken at the ancient walls of the Kingdom of Ligor or Nakhon Si Thammarat (13th to 19th century), once a trading port city-state and tributary state of the Sukhothai and later Ayuthaya empires.

    Before that, this was the capital of the Tambralinga Kingdom which in the 7th to 9th centuries sent tributary missions to Tang Dynasty China on at least 5 occasions. Tambralinga, which was a Hindu state, means Red Penis in Sanskrit, a name with deep religious and spiritual significance.

    The Kingdom reached its height in 1247 when King Chandrabhanu invaded Sri Lanka and made himself King of Jaffna for 15 years - the only known Southeast Asian invasion of South Asia. In 1262, Chandrabhanu invaded southern Sri Lanka and was killed in battle. This marked the destruction of his extended empire and his home city emerged as Ligor, which was for all intents and purposes a small trading city state and tributary of great regional powers.

    Chaiya: Srivijaya metropolis of the north

    Chaiya, once a regional capital of the Srivijaya Empire that controlled the coasts of Sumatra, Malay and Southern Thai Peninsula, western Borneo and Java in the 10th century.

    I took a bus here from Surat Thani. Visited the Chaiya National Museum, Wat Boromma That Chaiya, and ruins of two Srivijaya chedis - Chedi Wat Long and Chedi Wat Kaew. 

    Saturday, May 16, 2015

    Surat Thani: City of Good People

    Surat Thani (meaning the City of Good People in the Thai language), a city with population 130,000 and capital of a province of the same name in Southern Thailand. First settled in the 3rd century AD, this used to be a major regional capital of the Srivijaya Empire (9th to 13th century) based in Palembang in South Sumatra but whose naval forces once controlled the coasts of Sumatra, Malay and South Thai Peninsula, and parts of Borneo and Java.

    Today, Surat Thani is a sleepy provincial city and the transit point for ferries to the full moon party islands of Ko Samui, Ko Phangan and Ko Tao. I'm not keen on the sun and the sea.  Instead, I'll do a day trip to Chaiya tomorrow to explore remnants of the Srivijaya civilisation, then head southwards to the Province of Nakhon Sri Thammarat.

    Bangkok style wanton noodles and pork trotters at Jalan Besar

    A great food find. Well it's quite authentic.

    The Little Prince Exhibitions at Alliance Française and Fullerton Hotel

    What a coincidence the French government is holding two exhibitions on Antoine de Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince right now!  I'll be heading to Tarfaya in Southern Morocco in June, where Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a Sahara airmail pilot for many years and his experiences there inspired his great work.

    Sunday, May 03, 2015

    Food-hunting at Simpang Bedok

    Revisiting Orang Seletar

    Revisited the Orang Seletar Community near Danga Bay of Johor. Land reclamation and developers are fast encroaching. I wonder how long will this ancient tribe survive here.