Text version of The New Paper report (2 Feb 09)

The text version of The New Paper report on 2 Feb 09:
He's the most travelled S'porean
Lecturer has travelled to 174 countries & territories in 16 years
By Ng Tze Yong
February 03, 2009    

HE'S an intrepid traveller who can boast more than a passport-full of stamps and a good travel tale.


Mr Tan Wee Cheng, 39, is also officially Singapore's most widely-travelled person.


Last year, he entered the Singapore Book of Records under the category of Most Countries Travelled By A Single Person. (Yes, there is such a record.)

He has visited 174 countries and territories, including breakaway regions which are not recognised internationally.


Each stamp in his passport tells a story: Mr Tan has been detained in Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, mugged in Russia and Romania, got into scuffles in Cyprus and Liberia, and survived road accidents in Albania and riots in Burkina Faso, Africa.


At one border crossing which he reached by bus in South America, he found he was the only passenger who was not an illegal immigrant.


The others just crossed a river to go across, and when Mr Tan alone went to the legal checkpoint, he had to wake up the immigration officers, who, rarely having to stamp any passports, were enjoying a snooze. (See other report.)


The adjunct associate professor in accounting at the National University of Singapore shares his travel tales on his blog (www.weecheng.com) and in a 2004 book, The Greenland Seal Hunter.


Mr Tan became fascinated with 'faraway and exotic places' through looking at maps and postage stamps as a kid.

GREAT FUN: Mr Tan and his new friends from the head-hunting Naga tribes in Nagaland, India (above). The associate professor has also visited Somaliland, which does not enjoy international recognition (top). --PICTURES: Courtesy of TAN WEE CHENG

But his first backpacking trip came only after graduating with an accounting degree from the Nanyang Technological University in 1993, to the relatively tame destination of Western Europe.


'Then, slowly, Western Europe became Eastern Europe, then Middle East and Africa,' said Mr Tan.


'My threshold of what's dangerous increased with each trip.'


Now, he has been to most countries in the world except Canada, New Zealand and some in Africa and the Pacific islands.


Mr Tan, who used to be an investment banker in London and the chief financial officer of a small listed company, did much of his travels during two career breaks, which both lasted about a year.


Today, most of the bachelor's annual leave is used for travelling.


Some, possibly green with envy, have dismissed him as a 'country-collector', which Mr Tan shrugs off.


Travelling solo


'It depends on how you look at it,' he said.


'There are places where I spend more than a month and others as little as a day... not everyone has the luxury to spend extensive time in a single country.


'But the important thing is whether one bothers to appreciate things in the short time one has in each country.'

Most of the time, he travels solo.


His parents worry, but have accepted his wanderlust.


Said Mr Tan's 71-year-old father, Mr Tan Kiah Hoon, a retired Chinese teacher: 'Everyone has his or her dream to chase. I had mine too when I was young.


' So as parents, while we worry, we also give him our support.'


Before each trip, Mr Tan tries to learn about 30 words in the native language.

'But English alone can already get you to many places off the beaten track,' he said.

'If you meet someone who is below 40 and educated, they should be able to speak at least a little English.'


Another tip: He tries never to look lost.


'Standing on a street corner staring at a travel guide can attract a lot of unwanted attention,' he said.


Visas don't always come easy in places that don't even exist on official world maps, and usually require 'a little innovation', said Mr Tan.


Mr Tan had sometimes listed his job on immigration forms as a consultant, though he was travelling on his career breaks and thus, technically unemployed.


Sometimes, he would also pay local businesses to write him a letter of invitation, before his arrival.


'It's not a bribe, it's an accepted practice in some places and even travel companies and government agencies tell you to do it,' said Mr Tan.


'It's just easier to get in on a business visa.'


His globe-trotting in the last 16 years has earned him a world ranking of 110th on global travel website www.mosttraveledpeople.com, and he looks set to improve on it.


His next destination: Maybe Venezuela.


'One day, I hope to visit all the countries in the world,' he said.



Tales of an intrepid traveller
February 03, 2009    

1. Transdnestria

This is a breakaway region of Moldova in south-eastern Europe.

Although not internationally recognised, Transdnestria has its own government, military, currency, passport and flag.

'I was standing outside a palace trying to sneak a photo of a statue of Lenin.


'I looked around first and didn't see anyone, so I snapped away. But the moment I did, two big guys in dark suits and ties ran out from the palace towards me.


'They looked like Mafia guys but the strange thing was, they were actually friendly. They took me into the palace and asked me where I was from and what I was doing.


'I told them I was just a harmless tourist, and they made me sign my name in a little records book and let me go. I was relieved, because Transdnestria is not the kind of place you want to be jailed in.'


2. French Guiana

This patch of balmy South America is actually a part of France.

It is where many Hmong refugees from Laos have settled, and where Chelsea footballer Florent Malouda was born.

'This is a place that attracts a lot of illegal immigrants. I was travelling in by bus from neighbouring Suriname and when we got to the border, which is a river, everyone jumped into canoes and were rowed across.

'That was when I realised I was the only one in that bus who was not an illegal immigrant.

'I had to insist to the bus driver to drive me to a proper border post, which was actually just 200m away.

'The border policemen were all sleeping around without their shirts; obviously, no one usually bothers them much.

'They looked irritated when I woke them up and made them look around for their passport stamp for me.'


3. Nagorno Karabakh

Its name means 'mountainous black garden'. By law, this kidney-shaped region is a part of Azerbaijan, in the Caucasus.


But the restive region enjoys de-facto independence, with its own government, military, flag and coat of arms though no other country officially recognises it.


'I found a local who spoke English on the Internet and stayed with him. He drove me around and introduced me to his friends, but there wasn't much to see, just a lot of ruins against a beautiful mountain backdrop.'


4. Liberia

This West African nation was founded as a colony in 1822 by freed American slaves, who were so thankful to US president James Monroe they named their capital Monrovia.


The country has since suffered from decades of civil war.

'Our plane touched down late, at 10pm, and we realised we were the only ones on it who was not either an aid worker or a missionary, and did not have anyone to pick us up.


'When we emerged from the airport, we were mobbed by a group of teenagers dressed in tattered clothing, trying to get us into private cars which doubled as taxis.


'These teenagers, who, we were later told, were former child soldiers, were shouting and grabbing our luggage.

'It was a little frightening, especially when some of them tried to get into a car with us. We had no idea where they were taking us.


'Thankfully, a Government official chanced upon us and gave us a ride in her taxi. We were quite shaken by then.'


5. Somaliland

An autonomous region which broke away from Somalia, Somaliland does not enjoy international recognition, but is already seeing a budding tourism industry.


It has its own currency, the Somaliland shilling which, while stable, has no official exchange rate.

'The people here were extremely friendly and excited about tourists visiting them.


'I would walk down the street and be offered free meals and endless cups of tea.


'I was even taken to the local newspaper office where I was interviewed about what I thought about their country and whether I supported their independence.

'I told them that I was very impressed with what I have seen and that I would tell the world about their country.

'The next day, I saw myself in the newspaper but, unfortunately, I couldn't read it as the article was in Somali.'


6. Nagaland

Tucked away in a mountainous corner of India, Nagaland is a restive region, one of India's smallest states, and home to the head-hunting Naga tribes - who are of Yunnanese and Burmese origin.


'Many Indians themselves have never visited this place. The people look more Chinese, so they thought I was a local.

'Because of the insurgency, I had to wait two months to get a permit. But when I finally got there, to an ethnic festival I wanted to see, it was amazing... very National Geographic.'


7. Burkina Faso

Literally translated as 'the land of upright people', Burkina Faso is a West African nation with an equally-exotic capital city - Ouagadougou.

'We drove straight into a food riot. At a crossroads, we suddenly saw burning tyres on one side and riot police lining up on the other.

'We told our driver, quick, drive on, and when we got back to the hotel, we realised that there was a national strike going on... no shops, no transport.

'We moved into a more expensive hotel which had a lot of armed policemen outside. It definitely felt a lot safer there.'


8. Greenland

The world's biggest island is actually part of Denmark. It was founded by Erik the Red, who was exiled from Iceland for murder, and went in search of a new home.


'I wanted to see igloos but the locals laughed at me. Apparently, no one lives in igloos any more.


'I stayed with a Danish family and joined his Eskimo neighbour to go seal hunting. We got into this canoe filled with rifles and headed out to the icebergs where the seals were.


'The Eskimo would shoot from afar and then get close to shoot the seal with a harpoon between the eyes. I was a little shocked. But I supposed that's just how indigenous people living in a harsh climate get their food.'