Sunday Times (4 Oct 09): Travel guide for the intrepid

Travel guide for the intrepid
By Tan Dawn Wei

The first time Mr Tan Wee Cheng travelled on his own, he was detained at the Bulgarian-Turkish border for hours because the immigration officer on duty wanted some fringe benefits in return for giving him passage.


That was enough to scare the unworldly Singaporean traveller, then 26, into visiting the airline office the next day to cut his trip short.


But 180 countries and territories later, the 39-year-old can safely say he has seen enough of the world - and greased enough palms - to book the first flight out at the slightest sign of trouble.


West Africa, especially, is not likely to appeal to sheltered Singaporeans used to getting things done by the book, but the rampant corruption was shocking even to a seasoned wanderer like him, who was listed in the Singapore Book Of Records last year as the most travelled Singaporean.


'I've never been asked to pay so many bribes in my life,' said the adjunct associate professor of accounting at the National University of Singapore Business School.


At an airport in Lome, the capital of Togo, he coughed up these sweeteners no fewer than seven times to policemen who stood at various corners, asking travellers for money.


At Bamako airport in Mali, an immigration officer even took his wallet and fished out 50 euros (S$103) just before he entered the boarding gate. He bargained with her and got on his plane after parting with 20 euros.


In Guinea, policemen who did not speak a word of English except 'Give me money' plied the main thoroughfare.


'They're beggars with guns,' Mr Tan said simply.


Tales of such blustering attempts at extortion and other adventures will likely be fodder for his next book, but for now he has other equally juicy stories to tell.

His latest book, Hot Spots And Dodgy Places, published by Marshall Cavendish, is a collection of writings about his jaunts through lands with questionable safety records, such as North Korea, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, Iran and the Western Balkans.


These sojourns were done between 2002 and last year. He published his first book, The Greenland Seal Hunter, also a collection of travel stories, in 2005.


Parts of the Balkans, like Kosovo, were still unstable when he was there in 2002. And four days before he arrived in Sudan, its capital city Khartoum was attacked by rebel forces.

But others, like Iran, Libya and North Korea, were never dangerous.


The good thing about visiting countries thought to be unstable? You get the best sights all to yourself.


Like Meroe, an archaeological site in Sudan, which he visited during a low-key insurgency last year.


'There were valleys full of sand dunes and 40 or 50 Egyptian pyramids, and I was the only person there. I even walked into some of them. I felt like Indiana Jones,' he said with a laugh.


It could be luck or just plain good sense - Mr Tan, who is single and usually travels alone, has never been mugged, although he was pickpocketed in Israel and Russia, had the runs in Uganda and was in a car accident in Albania.


Nor has he ever had the need to call a Singapore embassy or consulate for help.


'I tend to follow the usual rules of safety: walk on the main street, don't stay out too late at night, be alert,' said Mr Tan, who has just returned from a five-week trip covering Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, among others.

And always sleep with your passport on you.


'My danger threshold has increased, but I've learnt to manage risks,' said the former investment banker and chief financial officer of a listed company.


Mr Tan, whose trips are funded through his savings and profits from investments, was a late bloomer in the travel department.


Coming from a regular middle- class family - his father is a retired primary school teacher and mother a clerk - family holidays were spent on packaged tours to Malaysia and China.

His first 'real' trip was a backpacking adventure to Western Europe with three friends shortly after graduating from Nanyang Technological University in 1983 with an accounting degree.


The travel bug bit and he realised that independent travel was easier than he had thought.


It helps that a Singapore passport gets him into many countries with no need for a visa.

In fact, Singapore was ranked No. 8 on a list by international consulting firm Henley & Partners last year for travel freedom. Its passport gives holders visa-free access to 150 countries and territories.


The downside, however, is the regularity with which people will ask, 'Where is Singapore?'

'Sometimes, border officials would have never even seen a Singapore passport before, and you just have to wait while they stamp other passports. And if it is late at night and they can't verify with their headquarters, you just have to turn back.'


He has, on rare occasions, bumped into Singaporeans in the most unlikely of places - like a lone Singaporean woman in a hostel in Colombia.


He has seen Singaporeans' names in guestbooks in Haiti, Chile and Peru too.


With 50 countries and territories left to strike off his list - including some surprisingly accessible places like Canada, New Zealand and South Africa - Mr Tan has no time to lose.


Next destination: Sri Lanka in December.


'It's important to sometimes follow your heart and do what you like in life. Nothing is impossible. It is a lot easier than you think,' he said.


Hot Spots And Dodgy Places is available in selected bookstores at $18.65 before GST.