Category: The Art of Travel


I don’t know if I like the word “rebellion” or if World Travel resonates with me that way. But the words that follow do hum and buzz with my nomad soul.

travel is rebellion

In Singapore (where I live), I am slapped with many labels and shoulder several roles: the responsible mother, the objective journalist, the good Catholic girl, perhaps role model, “media personality” etc. But I was never fully aware of these till I took a year off to backpack around the world.

When I left the familiar to venture into the unknown, I felt for the first time in my life that all the invisible labels and roles that defined me in Singapore were suddenly stripped away.

This did not happen immediately, of course. It took a while. But there comes a moment when you realise nobody recognises you in these foreign lands and you stop putting on makeup, you stop putting on a show.

Overnight train: Yangon to Bagan, Myanmar

18hr overnight train from Yangon to Bagan, Myanmar

At some point, I started walking at my own pace, without being pushed along against my will or dragged back. I started paying attention to what made me smile, the sound of my own laughter, what made me frightened, what upset or annoyed me, what mattered to me.

I remember being alone in Bali and strolling along an unfamiliar road in Seminyak (looking for coffee!). It was late afternoon, and I chanced upon an obscure patch of grass. It was quiet and serene, and nothing much was happening, except for a couple of ducks quacking after a tropical rain. I stood there for a good 20mins, doing nothing, just soaking it all in.

Solo in Seminyak, 2013

Solo in Seminyak, Bali 2013

I can’t even label this experience. It cannot be pigeon-holed into any category of “nature” or “urban landscape”; it’s even hard to bring up in conversation because it’s so insignificant. It’s simply my little moment. And even if it holds no meaning to anyone else, it left a lasting impression on me. It’s now a part of me.

You only realise how little you know yourself and how much you are running on defined roles when you’re torn away from all that’s familiar, and you have nothing to grasp at or fall back on.

I’m not saying roles and labels are bad or wrong. I’m just saying they don’t define who I am. And it’s important to have such an experience of liberation from them – even if you do go back to assuming them out of necessity – because at least you know what it feels like, smells like, looks like, in that sacred space free from them.

I love backpacking and traveling solo!

I love traveling solo!

To me, many short trips do not equal a long continuous one. I realise that people who travel frequently do not necessarily understand this experience that long-term world travellers understand. It’s because short vacations often don’t allow you to fully shed these labels and roles, especially if you are traveling with loved ones.

You need to fall off the grid completely for a time. But if you can’t afford that luxury, then do a solo trip, or choose to get off social media completely.

One thing I’m learning: You can’t expect to experience something different – something life changing or liberating – if you keep doing the same thing, over and over again. You need to do something different.

And if travel is rebellion in its purest form, then I’d say rebel at least once in your life. You never know till you take that leap of faith!

Do it now

#NoRegrets

Travel isn’t about vacations or escapism for me. If it were, I’d forever be skirting the fringes of Life.

And I’m not the sort.

To me, travel is diving headlong into Life itself – full on and immersive. It’s about wanting to expand, to learn, to know, to understand, and to be a better person at the end of the day.

Mark Twain, himself an avid traveller, captured it so succinctly in this quote. It leapt at me when I read it, and I thought it might be nice to share it.

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“If travel truly is in the journey and not the destination,

if travel really is an attitude of awareness and openness to new things,

then any moment can be considered travel.”

Rolf Potts

First Time Backpacker

“Travel compels you to discover your spiritual side by elimination: Without all the rituals, routines and possessions that give your life meaning at home, you’re forced to look for meaning within yourself… Indeed, if travel is a process that helps you ‘find yourself’, it’s because it leaves you with nothing to hide behind – it yanks you out from the realm of rehearsed responses and dull comforts, and forces you into the present. Here, in the fleeting moment, you are left to improvise, to come to terms with your raw, true self.”

~ Rolf Potts ~

Vagabonding: The Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel

It was only when I waded into the waist-deep river towards the thunderous waterfall that I realised I had scrapes and bruises all over.

The tender skin on my right palm was scraped from breaking a fall while crossing a river (slippery boulders!)… there were scratches on my left shin, right arm and left wrist, and a nasty purplish bruise on my right thigh. When in contact with the ice-cold river water, they stung.

The hike to Pelepah Falls in Kota Tinggi was not supposed to be a tough hike. But it wasn’t easy either. The hiking trail led us through an oil palm plantation, across several rivers, and into the jungles of Malaysia’s Johor state, which was very much untouched by men. You can always tell by the  vegetation: Primary forests have a distinct three-tier structure.

A rustic oil palm plantation.

A rustic oil palm plantation.

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Primary forests have a distinctive three-tier vegetation structure.

At certain points of the trail, we had to climb almost vertical rock walls, about 20-feet high, assisted only with ropes. Because the rope could swing left or right, I found myself bashing against the rocks a couple of times.

Climbing up with the help of just a rope

Climbing up with the help of just a rope (Photo: James Hui)

I held on to whatever I could find to pull myself up or to steady myself when I was going down. What I appreciated very much was the YMCA staff (who organised the trip) yelling out to us, “Thorns on the right!” or “Thorns on the left!” This helped because when you’re trying to grab onto something, you just grab anything!

And you quickly learn you can’t grab on to everything.

I have to admit that as a greenhorn forest hiker, I grabbed on to liana (which isn’t stable), thick twigs, young roots of trees and whatever I thought I could hold on to to steady myself. And of course, that caused me to lose my balance more than once.

“Hold on to something reliable!” Vivian’s voice broke through the silence of the forest.

Vivian was one of our group leaders from YMCA – a spunky, sporty, outdoorsy sort of girl. Much younger than me but you have to admire her leadership qualities and her ease at navigating the jungle terrain, considering she was lugging a huge backpack, presumably filled with first-aid stuff.

In the midst of being bruised and scratched, I felt as if her words hung in the air. Amplified. If there is one thing I took away from this whole hiking experience, this would be it.

It was more than a jungle survival lesson, it was a life lesson.

How many times have I held on to things which were never stable forces in my life? I had always ended up bruised and battered, losing my equilibrium, and falling. Really, what is the point of holding on to something you can’t rely on in your darkest and weakest moments?

HOLD ON TO SOMETHING RELIABLE – that’s pure common sense logic and wisdom.

I snapped back to reality when the thunderous roar of gushing water hit my ears – we were nearing a waterfall! This was about 45 minutes into our hike and I thought to myself, we’re finally here!

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Waterfall #1 with Tarquin, Joey & James.

Along the way, we had come across a smaller waterfall with a surreal baby blue pond at its base. I would’ve loved to stop and jump in then, but we were told to move on. Now I know why!

We climbed over the slippery rocks and fallen tree trunks to the base of this waterfall, and had a fabulous massage! The gushing water was ice-cold and the force so powerful that I could barely breathe. I was practically gasping for breath as I let the water batter my head and shoulders and wash away the grime and sweat.

“Is this where we have lunch?” We asked Grace and Michael, the other two YMCA guides on our trip.

“No,” A bemused Grace chuckled. “This is only one-third of the way!”

OMG. I was already quite fatigued at this point – I have to admit, and sheepishly so – but they promised us there’s more awaiting us… and better!

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So, off we go again! (Photo: James Hui)

I’m sorry to disappoint but I did not take any photos of the actual trek because there is no way I had the time or the frame of mind to whip out my phone. It was sealed in a Ziploc bag in my knapsack because everything got wet.

Also, I found that I had to concentrate and be constantly aware of my surroundings because I’m not a seasoned forest trekker and one wrong step could mean a sprained ankle or popped knee.

About two hours later, we came to another waterfall, and oh what a sight! The Pelepah Falls is a three–stage waterfall, and we had been trekking uphill to this point, catching glimpses of the falls along the way.

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Pelepah Falls (Photo: James Hui)

This one wasn’t a vertical waterfall but one with a gentler gradient. It was wide. And the water’s journey downhill was punctuated by many rock outcrops. It was a slippery climb up the rocks but what the heck!

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Pelepah Falls in the afternoon sun.

We stopped here for lunch, with the thundering falls as a background soundtrack to our rest. Some folks in our group brought along tins of sardines and tuna, and Milo packs. Ours was a humble packed lunch of sandwiches and energy bars.

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I’ve always loved the sound of running water – be it bubbling brooks or waterfalls. And because I’d forgotten to pack my afternoon shot of caffeine (aka coffee), I was feeling a tad dozy. As Joey and Tarquin settled down to have a lazy after-lunch conversation beside me, I leaned back on the wet rocks for a snooze.

Snoozing by the Falls.

Snoozing by the Falls.

My view, from where I’m lying…

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After making our way up this three-stage waterfall, we had to (of course) backtrack and make our way back down. Going down is always harder for me. This is where my weak knees are put to the test. I had to exert tremendous force on my knee caps as I rested my whole weight on them, especially when taking giant steps down from one foothold to another.

SIGH.

As you can well imagine, I did not take a single photo of my hike back to “base camp”. It was a fantastic trek though, and I was getting the hang of the little tricks of jungle trekking: like stepping on sand or pebbles when crossing rivers – never boulders – and also holding on to what is reliable.

Super Woman Joey (Photo: James Hui)

Super Woman Joey (Photo: James Hui)

James remarked that I was quicker on my way back and getting better. *beams*

I really loved how my travel buddies were looking out for me. In fact, we were all looking out for each other. And I wouldn’t have made it back in one piece without Tarquin’s help. He went a step ahead of me, and was my eyes and my cheerleader, especially when climbing down the vertical rock faces.

And I did get back in one piece – all of us did.

After we took a quick rinse (we paid 2 ringgit to use a nearby resort’s clubhouse) and changed into dry clothes, we headed to Kota Tinggi town for dinner. We arrived ahead of schedule so we had some time to walk around the Ramadan bazaar.

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At Kota Tinggi town for its Ramadan bazaar and dinner!

Even if you don’t intend to shop in Malaysia, chances are you will end up buying something, because things are just so cheap here. Yes, we all ended up doing a little shopping here – from Hari Raya goodies to Kampong Adidas amphibious shoes which were going for just 8 ringgit (S$3).

Kampong Adidas amphibious shoes was what our agile 55-year-old Malaysian guide was wearing on the jungle trek. But I didn’t buy them because I wasn’t convinced his agility was due to the Kampong Adidas shoes and not his experience!

The food at the Chinese restaurant was superb, to say the least. That’s what I love about Malaysian food – cheap and good. I’ll  let my photos speak for themselves.

Pork ribs curry.

Pork ribs curry

Deep-fried Tofu with century and salted egg.

Deep-fried tofu with century and salted egg

Steamed fish with sweet sambal chili.

Steamed fish with sweet sambal chili

Stir-fried Venison with ginger and spring onions.

Stir-fried venison with ginger and spring onions

Spicy prawns!

Spicy prawns!

After a meal that left me close to exploding, we headed towards the Kota Tinggi jetty to catch a river cruise to see fireflies.

In all my life, I’ve never seen a firefly. And I have to admit I was a little sceptical about actually seeing fireflies in the wild. I guess it seemed surreal, like it’s the sort of thing you see only if you’re lucky. But deep inside, I was excited. I always am when it’s a first.

A stroll to the jetty to catch the 7.30pm cruise.

A stroll to the jetty to catch the 7.30pm cruise

A cruise to catch fireflies!

A cruise to catch fireflies!

The first firefly departs at 7.30pm, the next at 8.30pm.

The first boat departs at 7.30pm, the next at 8.30pm

We had to put on life jackets, which I hate. It makes me feel claustrophobic and it’s almost always suffocatingly hot inside one. Plus, these life jackets wouldn’t do much to save my life, I reckoned, as the zip was faulty. OK, there was no zip! Would a little string suffice?

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The cruise took us under a bridge where hundreds of birds had built nests above. It was noisy, and the birds were circling above and around us. I was curious though how the baby birds hatch in these upside-down nests without falling into the river below!

Bird nests under the bridge!

Bird nests under the bridge!

The boat chugged further and further away from the brightly-lit town area of Kota Tinggi. As we inched our way into the more remote areas, the lights on either side of the river got dimmer.

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We were told “No flash!” as it would disturb the fireflies. So I set my Lumix LX7 to a low light setting and crossed my fingers. How cool to be able to capture fireflies on film!

The others saw them before I did.

“Look! Fireflies!” I heard people around me on the boat exclaim in delight.

“Where?”

“Over there!” They pointed to the right side of the boat. “In the bushes!”

I squinted in the general direction but could not see anything. When my eyes finally adjusted to the dark, I saw them.

My first sighting of fireflies in the wild! They were like softly twinkling lights on a Christmas tree. How subtly breathtaking!

The number and frequency of twinkling Christmas lights increased the deeper we drifted into the jungle. They were everywhere – glowing on riverside bushes just inches from us and dotting trees further away.

I tried to take photos of them, but without a flash, my camera could not capture anything. So I resolved to put it away and just enjoy the ride.

My Lumix failed me from here on...

My Lumix failed me from here on…

Tarquin and James weren’t totally convinced the tiny glowing specks were really fireflies.

“Then what do you think they are?” I laughed. “Christmas lights? There’s no electricity out here.”

“It could be low-intensity lights,” Tarquin said quite seriously. After all, he had been trained in the dense jungles of Brunei in his National Service days. “I’m not convinced… but then, it may be that I’m going through a conspiracy theory phase.”

Conspiracy theory for sure, because a firefly flew really close to our boat and James reached out and caught it in his hand.

“Did you just catch a firefly?” Joey asked.

In response, James opened his palm and a firefly fluttered out!

“Now I can tell my friends that I caught a firefly,” he beamed. It was his first time seeing fireflies, as was Joey’s and mine.

After about 45 minutes on the river, we headed back to the jetty where the Ramadan bazaar was in full swing. We couldn’t resist buying some street snacks – hot, freshly-made peanut pancakes!

Peanut pancakes with a dollop of butter!

Peanut pancakes with a dollop of butter!

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This was ridiculously good and cheap – something like 5 pancakes for a ringgit. We were munching this – with melted butter oozing out and dripping onto my chin – as we headed back to the bus that would take us back to Singapore.

We arrived back in Singapore close to 11pm. I was exhausted. I think I went through the Johor Bahru and Woodlands immigration checkpoints in a daze because I had dozed off on the bus. But it felt good. I felt fulfilled.

No doubt it was just a day trip, but the last 16 hours will be etched in my memory for a while.

It felt good to be back on the road again, with travel buddies whose company I honestly enjoy. I took back with me not just the memory of fireflies and waterfalls, but a life lesson that I know I was meant to learn: right here, right now.

Thank you, Pelepah Falls.

Thank you, Pelepah Falls.

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“The secret to staying intrigued on the road is this: Don’t set limits

Don’t set limits on what you can or can’t do.

Don’t set limits on what is or isn’t worthy of your time.

Dare yourself to play games with your day: watch, wait, listen; allow things to happen. 

Vagabonding is not a quest for answers so much as a celebration of the questions,

an embrace of the ambiguous, and an openness to anything that comes your way.

Indeed if you set off on down the road with specific agendas and goals,

you will at best discover the pleasure of actualizing them. 

But if you wander with open eyes and simple curiosity, you’ll discover a much richer pleasure –

the simple feeling of possibility that hums from every direction as you move from place to place.” 

– Rolf Potts, ‘Vagabonding’

Meeting travel writer Rolf Potts in Melbourne, 2013

Meeting travel writer Rolf Potts in Melbourne, 2013

In the recent months, I’ve been traveling quite a bit for work. I am deeply grateful for the fact that I can marry my twin loves of writing and traveling, and am attempting to make a living out of it as a full-time freelance writer.

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But reading a little bit of Rolf Potts’ book ‘Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel’ makes me realise that the sort of traveling he is talking about is a little different from the sort of traveling I’m doing now, but totally what I was doing back in 2011, when I dropped everything and took a year off to backpack around the world.

Rolf defines the concept of ‘Vagabonding‘ as this: 

(1) The act of leaving behind the orderly world to travel independently for an extended period of time, 

(2) A privately meaningful manner of travel that emphasises creativity, adventure, awareness, simplicity, discovery, independence, realism, self-reliance, and the growth of the spirit,

(3) A deliberate way of living that makes freedom to travel possible. 

Short vacations – even many back-to-back ones – isn’t akin to Vagabonding, in the strict sense of the word. But for most of us, it is as close to leading a vagabonding lifestyle as we can hope to have, while balancing our personal commitments back home.

What I am focusing on now is (3) because the freedom to travel – as a deliberate way of living – has to be earned. And it has to be earned through honest, hard work. And we must value the work that permits this freedom.

I need to mention this definition in order to put in context the first quote. When Rolf wrote about “the secret to staying intrigued on the road”, he was not referring to short vacations, but the art of long-term world travel.

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On all my short trips (lasting two weeks or less), I never ever felt travel fatigue. Maybe in Siem Reap, I did feel a little weary of visiting temples and ruins after a while… and in Bhutan too… but there was always a cosy cafe somewhere where I could kick off my shoes and enjoy a cuppa, lounge music and eat French fries.

But when I took a year off to backpack around the world, I did experience moments when travel lost its lustre.

I woke up one day in Vermont and actually thought to myself, “What the hell am I going to do today in this frickin’ town?” On the map, it seemed like a good idea to stay in a town equi-distant from three cities. But what I did not realise is that in an expansive state like Vermont, that’s like staying in the middle of nowhere.

You can’t quite “walk around” in Vermont. There was nothing around the neighbourhood where my B&B was, except houses, houses and more houses. Boredom set in, heavily.

tumblr_lj0wix2o981qdkde1o1_500I was getting sick of sandwiches and salads and bad American coffee. And it was getting wretchedly lonely on the road. I missed late night supper with my friends back home – having roti prata, rowdy conversations, and real kopi with thick, sweet condensed milk.

On hindsight, I don’t even remember the name of the Vermont town I was staying in. But I did vaguely recall that this town grew as a result of immigrants moving here to work on a quarry. How exciting is that? Seriously.

A quarry.

But then, in my utter boredom, this question tickled my grey matter: What sort of quarry? Granite? Limestone? What happened to these quarries? Do they still exist today?

And so I asked the B&B owner about this, and he said it was a marble quarry. And that there was a factory not too far from where I was staying that still manufactures marble slabs, for cemetery headstones and ornamental plaques.

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I could have dismissed this – easily. It’s not one of those things I would have considered “part of my travel plans” or even worthy of my time. But on that day, I reckoned I had nothing to lose.

Well, as luck would have it, it turned out that I could not even go into the factory to see how these marble monuments were made.

But when I was milling around the little gift shop, an elderly couple came in and started chatting with the cashier. I wasn’t eavesdropping on their conversation – not really – because the shop was just not that big. But they started talking about driving down to the quarry, and I thought: OOH.

“Wait a minute, I’ll get the truck around and you can hop on,” the cashier was saying, grabbing her keys.

“Can I come along?” I heard myself saying.

“Sure, sweetie!” smiled the kindly old cashier lady. “Just get your car around and drive behind me.”

We drove away from the marble factory and small gift shop, through some dusty roads, to a private enclosure somewhere – in the middle of nowhere – and then we stopped and walked, our shoes crunching on the gravel.

Then lo and behold, we saw this…

Marble quarry

My jaw dropped, literally.

It was a living, breathing marble quarry. I could hear the machinery at work, the call of workmen’s voices down below, and it was surreal. It didn’t look like anything I’d seen on Planet Earth.

The cashier lady started to explain to us the history of this place. How the discovery of this top-grade marble had led to immigrants from as far as Europe coming here to find work in the 1800s.

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And that was how this little town grew… from European immigrants settling here, and starting families. Most of the people living in the area were descendants of these Scottish and Irish immigrants.

It turns out that marble shaped the history of this town – and Vermont – in more ways than I ever imagined. Who would have thought Vermont even had marble? It’s something you find in Italy.

To this day, I do not remember the name of that little town in Vermont. But this was what Rolf Potts was talking about in his uncommon guide to the art of long-term world travel. You never know the possibilities that hum from every direction.

“The secret to staying intrigued on the road is this: Don’t set limits. 

Don’t set limits on what you can or can’t do.

Don’t set limits on what is or isn’t worthy of your time.”

I don’t always have the luxury of “vagabonding”, a term coined by travel writer Rolf Potts to describe the art of long-term world travel.

When I took to the road for 9 months in 2011, I didn’t do much planning at all. Partly because I lived out of a 42-litre backpack (so there was no room for guidebooks), and partly because I had no access to WIFI in many parts of the world. My itinerary was thus planned very much on-the-go, by chatting with locals.

I totally enjoy that approach to travel. To me, travel is not about making a list of tourist attractions you need to tick off one by one, or jostling with crowds to get that perfect shot to prove you’ve been there and done that. To me, that’s what tourists do, not travellers.

For the record, I did the tourist thing too: Jostling with crowds at Versailles, looking out for famous names on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, taking photos at the Rialto in Venice, Tigers Nest in Bhutan, Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu.

A snaking queue to enter Versailles.

A snaking queue to enter Versailles.

Jostling with tourists at the Rialto, Venice.

Jostling with tourists at the Rialto, Venice.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad thing. But I’ve realised – on hindsight – that when I was writing Adventures of 2 Girls (published by Marshall Cavendish), none of those visits to tourist attractions made the final cut. They were just not strong travel narratives.

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The stories that make for good travel writing are often not about “destinations” but “journeys”; not so much about “tourist attractions” but “unique experiences”. And because of that, travel writing requires just the right balance of planning and non-planning.

You want to know enough about a place to appreciate it, but not too much so that nothing surprises you. Research shapes one’s expectations. And injecting expectations and preconceived ideas into a travel experience can be a double-edged sword.

With Google, TripAdvisor, and online social media platforms proliferating the Internet, it’s so much easier these days to do extensive research, get peer reviews, and plan a detailed, hour-by-hour itinerary for our trips.

While I admit that isn’t my preferred style of travelling, I do see the value of it especially if time is of the essence.

I’ve done FAM trips where the schedule is so packed, we were herded from one place to another without enough time to walk around and explore, to take photos, chat with locals, or even have a proper pee break without breaking into a run!

But that is sometimes the life of a travel writer, and you don’t want to give up an opportunity to experience a new place just because you’re stubborn about your preferred style of travel. On such trips, it’s work. Period.

It’s counter-intuitive, but for such overseas assignments, I’ve learnt that prior research is even more important. Sure, you often have a tour guide and maybe even a translator, but such trips are often planned around convenience rather than common sense.

Take for example a city like Paris or Rome. Often, you see architecture from different centuries standing side by side – from the ruins of Ancient Rome to a cathedral built in the 1600s. Your planned itinerary stipulates that you visit them one after another because of their geographical proximity. But isn’t that more a matter of convenience than common sense?

Roman ruins in juxtaposition with old buildings

Roman ruins in juxtaposition with old buildings

Wouldn’t it make more sense to run all over the city to pursue consistent story threads – like Julius Caesar’s Ancient Rome, or the Paris of The Da Vinci Code – so that you really appreciate a city, with its superimposed, multi-layered dimensions of time?

We all know that’s often impractical.

So the next best thing is to be so familiar with the historical background of a place that you can do this time-mapping and time-layering in your mind. So that when you tumble out of the tour bus and stand before Borobudur or Prambanan, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Yogyakarta, you already know what to look out for and what to ask beyond the obvious.

Because at the end of the day, travel writing – at its best – is Literature.

And the best travel writers are storytellers. They bring together different elements – from past and present, from fact and fiction – and weave them together so that you are taken on a journey. And when you’re done reading, your mind has shifted, your ideas expanded, and you find yourself in a new space.

Travel writer Pico Iyer in Kyoto, Japan.

Travel writer Pico Iyer in Kyoto, Japan.

And this new space is often a new consciousness, a new awareness. And as Oliver Wendell Holmes puts it, “A mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”

Good travel writing does that to you.

As a writer, I am still struggling to find that fine balance between research and going with the flow; between following TripAdvisor and letting conversations with locals lead; between planning or throwing caution to the wind.

Perhaps it’s a balance that only we can define for ourselves? Being aware that a slight tweak this way or that can result in a very different experience.

Perhaps good travel writing needs to have that constant tension. We need to be reminded that our travel experiences are always shaped by broad strokes and fine; that it is never about ticking items off a pre-made list, but trusting our instincts at every turn how much to stay on the worn and well-travelled path, and how much to side-step off to the road less travelled.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost

Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842.

Paul Gavarni, Le Flâneur, 1842.

The term flâneur comes from the French noun flâneur—which has the basic meanings of “stroller”, “lounger”, “saunterer”, “loafer”—which itself comes from the French verb flâner, which means “to stroll”. Flânerie refers to the act of strolling, with all of its accompanying associations.

The flâneur was, first of all, a literary type from 19th century France, essential to any picture of the streets of Paris. It carried a set of rich associations: the man of  leisure, the idler, the urban explorer, the connoisseur of the street. (Source: Wikipedia)

I love the whole concept of the flâneur. I first learnt this word from my friend Simon Tay, author of City of Small Blessings, which won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2010.

With Nicholas Fang & Simon Tay, 2011.

With Nicholas Fang & Simon Tay, 2011.

Simon (right) and Nick Fang (left, a mutual friend) took me out for Teochew porridge prior to me leaving for my word travels in 2011. In our kopitiam conversations, he shared about his life-changing trip to South America, and he also challenged me to learn to be a flâneur in a foreign city.

In those nine months I was away, my BFF Ning (aka ‘Magic Babe’ Ning) and I were probably more swept up by the whirlwind adventure of each day than actually being flâneurs. Plus, we loved the outdoors much more than we did the cities.

But on our road trip through Normandy, Brittany and the Loire Valley, there were days where we’d stroll through the quaint streets of old French towns – stepping into tiny shops or peeking through window displays – and those were always the most memorable moments.

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Alleys of Mont St Michel, 2011

Recently, when I attended Rolf Potts‘ travel writing workshop at the Australian Festival of Travel Writing, the word flâneur came up again in class. My breath caught. I had not paid attention to that word in two years.

Rolf sent us on an exercise: to be a flâneur for an afternoon.

He said, “A flâneur is an observer and experiencer of things. Just go out walking, get lost, go with no agenda or expectation except to be open to experiences.”

It was all very exciting for me because for the first time in my life, I was commissioned and sent out to practise this old French art of flâneuring – something I’d known about for a while but never consciously tried out.

Our workshop was held at the beautiful University of Melbourne campus. That warm Wednesday afternoon, I set out with my notebook and pen with a light heart and a skip. I resolved not to wander too far but to explore the vast grounds of the university – just to observe, experience and to immerse myself in campus life.

Practising being a flâneur.

Practising being a flâneur.

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South Lawn, University of Melbourne

South Lawn, University of Melbourne

I eavesdropped on private conversations, observed people from afar, watched clouds roll by, and even kicked off my flip flops (or as the Australians call it, “thongs”!) and sprawled on the grassy lawn. It was carefree and liberating.

I realised that day that it was much easier to be a flâneur when you’re on your own. There are no conversations to distract you, no differences of opinions as to where to go or what to do, no need to watch out for another person… You travel light and free, and you go where you wish. Your heart is your only compass.

I understood then why Rolf Potts advocates solo travel, especially for travel writers.

My flâneuring led me to this little roundabout somewhere on campus. And as a Singaporean, the first thing that struck me about it was the chalk markings on the ground. They were colourful and large and scrawled boldly across the road.

Messages scrawled in chalk

Messages scrawled in chalk

You’d never find that in Singapore – messages scrawled in chalk in public spaces – they would be considered “vandalism”.

It piqued my interest and so I settled myself right here at this spot – at the side of a flight of stairs – and just observed students walking back and forth across these words.

At one point, two girls sauntered by. From my right peripheral vision, they breezed down the flight of steps, past me, stepping over the chalk on the road, and disappearing from my line of vision somewhere to the left. Their arms were linked casually, and they were chatting and laughing as best friends would.

At a certain angle, I noticed something unusual that brought a curious smile to my lips. The girl on the right – who had been hidden from view – appeared in full view. She was holding a long white stick and tapping it lightly on the road as she walked. She was blind.

But from the ease at which she was walking, the speed, the confidence, you could never tell she was visually impaired. Her companion wasn’t holding on to her elbow or guiding her slowly and cautiously as most sighted people would a blind person. She simply hooked her arm around the crook of her friend’s arm and strolled with her in the most casual of manners.

I did not expect to see this, but I’m glad I did. In that brief moment, I understood what deep trust between friends could mean to a person. The vision spoke to me about friendship, acceptance, and the inclusiveness of the education system.

Maybe that’s just the tip of the iceberg about being a flâneur? To be pleasantly surprised by the unexpected; to learn a little about life (the good and the bad) through plain observation and attention to detail.

But eye-opening as this experience was for me, I did face many difficulties being a flâneur.

It’s tough to walk with absolutely no agenda and no expectation. As a traveler, you’re always hoping and wishing you’ll come across something unusual, even spectacular, around the bend. But sometimes, what speaks to you isn’t necessarily spectacular or loud, but in the softest of whispers.

I found it hard not to whip out my phone or camera to snap photos. Why, beauty has to be captured for memory’s sake! But says who? My photos have never managed to do justice to a breathtaking sunset or sunrise, a mountain range, or waterfall…

Maybe it’s time I learnt to just throw my heart wide open and soak in the experience; allow it fill up my senses (like that John Denver song!) and just let it be. Let it be. I often wonder if I lose the fullness of a moment if I’m too busy framing photos or scribbling notes? Or worse still, uploading them on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook!

Rolf Potts mentioned an article in his workshop that made me laugh: How Twitter Killed Travel.

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Oh how true! How much more meaningful to be fully present in the Present, interacting with locals and engaging in activities, than to think about that next photo that will garner 100 ‘Likes’ on Instagram!

When it comes to being a flâneur, I admit I am a complete greenhorn. It’s harder than I thought. But it’s an art I intend to master. And like all journeys towards mastery, it begins with a first step.

That day was my first baby step.

I took this picture as I was trudging towards Chūson-ji (中尊寺), a Buddhist temple in Iwate Prefecture, in the Tohoku region of Japan. The moment was so magical that I just had to capture it.

So while I was far behind the rest and was being hassled along, I broke away and stopped to take this.

And this…

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It was a good thing I did. Because when I came by this way again, most of the snow had melted and I never saw this scene again.

The World Won’t Wait.

That was the title of an excellent article (by Andy Jarosz) I read some time ago. It was an epiphany for me because it put in words what I always felt in my heart to be true about world travel.

We all have a million excuses not to travel – at least not now – because the world will wait, we say.

But look at the Berlin Wall, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, the World Trade Center twin towers in New York City, Syria…

“Our lives change and it’s only natural that we fit our travel plans around our more immediate concerns about money, health or relationships. But when we look at the world and plan out our travel dreams into the future, it’s worth remembering that the world can change every bit as quickly as our personal situation,” writes Andy Jarosz. “If you leave your dream destination for too long at the top of your wish list, you can’t guarantee it won’t change by the time you’re ready to see it.”

Even that brief moment I had on that snow-covered path to Chūson-ji (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), I could have hurried on, telling myself I’d capture that scene later on my way back.

If I had listen to my head instead of my heart, I would have lost that moment forever.

I always believe Mother Nature teaches us precious lessons about life.

How often have we let a moment slip by because we were too afraid to say “hello” to someone, although we felt compelled to? Who knows, that someone could’ve been the one we were meant to spend the rest of our life with?

Or we think the one who loves us will always be there, waiting. But people move on, and that precious tiny window of time closes shut, never to open again.

It’s the same with career opportunities. Sometimes, we just need to take a deep breath and take that leap of faith; to risk everything just to seize the moment with both hands.

Because once that moment is gone, it is gone forever.

carpe diem tattoo

“Carpe Diem” is a phrase found in a Latin poem by Horace.

In the poem, the phrase is part of the longer “Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero”. Translated, it means “Seize the day, putting as little trust as possible in the next”.  

The ode tells of how the future is unforeseen; and so we must scale back our hopes to a brief future, and drink our wine!

Foolish. Suicidal. Perhaps.

But one truth I’ve learnt about Life and Love is that everything is transient. Nothing is permanent on this earth.

No, the world won’t wait. Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero!