Tag Archive: Vagabonding


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.

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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

“Many landscapes are beautiful. Meadows in spring, soft valleys, oak trees, bank of flowers (daisies especially). But they are not Sublime. ‘The ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful are frequently confounded… both are indiscriminately applied to things greatly differing and sometimes of natures directly opposite.

A landscape could arouse the Sublime only when it suggested power, power greater than that of humans and threatening to them. Sublime places embodied a defiance to our will. Burke illustrated the argument with an analogy about oxen and bulls: ‘An ox is a creature of vast strength; but he is an innocent creature, extremely serviceable, and not at all dangerous; for which reason the idea of an ox is by no means grand. A bull is strong too; but his strength is of another kind; often very destructive… the idea of a bull is therefore great, and it has frequently a place in sublime descriptions, and elevating comparisons.’

There are ox-life landscapes: innocent and ‘not at all dangerous’, pliable to the human will. Burke had spent his youth in one, at a Quaker boarding school in the village of Ballitore in County Kildare, 30 miles southwest of Dublin, a landscape of farms, orchards, hedges, rivers and gardens. Then there are bull-like landscapes. Burke enumerated their features: vast, empty, often dark and apparently infinite, because of the uniformity and succession of their elements.”

~ Alain de Botton (The Art of Travel)  

Tengger Caldera, East Java

Tengger Caldera, East Java

It’s 3am and 5 deg C outside. As I step out into the night, the chilly air licks my face with a thousand tongues. I pull on my beanie hastily and turn up the collar of my winter jacket. As I trudge out to the Jeep and my eyes gradually adjust to the darkness, I notice the explosion of stars above – like diamonds flung across the vast ebony sky.

Tenggerese villagers selling scarves & gloves

It’s almost surreal to be so near Mt Bromo. I had arrived here close to midnight, when all around me was already cloaked in darkness. I did not know where she stood, but I could sense her presence close by. She last erupted in 2011, and is still belching sulphur smoke today. In Nov 2010, her plume of ash – I hear – rose 2,300ft into the sky!

Encountering her unbridled power excites me. We pile into a Jeep – all bundled up – and rattle our way up to a lookout point to catch the sunrise. The Jeep packs 6 max, and prices range from S$30/pax (two locations) to S$50/pax (four locations). You can hike too, but it means you’ll have to wake up much earlier and battle the cold.

The Jeep drops us off a distance from the lookout point at Mt Penanjakan, and from there, we walk. It’s an easy stroll up the hill – the only “danger” being the motorcyclists buzzing around you like flies, hassling you to hop on. We come to a paved alley soon enough, with cosy little eateries on our left, and local Tenggerese villagers selling Jagung Bakar (grilled corn) on our right. Tempting on a cold night!

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We have time to spare, so we succumb to the temptation of a caffeine fix. Indonesian coffee is good, black. But be prepared when you order a black coffee, for it to come with sugar. In Singapore, we’d call it Kopi-O. A couple of the guys bring back a bag of warm Pisang Goreng (deep-fried banana) and voila! breakfast at 9,000ft.

"Pisang Goreng" with black Javanese coffee

“Pisang Goreng” & Javanese coffee

Singaporeans! Teachers & girls from Presbyterian High at Mt Penanjakan.

Singaporeans! From Presbyterian High, Mt Penanjakan.

The summit of Mt Penanjakan (9,088ft) is the place to catch a Mt Bromo sunrise. Be warned though that it’s usually very crowded. People converge from all over to claim a spot way before the sun makes her shy appearance.

The crowd gathered behind me as I perch on the railing

Crowd gathered behind me as I perch on a railing

For the best place to catch the sunrise, head towards the left of the viewing platform. My advice is to look out for the hardcore photographers who have already set up their tripods and cameras. They know best!

I love sunrises. It’s not just the kaleidoscope of colours in the sky, but the fact that it’s constantly changing – like an IMAX movie surrounding you in 360. For about an hour, I watch – spellbound – as the landscape covered in complete darkness is slowly revealed by nature’s light.

A spectacular sunrise at Mt Penanjakan (9,088ft)

A spectacular sunrise at Mt Penanjakan (9,088ft)

But from this vantage point – where I have a perfect view of the sunrise – I can’t see Mt Bromo. She lies somewhere to my right. And as the sun’s ray start to illuminate the volcanic landscape, I make a judgement call to give up my prime spot to go in search of her.

It helps to be small and on your own. I have no one to mind, so I dart through the crowd, climb through barriers, and trust instincts in searching for a spot. I find a good one beyond the railing, on a precarious ledge at the path’s end.

“Be careful,” a European gentleman warns me. “The slope is slippery.”

There are a few Caucasian travellers here along that sandy path, but not one ventures to the edge. I decide to take a risk because I really want a good shot of Mt Bromo, and honestly, I’m not sure when I’ll be back. And so, heart pounding, I claim my spot and settle down to soak her in. When I beheld her – like this – I swear I swore out loud.

My first glimpse of Mt Bromo, East Java

My first glimpse of Mt Bromo, East Java

It’s the symmetrical cone in the centre that grabs my attention, but it’s not Mt Bromo. That’s a dormant volcano called Mt Batok, whose hay days are sadly over. Mt Bromo (7,641ft) stands to its left, that ash-coloured shield volcano that has steam and sulphur streaming out of its crater. Now that is a living, breathing volcano!

Steam & sulphur streams out of Mt Bromo

Steam & sulphur streams out of Mt Bromo (left)

Mt Semeru stands majestic in the background, almost like a sentinel overlooking the desolate plain, guarding his wards. But what leaves me breathless is the knowledge that this majestic collection of volcanoes is actually within a bigger volcano… a much bigger one.

Just take a step back, physically zoom outwhat do you see?

The Tengger Caldera: The blown-off top of a massive ancient volcano

The Tengger Caldera: The blown-off top of a massive ancient volcano

This entire area you see is a giant ancient volcano whose top has been blown off! In Geography, I learnt that this is called a caldera, a collapsed crater. This Tengger caldera spans 10km in diameter and cradles four new volcanoes (above).

In 1982, this whole area was declared a national park: the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. In fact, it’s the only national park in Indonesia that has what is called a “Sand Sea” or Laut Pasir. It has been a protected area since 1919.

From up here, it looks almost unearthly. Like a moonscape, or Mars. And as I pack up to head down to explore the Sand Sea, a thin veil of mist creeps in over the sand.

We ride the Jeep down to the Sand Sea at 7,000ft and it’s a bumpy ride! I have to admit I wasn’t prepared for the expanse of this Sand Sea. When you’re actually on it, it feels like a desert. It reminds me of traveling on the Erg Chebbi sand dunes in Risanni – the gateway to the Sahara Desert from Morocco (I explored Erg Chebbi in Sep 2011).

Here’s a taste of my Jeep ride on the Sand Sea, towards Mt. Bromo:

We tumble out of the Jeep and set foot on the Sea of Sand. It’s volcano ash, spewed from Mt Bromo (and probably Mt Batok) over the decades. While there’s vegetation here, the landscape exudes a somewhat desolate feel.

On the Sand Sea, with a view of Mt Batok in the distance

On the Sand Sea, with Mt Batok in the distance

I do not think it impossible to hike across the Sand Sea. If you have the time, inclination, and level of fitness, it would actually be quite an adventure on foot. But if it rains – as it sometimes does – do take note that the sand turns to mud. Now that would be quite a different experience!

I opt to go the rest of the way on horseback. There is a camp not too far from where I’m sitting, where horses are on standby. These smallish, pony-like horses are bred by the indigenous Tenggerese people, who come from 30 villages in and around the national park.

This is "Vicky", the Tenggerese man whose horse I'm riding

This is “Vicky”, the Tenggerese man whose horse I’m riding

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It is believed that they are descendants of Majapahit princes, and still practise an ancient religion similar to the strand of Hinduism practised in Bali. This Hindu-Buddhist influence arrived in Java some time between the 8th and 10th century, and its architecture can be evidenced in UNESCO World Heritage Sites like Borobudur and Prambanan in Yogyakarta.

But here on the Sand Sea is a humble Hindu temple named Pura Luhur Poten (Poten Temple), apparently made with volcanic stones. It’s here that the Tenggerese villagers come to pray during important Hindu festivals, before scaling Mt Bromo to toss offerings into the fuming crater.

Pura Luhur Poten, a sacred Hindu temple on the Tengger Massif

Pura Luhur Poten, a sacred Hindu temple on the Sea of Sand (Tengger Caldera)

On horseback towards Mt Bromo

On horseback towards Mt Bromo

Indigenous Tenggerese villagers selling food & drinks

Tenggerese villagers selling food & drinks

The Tenggerese basically monopolise the tourism here at the Tengger Massif – they rent out horses, sell food and drinks, and hawk warm clothing to tourists caught off-guard by the freezing temperatures. But as they are the indigenous people of this region, I think it’s only fair that they are not robbed of a livelihood.

Vicky’s horse takes me to the foot of Mt Bromo. From here, I have to continue the rest of the way on foot. It’s a steep climb up to the crater of Mt Bromo. The good news, though, is that there are proper steps leading up to the summit.

Stairway to heaven... or a fiery hell?

Stairway to heaven… or a fiery hell?

The bad news is that the steps are steep and sandy (which make them slippery), so you pretty much need strong knees. But there are rest points along the way, each with a view lovelier than the last.

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But nothing prepared me for this.

The thing is, from the foot of Mt Bromo, you really can’t see the crater, so you have no inkling of how huge it is! And the constant puffs of sulphur smoke rising from her wide-opened mouth is a stark reminder to me of the activity that lay beneath the surface. Yes, this is an active volcano!

The gargantuan crater of Mt Bromo

The gargantuan crater of Mt Bromo

In her magnificent presence, I stand in awe. There is no need for words at this point. She is birthed from the death of an ancient volcano. And at one point or other, all these anak volcanoes were bubbling cauldrons: Destroying and creating. Then destroying and creating again.

Her name “Bromo” – after all – stems from the word “Brahma”, the Hindu Creator God. The Destroyer and the mighty Creator.

The poetic words of Burke – as quoted by Alain de Botton in The Art of Travel – drift into my consciousness. Surely, this is a bull landscape! An encounter with what he calls the Sublime.

 

*AirAsia flies direct to Surabaya once a day. Mt Bromo is a 4hr drive from Surabaya. 

 

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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Keep Your Eyes on the Mountain

When I left my Senior Producer job at Channel NewsAsia in February, I stepped out into a void. It wasn’t so much scary for me as it was liberating – because I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew I now had the freedom and space to create something from nothing. 

Looking back, I have taken several steps closer to what I see in my mind’s eye.

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I’m back to my first love – writing – and doing that about 50 per cent of the time. The other 50 per cent, I’ve spent producing for TV. I’ve also researched for and curated two small exhibitions for the National Heritage Board, as part of  Singapore Heritage Festival 2013.

I started the year making a resolution to see at least one new place every year.

In this past year alone, I’ve travelled to Tohoku, Chiang Mai, Melbourne, Yogyakarta, Semarang, Cebu, Cherating, Kota Tinggi, Myanmar, Bali… and in the next two months, I’ll be heading up to Japan to chase autumn leaves, to Krabi, and then maybe the Gili Islands. That makes 9.

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I’ve made two solo trips – to Melbourne and Ubud – both to attend writers festivals. And that has been the most powerful experience for me. I never thought I’d enjoy solo travel, but I realise I do!

Australian Festival of Travel Writing, Melbourne.

Australian Festival of Travel Writing, Melbourne.

Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2013

Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, Bali.

Solo travel allows me to slow down and go at my own pace, to reflect on things and listen to my own voice. I am beginning to know what I like, what I dislike, what makes me scared, what excites me, and to not judge that. It has made me more open to meeting new friends and making genuine connections with people – something that is harder when you’re travelling with someone.

I intend to do more of that – much more- in the coming year.

With Estelle & Kurt, Seminyak.

With Estelle & Kurt, Seminyak.

“If you are never alone, you cannot know yourself.” ~ Paulo Coelho

Neil Gaiman said something to this effect in a commencement speech he gave: If your dreams are a mountain, you start the journey by walking towards that mountain from a distance. Anything that takes you closer to the mountain, say ‘Yes’. Anything that takes you in the opposite direction, say ‘No’. Keep walking with your eyes fixed on that mountain.

When you get nearer and nearer, what you might have said ‘Yes’ to before will start to become ‘No’ now, because you’re that much closer to that mountain, and you see it so much more clearly. The journey is fluid, the decisions are fluid, it’s always evolving. But always, always, you keep your eyes fixed on the mountain.

I don’t know if that makes sense to anyone else but me. But in my life – with all its meanders – it makes absolute sense.

So as I wind down this work year, and start saying ‘No’ to assignments, I look back on 2013 with gratitude. I’ve been blessed with friends who have come into my life from nowhere to be pilgrims on the journey with me – if only for awhile. I’ve been blessed (beyond measure) with the strong support of my family, without whom I cannot do any of this. My guardian angels.

But having said that, 2013 was also a year I embarked on a process of letting go: Decluttering my life of things I do not need – extra baggage – and moving on lighter. That has made the journey more bearable and more pleasant. And that is crucial because I’m in it for the long haul.

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My dream is to travel and to keep traveling – for a whole lifetime – and to tell stories along the way. Stories that matter. I’ve been a writer, print journalist, radio DJ, TV producer… but if you ask me to sum up what I do for a living? I’d tell you I’m a storyteller.

Right now, I may not see clearly what 2014 holds, or even see beyond 6 months, but that’s the life of a free spirit. And so I keep on walking, staying true to myself. It may be a relatively straight path there or it may be a bit winding (I’ve always enjoyed the scenic route!).

But isn’t that the beauty of creating your own path?

“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” ~ Martin Luther King Jr. 

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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

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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

Defining My Niche

Writing is a lifelong passion that has evolved from being a hobby to my bread and butter – with a generous sprinkling of icing sugar!

But while I’m first and foremost a writer, choosing to narrow the scope down to travel writing is something quite new for me.

As a journalist, I’ve covered a myriad of stories from my travels – some for print, some for radio – but the main difference is a conscious commitment to the art and ethics of travel writing.

Jose Horte

Interview with José Ramos-Horta, President of East Timor (2007-2012)

Interview with Elsia Grandcourt, Deputy CEO of the Seychelles Tourism Board

Interview with Elsia Grandcourt, Deputy CEO of the Seychelles Tourism Board

Interview with Janet Hsieh, host of TLC's "Fun Taiwan" in Horqin Desert, Inner Mongolia

Interview with Janet Hsieh, host of TLC’s “Fun Taiwan” in Horqin Desert, Inner Mongolia

Whether to call myself a “travel writer” is something I grappled with for a year. After I returned from a one-year sabbatical to travel the world and publish a book, I had a knowing that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

But many questions arose for me: Is it too niche? Are there enough publications out there to buy my work? How will I fund my travels? Do I continue to write for other genres? What if I want to share my travel stories on other platforms like radio or online podcasts?

These were questions I did not have answers for. Even when I left my full-time job as a Senior Producer with Channel NewsAsia, and delved into this as a full-time freelancer, I still did not have a clarity as to what I was meant to do.

And perhaps, therein lies the problem.

I was asking the wrong questions. Perhaps, the question is not “what am I meant to do?” but “what do I really want to do?” I did not dare ask that. I didn’t feel like I had a right to.

But I’ve come to a space where I realise that being a travel writer is not about fitting into a pre-set mould, but doing what I’m really good at and passionate about. It’s a niche that I can define and carve out for myself, based on my own strengths, passions and experience.

I learnt this only when I put a pause on life, dropped everything, and headed to Melbourne to attend the Australian Festival of Travel Writing. It was a meeting of minds, a gathering of travel writers from around the world, and those aspiring to be travel writers who were hungry to learn.

Birds of a feather flock together – so the adage goes. But the flock isn’t quite as homogeneous, as I’d soon find out.

AFTW handout

One thing I realised – to my delight – is that while travel writing is just one genre of writing, there are many subsets within this genre!

The panel discussions over the weekend saw a most varied line-up of guidebook writers from Lonely Planet, authors of travel books (from fiction to French wines), academics who had written stories of migrant identity, journalists and foreign correspondents etc.

Travel writing encompasses commercial or service writing (e.g. paid reviews), academic writing (e.g. with sociological slant), news & journalism, culture & heritage, travel fiction, travelogues, travel memoirs, lifestyle etc. It was mind-blowing!

AFTW panel sessions

Counter-intuitive as it may sound, you need a niche festival like this to bring out the diversity within the genre. If it were a generic writers’ festival, all these differences would be lost because travel writing would be regarded as one genre.

At the Singapore Writer’s Festival last year, I sat on a travel writing panel too – as a featured speaker – with Pico Iyer. There was just one panel on travel writing, and that was us. I don’t think we represented the diverse nature of this genre at all.

On a travel writing panel with Pico Iyer - Singapore Writer's Festival 2012

On a travel writing panel with Pico Iyer – Singapore Writer’s Festival 2012

At the Australian Festival of Travel Writing, some panel discussions made me snooze, others made me sit up and listen with a pounding heart.

By the end of that weekend, I was more aware of what I naturally gravitated towards and what I did not really fancy doing.

For one, I will never be a guidebook writer.

It does not thrill me to be the first to find a cheap hostel with hot-water showers, or to recommend a list of “authentic” local eateries for backpackers to try. I am not interested to sell my soul to review a ski or spa package because someone paid me to. And much as I consider myself a die-hard foodie, I don’t think I’d want to focus solely on food and restaurants on my world travels.

I am a storyteller with a grounding in journalism. I want to tell real stories.

And while my wildly idealistic self was somewhat tamed by travel writers I admire (namely Rolf Potts, author of “Vagabonding: The Uncommon Guide to Long-Term World Travel”), I still believe this will remain the core of what I choose to do.

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Rolf Potts in Machu Picchu

I will probably still do commercial writing, go on media junkets, write food stories and resort reviews, and maybe even pitch for a gig with Lonely Planet, but they will be conscious decisions I make to make a living out of doing what I love.

In essence, I see myself as a travel journalist; as essentially a writer… who travels.

For now, that alone is clear. Enough.

During my week in Melbourne, I took away many other important lessons. I will write about them as they settle, then rise to the surface. Stay tuned. xo

I’m just about done packing. Leaving Singapore in a couple of hours for Melbourne to attend the Australian Festival of Travel Writing, which happens this weekend. But also, a workshop on Wednesday that’s the main reason I decided to go for this at all.

Screen shot 2013-03-18 at AM 11.52.54

You see, in the summer of 2011, I spent three months in Paris as part of my 9-month trip around the world. While my friend Ning was taking lessons at Le Cordon Bleu (world-renowned culinary school), what I really wanted to do was to attend the Paris Writing Workshop.

Screen shot 2013-03-18 at AM 11.59.10

It was the perfect way to spend the summer, I thought. Writing. But it was a month-long course and it cost a fortune. For a backpacker on a shoestring, it was just something I could not afford.

The workshop I really wanted to attend then was Rolf Potts‘ – travel writer, Yale lecturer, and author of Vagabonding: The Uncommon Guide to Long-term World Travel. In fact, I was in touch with him via email and Twitter even back then. But I never made it for the Paris Writing Workshop in 2011. I ended up attending French lessons at the Alliance Francaise in Paris.

Recently, I asked Rolf if he would be in Asia any time this year. And he replied saying it’s not in his radar, but he’s heading to Australia in March for a writing festival. Perhaps that’s the closest to Asia he will be.

And so, almost two years later, I’m finally attending his class.

Screen shot 2013-03-18 at PM 12.08.06

In fact, his workshop was the first thing I booked the morning I woke up after finding out about the AFTW 2013. I just whipped out my credit card and booked it on the spot, at A$150.

Then… I booked the weekend festival pass.

And then, finally, my air tickets to Melbourne.

I’ll be bunking in with my Instagram friend Diane (aka @deeleow) for the week. The generous girl has opened her apartment to me, albeit having met me only once. She may just have obliviously invited a serial killer into her home. But I guess I have a trustworthy face (not!).

And so I’m all set. Just to take a shower, throw in the last of the stuff into my luggage, and I’m off to the airport.

It’s exciting for me because learning new things is like a shot in the arm. Yes, I’ve been a journalist for many years. Yes, I’ve published a travel book. And yes, I’ve also been a panel speaker (travel writing) at the Singapore Writer’s Festival last year, but I’ve such a long way to go still.

I often feel like a baby in the established genre of travel writing, a small fish in a big pond. And I’m happy to stop churning things out for a change – stories, blog entries – and to receive, soak in, learn.

There are many similarities between traveling and learning. And one of my favourite quotes is this:

“A good traveller has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu

I think a good learner is the same. He is always on a journey, and never intent on arriving.

See you in Melbourne! x