When I was 10, I moved from the United States to Singapore with my family. Before moving to Singapore, most of my travels were limited to a few road trips and short flights along the east coast of the United States, where I was born. The only other trip overseas was to Hong Kong so travelling was a relatively new experience for me.
After we moved to Singapore, however, we began travelling a lot more. As my younger brother and I grew older, it became easier for the family to travel – or at least I would like to think so. The whole region around Singapore was brand new to us, so we spent our first few Christmases and summer holidays exploring the Asia Pacific.
For our first summer, we visited Beijing, China. I remember there were many guided tours, and viewing of all the major landmarks – such as Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven – things we only saw on the pages of books previously. Naturally, no trip to Beijing would be complete without a visit to the Great Wall of China. We were so captivated that we visited it twice and on the second time, we hired a driver to take us to a quieter section of the world wonder. I still recall being pleasantly surprised when I could recognise some of the Chinese music the driver turned on in his car. Although it was a little tiring to make the trip twice, it was worth it.
Another destination we made was to New Zealand for Christmas. We did a tour of both North and South Islands, and what I remember most vividly was the beautiful scenery and how tickled we were to see so many sheep. Blue skies, bright sunny days, majestic mountains, crystal-clear waters reflecting crisp landscapes, rolling green hills, breathtaking waterfalls... it was astounding. We enjoyed our
trip so much that we went back to New Zealand the following Christmas. This time we just stayed on South Island. My parents rented a car, and it was fun going back to familiar destinations and our favourite cafés.
In our first few years living in Asia, the other places we visited included Sydney, Gold Coast of Australia, Bali in Indonesia, Bangkok and Phuket in Thailand.
Apart from traveling with my family, I was also fortunate enough to be able to travel with my schoolmates. When I was in high school (secondary school), it was customary for the whole class to make a trip to Malacca, albeit with teacher and parent chaperones. A few years later, I also visited Kuala Lumpur for the first time on a choir exchange.
Looking back on my school days in Singapore, I know I am very fortunate that my family was able to send me to an international high school. Every year, there would be an “outside the classroom” program for students. These programs ranged from learning Asian cooking, sailing or apprentice teaching in Singapore, which were fun in their own right, but the coveted programs were overseas trips. Some trips were linked to Habitat for Humanity, where the group of students and teachers pitched in to build a house for local families in need. Other trips were adventure-based, such as camping in Tasmania, trekking in the Annapurna region of Nepal and whitewater rafting in New Zealand. Other trips were more cultural, giving students the chance to learn about people and traditions that were much different from their own. Many of the trips had a charity or school exchange component, so we could give back to the communities we were visiting and learn about the learning environments of students in different countries. Besides having fun with schoolmates, these trips were meant to be eye-opening experiences.
One such trip was one I made to Japan. At the beginning of the trip, we did home stays – each student was paired off with a Japanese family and spent one day and night with them. Even though they didn’t speak much English (and I couldn’t speak Japanese), my host family was very gracious welcoming me into their home and showing me around their neighbourhood. It was my first time sleeping so
close to the floor on tatami mat beds, and I remember being charmed by how daintily presented my meals were. I would soon learn that food presentation is a forte of the Japanese – each meal portioned perfectly and placed appealingly in small bowls, dishes or in a compact bento box.
Another year I took a boat trip in Thailand. For five days, my friends and I stayed on a river boat and floated down the Chao Phraya River, and we took turns cooking meals, navigating the boat, doing the chores and going through our “classroom” modules. It was far from a luxury cruise – we bunked down in the cabin of the boat, and to conserve water, we had a time limit on our showers – three minutes! We learned about boat and river life, Thai culture and enjoyed mini excursions to a market, a school and several temples. We left Thailand with a greater appreciation for the many privileges we had back home.
When I went back to the US for university studies, I realised how blessed I was to have travelled so much. I met many people who had not left their home state, much less been outside of the United States. Some people had been abroad before, but never to Asia. Many people listened, wide-eyed, when I recounted my background and my travels. I look back on that time today and count my blessings – that my family was able to afford my travels around the region once we moved to Singapore, and that my parents saw the importance of opening our eyes to other cultures and environments.
Even as a “poor university student” and after joining the workforce, I never stopped travelling. It is one of my favourite hobbies. Travelling need not be expensive – with sufficient planning and a little saving, any destination in the world can be yours. Singapore is very well-placed for travels around the region. Besides saving money to go on trips, the biggest dilemma I face now is whether to visit new destinations or go back to old favourites. Where do you want to visit next?