Monday, April 27, 2009

STI: Cheaper off the beaten path

April 26, 2009

Cheaper off the beaten path

By Teo Cheng Wee 


I love travelling, but I hate buying plane tickets.


Take this phone call I made to a travel agent last year, to check on tickets to Eastern Europe.


'Hi, I would like to get tickets to Sofia,' I said.


'Your name is Sophia?' the woman on the other line asked.


I cleared my throat to make sure that I spoke in a much lower tone.


'No, no, Sofia. I want to go to Sofia. In Bulgaria,' I repeated.


'You are so what?' she barked.


I so want to vomit blood, that's what. But that is just one of the perils of visiting countries off the beaten path.


Much has been said about how the Singaporean traveller is getting increasingly sophisticated. More people champion taking the road less travelled.


So my friends should be patting me on the back for taking a trip to Iran now right? (As you're reading this, I should be somewhere in Shiraz, in the country's south.)


Instead, when they find out that my latest destination was not some deadly job assignment that my Foreign Desk boss forced on me, many of them scoffed.


'Why?' delivered in a high-pitched, bewildered voice, is the typical reaction. This is usually followed by the very thoughtful 'You're not scared of getting bombed ah?'


Even my mother, who, over the last decade, has gotten too tired to scold her son for his newest holiday spot, voiced a mild objection to my latest trip.


One day after I announced my suicidal voyage, she told me coldly: 'Oi, insurance doesn't cover the two I's,' referring to Iraq and Iran. She usually buys travel insurance for me through her agent.


It's funny how many places in the world people think get bombed.


Good thing they're wrong, or I would have died violent deaths in Myanmar, Pakistan, North Korea, Syria or Sri Lanka - all countries that I visited in recent years.


Some of my friends probably think that I'm keen to prove a point by choosing these destinations. You know, act like an adventure seeker. Show that I live life on the edge.


Actually, I'm embarrassed to tell them where I'm going sometimes, because I know I'm anything but gung-ho.


Wow, going to Iran? You're very brave. (No, I'm not).


I don't bungee jump. I don't skydive. I've never even worked in telemarketing before. Why would I seek out other dangerous activities when I'm on holiday?


The truth is, my main reason for visiting these countries often boils down to something so simple it's almost mundane: cost.


Developed countries require developed earning power, so when I first started backpacking, I tended to waltz around South-east Asia instead. The countries are nearby, cheap and endlessly fascinating.


It was great, but there are only so many countries in the region.


When I ran out of places to go to, I had to look further - and I often ended up scouting for places that, well, were supposed to get bombed.


Several of these destinations are crippled not by any real, recent terrorist attacks or mass rioting, but by a dodgy past or a bad reputation that refuses to be shed.


Day-to-day, their streets are arguably safer, devoid of the pickpockets and scam artists that ply their trade in many developed cities.


'When people hear 'Bombing in Sri Lanka', they don't think 'Oh, danger in small part of Sri Lanka.' They think the entire country is under attack,' a local there told me when I visited three years ago.


All the better for me - you get great value going to places that other people don't want to go to.


Ten days in Sri Lanka cost me slightly over $1,000. A fortnight in Myanmar cost about the same. Two weeks in Pakistan and Xinjiang, China, set me back less than $2,500.


In all these places, I travelled comfortably with hired drivers. I never had to stay in any grubby hotels. And I could still set aside money for a little shopping.


It's not that I've never been to more expensive places such as Europe, Australia or the United States, or that I don't enjoy their sights. Indeed, these places can also be done on a budget.


But I prefer not to spend too much time scrutinising food prices on the menu. Or fighting for a good bed in a youth hostel (I'm too old for that).


Maybe I'll travel more fancily when I move up another income bracket.


It may not be so bad. At least, travel agents won't be calling me strange names anymore.

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