Traveling As A Singaporean
Being a Singaporean has its perks. The Singaporean passport is the strongest in the world as of 2018. In addition, the airport is internationally recognized so traveling through Asia is easy due to the proximity from Singapore. Singapore also holds one of the strongest currencies in Asia allowing me to be a frequent traveler.
However, coming from a country that holds one of the strongest currencies in Asia, people tend to think that Singaporeans are rich. No, I am not one of those Crazy Rich Asians or Singaporean. I am a Banjarese-Malay. My paternal forefathers are immigrants from South Kalimantan, Indonesia that settled in Singapore way before World War II. My maternal grandparents moved to Singapore from Malaysia after World War II in 1963, during which Singapore had joined with the Federation of Malaya together with the crown colony of Sarawak and North Borneo to form the new federation of Malaya. Not for long: in 1965 Singapore separated from Malaysia to become an independent and sovereign state.
So when I travel, I often get sarcastic comments from cab drivers because I don’t stay in 5-star hotels. Just like most of my fellow Singaporeans, I hustle to cope with the high cost of living in Singapore. To be honest, I hardly come across any Southeast Asians who take a few months to a year off of work just to travel. We have work commitments.
But one doesn’t have to be rich to travel.
Traveling to Singapore is a different thing altogether.
Singapore is economically developed. Things are more expensive here and there is really not much to do without spending money. Being a secular city-state, we do not adhere to strict religious rulings or cultural restrictions. However, we are rigid in terms of the laws in place over petty crimes such as jaywalking, littering and the infamous chewing gum ban. It is also the rigidity that makes it harder to experience things.
With that said, I live to travel and have been to all of South East Asia (SEA) except the Philippines, Laos, or Brunei. I have traveled to other parts outside of SEA, but my current travel goal is to complete SEA. I feel that as an Asian, I want to know Asia well.
Traveling as a Muslim to Myanmar
I broke the fear of traveling alone through a turn of events. My friend and I had booked this trip six months prior and she had to back out at the last minute. We chose Myanmar as it was the only country we both had not been. I was contemplative, especially with the violence going on against the Rohingya and especially since I am a Muslim. The heavy weight of worry cannot be avoided.
Honestly, I’ve always wanted to travel alone, but Myanmar would not have been my first choice.
But the universe had made other plans for me. As the saying goes, we plan for the best but destiny knows better.
When I arrived, Yangon felt like any other city I’ve been to. It didn’t feel like a city under threat. Locals were nice and the atmosphere was peaceful. Maybe because I wasn’t specifically in Rakhine, I was not exposed to the crisis. What I had assumed to be the situation in Myanmar that was portrayed in the media–all the chaos and violence–was not there at all.
I went to Bagan on a night bus and arrived at 5am in the morning. It was daunting as, firstly, I was not prepared for the cool temperatures, which had dropped to 20 degrees Celsius and secondly, I was touted by several men clad in a sarong to patronise their transport services. It was dark and I was navigating through my own fears and I felt unsafe. At the peak of my desperation, I was approached by two women, Petra and Nuch, from Thailand. We hit it off instantaneously, starting our day watching the sunrise with the ancient stupas silhouetting the skyline till the sun sets. It was refreshing to acquaint myself to a new city with new friends who were both first-time travellers to Myanmar.
As a Muslim traveler, finding Halal food is a challenge, especially in cities where language is a barrier and Muslims are a minority. So hoping to grab some lunch, I had trouble recognizing the food that was being served. Luckily, my Thai friends and I met another Thai patron working in Myanmar and my questions were translated through three different languages: English, Thai, and Burmese, almost effortlessly. It’s true that language plays a part, but traveling has taught me that the method of communication is not through language but attitudes. Everyone around was open and willing to help me out of a slight predicament and it made me feel embraced by the city.
The crossing of paths and the short-term relationships that we have with the people we meet may be brief and sweet but somehow the friendships are cultivated through other means. Especially now, where almost everyone has access to social media. Petra, who recently traveled to China, shared information and pictures about a Muslim community in China with me through Facebook. As travelers, we form a sense of kinship with one another and the bond remains even if the trip has already ended.
Traverse With An Open Mind, Be Pleasantly Surprised
(Bali/Koh Lipe/Phuket – Discovering Asia’s diverse cultures and practices)
Growing up in Singapore’s diverse community, I was exposed to the various cultures and religious practices of racial groups such as Chinese, Malay, Indian and Eurasian. The advantage to this is that I am equipped with the basic knowledge of respecting cultural or religious diversities that are different from my own. This also makes it easier to understand cultures and other religious practices that I have experienced in the region.
However, there were three specific instances where I ended up learning about other Asian cultures that are not practiced in Singapore.
As a frequent traveler to Bali, I’ve grown accustomed to their ritualistic way of life. I have also experienced some of their festivities first-hand. However, on one of my trips there, I managed to witness the preparations of Ngrupuk Parade, which blew me away. Right on the streets and outside their homes the locals were making these 2-storeys high Ogoh-ogoh sculptures from wires and paper and placing them on a pad made of planks and bamboo.
The Ogoh-ogoh are effigies that are built by the village youths and normally standing on a pad built of timber planks and bamboos. The pad is designed to sustain the Ogoh-ogoh, while it is being lifted by around six to eight men on their shoulders and carried around the village or the town square. The Ogoh-ogoh are rotated at every juncture, an act to confuse and scare the evil spirits so that they do not harm human beings. At the end of the parade, the Ogoh-ogoh will be cremated at the cemeteries as a symbol of purification.
I remember standing by the streets amidst the noise, watching the local youths painstakingly painting the details and everyone working together. The Ogoh-ogoh represent the mythical demons in Balinese Hinduism. I couldn’t help but feel that the Ogoh-ogoh were all alive as I looked up at them towering over me. In Singapore, during parades similar to this, everything has already been outsourced and prepared by companies. Witnessing a confluence of people, working hard together right outside of their homes, to make these gigantic sculptures from basic materials was such an amazing experience. Ngrupuk is, in my opinion, the perfect representation of Bali’s vibrancy
Nyepi is a day of silence that is celebrated by Hindus in Bali and is reserved for self-reflection. On this day, there is no social activity such as no entertainment or pleasure and no talking or eating. Although it is a Hindu ritual, tourists and other non-Hindu residents are not exempted from it. No one is allowed to leave their homes for 24 hours from 6am on Nyepi. The streets are empty from its usual bustle and chaos. It was refreshing for me, someone who grew up and spent my entire life in a city, to experience a stillness in the air. The stillness gave me a sense of serenity, one of which I have never experienced before anywhere else.
A similar incident happened on my trip to Koh Lipe. I was on a solo trip to Langkawi and on a whim decided to head over to Koh Lipe which was just a 90-minute ferry ride away. I had no plans prior and was just making full use of the time I have left in Langkawi. When I arrived, I realised that everyone was throwing water at each other with water guns and pails punctuated by celebratory cheering. I remembered that it was Songkran and was surprised as I had assumed that it was mainly celebrated in Bangkok and Chiangmai.
It was unexpected and I felt nervous walking down the street towards my hotel as I did not water-proof any of my belongings. But the locals were mindful and polite and just splashed a little bit of water on my legs and ankles. However, after I checked in and was walking around, this time without my backpack, the locals and tourists were merciless, but all in good cheer, and I was completely wet!
The splashing of water in Songkran is a symbol of purification. I was also approached by a sweet old man who asked my permission to put white powder on my cheeks, to which I agreed. It is one of the oldest Songkran traditions and is believed to protect us and ward off evil. It is usually applied by an older person on a younger person. Through my first Songkran experience, I learned that similar celebrations are also practiced in Myanmar and Laos.
The third incident happened in Phuket. I was traveling with a friend of mine and one day, as we were walking back to our guesthouse, which was facing the sea, we were approached by several vendors selling weave baskets filled with flowers. It was not until we passed the sea that we saw both locals and tourists lighting the candles and releasing them into the water.
It was a Thai celebration, Loi Krathong, where offerings are given to the sea as a prayer for a year of good fortune and to give thanks. It was beautiful much later in the night as the lighted offerings bobbed precariously on the waves and the skies were illuminated by Khom Loi, or sky lanterns, that are released on the shore. Since our guesthouse overlooked the beach, we ended the night in the comforts of our room, watching each lantern drift higher and each offering carried further away by the waves, pretending that each one was a prayer made for our own good fortunes.
All three festivals were chanced encounters and were not planned.
I had heard about some of these festivals before but experiencing it first-hand heightened my understanding of why these celebrations were necessary; a way to mark new beginnings and say goodbye to the past year. Also, if I wasn’t fluid in the way I planned my trips, I wouldn’t have been able to be a pleasant participant in the rituals/modes of celebration. Even with the diversity of Singapore with its many cultures, the scale of celebration is not as large and usually not organized by the locals.
So although I prefer planning most of my trips in detail to make use of whatever little time I have in the cities I travel to, there are some instances where I catch myself gravitating away from the plans I’ve made. Traveling provides that momentary comfort for myself to take it easy without any sense of affliction. Most of the time, it is these trips that offer the most memorable of experiences.
Asian Tourist vs Non-Asian Tourist
I have so many beautiful experiences like this that I could share with you. As an Asian tourist throughout Asia, I feel a constant sense of pride in the diversity and complexity of the many nations that make up this continent. And many of which are represented in Singapore. However, there are instances where I feel non-Asian tourists do not have that same sense of respect that I feel for Asia as an Asian tourist.
For example, the water festival of Songkran is a spiritual and cultural experience, but over the years has manifested into a water party to service the tourist trade. Unlike the Thai, who were mindful and polite in their mannerisms, there are plenty of tourists and travelers who would splash water inconsiderately to anyone that passes them by; backpack or no backpacks. They were rowdy and loud, different from the ways of the locals who were gentler and more sensitive to their surroundings amidst the merry atmosphere.
In Padang Bay, Bali I saw a Caucasian woman haggling aggressively with an aged peddler over a bottle of mineral water. The peddler offered the bottle for IDR10,000 (USD $0.70) but the woman insisted on paying IDR5,000 (USD $0.35) and this caught the peddler off-guard. It didn’t help that the peddler did not speak English. The Caucasian tourist snatched the bottle from the peddler and shoved the 5,000RP to the puzzled peddler who was helpless in the situation. What was even more ridiculous was that there were no shops anywhere that were selling them at that price.
Haggling is a part of the shopping experience and should be practiced when purchasing souvenirs or clothes, but shouldn’t be applied to everything you are buying.
This is especially true on already super cheap goods, such as food and drinks, that are bought from locals who are obviously just trying to earn a living. This type of behaviour is disgusting to see. How the peddler was mistreated and bullied as a victim of a self-entitled traveler. I have seen these behaviors many times on different accounts and it is easy for us travelers to exploit our privileges as visitors of a place.
So as a closing note, I feel that it is important that respect is given to the locals and their cultural practices, especially experiencing something that is unexpected and foreign. Travelers should possess an openness and sensitivities towards these experiences. It is easy to pass off comments or behave rowdily especially if you are traveling within your circle of friends. But these kinds of behaviors should be kept in check, especially when visiting temples and other sacred sites and communicating with the locals. So always be kind and keep on exploring!
About the Author
Fida Ibrahim is a Banjarese-Malay who was born and raised in Singapore. She is an avid traveller that loves to share her travel through pictures. You can follow her on the social media buttons below: