Before the Covid-19 pandemic closed the door on international tourism, Singaporean travel entrepreneur Scott Tay journeyed to some of the world’s most remote places. Conducting small-group tours, he spent time with Tsaatan reindeer herders in Mongolia’s frozen hinterlands, roamed the Gobi Desert on camelback and journeyed with Kazakh eagle hunters.
Now confined to Singapore thanks to global travel restrictions, the adrenaline junkie has found a different adventure, closer to home.
Tay has taken to organising outdoor cookouts by the sea in a secret location in eastern Singapore, where he whips up meals for friends using a mix of modern techniques and bushcraft. When all restrictions are eased, he plans to offer these cookout experiences to paying customers.
He has also taken to exploring remote paths and secret underground tunnels in the wildest corners of the tropical city state, in the hope of inspiring fellow Singaporeans to follow his lead.
“Many people might think differently, but to me, the (lockdown) was one of the best moments of my life,” says Tay, 28, founder of travel agency Beyond Expeditions Singapore.
Tay is among a number of restless locals seeking to breach new frontiers in the tiny urbanised country while international travel plans are shelved.
He describes Singapore’s two-month partial lockdown as a “blessing in disguise” and a chance to reflect on his life’s purpose. He recalls waking up at 5am each day and having a cold shower, followed by meditation and an hour’s worth of reading books on spirituality and self-help.
He then spent most of the day in a foldable safari chair on his balcony, or “home office”, and took naps in his tent, which he set up in the living room.
The lockdown, beginning in April, gave him the chance to explore bushcraft, which had long fascinated him. He devoured what he could find on the subject on the internet, especially YouTube videos by international bushcrafters.
He cites the example of two individuals who simulated a fall into a frozen lake, and showed viewers how to overcome hypothermia and make their way back to civilisation.
Tay was so keen to try bushcraft that he embarked on a shopping spree, spending close to S$4,000 (US$2,900) on gear – from an axe hand-forged by blacksmiths in Sweden and a machete to several knives, fire starters and a pair of top-of-the-line binoculars.
Since the phase-two reopening of the Singapore economy began on June 19, following the two-month “circuit breaker” lockdown, Tay has organised several outdoor cookouts, where he and his friends used modern gadgets like portable stoves as well as firesteel (a ferrocerium rod that sparks when it is struck) and stoves powered by twigs and sticks to make meals.
Using a modified version of bushcraft, they whipped up aglio olio, arrabiata, truffle and pesto pastas, and masala chai.
Eating outdoors was a “totally different experience” and a more rewarding effort than cooking at home, says Tay, adding that he and his friends plan to try making chapatti and dal next.
He acknowledges Singapore’s strict restrictions around open-flame cooking outdoors or even tieing a hammock to a tree. Once, he and his friends were told by the authorities to leave just as they were about to begin their cookout near a bike trail because it was on state land.
“There are an abundance of creative ideas out there but the government has to support them,” Tay says. “If not, these ideas won’t flower and will end up being left in the graveyard.”
He hopes to launch these experiences to the public in the future when Singapore moves to phase three, and take small groups to state-approved spots like the island of Pulau Ubin, where they can camp overnight and have cookouts.
He also plans to set mini-challenges, such as who can pitch a tent the fastest, carve the best utensils out of wood, and tie knots, among others.
“Most travellers don’t know what a firesteel is or how to set up a tent, so this is a great opportunity to impart essential survival skills to prepare them for future adventure trips when travel bans are lifted,” he says.
To curate new inbound experiences, his team is busy exploring the less tamed parts of manicured Singapore, such as the dense forests of Kranji and Mandai, where wildlife abounds. Tay also plans to embark on 12- and 24-hour treks across the city state.
“There’s a growing trend of adventure travel, and more people are bored and tired of the same kind of sightseeing tours,” he says. “They want something more experiential and also where they can connect at a deeper level with nature and with each other.”
His next trip overseas will be a trek with cancer survivors across Mongolia’s Lake Khuvsgul in deep winter next February, as part of Beyond Expeditions’ third charity fundraiser for the Singapore Cancer Society.
Kayak Fishing Fever founder Aaron Ang, 28, says he has noticed a slight increase in demand for the company’s kayak fishing tour experiences, from 17 tours per month pre-pandemic to 19 tours per month, but more importantly, local interest has grown substantially.
Unlike regular kayaking tours, Fever’s trips use specialised leg-powered fishing kayaks so participants’ hands are free to focus on angling.
Adventures range from travelling along busy shipping routes to cruising the shores of Sentosa island. Kayakers can fish sunken wrecks, deep-sea structures and along the coast for parrot fish, grouper and snapper, and might even catch a glimpse of a hawksbill sea turtle.
Before Covid-19, half of Fishing Fever’s clients were tourists, with the rest split evenly between locals and expats, Ang says. With no tourists, 45 per cent of clients are now locals and 55 per cent expats.
“We think there’s a rise in demand because locals and expats are actively looking for fun and unique activities to do in Singapore because of the travel restrictions,” he adds. “We are definitely seeing more families with kids signing up for our beginner trips.”
He says he is keen to work with hotels and other tour agencies to bundle activities together, to “give many people in Singapore a chance to try and stumble upon a new activity that they never knew existed”.
In July, Singapore launched a S$45 million domestic tourism campaign to encourage Singaporeans and residents to explore different sides of Singapore. “Precincts will be packaged as mini-holiday destinations, where locals can embark on a Singapoliday,” the Singapore Tourism Board said in a media release.
This major marketing push involves collaborations with local communities and interests to help locals uncover the city state’s sights and boost interest in local culture.
The lead curator for the photography community involved in this campaign, Aik Beng Chia, has turned to the Chinatown and Joo Chiat precincts for their rich heritage and character.
So far, the 52-year-old photographer has captured a number of images of everyday folk and everyday scenes. These range from an old watch repair “uncle” and kim zua craftsmen who make paper offerings for the dead in Chinatown to an ice cream distributor in Joo Chiat that has been around since 1983 and colourful shophouse facades along famous Koon Seng Road.
“I’ve been photographing Singapore (for a long time) and find it to be so much more interesting than I had anticipated,” says Chia. “There is never a lack of stories to tell at home.”
Each day brings a new discovery, he adds, saying he spotted liquor boxes stacked together to create a quirky robot art installation along Joo Chiat Road.
Chia is constantly looking out for the “real side of Singapore”: both mundane and witty moments of the everyday, scenes beyond the usual postcard-pretty images.
For Adler Poh, founder of the boutique Adler Hostel in Chinatown, the campaign funds would be better channelled towards a strategic long-term plan to rejuvenate Singapore’s precincts, especially during this down time.
To him, Chinatown’s tourist-centric street kiosks lack diversity and uniqueness in their retail offerings, and they tend to be less relevant to local consumers.
He suggests the funding could be used to help more local start-ups and artists set up stalls selling their artwork and to create incubators where aspiring hawkers build their culinary skills.
“We have to focus on building a vibrant environment where local artisans can thrive, and this in return creates a unique allure for people to visit,” says Poh. “Singapore can’t rely on big attractions alone. Tourist spending has a wide spectrum, and diversity would only help increase tourism receipts.”
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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