He's been to 195 countries at 27, she travelled 3 times during exam period: What is 'spontaneous travel'?

He's been to 195 countries at 27, she travelled 3 times during exam period: What is 'spontaneous travel'?
PHOTO: Nicolette Wee, Dion Ong

SINGAPORE — More Generation Z and young millennials in Singapore are diving headlong into solo adventures — the more uncharted the territory, the better. Many are also posting about it to pay their way.

Spontaneous travel, defined as setting off on a trip without a fixed plan, has taken off alongside revenge travel, post pandemic.

Nomadic in nature, these spontaneous travellers subvert the leisurely rulebook of shopping, feasting and lush hotel resorts with niche, adrenaline-fuelled experiences.

The trend is largely subscribed to by backpackers, who prefer to wander the outdoors without a guidebook, keeping to lightweight baggage and tight budgets.

They tend to be of university age to youth under 30, who take flight whenever and to wherever they want, even if it means having to hustle for extra income on the side as content creators and micro-influencers to fund the travel.

In 2023, South-east Asia-based travel website Klook found in a study that 83 per cent of Singaporean Gen Z and millennial travellers were willing to invest in experiences — 63 per cent on nature and outdoor activities, 51 per cent on theme parks, and 56 per cent on  massages and hot springs.

Studying 2023 data, travel metasearch platform Skyscanner found that up to a third of Singaporeans — 31 per cent — booked trips a mere week before flying off.

In a survey of 1,000 Singaporeans aged 18 to 34 the same year, Skyscanner also found that when it comes to spending priorities, Gen Zs and young millennials favoured experiences over comfort, allocating 39 per cent of their budget to food, 36 per cent to experiences, more than 15 per cent to accommodation and 10 per cent to flight tickets. 

At 27, Singaporean Basanth Sadasivan has visited 195 countries.

He compares travel to an addiction: Once is never enough.

He continues to fly up to twice a month, usually on weekends.

His trips have taken him to observe emperor penguins in Patagonia, ride a dog sled in Norway and see the Amazon rainforests. One of the last nooks of the globe he has yet to visit is the blistery wilderness of Antarctica.

"I have not been to the South Pole yet because cruises there take two weeks. I get seasick and have to stock up on medication," says the civil servant, who is a brand ambassador for Skyscanner.

His first unaccompanied plane ride, at age 13, to visit his aunt in Australia, developed into a penchant for "off-the-beaten-track" travelling. His next solo adventure, at 17, was to North Korea.

In recent years, an interest in anthropology pertaining to Africa's tribal ecosystems took him to meet the Bantu and Bedouin tribes in the south-eastern and northern regions of the continent. 

But pursuing the dream, he says, is made possible only with extensive planning, as the globetrotter, who speaks Mandarin, French and Spanish with varied fluency, often books accommodation, as well as tour guides or translators, up to months in advance.

He says: "Know what you want to see before going to the place so you can be protected from unforeseen nuisances, such as being unable to secure a room at the last minute." 

He advises "getting out of one's bubble" to engage as much as possible in local life, be it through eating local cuisine or participating in local rituals, such as festivals.

One of his key discoveries abroad was the concept of Island Time in the Pacific Islands, where a relaxed pace of life meant people were not always punctual for events.

He cites Tonga, Tuvalu, an island in the Pacific Ocean, as an example. Although ranked low in economic output, its society is communally harmonious and one of the "happiest in the world" due to work-life balance.

He encourages solo travel as a way to "detox" and open oneself up to alternative ways of life that may not necessarily be documented on the Internet.

"I tend to see even the most seasoned travellers looking at natives through a sterile, outsiders' perspective. But with an open mind, even the most remote tribe can impart values and practices which can be inculcated into our lives," he says.

Visiting 15 countries while studying full time

In 2023, Sharlyn Seet, 22, travelled to 15 countries and 45 cities across Europe, the United States, Australia and Asia, all while being a full-time university student.

The third-year business student at Nanyang Technological University posts about her travels on TikTok under the handle @sharsharcheers. She is a micro-influencer with a following of 66,300.

The comedy skits she posted on her account took off during the Covid-19 circuit breaker. "One of my random videos recreating a viral TikTok audio garnered over one million views. I decided to take social media more seriously," she says.

In 2022, she did her first solo trip to Penang and Langkawi in Malaysia to find herself again after a break-up and has never looked back.

"What I love about solo travelling is the sense of empowerment I feel navigating places alone, learning to trust yourself and being comfortable with your space," she says.

Since then, she has ventured to 25 cities — some solo trips and others with fellow travellers — from scuba diving in Honolulu, Hawaii, to frolicking on the beaches of Krabi in Thailand.

How does she juggle travel, side gigs and school?

She says strategic scheduling helps. She has travelled to three countries back to back during her exam season. A getaway with friends to Vietnam during her school's recess week was followed by media trips to China and Malaysia to promote a bank's debit card.

She burned the midnight oil, crunched a six-day itinerary into four days, worked on her assignments in between events and opted for an eight-hour layover flight, in order to return to Singapore in time for her exams.

But she has no regrets, saying: "This was my childhood ambition, and I feel privileged to be able to live this lifestyle."

@sharsharcheers 4 months, 4 continents, 4everNOregrets #shartravels #worldnomads ♬ original sound - Sharlyn Seet

Some of the advertisers on her social media platforms include UOB's Mighty FX multi-currency account, sports giant Adidas and online travel platform Trip.com. She declines to say how much she makes from these sponsors.

On the side, she also runs a digital marketing agency, Shark Digital Media, and is a part-time spin cycle instructor at fitness chain Revolution SG.

She is working on building several income streams to create a lifestyle where she is less dependent on location or time.

She adds: "This gives me the ability to sustain myself from anywhere and, in turn, the freedom to fly to places whenever I want to."

Known for her interactive content, she occasionally seeks viewer suggestions for her next destination and turns these into vlogs.

One of her viral videos, titled Visiting The Most Dangerous City In The World, documented her 2023 trip to Mexico's Tijuana, a city with one of the highest  homicide rates in the world. 

@sharsharcheers Probably the most adventurous thing I have done in my entire life, in a different way… 😳😳 #shartravels ♬ original sound - Sharlyn Seet

Seet has also flown a paraplane — a motorised parachute — in Chiang Mai and camped in the deserts of Monument Valley in Arizona to photograph the Milky Way. Her bucket list is brimming, and she intends to conquer South Asia and Eastern Europe in 2024.

But she is candid about what it is like to hustle for travel.

"Many people have asked me if I plan to become a full-time traveller and content creator, which relies on sponsorships to sustain the lifestyle," says the business and finance student.

"While it may be a dream for many, it's quite tiring to travel for a living. You are dealing with deadlines from clients and running around different places to produce content, which may compromise the authenticity of the experience one shares."

A life of adventure, in the end, hinges on the sums. Last year, she started a travel budget Excel spreadsheet for her followers to help them organise their travel expenditure and be money-savvy.

@sharsharcheers What are you waiting for 👀? Comment “TRAVEL” to receive yours today ✅ #shartravels ♬ Married Life (From "Up") - Gina Luciani

Seet adds that her path has come with many rewards and sacrifices too.

"With social media, we have seen how an alternative lifestyle compared with a conventional one is possible. However, in order to keep my side gigs running, I am not involved in school and hall activities like I used to be."

In 2022, the final-year student decided to take a gap year to explore internship opportunities. She ended up doing business internships in financial institutions.

What the travel influencer resolved to do after the year was over was to make self-employment her goal. But she laments: "There is not much of a support system or educational directive in Singapore that teaches you to become self-employed." 

Yet, she is pragmatic about what her options are.

"Travel and content creation will always be a huge part of my life. But I don't think it's wise to put all my eggs into that basket. The job can be sustainable only with adequate sponsorships."

Doing extremist activities for 'the plot'

For Nicolette Wee, 23, a graduate trainee in e-commerce at TikTok, travel is compelled by impulse. She has checked off a personal goal to skydive off a plane in Bangkok, as well as parasailed in Penang and surfed in Bali — all on the spur of the moment.

Less thinking, just doing, is her motto, says the single, who books flights a day after deciding on her next quest or destination.

The seasoned backpacker, who has travelled to 18 countries, needs less than an hour to shove a fixed set of essentials — passport, four sets of clothing, adapters and a medical kit — into a 50-litre backpack, before she is out of the door.

She says the lure of spontaneous travelling has been made more palpable with TikTok, where content creators teleport between destinations seamlessly through video edits, showing one can have it all, right now.

It is common to see youth travelling, just for the sake of new backdrops and social media aesthetics, she adds.

On her first solo backpacking trip to Hualien County, a mountainous region in Taiwan, at 19 years old, she downed rice wine, then jumped from a cliff into rocky waters, on a dare. 

Unlike some who carefully curate their travel itinerary months in advance, Wee is game to tag along with strangers she meets on the road and sample their version of adventure.

No photo, no proof, believes the content creator, who says her go-to icebreaker is to ask fellow tourists to snap her picture. She posts about her exploits on TikTok under @nicolettecalliewe and has 32,400 followers.

"I do it for 'the plot'," says the globetrotter, when asked how she justifies her extremist activities.

"The plot", in Gen Z lexicon, is defined as the overall narrative or "script" of one's life. The term references film and television series, where an individual imagines himself or herself as the protagonist of his or her life story.

Wee's rationale — to do it for the plot, in the similar vein as the Latin aphorism "carpe diem" (seize the day) — justifies taking risks for the sake of it. It has seen her ride pillion on strangers' motorbikes and strike up foreign friendships using Google Translate. 

Her passion for exploring new lands stems from her childhood, when she went on road trips in New Zealand and Australia with her parents, who both work in the tech industry, and her elder brother.

"Growing up, my family and my extended family — around 18 of us — would go on long road trips every year."

Even her parents think her madcap solo travel schedule — where she takes off at least once every three months — is crazy.

"But now that I am a corporate employee, they are more supportive of my decisions. My mother even asks if she can tag along," says the Nanyang Technological University communications graduate, who began funding her own travel from age 18 through side gigs as a dance instructor and marketing assistant. 

While her job in business acquisition gives her the financial means to travel, she is limited to 18 days of annual leave and weekends to satiate her restlessness.

Over the past two years, she has flown to places such as Thailand, Taiwan, Japan and Korea — sometimes just for a three-day-long weekend.

She usually budgets around $800 for a trip in South-east Asia and stays in hostels to save on costs. She skimps by opting out of checked baggage and tucking into street food, including fried grasshoppers, for meals.

Travel compatibility has streamlined her priorities in a prospective partner. She once booked a Singapore Airlines flight to meet her then boyfriend in Spain. She cancelled it — losing $1,800 — when their relationship soured shortly after and decided to forgo the trip.

"I know I want someone who has an adventurous streak, is ready to start a family and have children, so that one day, I may take my kids travelling," she says.

Her travel has been laced with spontaneous romantic interludes.

She recalls visiting Hualien's night market with an American tourist she met online in 2019. She even had dinner with his family. 

"When we met, I felt an instant connection, and we went around playing arcade games," she says, adding they had two more dates before she flew home from Taipei.

@nicolettecalliewe summer lovin happened so fast..🤪 let the good times roll #fyp ♬ Never Forget You - Noisettes

As a solo female traveller, Ms Wee equips herself with safety tools, such as an alarm buzzer that emits distress signals during a potential attack and a hidden-camera detector to identify covert recording devices that may infringe on her privacy. She also avoids wandering around red-light districts.

''In retrospect, I've just been fortunate not to fall into any mishaps as I'm quite a gullible person," she says.

'My plan is to do whatever I want'

Dion Ong, 27, has tread a winding path in pursuit of wanderlust.

The bachelor and small-business owner says: "My plan is to do whatever I want -—be it a train trip to Paris or beyond — before the age of 35, when singles like myself are eligible to buy a Build-To-Order  (BTO) flat." 

The Zillenial, a portmanteau of Gen Z and millennial individuals born between 1995 and 2000, says he relates to the idealistic streak of Gen Z youth, as well as the pragmatism of millennials. 

After graduating with a diploma in tourism and hospitality management from Singapore Polytechnic, Ong followed in the footsteps of his cousin and elder sister — both flight attendants — and worked as a cabin crew member from 2019 to 2022.

"I was supposed to fly for only two years and return to Singapore to get a full-time degree, but Covid-19 happened and I did not manage to save enough money. I did not want to touch my parents' money, so I continued working," says the son of a renovation contractor and hardware storekeeper.

But the glamour of flying soon wore out. His enthusiasm for travel waned, and he grew tired of travelling to the same places — even the fabled cities of London, New York, Dubai and Rome.

He started a jewellery business during the pandemic when flying was disrupted, living mostly on a stipend of $1,500 paid by the airline. He quit working at the airline one year after borders reopened.

In September 2022, he joined Lemon8, an app operated by TikTok's parent company ByteDance, which gained traction in Singapore that year for its catalogue of lifestyle content. 

He made $1,000 producing career- and travel-related content on the app for two months, an amount that covered the cost of an impromptu backpacking trip to Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he hiked solo in the mountainous region of Mon Jam, a village community in the highlands. 

Some day, he hopes to embark on a six-month one-man odyssey from Singapore to Paris by land — using public transport.

He was inspired after reading a 2016 blog post of someone who accomplished the feat. The route to London will see him crossing China to Russia, then Poland, an area which has seen major disruptions with the Russo-Ukrainian war.

But Ong, who has visited 30 countries, is not one to shy away from perilous adventures.

He recounts: "In December 2023, I booked a 16-day trip to Mongolia for $4,000 through a Mongolian tourism website — that is significantly cheaper than the packages sold here, which are priced at nearly $7,000. I decided to follow a tour group and did not look at the itinerary."

The trip involved a four-day trek on horseback in the snowy wilderness to meet a reindeer community located in Dukha, a rural province in north-eastern Mongolia. Sleeping arrangements for the trekkers were teepees, tents made of animal skin. Mid-trek, temperatures plunged to minus 40 deg C.

"I love camping, but coming from a tropical country, I was not prepared for the trip. The thermal wear I took along was useless," he says. 

He recalls hydrating himself by melting ice in a steel pot over a log fire, purchasing a Deel — a traditional Mongolian attire made of wool — to keep warm and responding to nature's call in a sub-zero open-air toilet.

"By the end of the journey on horseback, my knees were so frozen that for 10 seconds, I could barely walk." 

He now makes his living through brand sponsorships on social media, as well as an online jewellery business, Delicate Ornaments, which he founded in 2020. He also tends to a YouTube channel, @diongdion, alongside posting on TikTok and Lemon8.  He has more than 7,000 followers across all three platforms.

Since 2021, he has also been doing a part-time communications degree at Singapore University of Social Sciences. He intends to stick to content creation — before it is time to pay for his BTO flat — and has no plans for a full-time job.

In July, he hopes to go to summer school in Japan and is exploring extending his stay there afterwards on a work visa.

"I have a different expectation of my life compared with my friends, who are starting families and working full time. I respect their decisions, but when it comes to a point of stress and burnout, that's a problem," says Ong, who is renting a room from his sister.

"I want to be able to look back on my life and find fun in every moment. I did what I wanted to do and did not push aside travelling just to hustle."

Watching his travel footprint while seeing the world

Budget takes precedence for avid backpacker Ng Yi Yang, 28. Whether it be soaking up the nightlife in Phuket, Thailand, mountain hiking in Sapa, Vietnam, or conquering the Grand Canyon and Yosemite in the US, he limits his expenditure to $50 a day.

Packing no more than four sets of clothing into a backpack weighing just 10kg, he skips shopping and scours for experiences outdoors, such as scuba diving and hiking.

The managing director of Zyrup Media, a multimedia company comprising a creative studio, youth culture publication and podcast network, is also a content creator on Lemon8 known for his backpacking trips and travel advice. 

The communications graduate started travelling spontaneously after graduating from Nanyang Technological University in 2021.

"After my semester ended, I had a week with no exams, so I took a train to Penang without thinking about what activities I would be doing." 

The travel bug bit hard afterwards. He has taken off at least once every two months since, except during the pandemic when borders were closed.

Last year, he visited 16 cities — the highlights were a visit to the fairy-tale Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany and taking diving lessons in the Gili Islands of Indonesia.

The bachelor, who is extroverted by nature, says travelling has opened him to many facets of himself. "On a 2019 solo trip to the US, I spent five days in total silence and found that I am perfectly content doing things alone." 

He opts for hostels over hotels that cost no more than $30 a night in South-east Asia and $50 in Europe, crediting it as spaces to meet new people. Initiating conversations with fellow backpackers in the hostels has enabled him to befriend strangers from Poland and Germany.

"When put into the hostel environment, people tend to be a bit more open and accommodating. Some hostels organise activities and host communal dinners, places for you to break the ice and meet people," he says.

The backpacking community is dominated by individuals in their early 20s, an age of much soul-searching, revelry and drinking, but he warns backpackers new to the game to play on the side of caution.

During a trip to Berlin, an 18-year-old female American backpacker got drunk, collapsing outside a train station. He and another friend spent three hours trying to take her back to the hostel. 

Although Mr Ng is critical of over-hyped tourist attractions, he visits such hot spots with fellow hostel mates. "I don't always adhere to plans and will approach tourists and ask whether I can jump onto their plans. Sometimes, I'll ask if they want to go to specific places together with me," he says, relating how some such encounters have led to whirlwind adventures.

Being self-employed gives him the flexibility to plan work around his holidays. The digital nomad says: "I make full use of weekends, long weekends and public holidays to do work, even when I'm abroad. And on the days when I'm not travelling, I just dream about travelling." 

Next on his travel list are the mountainous regions of Yunnan and Tibet.

But he is against travelling to over-touristed places such as Paris and Bali, where tourism has resulted in a slew of controversies surrounding environmental degradation and cultural disrespect.

"Ultimately, when you travel, you may end up being complicit in a system that directly disadvantages the locals, hence why I'm a huge hater of the over-touristed side of Bali, which can be hot spots for disrespectful, unruly tourists.

"Be careful that your footprint in the countries you are visiting is a positive one, and not directly impacting, affecting and destroying what you're there to see."

ALSO READ: Going on a holiday? Here are 10 things you can prepare for a worry-free trip

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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