Bino Chua on the Spellbinding Beauty of Travelling
While travelling is a cathartic experience for many to either discover themselves or to venture out of their comfort zone, some have made it their lifelong mission to visit every country in the world. Bitten by the travel bug around ten years ago, Bino Chua has since visited over 63 countries to experience the euphoria of being in a magical place far away from home. To document them all, he has a travel blog to debunk misconceptions, with interesting ideas to do, places to stay, food recommendations and must-see attractions. Here to share his experiences on how to assimilate into a foreign culture and what to look out for when visiting former war zones, we speak to Bino on the wonders of travel.
High Net Worth: I understand that your website first started as a personal blog. When did it evolve into a travel blog?
Bino Chua: It evolved into a travel blog about 10 years ago. I wanted to share tips on my travels. The content was about my personal ramblings on trips that I took, places I’ve been to, and how people could experience it as well.
How did your interest in travel come about?
I went on a trip to Central Java, in Borobudur about 10 years ago, and it was one of my first trips as a working professional. I really loved the place and thought that it was quite magical. The serenity of Borobudur and the jungle around it was transcendental. It inspired my writing, that’s why I started a blog.
Where was the hardest place to travel to?
When I was in the Western Rakhine State of Myanmar, which is now suffering from a crisis because of the Rohingya conflict. There’s this amazing collection of ancient Buddhist ruins in a place called Mrauk U. It’s almost like Angkor Wat, or Bagan which is also in Myanmar, but it’s in a far more remote place with no other tourists in sight. You’ll see all these temples overgrown with trees and shrubs. When you get there, it feels like an Indiana Jones movie set. It’s hard to get there because it requires multiple transfers. I had to fly to Yangon, take a domestic flight to the capital, followed by a six-hour boat ride in utter darkness down the river to get to the town. Once you arrive, the town itself has no paved roads. You will have to take a four-wheel drive and traverse through rough terrains to get to the temples.
How did you find out about these places?
All it takes for me is a single photo to inspire me to go there. And this was before Instagram. I would pop by a bookstore, browse around and see which are the places that pique my interest. It became an obsession as I would constantly research on how to get to a particular location, and read up on the stories behind each place—that’s how I plan all my trips.
Who takes your photos when you travel?
A lot of people ask me that question and the real answer is a very boring one. I have a tripod.
Do you prefer to travel in a group or solo?
There are merits to both of them. I travel alone because I like to follow my own schedule and not be restricted by others. Different people have different preferences. But travelling with people is also good because you can look out for one another and that is important especially when you go to former war zones. I wouldn’t want to go to such places on my own.
Do you normally require a guide or an armed guard when you visit former war zones?
I don’t mind being free and easy, but most of the places don’t allow that. You have no choice but to hire a guide and a driver. You can tell the guide where you want to go, but the itinerary won’t be finalised until the day itself—due to government restrictions or other kinds of issues. There are some places that allow you to go free and easy, and if they do, I would opt for that.
How are the citizens like in these countries and how do they treat you?
There are some places where I’m barely allowed to have any interaction with the locals. They require you to travel with a guide, and the guide will ensure that you don’t interact with them, except for those that work in the service industries. However, from experience, my interactions with the locals have been very positive. Most of them are curious about where I come from and what I am doing in their country. They are also very proud to tell me about the great things about their country.
Which country has the most hospitable citizens?
Iran, without a doubt. It’s the most hospitable country I have ever visited thus far.
Any memorable experiences in Iran that led to that conclusion?
I was taking the local train, and there was a couple that approached me. We had a quick chat and they actually invited me over to their place for dinner. We had a good meal and I had a glimpse into the local life. They even invited me to stay in their home. A few days after the dinner, when I was about to return to Singapore, they offered to pick me up and send me to the airport, which I thought was a very nice gesture. We only met a few days ago and instantly became friends. That was one of the most heartwarming memories I’ve had.
Were there any language barriers you had to overcome?
There was no Google Translate back then, so I brought a phrase book to help me with the basics to get by. Oftentimes, you can find somebody who speaks English within a few feet away from you to ask for assistance.
What do you think is the best way to understand a foreign culture?
I think you should immerse yourself in the place that you’re in. I see people who travel to a certain country and they can’t accept the local cuisine, so they bring along instant noodles or other snacks with them. That’s fine, because not everybody travels to immerse themselves in the local culture. Some people travel to see a nice view, or to escape from the heat in Singapore. If you want to truly understand a new culture, you should accept everything that comes with it even though it may seem completely foreign to you.
Were there any instances where you found it difficult to befriend the locals?
I don’t actively seek to befriend the locals when I travel. I’m not a very friendly or outgoing person by nature. I tend to keep my guard up when I’m travelling due to the many different kinds of scams out there. Sometimes, the locals are very friendly by nature, and you just naturally become friends with them.
Which countries are the rudest to tourists?
I haven’t encountered a country where everybody was unfriendly or rude to me. When I went to Russia, people warned me about the locals being rude and unfriendly by nature, regardless of your nationality. But my experience there wasn’t what people made it out to be. There are rude people everywhere in the world. The way you conduct yourself and interact with the locals matters more.
Do you plan your itinerary beforehand?
No, I don’t—even though I write a lot of itineraries on my website. Those are post-trip itineraries that I share after the trip mainly as a recollection of where I went and what I ate.
What’s on the top of your bucket list right now?
It’s one of the last communist countries in the world where you can feel as though you are stuck in the 1950s or 60s. It’s like going back in time.
What is one country that everybody warns you about, but is actually a great place to visit?
Definitely Iran. I went to Iran eight years ago, and back then, everybody kept discouraging me from going, including my parents. I think everybody should go and see it for themselves because it’s not actually a dangerous place. In fact, the country is pretty modern and comfortable to travel around.
What were the most physically challenging trips you’ve had while travelling?
Probably New Zealand—if you love the outdoors. Even if you don’t like nature, visiting New Zealand will change your mind. It’s such a serene and beautiful place that you just want to run up the hills or hike the nearest mountain.
How about the most magical place?
Dubrovnik in Croatia. It’s very touristy, but the cemented walkways, stone houses, and city walls make you feel like you are in Game of Thrones, which in fact was used as a filming location.
What excites you the most about travelling?
Discovering a new place in real life beyond a photo. The journey is also another thing that excites me. I’ve been trying out different airlines and the aviation experience is something that has always fascinated me, even when I was a kid. I love the idea of being in an airplane and sitting by the window to look out at the sky.
What is the best airline in your opinion?
Singapore Airlines. They are truly one of the best out there, in terms of service. The food is also pretty good, especially if you are into Asian food. I also like Qatar Airways and Emirates, especially if I’m going for comfort. Turkish Airlines is also great because of the number of destinations that they fly to. Regardless of how remote the place is, they will fly to somewhere nearby. They are the airline that flies to the most number of international destinations in the world.
Do you feel that having to take photos while you travel actually hinders you from being truly present in the moment?
When I take photos, I feel like I’m just looking at the place through my camera lens, and not really appreciating the entire scenery. Recently, I started dabbling in video and it adds another layer too. I find that I don’t get to be truly present because I am focused on taking pictures and shooting videos. I do go on trips where I don’t take photos, but they are usually more familiar places rather than exotic locations.