Off the beaten path… a 71-year-old’s journey across the globe

Globetrotter and solo backpacker William Oh has travelled to more than 50 countries over three decades. And he doesn’t plan to stop.

THE coronavirus pandemic has made leisure travel seem like a relic of the past. Like many Singaporeans, William Oh yearns for the day when he straps on his 25-year-old backpack again, boards a flight and scoots off to explore the world – alone. His backpacking adventure started in Luang Prabang, Laos, in his early 40s and the travel bug bit this father of two hard. Today, the 71-year-old globetrotter has explored over 50 countries, having trekked across the Asia-Pacific, Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Russia as well as South America.

From his 30-year backpacking experience, William shares nine life lessons he has learnt…

1. Always spare a thought for others

“During my trips, I prefer putting up at hostels and homestays instead of hotels as they give me a chance to interact with the locals and other travellers. I also make an effort to be more responsible and considerate towards those staying with me. For example, I will clean the kitchen after using it so that it is neat and tidy for the next user. When I return to the hostel or homestay at night after a day of travelling, I will not turn on the lights and will move about quietly to avoid disturbing those asleep.”

William Oh 2 (spare a thought for others)

Humble abode… William in a homestay in Helsinki, Finland, that he rented for US$75 ($101) per day in 2009.

2. Keep calm and carry on                 

“In the 1990s, I visited Ban Khiri Wong, a village in southern Thailand and took a local minibus to the main bus station at Nakhon Si Thammarat in the city. During the two-hour plus journey, I fell asleep but was suddenly awakened by a commotion late at night. It was raining heavily and the river next to the road that the bus was travelling on had overflowed. Water was gushing into the bus and we risked being trapped in a flooded bus or being swept away by the current. The passengers, many of whom were locals, started climbing onto the roof of the bus. I told myself to remain calm, grabbing my backpack containing my valuables before doing likewise. We waited there for hours until the flood subsided. By then, everyone was drenched!”

William Oh 3 (keep calm and carry on)

In less troubled waters… William posing with the marine life during a scuba diving trip in Thailand in 2001.

3. Appreciate the little things  

“When I am overseas, I enjoy travelling by public transport as I can observe how the locals live. Many Singaporeans complain about our public transport, but in some places where I travelled, I had to wait for hours before the train or bus arrived. Sometimes it didn’t even arrive! So I just had to accept that it was a temporary inconvenience. All these incidents remind me of the comforts we have in Singapore and help me to appreciate what I have back home.”

William Oh 4 (appreciate the little things)

All aboard! William boarding the evening train from St Petersburg to Helsinki, a 3½-hour journey covering approximately 410 kilometres.

4. You can never be too prepared

“Learning how to use the Internet is essential for travelling in this digital age. I use websites like TripAdvisor, Lonely Planet, Google Translate and to plan my trips. I check the Internet and local weather forecast for unpredictable weather conditions, street demonstrations and traffic jams. I also make sure to register my travel with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) as it can help ensure my safety and provide assistance during emergencies like natural disasters or civil unrest. In 2011, I experienced the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, and MFA called to check on me before informing my family that I was safe. And for that I am very grateful.”

William Oh 5 (never too prepared A)

Taking a snapshot… William in New Zealand in 2011 when Christchurch was rocked by an earthquake.

William Oh 6 (never too prepared B)

In the aftermath… A photo William took of the wreckage caused by the 2011 Christchurch earthquake.

5. Don’t be afraid to seek help

“In 2008, when I was travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to Moscow, I had my first gout attack on the big toe of my left foot; it was painful! I contacted the Singapore Embassy and asked for recommendations for an English-speaking doctor in Moscow in case my condition worsened when I arrived in Russia. Throughout the journey, I followed the embassy’s advice to drink plenty of fluids and elevate my left foot when lying down. Fortunately, I recovered within three days. I learnt that I can always approach the Singapore Embassy for help. It’s useful to have the embassy’s phone number and location, especially when you are travelling alone in foreign countries.”

William Oh 7 (dun be afraid to seek help A)

No cabin fever… William in his train cabin, on his six-day journey from China to Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

William Oh 8 (dun be afraid to seek help B)

In the heart of Moscow… William smiling beside the iconic Red Square despite the freezing wind.

6. Be street smart

“Being a seasoned traveller means that I have developed an instinct to protect myself, and you can’t learn this just by reading books or from the Internet. When I’m walking on the streets in any city, I will occasionally glance back to check if I’m being followed. I never take out my entire wallet when I’m at the money changer; I just set aside the amount I would like to change. I never put all my valuables in one place when I’m travelling and always attach my wallet to a chain secured to my trousers. Once, I discovered a thief trying to cut the chain when I was at a bus station in Kunming, China, and this method helped prevent the theft from happening. I always keep an eye on my drink and ensure that it’s not left unattended to avoid getting drugged. I encourage travelling as it teaches you to be more street smart.”

William Oh 9 (be street smart)

Pit stop… William taking a brief stop at a train station in Russia.

7. Don’t let your loved ones worry

“Going on solo backpacking trips meant that I had to be away from my family, sometimes for months. In 2019, I was away for three months, from October to December, exploring Europe. Thirty years ago, I would write postcards to my family, but now I keep in touch with my family and inform them of my whereabouts via WhatsApp or Facebook so that they know I’m safe and well.”

William Oh 10 (dun let loved ones worry A)

Postcard-worthy… William in Slovenia in December 2019.

William Oh 11 (dun let loved ones worry B)

Hold on tight… William sledding down a sand dune in Mui Ne, Vietnam, in December 2008.

8. Love what you do, do what you love

“I love the independence and thrill that come with solo travelling. In 2011, I set out on a personal challenge to tandem skydive in New Zealand once every 10 years. However, COVID-19 derailed my plans, so I bungee jumped in Sentosa on 16 April this year using my SingapoRediscovers vouchers. My goal in life is to be happy and pursue my hobbies while staying physically and mentally fit so that I can continue to go solo backpacking, something that requires a lot of energy and strength.”

William Oh 12 (love what you do)

Reach for the skies… William bungee jumping off a 47-metre tower at Sentosa this year.

9. Age is just a number

“I plan to go solo backpacking till I’m 80. Some people tell me ‘Alamak, you are already so old, why do you still choose to carry a heavy backpack? Just use a trolley or luggage, lah!’ Their comments don’t bother me as I feel that a backpack makes travelling very convenient. When the borders open and it’s safe to travel again, I hope to take a train from Singapore to Europe. The entire trip will take about three to five months!”

William Oh 13 (age is a number)

Pack and go… William wearing his trusty backpack, beside a Eurostar high-speed train during the last leg of his journey from Vietnam to London in January 2009.

Picture credits: William Oh

Article published on 21/09/2021