Getting to know travel correspondent Lee Siew Hua

Travel writer Lee Siew Hua tries spelunking on one of her many trips.
Travel writer Lee Siew Hua tries spelunking on one of her many trips. PHOTO: LEE SIEW HUA
Travel writer Lee Siew Hua stops for a photo next to a statue of 17th century poet Matsuo Basho.
Travel writer Lee Siew Hua stops for a photo next to a statue of 17th century poet Matsuo Basho. ST FILE PHOTO

 This short Q&A series with ST's beat reporters lets readers meet the person behind the byline. These are the experts who will be answering readers' questions in our askST section.  

1. Having travelled the world, why are you still based in Singapore? 

It's the other way around for me. I was first based overseas before I became a travel writer in Singapore in 2012. In my decade-plus in Washington, DC, I was the United States correspondent for The Straits Times and later a World Bank consultant. In between, I was granted a fellowship to pursue a Masters degree in international studies. 

During a class on globalisation, it struck me that I had a marvellous gift of two homes, the US and Singapore. We glide naturally between cultures when our lives are bicultural, and travel becomes ever more stimulating. There are many Singaporeans now who are at home in the world. 

Before Washington, I also worked two and a half wonderful years in Bangkok as a correspondent for the paper. I spent 13 years away from Singapore. That may have been the ticket for this ideal job!

2. How do you feel about lifestyle bloggers who get sponsored trips all over the world? 

Shall I apply to be a blogger? Bloggers and journalists play our different roles, really. The Straits Times is a newspaper so a news DNA is embedded in our stories, including travel. I’ve just visited Iran because it's re-emerging on the global stage with the lifting of oil and financial sanctions this year. That's newsy. Plus it's a perfect time to explore Iran before change accelerates in the country after 37 years of isolation. 

However, some destinations are so exotic that a news point is beside the point. The Galapagos islands are Edenic, for instance. I also said yes to a Trans-Siberian train journey, and took a personal vacation in Patagonia.

3. What would a perfect travel itinerary look like to you? 

An itinerary that has focus and flexibility, richness and the right pace. I don't have to see everything in a place - just enough highlights to discern its essence or spirit. Then I'd like enough time to step into less-explored enclaves in a city, or secret corners of the great outdoors. 

Exquisite little hotels with a touch of luxury plus local colour would be great too. But I've also stayed a couple of nights in a basic tent near nomadic reindeer-herders in the tundra of isolated Kamchatka, in the Russian far east, and that was perfect too.

4. What is the most luxurious holiday you've had and what is the worst travel experience you've had?

The island of Zanzibar in Tanzania. It was a different Africa, with Omani and European influences. On a sandbar, we enjoyed a gourmet lunch prepared by private chefs. Every experience was customised for us. We had a movie night where a traditional dhow and colossal pots were hauled to the beach as a backdrop. Another night, we had our own storyteller. A photographer was flown in, and he spent a day with us to finetune our picture skills.

My villa in The Residence Zanzibar had a private pool and my bath-tub faced a mini-garden where yellow weaver birds darted in and out. Zanzibar was a new destination for Qatar Airways last year and we flew restfully in the premium cabin of its game-changing A350 aircraft. 

The worst experience was in Jamaica, when my friend and I wondered if we were about to be assaulted. Our taxi-driver and his friend kept asking if we were married and lobbed other intrusive questions at us. That's not uncommon in some countries, but there was a whiff of unpredictability that night. Then I remembered that Jamaica was a religious place and asked them about church. That silenced them, thankfully, and we got back alive.

5. Budget or luxury travel? 

I'm a luxury-lover but true luxury is really to discover the essence of a place, often through local experiences and encounters with locals. My trips encompass the high and budget ends of each place.

6. If people could travel for free all the time, where would you recommend them to go and why? 

Go as far as possible. Patagonia on the southern edge of Latin America is like the end of the world.

The far west of China where aristocratic Tibetans live in the foothills of the Himalayas, parts of the less-explored Middle East, and really any remote corner of a country whether it's Russia and the United States, or Indonesia and Vietnam.

Whether it’s near or far, our world will never run out of wonders. So many places, so little free time!

7. List five must-bring items on your travel.

A soft water bottle that squeezes into any bag; iPhone for videos, travel notes and lots more functions; tops and pants made of lightweight, high-tech fabric with a dash of style or colour; a stash of medicines to fix ailments as I should stay well on a work trip and go home with a story; and lots of energy and curiosity.

8. Where would be your bucket-list destination?

Space! That's the ultimate frontier. I've been reading about several space-travel possibilities, including a four-hour flight into "near space" in a pod pulled by a balloon. Travellers will see the curvature of Earth at an altitude of 36km. 

But if I’m tethered to planet earth, I'd list the southern lights of the Antarctic Circle, though they sound more elusive than the northern lights.