The Life Interview With Chang Theng Hwee

Luxe trips to exotic places

Chang Theng Hwee's passion for travel led him to set up a company specialising in luxury, bespoke tours

At 23, Mr Chang Theng Hwee persuaded a dozen gung-ho university friends to trek in the Himalayas, although he had never ventured there.

Those were the pre-Google days in 1987, so he opened a guidebook and strode into the mountains, leading the trek for 10 days without a local guide.

He had promised his National University of Singapore friends a five-week adventure covering Nepal and northern India for $2,000 each, so he counted pennies every day and vetoed any appealing dish beyond their budget.

"We ate potatoes and more potatoes, eggs and more eggs,'' recounts Mr Chang, beaming.

The 51-year-old founder of luxury travel company Country Holidays is a man of infectious enthusiasm, spinning travel stories and stepping into the unknown.

In retrospect, the young wanderers did not seem prepared in their sneakers and borrowed clothing, but trekking alongside Nepalese villagers in high, hidden places was uplifting.

In North Korea, our guide had a script. But he was intrigued by my son, who was eight. He looked at my son's perfect teeth and talked about his children and his son's toothache. Family holidays need not be about theme parks and beach resorts.

'' MR CHANG THENG HWEE on travelling with family

A travel companion, headhunter Benedict Lam, 52, admires Mr Chang's strong sense of responsibility and "quirky, self-deprecating humour" that calms travellers in perilous situations.

When Mr Lam was miserable with mountain sickness in Nepal, his friend cheered him up and got him and his girlfriend to descend first. On a Gunung Tahan trek in Malaysia, Mr Chang helped to get their contingent heli-lifted to safety when many had food poisoning or were injured.

"He will be there for a friend in need. His traits certainly help in the travel industry when unforeseen situations arise,'' Mr Lam notes.

While in Nepal, his friends, with some prescience, joked that Mr Chang should start a travel company specialising in exotic places.

That he did, after graduating with a business administration degree and working four years in OCBC bank to accrue seed money.

With $100,000, he and his wife, Ms Tan Siew Yim, who was also on the Nepal trip, founded Country Holidays in 1994 when he was 29. Ms Tan, 48, has focused on caring for their three children since youngest son Ming, 15, was born. Their daughters are Lea, 20, and En, 17.

From their first office in Peninsula Plaza, husband and wife organised trips for students, mostly to Nepal. Unlike their maiden trip, however, Nepal was beginning to be over-run by tourists. "The Nepalese were selling Coca-Cola and converting their homes for tourists,'' he says.

"So we kept looking for new trails. We made sure that even young adults without a big budget could have an intimate experience. That principle holds true for us today - venturing off the beaten track and finding the perfect spot."

Soon, during one Himalayan winter in India, he met explorer Greg Mortimer, the first Australian to climb Mount Everest. He had been to Antarctica 15 times and asked if Mr Chang wanted to organise a trip, which would cost each person $10,000, in 1996.

Uncertain if Singapore had a sufficiently high-end clientele, he invited Mr Mortimer to give a presentation. "Word spread. The hall was packed. We started having clients willing to pay $10,000." More than 30 people signed up.

That was a first for Singapore and a turning point. "We realised that if Antarctica can sell, then Africa and the Middle East can sell and we can spread our wings. We went to Peru, Iran, Ethiopia - anywhere our imagination led us. We took people to all corners of the world."

At first, he did not envision a niche in luxury travel. "But remote places and unique cultures are not cheap. Slowly, we attracted the well-heeled and slowly we evolved into a luxury travel company."

His discerning clients tend to have journeyed through three stages of wanderlust. "New experiential travellers go to as many places as possible, then they look for wow experiences, then they just want to know a place in-depth."

Among his clients are C-suite executives, entrepreneurs, lawyers and expatriates who continue to book trips with him after relocating to Europe and elsewhere, and Cabinet ministers past and present.

Veering off the beaten path

Ms Euleen Goh, 60, who holds appointments on listed and non- profit boards, is a client of more than 10 years and a friend. She started with a trip for two in Russia and recently saw the wildebeest migration on safari.

She likes the company's innovative touches: She flew to King George Island to start her Antarctica sojourn, for instance, instead of taking the usual strenuous four-day cruise through stormy oceans.

Ms Goh, a former Standard Chartered Bank chief executive, highlights Mr Chang's passion, personalised service and acumen in positioning his distinctive trips. She adds: "Theng Hwee goes out to test the places himself and is personally involved."

Tailor-made trips like some of hers make up 95 per cent of business for Mr Chang, who has a staff of 60. He set up offices in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Beijing and Dubai between 2003 and 2014.

These bespoke holidays are richly varied. One Hong Kong client's desire to see his seventh continent, Antarctica, bloomed into a solo round-the-world trip.

Covering seven continents, the businessman flew from Asia to Norway to see the Northern Lights, went on safari in South Africa, skied in North America, explored Patagonia in South America, then Antarctica, and relaxed in Australia, during a month-long expedition.

Other times, an Asian family with children studying in London and New York may request a bespoke holiday in places such as Ecuador.

A tailor-made trip involving charter flights to remote places can cost $100,000.

Signature Departures, forming the remaining five per cent of the business, are small-group journeys for up to 16 persons that he launched in 2012.

These, too, are crafted with bespoke elements. This year, clients will traverse Madagascar on chartered flights - also practical as it will otherwise require a week of driving on the island - and a primatologist will talk to them about lemurs. The sold-out 12-day expedition starts at $12,180 a person, excluding airfare.

He notes: "Many clients are perfectly capable of going somewhere by themselves. We try to have a maximum of 16, sometimes eight, so they can go to places that are cost-prohibitive for just two."

His connections with destination insiders and industry partners ensure a level of exclusivity. His Iranian guide is so popular that he has to be booked two to three years in advance.

Mr Robin Yap, 58, president (Asia) of The Travel Corporation, whose portfolio includes Trafalgar Tours, has worked alongside him in the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore and to promote boutique cruises. He says: "Theng Hwee is one of the nicest people I know - humble, unassuming and always with a welcoming smile."

He adds: "He doesn't bully his suppliers and squeeze for unrealistic support. Instead, he sets out his plans and seeks a win-win outcome. He is a real gentleman in business."

In business, Mr Chang keeps his eye on the elements of luxury. "The life cycle of a luxury product is so fast," he says.

Glamping (glamour camping), eco-adventure and soft adventure are slogans, he says. "But keep discovering secrets and clients will go for it."

And so Mr Chang, a planner who leaves room for spontaneity, keeps seeking secrets. Also, travelling in small groups, staying in unique places and veering off the beaten path create the opportunity for surprise, he maintains.

He also loves contradictions, which abound in a place like Cuba - a communist last bastion at the doorstep of liberal democracy America. He remembers seeing Cubans queueing to hitch rides in the countryside. There was even a policeman to regulate the informal transport system. "How long do they wait?" he asked his guide, who replied: "Quite fast - at most two days.''

These unscripted encounters make a country come alive, he feels. But he is also keenly aware that such places, which appeal because of their hidden-ness or untouched cultures, may be marred by poverty or environmental woes.

If there are two luxury resorts with similar services, he picks the more community-minded one.

In Kenya, he stayed at The Sanctuary at Ol Lentille resort, with butler service at the edge of a Maasai village. "We hiked and they had bottles of wine for our picnic beside a river."

Travellers shopped at the village, where the resort drew its staff. "Whatever we spent went directly to their livelihood and the staff were learning about tourism. It felt so good, we didn't feel bad indulging."

In Nepal, with an entourage of porters, guides and cooks cossetting his family of five, his children asked: "Do we need all that?"

He says: "If you think about it, I can go without cake in the Himalayas, but enjoying it also means employment."

His clients - and family - often rough it out and then indulge. Last April, he and his son trekked to Everest Base Camp, took a helicopter over mountains and ravines and stayed in a five-star heritage hotel, a week before an earthquake struck Nepal.

He often hears parents declaring: "I have to go to Disneyland." Family holidays do not have to be just theme parks and beach resorts, he says.

While his children enjoyed the magic of Disneyland, they talk about swimming with seals in the Galapagos, or Mongolia and Nepal.

When eldest daughter Lea was three, he hiked in Nepal with her on his back; she refused to let porters carry her. Their twice-yearly family holidays have also included India. Three months before the trip, he started telling his children about the Mahabharata epic.

Lea, 20, a National University of Singapore business administration student, marvels at his energy. "He takes us to school every morning when he is in Singapore, even if he had flown home at 1am the night before." He is on the road about 50 per cent of the time.

"Sometimes, he tells me, 'Aiyah, don't stress so much. You must enjoy what you are doing.' He calms me down.''

Travelling with him has made her more culturally sensitive. "He's inspiring,'' she says. "He's fun- loving and adventurous, not afraid of new things. He's very loving."

Her mother concurs that he dotes on the children and adds that he works very hard and is competitive at work and play.

The couple "honeymoon" every year and she is the photographer as he prefers to be immersed in a place. While she sits in one spot to paint, he likes to be on the move.

His weakness, he quips, is that he loves to travel too much and takes too much time off work.

He has visited 90 countries, although there are pockets of places to discover, such as Andorra and Nicaragua. And space is the ultimate frontier.

Country Holidays is marketing "bloon", a near-space flight to be launched by a Spanish company next year. In a four-hour flight in a "near-spaceship" or pod pulled by a balloon, travellers will see the curvature of Earth.

At an altitude of 36km, the sun is a blaze of white, not yellow, and stars do not flicker. The ticket price is €110,000 (S$169,300).

While he loves visiting isolated places and avows that "Nepal has a precious position in my heart", these days, he also loves city sights and sounds.

"I love the bazaars in Iran. I love going back to Tokyo. And when I'm in Singapore, I appreciate Singapore so much."

He has gone afar since he was a boy growing up with three siblings in Bukit Ho Swee. Childhood travel meant visiting relatives in Malaysia.

When he was the top student in his Primary 3 cohort, he asked his father, who worked at a Chinese trading firm, for a street directory as a gift. His mother is a housewife.

"I spent days flipping through the street directory. I also liked bus directories. I spent my free time drawing maps,'' he says.

"I just had this fascination with places and routes."

•Follow Lee Siew Hua on Twitter @STsiewhua

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2016, with the headline 'Luxe trips to exotic places'. Subscribe