The true soul of a destination is best conveyed through the eyes of people of the land. Here are some of Asia’s most enthralling destination storytellers who also seek to create positive impact on their local community.
Ayu in the Wild, Sri Lanka
Founded by avid travellers and husband-and-wife team, Chamintha and Rajindra Jayasinghe, destination curator Ayu in the Wild sets out with a single aim: to showcase the beauty of life in biodiverse Sri Lanka while ensuring that tourism dollars are filtered down to where they matter most – the local people.
“Ayu means life in Sanskrit,” explained co-founder Chamintha Jayasinghe. “There are so many layers to life in Sri Lanka. When a traveller understands what life is really like in a country, he will appreciate it a lot more.”
With Ayu in the Wild carrying its commitment in its name, its travel designers curate trips across the country that deliver authentic experiences led by community-based guides and local topical experts who know the destination like the back of their hand.
“They are village heads, teachers, farmers, housewives, poets, architects and wildlife photographers – everyone we knew through our travels or are our friends for many years. They convey their experience growing up and living in Sri Lanka,” she said.
While travellers benefit from local tales and insights, these experience hosts earn supplementary income without being solely dependent on tourism.
Ayu in the Wild also takes pride in offering naturalists as destination guides. “Because Sri Lanka is a biodiversity hotspot, we found it necessary to also have a naturalist lead our trips. Naturalists have a wider knowledge of culture, heritage, ecology, wildlife and way of life of our people,” remarked Jayasinghe.
The company’s focus on introducing the road less travelled to its customers also helps to spread tourism earnings deeper into the country.
Ayu in the Wild crafts local journeys for every client, and is able to deliver on niché requests, such as an architecture tour of Sri Lanka to see Geoffrey Bawa’s legacies, or to learn about Sri Lanka’s archaeology, nature and conservation, or culture and heritage.
To ensure that tourism is truly beneficial to the local people, Ayu in the Wild channels earnings to a number of community projects it founded, such as Classroom in the Wild, which funds English classes for the children in a farming village in a remote part of Sigiriya; a dance therapy initiative for special needs children in Galle and a nearby orphanage; Ayu Blue Carbon Initiative, a seagrass restoration project; and the Ayu Scholarship Fund which finances further studies for needy children. – Karen Yue
Going Places Tours, Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur-based Going Places Tours is backed by guiding veterans – Stevie Chan, who is also the managing director, Jane Rai, his business partner, and two tour guides Raja Shaharil and Marie Gerardine Teo. Each of them have 15 years of guiding experience, and are well versed in the art of storytelling.
Going Places Tours offers two tip-supported heritage walks every Saturday and Sunday under its Free Walk Kuala Lumpur Unscripted brand.
The East-West Connection walk conveys tales of the early settlements, trade and structural developments that took place close to the confluence of the Klang River and the Gombak River that ran through the city.
The Chinatown Cultural Walk takes participants on a walking tour to the early Chinese settlements in and around Petaling Street.
The four experienced guides handling these tours make their narratives interactive by interjecting it with thought-provoking questions, riddles and clues and humour.
Jane said: “The art of storytelling lies in the delivery. We engage participants through the five senses and we arouse their curiosity by asking some pointed questions and throwing in a little bit of suspense here and there, and we also show them things that they would otherwise, not expect.
“We have also developed personal relations with the traders and they are tourist-friendly. They are more than willing to interact with our guests, often revealing details of their trade and sharing stories of their families, past and present.”
As some of these local traders and artisans are third and fourth generations working in the trade, interactions are especially precious. – S Puvaneswary
Indie Singapore Tours
First established in 2015 to provide free and immersive walking tours around Singapore to backpackers, Indie Singapore Tours was eventually led down the bespoke walking tour route at the insistence of fans.
Numerous positive reviews left on social media sites gave Indie Singapore Tours the opportunity to expand beyond backpackers, the initial target as Thiam Wei Toh, founder and chief storyteller, hoped to encourage these budget-conscious travellers to fall in love with his country.
When the pandemic rolled in, Indie Singapore Tours hit a turning point that proved to be a positive milestone. In the absence of foreign visitors, Indie Singapore Tours had to conduct tours differently to reel in the locals. So, it created the Whimsical Walk through the Blair Plain Conservation Area tour, a 2.5-hour exploration of a hidden gem in modern Singapore. It pointed out conserved architecture, old school eats, gorgeous contemporary art, and beautiful hole-in-the-wall cafés.
“There was nothing like that when we started, so the tour gained a lot of attention from both customers and the media,” Toh recalled fondly.
Unusual spins on city tours continue to be a central focus, and Toh told TTG Asia that he often finds his sparks at kopitiams – local coffee houses in the neighbourhoods.
“I’d drink with the old folks and they will share their growing up stories. These tales inspire tour ideas and give us unique content,” he said.
Toh also makes it a habit to visit local businesses and talk to the owners about potential collaboration.
“Tours have to evolve to be more immersive and experiential. Collaboration with varied businesses will help to add depth to the tour experience, and this is something that has become so important during Covid,” he stated.
Conversations with business owners have led to the creation of even more fancy tours. One of them is the Whis-Kueh tour, which takes guests through some of the oldest traditional pastry shops in Chinatown, and concludes with a craft whisky-pairing experience at Furama City Centre hotel. – Karen Yue
Kouprey Adventures, Cambodia
Kouprey Adventures scours all corners of Cambodia to craft innovative itineraries that scratch way beneath the surface. The boutique tour operator does not deliver standard packages. Instead, it personalises each itinerary based on customers’ individual preferences. Managing director Richard Casswell said the company prides itself on being “Cambodia specialists that are guest-centric”.
In 2022, the product and operations team visited more than 100 destinations in Cambodia, in addition to hotels, activities and experiences. The team has travelled across the entire country using all modes of transport – car, train, motorcycle, bicycle and helicopter.
“For the adventurous, we have first-hand knowledge of emerging destinations where we promote community-based tourism and bring travellers to have authentic experiences,” Casswell said. “From helicopter visits to waterfalls deep in the jungle to champagne breakfasts at remote temples, a private show by Cambodia’s top performance artists and high tea with royalty, we pride ourselves on creating unique thematic experiences.” – Marissa Carruthers
Maika Tours, Vietnam
Maika Tours’ team of Vietnamese tour guides come with heaps of on-the-ground knowledge about the destinations it taps into. Founder and owner Giang Vu believes it is this deep knowledge of the guides that enable the company to deliver immersive tours that steer way off the well-trodden path.
For example, its Ho Chi Minh City walking tour may only take in 2.4 kilometres, but Maika’s guides have scoured the city’s back streets to hand-pick some of the tastiest and most authentic vendors and eateries that would usually remain off tourists’ radar.
In addition, Maika Tours has designed itineraries that are tailored towards the LGBTQ community. It also has tour guides who are trained in sign language and know how to run accessible tours that cater for the needs of people with disabilities. All of its spacious transport vehicles are able to carry electric wheelchairs. – Marissa Carruthers
Rajah Travel Corp, the Philippines
Rajah Travel Corp goes to great lengths in curating 24 itineraries each year “to convey the importance of Philippine culture, not only in history and heritage, but also in the food served and other geographical uniqueness”, said chairman and president Aileen Clemente.
At the 2015 launch of the Liberation of Palawan under its Salute to Valor Programme, for instance, the company coordinated with the Philippine Historical Commission to renovate and put markers on historical sites and formed a government and private sector task force to ensure maintenance. It commissioned an original Filipino music score for the programme and awarded the World War II veterans.
For its mango-themed Kulinarya of Zambales and Guimaras, highlights included in-depth learning of the mango industry from local experts and how this tropical fruit is intertwined in the Filipino culture; learning to pick and cut the right fruit directly from trees; tales of the provinces and legends of this heart-shaped fruit from historians; and a visit to the National Mango Research and Development Center. – Rosa Ocampo
The Hidden Japan
For Derek Yamashita, co-founder of Tohoku-based travel agency The Hidden Japan, tours are about offering travellers deep, culturally immersive Japan experiences alongside local masters with a passion for preserving these traditions.
One of the company’s experiences involves guests getting special access into the workshops of master blacksmiths to make their own Japanese knives and learn how to sharpen and maintain them. They then use their new knives to fillet fish at culinary workshops, after buying fresh fish in the local market or catching it themselves. Similarly, guests make a sake cup under the guidance of an artisan and then go bar hopping around local inns that will serve them drinks in their new vessels.
“The appeal of this programme is with the people they meet and experiences they have with their own hands,” said Yamashita, adding that this tour is extra special because even after returning home, “every time they pick up the knife or cup they will remember their journey in hidden Japan”. – Kathryn Wortley