A Tale of Three Places

Traveling from the private island of Cempedak to mass-tourism Bali is one thing, but going from Bali to Shanghai is something else entirely. Yet a common thread weaves through them.

Story and photos by

Yeoh Siew Hoon


Cempedak: Bamboo, sand, dugong tears

The Cempedak experience starts the moment you step off the ferry from Singapore and are whisked into your private car for the 30-minute boat ride to the island. From that moment on, you are pretty much ensconced in solitude.

This is a private island in the Riau Archipelago of Indonesia, with 20 all-bamboo villas, a maximum adult population of about 40 at any time (no one under 16 allowed), a handful of monitor lizards and definitely a lot of birds, which you hear rather than see, although occasionally if your eyesight is keen, you will spot a black-naped tern or two.

Cempedak Island

Cempedak Island

Cempedak Island

You live among bamboo and sand, and you eat food (most of it grown on the island’s own farm) prepared creatively and deliciously by local chefs. The only decision you have to make is whether to leave your villa to snorkel, dive, kayak, walk or spa.

With your bare feet in the sand, you are aware of both the environment and human impact; you don’t use the hair dryer nor drink from plastic bottles, and you appreciate the behind-the-scenes work in managing energy and waste on the island.

Cempedak, owned and operated by former Australian banker Andrew Dixon and friends, prides itself on sustainability practices. It is part of Long Run, a membership organization of nature-based tourism businesses committed to driving sustainability.

On Cempedak Island, the friendliness is legendary. Limited, high-end tourism on the island has raised environmental awareness while providing good jobs for local communities.

On Cempedak Island, the friendliness is legendary. Limited, high-end tourism on the island has raised environmental awareness while providing good jobs for local communities.

On Cempedak Island, the friendliness is legendary. Limited, high-end tourism on the island has raised environmental awareness while providing good jobs for local communities.

You visit a local fishing village and speak to its last hunter of dugongs, manatee-like marine mammals. But he’s been “incentivized” with alternative income from tourism to stop hunting them. He speaks of plentiful fishing in the past and how the dugong is prized for its teeth and tears. Only humans could turn an animal’s sorrow into profit.

Today, Pak the dugong hunter welcomes tourists like us into his home and regales them with tales of his exploits. Asked how he feels about having to stop hunting dugong, he says, “Long as I am paid, I am OK.”

In Cempedak, you see the tangible good that limited, high-end tourism has done. It has created quality jobs and education for local communities, raised awareness of the environment among visitors and locals and enabled travelers to snatch moments of tranquility amid their busy lives.


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Bali, Gojek and a nation’s education

After the solitude of Cempedak, arriving in Bali is like being plunged right into a raging waterfall.

The airport is packed on this Diwali weekend, the Hindu festival of lights, and Bali is heaving with people seeking to escape their urban jungles for island pleasures.

Amid the hordes of greeters waiting to pick up their customers, I cannot find my transfer anywhere. I resort to Gojek, the Indonesian tech unicorn that started as a ride-sharing app for bikes. After several texts to pinpoint my exact location, the driver and I find each other.

That very day, the co-founder of Gojek, Nadiem Makarim, has just been appointed the country’s education minister. My driver, Made, who’s been with Gojek for four years, is beaming with pride.

“Pandai, dia,” he said. Clever boy, Makarim.

I think the government is clever, too. Its leaders need to refresh the country’s education system, and the 35-year-old Harvard alumnus, who’s built his business into a valuation of approximately $10 billion, will hopefully be able to bring fresh energy and to break through the bureaucracy to deliver on the promise.

A traffic-choked street in Seminyak, a main tourist zone on Bali, which straddles the line between mass tourism and preserving cultural traditions.

A traffic-choked street in Seminyak, a main tourist zone on Bali, which straddles the line between mass tourism and preserving cultural traditions.

A traffic-choked street in Seminyak, a main tourist zone on Bali, which straddles the line between mass tourism and preserving cultural traditions.

Bali needs fresh energy, too, to reimagine its tourism path over the next 10 years. Staying at the Westin Nusa Dua, I feel transported back to the ’80s, when tourism meant staying in designated, landscaped enclaves, fighting for your space by the pool and buffet lines and occasionally venturing out on tours. That was, until the traffic got so bad you might as well not move.

Then it evolved into staying in private villas (I moved to Space Villas Bali the day after) and occasionally walking out for food and drinks in cafes and restaurants, of which there are no lack.

Tourism is both Bali’s blessing and burden. Without it, there would be no livelihoods. With it, you hardly see and feel the Bali you know is still there somewhere under the chaos. Unless you make the effort. Sitting in traffic jams, you occasionally catch a glimpse of a Balinese woman carrying her prayer offerings to the temple as she weaves her way in and out among tourists.

In the past 20 years, visitor profiles have changed, stays are getting shorter, and instead of spreading out, tourism (as well as traffic) has become concentrated in the main tourist areas of Kuta, Nusa, Seminyak and Ubud.

Our Balinese driver says Bali has also changed for him.

“Now we also feel very stressed, so maybe we don’t smile as much,” he said.

Don’t get me wrong. Bali is still the perfect short getaway for folks living in Asia and an exotic destination for long-haul travelers seeking a slice of tropical paradise, an instant fix of sun, sand, sea and culture. But you have to wonder what the next 10 years will bring this beautiful island, which straddles that fine balance between deep traditions and mass tourism.

Is there a different way of thinking about growth for Bali?

How can Indonesia spread tourism beyond Bali?

If technology can help scale, can it help spread?

These questions were on my mind as I left Bali to catch my connecting flight to Shanghai.


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The Great App Wall of China

My latest visit to Shanghai provided evidence of what the past 20 years have meant to this city, and to China, and what the next 20 years could well mean for the world. Shanghai is the future on steroids.

Staying at the Pudong Shangri-La (where I had first stayed in 1998, when it opened), I recalled how I had been told of this hotel by Shangri-La executives. They painted a picture of a tower that would be built on farmland and how this Lujiazui district of Pudong would be redeveloped.

Today, the hotel, with nearly 1,000 rooms and massive convention spaces, works like an efficient factory, churning people in, through their restaurants and out the revolving door.

I could never have imagined what stands here today in Lujiazui (which, by the way, I am told is eight times the size of London’s new financial district). Skyscraper after skyscraper, mall after mall, highway after highway, neon light after neon light: It’s a never-ending assault on the senses and a constant reminder of how far China has come and how much further it wants to go.

Attending Trip.com Group’s 20th anniversary at the Shanghai Expo, which was attended by more than 3,000 delegates, you’re reminded of the market scale that has brought this company, formerly called Ctrip, to where it is today, and you marvel at its imagination and ambition to step outside its home.

As for innovation, China clearly leads the way in mobile tech.

While the rest of the world is still testing facial and product recognition, Chinese consumers are already using it every day.

The Chinese short-video app Duoyin has introduced a reverse-image search tool that enables users to find in-video products such as clothing, which they can then purchase directly within the app.

On the Trip.com event app for its Airline Partner Conference, facial recognition helps you pick out your images from the rest.

As a tourist in China, you are literally blocked by the Great App Wall of China if you want to do anything: order a cab, order food, pay or chat. If they want inbound tourism, which Trip.com Group’s chairman James Liang declared was the company’s new goal at their anniversary event, then this is something they have to address, he said.

And just a week after he had said this, the news broke that Chinese payment giants Alipay and WeChat Pay plan to open their platforms to foreigners visiting China as regulators ease restrictions.

That’s how fast China moves.

Going across from Pudong to Puxi the next day, my eyes were opened to the evolution of the traveler experience within Shanghai itself.

It’s no longer all about size and lots of gold fittings when it comes to architecture and design. The Sukhothai Shanghai feels like it has brought the Thai design and feel of its flagship hotel in Bangkok into the heart of Shanghai. Minimalist and warm, its walls and spaces are lined with art. Its Urban restaurant specializes in Southeast Asian cuisine, accented with Thai herbs and vegetables grown on its own farm in the city. It runs complimentary art and culinary tours for guests.

General manager Marcel Holman told me that increasingly guests were looking for neighborhood things to do, “and we try and make it easy for them to explore the immediate area.” With the intense competition in the city, Holman said, the Sukhothai Shanghai has to differentiate itself in other ways beyond the product, which happens to also include a well-stocked gin bar.

In other words, it checks all the boxes of an urban, lifestyle hotel in tune with the times. It could be anywhere, yet you know it is unmistakably in Shanghai.

The Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Shanghai, which was the coffee chain’s biggest shop when it opened.

The Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Shanghai, which was the coffee chain’s biggest shop when it opened.

The Starbucks Reserve Roastery in Shanghai, which was the coffee chain’s biggest shop when it opened.

Ultimately, though, size still matters. A walk away is the Starbucks Reserve Roastery, which was the world’s largest Starbucks when it opened. Go inside and it’s no longer just a cafe with a few cakes and desserts. This is lifestyle wrapped around coffee. Only in this city of the future could the humble coffee bean grow to such lofty and exalted heights. Nearby, an old teahouse sits empty.

On my flight back to Singapore, I realized I couldn’t have picked a more unorthodox trio of places to visit in one whirlwind trip.

Cempedak, Bali and Shanghai couldn’t be more different, but then, that’s the beauty of traveling in Asia. These days, you can mix it up any way you want, from island tranquility to instant gratification to urban awesomeness, all in one trip.

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