SINGAPORE: A vacation in Kathmandu had never been top on Ms Oh Kai Lin’s travel bucket list but together with a friend, the 27-year-old travelled to the Nepalese capital about four months ago and the four-day trip turned out to be a memorable one.
Despite the short stay, the Singaporeans managed to go on a half-day hiking tour and traipsed through the city’s rich mosaic of heritage sites. It was at one of the country's UNESCO sites, the famed Pashupatinath temple, where they observed a Hindu cremation ceremony on the banks of Nepal's holy Bagmati river - an experience that Ms Oh described as "unforgettable".
The friends also had a ride of a lifetime when they spent close to 40 minutes in an over-crowded micro van fit for nine passengers, but was instead ferrying 17 people.
But the biggest surprise, as Ms Oh recalled, was knowing her holiday destination just one week before departure.
Earlier this year, Ms Oh had signed up for a trip to an unknown destination with Anywhr, a homegrown "surprise trip" start-up. After indicating her preferences, Ms Oh paid S$700 and was kept in suspense about her holiday destination until an envelope containing a travelogue arrived a week before her scheduled trip.
“By right, we shouldn’t be opening the envelope until we are at the airport but we got a bit too excited,” Ms Oh said with a laugh. “We had a big surprise. We weren’t expecting Nepal at all since it was such a short trip.”
The unexpected vacation in Kathmandu was Ms Oh’s second trip with Anywhr. Her first reservation took her to Vietnam for the first time and she spent four days in the coastal city of Da Nang.
Apart from the convenience of not having to plan, Ms Oh, a public servant who is pursuing a part-time postgraduate course, said booking a mystery holiday gave her the opportunity to travel outside of her comfort zone.
“I’m more of a city person, so if I were to choose a place to visit in Vietnam, I'd go for Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh where I’d feel more at ease," she said. "The moment I knew I was going to Danang and Kathmandu, it felt like I was challenging myself because these are places I wouldn’t choose on my own."
THE SURPRISE TRIP CONCEPT
And that is what the founders of Anywhr, Ms Zelia Leong and Mr Felix Tan, set out to do.
Launched in January, the online service prides itself on creating holidays for travellers like Ms Oh, who are open to booking a vacation without having to know where they are holidaying until the 11th hour.
The concept is simple: Travellers get to indicate their interests such as the type of holiday - adventure, getaway, experience or a wildcard- as well as their budget, travel dates and other information including dietary restrictions and places they prefer not to go to.
After payment is made, the start-up begins planning and within three days, travellers will receive a “teaser email” with details about the weather, packing list and time to be at the airport.
A week before departure, a customised travelogue with flight and accommodation details, suggested places to visit, as well as S$30 worth of the country's currency will arrive in the mail. Adventurous travellers may opt to open the envelope only after reaching the airport.
Anywhr's founders claim to be the first “surprise trip” service in Asia. They declined to reveal specific figures for the number of trips booked so far and would only say that it has been a "three-digit growth in percentage" since its launch.
Customers have been mainly younger Singaporeans, though the start-up has seen a handful of bookings from Malaysia and Brunei. It has also accommodated special requests such as planning family trips involving seniors or young toddlers, as well as post-breakup trips.
Apart from the convenience factor, the founders believe that their service appeals to those who are tempted by the prospect of adventure and are willing to venture beyond the usual tourist destinations.
“We open them up to less-travelled destinations they never knew existed, as well as transport options or accommodation that no Singaporean has booked before,” said Ms Leong, who would only reveal that the start-up has sent travellers as far as “ancient civilisations and small islands” in eastern Europe.
“We promise no Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok or Bali main island,” she added.
To ensure that, the founders are banking on their own travel experiences, as well as partnerships with airlines, hotels and travel agencies.
"Everything we suggest in the travelogue are local secrets," Ms Leong told Channel NewsAsia. "We partner airlines, hotels and local homestays to get the best rate and information. We have local partners to help us do quality checks."
A SURPRISE ENTREPRENEURIAL JOURNEY
While the start-up only began operations this year, the idea of a "surprise trip" agency emerged two years ago when Ms Leong went on a solo backpacking trip to Europe.
The 26-year-old had bought a one-way ticket to Stockholm before making her way to the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland and Ukraine with minimal planning.
"The only planning I did was for Stockholm where I found a couchsurfing host for a week and the rest was just about being alone in places I knew little about. I took the cheapest buses and trains, and found places I never knew existed. It was then I realised the best travel experiences are not about visiting touristy places."
But the venture only materialised after Ms Leong met her co-founder Mr Tan, who was her colleague at German e-commerce firm Rocket Internet and also a spontaneous traveller.
After spending S$300 on website domains, the duo began meeting up on weekends to build their website.
"We would spend the whole day at Starbucks," Mr Tan, 26, recalled.
The website was up and running in three months and the duo did not have to wait long for their first booking.
"The first reaction was 'Oh my god, we got a booking!' It was a solo lady traveller who chose a three-night trip of local experiences... We still had our full-time jobs then so we were freaking out a bit but we did it," said Ms Leong.
As more bookings came in, the Singaporeans decided to leave their jobs a few months ago to become full-time entrepreneurs. They have also moved into a friend’s office in Toa Payoh North.
Just like how their penchant for unplanned holidays have given them unexpected travel experiences, a spontaneous business idea has also led Ms Leong and Mr Tan on to a surprise twist in their career paths.
Ms Leong, for one, had never thought of becoming her own boss.
"Everyone says (entrepreneurship) is very hard but it can be done if you really want to. I mean, we started off with nothing."
Both founders said their time at Rocket Internet has given them a headstart in striking out on their own.
Mr Tan said: "All the previous experiences at other start-ups taught me how to start a company and how to go on a budget. I know all we needed was a website... and it's about achieving more with the least amount of resources."
He added: "When I see travellers using our hashtag (#GoAnywhr), it feels quite 'shiok' because we made that trip happen and they liked it. For me, that's fulfilling."