Building love for his city, one step at a time

Before setting foot into the tour business, Thiam Wei Toh, founder and chief storyteller of Indie Singapore Tours, said he was a “local boy” who neither saw beyond the borders of Singapore nor thought much about travel.

A career with the Republic of Singapore Navy gave him his first taste of travel, where assignments took him around the world.

Toh founded Indie Singapore Tours to provide free and immersive walking tours to backpackers

“My first trip was to New York and it was an eye-opener. As we sailed from port to port, we would get some time off and that allowed me to join tours to see the destination,” recalled Toh.

The travel bug kept its grip on him even after Toh concluded his employment with the Navy, so he and his wife-to-be embarked on a six-month-long plan to backpack around the world. That plan extended to three good years.

“Our backpacking experience planted some business ideas in our mind,” Toh said. “Cities that matter most to us were those that we got to know very intimately. We had locals as our guide, and they brought us to places they grew up in and showed us what they used to do and how they lived. The more we learnt about the cities, the more we fell in love with them.”

At the end of his journey around the world, Toh returned to Singapore with a determination to present Singapore – his home and country – in the same manner to visitors.

In 2015, Indie Singapore Tours was formed upon a simple business direction – to provide free and immersive walking tours to backpackers.

“When we started in 2015, there was a strong perception among travellers that Singapore is a very expensive destination. Since backpackers travel cheaply, few would consider joining tours to learn about Singapore. They would just come for a few days and then hop off to other destinations in South-east Asia. So, we kept our tours fuss-free to be appealing – travellers would just sign up and show up,” he said.

Toh’s free walking tours gained traction “quite fast”, with demand fuelled by numerous positive reviews left on social media sites.

“We started to see increasing participation over the following years. We didn’t advertise, and had only communicated our free walking tours to backpackers staying at the hostels around Singapore. Despite that, social media reviews led many non-backpackers to us. We even had cruise passengers signing up for our free walking tours,” he shared.

As Indie Singapore Tours saw its customer mix changing, Toh and his tour guide partners started to get requests for private tours. That led the company to go down the bespoke tour route, earning it paying customers.

With the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, which snuffed out international arrivals, the need for survival forced Indie Singapore Tours to pivot to programmes that would interest Singapore residents who thought they knew all there is to know about their own backyard.

Furthermore, to benefit from the Singapore government’s SingapoRediscovers programme, where vouchers were issued to residents to use and support local travel and tourism businesses during the travel disruption, Toh had to move away from free walking tours to paid content.

“We have a soft spot for Chinatown, as that is where our first free walking tours were born. Foreigners are keen on cultural tours to Chinatown, Kampong Glam and Little India, but try selling those to Singapore residents!” he said.

To reel in the locals, Indie Singapore Tours 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,” he 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.

Today, 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.

“Often, before the pandemic, I would have an occasional idea to do something different but business was so brisk that most of us had little time to stop and talk through details. When Singapore imposed the Circuit Breaker (lockdown on non-essential activities) and then tourism got disrupted, we finally had time to give all our ideas attention and turn them into experiences that will be valuable and insightful for our customers,” he said.

Conversations with business owners have led to the creation of even more fancy tours. The latest in Indie Singapore Tours’ portfolio 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.

Kuehs have a special place in Singapore heritage but they get so little attention compared to the main dishes, like chilli crab and chicken rice. I often say kuehs are the underdog of Singapore food. So, the Whis-Kueh tour spotlights these bite-sized treats, which allows us to talk about the history and heritage of Singapore, while adding in the unusual idea of pairing craft whiskies with these food items,” he detailed.

Looking ahead, Toh sees an exciting future for tours in Singapore, as experiences continue to evolve and improve, allowing the city-state to gain more fans.

He now hopes that corporate group enquiries would return soon, and is eager to curate tours that weave in hands-on experiences for participants.

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