Unexpected Discoveries in Singapore

I’ll be honest; pretty much my entire reason for wanting to stop in Singapore on our way through Southeast Asia was to be able to cross another country off my list. I’d read about how expensive everything was there, and had an impression that life was very sterile and controlled, and these combined to a general lack of enthusiasm. Wow, I’m sure glad we visited though. I ended up loving the place!

Things got off to a good start when Alina found an awesome hostel for us to stay in. Now, one of the things about Singapore is that housing is very, very expensive, both long term (rent), as well as hotel accommodation. For example, the cheapest dorm beds in a hostel cost at least $20. However, we were super lucky to find a “rocket deal” online, and got a double bed at Bunc Hostel for something like $36.

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I say super lucky because this place was really high class; you might say chic. Everything was in blacks and whites, very spartan, and very clean.  They even had bags to store your wet umbrella so it wouldn’t drip!

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We got unlimited free breakfast (I stuffed myself to bursting), and our dorm room actually had a mix of single and double beds.

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This meant a lot of couples, which meant nice, quiet nights. Great for a dorm! We also had kitchen facilities, which we used to good effect since we couldn’t afford to actually eat out at all in Singapore.

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As many of the big cities we’ve visited, Singapore has a Little India and a Chinatown, and we visited both to see how they compared. Well, as usual, Little India was no match for Big India; I’m not sure anything really could be. The area is home to the many thousands of immigrant workers, brought in to do the dirty jobs Singaporeans won’t touch. And all on strict, no renewal, 2 year visas.

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Interestingly, in a country with such strict laws against littering ($1000 on the spot fines), Little India was pretty clean, which made it rather strange seeming. In many ways it didn’t really have that bustling Indian feel. All that being said, it was still easily the most squalid area of the city.

A distinct Chinatown is a bit of a misnomer as almost the entire population of Singapore is ethnic Peranakan, or “Straits Chinese”.  It probably just referes to the original area settled by the Chinese workers during the British colonial period.

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But it does have the usual Chinatown flair, with loads of crowded shops, delicious looking food stalls, and signage we can’t read.

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At the heart of the district is the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, a spectacular four story structure, containing shrines on each level, and a tooth of the Buddha on the top floor.

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We showed up around closing time, and I only got a chance to see the bottom floor, but it was pretty amazing.

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The walls were lined with several thousand small carved Buddhas in niches, and the central temple area was filled with large gilded statues, engravings, and tables with books, presumably for the attendant monks.

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As the tourists were being shooed out, we heard the beginnings of the evening drums and chanting ceremonies.

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Bordering Chinatown is the impressive river district. Along the banks are charming quays full of colorful shops, and the river is plied by boats moving back and forth. The locals are out in force, just relaxing by the banks or on a late afternoon jog, after the sun has lost some of its strength.

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While wandering around, we also passed through Canning Park, once the site of the fort protecting the British port; just the gates and guns remain.

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Now it’s a beautiful space in the center of the surprisingly green city, home to several cultural centers, including the National Museum,

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not to mention some lovely ladies sitting on a bench.

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While exploring, we came upon quite an interesting sign, perhaps a good representation of the tough local stance on crime. Mandatory death for drug smugglers, huge fines for littering, failing to flush a public toilet, or eating on public transport, and whipping for vandalism, for example.

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It might seem repressive, but at the same time, Singapore has some of the happiest citizens in the world, and the city is quite vibrant and lively, not at all the image of 1984 that I might have imagined from things I’d read.

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One really interesting thing about Singapore as a city is the bounty of interesting architecture that can be found seemingly on any corner. From art centers with living walls to shopping malls lit up by shifting lighted walls, it was a visual feast wherever we turned, making our long walks through the city always interesting. One of my favorites was the central fire department, restored in full colonial style.

Speaking of colonial style, nothing could exemplify it more than the famous Raffles Hotel, opened in the last decade of the 19th century, and host to many noted travelers.

DSC02269WNot to mention, it was the birthplace of the Singapore Sling, though at $25 a drink, it was just slightly out of our price range.  The Long Bar was suitably impressive though.

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The hotel retains it’s British charm, with rattan chairs in an airy courtyard lined with palm trees, and presided over by swarming staff in crisp white livery. We’d have explored more, but the cheapest rooms are something like $650 a night…

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Supposedly, Singaporeans’ great passions are eating and shopping. Well, we knew we couldn’t afford to eat, but maybe we could afford to shop? Hah! No, we could not, so we just headed down to Orchard Road, the main promenade, to watch others do it for us. It was really impressive actually. The road is a mile or two long, lined with trees, and flanked on either side by endless rows of massive, high-rise shopping malls. One after another.

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We got a great view over the city from the top of one of the complexes, itself pretty amazing in that it had a boutique restaurant and a garden on the roof.

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Afterwards we infiltrated an Apple store and used their demo iPads to make a clandestine search for a store that sold Lush solid shampoo, as our first bar had run out after only four and a half months. Shameful, I know.  Good luck, we found a place! I also started to search for a boardgame store, but Alina gave me a condescending look that said “I do NOT want to stand around bored while you browse games forever”. Ok, fair enough. So, we left, and headed up the street, when lo, what did I see but a huge sign for a boardgame store! Fate had intervened on my behalf.

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Later on, we came across a strange sight. Inside one of the malls was a whole wall of fake food, showing off the entire menu of some restaurant. I’m not sure how appetizing plastic food is, especially when the glue fails and piece fall off their plates.

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As night descended on our last day in the city, we decided to take a walk downtown to the marina to check out the lights and skyscrapers. Along the way, we passed a public fitness class taking place outside under the walkway between two business complexes. I’d read that these free classes were common, and that many locals take their exercise this way.

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As we reached the marina, the sun fell away and the city was lit by bright and multicolored lights. There are so many things in this area that it was a bit overwhelming to take it all in.

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Add to that the fact that there was a music festival going on, plenty of Singaporeans out for an evening jog or stroll, and that the temperature had dropped to a quite pleasant level, and we really started to develop a liking for this city. It just seemed so happening, safe and clean, and frankly comfortingly western.

We saw the purple glow of the Singapore Flyer, the world’s tallest Ferris wheel,

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and the so-called “super trees”, giant artificial structures fitted with solar panels and carbon sequestration devices, and “planted” in the botanical gardens of the bay area. They are vertical gardens housing ferns, vines and other aerial plants.

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Across the bay was the magnificent Marina Sands complex, a somewhat strange series of three highrises with a curved “ship” spanning them, creating a sort of Stonehenge-like image.  I guess they house an extravagant hotel and casino, and there is an infinity pool on the roof. Sadly, only guests can visit the pool for the amazing views over the city.

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Crossing the span over the water of the marina is the Helix, a quite unique pedestrian bridge. The pink and red lights on the supporting girders really contrasted nicely with the blue and purples on some of the other buildings we could see, and the backdrop of the Singapore skyline.

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As we continued along the shore, we passed a floating football (soccer) field, and then came to the music festival taking place at the Esplanade, a performing arts venue that looked a bit like a pair of pillbugs. Lots of people were sitting around on the steps and shoreline, just listening to the music and enjoying the night air.

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Finally, we crossed to the western side of the water and visited the famous Merlion, the icon of Singapore. I’m not sure of the history behind it, but it did look pretty cool against the backdrop of the lighted city, and we had a great walk getting there.

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Perhaps our most illuminating experience with Singapore actually came on our flight out to Bali. We were sitting next to a British expat working in the oil industry, and he told us all about living in Singapore with his wife and their young daughter. Tales of $140,000 Honda CRVs, and live-in help in every household really brought home how things work on this island. He told us the average income was $250,000, and that he spent over $75,000 just on rent (no utilities). Yet at the same time, he was able to save much more money than in the UK, because of the much less onerous tax burden. He explained how having a life as parents was actually possible (just leave the little one with your live-in maid!), whereas back home, they would never go out. A really interesting perspective, especially after both Alina and I had become enamored of the city the night before, and were scheming of some way to spend a more extended time here.

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And as a bonus, here’s a quick movie of our evening out.

Singapore Marina by night

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