When we announced our plans to vacation in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, the reaction was unanimous: “Why the hell are you going there?” After all, Southeast Asia lacks the exotic air of places like Tahiti and Bora-Bora, the hipness of Prague and Croatia, and the life-threatening danger of Baghdad or Fallujah. No, Southeast Asia’s appeal lay in its “off-the-radar” quality as one of the few remaining areas of the world that doesn’t actively hate Americans.
We went to Singapore before it was cool.
We left San Francisco on October 16, 2004, at 11pm Thursday and arrived, haggard and surly, in Singapore—or S’pore as the locals call it—Saturday around 12:30pm. The flight was only about 16-hours, but the airline lost a day somewhere over Antarctica (we complained, but they refused to compensate us for the loss).
At Singapore International Airport, we grabbed a shuttle to the Amara Hotel near Chinatown. With zen gardens, enormous goldfish ponds and tasteful, minimalist furnishings, the place was trendier than we expected. (It was possible, we later realized, that the hotel wasn’t trendy, but rather merely Asian.)
The Amara Hotel possessed quite possibly the most impressive feature I have yet to see in a modern building: elevators with “close-door” buttons that actually work. Instantly. Better yet, the company that makes it is named, I kid you not, Schindler’s Lifts. Priceless.
You don’t need a rental car in Singapore.
Getting around in most foreign countries is right up there on my fun-to-do list with Taunt the local police. But, in regard to public transportation, Singapore has no rival. Sorting out the Mass Rapid Transit, (“MRT”) system was so easy a monkey could do it. Not a good thing, since the local monkey population was fast becoming a nuisance.
Mass Rapid Transit (MRT)
The MRT is, bar none, the easiest, and most efficient, public transportation system I have used anywhere in the world. It works like this: You just buy, or rather rent, a credit-type card and charge it up with money, say $10. Then, when you go through the turnstiles, you simply touch the card to the pad and it registers your entry point into the system and opens the gate. On your way out, wherever that may be, you tap the card to the exit turnstile and it calculates your fee, deducts it from your card and tells you how much money you have remaining. Brilliant.
Singapore was once a British colony, and it shows.
Our first stop on the MRT was the Colonial Area. This section of downtown Singapore that celebrates the good ol’ days of British Imperialist oppression. Singapore, it seems, was once a British Colony (I think there may have been a few other colonies, too). The area is notable for still having British buildings standing that weren’t burned to the ground the second Singapore “won” its independence back in 1959.
I say, “won” because Singapore got its independence sort of by default. It seems the island was supposed to be handed over as part of Malaysia, but the Federation of Malaysia didn’t get formed officially until four years later. So thanks to gross inefficiency and government foot-dragging, Singapore now gets to oppress its own people itself, instead of relying on foreigners to do it. I’m sure that was a big relief to many.
The weather in Singapore is delightfully hot and humid.
We found the humidity and heat in this near-equatorial paradise highly enjoyable, for a while. But soon, to prevent our own spontaneous human combustion, we had to seek relief. The nearest air-conditioning was inside the Raffles Centre, a huge modern shopping complex named after the guy who originally swindled the island on behalf of the British Crown. Across the street is the Raffles Hotel where you’ll find the world-famous “Long Bar.”
Reportedly, bartender Mr. Ngiam Tong Boon invented the Singapore Sling for the Raffles Hotel back in 1915 or so. Being suckers for alcoholic drinks in general, and red, fruity ones in particular, we grabbed a table and ordered up a pair. They were tasty and, thankfully, strong. Still, they weren’t strong enough to warrant the US$13 price tag (!), but drinking was as good as any other way to kill time (and brain cells) while we waited for a sudden afternoon downpour to subside.
The Singapore Sling is rather fruity drink, but if you have the stuff in your liquor cabinet you could do worse. Here’s how you make it:
- 1 1/2 ounce gin
- 1/2 ounce Cherry Herring brandy
- 1/4 ounce Cointreau
- 1/4 ounce Benedictine
- 4 ounces pineapple juice
- 1/2 ounce lime juice
- 1/3 ounce grenadine
- Dash bitters
To make sure no one has fun in Singapore, the government taxes the hell out of alcohol. Food is reasonably priced, if not cheap, but add a glass of wine and your bill practically doubles. Over the course of our stay, we paid anywhere from US$8 to US$20 for a single drink. And we weren’t always drunk at the time.
Singapore is pretty weird in places.
At Spinelli’s, we read The Straits Times, having learned that newspapers are a good way to learn about the local culture — for instance, despite a female population that, combined, weighs less than Oprah, Singapore is overrun with ads for “slimming salons” offering to help women lose “those stubborn last 5-grams!” How else can a woman expect to win Singapore Idol? (And yes, there really is one.)
Chinatown’s zoning ordinances defy all logic. Apparently, if you want to open a Karaoke bar on Tanjong Pagar Road, you have to open a bridal store next door as well. Literally. The close proximity of alcohol and bridal shops makes Tanjong Pagar an expensive area for single guys to hang out. Not only would you spend a lot to get drunk, but you could easily wake up with more than a hangover the next morning.
A highlight of our Chinatown visit was the Chinese Heritage Centre. This museum, set inside the actual living accommodations of early Chinese immigrants, takes you through a typical day in the life of an immigrant in 1940s Singapore. To be blunt, I know of dogs who have a better standard of living (and they didn’t have to drag their own feces out to the curb). It was both eye-opening and extremely tragic. Don’t miss it!
We ate some local food and survived.
Up the street a ways from our hotel is Ya Kun, a little cafe that sells something called Kaya Toast. Amy had heard of the stuff and dragged me away from a perfectly good Egg McMuffin to try the dish. I went along figuring “Kaya Toast” sounded less puke-inducing first thing in the morning than the typical Asian breakfast of congee (rice porridge with your choice of chicken or fish. Ugh.)
What arrived was toasted bread, a slab of butter and a runny egg with a green jam-like substance on the side. I waited until Amy had tried it and lived, then I gave it a shot. Made from eggs, sugar, and coconut, Kaya somehow managed to taste good anyway.
We did some shopping (with sharks, no less).
Sufficiently over-cranked by the sugar rush, we took the MRT to Orchard Road, Singapore’s shopping Mecca (so to speak). There, we found high-end shops of every kind inside a 5-story mega building the size of an aircraft hangar. Across the street, we found another equally enormous building full of high-end shops. And then another. In all, there had to be 57 of these behemoth buildings on that corner alone, and the street went on for miles. One mega-mall even had an aquarium with sharks in it. Boy, nothing makes for a relaxing shopping experience like circling Lamniformes.
We walked around Singapore’s Chinatown.
Chinatown wasn’t the only concentration of ethnicity in Singapore. There’s also a Little India and Arab Street. And Amy and I, never shy about gawking at people who are different, took the MRT up to Arab Street where we wandered the crumbling, uneven sidewalks of this otherwise gleaming metropolis. We visited a few attractive mosques but opted not to go inside for fear of angering the local Muslim population by forgetting to remove our shoes, showing our bare shoulders, or just…you know, being there.
We completed our Fodor’s walking tour and schlepped over to Little India, shedding one-third our body weight through water loss. We found the restaurant Fodor’s had recommended and ordered a banana-leaf platter with Roti, Dosa and various vegetarian sauces. Then we tried to eat the way the Indians do: with our fingers. Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty.
We visited Singapore’s Little India, too.
The best place for bargains in Little India, we were told, was Mustafa Centre on Serangoon Avenue. Crammed inside a 3-storey building, roughly the size of one city block, was every product ever made in the history of the world. The aisles barely fit two people squeezing by each other, and the noise made the floor of the NY Stock Exchange look like the Public Library. We looked around a bit, but then decided to leave before our ears started bleeding.
Singapore is a city that never sleeps. Or maybe it was just us. Because after dinner, we took the MRT uptown, switched trains and then got on a bus to the Night Safari. What could have been a public transportation nightmare turned out to be anything but. The trip culminated 45-minutes later in an amusement-park tram which shuttled us around in the dark of night past numerous nocturnal beasts such as tigers, rhinoceroses, and elephants.
While a narrow moat between ourselves and the ferocious beasts kept us from becoming prey, some of the less dangerous animals came terribly close to the tram. In fact, a plant-munching Tapir came so close, my outstretched foot nearly kicked it in the head. With reaction times that make manatee’s look agile, it’s no wonder Tapirs are endangered.
Sentosa Island is just a tram ride away.
Sentosa Island is a tiny island off the coast of the tiny island of Singapore. You can get there by car, but we decided to take the scenic route, namely the Cable Car. This gondola runs over to the island 110-meters above the water providing a breathtaking view of Singapore’s industrial shipping port. Bring your camera!
Once on the other side, you can grab the world’s slowest monorail that circles the island, stopping at scenic locations along the way. One such photo-op was at the mammoth Merlion statue — sort of a Lion with the body and tail of a lobster. The statue, a replica of one downtown, was inspired by the knucklehead who discovered Singapore and wrongly reported back about all the “lions” he saw (in fact, they were tigers).
The Singapore Tourism Board, seeing an opportunity to use this blunder to boost tchotchke sales, commissioned the now-famous statue/icon in 1972. But instead of passing the Merlion off as some ancient folklore, or a legend handed down from past generations, they proudly proclaim the Merlion the creation of the 1972 Tourism Board as if to ensure getting credit for creating a blatantly commercial national icon. Kudos all around.
The beach on Sentosa Island kinda sucks.
From our elevated vantage, we saw the “beach” as the best place to kill the bulk of our remaining time. We grabbed a few empty chairs outside a bar, ordered a jug of Carlsberg and took in the spectacular tropical vista before us. Well, “spectacular” if you discount the 13 oil tankers and freighters stacked up on the horizon waiting to get into port.
Our bliss was interrupted by the appearance of several beautiful peacocks flocking around us. We tossed them bar snacks and watched in awe as the proud birds, resplendent in brilliant azure plumage, fought over every morsel like common pigeons. (To make matters worse, they honked like geese. Tres ignoble, if you ask me.)
With night falling, we headed back to Little India for Deepavali, the Indian Festival of Lights. The streets were lined with twinkle lights making Little India look, for all intents and purposes, like Florida during Christmas (sans the tacky illuminated plastic, waving Santa Claus, of course).
Singapore is very strict about…everything.
Back at our hotel room, we were relieved to have made it through a week in Singapore without ever getting caned. Or even worse. Hey, this place didn’t get to be such a neat, orderly society by just asking nicely. In Singapore — as it is with most if not all of South East Asia — drug trafficking carries the death penalty. (Normally, I wouldn’t have been concerned, but I was in possession of a healthy supply of Sudafed at the time.)
To give you an idea of how strict the government is around here, you can buy a t-shirt that says, “Singapore is a fine country” (get it?) which then lists the numerous offenses for which you can be fined, and for how much. (However, nowhere listed was the amount for “Wearing lame t-shirts in public.”)