Tourists don't know where they've been, travellers don't know where they're going.

Paul Theroux

Another country that I really know very little about. Except for its reputation for cleanliness, order and affluence.

The affluence bit certainly made itself felt when we tried to book a hotel for our three nights there. I think it was both one of the most expensive rooms we’ve stayed in to date and by far the smallest. It’s best described as a corridor, a short one at that, with an alcove accommodating half the bed. That other half filling most of the remaining corridor space with a step in the middle just to make navigation in the dark that much harder. Oh, I almost forgot, there was a separate bathroom.

But at least the building had a little character. Being a former opera house, the centre where breakfast (freshly cooked omelette or a full on Asian option with rice and breads) was served was a floor to rafters open space, and being situated in the China Town area of the city it was close to many restaurants and of course the metro.

The metro was, as expected, clean and efficient. And very overt with its warnings about crime and behaviour, stating that molestation (I’m not sure if that is a particular problem in Singapore,) could result in both a prison sentence and caning! Leaving the station in China Town I had expected something more like Hong Kong, or the China Town we saw in Bangkok. Instead we emerged from a covered escalator onto a street lined with newish buildings housing both merchants and restaurants. The ‘food street’ again was both new and covered. It all felt a bit contrived and unauthentic.

What was authentic though was the smell coming from the stall on the corner opposite our hotel. If you’ve ever smelled a durian then you’ll know exactly what I mean. I’m not sure exactly how to describe it really. It’s not a pleasant smell, sweet I guess, but it is all pervading. It gets up your nostrils and stays there. Why anybody ever thought of eating it I’ve no idea but it seems to be a popular fruit all across SE Asia. Signs in the hotel sum up the sentiments locally too…

A short distance from China Town, where we decided to eat, the vibe turned distinctly European with streets lined with bistros and filled with western faces and voices. The recommended Coconut Club served tasty, if a little expensive, Asian food.

It’s not sounding so great so far. Small expensive hotel room, unauthentic area, smelly fruit stall. But wandering around the city over the course of a few days reveals quite a varied city, with quite a bit of history.

Chinese traders have plied the waters around since the 5th century CE although there are references from even earlier. In 1819, Sir Stamford Raffles (the hotel bearing his name was closed for refurbishment when we were there) thought the island he found ideal as a strategic spot for the British to establish a foothold to counter Dutch power in the area. In 1824 the ownership of the colony was transferred to the British East India Company. As a free port, Singapore profited from merchants flocking to trade there avoiding the high tariffs of the Dutch controlled ports. The Japanese wrestled control briefly in 1942 before the British regained control in 1945, but the writing was on the wall and the colony became fully independent in the 1960s.

Tax incentives and new labour laws attracted foreign investment and this money, alongside an English language education system, produced a workforce that has led to today’s affluent nation, the envy of many others around the world.

Back to our visit and the modern Singapore.

I suppose that the Sands Bay Shopping Mall is one of the most iconic buildings that stand out in the skyline. It is a huge, luxury mall and hotel complex. All the designer shops are there with their often brash (in my opinion) offerings. Along with a small indoor canal on which you can rent a small boat and ride around! There’s also a theatre there and a food court.

Now in the Lonely Planet it says that there are many food courts around, and that they all serve good food. The government has tried to sanitise the street food hawker stalls of old by moving the whole business into the malls. But they have retained the same owners, and the same food (same same but different as Helen says…). I was expecting the food court in the Sands Bay Mall to be extortionate, but in fact it was pretty good value, the choice varied (mostly variations on Asian rice and noodle dishes with some western stuff thrown in for good measure,) and the food was excellent.

So you end up with this mix of luxury hotel, high end boutiques and tasty, good value, street food. All under one roof.

All this backs on to the massive botanic gardens that also includes the ‘Super Tree Grove’. I’d seen David Attenborough talking about this on one of his tv programmes so it was on my wish list of places to see. As we’d arrived on the 12th December Christmas preparations were in full swing, and the grove had been set up as a winter wonderland.

This was a bit surreal. 30 degrees and very humid (at night as well!) and there were Christmas trees, an ice rink and fake snow around (more of that later). In the evening the trees come to life with a light and music show, and being Christmas the special Christmas show feature all your favourite Christmas classics.

So we found ourselves, in a throng of people of all nationalities, watching these massive and spectacular structures encased in their green, living, shroud of plants and foliage, glowing and pulsating in time to Whitney Houston and Nat King Cole. If I’m honest, it was all pretty impressive, and for the first time it made me think about Christmas and family and friends back home.

But the best was yet to come. After the lights and music it was ‘Blizzard Time’. Yes, all around, giant fans sprung into life and for 10 minutes children who had never seen snow shrieked with joy as they ran about in the midst of a fine spray of foam. They were joined by some adults who I assume had not seen snow either and they seemed equally enthralled by the whole thing.

I found it interesting that Christmas had established itself (minus the religion), with all the modern traditions, featuring snow and ice in these tropical climes. It seems that Christmas is a very northern hemisphere thing.

The botanic gardens and the Sands Bay Mall are both in close proximity to the harbour and the CBD. Compared to Hong Kong the high rise skyline is much less impressive and quite a bit lower. It’s not backed by green hills either so you get a very one dimensional view as opposed to the differing facades you get of Hong Kong from the ground, the ferry and looking back down from Victoria Peak. It is pleasant enough though, and there is a bit of entertainment to be had watching the antics of people taking selfies and trying to capture the fountain from the lion statue’s mouth landing in their mouth or cupped hands. No need to suggest who were the most entertaining… Looking about there is also evidence of the Formula 1 Grands Prix that takes place annually with permanent red and white striped curbs in evidence and sections of tarmac clearly only used for that one weekend of the year. Dotted about are bronze statues depicting some of the original Chinese and European inhabitants and their trades. The groups of statues are not only impressive art in their own right, but informative as well.

Also around the harbour are theatres and more food stalls. There are also open air amphitheaters hosting music virtually every day of the year. And it’s all free. Singapore seems to invest a lot in the arts and promoting them around the centre of town. We watched a local singer there one evening and he was decent enough. The added bonus was that you could watch and listen to him then turn your head slightly and watch the laser light show put on by the Sands Bay Mall every weekend evening reflected in the waters between. Turning you head slightly the other way reveals the lights of the CBD in the night sky also reflected in the harbour. Nearby is another street food market. Again, sanitised from the older hawker days but outside this time with even better food. Testified by the masses of people queuing and for the people waiting to sit on the cheap plastic tables and chairs scattered about, and the incessant hubbub of chatting voices.

Walking further into the centre, away from the harbour, reveals a more colonial Singapore. The museum, government buildings, regency hotels all telling of a colonial past. And in the midst, smack bang in the centre of all of this, a sports field. Not a stadium, just a regular sports field for weekend club sports. In fact when we walked past there was a rugby match underway. We looked on for a few minutes until the final whistle blew. It was entertaining, lots of scoring, but not high calibre rugby. The defence coaches (should they have such a thing,) would certainly be busy at Tuesday training the next week!

Housed in one of the old buildings is the Singapore Ancient Civilisations Museum. Covering the history, art and peoples of South East Asia, it is full of all of the former. Featuring prominently is and exhibition showing the complete contents of the wreck of a Arab merchant ship that sank 1,100 years ago off Belitung Island in the Java Sea, the Tang Shipwreck, discovered in 1998, contained over 60,000 item, mainly ceramics many of which have remained undamaged after years underwater. They provide a valuable snapshot of early and extensive trading between China and western countries at that time, some 500 years earlier than had previously been thought, and of the i lance of these trade routes. Something that would be to Singapore’s advantage in t future.

Wanting to see a birds eye view of the city we went to one of the sky bars on one of our sorters into one of the many other shopping malls. One which has a free viewing platform, only to find that the viewing deck was being used for a high tech exhibition featuring the Palace at Versailles. So we found ourselves catching up on a bit of French history while we were there. I’ve not been to Versailles, but I can now add it to my list of places to see in Europe when I get the chance.

Singapore is a contrasting place of the old and the new. Turning off a main shopping drag you find Emerald Hill. A row of old traditional shop houses on what used to be to be a nutmeg orchard. Characterised by their and their five yard ways. The covered pathways outside the shop fronts. It’s like stepping into a different world, but it only lasts 100 meters or so as the old facades rapidly change into modern copies and then plain modern buildings.

And then there’s the area known as Little India. After our experience in China Town, my expectations weren’t high. In this case I was pleasantly surprised.

There was a definite air and vibe of India. Tantric music, incense sticks, markets with vendors enthusiastically trying to sell their wares all mingling with the smell of spices and food. Mercifully though, without the piles of garbage so notable in their absence and the waste running down the streets. The buildings weren’t characteristically Indian either, no shanty towns or makeshift dwellings. The streets were orderly and organised. But despite these differences, the people, the temples, their shops and goods (that were typically Indian except many, many times more expensive than the markets they probably came from,) gave the area that Indian feel.

Singapore is a definite mix. Old, new, rich and, well not poor as such but less rich. Designer stores and shopping malls rule the day and the façade of Christmas in the tropics seems to sum up first impressions of the city. A bit sterile at first glance but with more under the surface than you first think. That’s in my opinion anyway. It certainly lived up to my expectations of cleanliness and efficiency, but there is definitely a blend of cultures that you don’t find together in other places. The history is still there, but I think that in Singapore the dollar is king.

Our last evening was greeted by a massive thunder storm. It had been forecast ever since we arrived, and typically the last day was the only day we left our waterproofs in the hotel! So we found ourselves sheltering in a restaurant, outside but under a canopy next to the river, Singapore Sling in hand and eating dinner while the storm passed. Which it did, but not before the plastics covers came down to stop the torrential rain drifting in and the diners had to rescue bags left on the ground from the rivers of water running from the pavements into the river. The rain stopped just in time for us to get back to the hotel and grab our bags before heading back out to Changi Airport where we were boarding a late night flight to Melbourne and on to Adelaide for a proper Aussie Christmas.

By the time we got outside it had started to rain again, but fortunately we only had a few meters to walk before the covered walkways of China Town and the metro sheltered us as the Singaporean efficiency whisked us away to our waiting flight.

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1 thought on “$$$ingapore 🇸🇬”

  1. I hope that you managed to see the film ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ on the flight afterwards! I enjoyed this blog as I would like to return to Singapore- it may have changed a bit since the late 70s………. Great to see you in Hong Kong and meet Jon for the first time. Hilary

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