Singapore: Two Sides to Every City

My trips to Singapore have taught me a very valuable lesson in travel: every time you visit somewhere, no matter where it is or how many times you’ve been there, your experience will never be duplicated. The difference can be minimal, perhaps a new culinary delight, a festival that you didn’t experience last time you visited, or a historical tidbit that changes your perception of the people who live there… or it can be quite obvious, as was the case during my second visit to South East Asia’s busiest hub for international trade and business.

The first time I visited Singapore, I was traveling alone for the first time in my life. I had a fleeting moment of panic on-board the plane from Canada but knew as soon as I found myself seated next to a professor from Malaysia while enjoying caprese salad, white wine and extra leg room at the front of the aircraft, that all would be well. What this meant however, is that I made the novice mistake of booking all my accommodation and transport prior to leaving North America. Oops. How was I to know? Well I know now, and I’ll never do that again. Rule one of the independent traveler: retain flexibility! So there I was, destined for a few days in Singapore before heading up through Malaysia and onward.  I knew ahead of time that Singapore would be a good ‘transition’ from Canada to Asia. A gateway to my travels, so to speak. That being the case, I didn’t really know what to expect.

Here is a recap of my first visit to Singapore in 2008 as described in an email home to friends and family (who hated me for rambling on and on, I’m quite sure).

Part 1. Reason for travel – “Regain Perspective”

Upon my arrival in Singapore, and after standing in the wrong line to buy tickets for the train I needed to take to my hostel ( I actually needed a metro ticket… oops!) I arrived at Sky Orchids hostel, my home away from home in Geylang, Singapore.  I got there ok – the metro system in Singapore rocks by the way, it is very easy to get around AND they give you a 1$ deposit return on your metro  card which promotes recycling and reusing of materials and gives you half your fare back. The woman at Sky Orchids was very friendly but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the place to other passers through. Literally upon my arrival I met a girl from Leeds, England and we thought it would be fun to wander around a bit (wandering by myself probably wouldn’t have been the smartest thing since Geyland is located near the red light district of Singapore and is home to prostitution and the like). As we wandered we came accross a floating parade of sorts with Chinese dragons dancing up and down the streets and beautiful Chinese lanterns illuminating the skyline!

The next day, Louise (the brit), myself, and a guy from New Zealand named Jonathan, woke up bright and early to head to Chinatown where we wandered through many hindu and buddist temples and trotted down the alleys that slowly fill up with street vendors ready to face another day of tourists marching through their city. Thank goodness I’m on a tight budget or I would have been in trouble! The bags, the robes, clothing and nick knacks that are sold throughout the city are so beautiful in design that they are hard to resist! But I made it through empty handed and headed back to the hostel to meet a friend of a friend of my father’s for lunch. We went to little India and had yummy mango yogurt lassi – for those of you who don’t know, I LOVE anything mango so thusfar I had been in tastebud heaven – butter chicken, a spinach mix, and cool yoghut/cucumber mix with nann bread. It was scrumptious! After our meal, Sara (that was her name), came with me to buy my ticket to Malacca, my next port of call – Thank goodness she was there otherwise I never would have found the place where I was to buy my ticket – a line of travel agencies stuffed together in this mall run by Thai people! Random, but I got it and that’s all that matters! Malacca, for those of you who are interested,  was a city used by the portuguese who built a fort there, it was then taken over then by the Dutch and the English, and then returned to the Dutch years later. It is quite a place of history in between Singapore and Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lampur. After buying my ticket, I left Sara and went wandering around little India by myself for a while which was lovely.

I went in to a number of Mosques and saw more temples and buildings created by the thriving Indian population. Singapore, and Malaysia, are both divided into ethnic communities as people were brought in for Labour during the days of colonialism, from all over the region.

After touring little India, I headed towards the Raffles hotel (using the metro to get around) where I enjoyed a Singapore Sling for 20$, can you believe it!? That was for you dad! The hotel is the inventor of the drink we Westerners have come to know and love and I was in awe sitting in the hotel that survived through the war and the Japanese occupation and served as a resting ground for people like Rupyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad. I could only imagine Conrad sitting in what was the most luxurious hotel in the region, writing about the devastation and exploitation that encircled the people of the area. Unreal.

Finally, I headed back to the hostel to meet up with Louise and Jonathan, and after having a long nap (I was exhausted), we headed to the acclaimed Night Safari at the Singapore Zoo – rated Singapore’s #1 attraction for the past 4 years (as of 2008)! So touristy eh? But when in Singapore yada yada. The Safari was actually pretty cool, basically it’s a train that takes you through the zoo in the middle of the night – the coolest thing was the open bat cage where, honest to god, you stood a foot away from these massive bats that were at least as big as my head! There was no fencing or anything either, so I was a bit worried (being oversized and all) that I would be smack in the middle of their flight path! But it was super cool and well worth the experience (although I wouldn’t do it again, once was more than enough).

End of part 1. 

So that was 2008. A year full of independent travel. I was on the lookout for adventure, in awe of national histories and a regular at every museum on my route from Singapore to Munich (with a lot of stops in between). What I noticed (and what you will to) is that the second time round, I became strangely less aware of the historically informative plaques describing statues and national monuments or the administrative buildings rich in architecture, and much more aware of the cute cafes nestled between the skyscrapers and the romantic sights that are visible as the sun sets and lovers stroll the streets of downtown Singapore hand in hand. Pourquoi, you ask? Good question! I don’t fully understand it. I attribute it to the fact that on this particular trip, I was on my honeymoon and fully aware of how enjoyable it was to share in the experience with someone else. That didn’t necessitate being a tourist, that meant being a willing and able travel partner. Talking, laughing, and generally enjoying a break from the reality we’d left behind to indulge in a few weeks of… us. Now that I’ve prepped you for mush and gush, you’re sure to be disappointed.

Here is how I experienced Singapore in 2011:

Part 2. Reason for travel – “Honeymoon”

After an overnight flight from Munich to Singapore, we arrived at the Sheraton Towers Hotel just in time to drop off the luggage and take a hot shower before setting out to discover the hustle and bustle of Asia’s prosperous city center! By we – I mean we, and my beloved husband, as we set out on the first leg of our honeymoon after two months of marital bliss. The hotel itself was pretty nice – very well suited for the businessman passing through, but the the automatic air-conditioning led to cold returns from hot excursions. Nonetheless, we departed the hotel and headed for Orchard Road! Christmas in Singapore, who knew! We were chuckling to ourselves as we heard the familiar tunes of classical favourites playing through the rays of sun shining down as we strolled Singapore’s most densely populated shopping strip.

Alongside the Christmas decoration however, I noticed an abundance of elephants lining the walkway and soon discovered the existence of the Elephant Parade. After admiring a number of elephants decorated in exquisite costume (as this one to the right) and many others painted in a variety of themes,  I promised myself I would “google” the meaning behind the elephant campaign… and I did! The parade is, in fact, an enormous campaign that takes place annually acting as a fundraiser for elephants injured by land mines and the conservation of the Asian Elephant. This was the first year the parade took place in Asia while simultaneously taking place in Milan, Copenhagen, and Heerlen! What timing!

So there we are strolling down the road, whistling to Christmas songs and admiring the elephants lining the way, and on the hunt for clothes. Why you ask? Solid question. Having traveled extensively throughout South East Asia a few years back, and making a many a purchase before returning home, we figured we’d travel light this time and make major purchases en route.  You know, stock up on “Prado” purses and polo shirts that literally say P-O-L-O across the back collar. Big mistake. To our chagrin, the only stores we encountered during our Singaporean walkabout read Gucci, Prada and Channel. Not to mention the stand alone Luis Vuitton with it’s own special building across from the mall. Yowza. Needless to say, we walked away without buying much except some deliciously fruity beverages to comfort our broken souls. Let me tell you, fresh lemon with aloe leads to soul renewed! A renewed soul however, is a hungry one. So we stopped at a VERY local food plaza to grab a bite to eat. As we passed the stalls offering crocodile, turtle soup, and pig organs, I began to have my doubts. Of course in the end, all was fine! My husband enjoyed his first Tiger Beer in Singapore  and I munched happily away on noodles and tofu (I went straight to the vegetarian booth… it’s okay you can say it, lame! I know, I’m getting less adventurous in my old age). One thing that was interesting for me to note was that as a solo-female traveler, I am usually very wary of local eateries frequented primarily by men, particularly in a country where I don’t know the language. Having a man travel with you definitely has it’s advantages.

As per our agreed upon agenda for the day (and after our bellies were full), we made head way to little India and suddenly remembered… it was Diwali! Behold, the festival of lights! As we strolled the streets of little India, taking in the music and the scents (of which my man was not so fond), it really hit me as to just how different each part of Singapore is. Chinatown (still to come), little India, little Arabia (we’re getting there) and the downtown core – all completely different from one another. Whereas the downtown core is covered with luscious green, the smaller communities are less… well tended. Full of dust and rather run down, Chinatown and little India don’t have massive appeal apart from local eateries that offer regional specialties. Having explored Chinatown and little India, we followed Kandahar St (I kid you not) to little Arabia which was better kept due (I’m assuming) to the influx of tourists that come to visit the beautiful Masjid Sultan (pictured in my excerpt from 2008). We were right in the middle of being in awe at the beauty of the Mosque and it’s surroundings when the rains decided to come.. and with them our old friend, jet-lag. Out for the count. We headed back to the hotel and passed out! Of course we later woke up starving! So we went out for some noodles and at the hawker food court down the road… and then fell back into bed!

The positive side of jet lag is that it allows you to fully enjoy the beauty of a sunrise. So, at 5:00am, we got up and headed to the hotel fitness room for an early morning workout followed by a delightful swim outside! An incredible way to start off another day in Asia! Having worked up quite the appetite, we left the hotel in search for food and when we stopped for some breakfast I… tried fishcake. Awful. Serious. Gag. Okay, slight exaggeration. It did however reek of fish, but the texture was spongy and not at all what I expected. It was… interesting, to say the least. After devouring our spicy noodle breakfast (Mi Goreng),we made headway to the modern side of Singapore, waving hello to the Raffles hotel as we passed, an readying ourselves for an entirely different perspective on the city. Away from temples, mosques and the dust that settles on the outskirts of the city, the waterfront is lined with a blend of skyscrapers and modern buildings, bordered by lush green and water. As we strolled through the new part of town, we took in the plethora of structures that make up the skyline including (but clearly not limited to): the Singapore Flyer (the London Eye of South East Asia), the Art Science Museum (an extraordinary lotus shaped building that collects rain water) and most incredible of all, the Skypark shaped like a boat laying atop the Marina Bay Sands hotel towers.

We even passed a sidewalk lined with Christmas trees as we made our way into the city in the hopes of finding a bite to eat. Instead of food however, we were content to take in a coffee along the water, across from one of the biggest (and most expensive looking) malls in Singapore. Sipping on our delicious cappuccinos, we sighed the sigh breathed by all newlyweds… and shared a moment of ecstasy, knowing that this partnership, in travel and beyond, was going to last a lifetime. Bliss. Unfortunately, our stomachs were still rumbling, so we decided to branch off to find food outside the city center. Thus, we continued onward to Chinatown where poked our heads in some pretty neat temples (some of which stirred memories of years gone by) and headed for hawker central.We enjoyed lunch in a food court on the cusp of downtown/Chinatown and were amazed at the number of expats/international businessmen (and yes by this I mean visible minority, a.k.a white men) enjoying their lunch next to us. When you’re trotting around little India or little Arabia, you forget the number of international businesses that operate in Singapore and clearly necessitate a lot of movement between countries.

I feel as if this is a good time to bring up the fact that for my husband, a German, Singapore was perfection. If Sir Thomas Moore had been German, Utopia would have been less focused on politics (for Singapore is not a democratic nation) and more so on the inherit beauty of the place, both natural and man made. The climate of Singapore is warm, but not too hot. The landscape lush, but not wild. The infrastructure clean and well-run (efficiency is very important), but not obnoxiously so. There are all the modern conveniences (public transit, cars, electricity etc), yet Singapore remains relatively free of pollution. The proximity is perfect (surrounded by water yet not isolated) and the people… civilized. I hate that word but it has it’s uses, this would be one of them. While I acknowledge Singapore to be a lovely place to visit, and perhaps even to spend a year, or two… I remain less than enamoured by Singapore that I would move solely to indulge in the richness of it’s splendour.

As we made our way out of the downtown and back towards our hotel, we passed what was without doubt my favourite statue in Singapore: 

This statue was just next to the Fullerton Hotel, which, it must be said, rivals the Raffles as one of the most majestic hotels in the city. The enthusiasm of the kids as they jump into the river below is enough to make you want to strip right there and then and join in the fun.

End Part 2.

Our trip to Singapore which lasted a mere two days, was a great way to transition into the next part of our adventure. A great stopover for anyone making the trip to South East Asia, Singapore truly is unique in the way it blends new and old, both of which I experienced over the course of two trips focusing on very different parts of the city. On a journey to regain perspective and get back in touch with… well… myself, I chose the quieter path, avoiding the “busy-ness” of the downtown core. When I was with my husband however, we were drawn to explore all corners of the map and I was suddenly exposed to the two sides of Singapore, the city!

Love it or hate it, Singapore is a country worth visiting, at least once. Whether you’re on the hunt for designer jewelry, or looking to join the Buddha on a quieter and more peaceful journey, there really is something here for every traveler.

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