Singapore is a forest of skyscrapers but beneath the canopy of steel, concrete and glass, it’s a zesty, cultural melting pot. Unlike other South-East Asian cities, it has little pollution, has ultra clean and efficient public transport, a low crime rate, almost no traffic jams and a minimum of grunge. It’s South-East Asia for beginners, where the first official language is English. Or Singlish, as it’s called locally. My view from Orchard Parksuites (above) sums up Singapore.
Embracing Singapore is easy
A former British colony, the city island state of over 5 million residents also has strong Chinese, Indian and Malaysian cultural flavours. The climate is tropical and steamy. For a country that’s only 716 sq km, Singapore has extensive green areas, including wondrous manmade gardens.
Singapore is infamous for extreme punishments against seemingly minor infractions, like selling chewing gum and plastering graffiti, and for harsh penalties like caning and mandatory capital punishment for cheating, murder, and rape. But otherwise, I think Singapore’s reputation as sterile and dull is so last century. There’s as many ciggie butts on the pavements in some streets as there are in any big city. So there!
After my travel buddy is unable to get away from work, I’m travelling solo on this three-day visit, which I won in a lucky draw. A thousand thanks to FarEast Hospitality. I feel safe walking around day and night, because in Asia, much of life is experienced and lived vibrantly on the streets. Singapore is no exception. It’s been a while since I’ve been here. I plan nothing, and this is what happens.
Free hugs, fuel up
1. Singaporeans are wholesome and friendly. I’m walking down shopping’s golden mile otherwise known as Orchard Road on the first morning, on my way to find breakfast, and people want to be extra friendly. Oh, all right. Huuug. Thanks, I’m now ready for eggs and toast.
The Toast Box (ION Orchard, 2 Orchard Turn) is where I eat breakfast each day. I know, that may sound dull, but traditional breakfast Singapore style is hard to beat. Priced under $S8. Quintessentially, it’s soft-boiled eggs served with soya sauce, salt and pepper, white toast slathered with butter and brown sugar and cut into neat little squares, and strong, Robusta bean coffee.
2. Loaded with protein, caffeine and carbs, I head back outdoors where crowds are also loading up for a dose of retail therapy. Shopaholics of the world unite in Singapore for a good reason. Singapore shopping hours are 10am-10pm daily.
Shop, boot scoot
Department stores include Japanese retail giant Takashimaya (taking up two blocks), DFS Galleria (posh), Robinsons (mid-market), Isetan (more posh), Metro (budget shopping), Tangs (lots of French fashion) and the almost never-ending Millennia Walk. The malls are big. Really, really big. And really time consuming.
Let’s not forget Lucky Plaza on Orchard Road, where every second store offers currency exchange including the 7 Eleven. Lucky Plaza is a magnet for regional migrant workers and contains possibly the most interesting condom shop ever.
For alternative clothes shopping try Haji Lane, reputed to be the narrowest in the city. Tucked away in the Malay-Arab quarter, this hip, streetwise shopping mini-mecca is somewhat like London’s Brick Lane. There’s quality kebabs and Persian food to be found, and excellent fabric stores. I take the train, and arrive at sunset when the call to prayer resonates through the streets. The mosque is busy, and so are the restaurants.
3. When shopping pales, and you need free entertainment, just stroll. Street performers are everywhere.
Train, tea, Supertrees
4. The MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) is Singapore’s train system, running so frequently that it doesn’t matter if you miss one train, because another one will be along in a minute. It also runs from the airport into the city. Ticketing schemes are based on stored value smartcards to suit your needs – from standard one-time travel tickets to tourist concession passes. Getting a grip on public transport helps me feel orientated, so I ditch taxis and take trains everywhere.
5. I take the MRT out to Marina Bay, to visit Gardens by the Bay. The outdoor gardens are open 5am-2am daily. The day I go it’s pouring with rain, and the Skyway, where you can walk through the manmade Supertrees, is closed. I puddle around at ground level. Eleven of the Supertrees are embedded with environmentally sustainable functions. Some have photovoltaic cells on their canopies to harvest solar energy for lighting up the structures, while others are integrated with two large, glass-domed conservatories and serve as air exhausts. The cooled conservatory complex won the World Building of the Year at the World Architecture Festival 2012. The gardens aren’t quite so enticing in the rain. Even the Dubai-esque Marina Bay Sands Hotel in the background is almost melting into the mist. The hotel boasts the world’s largest outdoor pool at an extreme height – 150 metres long and 52 storeys up. And, news alert, the hotel has announced it will no longer serve shark fin soup. Conservationists are rejoicing, as am I.
This picture, courtesy of Singapore Tourism, shows you what the Supertrees look like at night.
6. The nearby Planet sculpture installation stands out, even in the rain. This is a 7-tonne white painted, bronze and stainless steel cast sleeping baby, which appears to float above the ground, and rotates gently. Created by sculptor Marc Quinn and modelled on his infant son, Lucas, it depicts our physical, cerebral and heavenly tussles with life.
7. The gargantuan shopping Marina Bay Sands shopping mall is next to the hotel, and I dry out and take refreshments at the TWG Tea Salon and Boutique on the Bridge, positioned overlooking the Venetian-style canal floating through the middle. Gondola-style boats float up and down. The tea is very good, the food pricy, average.
Noodles, tapas, Raffles
8. A $S6 bowl of slurpy, spicy rice noodles at the Maxwell Road Hawker Centre, on the edge of Chinatown, is lots of fun. A freshly-squeezed fruit juice will cost two bucks. Singapore’s cost of living is high, yet it’s generously endowed with cheap outdoor food centres. The food court at the ION Orchard, called Food Republic, is set up like a small outside hawker centre with about 25 cuisine styles, and the prices are about the same, with this bowl of hand-cut noodles also $S6.
9. I do a lot of walking when I travel, but I’m tempted to take a Pilates class at Options Studio Singapore at Regency House on Penang Road, or Pilates Bodyworks, owned by Alvin Giam, at Finlayson Green, near the Raffles Place MRT. Founded in 1999, Pilates Bodyworks is considered among the best in South-East Asia. Alvin was a lawyer who injured himself playing sport over three decades ago, and turned to Pilates for rehabilitation.
10. Instead, I go to lunch and visit Raffles Hotel. Sorry Alvin, next time! Australian chef Luke Mangan has a restaurant, Salt Tapas and Bar, opposite the famed Raffles, and I meet Accor Hotels PR friend Gaynor Reid there. Then a walk across the road to explore the hotel is obligatory. The historic hotel retains its legendary majesty, although the floors of high-class boutiques are mournfully bereft of customers on this afternoon.
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