Listed as the most expensive city in the world – above even the veritable cash chasms London, Tokyo, Sydney and Stockholm – Singapore is understandably not on many backpackers’ agendas.
Such a shame! Singapore’s a lovely country, easy to navigate, tonnes to see and do, and they have excellent air conditioning – which is a sodding Godsend during the dry season.
Crossing the border from Malaysia was painless enough, although you may come across your first experience of Singaporean officiousness at this point. Our friend Fabio, who travelled ahead of us, is a smoker, and when asked if he had cigarettes, he produced an open pack. Fine, they said – it’s obviously for personal use – but they went through his stuff and found a couple of cigars his mates had given to him. Tobacco mule! They demanded huge amounts of duty be paid for the two or three small cigars – but Fabio just grinned and binned them.
The same might happen if you’re bringing alcohol over (we had a couple of beer cans we had to dump before we reached the border) and heaven help you if they discover banned substances on your person – such as chewing gum. They’ll string you up before you can say “Wriggley’s”.
(I must admit to illegally importing chewing gum, which they didn’t find, and which, let the record state, we did not consume until we had left for Cambodia.)
We were dropped off in the city seemingly at random, so we set out to find some internet, because we’d neglected to figure out how to reach our friends’ home. The first thing we noticed was that the traffic here is nothing like KL – for a start, people tend to obey road signage. But also, pedestrians actually wait at crossings for the green man to appear, even if there are zero cars in sight. It’s quite strange – especially for Swarana, who loves jaywalking.
After a hideously expensive quiche and an orange juice in Starbucks, we knew how to make it to our friends’ apartment. Krishna and Roopali proved to be magnificent hosts. Krishna first met Swarana when they were kids in 1985, back when they both lived in Jos in Nigeria. Their families have been close ever since.
I don’t believe I’ve met a more relaxed couple in all my life. Roopali radiates calm, like a smiling Zen cat; and Krishna is as cool as they come. They were superbly welcoming – to the point of jokingly admonishing us for doing some washing up – and we were glad to have some home comforts as we recovered from our bout of illness.
Krishna introduced us to the classic Singaporean dish chilli crab, a whole crab cooked in buckets of chilli sauce. Although it can be found perhaps a little cheaper in Chinatown, we were treated to Krishna’s favourite seafood restaurant, Red House down on Robertson Quay. It was excellent – both spicy and succulent – but a finger-dripping mess.
We also had a day watching India annihilate Pakistan in the Cricket World Cup, with Roopali’s aunt, uncle, cousins, their kids, and a friend of Krishna’s. I became a de facto fan of the Indian cricket team for a day. Better than supporting England I suppose.
Meanwhile, once again, Fabio had made an excellent scout (bless ‘im), giving the place a reccie before we arrived. We met him in the Marina Bay Gardens – where he told us about his trouble at the border – and got given tips of what to see.
Unfortunately, It was Fabio’s last day in Asia; his flight was booked back to Basle that evening, so we said our goodbyes to a good pal and an intrepid voyager. Panic would later set in, when we realised we didn’t have Fabio to tell us where to go or what to see. He will be sorely missed.
Lean, green, garden machine
People sometimes compare KL and Singapore, or ask “I’ve only got time for one, so which is best?” It’s strange because they are almost nothing alike, aside from the cuisine and having tall buildings. Where KL is a loveable jumbled mess, Singapore is a finely sculpted futurescape.
Case in point: the Marina Bay Gardens’ super-trees. These huge frames are slowly being enveloped by vines and crawlers, to create the effect, presumably complete in a few years, of fully organic, though inherently man-made, trees. They’ll look amazing when finished.
There are also two dome structures here, one a very nice flower garden, the other a kind of indoor mountain, complete with waterfall and canopy walkways. Yes, it’s all nurtured nature, as opposed to the glorious chaos of the wild, but it’s still impressive.
You can also find to the north the Chinese & Japanese Gardens, where kingfishers buzz around a wide river, with stunning pagodas and picturesque bridges making stunning mirror images in the water.
Further west is the Botanical Gardens, where you can feed the turtles and koi, or walk through the only rainforest in Singapore.
They’re big on their open green spaces, which is commendable. And each one is as stunning as the next.
Singapore has its fair share of bonkers though. Haw Par Villa springs to mind. It’s a themed park, built by the creators of Tiger Balm in the 1930s to teach children Chinese folk lore.
Thing is, Chinese folk lore is like Alice in Wonderland on acid. There’s a half-human-half-bird family having a domestic, an old woman breastfeeding from a younger lady, toad men stabbing each other with spears and, perhaps my favourite, there’s a badger with a gun.
The park is best known for its Ten Courts of Hell, a series of dioramas depicting the terrible judgements inflicted upon the wicked and cruel. Punishments range from drowning in blood to being ground to a pulp by a large boulder, or having your head sawn in half. There’s also an iron tree of pain, the spiky branches of which piercing the bellies of those who caused discord between families – was this the inspiration for Dan Simmons’ Tree of Pain in Hyperion?
We sampled some excellent Chinese food down at Chinatown, the day before Chinese New Year, which was lucky because the following day it was deserted. The Chinese spend their New Year with their families, and most Chinese shops and restaurants had been shut for several days.
Round the corner from Chinatown is Club Street, which is lined with bohemian bars catering to the expat community. It’s nice there, if pricey. The alternative is the tourist pubs a five minute walk away down by the river, which bump the prices up presumably for the view. Prices for the cheapest pint can be an eye-watering £6 there.
Cross the river and you’ll be in the old colonial quarter, which is pretty, though under renovations (getting bored of renovations now). The Asian Civilisations Museum is here, proudly exhibiting the 12 replica Chinese zodiac heads Jackie Chan used in his film CZ12, donated by the world’s greatest superstar. But if that’s not enough, there’s also an excellent range of sculptures, weaponry, pottery and ancient scriptures on display.
From the colonial quarter it’s a short walk to the old Raffles Hotel – an obligatory visit for the country’s most famous export, the Singapore Sling. The cocktail was absolutely delicious, but it’s the hotel itself that really provides the magic.
Raffle’s itself is a 19th century 5-star hotel, now a high-end shopping arcade with restaurants and designer brand outlets. Walk into the Long Bar, with its dark-stained wood bar and tiled floor, and with a little imagination you can see Ernest Hemingway propping up the bar, rather than the tourists in loud shirts and flip-flops.
Bunch of nut cases
Apart from the Singapore Sling, the bar is also known for being a sodding mess. Guests help themselves to monkey nuts on the tables and are invited to brush the shells onto the floor, rather than have staff clean them up. There’s nut detritus everywhere, as you crunch, crunch, crunch over to your table.
We really enjoyed Singapore. The metro is cheap, quick and cleaner than a hospital (no eating or drinking on the tube – even water), and it drops you at the doorstep of everything you’d like to see. The mixture of cultures made for great cuisine variety, as it had in Malaysia, and we were thoroughly looked after by a truly lovely pair – to whom we send our thanks!
Next stop, Cambodia’s capital city, the notoriously difficult to pronounce Phnom Penh – and a wildly different experience, to say the least.
More fun with the microscope mode
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