As a certified ‘virgin visitor’ to Singapore, I had no preconceived ideas about the so-called ‘Lion City’ (aside from the rather titillating fact that ‘Singapore Slings’ would no doubt be a feature on the local cocktail menu)!
Given Singapore lies within the heart of Asia and 75 per cent of its population is Chinese, admittedly I expected it would possess a touch of the orient (naturally infused with the west, given its colonial roots) so I was a little taken aback when my first encounter with the island had me immersed in a bubble of extreme ‘westernisation’ (at least at face value anyway).
(I am also sure this perspective is clearly shaped by my frenetic four years spent amongst a culture of chopsticks, chicken feet and years of playing charades with non-english speaking taxi drivers in the mighty metropolis of Hong Kong!)
After a four hour (slightly chaotic short-haul toddler tortured) flight south west of the Fragrant Harbour – I could almost fool myself into thinking I’d landed under the great ‘blazing’ southern sky DownUnder. (Yes! That’s Australia!)
I’m told 30 years ago, stepping onto the tarmac in Singapore I would have been met with a vastly different and definitely more oriental feel.
Obviously the country’s modern-day aesthetics play a huge part in this initial face to face meeting, but it had me reflecting back to my first rendezvous with Hong Kong almost four years ago. I realised just how foreign the ‘Fragrant Harbour’ really can be to an outsider from the West, with its eye opening and omnipresent Chinese influence… and of course how naturally ingrained it is in my psyche today (I think they call that acclimatization)! 😉
Stepping out of a very English feeling Changi Airport – perhaps that’s what threw me at first….the fact that all of the signs were in plain English only. Ignorantly, being in Asia, I had expected that much like its counterparts, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Manila, Vietnam and Taiwan, there would be a second, native language on display. A little research and I find out that more than 20 languages are still spoken in Singapore. (Malay, Chinese, Tamil Indian and English are the four official languages.)
From there it was into a reasonably modern taxi (not so common in previous Asian cities I’ve encountered) where we cruised ever so calmly along a wide, spacious freeway (at a pace that wasn’t verging on something out of ‘Mad Max’ – again a rarity in most chaotic Asian streets I’ve had the pleasure of ‘cruising’). Leafy green trees boldly lined streets, in some places over-hanging the road resembling a lush tropical rain forest. Skies were bright, fresh powder blue with those puffy, cotton wool clouds that seem to sit ever so still above you.
We emerged into a heat that was bordering on unbearable until a slight breeze wafted through for that perfect summery feel, but mostly it was bordering on oppressively hot! (I’m used to Hong Kong’s intense humidity by now, but here…it felt like a double whammy – the harsh sunlight of Australia coupled with Hong Kong’s summer sauna-like heat.)
Reaching our hotel in the city – shiny, sleek high rises were the order of the day…. but unlike Hong Kong, these weren’t the skyscrapers I’ve become akin to (butted together like dominoes straddling the city for an eternity). Nothing much stood higher than 50 odd floors, which to me, means a relatively mellow ‘low rise’ city. (I know! Like I said, my immersion in the skyscraper capital has given me a unique perspective on the definition of a bona fide “busy city!”)
What it was though, was ‘futuristic’ in style. Perhaps a little Dubai-esque? Buildings that were designed with more than practicality in mind, these babies were impressive works of art, sleek structures that defied the modern day oblong of ordinariness and made for impressive observation.
The Westin Hotel still in its infancy at six months old was the epitome of suave sophistication. With a view out to Marina Bay, I was immediately conflicted by the scene. The colors before me had me in Sydney looking out across the harbour, while the seemingly infinite number of containers stacked on top of each other, flanked by untold container ships in the background had me back in Kowloon. In the spirit of delivering a few facts, the port is the world’s busiest port in terms of shipping tonnage handled!
Whenever I take these short trips I always feel spoilt for choice and utterly torn between being the intrepid adventurer wanting to explore a new city and the relaxed tourist wanting to do as little as possible (somebody bring me a cocktail ploise!)
So with my travelling heart in two minds…we tried as best we could to do a bit of both, with limited time at our disposal (not to mention a very unpredictable small person in tow)!
Day One: We did the obvious things expected of any tourist in the Lion City.(For the record, the term ‘Lion City’ is derived from the Malay word Singapura but it’s thought lions never actually lived on the island, and the beast that founded and named Singapore, was indeed a tiger.) Go figure!
Wild cats aside, our first stop – the MRT to the famous Orchard Road (NB: Just like Hong Kong, the train system is a dream) don’t ask me why, but I expected to (rather naively) find an oriental stretch laid out before me, revealing old Singapore in all its glory, but instead, what I got was quite the opposite.
Beautiful? Yes! Quaint? No! With its green foliage painting a picturesque scene along the stretch, before me was a modern day shopper’s paradise (which I am, by no means, complaining about!) revealing a glossy portfolio of shops all in one easy, accessible spot!!
With a scorching heat that threatened to turn us into crisps in a matter of minutes, we wandered in and out of the air-conditioned havens eyeing up the goods. (Well, I did anyway)…and naturally this sweaty stroll called for an ice-block pit stop! Like Hong Kong’s summer, you can’t stay out for long or you’ll melt into the pavement.
Later that night we made our way to Marina Bay Sands. If Victoria Beckham was strutting her stuff in this super slick spot (actually the world’s most expensive building) then you can bet I was going to get in on the action too! (Thanks for the heads-up Instagram!)
Arriving, we were met with another massive shiny shopping centre (also more glamorously known as ‘The Shoppes’) again filled with a plethora of dreamy designer goods on display, really not at all unlike Hong Kong’s label-crazy retail nirvana, not to mention Macau-like casinos, a luxury hotel and giant convention centre.
The atmosphere was buzzing inside, and little did we know outside as well! Disappointed to find the famous Marina Bay Sands roof-top ‘vanishing edge’ pool was only open to hotel guests, (sorry VB, next time we can swap fashion tips over a Singapore Sling) we ate inside in one of the French bistros with cosmos and burgers (how can you go wrong?) before wandering outside and discovering what was nothing short of a giant Darling Harbour. Hello Sydney! Bustling with buskers, night owls and a plethora of al fresco dining establishments, it was entertaining and a little bit electric.
OK so by now I was starting to get what Singapore was about. Clean, sophisticated and oh so shiny… but the journo/blogger in me was craving a bit of Singapore’s underbelly.
With a few places on the agenda, we had to choose between Chinatown and it’s famous Food Street, Arab Quarter and Little India. We figured as cool as Chinatown may be, coming from Hong Kong, we can see hawkers selling fish balls and waving-cat souvenirs anytime….so after um-ing and ahh-ing and a bit of inside knowledge, we ended up in Little India.
I’ve yet to have the pleasure of visiting India, so perhaps this was a little taste? Originally a former settlement for Tamil convicts, its location along the Serangoon River originally made it an attractive spot for raising cattle and trading in livestock.
Today, it’s heaving with local Tamils and Little India, also known as Tekka, is clearly the place to gather for Saturday shopping,socialising and much eating! Horns rang out, bicycle bells were chiming and crossing the road was clearly a case of “in Little India, do as in Big India”- i.e. walk out in front of fast oncoming cars with a mere flick of the wrist to let them know to stop.
Not something I was game to attempt!
A vibrant and chaotic mix of shops and stalls selling cheap and cheerful Indian jewels, trinkets, textiles and homewares fringed the streets; Bollywood music was blasting out of old fashioned record stores; and flower vendors, spices and hawkers were selling authentic Indian food hide down side streets and alleyways.
Let’s just say, even as a ‘Gweilo’ – often more conspicuous than I’d care for in HK, this place was a little intimidating for us ‘whiteys’ who stood out like sore thumbs amongst the masses lingering in the streets. Undeterred though, we made like locals and squeezed single file down narrow footpaths, observing and photographing the mildly overwhelming scene.
We ended up inside 24 hour retail hub Mustafa! I reckon you could just about find anything you wanted in here! Shelves upon shelves overflowing with pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, clothes and electronics. The mind was well and truly boggled!
The intense heat adding to the authentic ‘Indian’ experience, but eventually bringing our adventure to a raging halt.
Safe to say I’d had the adventure side of me satisfied, and like all good tourists, we hightailed it in an air conditioned cab to Sentosa! Hello paradise! An island literally a stone’s throw from the city – once you cross through the tolls, you are in another world. A little island paradise.
A British Military Fortress in World War Two, today it’s tagged ‘Asia’s Favourite Playground’ and there’s definitely no shortage of attractions, including Universal Studios, the world’s biggest aquarium, stunning beaches, bars, restaurants and several hotels!
As we drove through, I felt like I’d left the big smoke of Sydney and headed north to Queensland’s Gold Coast…namely Sanctuary Cove (complete with ride-on buggies)!
Rolling out of the heat and into the W, had me at hello. The familiar quirky, funky and fun atmosphere taking me back to Hong Kong and as the W Hotelier’s wife, our home away from home. This though was an idyllic resort and that meant we got to sit back, relax and rejuvenate. Heaven!
Sipping my first Singapore Sling was nothing less than sublime to say the least!
But it was definitely a case of so little time, so much to see!
So, have you been to Singapore? What were your first impressions? Great holiday spot but am I a delirious expat who’s spent far too long in China to see this city for what it really is?
Shoot me a comment…. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
PS… Thanks to being a part of the passionate and friendly blogging-world along with the vibrant and helpful Twitter community, I was met with some amazingly helpful Singapore residents online. If you’re heading to Singapore anytime soon and want a more detailed (dare I say it ‘expert’ opinion) on the island city….check out the following blogs Expat Kiwi: Singapore and Beyond, A British Girl in Bangkok (and Singas) and My Life in Sin