Thursday, March 31, 2011

Singapore & Thailand

The Singapore River

Wednesday, Singapore

This is not my first trip to Southeast Asia, but I’m in Singapore for the first time. It’s clean, it’s new, it’s prosperous, where’s the graffiti, the touts, the chaos, and the skinny dogs?  Wow… Drivers are actually stopping at traffic lights. Where are the numerous noisy motor scooters with families of four on top, or live chickens, or dead chickens? I can actually cross a street and not risk get killed. Am I in Southeast Asia? I am... But a Southeast Asia without all the dangerous stuff, a sanitized version, leaving behind only the good parts; the energy, the air filled with spices, the eye-candy temples, delicious unfamiliar food, and colorful markets where haggling is an art.

Singapore is also a wealthy place, banks are everywhere, and you can just feel the money moving. It’s in the air (along with the spices). Singapore’s GDP is high and the locals seem to like it that way. From the “Fountain of Wealth” to the muscular Singapore Dollar, this place is prosperous and classy. New buildings are springing up like the crash of 2008 never happened. First impression, I like this place.

It was raining and cold when we left the west coast of the United States, just a mere 20 hours earlier, most of that time spent stuffed into a metal tube, economy up close and personal. We have come half way around the world. I was slightly disappointed by the service on my first Singapore Airlines flight. I expected more from the “fly Me, Singapore girl” airline. We normally fly the much cheaper China Airlines to Asia, which has one star less for safety and maintenance. The only noticeable difference to a passenger, between the airlines, is the plane is newer and the ticket was pricier by $400.00.

We landed at Changi airport, where Mabel Tan a chubby jovial middle aged tourist services employee gives us the lowdown on all things Singapore, then promptly has me fill out the questionnaire recommending her customer service abilities. We took the airport shuttle to our hotel in the Clarke Quay entertainment area. The road from the airport to central Singapore is lined with Royal Palms reminding me of Florida on a good day. The roads are slow moving, orderly and not particularly crowded for a major city. Sane driving is something I’m not used to in the Far East, here drivers routinely play chicken on bad roads with blind curves. I got the feeling Singapore drivers were goose-stepping because fines would hurt.

Old Shophouses in Little India
We dump our bags and headed out to see what was around our hotel. Flowing right outside the hotel is the Singapore River, containing shady walking paths along each bank, with an assortment of bridges, crossing at the main intersections. We take the path on our side of the river, first coming to Clark Quay, a riverside mall of bars, restaurants and nightclubs aimed at the younger locals. We stop at the local metro station and picked up a couple of transit passes. After a long walk and few beers at a pub, with tables along the river, we decide to hit our hotel and get some sleep. The 20-hour trip has taken its toll.

Thursday, Singapore

After getting 12 hours sleep we were new people. Today we are going to take the hop-on-hop off bus to get the overview of this place. Since we flew Singapore Airlines we get this for half price if we present our boarding passes. Our first stop was the Botanic Gardens (peaceful), then the Orchard road shopping area (a frenzy of shopping) and on to Little India where we decided to have lunch. The Banana Leaf Apollo Restaurant has the most authentic Indian food I have ever tasted, all served on big banana leaves, locals were eating with their hands (right hand only, left hand, bathroom), tourists like us used forks. After lunch, we explored Little India, checking out the huge hawker center at the Tekka Mall. I admit being overwhelmed by the many stalls selling delicious-looking odd foods– hygiene maybe not so good.

That evening we took a cab to the Betel Box Hostel in Gaylang where we meet owner Tony Tan our tour guide for what we thought was just going to be just a food tour of the local cuisine. Our cab driver told us he rarely took any tourists to this area, which was just an eastern neighborhood out near the airport. The Betal Box Hostel was located in an old Chinese shop house in the Singapore equivalent of a middle class area. The 19th century shop houses, common to this area, are buildings with a store on the bottom and a residence for the family upstairs. These charming utilitarian buildings, now regarded as cool, but getting urban renewed fast are getting rare, usually go for 1.2 million we are told. The Betel Box main room is decorated like a movie set from a film about scruffy kids traveling in Southeast Asia. The low ceiling main room had a kitchen with the messy remains of breakfast, computers and cell phones strewn everywhere. They had a pretty good library of well-worn books on Singapore and the lone TV was playing a CD of “sound of Music”

Strange fruit on the food Tour

Tony Tan, also the owner of the hostel, met us at the top of the stairs, offering a cold beer. There were 19 people waiting, most of them hostel guests all under 25 years old, with the exception of one 40-year-old couple from Melbourne we were the grandparents of the group. Tony, a 40-year-old Singaporean, started the walk by asking us to introduce ourselves, give our country of origin, what we liked to eat and what animal we would be if we could… well… be an animal. There were young people from Bermuda, Romania, 2 girls from Russia, 2 boys from Holland, a few Britt’s and Aussies, with Mike and I solely representing the USA. The animals ranged from Jellyfish to Tuna. We had a few vegetarians and one person allergic to peanuts.

We started our walking tour at 6:30PM on Joo Chiat Street, stopping at a Muslim bakery, where we sampled sweet cookies. Then we headed to the top of a 20-story apartment block for a view of the setting sun over Singapore. The building reminded me of the many project apartments in the Bronx, where I grew up, minus the graffiti and the danger. Tony explained that 85% of modern Singaporeans’ lived in these government-built concrete apartment blocks. The average price of a 2-bedroom apartment being 250.000 Sing dollars, families getting first preference. We were able to get a good view of life by snooping in the doors and windows. The apartments looked drab by American standards, but everyone had flat screen TVs and nice furnishings. Chinese New Year decorations were in evidence.

Singapore's animal mascot, the Merli
Next we hit a local fruit stand, sampling strange and familiar fruits, then on to a sweetshop with unusual jellied things (good, not great) and then a dinner at a local Restaurant, where we ate till bursting. An amazing chili crab dominated with some awesome porkalicious sausages, fish curry and special Chinese New year noodles. We posed for pictures and rolled out for our briefing on modern Singaporean life. As we walked Tony took us from A to Z on life in Singapore, (very unexpected). The whole country is only 50 miles wide and 30 miles deep, or was it kilometers, which would make it even smaller. Everyone has national identity cards that serve as a social security card of sorts. This same national identity number applies to everything such as bank accounts, buying property and drivers licenses.

Walking the neighborhood we saw Singaporeans practicing the New Year’s Lion Dance (very cool) and burning New Year’s offerings in metal buckets provided for just this purpose. At around 1:00 in the morning we all went back to the Betal Box Hostel, where Tony kindly offered to drive us back to the hotel, since the MRT stops running at midnight and cabs charge double for fares at night. Mike and Tony had a few beers and got into discussing finances and politics. We finally hit the road by 2:00 AM. On the way I happened to mention I wanted to taste the notoriously stinky Durian fruit, so we detoured to the Durian store, which I was surprised to find still going strong at 2:15 in the morning. As we approached the Durians I began to smell something that resembled unwashed feet. Tony bought us one and the shopkeeper hacked it open. Even though it smelled bad, it tasted good, kind of like weird sweet custard. We completed our trip with a ride through Singapore’s Red Light District. So much for the sterile goodie two shoes images of Singapore.

Durians smell like unwashed feet, but they don't taste bad

Friday, Singapore

After sleeping late we headed to the Singapore Botanic Gardens to see the worlds largest Orchid garden, which we had missed the day before. I’ve never seen so many types of orchids in my life, all meticulously maintained. There was also a ginger garden, a rainforest walk and a cold house with carnivorous plants (fun and cool). On our way back from the gardens we stopped on Orchid road, the main shopping Mecca of Singapore, did a little exploring and had a late lunch at Food Republic, a mall food court, there we discovered no napkins were ever supplied. The food was delicious but messy. One of the table cleaners took pity and gave us 2 tiny tissues. We headed back to the hotel early and faded fast from our adventures with Tony Tan the previous night. Our late night carousing just prolonged the jet lag

Saturday, Sentosa Island, Singapore

Since it was Saturday we decided to see what Singaporeans do on their weekends and headed to Sentosa Island, Singapore’s recreation island. We took the metro to the massive Envivo shopping complex, the jumping off spot for the trams to Sentosa. Since we had no clue where to go on Sentosa we just went to the last of the 3 stops, the beaches. These white-sand gems were all man made and very sedate, with man made islands offshore to break the current, (can‘t be too safe).  There was an artificial wave ride for would be surfers, bungee jumping and a zip line, all going strong. There were 2 beach areas, Siloso and Palawan, each with a bunch of beachfront watering holes, a marine animal aquarium and a historic WW2 fort. Palawan beach had a swinging bridge to a tiny manmade island, billed as the southern most point in continental Asia with observation towers.

The safe beaches of Sentosa Island
We had lunch at a credible hawker center and took the monorail to back to next stop Imbalah overlook. At this stop was the massive merlion tower, (Singapore‘s mythical animal mascot). Why they call this the Lion City and no Lions are native to Singapore is a mystery. Then we walked a beautifully landscaped path down to the carrot colonnade containing rows of giant fake carrots the size of building columns. This odd display was created in honor of the year of the rabbit. Since I hate carrots more than any other food, we had a good time sending Iphone videos back to our friends in the states. We took the escalator up to the lookout itself, had coffee and enjoyed the view of the skyline.

The next stop on the monorail yielded a huge Las Vegas like casino, complete with emporiums of shopping, eating and drinking including an Irish Bar. A giant Universal studio theme park completed the program. After being on our feet since 9 in the morning, and it was now dinnertime, we decided to head back to our hotel happy hour. So ended our Saturday.

Sunday, The CBD Singapore
Raffles Hotel, home of the Singapore Sling
Today was our last full day in Singapore and we hadn’t yet been to the colonial district so we boarded the MRT after breakfast and headed downtown. We walked past the theaters the locals call “The Durians” after their spiny round shape. We passed the famous original MerLion statue, and then headed to Raffles hotel, home of the famous Singapore Sling (really overpriced). This elegant hotel has been around since the British made this a colony. Made of white Marble and Teak wood, which seemed to represent all that is over-the-top old money. Looking at all that genteel wealth made us hungry so we headed over to the decidedly less highbrow VivoCity Complex to look for another one of Singapore’s food Hawker centers, where we tried Laska, a curry coconut soup that was not for the faint-hearted chili head. Once again no napkins were supplied, this time I was ready, like everyone else with my own supply.

It was now getting seriously hot so an air-conditioned museum seemed like a good idea. The huge Asian Civilizations museum located in the old Parliament building filled the bill. After learning a bunch of history you don’t learn growing up in the west and seeing some beautiful art, it was beer-thirty. Time to head for home and pack up. We are leaving for Southern Thailand tomorrow.

More to come.... Stayed tuned.