Four days in Singapore: needed a stopover en route to Europe because I can’t do the long haul thing anymore. What was I expecting? A modern Asian city. What was I hoping for? Glimpses of the past where merchant sailors picked up tattoos, among other things, to remind them of places where nice people dared not go. Of course, nowadays tattoos are a fashion statement for any one who can afford them and signify nothing. Is old Singapore is as dead as those long-forgotten merchant sailors? I was about to find out.
I stayed in Chinatown, at the Naumi Liora Hotel, which according to my chatty taxi driver, used to be brothel. Okay, now you’re talking! Nice place, comfortable, wifi, 24-hour reception and all that. One drawback: no window in my loft room and I felt entombed. Next time I stay, and I will if I return to Singapore, I’ll make sure I book a room with a window.
Singapore on foot and by train
Yes, Chinatown bursts with tourists, but the food is cheap and there are train stations close by. I love the trains in Singapore, they hardly cost anything and take you everywhere. On arriving, I took a taxi from the airport: $38 Singapore dollars — on departing I took the train: $2.40.
From Chinatown, I walked to Little India — it was steamy but I like to walk, best way to get my bearings. Surreal buildings started popping up in front of me, the most amazing of which looks like three skyscrapers upon which a boat from a Bond film has landed: the Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino. Apparently, there is an infinity pool right at the top. Didn’t go in though, it was enough to stare at the impossible structure.
On my walk, I found Bugis Street, where my sailors would’ve got their tatts. Now there’s a shopping mall — I bought a pair of shoes.
Gardens are a big deal in Singapore — from Gardens by the Bay with Supertrees which light up at night and do show tunes, to walkways that take you through greenery and across busy streets. My favourite: the ‘umbrella trees’ in Little India, a sculpture which is a plea for more green spaces.
Singapore is one of those ‘crossroad places’ where civilizations mingled and sometimes clashed. Two examples illustrate this: the Tang Shipwreck exhibit at the Asian Civilisations Museum and Fort Siloso, site of the British forces’ desperate last stand and subsequent surrender when the Japanese overran Singapore in World War II.
The former features pottery and other trading items dating back to the year 700 — give or take — thought to have been bound for the Middle East from China.
The latter is an illustration of British hubris for which thousands paid dearly, and sowed the seeds of nationalism. Situated at the end of Sentosa Island, you traverse expensive, and very modern Disneyworld/Adventureworld type fun for the kids before you come to the austere and moving depiction of one of the biggest Allied disasters of World War II.
Singapore on a plate
Due to the layering of cultures, you can eat almost anything with a face — pork, duck, mud crabs. Being a vegetarian might have been tricky if not for the profusion of Indian cuisine.
I did the overpriced tourist thing and had a drink at Raffles — a Pimm’s Cup, not a sickly Singapore Sling — the mint, strawberry, and cucumber were extremely refreshing.
Love at first taste for traditional coffee, or kopi, sort of like a long version of Greek coffee. Not sure I’d ever take to the lukewarm, runny egg and toast with sweet coconut butter — kaya toast — which is a traditional breakfast treat. Best places for kopi are Ya Kun Kaya Toast in China Street and Killiney Kopitiam in Killiney Road.
My absolute favourite thing was visiting Mr Lim Foot Reflexology where, for thirty glorious minutes, my feet were pinched, prodded, whacked and praised as sturdy and strong. I loved it, although I did understand why some in the row of seats next to me grimaced and shrieked. Not for the fainthearted or anyone with ticklish feet.
Being alone with the artworks at Gillman Barracks came a close second to Mr Lim. Particularly the paintings of Massimo Giannoni which depict libraries, the New York Stock Exchange and Singapore’s skyline.
Singapore said and done
Singapore manages to be well-organised, well-behaved, noisy and chaotic all at the same time. The exoticism is almost overwhelmed by world-beating infrastructure and show-stopping architecture, but it’s still there. A local told me there was ‘nothing to do’, I found plenty.
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