I have written before about a visit to China. I was able to stay with an English friend who was working in Beijing at the time. That same friend changed jobs a year later, and moved to Singapore. The chance to catch up with him again and to see the country of Singapore was too good to miss, so I arranged to go and see him in the September of 2001, this time taking Julie along too. We would be able to stay in his luxury apartment for the first week, but the arrival of family members meant that we would have to make our own arrangements for the latter part of our stay. At least we would have him and his wife and son to show us around for a few days, to get our bearings, and get used to the place.
After a long flight, involving a change in Dubai, we arrived tired but exited, late in the evening. The first thing we noticed as we left the terminal, was the oppressive heat and humidity. It was like walking around wrapped in a damp electric blanket that was still switched on. He collected us from the airport, and showed us some of the sights as we drove to the desirable residential district of Bukit Timah Road, where they lived. First impressions were of a very clean and modern city, well laid out, and pleasing to the eye. Arriving at their smart apartment, we said our hellos to his wife and son, had something to eat, and clicked on the air conditioning in the room where we were to sleep.
Sitting on the balcony later, enjoying a drink and getting used to the almost constant 33-degree heat, it was apparent just how lush and exotic this place seemed. A far cry from the congested streets around our home in Camden Town. It felt every bit as if it was going to be worth the long journey to get there, and the expensive flights. My knowledge of Singapore was based mostly on stories from WW2, and National Service. My father had visited there during his army service in 1940, and my uncle had been stationed there for almost two years after the war. He had told me to make sure to see the Tiger Balm Gardens, and Raffles Hotel. But it had been more than fifty years since he had seen the place, and it had changed a great deal in the meantime.
We were soon out and about, and exploring. Despite the unfamiliar ever-present heat, we made good use of the easy-to-find and reasonably-priced taxis. One thing that was immediately apparent was that the traveller feels very safe in that country. Taxi drivers were smart and respectful, and never tried to rip us off. Walking around the centre felt completely safe, day or night, and English was widely spoken of course. Some people are critical of the government in that country, for their harsh laws and punishments. I won’t comment on that here, as this a travel post, but this may well be reflected in the feeling of ease, as you wander about.
Singapore is a city of shops. Huge modern malls, countless gadget, phone, and electrical retailers. Luxury goods, expensive jewellery, and familiar fashion names line the busy streets of the centre. Away from these main streets, distinct areas are obvious. There is an Indian district, a Chinese area, and the Old Colonial part of town. All of these have their own ethnic style, offering craft shops, restaurants, and local goods too. Some criticise this, for having a contrived, almost Disneyland feel. I understand what they mean, but it never bothered us in the least. Alongside the Singapore River, places like Clarke Quay offer restaurants of all types, including some that are floating, and many with outstanding views of the city skyline.
We took a day trip to Sentosa Island, and were glad we did. This can be accessed via a bridge, but we decided to take the cable car across, and enjoy the views from up high. A taxi took us to the cable-car station, and we got our tickets. We had never been in such a high cable-car before, and were suitably excited. The cars were very small, and only four passengers were crammed into ours. Halfway across, the ships navigating below looked like toys from our viewpoint, and I was clicking away with my camera feverishly. Moving to get a side view, I inadvertently hit the emergency button by my knee, and everything stopped. At first, I was unaware of what I had done, and we were all concerned, imagining our car would plummet into the sea far below. Then a voice came over a speaker inside, asking what the emergency was, and I blushed as I realised my error. Once they were sure that everything was fine, we set off again, and I sat shamefaced in my corner, being careful where I placed my knees!
Sentosa Island has a butterfly park, a dolphin park, and many other attractions, some of which only opened long after our visit. We did go to the dolphin lagoon, where visitors can interact with the famous pink dolphins in shallow water. There are various hotels and theme parks too, but we were looking for peace and quiet along the secluded beaches. At the southern tip of the island, we found a beach bar that was near a sign stating ‘The southernmost tip of Asia’. We sat and enjoyed a Singapore Sling cocktail, watching the sun set over this idyllic place. The trip back was by taxi from the bridge. We had to wait awhile until an enterprising taxi driver ventured across, to see if anyone was waiting.
Another outing was to the famous Singapore Zoo. On the way in from the airport, my friend had pointed out some enormous concrete storm drains. We thought that they looked ugly, but he assured us that they were necessary. That day at the zoo, we discovered why. The zoo is one of the nicest I have ever visited, with lush gardens, and sympathetic housing for the numerous animals exhibited. At the zoo, Julie managed to achieve two of her long-held wishes. She had her photo taken with a mother and baby orangutan, and rode on an elephant, sitting behind the mahout. Both of these somewhat dubious commercial enterprises help raise money for the zoo, and the animals concerned were treated with great respect. Walking in the gardens, we noticed a few raindrops begin to fall. Seconds later, it was if a ton of water had fallen on us, and we were both completely soaked to the skin. We ran into a nearby cafe to escape the deluge, which lasted only a couple of minutes. Soon after, we noticed the water had all but gone, and our clothes soon dried in the heat. Our first experience of the sort of monsoon shower we soon got used to.
A trip to the famous Raffles Hotel was a must for me. Both my father and my uncle often spoke of this colonial oasis away from the heat of the city, with its cooling gardens, and world-famous bars. So we got a taxi there one afternoon, determined to have one of the famous Singapore Sling cocktails in the place where the drink originated. It is still a very grand (and expensive) hotel, modernised to a five-star standard, but retaining the classic look of its colonial past. It also still enforces the 1930s dress code, so as I was wearing shorts, I wasn’t allowed inside to see the bars. We had to be content with enjoying our drink in the outdoor courtyard, but it was still a great experience. We also visited the Tiger Balm gardens, another place talked about by my father, and others who had served in the armed forces. In Singapore, these are now known as Haw Par Villa, and when we visited were a shadow of their former glory. The statues and dioramas showing historical Chinese events were shabby and badly-kept, and the cages that once held zoo animals were empty and rusty. Despite this, I did enjoy the nostalgia of walking in the footsteps of my male relatives.
Other memories of the trip include eating some fantastic food, the best Thai and Chinese food I have ever eaten. We were also taken to one of the beaches in the city by my friends. Rows of food vendors operate along the beach, using oil drums as outdoor barbecues. We ate delicious chicken satay cooked a few inches away, as we sat enjoying the sea views. After eight days, we had to decide what to do. My friends in-laws were coming to stay at his flat, so Julie and I had to move on. We decided to book into the Grand Copthorne Hotel overlooking the Singapore River, and got a very favourable rate online. We also arranged to visit Malaysia, with a two-day trip to Kulala Lumpur.
But that is another post in this series.