Singapore

Trip Start Dec 05, 2005
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Thursday, February 8, 2007

We arrived into Singapore early, collected our bags within 2 minutes, strolled straight through passport and customs and jumped into an awaiting taxi. Just a taste of how efficient and accommodating the Singapore lifestyle could be.
 
 
We checked into our hostel, 1 Florence Close, located in the northern suburbs of Singapore. The staff were very friendly, loading us with maps and information even as we checked in at almost midnight. The hostel was very clean, with narrow hallway (PIC) and tiny rooms, typical of Singapore living. Luckily, we were 'upgraded' to a family room - which basically meant that the room was about 3 times the size with an extra set of beds and a much bigger television (PIC). All the rooms also have air-con and best of all - free broadband and wireless Internet! The downside was that the room was joined to the kitchen/lounge area so we could hear any goings on outside our door.
 
The hostel has one more very unique feature, two gorgeous Persian cats, Romeo and Pepper (PIC) who hung around the kitchen and lounge area until we let them into our room for some attention.
 
 
On our first morning in Singapore we strolled down the main road outside our hostel to the nearby food market in an attempt to find something for breakfast. Unfortunately there was nothing we fancied, as it was all Chinese and Malay savoury food - not your usual breakfast stuff! As much as we wanted to try lots of local cuisine, our palates couldn't quite take the intense flavours at that time in the morning.
 
We took the MRT (Mass Rapid Transport) system into the city centre. The MRT is a super fast, cheap and efficient underground train network that runs throughout the major parts of Singapore, connecting to the LRT (Light) system to reach the outer regions. Our hostel was near to the Kovan station, about 10 minutes north of the centre, this was a fair bit further out of the centre than we thought but the MRT made short work of the commute.
 
Arriving into the city we walked down Orchard Road (the main shopping street) and found the large tourist information centre halfway along. Picking up a stack of leaflets we continued along Orchard Road, taking in the masses of street decorations (PIC) to celebrate the Chinese New Year, which begins the day after we leave Singapore. The new year is the 'Year of the Pig' (PIG) and the celebrations for the new year last a total of 6 weeks throughout January and February, culminating in a massive festival, street parade and fireworks on New Years Eve.
 
 
Beyond Orchard Road, towards the harbour area of the city lies Suntec City mall, a huge complex of shops, restaurants and five huge office blocks covering over 2km2. The complex has several attractive features to brighten up the clinical concrete jungle, including a tranquil Koi pool (PIC) and the incredible 'Fountain of Wealth'. The fountain is actually the largest in the world and stands prominently in the centre of the 5 office blocks, churning out millions of gallons of water when in impressive full flow (PICS). At other times it is a much smaller fountain in the centre where visitors can make a wish while placing their right hand in the water and walking clockwise around the fountain three times.
 
We stopped at a chinese restaurant within the Suntec centre and used a bit of pot luck in selecting our lunch. Most of it was very tasty and the rest Andrew ate anyway! We then headed out of Suntec and along the esplanade to the 'Theatres on the Bay' (PICS), a modern development on the waterfront posing as Singapores answer to the Sydney Opera House. The architecture of the theatre is as dramatic as its Australian equivalent, with a 'spiky' exterior shell. The locals refer to it as 'the Durian', for its likeness to the Asian fruit delicacy.
 
 
Just along the esplanade, across the Singapore River we arrived at Merlion Park. The Merlion is a mythical creature said to have been dreamt up by the founding father of Singapore. Legend has it that a Sumatran prince, the son of Alexander the great, discovered an island when out sailing the oceans. Upon landing on the island the prince was confronted by a ferocious lion (actually more likely to be a tiger as lions have never inhabited the region). By showing respect to the lion he survived to see another day. The lion, combined with the marine nature of the island, inspired the Merlion - a creature with the head of a lion and the body of a fish. In fact, the name Singapore actually comes from the name Singapura meaning 'Lion City'.
 
A statue of the Merlion is based in Merlion Park, facing out to sea with its back to the city skyline, spewing out a massive stream of water (PICS), we also found an "Andylion" doing something similar! (PIC).
 
 
The Singapore River was, of course, originally used as a major form of transportation for goods in and out of the city. As road, rail and air routes became more efficient the river became less useful and now serves a much different purpose. The river is flanked on both sides by hotels and hoards of international restaurants, with the only boats running up and down the water now carrying tourists (PIC), they're also known as 'bumboats'.
 
Along the river are also a number of sculptures, entitled 'People of the River'. The sculptures depict the various residents and lifestyles of the people of Singapore throughout history. Traders, workers and children are among the figures that are cast in bronze and dotted along the riverbank (PICS). Our favourite was the group of kids pushing each other into the river, because of its playful character and original design.
 
 
The architecture throughout the city centre, and along the river in particular, is spectacular. Simple, angular lines and a juxtaposition of old and modern create a plethora of amazing snapshots (PICS).
 
 
Leaving the river we headed into Chinatown, a district of Singapore that was awash with colour in preparation for the New Year celebrations. Streets were laden with market stalls, open around the clock and packed with locals and tourists alike. We planned to take a walking tour around Chinatown later in the week so spent little time in the area at first. We did however take time to appreciate the intricate and vibrant stonework adorning the Sri Mariamman Temple, one of the biggest Hindu temples in Singapore (PIC).
 
 
Back at our hostel we decided to try a sample of the infamous Durian. The durian is a fruit with a spiky outer skin (reminiscent of the theatre design) and a number of large seeds inside. It can grow up to 40 inches plus in length and weight several kilos. Surrounding the seeds is a creamy flesh, closely resembling custard, but the most notable feature of the durian is the smell. Despite its great local popularity, the raw fruit is forbidden from some establishments such as hotels, subways and airports, including public transportation in Southeast Asia.  The following quote we found on the Internet describes very accurately what you can expect from the fascinating fruit:
 
"its odor is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It can be smelt  from yards away."
 
From this description you can probably see why we just had to try it!!! Andrew took the first cautious bite and from the look on his face you might be able to detect a degree of uncertainty (PIC). The flavour was actually not too bad, quite fruity with an underlying cheesy flavour and a very creamy texture beneath a tougher skin. Verdi took a bite and agreed with Andrews summation, deciding to leave it at just the one mouthful. Andrew took a few more bites but eventually succumbed to the smell. It wasn't until afterwards that we gained a full appreciation of the durians power. The taste lingered in our mouths for hours and nautious smell stuck to our fingers for even longer - incredible!
 
 
You would have thought that that would be enough local food for one day but we followed up our Durian experience with a trip out onto the main street to find some more local food. Passing several late night eateries we finally settled for a curry place serving various types of asian curries. Speaking to the owner in his limited English and our non-existant Chinese we finally managed to get a selection of his recommended local favourites. We were surprised to find that not only was the food all very tasty, and with minimal 'nasty bits' it was ludicrously cheap - less than £3 for the two of us including drinks!
 
 
The following day we returned to the Suntec centre to catch the 'Hippotours' bus. Hippotours is one of two major tour organisers in Singapore. They run several tourist activities and we had booked onto a 2-day combination of 2 bus tours covering the city, 2 night tours, a tour to Sentosa Island and a River cruise. Our first trip was the City Loop tour, which took us around the cities impressive array of hotels and shopping malls, the Esplanade & Merlion Park, Botanic Gardens, the wide range of embassies and luxury homes around the city. The tour was fairly varied but a useless guide left us wondering what we were looking at half of the time.
 
Back at the Suntec centre we jumped straight onto the second bus tour - the Heritage tour. This time the guide was much better, his name was Gareth and he was informative and entertaining, and also a strange mix of nationalities; Russian, Thai & Irish! The tour covered the major heritage sites around the city, from the colourful MICA building (which employs someone to open every shutter, every day) (PIC) to eclectic architectural examples such as the orientally inspired Marriot Hotel and the Art Deco 'Gotham City' office block (PICS).
 
The tour continued through Chinatown and Little India, taking in the brightly coloured tower blocks of the low cost HDB's (Housing Development Buildings) and the Oppulent Sultan Mosque (PICS). The bus then passed by Raffles Hotel (PIC), famous not only because it is named after the founder of Singapore city but also for its expensive suites, costing a whopping $600 to $6000 per night, and the original Singapore Sling cocktail.
 
 
The 2-day limit on the Hippotours ticket meant that we had to try and cram in the tours, so immediately following the Heritage Bus tour we hopped straight onto the 30 minute Singapore River Cruise aboard a traditional bumboat. We sailed along past Boat Quay and Clarke Quay, the Civic district and finally into the open water in front of the Merlion fountain (PICS). The river cruise was actually a bit disappointing as we had already seen most of the riverside areas and there was very little informative commentary on board the boat.
 
 
We wandered along Clarke Quay in search of a restaurant, with so many to choose from along the quayside our discerning choice was...Hooters! (PIC!?!) The irony with this particular branch of the famous American restaurant was that there were no hooters to speak of other than the owl on the sign outside - the singaporean waitresses weren't exactly blessed in that department!
 
 
The first of the night tours was the Moonlight Adventure which took us through Bugis village, a crazily busy marketplace where we forced our way through the crowds (PIC) taking in the wide range of stalls, reminiscent of the markets in Hong Kong. The vivid colours of the produce, New Year gifts and food (PIC) extended to the surrounding buildings staircases (PIC) and made the market a very vibrant experience. Even so, a monk dressed in his bright yellow robes stood out like a saw thumb as he waited at a street vendor for his noodles (PIC). We took the opportunity to try a Thai coconut drink (PIC); a bit strange in flavour and texture with the slimy coconut scraped away using the supplied spoon, but Andrew managed to polish it off.
 
The next stop on the night tour was Chinatown; a vibrant hub of activity and alive with throngs of people taking in the night markets put on for the Chinese New Year festivities. We indulged in a plethora of local foods along the way; from waffle balls (PIC) to wasabi & garlic cashew nuts (the former nearly blew our taste buds off!). The entire marketplace was plastered with decorations and lanterns, giving Chinatown an enchanting and magical atmosphere (PICS).
 
Moving swiftly onwards we reached Sentosa Island (PIC), a resort island off the coast of the Singapore mainland that has a host of attractions to draw tourists and locals alike to enjoy themselves and, of course, spend their money. One of the star features is the 'Magical musical fountain laser show'. The show was impressive to say the least. Set with a backdrop of a giant Merlion statue it featured: fountains, lasers, fire and music in a spectacularly arranged performance (PICS) - a triumph of modern technology. Although it was primarily for kids, there was definitely something for adults to enjoy as well.
 
We left Sentosa knowing that we would return in the daytime to see what else was on offer on the island. The bus continued through the brightly lit Chinatown streets and connected with Orchard Road, which was sparkling with lights and decorations in anticipation of the 'Chingay' parade that would take place on New Years Eve (PICS). Finally we were dropped off at a nearby MRT station and returned to our accommodation, exhausted after a long 14-hour day of sightseeing.
 
 
We had picked up a couple of self-guided walking tour leaflets from the visitor centre, one of Chinatown and the other of Little India. We had already seen a bit of these areas during the bus tours but thought the walking tours would give us a more personal, in-depth view at the two main ethnic areas of Singapore City Centre.
 
We began in Chinatown and called at a Chinese Medicine Shop (PIC). Now, you can find these places all over the UK but this was a far more authentic version with weird and wonderful ingredients and their supposed health benefits - such as antelope's horn (PIC), which is apparently good for reducing fever and tranquillising the mind!
 
Continuing through the streets we approached the Thian Hock Keng Temple, unusual with its green decoration and looking decidedly in need of some tender loving care (PIC). The road then led us to Lau Pa Sat (PIC) - a huge indoor food court with dozens of small stalls selling all manner of local and international (Asian) cuisine. In an attempt to try some local dishes we opted for Hainanese Chicken Rice and an Indonesian Chicken Noodles - both were very tasty (PIC). We then got adventurous and picked an Ice Kacang dessert (PIC) - not really knowing what we were ordering! The dessert was a colourful concoction of crushed ice, syrups, a base of corn, red beans, jelly, and aloe balls, all topped off with mango sauce. Apart from the strange addition of corn and red beans (which must be a local acquired taste) it was both delicious and refreshing.
 
Leaving Chinatown we then headed over to Little India. In a stark contrast to Chinatown, Little India had a collection of very different smells; ranging from spicy and aromatic to foul and disgusting. The entire place was much dirtier than Chinatown, the Indians seemingly having very differing ideas to the Chinese about hygiene. Most of the shops seemed to be selling 10th-hand goods from the 1980's; Betamax video recorders and wood-panelled TV's were the main stock of choice. A few stalls added a significant burst of colour to the surroundings with hundreds of flower garlands draped over the shop fronts (PIC). The rest of the shops were plastered with saris and gaudy gold jewellery.
 
A strange 'herb' shop presented an unexpected addition to the streets, whether the 'herb' was of the culinary variety is unknown - though the Rastafarian colour scheme did pose some questions! (PIC) We didn't venture in to find out.
 
One of the main tourist attractions is the opulent Masjid Abdul Gafoor Mosque, which features the only sundial in the Islamic world. The pristine décor and elegant architecture gave the mosque a fairy-tale quality - very out-of-keeping with the rest of Little India (PICS).
 
Our final stop in Little India was the Mustafa Centre - a sprawling shopping centre straddling the main street in the district. The store sells almost everything you could imagine, from groceries and toiletries, to electrical goods and jewellery. We stocked up on a few essentials (from the former items rather than the latter!).
 
 
Back at our hostel we utilised our free Internet and booked several portions of our onward journey; 7 flights for less than £250!!!
 
 
Valentines Day arrived and in typical Andrew and Verdi style we had a truly romantic day planned; a trip to the dentist to get Andrews broken tooth fixed, then a lengthy session on the Internet to update photos and Travelpod, finally followed by a romantic meal of beans on toast at the hostel. After 13 years together, who says romance is dead?!
 
 
Singapore Zoo is one attraction that is never too far from the top of most tourists, and locals, list of things-to-do in the country. Initially we had planned to skip it, having been to Sydney (Taronga) Zoo and numerous other Wildlife Parks during our travels. However, when speaking to anyone during our time in Singapore the first thing they would ask when enquiring where we had been was "Have you been to Singapore Zoo?". With a few days to spare we decided that we should take the trip out there and see what all the fuss was about.
 
As soon as we arrived we were greeted by a gang of Orang-utans, calmly posing for pictures; three adult females and a tiny baby who was far more interested in his mothers nipple than any of us (PICS). They were beautiful and so well behaved. Visitors had the option to pose with them for a price but we decided to just stand by and admire the gorgeous creatures. As soon as the show time was over they were told to go back to their enclosure so up they got and climbed the tree that crossed back over to their area - amazing!
 
A few more slightly out-of-the-ordinary creatures lay ahead, in the form of a Binturong (Bear-Cat), Tapir and Babirusa. These three beasts were all very placid and lazy, probably because of the heat, and were content with just milling around their pens searching for scraps of food (PICS).
 
Our next prolonged stop came with the arrival at the White Tiger compound. Three adult tigers were marooned on an island away from the visitors (or lunch as they would like to call us!) and spent there time swimming in the water when they weren't pacing around and eyeing us up (PICS). We had fortunately timed it right to see the tigers being fed and were able to get a couple of great action shots and a very funny video of one tiger trying to catch the fish as they flapped all around him! (PICS & VID)
 
The feeding then continued with the Pygmy Hippos (PIC) and a couple of hungry warthogs before we found ourselves in the reptile house staring at a rather cosy pair of Inland Taipans - the most deadly snake in the world (PIC). En route to the monkey areas we came across some interesting tribal statues (PICS) with their private bits on show. Not to be outdone the next baboon we saw decided to give us a show of his own! (PIC)

Meandering our way around the various ape enclosures we were surprised to see a couple of cheeky little monkeys out and about on the pathway (PICS). Andrew picked up a berry from the floor and one monkey took it but then discarded it after given it a sniff. The funny little things looked ancient with their mop of white hair and wrinkled faces.

A couple of wild Simat monkeys (PIC) sat by us as we waited for the next showpiece attraction - the Elephant show. We were warned not to feed the monkeys, as they were wild and not part of the zoo, in an effort not to encourage them to keep coming into contact with the captive animals and stealing their food.

The elephant show brought four Asian elephants out to demonstrate how they work and play in their interactions with humans (PICS). They showed how the elephants lift the trainers onto their backs, how they can balance on log, carry and move huge tree trunks and even kick a coconut as if it were a football. Their playful nature was very apparent as they sprayed water into the crowd and defied their trainers' attempts to perform certain tricks. They were also given some snacks afterwards for their hard work (PIC).


No sooner were we walking away from the elephant show than the heavens opened, pouring down on us by the gallon (PIC). We quickly took refuge in a covered café area but with just over 2 hours left until closing and about half the zoo still to investigate we wanted to get back out into the open as soon as possible. The rain was so heavy that even with an umbrella we would have been drenched in seconds so we waited for almost an hour before giving up and making a dash for the nearest enclosure - the manatees and penguins.
 
The manatees are huge seal-like creatures with an adorably cute, sad-looking face and a giant paddle as a tail. They glide gracefully through the water, seemingly without a care in the world (PICS). There was even a baby one, less than two feet in length but unfortunately he was a bit shy and wouldn't come up to the glass very often to pose for photos. The penguins however were a different story, with one in particular very eager to be in front of the lens (PICS).
 
A ghostly white pelican, a giant and ancient tortoise and a couple of unexpected polar bears were spotted on our way out of the zoo (PICS), just as it was about to close. Ironically the rain died down as we were leaving, but it was a good thing as we had plans for the evening that would have been a wash out had the downpour continued.
 
 
Next door to the Zoo is the Night Safari complex, a wildlife park similar in size to the zoo, which only opens after dark. The Night Safari introduces visitors to creatures in their nocturnal habitats. Some animals are ones that can be seen in the zoo during the daytime but others are only seen here. Animals such as the Serval (PIC) a small wild cat with similar markings to a cheetah or leopard. The one pictured was brought out for visitors to get close to (but not too close!) and get souvenir photographs taken. There are two main sections to the Night Safari; a tram ride through the various 'continents' to see the different types of animals in their spacious enclosures, and a 'Creatures of the Night' show which gives a closer look at some of the nocturnal animals special characteristics.
 
We took the tram journey first and were a bit disappointed with what we found. The Night Safari complex was packed and we had to queue for a while to get onto a tram. We ended up near the back of the second tram journey (each tram is about 5 cars long and holds at least 120 people). As a result, whenever the tram stopped to view a particular animal it did so to give a great view to the front few cars and almost no view to the back ones - until we were moving again and couldn't get any good photos. The commentary was average, made all the more annoying by the over-enthusiastic host who tried to inject maximum excitement into the dullest pieces of information. The only shot from the entire tram ride is an example of what we had to work with (PIC)!
 
Suitably unimpressed with the tram journey we disembarked the car and proceeded to the 'Creatures of the Night' showing area for the next production which wasn't due to start for another 15-20 minutes. As we got to the gate we were told that it was completely full and we would have to wait another 90 minutes for the next show! We were tempted to head off home but having paid what was a fairly large price for the tickets we decided to stick it our and find somewhere to eat. The complex has a large variety of eateries, from numerous international fast food joints to a huge buffet dinner. The buffet was very expensive and we weren't hungry enough to justify the cost so we simply grabbed a couple of fast food dishes - one Chinese, one Indian - and shared them. Again they were predictably overpriced (for the tourists) but tasted good nonetheless.

With the 90 minutes passed we queued for the show and found some seats in a good spot. The show began with two Binturongs (Bear-cats (see earlier)) climbing above the crown on a long rope to get some food, and then hanging by its strong, thick tail to be collected by a trainer. A number of other animals, including the Serval, Striped Hyenas and rodents made an appearance before the finale. The showstopper was a clever little otter that could recycle bottles into their respective bins - well sort of! (VID). The show was actually really good; funny, entertaining and informative and was the saving grace for the evening.



We made our return to Sentosa Island the following day via cable car; passing through a rather modern shopping mall (PIC) designed with coloured backlit panels, and of course, a spotless interior. The cable car gave us great views over the civic centre as we approached the island, with the ornate Sentosa ferry (the other method of crossing to the island) sailing beneath (PICS). As soon as we arrived we climbed into the lift to take us up to the top of the Carlsberg Tower (PIC), which gave us panoramic views out over Sentosa and mainland Singapore. Unfortunately the views of the city were partially obscured by a load of heavy industrial shipping machinery, not really lending itself to a great photo opportunity.
 
A flower exhibition at the base of the Carlsberg Tower had a couple of amusing statues dedicated to the zodiac sign of the New Year; the Pig (PICS) - it seems that it is true that pigs can fly! Close by we found the 4D Cinema, recommended to us by Verdi's parents who had been there during their recent visit to Singapore. The 4D is basically a 3D show with a difference; the 4th dimension is one we weren't quite expecting! The film was a 'Pirates of the Caribbean' style show, which added to the usual things poking out of the screen with the seats shaking and an occasional blast of cold air and spray of water - the shock when it happened the first time was enough to make us jump out of our seats, after which it started to get a bit annoying - but the show was entertaining nevertheless.
 
Just a short (free) shuttle bus journey away from the cable car stop we arrived at the Merlion Statue, a giant replica of the Merlion in Singapore Harbour. This statue is so big that visitors can take an elevator up to the lion's mouth and get a lions-eye view over to the city. Again it was unfortunate that the view was fronted by the shipping machinery (PIC). We were then able to get to the top of the lion's head and enjoy 360-degree views over Sentosa, including the main promenade that leads up to the stage area where the light show takes place (PIC). On the other side of the Merlion hill is a strip of gaudi-esque fountains, pools and statues, flanked by a temporary exhibit of local schools artwork.
 
Next we took a tram (free again) to the coastal area of the island, which also happens to include the southernmost point of mainland Asia (PICS). There are 3 beach areas of Sentosa: Tanjong, Palawan and finally Siloso, the largest and most popular of the three (PIC). We hadn't brought our bathers so didn't hang around to try out the beach, especially as the midday sun was pounding down with force.
 
 Back on mainland Singapore we decided to splash out and live like we were rich and famous, if only for half an hour, and try a Singapore Sling at Raffles Hotel. The Long Bar at Raffles (PICS) is the birthplace of the renowned cocktail and is still the place to sample the traditional drink. The unique interior of the bar, including its quaint 'air-conditioning' harked back to the colonial times and upheld a rather bizarre tradition of throwing monkey nut shells onto the bar floor - with no regard for the cleanliness of the place (PICS). The first time you throw the shells onto the floor of the five-star hotel bar is a bit strange, but after the 10th or 20th nut you get used to it. What we couldn't quite get used to was the price of the cocktail - $20SGD (about £7). We shared one to keep down the costs, not exactly living like the rich and famous then!



Our final full day in Singapore was the day before Chinese New Years Eve, and the New Year festivities began early with the Singapore River Hongbao 2007 (PIC). The esplanade park was filled with stages, decorations and hundreds of food stalls and we wanted to take a peek at how the Singaporeans celebrate New Year. A large pagoda was set up by a wishing tree that locals threw coins at in an attempt to hit a small bell, which would then give them good luck for the following year (PICS).  All of the trees in the park were adorned with large lanterns and fairy lights, making the entire place glow with warmth (PIC). In a very bizarre addition, a huge paper emperor (PIC) was set up to blow streamers and good luck tokens in what is known as a 'luck lottery'. Locals were standing underneath it with their umbrellas upturned in order to maximise their chances of catching the lucky tokens!
 
One of the best features of the Hongbao was a traditional drum performance and dragon dance. The vibrant display was a visual treat and made us feel like we had seen something truly authentic in Chinese culture. The performance was superb with the young drummers and dragon dancers seemingly enjoying their experience as much as we did (PICS & VIDS) - despite the look on the drummer face in the picture! As we watched the show a 'god of prosperity' passed us by, giving out blessings to the Chinese audience (PIC).
 
We spent some time looking around the food stalls and managed to find a few different snacks that looked vaguely familiar and tasted good. There was another large stage with other performances going on but it seemed that tickets were required to gain a good view of the show. Instead we continued around the park and eventually came across an area showing the 12 signs of the Chinese Lunar Zodiac (PIC) - we found that Andrew was born in the Year of the Horse, and Verdi was a child of the Year of the Sheep (or Goat depending upon where you look).
 
The Hongbao was a very entertaining evening and we were just a bit disappointed that we couldn't return the following night when the whole place would be even more intense, culminating in a huge celebration and firework display to see in the New Year. Instead we would be on an overnight train on our way to Kuala Lumpur - our timing being as impeccable as ever!
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