Gong Xi Fa Cai! Celebrating the Year of the Ox

Trip Start Sep 21, 2008
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Trip End Jun 19, 2009


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Where I stayed
Gas 81

Flag of Singapore  ,
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

 We left Perth to begin our Asian leg of the journey, and while it wasn't planned, we arrived in Singapore just in time for the Chinese New Year!  The Singapore airport was more than vaguely familiar.  We had flown through on two other occasions and planned to visit it during those trips, but our plans were changed by a bout of food poisoning.  So for the first time we were actually getting the chance to see the city!
 
We boarded the efficient city train system and for a $2 fare, arrived at the stop near our hostel.  We stepped out onto the steamy streets and started a 15-minute walk to our hostel,  The streets were pretty quiet as it much of the city was closed for the Chinese New Year.  We realized pretty quickly that we were in an affluent area of the city by looking at the houses in the area.  They were huge, and most of them were adorned in red banners to usher in the new year.  .
 
We finally arrived at Gas 81, our hostel.   Unfortunately it wasn't as posh as the neighborhood!  It was a tiny room with a bunk bed that held two thin foam-rubber mattresses resting on wood platforms.  The luxury of the place consisted of air conditioning, a small TV and free wireless internet.  There were two tiny bathrooms at the end of the hall that were the size of a powder room.  They had a toilet at one end and a shower nozzle on the side wall.  There were no kitchen facilities at all.  Hopefully this isn't the state of all Asian hostels!
 
We sat in the room to rest our pack-weary backs and cool down a bit, then headed back to a restaurant area we saw near our train stop.  While most everything was closed, we found a great little Indian restaurant with outdoor seating and had a pretty good meal.  We ended the evening reading our guide books and spending time on the computer (it was so nice to have good internet again!)
 
We woke early for our whirlwind day in Singapore.  We needed to get train tickets to Kuala Lumpur, buy our plane tickets for a flight in Indonesia, and see the city all in one day!  Conveniently, we could use the train system for all of our travels.  We considered buying a day pass, but realized for us it was going to be cheaper to just buy the single trip tickets we needed.  It was just over $2SGD a leg, but each time you turned in the pass you got $1SGD back!
 
Our first stop was the City Center for the Lion Air tickets.  We were dumped out right near a beautiful whitewashed cathedral so we snapped a few shots, then found a bakery across the street for breakfast.  The pastries were a work of art, all loaded with weird fillings - hot dogs, meat threads, things we could n't identify.  There were also special buns and rolls for the Chinese New Year.  We each picked one that resembled something familiar and got a steaming hot coffee to go with it, then headed out again.
 
The streets were again pretty quiet and many stores were closed.  We were concerned that Lion Air wouldn't be open, but thankfully it was.  We presented our reservation to the shop girl to pay, but were informed that because we were in Singapore, we would have to pay a different price - twice that of our reservation.  So she helped us and extended the reservation until we arrived in Indonesia so we could pay the original ticket price.  That done, we headed to the old Singapore train station to pick up our train tickets.
 
The train station is an old art deco building down by the shipping port.  We took the metra to the stop nearby, then after some help from the locals took a bus two stops to reach the train station.  We bought tickets for the first train out the next morning and our chores for the day were done.  The tickets were pretty cheap -- $38 SGD each, but we had learned (too late) that if we had originated the trip in Malaysia it would have been only $38 MR - about 2-3 times less!
 
Our plans for the rest of the day were to explore Chinatown and Little India, and if we had any time left (or motivation), do some shopping on Orchard Road.  We jumped back on the metra and got out at Chinatown.  The escalator up dumped us right in the middle of Pagoda Street and the Chinatown Street Markets.  It was like going up the escalator and entering Disney World!  The decorations, the sights, the sounds!  And it was even more vibrant because everything was decked out for the New Year!
 
Pagoda Street was loaded with cheap knock off clothes, handbags and sunglasses.  But there were also stalls loaded with beautiful silk clothing and tea sets and Buddha statues, and waving kitties and all kinds of good luck charms.  There were fruit stalls and food stalls intermixed with exotic fruits and foods.  The vibrant reds and golds popped out everywhere and made our cameras go crazy! 
 
We spent time just wandering the streets for a while taking everything in.  In the middle of the first street there was a intersection and the crossing street was just as full of vendor stalls.   We chose to stay on the first street, and near the end of it we could see the Hindi temple Sri Mariamman protruding above the stalls.  There were sacred cow and lion statues resting on the walls, and pyramids of carvings of divine beings packed tightly together painted in a rainbow of colors.
 
We quickly headed to the end of the street and turned the corner to the entrance of the temple.  Sri Mariamman, built in 1827, is Singapore's oldest temple.  We could see the carvings up close and got a glimpse inside the temple as well.  It was equally elaborate and devotees and tourists were intermixed inside.  Paul removed his shoes and took a look inside - no cameras allowed without paying a fee.  I chose to stay outside, as I felt like an intruder on their faith.  After a few more minutes of admiring the temple, we headed on down the street.
 
Our next stop was the Chinatown Food Market.  It is like a food court that was four rows across and lined an entire big building.  Some of the stalls were closed for the Chinese New Year, but there were plenty opened and selling food to hungry locals and tourists.  We wandered the hall and took a look at the menus, which contained both recognizable food and some not so recognizable food!  There were cooked whole chickens behind glass that looked to be cooked nearly to a crisp.  There were fruit and slushy stalls offering all kinds of juices and exotic ice desserts.  And there were stalls selling meals of pig intestines or other not so desirable meats.  We decided to leave the eating to others and headed out for more sight seeing.
 
Our next stop was our favorite:  The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple.  It is a huge and elaborate Buddhist temple.  On normal days it is only ceremoniously opened to the public at set times, allowing you to get a glimpse inside.  But because it was the Chinese New Year, it was open all day, and was buzzing with activity as Buddhist devotees came in droves to make offerings in observation of the New Year. 
 
The temple had four levels and an upstairs garden.  It looked like an elaborate Chinese Pagoda on the outside and was brightly colored in red green and gold.  Just inside the first set of doors was an urn for burning incense, and many people were gathered around in prayer holding incense sticks.  Through the next set of doors it became even more spectacular. 
 
There were bigger than life statues of buddhas gilded in gold and bright colors.  There were small Buddha statues that lined the walls from top to bottom all the way around the building, with offering urns below them.  Followers were circling the building dropping coins in each urn as an offering to each of the Hundred Buddhas.  There were also monks sitting in the center of the room and other followers were lined up to give them offerings and receive blessings. 
 
There was also a back entrance to the temple and we found a whole other room where more followers were kneeling in prayer and making offerings to other Buddha statues.  And a smaller Buddha statue in a fountain where other followers poured water over the statue.  It also contained large Buddha statues in the middle and more monks receiving offerings.  Near the monks was a vending area where you could buy offerings - flowers, candles or fruit were all available.  Candles represented a safe journey, so we bought one for the bargain price of $5 SGD and made an offering to the Buddha to protect us and keep us safe on our trip!
 
We spent another hour wandering the other floors of the temple.  The second floor contained a library and reading room.  There was a museum that told the story of the buddhas and enlightenment.  And the most elaborate floor housed Asia's largest stupa, which is made from 420kg of pure gold and precious stones, along with a gold-tiled floor.  The rooftop contained a beautiful garden with loaded with orchids and tropical plants. 
 
The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple was peaceful, beautiful and fascinating all at the same time, and we took in every inch of it before reluctantly heading on to see the rest of Chinatown and Singapore in 24 hours!
 
We finished off our visit to Chinatown by wandering Food Street, which was shuttered during the day, but apparently comes alive with vendors and hungry patrons at night.  Then we headed back toward Pagoda street and the street markets for one last look around before jumping back on the metra for our next stop - Little India.
 
We were looking forward to Little India for the food, and the markets.  Unfortunately it didn't live up to its expectations.  The main food market, Tekka Market, was closed for renovation.  When we headed deeper into Little India, we found messy, dirty streets with lots of stray dogs and little to see except store after store with pushy shopworkers selling cheap imitation clothing, watches and electronics.  There were many stores selling sari fabric and sari adornments in many beautiful colors and patterns, but since we are heading to India later in the trip, we decided not to delve too deep into Singapore's version.
 
After a quick wander past most of the sights highlighted in the "Little India Walking Guide" we picked up at a tourist stand, we were ready for a bite to eat.  Unfortunately, we were more than a little rusty on our Indian food, so we found it difficult to pick a restaurant that suited our taste.  In the end, the restaurant we chose was mediocre at best.  But at least we took time to rest our aching feet (after walking almost 8-10k at that point), and rehydrate!  After little India, we decided to call it quits and head back to our hostel, so we jumped back onto the air conditioned metra for the trip back.
 
We had a rest at the hostel, then headed out that evening to a lively restaurant area nearby.  We searched for an inspiring, yet affordable choice for dinner but finally gave up and stopped at McDonalds.  We passed on the Prosperity Burger and had a good old Quarter Pounder with cheese instead!  Then we walked back out into the muggy Singapore evening air for a relaxing walk back past the massive homes to our humble hostel, satisfied that finally (after three times in the city), we got to see the real Singapore rather than just a view from an airport!
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