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Stuck in Singapore…And Everything Works!

February 8, 2012

On a very recent planned-to-the-nth-degree sojourn to Sydney, Australia, I found myself  totally perplexed and frustrated at having been diverted from my booked ‘down-under’  itinerary and by a quirk of fate, forced to stay a few days in Singapore, that small island-state of five-plus million people strategically located at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula in Southeast Asia.  After some painstaking, last-minute, shooting-from-the-hip planning, the anxiousness and distraught nerves disappeared and it turned out to be one of the best unplanned holidays ever!

I had been to Singapore on a couple occasions some 30 years ago for work and quite enjoyed the place.  It’s a melting pot of numerous cultures – Chinese, Indian, Malay, Muslim, British, Australian and a sprinkling of European and otherwise.  And from a business point of view, it was then, as it is now, the financial crossroads and capital of Southeast Asia.  Historically it was a very strategic regional base for the British.

In the 60s through the 90s, it was a dynamic place for American and European companies to hold conventions and meetings.  The Singapore airport worked well and there seemed to be adequate lift in and out of the island.  But Bangkok was still very much the exotic hotspot of the region.

In the last several decades Singapore has had the most remarkable growth.  The incredible changes in the physical Singapore and its skyline are now mind boggling –  new skyscrapers crammed together in what was once part of Chinatown – there still is a Chinatown, but downsized in breadth to make way for vertical towers of steel, chrome and glass.

This whole area is the financial center, not just of Singapore, but of all of Southeast Asia.  I can only imagine, no I’m sure,  that every single financial institution has a major hub operation there.  Certainly the neon logos atop many of the buildings stated exactly that!

In areas slightly east of the financial area adjacent to the Singapore River and Singapore Straits, there are huge areas of reclaimed land from the water which have now sprouted into enormous architectural wonders consisting of  a giant hotel and residential towers, museum and concert halls, one of the biggest casinos in the world, restaurants, hawker stalls and a marine amphitheater-like stadium.  This in addition to the docks and warehouses that are an integral part of this main transportation hub of Southeast Asia.

There are the traditional neighborhoods that contribute to the cross cultures that continue to flourish – specifically Little India and the Arab district that provide their own rich influence to this potpourri island-country.

Probably the single most important point for the business or leisure traveler is to know that everything we take for granted in the West all works in Singapore.  From phones to faxes to taxis, rental cars, hotels, every possible need in the travelers infrastructure – it all works.  In fact, it probably works even better!

What I found most fascinating about Singapore on this occasion is the absolute focus on eating and shopping.  At first glance I was overwhelmed with the number and variety of restaurants and cuisines.  Where I remember a great number of Chinese stalls, shops and small open food stands, there now is the steel and concrete jungle.  The old-fashioned stalls are still there, although diminished in number, but the huge shopping malls, have retained a variety of small, medium and large restaurants.

There is everything from dim sum and noodle places plus the more traditional Chinese – although I never saw General Tso’s chicken – to sushi and more traditional Japanese food, Asian bar-b-que, traditional Indian,  Arab and Mediterranean cuisine, plus – what really makes me cringe – all the American imports such as Burger King, McDonalds and Ben & Jerry’s.  Not many places in the world to escape from American fast food.  In one  of the newer malls – Marina Bay Sands – there are restaurants featuring the menus and cuisine from famed chefs Wolfgang Puck, Daniel Boulud, Guy Savoy and Mario Batali.

Of course one cannot do Singapore without having visited its world-famous hotel, that bastion of British tradition and culture, Raffles.  It still, and most elegantly, flourishes in that very 19th century British look and feel, and the famous Long Bar still boasts numerous varieties of the “Singapore Sling.”  And they are still bloody marvelous!

Trying to fill two or three days of fun or leisure activities in Singapore really is quite easy as there is a myriad of cultural as well as fun-family diversions for all tastes.  The most obvious start to any touring of Singapore is getting a ‘lay of the land’ and the best way is the hop on-hop off bus tours.  There are three routes, some of which duplicate certain parts, but because of the small-size of Singapore,  the island and its main attractions are pretty easily navigated.

If you’re a culture and art connoisseur, there’s the National Museum of Singapore and the Singapore Art Museum.  Smaller museums and exhibitions also abound, and there is a most beautiful  botanical garden in which one can just wonder or sit and contemplate.

The National Museum of Singapore, built originally in 1887, now has a modern addition and is located centrally in the heart of the city.  It features historical and cultural artifacts  of the area as well as occasional special exhibitions. We got really lucky and saw paintings, including Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and photos on loan from the Musee d’Orsay of Paris.  They even have a section of regional foods and crops that feature  smell pods where one may actually smell a variety of natural seeds, fruits and other foods.  Very unique indeed!

The Art Museum of Singapore, housed in a typical 19th century school, features contemporary and historical art from Singapore and the entire Southeast Asia region.  The building itself is so resplendent of the time and you can’t miss the entrance with what looks like a melted-down Superman gracing the front lawn of the museum.

The newer Marina Bay Sands tower complex (aside from its casino, shopping and eating establishments)  features special exhibitions, and in our visit, we saw two such shows. The first, a very detailed exhibit of the HMS Titanic and artifacts that have been brought up, and the second was a precious watch exhibition featuring all kinds of watches, bizarre timepieces and gorgeous jewelry from the famed House of Cartier.  The Titanic exhibition even had on display a huge iceberg in a darkened gallery where one may touch and feel the iceberg and get a tingling and freezing  feel of what it might have been like on that fateful night of April 14th, 1912.  Pretty harrowing, but at the same time, the most complete history of what happened to the Titanic from its birth in Belfast, Ireland,  to its death in the North Atlantic.

On a more cheerful, musical note, there also is ongoing, a production of ‘Wicked’, in case you want to go to the theatre!

Probably the most unique structure of the Singapore skyline –  not unlike London and and Paris – is the Singapore Flyer, a mammoth Ferris wheel that offers fabulous  views of the Island and surrounding water.  It is actually the tallest such observation wheel in the world, besting the London Eye by some five meters.  It’s a must on the ‘Road through Singapore.’

If shopping is your game, I don’t think there’s any competition to the sheer volume of shops.  Singapore must hold the record for the number of stores and shops in a very limited area.  Numerous shopping malls – 56 ‘shopping hubs’ are listed in one of the official maps, are all vertical because of the lack of horizontal space on the small island.  Many are located along Orchard Road, by and large, the Madison Avenue, Bond Street or Rue St. Honore of Singapore.  The newer malls are totally posh, and I mean really “posh.”  Top line brands such as Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, Dior – you know the rest – all have multiple locations in most of the malls.  The top swanky Orchard Road malls are ION Orchard, Orchard Central,  313@Somerset, Paragon and Mandarin Gallery.  There are also several department stores situated along Orchard Road, Tang’s and Takashimaya being two well-known prominent retail establishments.

In addition to Orchard Road, there are other huge malls scattered in the city – Raffles City Shopping Centre, Suntec City Mall, VivoCity and the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands  which has its own stand alone Louis Vuitton store, to name a few.

If you’re looking for a slightly bizarre and off-beat  shopping experience, then one MUST visit the Mustafa Centre in Little India.  It’s kind of a super Wal-Mart of Southeast Asia featuring every conceivable kind of item.  Food to furniture, electronics, clothing, jewelry, home appliances – you name it, they’ve got it – all open 24 hours a day.  Just be prepared for lots of hustle and bustle, but there’s no other place like the Mustafa Centre in the world.

Once you’re past the eating and shopping orgasms of Singapore, there’s Las Vegas style gambling in the newest and biggest casino of the region – the Marina Bay Sands complex.  Visitors must have their passport to play and there is no admission fee.  The sky is the limit in the casino which provides every conceivable type of gambling from blackjack to roulette to baccarat to hundreds of of different slots including a one cent slot machine for those on a limited budget. The casino is a two-story affair – one for smokers and another separate floor for non-smoking players.

One of the most interesting aspects of Singapore is its devotion to the preservation of the environment and staying green.  Singapore was the first country in the world to impose a congestion charge for vehicles driving into the center of town.  Now called  ERP – electronic road pricing –  vehicles pass under electronic sensors strategically placed in the city and are charged the appropriate fee based on time of the day and day of the week.  Traffic moves well in the city and without the stench of diesel or petrol fumes.  Singapore is the second largest exporter of used cars in the world – older gas guzzlers are discouraged – and new cars are taxed 100% of its value on importation.

Most fascinating is Singapore’s subway system or MRT – Mass Rapid Transit.    The system is comparatively new, and covers most of the island.  It is incredibly clean, quiet and very comfortable.  The cars are wide and there is very significant signage and voice announcements advising riders where and when to alight.  Fares start at $1.10 and once you figure out the system of buying tickets,  it is very simple and easy to navigate.  There are plenty of live MRT human beings to assist tourists unfamiliar with the system.  And because Singapore can get very hot, humid and rainy through many months of the year, many of the subway stations are well-connected underground with various high traffic destinations and shopping malls.   Much of Singapore is a huge labyrinth of underground passageways to make walking more comfortable and dry.  Retail opportunities are not lost here either as all passageways are lined with shops  and restaurants of all kinds.

Probably one full leisure day may be spent at Sentosa – a small island adjacent just south of the main Singapore Island. Sentosa, once a military artillery headquarters during World War II, is now abundant with outdoor recreation such as beaches, nature parks and even golf courses.

We stayed one night at Changi Airport’s Crown Plaza – it has to be one of the best airport hotels in the world.  The rooms were big and spacious, the bed extremely comfortable, with plenty of large-size towels in the bathroom which was fully loaded with amenities.  After a day of waiting for flights, and suffering the anxiety and frustration of getting bumped, this hotel was the pot of gold at the end of the day.

In Singapore, we stayed the The Swissotel/The Stamford.  It is centrally located next to the City Hall MRT station, on top of a whole underground city of shops and restaurants, adjacent to the Raffles City Shopping Centre and Fairmont Hotel, and across the street from the Raffles Hotel.  It is circular in shape and is one of the tallest hotel properties in Southeast Asia with some 60 floors.  From the receptionists at the front desk to the concierge and the doorman, the staff could not have been more helpful and enthusiastic to please.

Every global hotel chain has a property in Singapore, and whether one demands five-star city center or resort locations or are on a limited budget for one or two-star accommodation, it’s all there. For back-packers, there are a slew of small and budget properties in the countryside.

Every international cuisine from sushi or burgers to prime steak and gourmet pizza is available.  Two favorites  shone above the many:  Banana Leaf in Little India on Race Course Road,  for fabulous, seemingly home-cooked Indian cuisine, and Din Tai Fung for dim sum, steamed dumplings and everything else Chinese.  There are several Din Tai Fung locations in the high traffic malls including the Marina Bay Sands – we repeated our wonderful experience  several times in the Raffles City Shopping Centre, as it was just downstairs from our hotel.

For afternoon or even evening tea, one must experience ‘TWG,’ probably the Singapore equivalent to tea at The Ritz.  They offer hundreds of different varieties of tea from all over the world to choose from and the accompanying cakes and pastries make ‘TWG’ a most splendid rest stop.  And then, there’s Toast Box –  a uniquely popular Singapore coffee shop featuring special coffees and even more special thick, toasted bread with a variety of jams and toppings.  You can even do an exotic PB&J like peanut butter and coconut jam.

Singapore is one of the world’s great crossroads and transportation hubs.  Most of all the major global airlines fly into and through Singapore. It is a destination as well as a major connection point, especially to/from airports in Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula, Southeast Asia, India, Australia and the Far East, not to mention Europe and the USA.

From for the USA, the best and most direct is Singapore Airlines, the country’s national carrier.  It operates to Singapore from all the major cities in the world, and from USA cities, New York’s JFK Airport, Newark, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Houston.  Passengers flying to/from Newark and Los Angeles have a non-stop option with Singapore Airlines’ long-range Airbus A340 aircraft.  From numerous other cities, the airline offers the jumbo A380 jetliner, an experience in itself not to be missed.

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  1. Honor Verrier permalink

    This is so well done — and in our case well timed! We will be spending a couple of days in Singapore at the end of February and hadn’t yet done much research.

  2. Peter Bonelli permalink

    The article makes me wish I were planning a trip to Singapore soon! Nicely done and entertainingly informative.

    • Thanks Peter. It was ultra spontaneous – and worked out so well. Hope you ok. All the best

  3. Rajeev Dhawan permalink

    Very nicely written John! Had heard so much about Singapore before from people but was quite skeptical until I read your account. Next time I might spend a few days there before going to India.

    • Thank you Rajeev; really appreciate your comments. It’s a very interesting place for a few days. Kind regards, John

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