I’ve learnt from experience that my wife suffers rather badly from jetlag. So much so in fact, that she experiences it travelling west just as badly as most people get it when flying east. She can take a week (or even two) to get in synch with the new time zone, and so inevitably if we’re travelling together it takes me the same amount of time as well. So, in order to try and reduce the zombie hours of wakefulness that marked our previous trip to Australia together two years ago, we elected for a two night stopover enroute.
Our first ever flight with Singapore Airlines, with their top notch in-flight service and entertainment system, had instantly put them at the top of our list of favourite long haul carriers. Nevertheless, after a full day of work on Friday, flying from Zurich through Friday night and arriving in Singapore in the evening hours of Saturday, a long period of restful shut-eye in our hotel was our only priority. You can then well imagine that the shrill ring of the bedside phone at 8:30am on Sunday morning that roused us out of our comatose state was hardly a welcome intrusion. Groggily picking up the receiver it appeared that while I could hear the male caller OK, he was not so easily able to hear me. After some confusion I worked out that my hand was muffling the bottom end of the phone. The caller subsequently introduced himself in an all-too-cheery voice as Geoffrey from the Singapore Airlines Stopover Desk in the reception of the hotel and informed me that we should meet with him before he left at noon in order to arrange our sightseeing options for the coming two days. With sleep our highest priority and the insides of our eyelids the only things we wanted to see right at this point in time, I put the phone back down with little more than a grunted “OK” and then we slowly returned to our slumber.
When the phone rang again, this time at 11am, I was really not happy. Geoffrey was being far too eager and, rather than giving him an absolute earful, I had at least some self-control to merely put the receiver back down without answering. As the seconds passed I became slightly more conscious and felt a little guilty at hanging up on him. Getting up and quickly putting some clothes on, I figured that by going down to meet him now I was at least preventing another unwelcome wake up call sometime in the next hour.
Despite my fatigue and annoyance I summoned as much friendliness as I could when I sat down at the desk opposite Geoffrey, and to his credit he didn’t mention the abrupt second phone call or any offence that I caused him. He ran through the list of various discount coupons for the zoo and other attractions we had received on arrival at Singapore Airport, and then after he finished seemed a little taken aback that I didn’t want to book any of them. I tried to convince him that we really hadn’t come prepared for any organised sightseeing before adding, without really meaning it, that tomorrow we may be more interested. With that, I was able to return to the 18th floor for a last attempt at a sleep in.
We awoke refreshed a little later and ventured outside into Victoria Street in the heart of the city. As a modern city with obvious Western trappings and a reputation for public cleanliness that goes beyond zealous, the tourist monikers applied to Singapore seem to be ‘Asia for Beginners’ or ‘Asia Lite’. With my experience of South-East Asia almost non-existent (a single afternoon in Kowloon in Hong Kong my only previous encounter with the region), I was ready for the gentle initiation this city state would throw at me.
The afternoon was warm and not oppressively humid, with the modern glass and steel high rise office and apartment buildings lined at street level with plenty of shady foliage. The traffic waited patiently at traffic lights set at short intervals along the wide straight streets, with none using their horns in the manner most commonly found in Asia. There was a noticeable amount of cigarette butts and other litter discarded on the streets, no more than any orderly first world city but still far from the “so clean you could eat your dinner straight off the road” standard I had been led to believe existed here. Within my line of sight on this part of Victoria Street alone there were entrances to a countless number of shopping centres, and interspersed along the footpaths clusters of plastic chairs and tables announced the presence of a dazzling array of cheap and cheerful Asian restaurants.
Katie, having a month long mission trip in Thailand previously under her belt some years ago, remarked that “it sure smelt like Asia”, but to my surprise this first real glimpse of Singapore didn’t look, feel or smell foreign to me at all – this could well have been any one of a number of densely populated Sydney suburbs. Chatswood immediately sprang to mind, Hurstville was another possibility, but regardless, there was not a part of this scene or the people that filled it that made it look like I couldn’t be in Australia. I wasn’t even getting my toes wet in the baby pool of Asian culture shock in the same way that it may have been possible thirty years ago.
The thing I was most looking forward to about Singapore was the cheap street-side food, and there was no shortage of choice there. We walked a few blocks in this oversized Chatswood to the area around the Rochor Canal, where from the busy street bridges straddling the narrow channel a large gathering gamely cast individual fishing lines into the muddy water. Here we went into a hawker centre on the ground floor of one of the corner shopping centres, completely open to the street on two sides. Food court style chairs and tables were arranged in the middle and then twenty or so assorted Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian and other outlets lined the other two walls. It was extremely tough to decide on what to choose for my meal, but I eventually settled on Javanese Chicken Soup and rice for only a couple of Singapore dollars, washed down with a bottle of the local Tiger brew. This was my idea of a real fine dining experience - you can shove your high fillutin’ classy Michelin starred restaurants with their pretentiously named cuisine designed by snooty chefs, where the prices rise up above normal food in equal proportion to the way the serving sizes are smaller.
We crossed over to the other side of the canal and soon I realised I had typecast Singapore a little too prematurely – Little India offered up a very exotic and unexpected surprise. The shuttered old colonial era buildings were crammed with small ground floor shops, with their spices, fresh produce and bric-a-brac spilling out onto the narrow lanes. The vibrant colours and subcontinental aromas appealed to me in a big way, and I was glad we had stumbled into the area.
After my wife had perused the goods and made a couple of purchases, we moved away from the market and I was struck by the thought that of all the people around us, she was the only woman I had eyes for. Call it lifelong devotion, a sudden romantic whim or an unnecessarily mushy statement if you will, it was also a statistical truth: The hundred strong crowd of South Indians glued to a television set broadcasting a Bollywood movie in a small outdoor square were exclusively male, as were the hundreds more sitting and talking in small groups in whatever shade could be found in the large grassy space across Race Course Road. I couldn’t have found another woman to look at even if I wanted to.
Shannon, a Singapore local and former resident of Geneva, then swung by in her car to double the female percentage in the vicinity and play tour guide for the rest of the day. Driving us through the city centre, we passed by both the oldest tourist establishment in Singapore, Raffles Hotel, and the newest, the Singapore Flyer. Since 1887 the luxuriously appointed Raffles has built a world famous reputation for luring tourists into longer-than-originally-planned stays. The Flyer, assembled on reclaimed land out in the harbour and currently the largest Ferris wheel in the world, has managed to attract a similar status (albeit minus the luxury) in less than a year. After breaking down three times, most recently in December when 173 people were trapped without air-conditioning for seven hours, the 42 storey observation wheel has been at a complete standstill.
So the only high view of the city we were going to get on this visit was from the lush green reserve of Mount Faber. From there we could also look out onto the staggering number of cargo freighters at anchor all around the Singapore Strait and, had we been in any way inclined, we could have taken the cable car across to Sentosa Island, Singapore’s recreational playground of artificial beaches, hotels, bars and, of course, more shopping. I can see how it really takes that astonishing number of ships to supply all the material goods on offer at the city’s surfeit of retail establishments.
We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in Chinatown, where the contours of the Hokkien Thian Hock Keng temple juxtaposed quite dramatically in the skyline with twentieth century towers of residence and commerce. The streets were brightly festooned with lights and decorations for the impending Chinese New Year, and the narrow market laneways were teeming with locals and visitors alike.
Dinner was in a massive hawker centre with hundreds upon hundreds of small stalls in the bottom levels of a slightly aging skyscraper, where wandering through the rows of tiny kitchens deciding what I was going to get was almost as difficult as trying to find a free table, or possibly even disembarking from the Singapore Flyer at the time you had planned to. Minced abalone noodle soup was what finally I settled on, and I felt that I could eat at a different place every day for a year just in this hawker centre and still be happy.
Though, it must be said, my wannabe Asian tastebuds do not extend quite as far as dessert. While I concede the pungent fruit durian does not taste anywhere near as unpleasant as it smells, I wouldn’t trawl all over town to hunt a fresh one down like some of my Sydney friends hailing from Malaysia would. And just the idea of serving ice cream with corn or black beans (photos available at many of the hawker stands) sends my appetite into a fairly dramatic tailspin. Shannon took us into a dark and crowded shop in an alley right in the very heart of Chinatown and ordered a serving of pumpkin cake. Now it should be said that I hate boiled or baked pumpkin as a vegetable, likewise pumpkin soup. Pumpkin scones and the American Thanksgiving staple pumpkin pie get the thumbs up only because they don’t taste at all like pumpkin, so I was willing to take a chance and hope the pumpkin cake fitted into the latter category. The good news was it didn’t taste like pumpkin at all. The bad news was that it tasted far, far worse and I couldn’t even bring myself to swallow a single bite. Argh, who am I trying to kid with this try-hard South-East Asian palate – when it comes to the crunch I can’t hide what is obvious, I’m really just a meat and three veg Anglo.
The hotel checkout time was midday, which was very handy for another sleep-in after we had found ourselves wide awake at 4am. The tranquil surrounds of Clarke Quay along the Singapore River had made for a peaceful stroll in the warm and dark stillness of early morning until we felt drowsy enough to return to sleep.
But then Singapore is a pretty good place to feel messed up, as I got the impression the whole city is kind of muddled up in its priorities. A little way down Victoria Road from our hotel was a complex called Chijmes, replete with the usual array of bars, restaurants and shops, though it stuck out rather obviously as it just been converted from a large 19th century church. Compare this to a shopping centre on Orchard Road, the commercial strip that gave birth to Singapore’s modern religious obsession with the consumer driven attainment of material possessions, where the marble foundation stone announced in big capital letters “Glory be unto God”. There obviously wasn’t quite enough glory going around at Chijmes during its former incantation.
The very icon of the golden arches halfway along Orchard Road was in full charm mode himself, a very cheerful Ronald McDonald sat outside on a bench regaling a passer-by with mystic tales of chasing the Hamburglar all over the Orient. It was just a pity his new friend wasn’t really lovin’ it.
But that was nothing compared to the advice I got from a turbaned Sikh who had approached me on Victoria Street earlier in the day. His first words were, rather confidently, that “a penis will come to you next month.” I hesitated for a second, thinking that one is probably enough for the moment. Soon he was closer and he pointed at my face before continuing, “I can see from your forehead you are very lucky man. A penis will come to you next month.”
“Hold on, is he calling me a dickhead?” I thought to myself as I turned to walk away.
“I tell you another thing”, the Sikh began to say, though I continued walking without giving him a second glance, so I wasn’t able to receive another sage piece of prophesy. It took me about another ten seconds to realise he hadn’t been talking about an extra piece of manhood at all. He’d said happiness.
As it happened I’d have gladly traded happiness next month for a good map more immediately. Shannon was taking the day off work and we had arranged to meet for lunch in the Botanical Gardens. The previous night I had turned down her offer of picking us up from the hotel on the basis that it was putting her out and that it wasn’t too far for us to easily walk, it looked as if the gardens were just off the edge of the city map we had been given on arrival. Unfortunately it was one of those times where things weren’t quite as straightforward as I imagined it would be, which, my wife is only too eager to remind me, does happen from time to time. Having left the length of Orchard Road behind we passed by some foreign embassies and expatriate residential areas in the Tanglin area before I guessed we’d walked too far in a wrong direction and we turned around. Katie asked a few people for directions, though each subsequent person seemed to contradict the others before them, and this left us even more confused than before. Eventually, we ended up in a quiet and leafy residential street that ended in a cul-de-sac, and just when we debating whether we’d ever get there, we came upon an American woman leaving a posh block of flats in jogging gear. It turned out she was originally from the same city where Katie went to college and, as she was going jogging in the Botanical Gardens herself, was only too happy to lead us there.
Significantly late by the time we met Shannon in the garden food court, she then had to wait even longer on us while we found some lunch. I felt bad that we had wasted her whole morning, coming on top of the fact that we had already established it was her I had hung up on the previous morning in the hotel. This, at the very least, explained why Geoffrey at the hotel tour desk hadn’t seemed all that offended when I met with him.
We had far less time to roam around the Botanical Gardens before making our transfer to the airport than planned, and the gardens themselves occupied a much bigger space than I’d imagined, so we barely touched the southern edge of what was a stunning sanctuary.
But I’m glad there is still so much more to see here (and the city in general), that we didn’t have the time to do. On a subsequent trip to Australia to see my family and friends we both want to return to Singapore again, to enjoy what it has to offer (and of course get some of that good quality sleep that can’t be had in an Economy class cabin).
And so, after this time graciously accepting Shannon’s offer of a lift to meet the shuttle, we headed towards Changi Airport, and I was suddenly struck with the different resonance that that particular location can evoke between people of different generations. For me Changi has been one of the world’s most efficient and pleasant airports to spend a few hours in transit, and at this moment in particular we had the novelty of our impending first flight on the double-decker Airbus A380 Superjumbo (or, the Flying Dugong as I like to call it, due to the distinctive shape of the front of the aircraft). But for those of my grandparents’ generation it has had a much grimmer connotation. My next door neighbour of the house where I grew up was one of tens of thousands of Allied servicemen held in the Changi prisoner of war camp in this area by the Japanese during the Second World War. Apparently there’s a small museum dedicated to the camp not far from its former location. It’s yet another thing for me to check out on a future Singapore stopover.