Singapore, March 21
We landed at Singapore's Changi International Airport in the late afternoon and boarded a bus heading for the Colonial District. With the guidance of some Air India employees on holiday, we got off at the correct stop and with some further help from a Korean university student we found our way to the Sun Sun Hotel on Middle Road. The proprietor there, a no-nonsense Chinese man named Tony, who reminded us of Mr. Miagi from The Karate Kid, soon had us settled in an old but spacious and air-conditioned room for 50 Singaporean dollars (about US$27.50) per night (US$1 = S$1.8). We wanted to splurge on air-con to escape from the oppressive humidity for a couple of days before moving to cheaper accomodations.
South of peninsular Malaysia and just 137 kilometers north of the equator, the Republic of Singapore is a city-state consisting of one large island and 58 smaller islands. Through 1999, Singapore averaged a 9% economic growth rate, propelling it to the status of financial capital of Asia. The city itself is ultramodern, sporting impeccably clean and efficient mass transit systems and more shopping centers than Suzanne could visit in a lifetime. Singapore has a reputation for strict laws, resulting in heavy fines and strict punishments including caning or even the death penalty for serious offenses. Some notable examples are a ban on possession and use of chewing gum and an automated sensor inside public elevators which detects urine and locks the doors while notifying police. Culturally, Singapore is a great place to explore. Distinct neighborhoods include Chinatown, Little India, and the Muslim area surrounding Arab Street.
Naturally, the ethnic mix makes Singapore a great place to eat. The availability and variety of food is mind-boggling. As it was getting on toward evening, we were ready for a serious eating experience. For the area we were staying in the guidebook recommended a place called The Big Bird, specializing in a trademark Singaporean dish called chicken rice. The glossary of culinary terms in the back of the guidebook describes chicken rice as a "dish where rice is cooked in a clay casserole with pieces of chicken, Chinese mushroom, Chinese sausage, and soy sauce." Sounded good to us! We asked Tony for directions to The Big Bird, which he gave to us along with a warning that although their chicken rice is good, it is also very expensive compared to other places. We decided that we should try the best so that we would be able to compare future chicken rice adventures. When we arrived at The Big Bird, we thought at first we may have accidentally come to the wrong place. Although part of an enormous shopping mall, the restaurant was very small and simple, the epitome of a family-run establishment - a plastic-utensils-and-soft-drinks-served-in-cans kind of place. The tiny kitchen area comprised one corner of the restaurant and inside a glass case several chickens were hanging in different stages of butchering and cooking. From Tony's admonitions, we were expecting a more lavish atmosphere. We sat down amongst the few local patrons and perused the sparse menu - basically chicken rice, steamed or roasted in various quantities. We placed our order with a harried older Chinese woman and waited, trying to catch a glimpse of what other people were eating. Nothing we saw resembled the guidebook description, causing us a bit of confusion. A couple of minutes later, our dish arrived and our disappointment was complete. The Big Bird's chicken rice consisted of a dish of steamed white rice topped with a few pieces of chicken (breast I think) and some kind of a thin gravy. A bowl of fiery-looking chilli sauce was also provided, but we were not brave enough to try it. It was certainly not what one would expect from a place with the audacity to choose a Sesame Street character for a name. As I was paying for the meal (and Tony was right, it was obviously not worth the money), I read a newspaper article taped to the front counter which said that although The Big Bird's chicken rice was merely average, the homemade chilli sauce was first-class. Hmm...
The next morning we headed to Bugis Junction, a sprawling market complex a few streets away. Bugis is pronounced like "boogeys" and, in fact, the term "boogey man" is derived from the Bugis people, who were (and may still be) pirates from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. As these pirates were plundering European vessels during Singapore's colonial era, the phrase "The Boogey Man will get you" became popular. Interesting, eh? Anyway, we spent the morning walking all through the market where a vast array of items were being sold, including housewares, books, clothing, CDs, DVDs, religious paraphernalia, fruits, vegetables, fish, pork, and poultry. For lunch we made our first foray into what is known as a 'hawker center'. This is basically an area where row after row of food stalls are set up, serving every imaginable type of Asian food. Between each row of stalls are tables and chairs where people are constantly prowling to find an empty seat. After touring the entire facility and it's bewildering array of menus (mostly written in Chinese), we settled on a stall where a long line of people were gathered. When we made our way to the front of the frenzy, all that was required was to point at the various foods we wanted to try and two heaping plates were made up for us on the spot. From the minimal English being spoken by the proprietor, we ascertained that we had ordered sweet and sour pork and lemon chicken. It was quite good and only cost about $3 US for the both of us! We decided to make hawker center cuisine a staple of our Singapore diet. From another stall we bought some iced tea flavored with red sugar cane juice (which we didn't like) and for dessert we had soursop fruit and grass jelly served over shaved ice (excellent).
After lunch we set out on a walking tour of the Little India section of Singapore. Our first stop was the Little India Arcade, a collection of shops and restaurants. In a photography studio, I saw a poster hanging on the wall of Ajith, the Indian movie star (or so I was told). Considering the uncanny resemblance to our friend Toaster, I interrupted the woman behind the counter while she was eating lunch and had her ask the boss if it was OK to buy the obviously much-in-demand poster. The boss agreed and we worked out a deal. We also browsed through a book store where Sue was engaged in conversation by an Indian man who wanted to know why he must learn to speak English when we can't speak Indian. Shortly thereafter, we (well, mostly he) were discussing the Muslim and Christian faiths, his extensive knowledge of the Bible, and how the disciples did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God. Before long he talked himself into a tizzy and his wife dragged him off.
Continuing on, we passed the Tan House, an example of Peranakan-style architecture. (The Peranakans were descendants of early Chinese immigrants and the native Malay peoples. The word Peranakan means 'half-caste' in Malay.) From there we passed by the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple, a Shaivite temple dedicated to Kali, covered with colorful painted figures. Next we headed into the Mustafa Center, a multilevel shopping complex specializing in home electronics. We then visited the Sakaya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple, also called the Temple of 1000 Lights. Not far from that was the Leong San See Temple. On our way back toward our hotel we walked through a few side streets in Little India, observing the old architecture and interesting shops. As we passed one street, which was more like an alleyway, I noticed some interesting symmetry in the buildings so I stopped to take out my camera. Sue suggested that we cross over and walk down the alleyway, which seemed bustling with activity. I was about to agree until I noticed that the activity consisted of nervous-looking men shuffling back and forth from one side of the alley to the other, going in and out of doors. Suddenly recalling a passage from the guidebook, I quickly slipped my camera back into my pack and pulled Sue away down the road while explaining that the alley was full of brothels and those men probably didn't want their picture taken. Late in the afternoon, we made it to the shelter of an outdoor cafe near our hotel just in time to wait out a heavy thunderstorm while having a beer and watching the bicycle taxis cart tourists through the rain.
Today we said goodbye to Tony and the relatively expensive Sun Sun Hotel and hauled our packs a few streets over to Willy's Homestay on North Bridge Road. Besides being much cheaper (and of a lower standard than the Sun Sun), the entrance to the hostel was reached by literally walking through the kitchen of a 24-hour restaurant. When entering or exiting the hostel we would often pass by an old woman in the kitchen cutting vegetables or chopping up squid or pork. I thought this was absolutely fantastic. (We never ate at the restaurant though.)
In the afternoon we took the fabulously clean and efficient MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) underground train to the City Hall stop and set out on a walking tour of Chinatown. First we stopped at the Wak Hai Cheng Bio Temple (which means 'Calm Sea Temple'). Next we headed to the Amoy Street hawker center for another cheap meal; this time we had wonton soup and Chinese dumplings. Outside the hawker center we stopped to watch some kind of marionette puppet show, then walked through the yuppie-ish Far East Square to Sago Street, the heart of old Chinatown. We wandered through a large street market, then up to Hong Lim Park and over to Boat Quay on the south side of the Singapore River where we had a beer at Harry's. We then crossed over the river to take a look at the statue of Stamford Raffles, the traditional founder of Singapore. In keeping with the theme, we walked through the famous Raffles Hotel (as featured in novels by Joseph Conrad and Somerset Maugham). We resisted the urge to do the 'tourist thing' and visit the Long Bar inside the Raffles for a Singapore Sling, but instead went window shopping at the hotel boutiques. That night we hung out on the hostel's rooftop lounge and enjoyed a backpacker's dinner of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Pringles potato chips (can't beat that can!), chocolate milk, and Tiger Beer.
Today the one and only Mark Hughes from New Jersey arrived in Singapore on a business trip (or that was his pretense anyway...) Again using the trusty MRT, we headed down to swanky Orchard Road and Mark's executive suite room at the Hilton Hotel. After catching up on things, touring the Hilton facilites, and basking in the glorious air-conditioning of Mark's room, we headed to Harry's on Boat Quay for lunch.
After lunch we caught a taxi in hopes of doing some shopping at the Kallang weekend market. En route we grilled our friendly driver, Mr. Ang Kock Hong, about the Singaporean government's propensity for caning, whether these canings were public, and, if so, could we go see one right now? Mr. Hong seemed quite agreeable to the idea, but reluctantly informed us there were "no caning on Saturday!" (And as much as we tried to get him to say otherwise, Mr. Hong would not admit to there being public canings on any day of the week.)
Upon arrival at the site of the Kallang market, we found that we were too early and the market was still being set up. We walked around a large indoor stadium next to the market area and through an open but guarded doorway discovered there was some kind of ice skating show going on inside. Unable to talk our way in, we settled for standing in the flood of cold air escaping from the doorway before catching another taxi back to the downtown area.
We had the cab let us off near Arab Street and then spent an hour or so walking through the area, past the many textile shops and the impressive Sultan Mosque. Being near our hostel, we walked a few streets over to Willy's and showed Mark our room to make him jealous of having to be stuck in the lowly Hilton. Then we hopped on the MRT and headed back to Mark's room where Sue and I were able to have our first hot showers since Australia. (And believe me, that water couldn't get hot enough!!) That night we had dinner at Papa Joe's on Orchard Road.
On Sunday Sue and I attended a large service of the Church of Praise, held in the auditorium of the Singapore Power building. Everyone was friendly and the service was very charismatic, probably the most similar to our church back home as any we have been to so far.
After service we collected Mark from his hotel and headed over to Brewerkz on Clark Quay for lunch. Since it was St. Patrick's Day, we then made a stop in what we presume to be the only Irish pub in Singapore - Molly Malone's on Boat Quay - for a pint of Guiness. Continuing on down the quay we found a karaoke bar which we could not pass up. We quickly learned that Singaporeans take their karaoke very seriously. While Mark, Sue, and I crooned such tunes as "Proud Mary", "Rhinestone Cowboy", and "New York, New York", the table full of well-dressed young men and women sitting next to us were belting out the sappy love songs of Asian pop stars. And they sounded good! They didn't pay much attention to us until we got up to leave, and then they were very happy to see us. Or maybe just to see us go. We made the acquaintance of one Jackie Chan, self-proclaimed mafia figure. He gave us his number and said to call him next time we're in Singapore. We finished up the day by consuming a nutritious meal at McDonald's before heading back to the Hilton and crashing in Mark's expansive bed, three across and plenty of room to spare!
We saw Mark off to work early in the morning and then slept late, marvelling at the number and quality of the pillows and cleanliness of the sheets. Never again will I take such things for granted. We ended up just laying around watching movies all day. When Mark came home, we went to dinner at an Italian place called Modesto's and had some really good pizza. (Finally!)
Today we just did a bunch of errands. While Suzanne was washing our clothes at a laundromat in a mall on Orchard Road, I travelled all over the city visiting different airline offices to change the dates of various upcoming flights. We are starting to fall behind our original schedule, but we may be able to make up some time down the road.
For dinner we went to the Black Angus and had some fantastic prime rib. (Finally, again!) After dinner we headed to the Singapore Zoological Gardens for the Night Safari. We opted to walk through a good part of the safari (instead of taking the tram) and saw such animals as hyenas, otters, rhinos, malay tigers, and the incredibly bizarre slow loris.
Sue spent the day shopping while I worked on updating the website. (Just had to take advantage of the incredibly fast Internet connection!)
Sue again spent the day shopping while I worked on the website. For dinner we joined Mark and some of his co-workers at the Newtown hawker center where we sampled a few new foods including fried stingray and the durian, known as the "king of all fruits". The only thing worse than the smell of this beast is the taste; after some debate we settled on the description of onion-flavored bubble gum. Mark's co-workers claimed that it is an acquired taste. Mark actually seemed to like the durian, I may give it a second chance someday, but Sue will never, ever go near it again.
Lunchtime at a hawker center
Hawker center stall
Sue ordering dessert at the hawker center
Wet market, Bugis Street
Bugis Street market (1)
Bugis Street market (2)
Bugis Street market (3)
Even in Singapore, Sue can find a bargain!
Tan House, Little India
Sri Veeramakaliamman temple, Little India
Temple of 1000 Lights (1), Little India
Temple of 1000 Lights (2), Little India
Leong San See Temple, Little India
Pet store, Little India
Bicycle taxis (1)
Bicycle taxis (2)
Toast or Ajith? (1)
Toast or Ajith? (2)
Wak Hai Cheng Bio Temple, Chinatown
Puppet show on Amoy Street, Chinatown
Sago Street, Chinatown
Rattan weaving at Fong Moon Kee, No. 16 Sago Street, Chinatown
"Ancient Chinese remedy..." Fong Moon Kee, No. 16 Sago Street, Chinatown
Street market, Chinatown
View from Boat Quay: Raffles Landing Site, Parliament House, Empress Place Building
Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore
Garbage skimming boat on the Singapore River
Not a good look - Dave and Mark at Harry's on Boat Quay
Mr. Ang Kock Hong, Star Performer!
Textile shop, Arab Street
Sultan Mosque (1)
Sultan Mosque (2)
Bicycle taxi driver taking a break
Fountain at Bugis Junction (1)
Fountain at Bugis Junction (2)
Fountain at Bugis Junction (3)
Fountain at Bugis Junction (4)
Everyone's Irish on St. Patrick's Day
Mark and Dave at Molly Malone's on St. Patrick's Day
Marky Mark in da house!
Mark digging the durian at Newton Center