Friday, December 5, 2014

Visiting Singapore

From Manila I caught the relatively short flight over to Singapore on Sunday. I had an interview there on the Monday, but was planning to spend the week, explore the country, and have a few other meetings while I was at it.

I arrived at Changi Airport mid-afternoon. Singaporeans seem pretty proud of this airport, and it is really rather good. From touching down to getting your bags and out the door all in 20 minutes. It took me longer though, because I had to get a SIM card and catch a shuttle to my hotel. 

I was staying for the first night at the St. Regis, complements of the company I was meeting with. It wasn't highly rated on TripAdvisor, but I was quite happy with it. The rooms were very small, but they had done a terrific job of designing them, and bringing some of the bathroom into the room with the bed, so that they felt larger than they were. The only challenge was when I went to turn on the shower, didn't notice that the nozzle was pointing into the room, and happened to spray a large portion of my room.

Just across the street from the hotel.

Singapore is a fascinating place. It has boomed over the past decade and is now the undisputed non-Chinese centre of commerce for SE Asia. It's just a small island nation, with 5 million inhabitants. But of those 5 million, 1 million are expats, bringing business and money to the city. The city is clean and modern. I used to read a lot of criticism of it being the most boring place in the world, (see William Gibson in '93) but I get the sense that it's scope has expanded so much lately that this critique no longer applies.  Although, when compared to the regions other options, like Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh, or Jakarta, maybe boring and clean isn't such a bad thing.

Singapore is also extremely expensive. Particularly when you're traveling on a budget, as I've been doing, so my hotel and dining options had to take that into account. My Monday meetings went well, but I tend not to write much about those here. After them I checked out of my hotel and moved to a more affordable place. I had found Singapore's The Pod boutique hotel online and was intrigued by the idea. I checked in and got my pod, an upper bunk in a room with a 5 x 2 stack of rooms. Eight single beds and two queens. The hotel seemed to have three floors of these rooms, with a few rooms on each floor. Each pod had a bed, electrical outlets and lighting, with nice shared shower facilities down the hall. It also had free laundry facilities, and one piece of free drycleaning each day.

The Pods were actually pretty nice. And after a day of sweating walking around this always hot city they were rather pleasant to come back and crash into. They didn't seem too small, until you woke up in the middle of the night and had your worst being-buried-alive-in-a-coffin dreams come true. Very Kill Bill 2.

Comfortable pods. Not too small.
Overall, the Pod hotel was not a bad option for a single traveller on a budget. Breakfast was included, but was disappointing, but overall this was a decent way to visit a pricey city.

Dining in Singapore is terrific, if you've got the wallet for it. There are beautiful restaurants all over the city with any kind of cuisine you might want. Of course, I didn't have the wallet, but the options were still pretty good, because Singapore prides itself on its food hawker centres. These are sort of food court buildings all over town that house dozens of mini-food stalls. I hit a few of these while in town, with varied results.

On my third day in town I visited Tian Tian Chicken Rice in the Maxwell Food Centre. This is one of Singapore's most famous hawker stalls. The one Anthony Bourdain visited when he was writing about hawker markets. And they serve Chicken Rice, which seems to be Singapore's signature dish. Just rice and chicken, with the chicken broth poured over it. Bourdain said it was about the best thing ever. I stood in the long line and got myself some. I found it cold, somewhat flavourless, and disappointing. Oh well.

Tian Tian Chicken Rice


On one of my days in the city I decided to visit the botanical gardens. It's always hot in Singapore. Since it's right on the equator the temperature never really varies from a humid 30 degrees all year. But the gardens are a beautiful oasis in this city. They've been there for over a century, originally being what appears to have been a British colonial pasttime. This is wonderful, because there are some truly ancient trees, lovely lakes and spectacular flower gardens throughout this 74 hectare park. It was easily accessible from the city centre via bus, and once inside it the noise of the city quickly fades away. Apparently it's open early in the morning too, so it is likely a beautiful place to go for a run if you can get there before it heats up.

Giant ancient trees in the Botanical Gardens.

Within the Botanical garden is Singapore's orchid garden. There's a small fee to enter, but it's absolutely worthwhile to view the hundreds of orchids on display. Frankly, you can get a little orchid'd out, and it can become difficult to tell one from another, but it's a wonderful place to walk through. They've been hybridizing orchids here for a very long time, and there's a VIP section for special orchids named after visiting politiicians, and a celebrity section for hybrids celebrating film and music star visitors. There's also a climate controlled orchid room with the densest collection of special breeds, which is wonderful just to have a slightly cooler experience.

I have hundreds of orchid photos from this place. They all look essentially the same, and my iPhone 4 doesn't do a great job of capturing them.

Singapore's orchid garden.

Orchids, orchids and more orchids.
On another day I did the tourist bus tour around the city. I used to look down on these buses, but I've come to accept them as a good way to get an overview of a city and figure out where I want to go and what I want to do. Singapore's bus tour was well worth-while, although getting a seat in the shade is important if you aren't ready to get roasted.

Doing the bus tour I realized that there's only so much to see and do here. It's a beautiful place. Clean. Incredibly safe. Lots of interesting neighborhoods. But it's also a fairly small place, and by the time I did the tour I'd already seen most of the things worth seeing. Maybe this is why one of the most positive things that everyone points to about Singapore is how central it is to getting to everywhere else in SE Asia. Everyone seems eager to get away for quick weekend jaunts on the local low-cost airlines.

Raffles hotel - Home of dramatically overprices Singapore Slings.
Impressive skyline. New CBD all lumped together.

Parliament in front. Business in back.

Without a doubt, the most impressive building in this city is the Singapore Marina Bay Sands hotel. Built in 2010, this is the world's most expensive building. I had heard prices ranging from $7B to $4.7B - Perhaps the former was Sing dollars. Either way, this place is simply amazing. Colleen and I had watched a documentary about its construction about 6 months before I visited, so it was great to see it in person. Unfortunately, since she wasn't with me, I decided to not go to the top, where there's a pool and a lounge. I had to save something for when we visit together.

This hotel was crazy expensive to develop, but I also heard that it broke even after only one year in operation, because, in addition to the hotel and the huge shopping mall, there's a very large casino in the basement across the street. And this casino has been brilliant at bringing the the Chinese tourist dollars. I paid the casino a visit, but didn't play. One very intersting fact about the casino - I was able to enter and exit for free as a foreign tourist, just by showing my passport, whereas locals had to pay $100 to enter. So Singapore is quite happy to take foreign gambling money, but discourages its own citizens from playing. Kinda clever.

Like orchids, I took way too many photos of the Marina Bay Sands. A beautiful building.
Right behind the hotel is a hundred+ hectare garden called the Gardens by the Bay. It's a sprawling manufactured forest, with paved trails going all over it. When I visited, in the late afternoon, it was very busy with runners and families out for a walk. Within the Gardens are two very unique, and I'd argue quite spectacular, glass buildings containing demonstration gardens. There's the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. After a quick review of online commentary I chose to visit the Cloud Forest. which simulated the flora at varying heights up a tropical mountainside. While there were lots of lovely flowers, there wasn't a great narrative to what was on display, and it was kind of confusing. The architecture is magnificent, and what's in the building is worth seeing, but it was still a bit of a let down.

Orchids in the Cloud Forest.

Interior of Cloud Forest building.
I'm glad I'd visited Singapore. I had considered living there, and would still entertain the possibility more than any other SE Asian city. It's completely different from anywhere I've ever been. Yes, it's a little sterilized, controlled, and perhaps lacks drama. But it also seems like it could be a very nice place to settle down for awhile, assuming one could afford it. It was a worthwhile visit.

Next stop - the polar opposite. Cambodia.

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