Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sleepy Singapore

It would have been hard for any place to compare to the excitement of Hong Kong, but unfortunately Singapore disappointed. The couple people I knew from Singapore who I had talked to before I arrived had warned me that S'pore would be a dull place to visit, and having now been there I can't say I disagree.

Singapore does have its positive characteristics. It's a multicultural mosaic, a mixture of ethnic Chinese, Malays, and Indians. Due to a harsh penal code, the city is spotless and safe, all fine as long as you're willing to give up gum chewing! Oh, and definitely give up your recreational drug habit as drug trafficking carries the DEATH PENALTY!! English is an official language and the public transit system is thorough, making tourism easy. Singapore is at sea level almost directly underneath the equator, so hot weather lovers are in paradise. Plentiful air condiitioned malls and shops exist for those prone to melt like me.

So Singapore has checked all the boxes for creating a clean, comfortable city. But all the heat seems to have sucked the life out of the place and this city-state mostly feels like a sterile concrete jungle. I thankfully only needed to survive there for 3 days.

It was back to the hostel world for me in Singapore, with the lodging placed on a nondescript side street above a pungent spice dealer. Thankfully this place in true S'pore style was spotless -- even had a no shoe policy!

I asked the lady working the desk for a Malaysian food recommendation and she directed me to Arab Street in the Kampong Glam neighborhood, the historical home of Singapore's Malay community. In a neighborhood full of rug shops, I found a food stand which looked authentic and surrounded by outdoor diners, and I sat down. The a la carte beef-chicken-vegetable-rice dish I ordered made me reach for the Immodium, and I certainly could have done better.

I walked around the quiet city streets to the Singapore Flyer, a giant ferris wheel in the city's developing new district of Marina Bay. Pricey at $21 USD for a 30 minute ride but a nice view of the skyline in the evening.

Wednesday morning was spent hunkered down in the hostel as a 4" rain tempest fell over two hours! I emerged to eat a satisfying lunch of chicken, rice, bean sprouts, and soup at a Hainanese restaurant, then took the bus to the city's Chinatown. Lots of quiet shops there selling every Chinese trinket or herbal remedy imaginable. Interestingly Chinatown is the home of the city's largest Hindu temple, Sri Mariamman. Open to tourists, I was able to get a close look at all the colorful deities sculpted onto the outdoor walls.

Staying in Chinatown long enough to drink a delicious passion fruit tea, I took the subway to Little India, Singapore's other well-known ethnic neighborhood. This I found very disappointingly dull, unfortunately.

The most popular tourist activity in Singapore is to visit the colonial Raffles Hotel to drink the famous Singapore Sling, a complex concoction of gin, pineapple juice, lime juice, and several liqueurs. The hotel is stately and impressive. The drink is a bit saccherine and certainly overpriced, but it did come with all the free peanuts you wished to eat at the bar.

I was looking for some authentic cuisine for my dinner, and had received a recommendation from some Australians at Raffles to visit the No Signboard restaurant on the eastern coast of the island. The outdoor restaurant took its name from when it was a food stand at a "hawker center". The stand owners were the only ones selling crab but were too busy to put up a placard naming the stand, hence the name. I took a seat, thinking it perhaps telling that I was the only person not dining as part of a larger group.

I ordered the spicy chili crab, known as a Singapore specialty. Before ordering I was assured that I would be given a portion size suitable for one person.

What emerged from the kitchen was huge! I had already downed a plate of vegetables, and I thought this must be some sort of cruel joke played on the stupid fat American. Also I had no idea how to eat the thing. Chopsticks seemed useless and the only other utensils present were a spoon and a claw cracker.

Though I observed none of the other diners doing so, I decided that I would need to eat this with my bare hands, chucking decorum out the window for the practical reason that I didn't know how else I was going to get this thing off my plate. I dipped the spoon into the soupy chili sauce, pulled out a claw, cracked open, and devoured the flesh caveman style. Residual sauce dripping everywhere on the table, I realized this was the wrong meal to be wearing my light khakis!

Moving claw to claw ever so carefully, with arms stretched out over the table, I eventually managed to conquer the crustacean. None of the other diners, somehow able to conquer their crabs without incident using chopsticks, seemed to mind my poor form. The wet napkin after the meal could barely clean my soiled, chili-infused hands. Most expensive meal on my trip ($45 USD), I hastily paid the bill and stumbled away with a food coma.

On Thursday I decided to brave the Singaporean heat with a walk through the city's historic area near the mud-colored Singapore River. My walking tour took in the new nightlife districts in Boat Quay and Clarke Quay, the modern Parliament building, and the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles (colonial founder of modern Singapore). I detoured a bit to sample some Singapore "street food" at a hawker center, then came back to Marina Bay to catch some pictures of the Merlion statue, the half-lion half-fish symbol of Singapore. Finished my tour at the Asian Civilisations Museum, with exhibits on all the major ethnic groups that constitute Singapore.

I took an evening trip to the zoo for Night Safari, a one-of-a-kind chance to view exotic animals at night in the safety of a zoo. Certainly not as exciting as a real safari in Africa, but lots of cool African and Asian animals were easily visible, including leopards, lions, enormous flying squirrels (who chose not to demonstrate their gliding abilities, and sea otters. Unfortunately not good for taking pictures as flash photography was prohibited, but maybe you can see from this how close I was to a leopard!

On to Phuket, Thailand for a rest stop at the beach!

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