Sunday, April 12, 2015

Singapore: Week of the Lee Kuan Yew funeral

After a whirlwind couple of weeks of work and a grueling European business trip, it was a relief to get on an airplane to see my Vietnamese girlfriend for a few easy days in warm Singapore. On my first visit to Singapore in 2010 I had regarded Singapore as a dull, sleepy island nation. Quite frankly, that type of place was quite alright for me to visit in March 2015, as I was in no mood for long days of sightseeing.

Memorial messages to Lee Kuan Yew could be found all around the city

This trip I was staying in a more historic, less gentrified part of Singapore — Joo Chiat Rd in the eastern part of the city. It was a little distant from the subway but certainly a better value than being somewhere more central. The area was lively at night as it is known for go-go clubs and, interestingly, Vietnamese restaurants. I did not subject my girlfriend to Singaporean renditions of her local cuisine.

After a very late 1am arrival at Changi Airport the night before, the first day in Singapore (Thursday) was lazy. We ate a late lunch at a Chinese seafood restaurant in my neighborhood (where, of course, the waitress tried unsuccessfully to speak to my girlfriend in Chinese), then a slow coffee. We weren’t in the sightseeing area until 4:30pm, which was perfectly fine as we avoided the intense daytime sun and heat of Singapore.

We exited City Hall station and noticed it was very active, with signs pointing to the Lee Kuan Yew memorial site. I suggested we follow the signs — would be a once in a lifetime sort of thing to see the coffin of the founding father, and might just have a bit of a line…

Well, the line stretched and snaked for many blocks, around War Memorial Park several times before extending down the street beyond where the eye could see. This line was massive, and we would be here for hours. My girlfriend and I backtracked through the very orderly crowds and escaped — turned out the queue time was anywhere from 5 to 8 hours for most of the week!

What my girlfriend called the "Durian" theater

My girlfriend really wanted to see the “durian” theater (Esplanade), and we detoured a little around the crowds before we found a path. The sun was covered by a friendly cloud but I was still sweating. We made it down to the Marina Bay and snapped all the typical pleasant tourist photos of Singapore: the Singapore Flyer, the Marina Bay Sands, the Merlion. We strolled along Boat Quay. packed with Aussies and Indians watching their teams compete in the Cricket World Cup and finally dined on hamburgers for dinner in Clarke Quay. In the evening we strolled through the bright markets in Chinatown before retiring.

Friday was all about seeing expat acquaintances who had moved to Singapore — an Italian who works for Intel, a Taiwanese who works for Thomson Reuters, and a Brit at a renewable energy company. I learned surprisingly little about how one actually might find a job in Singapore, but I did enjoy seeing everyone and eating and drinking coffee. In a way, I saw how the “locals” live. In between appointments we walked along Orchard Road, desperate for a coffee and cake cafe (not found on the pricey sidewalk real estate), but did eventually settle into one for a nice air-conditioned break, where I introduced my girlfriend to the delight of French Press coffee.

On Friday evening, my girlfriend and I tackled my former arch nemesis… the Singapore chili crab!! We visited Long Beach at Dempsey Hill, a nice wooded area by the Botanic Gardens. This time I had two big advantages from my first messy encounter… my girlfriend who could eat some of the crab, and a friendly waiter who offered to bring the crab out cut into smaller pieces. Though it still made my hands red, the crab was delicious and considerably better than before.

Above Singapore, at a rooftop pool bar near Somerset station

Saturday daytime brought more tourism, the new Gardens by the Bay. The outside was a little hot for daytime walking, thankfully free of charge though. However we needed the air conditioning beckoning from the two domes on the site: the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. At the ticket counter we had sticker shock at the price of visiting both (28 SGD / person), so we received the ticket for one conservatory (16 SGD / person) and needed to make a choice… which dome?! We chose Cloud Forest, a cool misty tropical sanctuary with lots of nice flowers. Trekking the dome took about an hour … after leaving we felt refreshed and a cloud had covered the sun to give us a pleasant walk back to the Marina Bay Sands. The hotel itself looked kitschy and overrun with tourists (the queue area to go to the top of the hotel smelled like bad body odor and the price was exorbitant), but we greatly enjoyed sitting along the Bay outside the mall with a view of Central Singapore’s skyscrapers.

For dinner that evening I met my long-lost friend Stefan, who was now married with a daughter! Thankfully, Stefan and his wife love cooking for guests, and we had a great take on local food: Gado-gado salad, Sio Bak, and Laksa pesto pasta. And the locals seem to be living pretty well!

Sunday, our final day in Singapore, was state funeral day, and our lunch plans with a Singaporean business school colleague were quickly changed as the ceremony was slated to begin at 12:30. We munched on a satisfying dim sum breakfast and escaped just in time for the funeral madness, but not the pouring rain! How fitting that the heavens opened up as the founding father was being led down the Singapore streets. Actually, aside from some street closures the city didn’t seem vastly affected… that said we had been advised to avoid all areas along the route, so my girlfriend and I settled for a lazy afternoon walk along East Coast Park. The trail was pleasant free of cars but the water view was not romantic, unless you’re the type who enjoys staring at container ships in the Singapore Strait!

Looking back on the city center from the Marina Bay Sands

In short, my original verdict on Singapore still stands … as a tourist destination it is certainly a bit dull. But nowadays I look at Singapore in a different light, as a potential place to settle down for a few years after leaving Korea, and in that way Singapore scores well… my friends seem to be enjoying life and living well.

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