A Singapore Sling
Crikey! I have just stepped onto the KTM Intercity overnight steam train from KL Sentral station to Singapore. I’ve just lugged my enormous 20kg travel bag about 13 carriages down to J1 in 32 degree heat, and dripping with sweat. My feet are killing me from my expedition to the mosque, and walking around the main shopping centres of Bukit Bintang, looking for an obscure Korean Pop EP at the various CD stores in Kuala Lumpur. After about half a dozen average CD stores, we lost faith. I have become accustomed over the last few weeks to the luxury of hotel rooms with adjustable air-conditioning, and unfortunately this air-con is just a few degrees to warm for my comfort, as i lie on the top of a rickety plastic bunk hanging from the wall on hinges, looking up at the roof just over half a metre above me. At least my friend has a window on the lower bunk. If only I was over six foot. As I climb down with difficulty to the floor, and squeeze past the non-working TV into the toilet, I realise it doesn’t flush. At least there is a sink with running water, even if not fit for drinking. And there is a small shower, a couple of towels and a couple of bottles of drinking water provided. There is nowhere to stand, unless you want to risk standing between the carriages, which they let you do to stick your head out in the fresh air and admire the mountainous jungle countryside in pitch black, despite the warnings about doors being left open.
In fact, you’ll hear most of the doors of the train
clanging all night, because they tend to pretty much be ignored, and just smack open once in a while. Suprisingly, once I finally accept I have no option but attempt Buddhist meditation in order to sleep, I awake 5 hours later at Johro Bahru at Malaysian Immigration and Customs. We seem to be delayed here for almost an hour, as the Immigration Police munched on take away food, laughing and playing cards. Perhaps we were refuelling. There were a number of prolonged stops along the way. The train is supposed to arrive at 7am in the morning, but it’s much more like 9am when you arrive at your destination. At Johor Bahru a policeman comes on board, takes the departure card you got at the airport, and squiggles on your passport. Over the bridge you go, and disembark at Woodlands station in Singapore with all your belongings. Nothing is to be left on the train. All cigarettes and alcohol is confiscated, or you pay tax for it. If you declare anything, or appear confused in any way, you might also find yourself separated from your pirated DVD box sets from Vietnam. Fortunately, we’re looking calm and smooth, as we sail confidently through the non declaration aisle without detection, and wait in the holding area for about half an hour before we are allowed to reboard. Another forty minutes and we’ve progresed to Tanjong Pagar station at the end of the line, and a cleaner kindly wakes us from the empty seats we have usurped as our own (for half an hour of far superior sleep), to disembark.
This is a relatively simples tation compared with KL Sentral. There are few shops to get basic food and drink, passenger information is closed, there are a couple of security guards, and a taxi rank. No ATM. After we refuse a ride in a van from an old chinese fellow, who would deprive us of a $50AUD note for a ride to our hotel, because in his economy Singapore and Australian dollars are roughly the same, I’m informed by one of the security guards that all taxis in Singapore have electronic credit card facilities. We jump in the next taxi that stops at the rank. A middle aged retiree driver, takes us for a direct but opportunistic guided tour of the CBD through relatively modest traffic. It’s a bank holiday today, but shopping, tourism and transport here are running 365 days a year. They don’t close museums on a Monday here,
as they do in Kuala Lumpur. Every day is a holiday here, or a working day, depending on how you look at it. It’s definitely a city that stops for nothing. I’m relieved by the fact that my cab fare is only just over $5SGD ($4AUD). The delightful Chinese man tells me proudly that “in Singapore, we have very few cheats”. Everything is certainly designed for the convenience of tourists here,although after travelling elswhere in South East Asia, the budget part of my holiday has definitely come to an end. Fortunately our hotel was brilliant value for money, and that we booked it early. It is now well over $200 per night to stay here. This hotel is basic, but extraordinarily clean, modern and comfortable, with a pleasant atmosphere, little need to rely on the helpful service, a working wi-fi, drinkable tap water, a convenient coin laundry, cheap smorgasbord full of Singaporean cuisine (lots of Malaysian curry Laksa and Chilli Crab), a 24-hour 7-11 next door, and a much needed shower after that rickety steam train. It is situated just behind a busy Chinese temple where I dare you to take a photograph inside, around some outdoor malls with street shops, Asian food centres, and on the same block as the Sim Lim Square (where you can buy some of the cheapest electronic goods in Asia). It is five minutes walk from a station on the MRT (Singapore’s world class underground metro railway network), and ten minutes walk from Little India, with its spectacular array of food and clothing shops, with a bustling Hindu Temple, and all the sights and smells of Indian cooking and incense.
There is only about 4 minutes between trains on all of the major lines of the MRT, which are conveniently linked by inte rchange stations. Changing lines is frequent when travelling around on the metro, but this gets used to, as the carriages are well air-conditioned, the trains you need to catch are generally conveniently on the opposite platform as you alight, the edge of the platform is met by a wall with glass doors which open in synchrony with the train doors when the train arrives at the platform, preventing any accidental or intentional deaths at the station. A poster of three beaming Chinese princesses wearing bright coloured gowns and jewelled crowns tells you to be polite and wait for the people coming off the train, as you stand behind the red lines on either side of the doorway. All this leads to the efficiency of people getting on and off in less than about 20 seconds before the doors close. There’s much more standing room available on these trains than in Melbourne. They are relatively cheap, and if you’re here for two or three days you can get a tourist pass from City Hall station, which allows you to merely swipe your way through the gates for a few days without having to buy tickets from the convenient electronic machines that give you a one dollar refund when your standard ticket has expired. You can literally get anywhere on these trains, and the buses (which operate on the same ticketing system, unlike in Sydney), connect at bus interchanges that are well labelled with route maps and numbers, so you can find the correct berth for your bus, while you watch the television screen to see what time it is arriving, which is usually within 10 minutes or so. Exits to the stations are also well signposted with all the major shopping centres, landmarks and tourist attractions, so that when you alight, you know which exit to use. There also is a local map avaialble at every exit to every station in Singapore. The trains are roomy, clean, less noisy and seem to accelerate and decelerate a lot faster and yet more smoothly than the trains in Melbourne. A world class public transport system here for a tiny fraction of the cost to the consumer, makes one realise how much Australia has fallen behind in terms of metropolitan infrastructure. Although in many ways, while the traffic is much better during off peak hours, this is a city that competes with Sydney in terms of its aesthetics and grandiose modern architecture, and Melbourne in terms of its multiculturalism and convenience. It succeeds Melbourne in this goal at the very least.
The enormous Marina Bay Sands Casino with its shopping malls, elite hotel, and skypark viewing deck where hotel guests swim in a pool that meanders all the way up to the roof’s edge, sports the best city views in Singapore. The walk from Raffles Place MRT station to the Hotel complex around the bay opposite the Merlion, through a mist-spraying water sculpture is spectacular enough, with views of both the Casino building with its three massive towers, and the enormous Singapore Flyer,
with its rotating capsules, which you can sit inside for 30 dollars and rotate for half an hour above the mouth of the Singapore River and observe the skyline and the Formula 1 grand prix racing track below. I’m still jealous I didn’t get to use the pool, but that would have been over $300 a night for the privilege.
Every drink of every possible flavour is available at the 7-11 here, including beer. In fact, everything here is exceptionally utiliser-friendly. This may not be cheap living, but it is relatively good value for money when you consider it, if you were ever to get over being a tourist. It must be the cleanest city in the world, mainly because it is subject to some of the most stringently enforced anti-littering legislation. There are no smelly drains here. There are always public rubbish bins and western toilets available for the squeamish, and traffic is orderly and road laws are obeyed. They even drive in the correct lane, for those of you who find sitting in left hand drive vehicles overseas disorienting. There are a number of social advertising campaigns here urging people to be vigilant against terrorism, to reduce their environmental footprint, and to prioritise disadvantaged people on public transport. The Images of Singapore museum on Sentosa Island kicks off with a video about the four ethnic winds meeting in Singapore, representing the Chinese, the Indians, the ethnic Malays, and the British, whose wise and jolly spokesmen bless you with their wishes for family, peace, community and harmony, respectively. This is a city where multiculturalism is celebrated, and heralded as the heart of their national achievement and success. This is definitely a city that feels that it has got the balance right. It promotes itself as almost a perfect way of living, a thriving economy with an enormous appetite for growth, a place with progressive and yet totally sensible attitudes and laws, and for the total convenience in the way everything in Singapore is designed, in every aspect of the commercial world, in many ways it is hard to disagree. Even shopping here may not be cheap, but the range is far more extensive than anything we have available in Australia. If you are shopping for anything, Orchard Road is the place to go, with hundreds of massive shopping malls, you can find even the most obscure here, including the
Korean EP we were looking for in the massive HMV in [email protected], which is a shopping centre at the entrance to a train station on the MRT, and also does some very tasty burgers at The HandBurger. HMV has inflated prices, just like in Australia, but if you really want that random CD you can’t get anywhere else, that limited edition, that artist that is out of print, at HMV in [email protected] they have everything. They not only had our Korean Pop EP. They had a Korean Pop section, as well as an Asian charts section (on which the EP was number 15) selling hundreds of copies (that Malaysia seemed to be completely out of print for). That CD shop at Pacific Plaza, just up the street, around the corner after the underpass is also a great place to get obscure and locally produced lounge music, that’s worth a listen just to walk through the shop. Down the street, one of these shopping centres houses Kinokuniya, a Japanese bookstore chain which is the largest bookstore in Southeast Asia. The Forumis a shopping centre almost
totally dedicated to children, with a number of clothing stores, and Toys-R-Us. There are food courts everywhere, and everything is within walking distance. If you really get over being a tourist in Singapore, and shopping is your thing, this is pretty much shopping heaven.
It is here, in this thriving metropolis, we came across Emily and Paul. Emily was one of the interns at the hospital where we worked together last year in Ballarat. She has now migrated to Brisbane with Paul, who has survived his first year of medical school with eccentric professors who link random celestial events to the development of G6PD deficiency, in a faculty which appears to be run predominantly by television personalities. After facebook alerts us to our locational coincidence, we decide to catch up for a day at the zoo. We start off at the Jurong Bird Park where we get our three-park pass to see the Bird Park, Rainforest Zoo, and Night Safari. The Bird Show is spectacular, particularly the parrot that can sing songs in three languages and count to ten in both English and Chinese. The best rainforest zoo in the world is another great boast of Singapore. The night safari, next door to the zoo, is also no disappointment. There are two train stations on the MRT running regular buses all day (or night) to these locations, and if you miss the last bus after the Safari, a $4 courtesy bus will take you within 5 minutes’ walk of your hotel.
You will see some of the most exotic, endangered, and African animals, grazing comfortably in this well maintained paradise in the central hinterland in the centre of the Island of Singapore. On the night safari, you will see not only all of the animals that you forgot to expect at the zoo, but all kinds of random mountain goats and deer, African wild dogs and hyenas, elephants, rhinos, bats, otters, gliders, all the usual and unusual big cats, and even extraordinary creatures that look like they originated in Jim Henson’s laboratory. As we walk around the Zoo with Emily and Paul, surveying poisonous and not so poisonous but just as deadly snakes, feeding giraffes, we trade stories. They are headed to the filthy and inconvenient capital city of Kuala Lumpur we have just escaped to the comparable tourist paradise of Singapore. They’re also going on the same train, but it will cost them three times as much in the opposite direction, for exactly the same type of cabin. You might be just as comfortable going for a seated option, or even catching a plane instead.
If you have a few days to spend here, it’s really worth waking up at a civilised time one morning, leisurely taking the MRT to Harbourfront station, and getting a $4SGD cab to the Mt Faber viewing point, to ride a Jewel Box Cable Car across the channel to the Imbiah Lookout on Sentosa Island. Here you can purchase your Sentosa Choice packages that allow you to get discounts on a range of Island attractions. Sentosa is like a giant theme park, but with independent attractions. There also is a Resort World, and Universal Studios for the kids, with a rollercoaster. A massive water park is being built as we speak. There is an interactive museum here called Images of Singapore, a restaurant, ice-creamery, gift shop, ATM (believe me, you will need it) and 4D theatre (where you get tickled, sprayed and spat on, as you watch your 3D adventure), and cinematic rollercoaster ride. You can choose to get to Siloso Beach from here by either Luge (a cross between a go-kart and a toboggan, swerving about 1km down the hill), Skyride (a feeble viewing chairlift), or MegaZip (a massive flying fox that zooms you over the rainforest canopy within seconds down to the beach). If none of these modes of transport interest you, take the free courtesy bus around Sentosa Island. If you think they’re all far too expensive, then get the escalators down the the foot of the massive
Merlion statue, near the entrance to Resort World, and catch the monorail back to your hotel. If you’re not sure how much a particular tourist attraction costs in Singapore, estimate about $30 and your budget should start balancing. You can easily spend a whole day here, but you may as well give Underwater World a miss, as it’s far too packed and really doesn’t live up to its reputation as the biggest oceanarium in the world. It’s simply not. Seal and dolphin shows are the only highlight here, at the dolphin lagoon, and if you want your foot callouses bitten off by miniature fish after going on the small underwater travellator (where all kinds of rays and sharks fly over you), it will cost you $38 additional dollars for the privilege. There is also no discount here with your Sentosa Package. More interesting is Fort Siloso, which like the superior Battle Box at Fort Canning Park (where the scenario leading up to the British surrender of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 is reenacted in a maze of old military tunnels), is an old military museum reminiscing the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, the worst disaster in British military history. Finally, after experiencing all the rides and attractions Sentosa has to offer, climbing the Merlion, walking past the artificial wave activites on the beach after sunset, it is finally time for the Songs of the Sea. This is a spectacular pyrotechnic display
with multicoloured images projected onto an artificial wall of water, towering above a small village of stilt houses in the ocean, which light up in different colours as part of the display. The main characters dance and sing on the beach and interact with the giant pyrotechnic display, while sound effects and music emanate from the large speakers on the beach. The narrative may be a little lacking, but definitely child friendly, and the effects are spectacular. Fortunately, the monorail back to Harbourfront continues to depart approximately every 3 minutes from here, so there is plenty of transport back to your hotel, if you are not staying on one of the plush resorts on the Island already.
Finally a trip to the Asian Civilisations Museum is well worth the trip. Interactive video guides talk you through the various different galleries. You can sit and listen to the daily Islamic prayers sung in Arabic, at one headphone display, or go check out some of the spectacular Chinese embroidery. Every religion and historical culture in Asia is represented in this truly diverse and industrious museum. A short ride on the MRT to City Hall will lead you to Raffles Hotel, an old colonial building named after the British founder of Singapore, and is the home of the famous Singapore Sling (a refreshing cocktail, unlike the MegaZip which transported me from Imbiah Lookout to Siloso Beach), which you can purchase from either the Long Bar, in the courtyard, or on the balcony of
the Bar and Billiard bar in front of the fountain, for the pleasure of $58 dollars for two, including GST and a service fee. Probably the most expensive liquid per millilitre ever to be quenched down in such record time. What a shame I couldn’t keep the Raffles Hotel cocktail glass, although I dread to imagine what the price would be to buy one, were they available from the museum (near the Jubilee Hall auditorium and lounge) or gift shop, which sadly they are not. Everyone’s experience of Singapore is going to be somewhat different. They have enough variety and choice of activities and attractions, that you can pretty much take your pick. The flyer, Marina Bay Sands skypark, the zoo, night safari, and Mt Faber/Sentosa are all fantastic options. But for those who like to visit temples, and explore ethnic culture, you can take day tours of the city, or make your own way around the streets of Chinatown and Little India with relative ease. Everything you could ever want is avaialble here, and fortunately some genius has made sure nothing will be difficult for you to find. Just make sure you remember to bring plenty of cash if you’re planning to stay for any more than a few days. You will need it!