We’ve been in Singapore for the past three days on a visa run and boy is it a change from Bali. After spending a week in the quiet fishing village of Candi Dasa on Bali’s east coast (more on that in another post), Singapore has been quite a culture shock: high-speed underground subways, towering skyrises, and malls as far as the eye can see.
But there is more to Singapore, much more. Most people seem to think that Singapore is a very sterile place; one dominated by obsessively clean streets, glimmering white sidewalks, and towering modern highrises. This is an extremely one-dimensional view of Singapore, and one only need to take a walk through the Tekka Market of Little India on a weekday morning or the narrow backstreets of Chinatown at night to experience a people and place alive with texture and vibrancy.
One of the downsides of Singapore – at least for the budget traveller – is that it is expensive. Singapore is no France or USA, but it is certainly one of the most expensive places to visit in Southeast Asia. We chose to stay in the area known as Little India as we had heard there were some reasonably priced guesthouses to be found. Little India is a neighborhood that sprang up as Indians were brought in as workers under the British when Singapore was a small but thriving colony in the 1820s. At that time the British had a policy of ethnic segregation. The segregation no longer exists today but, indeed, Little India is still very much a taste of Indian culture. We secured a small room at the Little India Guesthouse. The rooms here are very basic and marginally clean, but at $40 per night (Singapore) they were about as much as we could afford. Our first room had a few bedbugs, but when we told the management they quickly gave us a new room that was bedbug free but still with just a single window, a bedside table, bunkbed, and small AC unit. With our room having the atmosphere of a small prison cell, neither of us wanted to spend very much time there, so we spent most of our time walking the streets and various districts of Singapore.
As we were staying in Little India, we started each day in the wonderful Tekka Market, which was just a few blocks away from our guesthouse and on the way to the subway station. Tekka Market is the largest wet market in Singapore and an absolute feast for the senses. Here you can get fruits and vegetables of all shapes and colors, fish, meat, spices, and just about anything else you can think of including jackfruit, manta rays, and black-skin chickens. Additionally, there is an excellent food center, where dozens of stalls hawk food of myriad ethnic varieties. We were particularly fond of the ginger tea served by the Indian stalls, which was made with strong powdered ginger, hot water, and sweetened condensed milk. The tea is frothed by pouring the liquid in and out of two pitchers. Coffee is prepared and served in this manner and is quite good as well. For breakfast we ate fresh egg pratas, which are made with thin bread-like dough and spread out like a pizza. An egg is placed in the middle and onions and Jalapeños are added. The dough is then carefully folded, leaving a pocket with the egg inside. The raw dough is carefully placed on a flat grill and cooked until both sides are golden. It’s served with a savory red curry sauce that varies between vendors, but is tasty enough to be eaten plain. It should be noted here that all food stalls in Singapore carry a government rating for cleanliness that must be publically displayed. With this you are able to sample a variety of new foods and flavors without the anxiety that typically comes with new cuisine in a foreign country. We ate only at stalls that were graded either an A or a B, though neither of us even saw a stall with a C or lower grade, a fine compliment to excellent health standards of Singapore.
Typically, after breakfast in the market, we would descend into the MRT – Mass Rapid Transit – to get to the other areas of Singapore. Singapore has an amazingly efficient public transportation system; it is extremely fast, clean, and affordable and should be a model for other cities and nations still lacking in this extremely important service. The MRT connects you to all parts of the city and public buses fill in the gaps. Most MRT stations are at the base of malls and here it must be said that Singapore has more malls than we have ever seen. Our theory is that modern Singapore was designed, as the climate is extremely hot and very muggy, so that citizens never have to go outdoors. Indeed, when you get downtown it feels as if the entire city is one giant, interconnected mall linked by underpasses, overpasses, and more escalators than you could ever imagine in one place. (One day we tried to count how many escalators we rode but lost count at over 100). Businessmen and women literally commute to and from work through the malls – never exposing themselves to the outdoors. The malls here have much more than simple clothing stores and beauty products: fine grocery stores are in the basement of many malls, as are day spas and excellent restaurants.
We must admit that we spent the better part of two days wandering through nothing but malls. With all this consumerism around us, it was difficult not purchase anything, but with many months of travel ahead of us, neither our bank account or our backpacks could handle any extravagant purchases. We did, however, pick up a few items that we had specifically been looking for. We purchased a new power converter as our last one’s fuse blew and our powerbook has been zapping us whenever it’s plugged in ever since. Our second purchase is much more exciting: we got an underwater housing for our Canon S-80. We had talked about buying this before our trip but decided to hold off for a while. After some excellent snorkelling in Bali, however, we both agreed we really wanted to be able to take pictures in the water. Furthermore, we’ve decided we are going to get our PADI Advanced Open Water Dive Certification completed upon our return to Bali. After hearing myriad stories from the many divers in Candi Dasa – including near-guaranteed sightings of Manta Rays at Manta Point – we couldn’t resist the urge any longer.
One of highlights of our time in Singapore was our visit to Chinatown, which is very different from other Chinatown that we know – the one in San Francisco. The Chinatown in Singapore is extremely clean. The food stalls all have A rating for sanitation, but the area still maintains a vibrant market that stimulates both the eyes and the stomach. It was here that we discovered an amazing tea house called the Tea Chapter. The tea chapter is the largest teahouse in Singapore, and certainly one of the best we have ever seen. We enjoyed a several hour long tea session; we had an excellent Oolong tea and finally some Pu-er, our first since we left Hawaii and hopefully a foreshadow of what is to come as we head north into China. The staff members at the teahouse are extremely friendly, and seemed a little amused at our fascination with tea. The actual drinking of tea takes place on the second and third floors. The first floor is a huge showroom of tea and teaware. They had a huge variety of tea and more variety of teapots in one place than we have ever seen. They also had the largest teapot we have ever seen – it is so big it takes at least 5 persons to pour it – and two of the most expensive teapot we have seen at $16,000 a piece. (Its a good thing our cat is far away since she has a talent for breaking expensive teaware).
That about sums up our time in Singapore. We’re currently in Changi Airport, Singapore’s International Airport, which is an experience all to itself. The airport surely is one of the finest in the world. The MRT goes right into the airport, so getting to and from the airport is a breeze. The airport itself has myriad stores, excellent food, a free movie theater, free internet, and a swimming pool on the roof. It even has free XBox stations. Our flight for Bali departs in an hour so we need to get going.