Saturday, November 2, 2013

Sumptuous Singapore

We had originally only included a one-night stopover in Singapore in our itinerary because there were no direct flights from Bali to Kuching in Borneo. However, when our flight was cancelled we reconsidered and decided to spend 3 nights there. It was a really good decision.

As far as first impressions go, it doesn't get much better than the deservedly award-winning Singapore airport. It's big, startlingly clean and extremely efficient. We passed through immigration without having to queue, took a complimentary sweet, threw the wrapper to the complimentary sweet in the conveniently placed bin, and drank from the conveniently placed water fountain (after spending months in places where only bottled water is drinkable this felt like a luxury). From the airport we took the spotless and efficient metro system into the city, and made our way to the hotel we had booked in advance.

Initial impressions of the neighbourhood were good – there were exciting looking food courts, and places where locals sat outside restaurants drinking beer and socialising – and we were pleasantly surprised by the standard of the hotel. Accommodation in Singapore is super expensive compared to everywhere else we had stayed, so we weren't expecting much from the reasonably priced hotel we had booked online. We felt like proper people for a change, rather than grubby travellers.

That bubble was burst the following evening when we came back to the hotel fairly late only to see a sign on the hotel's reception desk. Of course, this being Singapore, this was no half-arsed sign on a scrap of paper, but rather an official looking sign. The sign stated “Hourly rate $20 inclusive of tax”. Of course, we were staying in the middle of the red-light district where local men appeared to be meeting prostitutes at the restaurants at the end of the road and bringing them to our hotel for an hour at a time. We even passed by one happy customer in the hotel reception as he left the hotel with his “friend” with a huge grin on his face.

Our hotel wasn't completely without its standards however; despite prostitutes being allowed, certain fruits were strictly prohibited.

On our first full day we headed to downtown Singapore on the metro and explored the city on foot. It's a really interesting city with some great architecture.

The central area in amongst the shiny glass office blocks has a river running through it, with plenty of fancy looking bars and restaurants either side of the river and around covered squares. It actually has a very European feel to it – a lot like London if London was clean, spacious and had a tropical climate! We definitely didn't fit in wearing our traveller garb, as most people around that area are very well dressed business people who looked like they had important things to do. Singapore definitely has a high-class feel to it, although the downside is that it has more than a whiff of arrogance. That said, I think it would be a great place to work for a year or so (if you were paid enough to afford the expensive lifestyle).

Even more so than the other places we have visited on this trip, eating seems to be an extremely important pastime in Singapore. There appears to be a two-level hierarchy to eating establishments: either you eat at a restaurant where main courses cost about $15 upwards, or you eat at a food-court where you can eat your fill for about $5. As tempting as some of the restaurants looked, we opted for the latter as it turns out the food at the food-courts is great. So much so that whenever we were going somewhere it became necessary to factor in an extra 15 minutes for me to eat at the food-court we had to pass to get to our local metro station. You can either eat at stalls that specialise in one or two dishes (e.g. roast meats or dumpling soup), or go to a buffet-style stall where they dish out whatever you point at and then make up a price for it...or, as I opted for, both! The downside was that the food-courts weren't particularly veggie-friendly for Monique, and even I had to be careful what I pointed at as there were some pretty strange things in amongst the 'normal' meats.

On our second day in Singapore we headed to Santosa Island, an island resort that is home to various entertainments including Universal Studios. We didn't go to Universal Studios as we decided to save that until our last stop in L.A., but we did have an enjoyable time wandering around the island. It's a pretty bizarre place – the island is covered with all sorts of amusement rides and shows, as well as expensive hotels and golf-courses, but from the man-made beaches looking back towards the mainland the view is one of the Singapore oil industy, and the horizon is filled with chimneys belching out smoke. Quite surreal to see what looks like two different worlds next to one another. We had made the mistake of going to Sentosa Island in the evening, thinking that it would be lively until closing time, however it was actually pretty dead and lots of the attractions were closed. We did, however, see a pretty cool water-show (complete with awful overacting from the young cast) in which holograms were projected onto the mist created by water jets, and we walked to the very southernmost point of mainland Asia. We had a pretty good time, although it felt a bit like a ghost-town; if I was to go back I would definitely go during the day.

By far our best day in Singapore was our visit to Singapore Zoo. I'll save the details for a separate post because there are loads of photos, but it's safe to say that it's the best zoo I've ever been to.

Before leaving we just had enough time to visit the excellent Changi Museum. The museum is located in a former prison which housed prisoners of war during World War II. The reason we only just had time to visit is because we got off the bus a couple of stops early and initially attempted to visit the current prison instead! The museum was excellent – interesting and moving. Prior to visiting the museum neither of us were really aware of the important role of Singapore in WWII, so we were really glad that we managed to squeeze it in before heading to the airport to fly to Borneo.

Overall our brief stay in Singapore was really enjoyable, and I'm glad we had the opportunity to change our plans to allow ourselves more time there. That said, 3 days was probably sufficient as Singapore is definitely the most expensive place we had visited so far on our trip, and any longer in such a clean, efficient and opulent place would have made it difficult to return to our usual backpacker ways.

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