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Trip 2 -- Southeast Asia

Part 5: Singapore (10 Oct to 14 Oct 1998)

Exchange rate: US$1 = 1.6 Singapore dollars (SGD)

19 Oct-23 Oct

Waiting for things to happen; Deepavali; more hawker food; the shell game; Fort Canning; the National Museum; a dinner of emu, shark's-cartilage soup, and deer-penis wine; the Greg Chako Trio and the Raffles Hotel; Sentosa; Changi Prison; the Singapore Zoo and the Night Safari…

I was in Singapore for over two hours before I saw anything happen. I walked north for a while, losing my way occasionally and wending my way through residential areas. I searched for a couple of hotels recommended in the guidebook; they were no longer in business. I looked for a place to get a bite for breakfast; there were none open.

Finally I learned that it was Deepavali, the Hindu festival of lights - that's why no one was around. I checked out a couple of hotels near Fort Canning Park and settled on the Victoria Hotel (SGD 61.80 per night), which appealed to me not just because it was the only good deal in the area but also because of its manually operated elevator gates. It was run by a friendly Chinese woman.

Then I walked through the colonial district, viewing the magnificent government buildings, the Merlion (a statue of a half-fish-and-half-lion creature that guards the Singapore River), and the Esplanade. There was nothing at all going on. And then I went to Boat Quay, a popular night spot. Nothing happening.

I found lunch at the Hill Street Food Centre, a collection of semi-permanent hawker stalls. I had fish-ball soup (SGD 3) and got hooked on sugarcane juice (SGD 1 a glass). I hadn't slept much on the train, so I took a short nap and then went to the Kuan Yin Temple. And that's where all the people were! There were people outside selling flowers, people making their way through the temple burning incense, and people exhibiting the masochism that characterizes Deepavali - I didn't see anything too outrageous, but I'd certainly never put a nail through my face!

Singapore is just as cosmopolitan as Penang - you never know whether a street is going to be Chinese, Arab, or Indian. Little India was all lit up for Deepavali, and everyone was celebrating. I had a good Indian dinner (roghan gosht, paneer tikka, a mixed-fruit lassi, and a Carlsberg - OK, not everything was completely Indian!) at the Sitara restaurant (SGD 28.60). Then I went to a sweets shop and bought a collection of those wonderful Indian treats.

That put me near Desker Road, the alleys behind which constitute Singapore's red-light district. Most of the ladies were just sitting in doorways reading magazines - there didn't seem to be that much business going on, not that I scrutinized that closely. There were also gambling artists. I never thought I'd play the shell game, but after watching it over a dozen times and getting it right every time, I threw down my SGD 10. I went home SGD 40 poorer.

I started the next day at Fort Canning, once a military fort on the top of Fort Canning Hill, near the city center. It's not in use any more, but the tombstones that line the hill are a reminder of those who helped found Singapore. There's also a pleasant spice garden surrounding the path going up the hill. The National Museum had good historical dioramas, an interesting exhibit on war, and a collection of modern paintings of different kinds of birds. It also had an abundance of loud school groups.

I lunched in another hawker-stall center (noodles and soursop juice); then I walked along Orchard Road, a broad street lined with department stores a couple of kilometers from the city center. I browsed a New York City guide in a bookstore. Walking back toward the city, I took a few wrong turns and ended up walking for an hour or so through Chinatown, passing by Singapore's assortment of clan houses. I also stumbled upon a small exhibit of photographs of the area.

That night I ate the most adventurous meal I'd ever had. It was in the Imperial Herbal Restaurant, in the Metropole Hotel. Each dish is designed to strengthen some part of the body. Here's the rundown of my meal:

  • Spicy ox tendon
  • Panax ginseng deer-penis wine (a strong wine that's good for the mind - a "Superman wine" according to my waitress)
  • Quick-fried emu with scallion and Chinese wolfberries
  • Double-boiled shark's-cartilage soup with Panax ginseng and Pilose antler (it's supposed to fortify vital energy, strengthen bones and tendons, regulate yin and yang, enhance work performance, stimulate the immune system, and retard the aging process)
  • Double-boiled hasma (snow frog's glands) with rock sugar (this dessert improves the functions of the lungs and the kidneys, maintains your youth, and improves your complexion)

I can't say I felt all that much stronger after the meal, but what a wonderful collection of textures and flavors! I did find the soup too sour for my liking, and I was hoping the dessert would be a little sweeter, but I had no regrets about this meal.

Having splurged on this dinner, I went across the street to the Raffles Hotel (another of the Asian landmark hotels; this one was open) for a Singapore Sling (SGD 18.29) in the Bar & Billiard Room. This was a very elite place indeed - there is even a "passport" listing the 100-plus types of scotch that they offer, so that you can keep track of what you've had and try them all. A jazz ensemble (the Greg Chako Trio) was playing, and when they noticed my interest, they asked whether I was a jazz musician. Not quite - but while they were on a break they let me play Beethoven's "Waldstein" sonata on the piano.

I'm not a big fan of amusement parks, but I spent the next day on Sentosa Island. It's reached by cable car from the top of Mount Faber. Waiting in the line to board, I was in the middle of a particularly obnoxious group of tourists, but I had the pleasure of knowing, when the car paused for a few minutes high above the ground, that one of my car-mates was even more scared of heights than I was.

"Images of Singapore" was the first exhibit I visited on Sentosa; it's a museum with decent wax figures and displays of what life looked like during the Japanese occupation during World War II. Then I took a nature walk (along a "dragon trail" - follow the dragon's footsteps!). The best exhibit by far was Underwater World, an aquarium featuring such specialties as a giant Pacific octopus and a giant crab. At the bottom of Underwater World you walk through a tunnel, and the sea creatures swim above you and around you. It's a spectacular sight to view the bottom of a giant manta ray as it passes over your head!

After Underwater World, I saw a monkey ride a bike and play basketball. Then I visited the Maritime Museum, which has an interesting exhibit telling the story of Singapore's attainment of its current status as an important port city. It also explains how shipping and cargo work - what exactly happens between when a ship arrives and when it leaves.

The Asian Village exhibit, which contains examples of houses and items from different places in Asia, was disappointing - especially when I'd just seen all those countries for real! The musical fountain was a nice, cheesy way to end the day: a fountain spewed water in all sorts of beautiful designs while a very odd assortment of music played over a loudspeaker.

That night I dined in Gail's Peranakan Restaurant, an outdoor place on Boat Quay. The Peranakans are the descendants of early Chinese immigrants who married the native Malayans. The appetizer (shrimp with flour - let's call that "fried shrimp") and the main course (chicken in tamarind sauce with a soft Indonesian nut) were good, but the place had the gall to charge SGD 12 for a bowl of rice, and they charged far too much for the little plate of starter pickles and the wet towels brought at the end of the meal. The people at the next table agreed that many of the extra charges were simply ludicrous. After dinner I walked to the nearby Chijmes center, where I had been told some of the restaurants might have some jazz, but I checked a few of them out and found none.

The next morning I took the bus out to Changi Prison, which has a very moving museum illustrating the hardships prisoners endured while working on the Death Railway from Thailand to Burma. The exhibit contained photos by George Aspinall, who captured images and stories of the hungry and diseased as they trekked through the forests building the railway. The museum also contains notes left by friends and relatives of Changi prisoners.

In the afternoon and evening I toured the splendid Singapore Zoo and Night Safari. The zoo is vast but clearly marked, and the animals are surrounded by moats rather than cages. There was a huge collection of exotic Asian animals in addition to all the usual ones, and I saw a fun elephant-and-sea-lion show. Unfortunately there's not much to do in the area between when the zoo closes and the Night Safari opens, so I had an hour or two to wait.

The Night Safari is a zoo that features all the animals that normal zoos don't have because they only come out at night. There were three trails and a slow-moving tram ride to take me past fishing cats, giraffes, and things I can't even pronounce. There was also a pathway through a bat cage, which I hurried through - I discovered I didn't like the feel of bats flying around my head!

Singapore's subway system is immaculate - there are heavy fines for eating and drinking, and they even ban durians because of their foul smell. And to prevent people from falling onto the tracks (at least in indoor stations), there's a glass separator that opens when the train arrives. But yet not all is well with the system: There's a two-dollar deposit charged when you buy a multiple-trip card, and though in theory the deposit is refundable when you redeem what's left of your card, I couldn't redeem my card because the redemption office was closed that night and wouldn't be open by the time I had to leave for the airport the next morning. I filled out a customer-service form, but I never heard from them. I went back to the Raffles that night for another Singapore Sling and to hear the Greg Chako Trio again; we chatted for a bit after their shift.

To some extent, I got part of my MRT-card deposit back because there wasn't quite enough money left on my card for the bus ride to the airport, so I bought a ticket for a shorter distance and then just stayed on the bus. The double-decker buses provide a great scenic view of the city.

23 Oct
Air: Cathay Pacific #710
(8:05; 3h 24m)

Changi Airport is what every airport should strive to be. It has a waterfall and e-mail facilities (though not in the terminal I was in), and in addition to all the departure and arrival information they show the weather in each departure city. It's a modern, beautiful place, and finding your way around is a breeze. Go on to part 6