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Another Window on Singapore

They used to call Singapore 'a fine place to visit' - and you can see why. Some of these make perfect sense - read through and tick the obvious ones. But, durians? Visit Singapore (and much of south-east Asia) and you'll find that most hotels ban them too, because they win the world award for smelliest food.

The good news is that there is so much more to Singapore than strange rules and foods that stink.

I decided on a recent trip that I would see if I could upend the idea that Singapore is an expensive city. So come with us on a free-and-easy stroll around Singapore, the island city, state, country that has more oomph and more courage and ambition than anywhere else in the world.

This is the only city that has been kicked out of another country. True! in 1963, Malaysia basically told Singapore it was not needed in its new country which was evolving to the north on the Malay Peninsula.

Chinese-Peranakan lawyer, Lee Kwan Yew, picked up the challenge, became Prime Minister of the new Republic of Singapore and almost single-handedly, with a whole bunch of tight restrictions and rules (see the first picture) plus the immense savvy and entrepreneurial skills of the Singaporean people, lifted the island from a smallish city with a population of 1.8 million to one of the world's top trading nations.  

Now, as one of the Four Asian Tigers, along with Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, it is notable for maintaining exceptionally high growth rates (in excess of seven percent a year) and rapid industrialization between the early 1960s (mid-1950s for Hong Kong) and 1990s.

All this in only fifty years!

 

Last year, 2015, was a year of great celebration - and with good reason.

The highest proportion of the population of Singapore has Chinese heritage. Some are peranakan, which is a hard enough word to pronounce without trying to explain it. Especially when these people are sometimes also called babas and nyonyas, and the cuisine - fragrant, spicy, irresistible concoctions - is called Nyonya. Or maybe peranakan. Confused yet?

It is simply this: the peranakan people came from mixed marriages between Chinese male nationals and local Malay women. The Chinese men are called babas and the women nyonyas.

Singaporean cuisine is one of the world’s best – and most affordable - and the breakfast I go looking for as soon as I leave the plane in Singapore is this - kaya toast – coconut jam, boiled egg and toast - with ‘sock’ coffee.

It’s not what you think. The coffee is strained through a cotton filter, not a real sock!

Everyone talks about the shopping in Singapore. In the 1970s and for a couple of decades, this was the place for duty free purchases - watches, cameras and other high-end things. More recently this has changed a little, but the shopping centres are still amazing places to wander.

When shopping, it doesn’t cost anything to look, and there may be bargains too. Erskine Road on the edge of Chinatown, just across from the Maxwell Hawker Centre is the place for cool novelty items. At the other end of the shopping spectrum, wander and window-shop at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands. Big names, luxury items, high prices, but you can look for free. 

Sensational skylines come free too. This gracious old building is now dwarfed by the high-rise.

Inside, it is a bustling food court. In fact, if you are after some inexpensive dining, stalls in places like this have meals for a fraction the price of those in restaurants, and often just as good. As a precaution, look for the food hygiene certificate, as each stall must display it, as it is part of their licence to sell food.

If you are on a really strict budget, the Singapore Buddhist Lodge on Bright Hill Road, serves a daily buffet of free vegetarian dishes to anyone, rich or poor.

Streetside vendors sell slabs of ice cream (including durian - you know you have to try it, at least once!) between bread slices or wafers. That SGD $1 is about the same as AUD.

And if you want to know another cool way to deal with Singapore’s equatorial heat, look out for ais kachang on a menu - a dish of shaved ice slathered with syrups and beans and jelly and fruits. 

One of the charms of wandering around Singapore is the chance to enjoy its wealth of street art - either sculptures or installations. This eighteen-metre piece pays tribute to all the past and present Singaporeans who have made this city so successful and vibrant.

A replica of Rodin's famous sculpture outside this very luxurious hotel looks as if he is considering whether or not he should check in. Having stayed there on a previous visit, I would advise him: Definitely, yes!

The Marina Bay area is the centrepiece of modern Singapore. Reclamation work began in 1969, and involved diverting the Singapore River mouth into the bay rather than the sea.

It is our guess that Singapore's town-planners are also photographers - or artists - as the positioning of buildings, monuments, sculptures and art seems to beg you to use the multitude of great photo angles.

Here is the Merlion statue, the place where everyone comes to have their photo or selfie taken. It is especially popular from the other side, where, if you get it right, the Merlion appears to be dousing you with his stream of water.

The Merlion is the personification of Singapore. It is a play on the city's original name, Singapura (lion city). The Mer (sea) lion is a further play on that.

This prickly customer is the Opera House, but ask a local for directions to the 'Durian', and they will send you here too. If you think I have forgotten our 'free' tour of Singapore, it's important to know that all of these places are free to wander around and enjoy.

This is the other Fullerton Hotel, the original one which began its days in 1928 as Singapore's General Post Office.

 

Don’t miss the stunning Marina Bay Sands laser show each evening, best seen from the city side of Marina Bay. At Gardens by the Bay it costs nothing to walk amongst the stupendous Supertrees which play atmospheric music in the evenings. 

And this is where we sneak in something that does cost a little, but is so good and so worth-it that I don't feel at all guilty. The forty-minute cruise is $25 (Singapore dollars - but, as you know, that's almost exactly the same as AUD). It takes you from near the Merlion,  along the Singapore river and then back into Marina Bay. As you travel you will pass under old-Singapore arched bridges and get a closer look at heritage buildings.

The bum-boats, a local name for small water taxis, are an ideal size for small groups, and leave about every 15 minutes.

Leaving the bay behind, the boat begins its leisurely way up the Singapore River, the original place for ships to bring cargo into the port in the early days of the city.

Period- style buildings, many reflecting Britain's colonial era here, are also built on the waterfront for easy access for supplies. The shutters are also a colonial addition to allow breezes in but to keep out intruders. The recently-added bright colours are so 'Singapore'.

The architecture could be in London, which makes sense it was carried out by architects and builders from Britain during the colonial period.

Many of the local boatmen working on craft on this river have come from families who may have been doing the same task for generations. This particular business, Singapore River Cruise has been operating since 1987. You will see more parts of the cruise on the video (above).

Finally, forty minutes later, we are delivered back to the quay to discover sailing boats decorating the bay.

Whatever you do, when next in Singapore, get moving, with a map and your walking shoes, and locate Singapore’s top sights. Merlion on Marina Bay for photos, the Fountain of Wealth for some good luck, the Singapore riverside with its sculptures, restaurants and bars for some local culture, and Marina Bay just for the beauty and energy of it. All are all photo-worthy.

Every weekend Singapore Footprints’ student volunteers offer free walking tours of the Singapore River and Bras Basah and Bugis.

 
As it happens, Bugis is where we head next. We can overlook Bras Basar's busy crowds of shoppers from one part of the hotel where we stay.
 
 
It is here, at the lovely Hotel InterContinental Singapore, that Singapore's Peranakan theme comes alive. The architecture of the facade is that of the early shop-house traders, and the pastel colours have been intentionally used by the refurbishers of the hotel to honour its historical background.
 
 
There is a grandness to the hotel, with an airy height, and cool, genteel demeanor.

Singaporean people who are referred to as Peranakan are descended from Chinese men who can many generations ago seeking work on the Malay Peninsula. Many married Malay women and naturally two great cuisines and cultures blended into a new (and delicious) one.

In the lobby areas, Peranakan patterns and colours are echoed in the floor tiling....

... and friezes of authentic wall tiles elsewhere.

On a display table a Peranakan teaset is ready for someone to demand 'Tea!'.

Some of the rooms and the suites in the hotel have been specially decorated, channelling the Peranakan theme again. See the ceramics on the shelves, and the card on the bed is a bedtime story: Peranakan legend. 

And of course the hotel knows that after all that wonderful food, you need somewhere  to get fit.

Many hotels serve a classic high tea, but here there is not just one .....

.....but two! There is a bright and modern version as well.

The free view from the 70th-floor City Space Bar at the top of the Swissotel the Stamford will also help orientate you.

In one direction you can see the shop houses along the Singapore river and the skyscrapers and modern city behind.

Look the other way and there is (anti-clockwise from top) Marina Bay Sands, Gardens by the Bay, the Singapore Flyer, and the 'durian'.

Of course if you have the time, you can relax here and enjoy the view over a good meal.

The buffet is almost as extensive as the view!

For a small entry charge, why not learn more about the Peranakan culture at this museum?

No, Queen Victoria was not a Peranakan! But she is honoured here because she was the monarch during the colonial period and she is remembered with affection by the local Peranakan people.

Peranakan handiwork is colourful and meticulous. You will have seen beaded shoes and slippers in many places, but here, in the museum is a large piece depicting a resident of Australia - a sulphur-crested white cockatoo!

Many Chinese customs were adopted by the Perankan families, and here is a sumptuous marriage bed...

... and a table set with the best ceramics and silver for a huge family of twenty or so diners.

Peranakan food is known for its rich and spicy dishes such as this calamari..

.. here served with a simple pomelo and nut accompaniment.

We ate these dishes (and a few others!) in True Blue, a Peranakan restaurant  just a few steps from the museum.

Decorated in typical Peranakan (sometimes call nonya or nyonya - meaning 'aunties' - as the women were the cooks, usually) it has the ideal surroundings in which to relax and immerse yourself in the culture.

Getting around town, the MRT rail system offers an ez-link card which deducts your fares as you travel on trains of buses. The Singapore Tourist Pass offers tourists unlimited travel on basic bus services and MRT trains with one, two or three-day unlimited rides.

The InterContinental Hotel offers guests a free Guided Heritage Trail tour of the area surrounding the hotel. Its location in the vibrant ethnic heart of Singapore makes this a fascinating insight into the beginnings of this city.

The real bargains are in Singapore’s various precincts. Mustafa Centre, in Little India, is Singapore’s only 24-hour hypermart, laden with costume jewellery (a whole aisle of jangly bangles alone!) clothing, electronics, watches, perfumes. Beat the crowds and shop at 2am! Haji Lane, close to Bugis MRT, is a hip place to be seen and spot the local (and visiting) fashionistas, without spending a cent. 

Throughout Singapore, there are temples and churches which are free to enter. Of course tourists must be sensitive to the fact that to the people who worship in these places they have immense meaning, and we all need to dress appropriately, remain quiet and be sensitive when taking photographs.

Changi Airport wins awards for its style and efficiency. Passing through? Even then, Singapore is considerate of your budget. With a layover of at least 5.5 hours, you may book a 2.5-hour Free Singapore Tour. Choose between a daytime Heritage Tour or a dazzling evening City Sights Tour.

++++

A baker's dozen of more free things to see and do in  Singapore:

  • Colourful ethnic festivals throughout the year.
  • Many Buddhist and Hindu temples are free to enter.
  • Sungei Buloh, a wetlands reserve park, free entry on weekdays, a dollar at weekends.
  • Singapore Art museum (SAM) is free on Friday evenings.
  • Free admission at Singapore’s National Museum and Changi Chapel.
  • The National Gallery charges a small entrance fee.
  • Asian Civilization Museum has an entrance fee, but offers free guided tours twice daily.
  • Walk the Southern Ridges trail, or hike the treetop suspension bridge at MacRitchie Reservoir Park.
  • Walk around the Marina Bay Street F1 Circuit.
  • Visit parks at dawn to see locals practising Chinese martial art, qigong.
  • Picnic on the grassy top of Marina Barrage, and fly a kite or watch others.
  • Stroll Marina Bay boardwalk along the Singapore River.
  • Picnic at the Botanical Gardens.

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More information about Singapore......

Words and pictures: ©Sally Hammond

Video: ©Gordon Hammond

(Sally & Gordon travelled to Singapore independently, and stayed as guests of Hotel InterContinental Singapore)

 

 

 

 

 

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