Days 1-3: Singapore City, Singapore

by - April 27, 2011

Day One: Colonial District, CBD and Chinatown

Beer at the Raffles Hotel
It was always going to start in Singapore.  If you took a survey of the best places for a British person to ease themselves in the Asian way of life, I reckon half would reply Hong Kong and the other half would reply Singapore.  The 13 hour journey with Qantas was quite enjoyable, though my plan to split my flight between films and sleep was thwarted by my having the middle seat.  Maybe I will finish the trip with enough self assurance to fall asleep on a random person’s shoulder on the return journey from Bangkok, though I certainly hope not.  I stayed up and watched the King’s Speech, Platoon and A Beautiful Mind - plus 6 family guys.  Having woken up at 7am British time, I landed at 1am and by the time I reached the hostel it was more like 4am.  However it was 11am Singapore time and a new day was just starting, so through force of coffee and Coca Cola I have, and intend to continue to, caffiened myself through jet lag.

It is now half 12 and I am sat in the Raffles Hotel courtyard with a tiger beer.  I know that in many ways it is a sick comparison, but having been awake for the last 23 hours and sitting in the 30 degree heat of Singapore, I can begin to understand what the characters felt like in the last chapter of “Ice Cold in Alex”.  Considering that it cost 8GBP, Raffles Incorporated are lucky that it was probably the best beer of my life.  I will probably come back for a cup of tea later, though with Singapore Slings costing 12.50GBP and my daily budget at 20-25GBP, the beer might be all that I can afford.  The absence of people with me on the trip means that I can be constantly updating the handwritten version of my diary that goes in the Moleskine and which in turn should go to explain the odd array of tenses that I use throughout the blog.

Central Business District, Singapore
From the Raffles Hotel I headed down through the colonial district - an area of Singapore which is essentially Horse Guards in a heatwave.  An array of old colonial style buildings still remain - even the cricket pitch and pavillion sits in the shadow of brand new skyscrapers.  Unfortunately there was a lot of work being done on the old buildings so, as seems to be the case wherever I go, there was a lot of scaffolding.  Having seen the old Supreme Court and Parliament House, I crossed the Singapore River into the Central Business District, where the majority of new economic development is taking place.  Aside from the dramatic skyscrapers though, there is very little to see here - it’s just the same as London Docklands really - the kind of place that it is cool to go to but you probably wouldn’t make a day trip out of.

While the Colonial District is at the foot of the skyscrapers to the north, Chinatown is at the foot of the skyscrapers to the south.  The population of Singapore is made up almost entirely of immigrants - when Raffles arrived there were only 100 or so natives in the area and there are now 4.6 million people.  The Chinese made up the bulk of these immigrants and are therefore arguably the main cultural influence.  Chinatown contains the usual mixture of traditional buildings and local wares that exist in most major capitals and also includes several major temples, which were free to enter.  I started with the Thian Hock Keng Temple, which is closest to the CBD.  The temple is the smaller of the two that I was visiting, but is the oldest Hindu place of worship in Singapore.  I realised that aside from vaguely touching on it in RE, I knew next to nothing about Asian religion - in fact it pains me to say that I wouldn’t know the general religious views of major nations like Japan and China. We just haven’t covered it.
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

Luckily the second temple, the originally named “Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum” had a really good exhibit that covered at least the basics of the Buddhist religion.  The temple was VERY ornate and full of chanting monks and locals, some in their suits having just come from work.  The crowning glory of the temple was, of course, the tooth that supposedly came from the Buddha.  Apparently dental experts remain unconvinced and the fact that the temple also is meant to contain bits of brain, muscle and skin, amongst countless other bits and pieces seems a bit wierd to me.  But it was also fascinating and was very obviously a fully functional place of worship that was a major part of the community.  What surprised me was that they were so open to tourists walking around taking photos of them while they were in their service - I just couldn’t imagine walking around my local church taking snaps in a service.  But then again, I am 6000 miles from home and things are a bit different here.

The last temple that I went to was the Sri Marriamman, where I was charged for taking photos and was a bit wierd.  It was a Hindu temple and the paintings and sculptures were very intense.  I’m surprised that kids aren’t terrified of the place.  Maybe they are.  By the stage my messed up body clock dictated that I was hungry, so I set off for the hawker markets of Chinatown.  In one of those nice little coincidences, I ended up reading the recommendation in Lonely Planet for the best hawker street AFTER I had just finished eating there.  I caught the metro back to the hostel and have spent the last two hours trying to arrange the next parts of my trip.  It hasn’t gone QUITE to plan, but I hope that I have done sufficient to not spend the next week in Singapore.  As nice as it is, I get the feeling that 3 days is probably quite enough.
Sri Marriamman Temple, Singapore

Day Two: Little India and the Arab Quarter

After my much awaited night’s sleep, I woke up pleasantly refreshed.  The bottom floor of my hotel (the Hangout @ Mt. Emily - I don’t think I have mentioned it) was also a restaurant and provided a free breakfast of beans and scrambled egg, which went down well and fitted nicely into my budget.  I spent the first part of my morning collecting emails from train companies and hostels before heading out into the city.  Where yesterday had been sunny and hot, today was cloudy and humid and the threateningly towering clouds suggested that it would rain later on.  My hostel is situated on a hill (Mt. Emily) above Little India, so having walked around the outskirts a few times and smelt it (I will explain later), it was the logical next site for me.  Upon arriving anywhere near Little India, you are struck by a smell that fluctuates between the strong and inviting array of spices, to raw sewage, depending on where you stand.  I haven’t ever been to India, but it did seem to give a taste of the real thing.

Roof carvings at the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple
My first stop was the catchily named Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, which was a Hindu temple that was fairly similar to the Sri Mariamman Temple that I had visited yesterday - full of some pretty scary statues and images.  I realised that in my blog for yesterday I got the names of the temple confused (I have rectified it), but I guess that truly demonstrates my shocking ignorance of the Hindu religion.  Little India is full of street sellers and spice traders, but as I wandered through these I started to feel a few drops of rain, so dived into a nearby hawker centre.  This turned out to be a good call because it didn’t just rain, it singapoured (I am delighted that I did get to see some rain so I could put that little gem in).  I had my first sweet and sour chicken from one of the stalls as my main meal for the day - for a cracking 1.50GBP.  The rain continued for about an hour, and as hawker meals can hardly be considered a sit down affair, I spent a fair bit of time singapouring over my maps (okay I will stop) to work out my plan of action for the afternoon.

Sultan Mosque
When the rain stopped I headed to the Arabic Quarter, commonly known as Kampong Glam.  This area, made up mainly of Muslims, is to the south east of Little India and represents a fully functioning region of the world where Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and the odd Christian live in real, intermingled, harmony.  It was quite pleasant to hear church bells, Buddhist and Muslim chanting and the call to prayer in one day.  The two main sites in Kampong Glam are the Sultan Mosque, and Istana Kampong Glam, the old palace of the last Sultan, which has now become the Malay Heritage Centre.  I walked past the Sultan Mosque without going in because it was very busy and I always feel that it is a bit disrespectful to walk in, camera in hand, when there are lots of people about.  I decided to go into the Heritage Centre, a decision that was as much down to it being free as to it being air conditioned.  It was one of those slightly tragic museums which had been really well done but which was completely empty.  It gave quite a good insight of the relationship between the British and the Malays and actually, as is so often not the case, I was able to leave feeling that the British had left a really good mark here.  I get the feeling that Sir Stamford Raffles is still very revered over here.

okay now here it is…
By now it was about half 2 and pretty warm, so I decided to abandon my original plan of going further afield and went back into Little India.  There were two more temples I wanted to see, right on the edge of Little India.  One, the Leong San See Temple was a ‘taoist’ temple - I think that is a version of Buddhism and had been designed to look like an old chinese temple.  It was empty, apart from a friendly person watching the entrance, so I took some time looking around in peace using the guide provided.  This section of Serangoon Road seemed to be a bit of a temple district - there were about five of them at one t-junction.  I went into another one of them, another Buddhist one, called the Sakaya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple - also known as the pleasant 'Temple of 1000 lights’.  I didn’t actually see these thousand lights, but I did see the huge 15m-high seated Buddha statue.  When I read about it in the Lonely Planet, I couldn’t quite envisage what 15m looks like, but it is huge.  Scarily huge.

With the sweat marks beginning to show on my t-shirt I hastily retreated to the hostel again.  I had earlier sent an e-mail to the Thai railways authority to book my train from Butterworth to Bangkok.  I arrived back to the hostel to find that it was fully booked for the next week or so, which was a major spanner in my itinerary.  To get around this I have made some fairly creative changes.  I am now flying from Penang, near Butterworth, to Siem Reap in Cambodia.  I didn’t really want to have to fly anywhere - as it is more expensive and less cultural than land travel, but it might actually make a lot of sense.  Bangkok was only going to be a place for a stopover first time around (I am flying back from Bangkok so will get to visit it later) and it means I will have a few days extra later on in the trip.  At 68GBP it was quite a good deal. 

Wedding Watching
While making this booking, quite a crowd had gathered around the TV, as the coverage of the Royal Wedding was just starting up.  It all honesty I had completely forgotten about it - I had planned to spend my afternoon/evening at the Asian Civilisations Museum, but I have to say that I had caught the bug.  Maybe it is the fact I have been the wandering through the colonial district, or seeing street names that are 6500 miles from London and named after British kings and historical figures, but I actually sat through the whole service feeling pretty proud to be British.  I even got a shiver down my spine at Jerusalem.  And on that bombshell I shall leave you for the day.

Day Three: MacRitchie Reserve, Orchard Road and the National Museum

Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, Singapore
Today was the day that my complacent belief that Singapore is just like hot London began to wear thin.  I sat at the breakfast table this morning trying to piece together a plan of action for the day from the remaining places that I had yet to see and in all honesty struggled to do so.  Just as I was about to leave, an enormous rainstorm started which pushed back my time of leaving by an hour or so.  To find new places I would have to venture out of the city centre to the north and this started by travelling the full length of the deceptively named “Circle Line” on the metro, arriving at Marymount Station and finding myself in the middle of nowhere.  The first site that I hoped to see was the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery, which is a bit off the standard tourist trail but is actually the largest temple in Singapore.  It is a maze of pagodas, shrines, plazas and lawns and contained another HUGE Buddha statue.  The room that contained this statue was so impressive that I felt compelled to sit down for a while.  I am gutted that I can’t upload photos at the moment, because only pictures can do the place justice.  By the time I had finished wandering around it was lunchtime, but all the temple really had on offer were cans of coke and apples.  Which I made do with.

A monkey in MacRitchie Reserve
The next stop on my list was the MacRitchie Reserve, a large nature reserve right in the middle of Singapore.  I had read that it contained some primary rainforest - the only urban primary rainforest in the world, but I assumed that the reserve was essentially going to be an overgrown Central/Hyde Park.  As a result of this assumption I entered the reserve with no map, water or first aid kit, assuming that there would be lots of people around and lots of places to stop and have a drink.  As I entered I tried to work out a route from the signposts that noted the key paths through the rainforest and found one that was meant to take about 5 hours.  I figured that I could cut that down to 3 if I power walked - after all (pardon the pub) I thought it was just going to be a walk in the park.

As I entered I was greated by two monkeys swinging around in the trees.  “Oh that’s sweet, they have introduced monkeys into the park”, I thought to myself.  As I wandered along the paths, it became evident that there weren’t going to be many people around and that I would have the place to myself.  One of the factors of solo travel that I hadn’t really considered was that you don’t make much noise, so I walked around the rainforest in complete silence.  I started planning my blog in my head - how I was going to write about how sweet it was that Singapore had set aside a little rainforest, about how it wasn’t anything like the real thing but they had tried, and how it was all a very surreal experience.  I decided that I needed to have a picture of myself in the rainforest - my first of the trip, so I perched my camera on a fallen tree, walked backwards into the undergrowth and posed.  Unfortunately, there was a slight smudge on the lense which had covered my face amazingly and, deciding that I didn’t really want to look like Andy McNab in my only self portrait in Singapore, I had another go.  I went through the same routine of setting up my camera on the timer and as I walked towards my spot in the undergrowth, I noticed a model of a cobra staring back at me.  “Oh that’s sweet, they have put some models of wild animals in here” I thought to myself.  Then it hissed at me and I gave an Andy McNab-esque squeal and ran for my camera.  Turning around, there was a cobra starting back at me.  Not a huge one, but big enough and black enough for me to stare back at it with my hands shaking.  I decided to beat a hasty retreat from the jungle and when I got out I found that I could see the cobra’s body between my legs on the first photo.  I have no idea what damage it could have done, but I am definitely putting it down as a close shave.

The snake that nearly got me (check my right leg - click to enlarge)
The aim for my walk through the rainforest was the MacRitchie Reservoir, to the south of the reserve, but after the cobra incident I decided to walk around, rather than through.  When I arrived at the reservoir I was surprised to find that it was surrounded by joggers and canoeists and familys on a day out.  There were also more trails, so to prove to myself that I wasn’t a complete wimp, I headed back in.  This trail was a smaller, simpler one with a clear beginning and end at the border of the forest.  It led along the side of the reservoir and was far more pleasant than my first one.  I saw a few little snakes and fairly big lizards, but otherwise nothing to squeal about.  After a worthwhile but bizarre time in the Singapore jungle, I headed back to the city centre.
MacRitchie Reservoir, Singapore

I had heard that it was just like sweaty Oxford Street, but I felt the need to go to Orchard Road.  It wasn’t really a blogable event - I stayed there for about 10 minutes, which was enough time to realise that it was in fact just like sweaty Oxford Street.  My budget didn’t really stretch far enough to buy anything designer and in all honesty I didn’t really want anything anyway.  My next stop was the Singapore National Museum, which was free after 6pm.  This is located in the colonial district, within an impressive colonial style building.  Unfortunatley it wasn’t quite what I had hoped for - it was made up of lots of small exhibits on things like photography, fashion, art and film, rather than the all encompassing history of Singapore that I had hoped for.  It was worth seeing though and marked quite a nice end to my visit to the country.  Picking up some hawker food on the way back to the hostel, I sat on the rooftop terrace and ate with a view over the whole city.  Tomorrow I am taking the 8 hour train journey to Kuala Lumpur.  In a strange way it feels like the trip is only just beginning, because Singapore has seemed a lot like home.  Having said that, it is a very interesting place to visit and after today’s experience I can tell that there is a lot more to it than immediately meets the eye.  I don’t think there can be many other places in the world where you can be confronted by a cobra in the afternoon and the National Museum in the evening.

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