Singapore was always going to feel like a very different stop on our travels through South East Asia. After the relatively chaotic nature of cities like Hanoi, Chiang Mai and to a lesser extent Kuala Lumpur, would it be too cold and clinical compared to the hospitality and warmth of its neighbours? Happily, our five days in Singapore was a really good balance: enjoying its creature comforts – something as simple as walking on pavements unencumbered by mopeds or craters – stunning architecture and gardens; and vibrant ethnic neighbourhoods.
As you would expect, Downtown Singapore is very built up, resembling a clean-cut cross between Hong Kong and Manhattan.
One of the striking features of the modern skyscrapers is how much greenery has been incorporated into the design. As a result “vertical gardens” complement the glass and concrete beautifully throughout the downtown area. Combined with bays and rivers it makes for an engrossing built environment that demands attention and appreciation.
Dotted among the modernism are colonial style buildings that act as a reminder of an evocative past when the streets were full of rickshaws, opium dens flourished in China Town, and the Singapore Sling had just been concocted. Sadly one of the best known colonial buildings, Raffles Hotel, is currently being renovated so we didn’t get a chance to see much of it beyond glimpses above construction hoardings.
Nowhere is the City’s commitment to greening more beautiful and stunning than Gardens by the Bay. This was one of the “must sees” on our travel to do list and it lived up to our very high expectations. Covering a huge area, the Gardens are dominated by the Supertree Grove and two huge glasshouses.
The Supertrees are straight out of a sci-fi film, towering over the gardens, the “trunks” covered in flowers and foliage, while the “branches” stretch out carrying illuminations. You take an elevator inside the “tree” to get to the “Observation Deck” (how very Star Trek!) where you can get up close to the trees and survey the “forest”.
The best time to visit the Grove is late afternoon early evening as the sun is going down and the lights on the trees begin to glow, the colours constantly changing with the sunset. It makes for a magical sight, another experience we will treasure, but unlike the many natural wonders we have seen, this is man made ingenuity, a wonderful marriage of design and horticulture at its very best.
Local families and sightseers gather for the Supertree Light Show that takes place twice in the evenings, when the trees light up in harmony to a soundtrack. “Tonight’s show” a voice sounding a bit like Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey “will be on the theme of musical theatre”. On hearing this a little part of me died inside, but to be fair the show was fantastic, a symphony of lights and colour that made the Grove flash out against the nights backdrop. I even managed to appreciate a few seconds of Phantom of the Opera……just a few. Sharing this experience with hundreds of people gathered round on the grass was a delight and Sam captured a bit of great footage..
The two giant glasshouses comprise a Flower Dome and a Cloud Forest. The former is impressive, but the Cloud Forest really is jaw-dropping.
Waterfalls cascade down a mini-mountain of flora creating a fine mist, among lovely orchids and rare plants.
Every effort is made to create a superb visitor experience and even though you are one of hundreds slowly wending their way through the forest it never felt crowded or hurried.
Towards the Bay Area sits the iconic Marina Bay Sands Hotel, quite unlike any other building in the city centre. Sam thinks the design of the top section is based on a surfboard, while it reminded me of something far more mundane, an ironing board. Judge for yourself….
The plateau roof boasts a remarkable infinity pool, but it looks horribly crowded as hotel guests elbow each other for a bit of space to claim their perfect Insta shot. Like all tall buildings these days the hotel has a viewing deck (top right in the pic above) that has great views of Gardens by the Bay on one side and the city on the other.
It even manages to look down on the Singapore Flyer – largest wheel of its kind in the world providing more views of the city, sitting above the Singapore’s F1 track that hosts a night time Grand Prix. We took a spin on the Wheel – although at 30 minutes to rotate you hardly feel any movement.
As night falls the City lights up beautifully.
If this all sounds as though it does confirm the modern Singapore stereotype that would be a bit unfair as there are three neighbourhoods that literally bring you back down to earth with their age, authenticity, colour and vibrancy.
I have to confess a real ignorance about Singapore: I had no idea about its ethnicity or language (I actually asked Sam “do they speak Singaporean”?) No, the ethnic mix of Chinese (76%), Indian (7%), and the indigenous Malay (15%), with a few others thrown in, means there is a mix of languages, although its colonial history means that everyone seems to be able to speak English.
With this mix comes the three neighbourhoods of Chinatown, Little India, and the Arab Quarter. We saw some of Chinatown where it borders the Downtown area so we decided to spend more time in the other two.
The Arab Quarter is relatively small but boasts a lot of tourist activity along the busy and pretty roads around Arab Street, the local Mosque and Malay Heritage Centre.
Colourful street art sits alongside buzzing cafes, independent shops, and cool bars. It’s the ideal spot to window shop and given the heat, regularly stop at cafes for refreshments and people watching.
Little India on the other hand is a much bigger area where the large Tamil population are based, in crowded streets where the noise, shops and stalls engulf you.
The indoor market is fabulous fun, drawing you in and saturating you with colour, fragrances and warm welcoming smiles.
This area feels nothing like the Singapore we expected, and it’s all the better for that, reminding visitors of the diversity of the City and an environment that feels a million miles from its high-tech neighbour just a mile or two Downtown.
..and amid that modernity there is fun as well. On passing one of Singapore’s huge shopping malls a glittering chandelier caught our eyes. Further investigation revealed a giant sparkling light set above a digitally interactive dance floor where children cavorted about gleefully, seeing their footsteps create patterns on the floor. A joyful scene that made Singapore more endearing than we ever imagined it could be. It’s not typical South-East Asia, and it’s certainly not cheap, but it’s worth the effort and expense – there really is no place like it.
Top Travelling Tips – Embracing the Bum Gun
South East Asia doesn’t have the most robust sewerage systems in the world and in most countries there will be a polite message by the toilet reminding you not to put paper down the loo but rather in the bin. Before you recoil at this, that paper should have been used for a gentle pat dry after deploying the Bum Gun. Plumbed into nearly every loo is a sort of hand-held bidet that shoots out jets of water to clean what needs to be cleaned. After overcoming my usual British reserve I have learnt to embrace the Bum Gun – metaphorically and literally. However, a word to the wise, care should be taken. Somewhere in Thailand I had become a bit Bum Gun “trigger happy” and rather gung-ho when I came across one that had its water pressure set so high I nearly shot off the pedestal. That one really made the eyes water – got the job done though!
Next Up: Orang-utans & Bataks in Volcanic Sumatra