When I landed in Singapore, I realized I’d had it mixed up with Hong Kong in my mind. I pictured Singapore as a concrete jungle packed with skyscrapers, but actually the tall buildings part of the city is contained to a small part of the waterfront. The rest of the city is made up of the small shophouses of the colonial era and the large department stores of the modern age. I met up with my friend Emily and she took me on a walking tour of the Geylang Serai neighborhood (she plotted out the walk just for me–isn’t that sweet?). We walked when it was dry, and ducked into eateries each time the rain started up again. A lot of the rowhouses are a bright pastel, and we found a little alley with some houses in vibrant colors too.
We stopped in the Katong Antique House and looked at some Peranakan artifacts. The Peranakan are descendents of Chinese and Malay in Indonesia and Singapore; they have a particular style of dress and set of customs found only here.
That night, I joined up with my friend Mindy for more delicious street food and a quick walk around the Bugis neighborhood, which was pulsing with people shopping for the holiday and eating with their friends. We met up with Mindy’s husband Alan and went to the 70th floor of the Swissotel. We sat in the bar and admired the view through the rain-streaked windows while a singer serenaded us. Mindy and Alan generously treated me to a drink in this fancy place, and given my location, what could I choose but a Singapore Sling?
On the eve of Chinese New Year, everyone has a family dinner. Many people travel long distances to make it home in time, and there are rituals to start the year off right. I was honored to be invited to dinner with Alan’s family. After they showed me Chinatown, Alan and Mindy took me to his mom’s high-rise apartment.
The dinner started with the stirring of the big fish dish. Alan’s sister sprinkled ingredients signifying certain things over the dish, and then we all used our chopsticks to stir the dish in the center of the table, while shouting out auspicious phrases. By the end, we were just yelling good things in whatever language came handy–“Success! Good relationships!” I added “good studies” for Mindy (she’s working on her PhD), and she added “safe travels” for me. Alan’s mom gave me two oranges–a traditional gift I’d meant to bring for her–and even a red packet! It was a great evening.
The next day, I met up with Emily at her great-aunt’s house. On the first day of the new year, you visit around to various family members, and Emily invited me along for this stop on her circuit. I was graciously received by a couple dozen relatives, given more red packets, and plied with so much food. This time I remembered to bring two oranges, which was a great success. I watched three generations play round after round of blackjack, which just about everyone was betting on. I talked with Emily’s teenaged cousins and elderly great-aunts, and I was glad I wore red, the lucky color of the day, because I could tell it made a good impression.
On my last day in Singapore, I saw a lion dance outside the converted shophouse apartment I was staying in, and then took the train to the Gardens by the Bay. I knew last year I wanted to check this place out, and I was lucky: it rained pretty much the whole weekend I was in Singapore, but for the few hours I was at the gardens, it was all sunshine. The supertrees were pleasingly imposing in person, and I liked the mini-gardens surrounding the central hub, which were all devoted to different styles–Malay, Chinese, colonial.
For being a small island, there’s a lot to do and see in Singapore; I didn’t even get up to the pool at Marina Bay Sands, or out to Pulau Semakau or the Southern Ridges, as I’d planned. I know I keep saying it about everywhere I’ve been on this trip, but it’s true: I’ll have to come back.
Singapore is known for its heavy fines for any number of minor offenses, and for its high residents-to-shopping-destinations ratio, and for its endless variety of foods. It all seemed to be true on my four-day visit this past weekend, especially the food part. I ate so much and so well in Singapore, and I think almost every single thing was something I’d never eaten before.
My culinary guides in this adventure were native Singaporeans I’d hosted separately through Couchsurfing back in Chicago. They were eager to explain how things were made, and the different combinations you can make in different dishes, and which dishes are their favorites. This is the way to see Singapore!
Here are some pictures of What I Ate, and my best guess on remembering what they’re called:
Not pictured: the durian cream puff I ate (tasted kind of like onions), the Singapore Sling I drank (yum), and various other tasty things
Coming to you live from Khao Sak, Thailand, I am pleased to report that going on three flights in as many days doesn’t necessarily kill the urge to travel. It may dampen it, and necessitate five days of recovery on a sleepy beach, but even three security lines in 72 hours won’t make you swear off flying. It helps, of course, if the second flight in this series lands you in Singapore’s Changi Airport. Because that place is the Platonic ideal of airports, the one which all other airports, dancing in shadow, aspire to become.
Hasty planning had me in Wellington when I needed to be in Auckland for a flight to Singapore, when I wanted to land in Phuket. I couldn’t change the Auckland-Singapore ticket, so I forked out a few hundred dollars to get me connecting flights on either end. The problem lay in the timing; I had to fly to Auckland on Saturday but not leave until Sunday, and I miiiiight make a flight to Phuket on Sunday, but chances were I wouldn’t so I was flying there on Monday. Messy!
I landed in Singapore on Sunday evening and picked up an airport guide on my way to customs. This 26-page booklet explains how to get to the city and other such details, but it also includes maps of the terminals and descriptions of the unique attractions contained therein. I saw a free movie theater, more than one garden, and a “snooze lounge.” I was psyched to spend the short night here rather than at a hostel, which several people had assured me was very possible.
They had neglected to mention logistics, and more importantly, I had failed to research them myself. So I went through passport control, got my bag, turned around to go through customs, and thought, “oh damn.” I’d passed through the magic gate of passport control, and now I was in the part of the airport with the check-in desks and car rental kiosks, and all the fun stuff was on the other side. I went back to my passport control officer and pleaded stupidity, and she led me to her supervisor, who wasn’t mean but he wasn’t pleased either. He explained to me that going through passport control was a one-way deal and that I shouldn’t be allowed back in, and I said yes, I had misunderstood, I hadn’t known what to do with my bag, and he said there was a whole baggage hold system set up to deal with just this sort of thing. Then he voided the passport stamp I’d got just 10 minutes before (a voided stamp! cool!), told me to fill out another arrivals card in the morning, and let me back in the land of wonders. Thank you, sir!
Signs dot the halls, reminding you that this is the “most awarded airport in the world,” although at first it seems mostly like any other airport. People roam about with their bags on shortened trolleys. Information booths are staffed by smiling women in skirt suits. Elegant salespeople hawk duty-free wares and overpriced sandwiches. Cleaners must do their work at some point, because everything is very clean, but I only ever saw a few bathroom cleaners, and I was in the airport for 14 hours.
But then the special features filter through. Here, a garden of various orchids, surrounding a koi pond. Over that way, a kids’ play area and a giant Angry Birds sculpture. This way, an entertainment center, including rooms with Wii and Playstation games, a theater playing Hollywood hits continuously, and a wifi hotspot. Next to the moving sidewalk, a free foot massage machine. In each terminal, a transit hotel with rooms to rent by the night or by the hour (no, not for that, for naps on shorter layovers). In one of the hotels, a rooftop swimming pool.
They’ve made the airport a place that you don’t mind being stuck in, which upends the idea of airports entirely, at least for this Midwesterner raised on Detroit Metro and (ugh) Chicago O’Hare. Some airports have art galleries and casinos, so it’s not like Singapore is the only one on this path, but it’s the most successful one I’ve seen of addressing the complaints someone with a long layover might have–tired, hungry, bored–with mostly free amenities.
The only design flaw I noticed was that the Terminal 3 snooze lounge was on a mezzanine level over a small koi pond that attracted all the shrieking children in the area. So I never actually slept more than 30 minutes at a time, but I was more comfortable than I would’ve been for those 30-minute naps at just about any other airport. It’s still a bit loud, a bit bright, a bit crowded, but that’s the nature of the beast.
If I had to be stuck in transit, at least it was here.