A Happy New Year in Singapore

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.

Rowhouses of Singapore

Rowhouses of Singapore

singapore

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.

singapore

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?

Oranges for luck at the Chinese New Year--with Alan and Mindy

Oranges for luck at the Chinese New Year–with Alan and Mindy

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.

Auspicious phrases!

Auspicious phrases!

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.

Colorful new year

Colorful new year

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.

Emily and me

Emily and me

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.

The shop owner hired these dancers (and musicians out of frame) to do the lion dance outside the shop. The kids dig it.

The shop owner hired these dancers (and musicians out of frame) to do the lion dance outside the shop. The kids dig it.

Supertrees!

Supertrees!

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.

Marina Bay at night

Marina Bay at night (pretend it’s blurry because of the rain and not my lack of camera skill)

Feasting in Singapore

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:

breakfast at coffee shop

Tea with milk; kaya spread on bread; soft-boiled egg carefully cracked over saucer containing some of the hot water from making the tea, with soy sauce and pepper

slurping my egg

Slurping my egg as instructed–although then my friend ate hers with a spoon!

Delicious potato cake, not quite like a samosa, a different kind of dense

Delicious potato cake, not quite like a samosa, a different kind of dense

Egg tart, especially popular at the Chinese New Year

Egg tart, especially popular at the Chinese New Year

Duck and brown rice, soup, braised peanuts, and eggs

Duck and brown rice, soup, braised peanuts, and eggs

Beef noodle soup with cilantro

Beef noodle soup with cilantro

Delightful drinks: soursop, sugarcane, and water chestnut

Delightful drinks: soursop, sugarcane, and water chestnut

Eating all the Chinese New Year snacks like a good guest--prawn crackers, pineapple tarts, and much more

Eating all the Chinese New Year snacks like a good guest–prawn crackers, bak kwa (pork jerky, so good), pineapple tarts, and much more

Soup, preserved sausage, fish ball, veggies

Soup, noodles, preserved sausage, meatballs and mince, fish balls, veggies

Two kinds of chicken

Sea cucumber, two kinds of chicken, broccoli

Not pictured: the durian cream puff I ate (tasted kind of like onions), the Singapore Sling I drank (yum), and various other tasty things

Sleepless in Singapore

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.

Nice day for a trip to the garden--in the airport

Nice day for a trip to the garden–in the airport

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 did not stick around to see what Wii game this guy chose, but from his warm-up exercises, I think boxing?

I did not stick around to see what Wii game this guy chose, but from his warm-up exercises, I think boxing?

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.

The channels on the TVs were pre-selected, so there was sports on one, a reality show on another, Law & Order over here, and some cooking show there.

The channels on the TVs were pre-selected, so there was sports on one, a reality show on another, Law & Order over here, and some cooking show there.

Singapore is so polite in its threats.

Singapore is so polite in its threats.

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!

Each locker had plugs for various brands--Samsung, Nokia, Apple--so you plug your phone in there, take the key, and come back later to retrieve it. No need to find a plug, mess with your own cord, and babysit it. Genius!

Each locker had plugs for various brands–Samsung, Nokia, Apple–so you plug your phone in there, take the key, and come back later to retrieve it. No need to find a plug, mess with your own cord, and babysit it. Genius!

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.

They all got a "good" or "excellent."

They all got a “good” or “excellent.”

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.

It was dark and all the butterflies were asleep, so no pictures of them.

It was dark and all the butterflies were asleep, so no pictures of them.

If John McClane had visited one of these after his flight, he would not have needed to take his shoes off at Nakatomi Plaza, which would have made things just a little easier for him.

If John McClane had used one of these foot massagers after his flight, he would not have needed to take his shoes off at Nakatomi Plaza, which would have made things just a little easier for him.

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 Snooze Lounge

The Snooze Lounge

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.

airport orchid

ACAM: Singapore — Where to Go, Part 2

Hello dearest fellow travelers! Last month I took a look at some of the things to do and places to go in Singapore, and got some great suggestions for further ideas both here and on Facebook. (By the way, did you know that you can now use your FB login to leave a comment in the field below, so you don’t have to go through a login process every time you want to comment? Neat!) Here I list a few more sites and attractions I’m interested in checking out when I visit Singapore.

Singapore Zoo

Several people recommended visiting the zoo in Singapore, and taking a look around their website, I can see why. The zoo has a huge range of ecosystems to explore, and it’s affiliated with other wildlife parks like the Jurong Bird Park and the Night Safari (they’re all owned by one large company). Sure, it’s corporate, but the parks are designated rescue centers for injured and at-risk wildlife, and they have breeding programs for endangered species. They also seem to have a large educational component that encourages a lot of visitor interaction, which sounds more interesting than a lot of zoos that stick to a few signs next to an animal’s cage. Also, it is in a rainforest! I’ve only ever seen rainforest animals in Midwestern climes, and I’m sure it’ll be different to see them in a place that’s naturally what they’re used to, rather than a reconstruction.

Welcome to the Jungle

Photo from http://www.asiaexplorers.com/singapore/singapore-zoo.htm

Delicious Dining Options

Everyone who has been to Singapore or knows someone who has been to Singapore has immediately mentioned the food. Oh, the food! So many dishes I’ve never heard of, like chili crab, barbequed stingray, and bak kuh teh. The blog GastroNOMmy has a wonderful list of food for first-time visitors to the city, including specific restaurants to go to when you’re there. The city is known to be a foodie’s paradise, and I can’t wait to taste just what that means.

Pulau Semakau

My friend Mindy suggested I visit this place. It’s a fascinating study in environmental care and waste management. Pulau Semakau started out as a small island and is now a gigantic garbage dump. Unlike most city dumps, however, this one serves as a multipurpose site; on top of the garbage dump rests an island of green space, mangrove plots, and trailways for walking. Since it’s essentially a pile of garbage tossed right on top of the water, engineers were careful to put screens and filters in place to keep the garbage from seeping into the water, and so far it has been successful (the island was built in 1999). However, as this article points out, most of the garbage is incinerated before being transported to the dump, and that process isn’t entirely environmentally friendly, so the cost/benefit analysis is still uncertain. I’d like to see the island and take a tour to find out more about how sustainable a model this is for other cities.

ACAM: Singapore — Where to Go, Part 1

Thanks for all the fantastic suggestions on the last couple of posts, dearest fellow travelers! It feels good to have the main outline of the trip more clearly sketched out. I believe we left off ACAM in Indonesia, which means that now we turn to the city-state of Singapore.

Every time I look at a map of the world, I see the tiny dot of Singapore on the tip of Southeast Asia and assume it’s a small city perched at the end of Malaysia. In fact, it actually consists of 63 islands, and it’s not a small city, it’s rather large. It’s true that most of it consists of city, but there’s a surprisingly large swath of public park land to explore as well. An old friend recently visited Singapore, and the pictures of his trip make me even more excited to go there and see what else about it will surprise me.

Marina Bay Sands
This hotel sounds sort of terrifying with its endless supply of luxury items and services. A hotel, shopping mall, casino, and even museum, it’s a monument to capitalism and aspirational living. I’m curious to see the place as a whole, but the main attraction is the infinity pool. Check out this photo!

over the edge

The infinity pool at Marina Bay Sands

Photo courtesy of Hale Cho.

It looks like you go right over the edge! The pool is totally secured there, but the water runs over it in such a way that it looks like a sheer dropoff, an edge to tumble over and a glittering city to fall into below. I am most definitely going in this pool and taking many heart-stopping photos of me “falling,” because if you can’t cause your parents heart palpitations from thousands of miles away, what kind of daughter are you?

The Southern Ridges
This is some of that unexpected parkland, and it looks delightful. There are all sorts of green spaces here, from meticulously planned gardens to a canopy walk through the tops of trees in the lush tropical forest. There’s also a famous bridge, the Henderson Waves, which gives the appearance of rolling gently through the air from one park to the next.

Look! Up in the air! It's an ocean! It's a bridge! It's... sightseeing!

Photo from http://www.nparks.gov.sg.

You can join guided tours through different parts of the park, learning about all the animals scampering about and the plants practically glowing their green at you. The canopy walk takes you right to a museum. Several different trails take you on different kinds of walks, with differing levels of difficulty. This kind of city/nature integration is a model I’d like Chicago to learn from, for sure.

So! There are a couple places I will definitely visit when I’m in Singapore. I’ve had a couple couchsurfers from Singapore, and I’m hoping I can stay with them each for a couple nights and catch up. In fact, one of my couchsurfers, the lovely Mindy, is a biology genius and a nature guide, so I might be able to snag a personal tour! Work your connections, people.