|Travelogue: Singapore 2000||
Monday April 10, 2000
My flight today is on Singapore Airlines, from Hong Kong to Singapore. This is my much-anticipated first Singapore Airlines flight. I have heard time and time again that Singapore Airlines is such a great airline, it is hard to believe it could be that good. I mean really, it's just an airline. But I mention that I am flying Singapore and people give that slow, knowing nod of the head that says "ahhh, great airline." But really, will I be wanting to send postcards to the flight attendants? How good can it be? Pretty damned good, I'll tell you!
It starts at Hong Kong airport, where there is no line to check in to Raffles (aka Business) class. This has got to be the fastest, easiest check in I have ever experienced. No goofy questions about who packed my bags or whether I have any battery operated devices in my luggage. None of the rigmarole that United makes you go through in Bangkok. It is as easy to check in here as it is to get onto a bus, which is as it should be. I actually stood there at the counter for an extra minute because it was so fast that my brain didnít quite register that I was all done and the attendant was too polite to tell me to go.
Of course I am wrong about it starting at the airport. Singapore's service actually started before I got to the airport with the fantastic telephone customer service. Before leaving the USA I had a terrific experience setting up all my seat assignments and even pre-ordering my in-flight meals with their "Book the Cook" service. Wow.
The Singapore Airlines "SilverKris" club is nice and clean, with a small selection of finger food including single-serving Haagen-Dazs ice cream, a nice touch. Boarding the plane is super-easy, and the lovely traditionally-dressed flight attendants were welcoming me, joking with me, and calling me by name before I am even settled in my seat. The plane is a brand new Boeing 777-300 Jubilee. The seats in Raffles class are fantastic. They have the clearest, easiest to use electronic adjustments I have ever seen, power ports for laptop computers, individual video screens, and a really cool telephone with integrated controls for the seats lights, video system, and a video-game controller! The in-flight entertainment includes 10 (count 'em, 10) simultaneous movie channels, plus short subject channels. And get this, you can use the in seat phone to call other seats! The headsets are excellent. I am in the bulkhead seat 11K, but getting the bulkhead is hardly necessary as there is tons of legroom and the plane is less than 1/2 full. I'm not certain I understand how Singapore Airlines makes any money, but I'm not complaining.
From the airport I took an S$15.70 taxi ride into the city (about US$9.15.) The taxi driver was very friendly and loved to talk. I think he was really a frustrated tour guide. All along the way he pointed out different apartment buildings and told me what the housing prices were, what the government involvement in the project had been, and how quickly the units had sold out. It was quite entertaining.
I am staying at the Mandarin Singapore Hotel (333 Orchard Road, 737-4411) For S$300 per night (US$175) I have a small, noisy, ugly room with a dirty rug, old furnishings, and no view. I paid extra for a "club floor" room, but the club floor has been moved down to the 8th floor due to refurbishment that they are doing on the top floors (badly needed, no doubt.) Everyone who works at this hotel is very nice, but the place itself basically sucks. I reserved a king size bed, but was given a room with two twins pushed together. When I complained they tried to find me a new room, but none were available. This is not a 5 star hotel. The Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok is an incredible hotel. The Mandarin Singapore blows.
After settling in I hit the streets and took the metro to the area of the Raffles hotel (the oldest and most famous hotel in Singapore, where the Singapore Sling cocktail was invented.) I came at Raffles from the wrong side (the Raffles Mall side) and ended up walking and walking just trying to find the lobby. Between the original hotel, the new addition, and the Raffles Hotel shopping arcade, the complex is quite large. Once I found the lobby of the original hotel, I was quite impressed. It really does hark back to a bygone age, and made me wish that I had seen it "way back when."
True to reputation, the heat and humidity are incredible (95%). Nonetheless I enjoyed wandering around, taking in some of the main sights of Singapore. I managed to find the statue of Stamford Raffles, erected on the spot where he first set foot on land in Singapore. Across the Singapore River I wandered through the Quay restaurant area, but nothing grabbed my eye for dinner. Instead, I took the metro to Albert Street where I looked for Azizas, a Malaysian restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet. Not only is the restaurant not there, the building is gone. I am told that Singapore is constantly in change, being torn down and rebuilt. It doesnít take long in Singapore to confirm this truth. Finally I just had dinner at a hawker stall food court, not far from where Azizas was supposed to be. I feasted on a pile of yummy sates, a stunningly fantastic lemon and soursop juice drink, and some kind of dim sum-like sesame-peanut ball for desert. Quite filling and a great value.
After dinner I made my way back to the hotel tired out from walking and heat. At 10pm jackhammers are tearing up the street outside my window. This is a sucky hotel. They get the big things wrong, and the small ones too. There is a fancy world clock with time in different cities built into the bedside table, but the local time is wrong! There is no bathrobe provided; when I sent down for a robe, the one that was sent up was torn. Good grief. This is a 3-star hotel with 5-star prices and pretensions. I have had perfectly fine stays in cheap motels, but when I am paying for a fine hotel, I want fine accommodations, eh?
Tuesday April 11, 2000
You never really know how a hotel room is until you've spent a night there. The room at the Mandarin Singapore really leaves a lot to be desired. It turns out that at night the outside of the building is lit up with huge spotlights. These lights in turn light up my room like daylight. Ugh. I went down for the breakfast, which is included in the rate. It was mediocre.
It is raining today, so rather than just wander aimlessly I went down to the tour desk to find out what tours are available. None of them sounded like they would be at all interesting, even if it weren't raining.
Lacking an organized tour, I hopped a taxi over to the Singapore Museum Art. I am sad to report that it was not at all interesting. The building itself is supposed to be of historical interest, but I think this is only by contrast with the rest of Singapore. The building is old, but all of its historical features have been erased by modern refurbishment. The "Glass Hall" at the museum features works by Dale Chihuly, but even these aren't very interesting. Upstairs, the auditorium room has a window, which is made up of chunks of optical glass looking like a huge growth of crystals. Pretty cool, but not worth the trip.
By the time I left the museum the rain had stopped, turning the city into a giant steam bath. Whew! This is really something to experience! I headed over to the "Little India" district and did the walk described in Lonely Planet. I have very little to report from this, as I found it to not be very interesting. In my notes I wrote "so what?"
Around lunchtime I found myself back at Raffles Hotel. I still wanted to try Malaysian food, so I went in (dressed in shorts and a tee shirt) and talked to the concierge who was incredibly helpful. I wasnít even staying at the hotel, and yet he treated me like an honored guest. He gave me several suggestions and even called ahead for me to make sure that places were open.
From the combined recommendation of Lonely Planet and the Raffles concierge, I decided to go to Rendezvous restaurant in the Rendezvous hotel (339-7508). It used to be in the Raffles Mall, but has now moved back to the newly rebuilt Rendezvous Hotel, its original home. At Rendezvous you go through a cafeteria style line, ordering the items you want by pointing at them. However, they donít give the food to you there, they just stack the plates up behind the counter. You go back to your table and wait while they assemble the dishes you ordered - heating them up, putting sauces on, etc. It was a very unusual system, which had me quite confused. I've never left a cafeteria line empty handed before. The shrimp sambal (huge prawns with a traditional Malay sauce) was fantastic! Spicy as hell too. It came with a side dish of marinated cucumber that was excellent. The mutton curry was good. For desert I ordered Chendol which consisted of beans, green noodles, brown sugar syrup, coconut milk, and ice. It was kinda weird with a strong malty flavor. Total cost was S$31.42 (US$18).
Back outside it was hot and humid and every shop I went into was ice cold. I felt like I should be carrying around a sweater to wear when I went indoors. Hi ho. I sat in the courtyard at the Rendezvous hotel watching a giant ball of granite silently rotating in a fountain that used water pressure to support the heavy ball's weight. After my meal had settled a bit, I took a taxi over to the botanic gardens.
Immediately upon entering the gardens I was transfixed by several absolutely fascinating "cannonball trees". Cannonball trees (couroupita guianensis) bear bunches of fruit which are perfectly round, hard as a rock, and about the size of cannonballs. They are weird and amazing. Up the path from the cannonball trees, next to a lovely pond, there is a very beautiful Malaysian Banyan tree. The pond is full of turtles and fish, easily visible just below the surface. All around the pond, lavender dragonflies ruled the air.
As I wandered the paths, avoiding two very aggressive geese, I began to be aware of a loud buzzing noise. The farther into the gardens I got, the louder the buzzing became. I realized that it was the buzzing of some kind of cicadas in the trees (the technical term for this is "stridulation".) It went on and on, and soon the sound became downright painful. I am not joking! I thought I would have to leave the park from the sheer volume of this sound. Then I recalled that I had some earplugs in my pack, which I use when I find myself in loud night clubs, discos and concerts. So, a tip for travelers: bring earplugs to the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Really, I am serious.
Having (partially) solved the noise problem, I made my way to the orchid gardens. The orchid gardens are the premier feature of the botanic gardens, and they are spectacular. They cover a substantial area, absolutely filled with different kinds of orchids. It is a must-see. Of particular note in the orchid gardens is the absolutely fantastic "Mist House", which houses some of the most extraordinary displays.
My friend Dr. Dave from Hong Kong had (independently) come over to Singapore to do some work, so I met up with him and another chiropractor, named Dr. Rob, for dinner. The three of us ate at Min Jiang in the Goodwood Park Hotel (730-1704). Min Jiang was listed in the Lonely Planet guide as one of the most expensive Chinese restaurants in Singapore, and the Where Singapore Dining Guide dubbed it as one of the best. We all found the hot & sour soup to be excellent, followed by meat dumplings that were very, very good. Next we had fish with wine sauce and fungus which was nice but very mild. Their chicken with ginger was very good but again quite mild. We also enjoyed "3-ply tofu with crab" which was subtle and excellent. For desert, we ordered the Szechwan pancake with red bean paste, which was, in a word, "wow".
Wednesday April 12, 2000
The sun was shining with bright clear skies today. I expected it to be brutally hot, but it is not too bad and less humid than I imagined it would be. I packed up my bags and checked out, leaving the bags with the bell desk for the day.
Since the breakfast at the hotel was disappointing, I decided to go out in search of a true Singaporean breakfast. I walked to 67 Killiney Road, which the Singapore Tourism Board brochure listed as the place for "kaya", coconut and egg jam on toast. I think that like Australia's Vegamite, kaya is an acquired taste. Perhaps if I had grown up eating it I would have enjoyed it more. In the end I concluded that it was good, but not worth going out of the way for.
After breakfast I hopped a cab to finally go over to Merlion Park, home of the famous statue of the Merlion, the mascot of Singapore. The cabbie was a seriously funny guy. We had a very entertaining conversation on the way over to the park. His favorite expression seemed to be "you tell me, huh?" He was supposed to have gone with a friend by motorcycle to Phuket, Thailand, which, apparently, is not that long a trip up the Malay peninsula. However, to do so he would have had to spend S$30 on extra insurance, which he was not willing to do. "For $30 I can take the bus. Why should I have to spend $30 for insurance for my own motorcycle? You tell me, huh? I'm gonna spend all that time on the motorcycle and I'm gonna pay for the insurance? Thatís not right. You tell me, huh? So I told my friend 'you go, I'm gonna stay here and work.' Was I right? You tell me, huh?"
Merlion Park was a major letdown. The "Merlion" is like a mermaid, but with the head of a lion and the body of a fish. A pretty silly mascot? The statue of the Merlion is about 10 feet tall and sits on a small concrete spit sticking into a bay next to the highway. It is completely uninteresting. My first (and only) reaction was "whoopdee-fucking-do." Why would anyone want to go and see it? You tell me, huh?
After walking around for a while I eventually made it back to Orchard Road, Singapore's main shopping area and home to my hotel. There are so many people on Orchard Road that it is hard to walk down the 20-foot wide sidewalks. Huge video monitors on the side of the Isetan building show TV advertisements with full volume sound. A smaller TV screen across the street on the side of Planet Hollywood tries to compete. I sat on a low wall for a while and watched the TVs and the people go by.
Eventually it was time for lunch so I headed over to the Tanglin Shopping Center, located at the end of Orchard Road just after it turns into Tangling Road. Dr. Rob has an office on the 6th floor of the Tanglin building where Dr. Dave was working, and we were planning on having lunch together for my final day in town. While looking for Dr. Rob's office I had a chance to poke my head in some of the shops in the Tanglin Shopping Center. I must say this shopping center is full of really interesting stores; stores where real people would shop, not the fare of the luxury shopping plazas that line Orchard Road.
I managed to drag Dr. Dave away from his adoring patients and off to a restaurant called Red, at 29 Club Road, near Far East Square. Where Singapore magazine (available at most hotels and tourist offices) calls Red "...a stunning space complemented by artfully presented dishes..." Though small, the place has a very stylish decor and interesting plates. They feature creative Szechwan foods. The chicken with dried chilies was fabulous served in a dark brown sauce of reduced vinegar, soy, lemon and ginger with dried chilies. Next we had shredded dried beef, which was very, very good. For desert, the cold stewed pears were masterful!
After lunch Dr. Dave returned to curing the bad backs of Singapore, and I returned to my wandering. Finding myself hungry again I found an "ice kacang" vendor in a food court. I had mango ice kacang: preserved mangos over a pile of crushed ice with flavored syrups, beans, corn, blocks of tapioca and other kinds of jellies. It was soooo good. Ice kacang comes in a seemingly infinite variety - virtually any kind of fruit or paste, fresh or dried, can be put on kacang. I read somewhere that the Prime Minister of Singapore admonished Singapore's businessmen that if they used the kind of creativity shown by kacang vendors in their own products, Singapore's economy would continue to prosper.
Somehow Singapore is starting to grow on me.
I tried to get an early dinner at Sanur Restaurant at Ngee Ann City (734-3434) before heading to the airport, but it doesnít open 'till 6:30. Unfortunately, that wouldnít have left me enough time to eat and get to the airport. Sanur was another of the recommendations that I had gotten from the concierge at Raffles hotel yesterday, so I was looking forward to trying it. Oh well, next time I'll check it out.
Singapore airport is amazing. There is an entire mall of stores in the international wing, a movie theatre, a "discover science" center, various lounge areas where large video screens show topics like sports, Nickelodeon, etc., and even a quiet meditation space with carp ponds, recorded bird song, and an orchid garden (with real orchids!) I had a lot of time to kill, but it was very easy to do with so many distractions. After looking around for a while I retreated to the Singapore Airlines lounge and waited for my flight.
Singapore is green, efficient, clean, hot and nice, but it just doesnít excite me very much. Hong Kong and Bangkok have a vibrancy that Singapore lacks. Also, to my surprise, Singapore feels crowded where Hong Kong did not. Nonetheless, there is something to be said for this place. There is some excellent food to be had here, transportation is easy, and people are basically pleasant. It is certainly an easy introduction to Asia, kind of like the shallow end of the pool for people who would like to go to Asia, but aren't quite ready for the real thing.
© 2000, Andrew Sigal
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