Singapore, one of the world's largest port cities, has an appeal so schizophrenic that even a writer of Fodor's Singapore seems oddly ambivalent. "As in a traditional arranged marriage," writes Ilsa Sharp in my battered 1997 guide, "you have to learn to love Singapore -- it's not a love-at-first-sight place."
The challenge is, of course, that as a cruise visitor making my first visit, I don't have time to ease into this complicated city-state. Singapore's prime island locale, located at just the tip of the Malayan Peninsula, has long been a major meeting place between East and West. Small as Singapore is -- 263 square miles -- it's one of the world's most densely populated nations with 4.4 million residents.
Singapore has only been an independent republic since 1965 (it underwent a short period of Malyasian rule after World War II, when it was occupied by the Japanese). Singapore is ruled by dictatorship though it also has a parliament. One of the country's most famous characteristics continues to be its focus on remaining crime-free and clean -- perhaps I'd even venture to say it's obsessed with it. You're warned upon entering the country that being caught with drugs is punishable by death. You can be fined $500 (Singapore dollars) for drinking or eating on the meticulously polished MRT subway. Although chewing gum is no longer a punishable offense (still not sure I'd chew on the subway), you still can't buy it here (we tried, just for kicks).
In order to get to the heart of the town, we boarded a shuttle, which picked us up at Sapphire Princess' dock and took us on our 30-minute drive. On first impression, the town is both lush and, well, starkly modern with few traces of any of the kinds of historic artifacts that tend to give a place its soul. It does feel a bit bland here.
And some people like it that way.
My tour guide for my abbreviated (we have just six hours) visit to Singapore is Teijo, my husband, who's visited the city more than a dozen times and just loves it. He's anxious for me to embrace Singapore and has created an ambitious list of "must see's" that on first glance (and again later on second, third and fourth looks) is so frenzied I feel exhausted just looking at it. However, the need to maximize a single day in port by power sightseeing is a normal challenge of cruise touring. A brief spell is simply no way to see a place, experience its jewels and also absorb its culture.
One very pleasing attribute of Singapore is the lushness of its plants, gardens and lawns; blossoms even flourish in motorway underpasses! Because it's located so close to the equator, Singapore is humid but definitely more steamy than scorching. But if you're not used to such extreme humidity, it'll still slow you down. Much of the day, I felt as if I were walking under water, and the frequent tempestuous rainstorms that occurred did nothing to dispel the notion.
Here's another challenge: While the new Singapore Cruise Center is conveniently located on the harborfront (and requires a fairly quick taxi or subway ride into the main part of the city), ships as big as Sapphire Princess (and P&O's Oriana and Cunard's QE2 as well) must dock way outside of town. It's definitely less convenient and quite a logistical challenge for Sapphire Princess' shore tours department to handle logistics requiring transport of 2,600-plus passengers -- some on guided tours, others wanting the "independent touring" shuttle option -- who inevitably all descend on the gangway at the same time. Add to this the fact that the Singaporean immigrations officials check all passports, one by one, and reserve the right to conduct on-shore inspections of handbags and such. You can just imagine the nature of the queues.
One of the reasons for such challenges is that the ship is docked deep within an industrial cargo port whose normal business is using Star Wars-esque cranes to load and unload longer-than-a-car metal containers on and off ships. As you might assume, individual passengers can't simply stroll around at will. Furthermore, a security move initiated by the port bars taxis from sitting outside the pier. And don't even think about hoofing it because town is about a 30-minute drive away.
But once you take the motorcoach that drops you off in the heart of the city's Orchard Road mercantile pantheon, this city is easy to get around. One reason is because people speak English everywhere.
Amazingly, between the passport check and queues for buses -- on both ends of our journey -- the process was extremely efficient, and little grumbling was heard; credit Sapphire Princess for making lemonade out of what could easily have been sour lemons.
Like Tokyo's Ginza -- a hugely crowded, neon downtown area that pays ode to the gods of shopping -- Singapore's Orchard Road is colorful and westernized. Here you'll find just about every conceivable major American, British and European retailer from numerous (frankly charming) McDonald's Mc Cafes to a Borders bookstore and from the U.K.'s Marks & Spencer to Italy's Gucci.
The sheer quantity of pedestrians crossing the major intersection of Scotts and Orchard Roads reminds me of a scene from "Lost In Translation" (the movie starring a disaffected Bill Murray) when seas of people, in sync, move across the busy Ginza. However, there's no significant tip-off that we're in a place so exotic as Singapore because the throngs of people here look as if they have come mostly from the Western world.
I've never really understood the point of shopping at places like this in Singapore where you'll pay much more money for the same stuff you can buy at home. And frankly, after 30 minutes of this scene, I'm impatient, dispirited and, not to mention, exhausted by the crowds, the banality of it all and the energy-sapping humidity. One of the day's frequent tropical downpours (it's interesting to watch how the streets steam up each time), finally drove us into Singapore's Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station at Orchard Road.
It's a tourist attraction in its own right. And Teijo was right -- they're the cleanest you'll ever see, no trash and no graffiti. You buy tickets from an automated machine. You need cash for this by the way, but ATM's are plentiful. The Singapore dollar was worth about 70 cents USD and 50 cents GBP on our November 2007 visit. A ride costs about $1 SGD -- great deal! -- but note that each ticket, which is spit out as a hard plastic card, also carries a $1 SGD "deposit" (the same machines will give you a refund after you've completed your journey). Try to carry change, by the way; though machines indicated you could use paper currency, none of the ones we tried -- in several stations -- worked.
There's no pushing or jostling to get on or off the trains; yellow tape on the floor tells you where to stand to enter the car, as well as precisely where to walk when you exit. The cars themselves are quiet, operating with a whoosh as they pull into the station rather than the usual cacophony we tend to be familiar with in Western undergrounds. In fact, the Singapore system is more like the kind of train systems you see in airports than the jam-packed, jostling underground trains in big Northeastern U.S. cities.
Mind you, the MRT here is not just a tourist attraction -- it's also quite an efficient way to get around the city. And because all the signs are in English (indeed, every person sitting onboard reading a newspaper was reading in English), it's quite easy for the neophyte to figure out how to get around.
We took the subway to City Hall, just two stops from Orchard Road. While also containing a fair array of Singapore's ubiquitous shopping options, it's also home to some of the major points of interest on our schedule today. First: we ascend to street level and walk across the road. As does everyone, we wait for the lights to indicate it is okay to cross -- no jaywalking here! -- to Raffles Hotel. Dating back to 1887 and named for Sir Stamford Raffles, the Colonial hotel is part of much of the city's build-up from the more recent century. Because Raffles is considered Singapore's modern founder, his influence isn't limited to the hotel; the name is everywhere: Raffles Plaza, Raffles Hospital and so on.
For most visitors, the enduring image of this tropical place is that of the colonially elegant Raffles Hotel, home to the Singapore Sling (the drink, consisting of gin, cherry brandy, citrus mix, grenadine and soda, was created here in 1915) and the Long Bar. Celebrity visitors that frequented this icon ranged from Ernest Hemingway to Rudyard Kipling. The hotel is such a well-known tourist attraction that it even finds its way onto shore excursion menus in which visitors get to sample a Singapore Sling in the recreated Long Bar. In the interior courtyard, swaying palm trees shade an outdoor bar, and there are a handful of shops, including Raffles own, selling all sorts of fairly innocuous merchandise that often has little to do with either Raffles or Singapore (fancy a logo-inscribed oven mitt?).
It's frankly hard to believe that this place is still a hotel -- and quite a pricey one at that -- and not simply a museum. I'd prefer to stay somewhere a bit more off the tourist radar.
Outside Raffles, I encountered an elderly Chinese man driving a rickshaw -- a fading remnant of Singapore's past that offers a horse-and-carriage kind of experience except that the "driver" is riding a bicycle. You know what struck me immediately? He was wearing Croc's -- you know, those hideously ugly, wildly colored rubber clogs that are the most comfortable shoes you'll ever find anywhere?
Singapore blends the fading past with a vibrant present. This blending is captured not just in architectural styles and commercial development but also in the everyday life here.
Next, we make a pit stop at the Raffles Plaza shopping mall so Teijo can buy shirts (he's partial to G 2000, an Asian men's and women's clothing store that offers extraordinary good value-for-money apparel -- you can still get a good deal in Singapore but you do need to know where to look for it). But then he starts growing increasingly frantic as our time passes: "I want to show you the Boat Quay, and we really should take a cable car to Sentosa, and you want to go to the Botanical Garden, and Chinatown's not far from here and…."
He's literally spinning in step while I'm already drooping. You just can't see everything in a day. Or rather you can if you use the "drive-by" method at major tourist attractions while you see little and absorb even less, all in an effort to put check-marks next to every item on your menu of sights to see. But this is simply not a satisfying way to experience this city.
Indeed, there are places that should be on every tourist's must see agenda: a cable car ride up to Mount Faber for panoramic views; Thian Hock Kheng Temple, Singapore's oldest Chinese temple; Sri Mariamman Temple, the most historic for Hindus here; and the Changi Chapel and Museum, where the Japanese held British and Australian prisoners during World War II. On a more lighthearted note, consider a short ride by cable car to Sensosa Island, a Singaporean playground where you can visit beaches (try Palwan), play golf, or visit the Butterfly Park and Insect Kingdom.
Not today, though. More interested in Singapore's fast fading blend of history and tradition, we instead walked slowly along North Bridge Road toward the Boat Quay, which is part of the city's Colonial district. Here, on the riverfront, these crumbling buildings at one time housed waterfront warehouses and served the local dhow boat traffic (small, wooden boats that come to buy and sell typical lifestyle goods). In fact, Sir Stamford himself first arrived in Singapore by landing on these shores.
Those small boats no longer have a place here, but bumboats, ye-olde-looking wooden vessels that serve as water taxis, are common (indeed, you can embark just across the river for a ride through the city's waterways). The big appeal of Boat Quay is the myriad of restaurants and waterfront cafes that line this stretch. Most of these restaurants are Asian with numerous regional Chinese, Singaporean and Indian options. Don't forget to try the favorite local dishes like crabs with red chile gravy or chicken rice, a combo of steamed, ginger-dipped chicken with plain rice. The restaurant's proprietors stand outside, with menus garishly displaying dishes via four color reproductions in the background. They entice you to stop by saying anything: "Come for lunch? No lunch? How about a drink? No? Then how about cocktail hour!"
We ended up, incongruously, at the French Picton, which was full of French expats. At a table on the river's edge, we supped on bistro fare (roast chicken and beef bourguignon), drank a Kronenbourg (wine is impossibly expensive) and admired the view in front of us. True to form, Singapore's blending of old and new continued to spread out in front of us; the sleek new Parliament Building, constructed in 1999, has replaced the old (a neo- Palladian edifice built in 1827, which now serves as an arts center). It sits next to the one-time Empress Place, a gorgeous, amber-cream colored building that is now home to places like the Asian Civilizations Museum and IndoChine, an upscale restaurant specializing in the cuisines of Vietnam, Laos and France.
City Hall lurks behind them; in this city, it's considered an old building with a pedigree that dates all the way back to 1929. And yet if you inch your neck just slightly to the right, you can see the afternoon's bland grey-white sky mirrored in the all-glass corporate palaces that are sprinkled throughout the city.
Sitting at our cafe, we both, for the first time all day, begin to relax as we discuss, rationally, our remaining agenda. Teijo concedes we have to cut down on his planned visits -- and I eliminate a few things from mine. Sentosa and the Botanical Garden -- which weren't nearby enough -- were the first to go and added to the "next time" list. With less nail gnashing, temple visits and a trip to Changi prison were abandoned and so was the cable car ride to Mt. Faber.
Instead, we head a few blocks behind the quay to Chinatown. In a country in which much of its residents are actually Chinese, the idea of a Chinatown district may seem a bit antiquated. This section of town dates back, however, to the 1820's, a time when the Chinese were a minority to the more dominant British who had settled here.
Like many other parts of Singapore, Chinatown is a mix of old and new, but here the balance is tipped toward the old. Mostly comprised of shophouses -- people live above the store or, in many cases, the cafe -- that are painted bright and cheery primary colors. Many buildings have been restored and now house trendy cafes -- Italian and Belgium -- along with coffee houses (Starbucks is pervasive) and "genuine" Irish pubs that inexplicably hawk the Dutch Heineken.
You'll also find more traditional eateries or at least the kind of places that you'd expect from a Chinatown -- basic, fluorescent-lit one-room restaurants that tantalizingly smell of ginger. Of course, they offer cheap, cheap, cheap lunches with outdoor tables filled with people involved in the serious business of refueling. If you can't make up your mind about what to eat (though these places, like the more pricey ones on the river, all feature photographic menus of foodstuffs), head to Chinatown Centre. On the first floor, you can wander from stall to stall in search of freshly made fare and then hunker down to eat in a cafeteria like ambience. In the basement is the actual market, specializing in meats that you can still buy, er, products that are still quite alive. I'd suggest you have lunch beforehand -- or you may lose your appetite.
Wherever you wander in Chinatown, there's energy that is at once laid back and hyped up. It's entirely different from the shopping frenzy of the ladies who lunch, clutch multiple shopping bags, and rush around on Orchard Street. Particularly at lunch time, you see far more locals than tourists and the buzz of the place reminds me of home, sort of.
Actually, what Chinatown reminds me of is various parts of Singapore and other cities mixed together. I have thought often of Vancouver today; that Canadian city has the same internal struggle between the importance of dramatic new development and the need to preserve neighborhoods where past and present cultures thrive.
I've also had a sense of deja vu of other places. And maybe that's what people mean when they talk about Singapore being a hard city to get a hold of.
Our time's running out, and even though we've had a brief exploration of Chinatown, I want to come back and explore more in-depth. So, we've added it to our "next time" list!
As we pass by Burger King on our way to the Raffles Plaza subway stop, we've already begun to make our way back to Orchard Road and the massive DFS duty free store which is our shuttle's connection point.
After a speedy 10 minute ride on the subway, we still had an hour to kill until we needed to arrive at DFS for a latish shuttle. There was one store, no, two stores, that actually really did pique my curiosity among the global offerings on Orchard Road. Takashimaya could be classified as the Japanese Saks Fifth Avenue or Harvey Nichols, but it remains fascinating in its own right. Although it's like any other store in this part of the city -- glitzy and pricey with ubiquitous labels like Thomas Pink, Lancome and Donna Karan -- there's one big difference: its underground food hall.
A fascinating foray into local life, its numerous stalls sell everything from bread at the Swiss Bakery that's so fresh the yeast is literally still rising to tuna rolls at Nakajima Sushi & Fish where you can belly up to the counter and order to a comforting brew at the Chinese Tea House. Even Harrods has a small boutique here, selling everything from logo items to Christmas hampers.
Just as much fun, if not more, is Kinokunyia, a Japanese bookstore that's one of the most comprehensive in the world (it preceded the Borders/Barnes & Noble/Waterstones mega chain concept). It's hard to imagine that there's some kind of reading matter that Kinokunyia doesn't sell -- from nostalgic pictorials on Singapore's lost history to English guidebooks and from chick lit to the latest issues of Vogue, Country Living and Vanity Fair. It's a fantastic place to stock up on reading material.
Back at the DFS "terminal," the line of passengers waiting to board motorcoaches back to the ship numbered a daunting 500, but it moved quickly and, for the most part, politely. As my husband, a native of Finland, spoke rapidly on his cell phone in Finnish, I entertained myself by eavesdropping on conversations of other passengers in line, most of whom spoke something other than English. It all felt rather exotic and, in fact, mirrored the Singapore experience.
Apparently, I wasn't the only one eavesdropping. One man, part of a large group of Spaniards ahead of us, had an ear cocked to listen to Teijo's conversation. He was clearly trying to figure out Teijo's mother tongue, and the incredulous look on his face (and trust me when I say that Finnish sounds like nothing you have ever heard) made me laugh out loud.
While I definitely spotted a plethora of U.S. icons and never once had to worry about finding a translator during my exploration of Singapore, I definitely wasn't the only one who felt a long way from home.
Maybe this next day at sea will let me process everything I've just seen.