SINGAPORE

Sunday 16 September 2007

Our plan to take the stress out of the trip by staying overnight at the Airport International didn't quite work out as we planned. The hotel itself is seedy and run down, the meals appalling (think frozen then deep fried) and parking a nightmare.

Having obeyed all their rules about parking, we came out the next morning to find ourselves parked in by an employee and someone else who hadn't left their keys with reception.

Eventually freeing the hire car we refuelled and went early to the airport simply to get away from the hotel and hoping that when we flew out at 11:30am we would leave our bad luck behind!

[Right] Singapore Cricket Club at night from the 25th floor of the Swissotel

[Left] The Swissotel

Singapore Cricket Club from the 25th floor of the Swissotel
Swissotel Singapore

Monday 17 September 2007

The flight from Sydney was uneventful and our cattle-class companion, Rag, is a pleasant-natured stone salesman from India in his mid-thirties. He goes regularly to Australian cities selling stone for bench-tops and similar uses and is an enthusiastic advocate for his product. He's married with two boys aged seven and two.

This is the third time that Margaret has been to Singapore and probably around my 20th visit, but it's a city where familiarity never palls. Today the police armed with sub-machineguns were replaced by Ghurkas and we were waved on through Customs without any sort of check at all. The desk near the exit enabled us to take a shuttle bus from the airport to the hotel at a fraction of the cost of a taxi.

The drive from Changi Airport to the city goes via the East Coast freeway where the dividing strip is lined with pots of bougainvillea in red, orange, pink and white. There's also a shrub with masses of light green foliage but we weren't able to identify it. The reason for the pots is that in an emergency the roadway becomes an alternative runway so the decoration has to be removable. As always, there's no rubbish, no graffiti and everything is squeaky clean.

The Stamford Swisstel [pictured left] is on Stamford Road across the road from Raffles, overlooking the harbour. From our balcony on the 25th floor we can see the padang (playing field) of the Singapore Cricket Club on the immediate right.

Moving left we have Collier Quay in the far distance, Merlion Park and then immediately in front of us is the Singapore Performing Arts Centre in the form of two gigantic durian halves. As you can see, the lights make the whole scene a wonderful panorama by night.

Less than half a block away, on the corner of Beach and Bras Basah Roads, is the about-to-be-demolished NCOs Club of the Singapore Defence Force. In the late '60s it was known as the Brittania Club, owned by the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute (NAAFI).  That was where many of us single soldiers from the 8th Battalion stayed while in Singapore on leave.

Dinner tonight was in a partly open-air food market on Victoria Street between Middle and Bras Basah roads. The decor is predominantly yellow and green plastic and there are no signs, but if I recall correctly this is the Satay Gardens food market. We had black pepper crab and steamed pomfret with a couple of bottles of Tiger beer.

Satay Garden, Singapore
A combination of wide-angle lens and photo-stitching shows the view from our balcony on the 25th floor


[Above] A combination of wide angle lens, panning and photo-stitching shows the view from our balcony

The beer of course was only to help with rehydration, as it's been very humid and steamy. We thought the black pepper crab might have a little more bite than Margaret would enjoy, but it was rich and tasty without being overbearing, while the pomfret was a very fine-textured fish simply steamed with light soy sauce.

Tuesday 18 September 2007

We woke early, breakfasted in the hotel and then walked down to the old Brittania Club. We'll have to go back to take a photo, as the transition from air-conditioning to the outside humidity fogged up the camera for some time.

We eventually found our way to the theatre complex [pictured left] via a series of sparkling underpasses lined with polished stone. There were some homeless people sleeping there, which did surprise us, but in typical Singapore fashion, even the derelicts are neat and tidy!

In Australia these pedestrian underpasses would be grafittied and reek of urine or worse!

Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple

From the theatre complex we walked down towards Collier Quay, past the War Memorial and onto the SCC padang with City Hall and the Supreme Court in the background. Behind them is a modern building surmounted by a circular structure which looms over City Hall like a flying saucer!

Following the river bank we crossed over the river on Coleman Bridge, but could not get down to Collyer Quay itself because of the ubiquitous redevelopments.

Changing course we went through the modernised and totally sanitised Change Alley, but it was too early for the majority of the shop-owners to be there.  Turning away from the business centre and the harbour we continued up Church Street and along South Bridge Road to Chinatown with its shop-houses and brightly coloured wares spilling onto the footpaths and even into the streets.

Incongruously, two of the major landmarks in Chinatown are the Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple [left] and the Jamae Mosque.

In the afternoon I rested my hip while Margaret went for a swim in one of the two pools on the eighth floor. Later we strolled up to the Bugis Street markets. These are mainly stalls of cheap clothing knock-offs and similar, interspersed with the odd mobile phone accessories, watch and shoe vendors while one wing and some of the periphery is for food stalls. We didn't find it too difficult to pass on the durian pancakes!

One of the T-shirts advises that "Singapore is a fine city", then goes on to list the fines for littering and other offences. Drug trafficking of course is a capital offence.  The markets have extended up to Albert Court where we stayed last time, spreading both to the east and the north, but this could be because we are in the middle of the Autumn Festival which incorporates elements of Ramadan and Hari Raya, Deepavalli and the Chinese Mooncake Festival.

The markets are in considerable contrast to the original Bugis Street which was the haunt of transsexuals, shoe-shine men, and ladies of negotiable virtue, with beer and food stalls and little kids who were the slickest noughts and crosses players on the face of the earth. They never lost, which is not unsurprising given that the other players were mostly drunk or on the way to it, and even a draw was unusual!

Bougainvillea
Bonsai outside Buddha Tooth Temple in Chinatown, Singapore

[Above] Potted Bougainvillia

[Left] Bonsai outside the Buddha Tooth Temple in Chinatown

Many of the transsexuals were Chinese and some were British soldiers, or had been at some time. The Chinese word for them is kaitai I think. You could always tell the difference between the transsexuals and the bar girls, because the transsexuals were better looking.

Revisiting the food market we considered our options over two 750ml bottles of Tiger - purely in the interests of rehydration you understand. Dinner consisted of ten sticks of chicken satay with real satay sauce, fresh onion and cucumber, followed by crispy skin fish with barbecue sauce, a combination of white and wild rice and greens in the form of stir-fried Kai Lan.

All things considered, we feel we are bearing up well under the strain of daily life in Singapore.

Wednesday 19 September 2007

Another early morning - damn this time-zone thing! After breakfast we had the laundry picked up and the concierge replaced a stool with a broken seat for an office chair which makes my diarising on the laptop computer much more comfortable.

We walked down to and then along Orchard Road, which is the main tourist shopping strip. We bought a replacement for the mini-USB cable which mysteriously didn't get packed (later I discovered that it did get packed and we now have yet another duplicated piece of technology), a large Compact Flash card for later use and a wide-angle lens for the digital still camera. The cable is necessary for downloading pictures from the digital camera onto the laptop.

[R] Shop in Little India, Singapore

Shop in Little India, Singapore

Margaret has been after a sari for some time, so we caught the Mass Rapid Transport (MRT) underground rail from Orchard Road to Little India via Dhobi Ghaut and then walked along Serangoon Road up to the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple. [Don't ask me to pronounce it, it was as much as I could do to type it!].

The sari has now been secreted in the suitcase, together with the necessary scarf and top, as well as one of the tunic-type tops which go over light cotton trousers. The shop was a treasure-trove of wonderful exotic fabrics in strange juxtaposition with three and four dollar T-shirts and five dollar cotton trousers.

I now have an irrefutable response to the importuning Indian tailors - "Sorry, I'm retired.  No suit, no tie. Any more!"  It is the only response which we've found to work.

We initially returned by way of the Albert Court complex where we stayed last time we were here and had lunch in one of the food halls which are dotted throughout the area.

In attempting to find a new way back to the hotel we took a wrong turn (courtesy of Clive) and ended up in the Arab quarter with its shops of handwoven rugs. Shame we haven't got room for these but I suppose that we will be further tempted in Turkey. Somewhat footsore and weary, we eventually found our way back to the hotel for a well-deserved afternoon rest.

It's a tough job, having fun.

In the evening we went to the Raffles Long Bar for drinks - Singapore Slings for Margaret of course. This bar is very well patronised during the happy hour from 5 to 9 pm, but that doesn't actually mean that the prices are reasonable! There are many tourists, a sprinkling of business people and a few locals out to impress the new girlfriend.

The staff behind the bar are mostly Indian, dressed in fancy uniforms, starched white jackets and all, while the floor staff are Malays and Chinese dressed in loose tops and sarongs. Each table is kept well-supplied with dishes of fresh peanuts in the shell and the tradition is that the shells are discarded on the floor.

Dinner for me was Chilli Crab at the food market while Margaret passed on the Steamed Live Frog with Ginger and chose Prawn Noodle Soup. Pig Organ Soup appears to be pretty popular as it is on the menu at a couple of the stalls and also appeared at the Albert Court Food Hall at lunch time. It's absolutely impossible to eat Chilli Crab elegantly, so I didn't even try! This is as close to heaven as I'm ever likely to get.

Margaret reports that the shop staff seemed to be intrigued by the enjoyment I was getting from the meal. A couple of days ago we saw an advertisement in the lift of our hotel letting guests know that they could enjoy Chilli Crab and Tiger beer in one of their restaurants. Prices start at $S95! Can't see much point in doing that when we can walk a block and a half and have the same thing for $S32.

Rhinocerus, Singapore Zoo
Orangutan, Singapore Zoo

Thursday 20 September 2007

Body time is starting to catch up with the local chronology so we're not waking quite so early. After a leisurely start we decided that we would go to Singapore Zoo today, using the MRT and buses. The City Hall MRT Station is about 100m from the front of the hotel so we caught the train to the Ang Mo Kio Station then a minibus to the Zoo.

The entire Zoo complex covers about 28 hectares with a wide range of animals. Singapore Zoo is a very active and successful participant in a number of breeding programs, including orang utan [see left], white-faced saki monkey, white rhino [above], cottontop lemur monkey, about 20cm long from the top of their head to the tip of their tail [see below], rhino iguana and pygmy hippo. I'd imagine that the animals are pretty enthusiastic about the breeding program too.

We enjoyed our walk around the Zoo, with plenty of rest stops and took full advantage of the fact that we didn't have any deadlines, timetables or conflicting schedules. The animals all appear to be happy and healthy.

Margaret was in her element as the Singapore Australian (Primary) School was doing a fund-raising exercise with all of the children having to have papers stamped at a number of stations throughout the zoo.  It was all that I could do to stop her joining in!

There was another earthquake south of Indonesia this afternoon, not that far from Singapore and in the 6.5 range on the Richter Scale. While some people reported feeling the shocks here, we were entirely oblivious to the whole thing.

Must learn to concentrate more.

Cotton-top Lemur, Singapore Zoo
White Tigers, Singapore Zoo

Back to the Satay Gardens for dinner after an afternoon nap - as grandparents we've been led to believe that the afternoon nap is obligatory and are doing our best to hold up our end of the bargain. The entree was chicken and beef satay followed by chicken and almonds for Margaret and Lamb Vindaloo with Roti Patek.

Unfortunately it was necessary to have a couple of bottles of Tiger to wash this down with. In a better world of course, this wouldn't have been necessary, but we have make the best of the circumstances that are thrust upon us.

On the way back to the hotel we discussed the possibilities for tomorrow and have pretty much decided that we'll visit Margaret's Fun Park, now styled the Haw Par Villa, but previously known as the Tiger Balm Gardens.

Friday 21 September 2007

The concierge advised us that the Haw Par Villa has gone even further downhill than it was when we last saw it, even thought they were working on the statues and presentation at the time.  We decided to give it a miss and had a look around the Sun City Shopping Centre instead.  After that we took the MRT to Orchard Road.

Margaret managed to find the Yves St Lauren perfume that she has been chasing now for more than 18 months. It's Orchardie de Chine and was a limited edition that I bought for her in Adelaide a couple of years ago. We even found the tester in the Duty Free shops in Sydney but they'd run out of the actual perfume. We had lunch and went to the movies in the Shaw Brothers Centre to see Ratatouille which was very light-weight and enjoyable. Just what we needed.

[Right - Street decorations in Chinatown]

Street decorations in Chinatown
Buddha Tooth Temple, Chinatown, Singapore

Had a couple of glasses of wine in one of the hotel's bars - a very nice New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Aromatic, nice fruit, very clean and smooth. As Margaret observed, "We're Australians so we're allowed to bag out the Kiwis, but no-one else can."

On the way to dinner we had a look around the Chijmes Centre. For reasons which are probably obvious to all, we appear to have come to a tacit agreement to avoid pronouncing this name out loud. The complex takes up a full city block including a church.

We're not sure whether the church is operating or defunct, but it doesn't appear on the map. The centre is on three levels, packed full of restaurants of various flavours - Japanese, Spanish, Portugese, Brazilian (at least you're unlikely to get a hair in your soup), Italian and so on. It's the sort of cuisine that you'd expect to find in Australia so we weren't tempted. Half a block away we tucked into Chilli Prawns and Scallops with Asparagus. I suppose that these are also dishes that you'd be likely to find in a Chinese restaurant in Australia but they do have the benefit of being true to the location and the genre.

I watched one of the cooks for some time and observed that he, his ladle and his industrial-sized wok were turning out dishes in 90 to 120 seconds from start to finish! All the preparation was already done and it was simply a matter of using the ladle to put in a little oil, the ingredients and a touch of stock, chilli, or whatever.  Very impressive to see.  Enjoy a quick sip of your drink before the meal arrives ...oops, here it is!

[Left - the Buddha Tooth Temple in Chinatown, Singapore]

Tomorrow and Sunday look like being long days. We have a late checkout at 4:00pm tomorrow and will then have to put our luggage into the concierge for storage until we need to go out to Changi Airport at about 9:30pm. We don't fly out until 11:35pm local time, have a stopover in Dubai - don't know for how long - and arrive in Instanbul at 7:30am! Officially we can't book into the hotel until about 1:30 so again we'll have to have our baggage checked and see what there is to do.

Saturday 22 September 2007

We've been going to bed far earlier than we would at home, so between this and the time difference, our days have been starting early.  Today is no exception.  Once we get the administration out of the road we think we'll use the MRT to go back to Chinatown and take some more photos.

After confirming that we did indeed have a 400pm checkout, we caught the MRT to Dhobi Gaut and, after changing to the East-West line we alighted at Chinatown station.  Today we had the chance to have a better look at the buildings and shops, but most importantly, the Buddha Tooth Temple.  I imagine that Buddha is a bit like Jesus.  If you gathered together all of the teeth, finger-bones, fragments of the true cross and so on, you'd have enough enamel to start your own denture factory, enough fingers to kit out several hundred amputees and enough wood to warm Sydney for the entire next winter.

[Right - Statue outside Buddha Tooth Temple]

 

Statue outside Buddha Tooth Temple in Chinatown, Singapore

That said, the Buddha Tooth Temple is very impressive and extremely colourful.  There was a Buddhist ceremony in progress while we were there, with lots of chanting, burning of incense and ringing of bells.  The whole complex though is quite commercial, and there's even a souvenir shop.  The traffic was horrendous so going by MRT was certainly a good decision.

We had lunch downstairs in the Raffles Square complex and by the time we finished it was time to go back and check out.  This then meant that were able to avail ourselves of the Hospitality suite on the 8th floor.  As we'd predicted it was a bit of a drag and we were happy to take a taxi to the airport and get on the road again.

[Left - Immaculate stone floor in Mass Rapid Transport station in Singapore]

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