Not only is Singapore clean and covered with Do Not symbols, but it appears to be quite safe. (Nevertheless, watch your pockets in crowds. As one sign read: Low Crime Doesn’t Mean NO Crime.) I must admit that in 4 days I did not see a single law enforcement officer other than what appeared to be a meter maid (or perhaps someone on chewing-gum patrol.)
Getting around Singapore is a snap. We went backpacker a bit and skipped the taxis and shuttle buses from the airport. For a mere S$1.60 the MRT train took us to within three blocks of the Victoria Hotel. Set on Victoria Road this clean budget hotel (with free internet!) offered us quick access to both Chinatown and Clarke Quay for a S$1 bus ride (#2 and #33) and was a doable walk to Marina Bay. Buses take coins, exact change. Drivers speak English and for us were very patient and helpful.
Little India was high on my list and I had hoped to find some good restaurants there. What I found was, well, little India. A bustling collection of business-as-usual shops, a hectic scattering of people, some with places to go things to do, others with no discernible direction or motive, further encouraging me to buck common wisdom and skip India. (I’ve said “never” before of many things and always ended up doing whatever I vowed not to. So India fans, don’t protest please.) We went on to Arab Street and were pleased as punch. Next to the 1825 Masjid Sultan Mosque, the city’s largest, were a few blocks of nicely repainted colonial shuttered shop buildings, wide pedestrian walkways with elbow room and some green spaces, trees. It is a place to linger, have a tea or coffee. You will find Muslims there, but mostly Malay and Indian not so much Arab as the name might suggest. It is a couple blocks off of Victoria Street and walkable from our hotel.
Not far from there is the Singapore Asian Civilisations Museum, a must for history/culture buffs. The three-story structure has modern displays with good information, clear labels, and some interactive narrators on video monitors who add some life to the experience. Watch them when they are not activated and they are sighing with boredom, maybe humming a song or mumbling to themselves. Pretty funny. Free guided tours run a few times per day. First-class museum and some good interactive/educational stuff for the kids (and adults like me: Oh, can I press the button?!? I wanna press the button!!)
[Disturbing quote from a video of a woman descended from headhunters: “Fellow students ask me why I keep a shrunken head. Headhunting was an important part of our lives.” Um… ]
We hit Orchard Road but were unimpressed. Going to the mall is not my idea of traveling. But that night we did end up at a trendy spot that we couldn’t help but love: Clarke’s Quay. Pricey? Yep. But so damn cool. The area features pubs and restaurants all along the Singapore River but our favorite place was the Clarke Quay complex. A crossroads of pedestrian mall covered by what look to be giant umbrellas that shift through the a few colors of light. A fountain lies at the center and dozens of ethnic restaurants and themed bars vie for patrons by trying to outdazzle each other. Marrakech was an eye-catching restaurant lit up soft blue inside and serving shisha/hookah water pipes. But a few steps away the belly dancer at the Persian place stole the attention. Clinic took the most disturbing award. Patrons sit in wheelchairs and drink overpriced drinks from saline bags. Cute but empty. I was surprised by a nice microbrewery the Pump House. Good beers and two for the price of one before 10 pm. (Here they call that “one for one”) The brewer is from Portland, Oregon. Nice work.
And in one of those rare opportunities that I get to whip out a few phrases in Turkish, we encountered an ice cream vendor. Turkish ice cream (dondurma) is unusual in that it contains a powder made from orchid bulbs that gives it an elastic consistency. It is delicious and the vendor’s method of delivery is traditionally a show. I knew that and bought Ms. Peung a cone so I could watch the unsuspecting victim giggle. The ice cream is dug out of the vat with a long (just under a meter) metal spatula. He then pats it into the cone and holds it forth for the customer to grab. When Peung reached for it he twirled the handle so the cone spun up from her grasp. A couple more times while it’s still funny, then the real tricks begin. She takes the cone and when he pulls back the spatula the ice cream goes with it, back into the vat leaving her with the empty cone. He “argues” what you want some more? Three dollars again. “He turns to me in Turkish. You saw it. I gave it to her.” He takes the cone back and fills it again reaches out with the spatula and does a quick lift of it banging the bell above the booth. Then he just pulls off the cone (with the ice cream this time) and hands it to her. She reaches, he does a wrist spin and the cone is pointing up. Finally he delivers to the blushing giggling woman. $3 worth of entertainment and a delicious pistachio ice cream.
Just before we headed back to Victoria Street for a bus some colored lights in the dark sky up river caught our attention. We followed them and found a park with a couple of green lasers set up flickering into the sky, sort of a Bat signal perhaps for fellow “kite” flyers. The kites in fact are a cross between remote control airplanes and a kite. Hobbyists gather frequently to fly them in the dark. I asked if it was difficult to fly them. “Not at all. Our youngest member is 6 years old.” Well, I’ve seen 4 year old Asians play guitar like rock stars so that didn’t necessarily mean it was easy. “Our oldest member is 86. He’s out there right now.” He pointed to a lone figure with a control box in his hands, backlit by the light from the hotels beyond. His plane-kite soared above and then came in low toward us with green lasers scanning the ground before it. Like the button-pushing kid back at the museum, all I could think was “Oh MAN I want one of those!” Look for them in a park down along the river right across from Clarke Quay.
One more blog from Singapore to come plus a photo gallery for the whole trip! Subscribe here or follow me on Twitter @KevinRevolinski