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Singapore: Big little red dot
by Prakash Bang, Editor in Chief
Located in Southeast Asia, Singapore has a land area of about 710 square kilometres, making her one of the smallest countries in the world and the smallest in the region – hence the moniker “The Little Red Dot”. Although small in size, Singapore commands an enormous presence in the world today with its free trade economy and highly efficient workforce. Also, her strategic location in the region has enabled her to become a central sea port along major shipping routes. Little has indeed become big.
I used to travel to Singapore quite often. However, my other business priorities kept me away from this happening city for quite some time. It was almost after 4 years that I was visiting Singapore. And true to the belief that ‘Singapore changes itself every few years’ was quite evident. Most dramatic change that I saw was the development of Marina Bay and additions of underground railway lines.
I planned my business days adjoining to the Chinese New Year - locals love to call it CNY. Chinese calendar is based on lunar movements. The CNY usually falls in January or February. I was in Singapore for 4 days. I sandwiched my ‘tour Singapore’ agenda in between business meetings.
Moving around Singapore is quite a breeze. The island nation has one of the world’s most efficient public transportation systems, if not the best. With a combination of underground trains, over ground buses and your feet one can very easily go from anywhere to anywhere… effortlessly. By the year 2020, the Government plans to make the network so efficient and owning cars so expensive that it will encourage the locals to depend more and more on public transportation.
For this trip I was to stay at Hotel Pan Pacific located on Raffles Boulevard. Thanks to my association with the tourism industry, the hotel was kind enough to offer me a room on the 28th floor. The room had a balcony and faced the Marina Bay. To my right was the financial district, in the front was the bay and to my left standing majestically was Singapore’s newest icon – The Marina Bay Sands Hotel & Casino. I couldn’t have asked for a better ‘room with a view’.
The hotel has many award winning restaurants and I was quite impressed by their hospitality. If you are around, make it a point to stay on their higher floors… even if you have to pay a price. It will be worth it. For me, the room with a balcony was an added bonus… on the eve of CNY, there would be fireworks giving me undisturbed and unobstructed view of the action.
The Pan Pacific is ideally situated between two Circle Line SMRT stations – Promenade and Esplanade. And it is walking distance to Suntec City Mall, City Link, City Hall, Singapore Flyer and Bayfront – the station for Marina Bay Sands.
I landed at Changi International Airport at 4PM. Thankfully, there was no queue at the immigration (even if there’s one, trust me it would move quite quickly). In just about 15 minutes I was in the taxi. Actually, there’s an underground line that terminates at Changi. I could have taken that, but laziness prevailed. It was 20-minute taxi ride that cost SGD 19 (includes airport surcharge). At the time of writing, USD1 fetched SGD1.28. Choice of taxis was another change that I noticed. Earlier on there was only one government controlled taxi service. This time round there were 6 independent taxi companies.
By 6PM I was ready to receive my friend and business associate Nitin and his charming wife Cindy. While Nitin enjoys Indian lineage, Cindy is Chinese Singaporean. Their kids are a classic 19 & 14 year old blends… all in all a wonderful family. The plan that evening was to dine at Newton Food Centre.
Newton Food Centre is Singapore’s most famous eating place. It may not be the best, but is indeed the most popular with locals as well as tourists. One can see tourist buses parked in large numbers. There are about 100 stalls that mainly cook local cuisine. Seating is out in the open. Every table has a number. Diners order their food at the stalls and give their table number. Food is brought at the table and is paid for to the waiter. Once it was very common for the stall owners to overcharge their unsuspecting (especially foreigners) customers but now CCTV cameras have put some check.
Dinner started with a round of beer. For mains there was stingray, squids, oyster omelet, chicken wings, green vegetables and rice. For desserts we had ice kachang and chandol. Newton is more famous for its seafood. I could see diners devouring tiger prawns, crabs and lobsters. A big appetite and deep pockets make for a good combination.
The next morning and some part of the afternoon were for transacting business. At 4PM I had scheduled to visit the Singapore Zoo and Night Safari. The Wildlife Reserves Singapore Group offered me a pass that gave me access to the two locations as well as to Jurong Bird Park. Tourists can also avail for this pass that costs SGD 58. Of course, individual tickets are also available but collectively will cost more. If you have the time and the inclination, the combo pass is recommended. The 3 are amongst Singapore’s ‘must do’ list.
I bought an EZ Link Transit Card that gives access to public transportation. SGD 5 is the cost. Thereafter you can top-up as per your travel plans. I put in SGD30 that saw me through for the days that I was there. Some balance was there which would come in handy for my next visit, whenever that happens.
Nearest station to the two attractions is Ang Mo Kio. Buses from Ang Mo Kio interchange take you straight to the Singapore Zoo. As my luck would have it, as soon as I reached the gates of the zoo, there were thunderstorms. It was pouring like hell. There was no way, I could get in. Rains are quite common to Singapore. And they happen all year round. For the next 2 hours I was just sitting in one of the restaurants at the zoo. By the time the rain stopped, the zoo time was up!
The Singapore Zoo has over 3000 animals from the tropical rainforest. There are over 40 animal feeding sessions, photo opportunities, shows and rides. Attractions include Elephants of Asia; Hamadryas Baboons; Free-ranging Orangutans; reptile garden; Australian Outback and African hooves. Sadly, I missed them all!
Next door to the zoo is the Night Safari. It opens at 7PM and is the world’s first wildlife night park. It has over 1000 nocturnal animals. The park is divided in 8 geographical regions via 4 interlinked walking trails and tram route to observe various nocturnal animals from different parts of the world.
Performances include the fire-eating, acrobatic and roaring Thumbuakar - African Fire Dance as also a show performed by the birds of the dark. Unfortunately, due to bad weather these shows were cancelled. However, the tram ride was on. The 40-minute tram ride brings you in close range to witness the action in the dark. The evening was a washout. By the time I reached the hotel it was 10PM. After spending some time in the balcony enjoying the Singapore skyline, I crashed for the night.
The next day was CNY eve. And it was also a Sunday. Cindy and Nitin invited me to join their family reunion dinner that evening. In the morning, I made a trip to Jurong Bird Park. The nearest station is Boon Lay. Buses from Boon Lay bring you straight to Jurong Bird Park.
Jurong Bird Park is the world’s largest bird paradise. Over 5000 birds across 380 species fly, swim and roam freely in their naturalistic habitats, including four large free-flight aviaries (it has world’s largest man-made waterfall too). There are numerous feeding sessions and thrilling bird shows. A monorail (the park love to call it panorail) ride gives a good overview, or should I say ‘bird’s eye-view’ of the park.
I spent about 2 hours in the park. Thereafter, I came back downtown to explore Orchard Road which is a shoppers’ paradise. The road houses countless malls, boutique stores, hotels and restaurants. The CNY gave the road another excuse to decorate itself creatively. By 6PM I reached Cindy and Nitin’s place to witness the CNY rituals & enjoy the feast.
Chinese New Year is the longest and most important festivity in the Chinese calendar. The origin of Chinese New Year is itself centuries old and gains significance because of several myths and traditions. People will pour out their money to buy presents, decoration material, food, and clothing. It is also traditional for every family to thoroughly cleanse the house, in order to sweep away any ill-fortune and to make way for good incoming luck. Windows and doors will be decorated with red colour paper-cuts and couplets with popular themes of "good fortune", "happiness", "wealth", and "longevity". On the Eve of Chinese New Year, supper is a feast with families.
According to tales and legends, the beginning of Chinese New Year started with the fight against a mythical beast called the Nian. Nian would come on the first day of New Year to eat livestock, crops, and even villagers, especially children. To protect themselves, the villagers would put food in front of their doors at the beginning of every year. It was believed that after the Nian ate the food they prepared, it wouldn’t attack any more people. One time, people saw that the Nian was scared away by a little child wearing red. The villagers then understood that the Nian was afraid of the color red. Hence, every time when the New Year was about to come, the villagers would hang red lanterns and red spring scrolls on windows and doors. People also used firecrackers to frighten away the Nian. From then on, Nian never came to the village again.
The dinner starts with stirring of Yusheng – essentially raw fish accompanied by grated carrots, radish and a variety of sauces and garnishes. All the ingredients are placed in large plate on the centre of the table. Family members, with chopsticks in hand, stir the mix together thoroughly. Eating this salad is said to bring good luck and fortune all year round. The main course usually is a hotpot. Ingredients that go in include fish, chicken, pork, quail eggs and green veggies. During the CNY it is also customary to enjoy Bakkwa - Chinese salty-sweet dried meat, akin to jerky, which is trimmed of the fat, sliced, marinated and then smoked for later consumption or as a gift. I am told some stores that sell Bakkwa see queues of people that are hours long!
I reached my hotel at 11:30PM. I set up my camera in the balcony. At the stroke of midnight fireworks lit up the night sky. Traffic came to a standstill and all eyes, for the next 10 minutes were glued to the sky. I will let the pictures here do the talking.
The next day I was to be on my own. I was on a mission – to explore as much as possible. I began my walk at 8 in the morning and continued doing so till late evening. Between walks I use the trains to cut the travel time. In the 12 hours I must have walked zillions of kms (with the tropical sun up above at least the distance appeared so). I walked through the Esplanade, financial district, along the Singapore River, Clarke Quay, China Town, Little India (took a train from Chinatown Station), HarbourFront (took a train from Little India Station) and to the Sentosa Island using the boardwalk from HarbourFront.
Esplanade is a theater on the bay. It is designed uniquely in the shape of a durian - Singapore's national fruit. The 8000 square metre Esplanade Mall offers an exciting mix of retail, lifestyle and entertainment outlets over three levels. Esplanade's crown jewel is its 1600-seat Concert Hall, which boasts superb acoustics. It hosts a diverse range of music performances. It also has a theatre that has a seating capacity of about 2,000. Designed in an intimate horseshoe shape is Singapore’s largest performing stage and easily adapts to performances of differing scales.
Standing on one edge of the bay is Merlion, a famous Singapore icon. During the 14th century, this small but strategically located island earned a new name. According to the legend, Sang Nila Utama, a Prince from Palembang (the capital of Srivijaya), was out on a hunting trip when he caught sight of an animal he had never seen before. Taking it to be a good sign, he founded a city where the animal had been spotted, naming it “The Lion City” or Singapura, from the Sanskrit words “simha” (lion) and “pura” (city).
It was on its banks of the Singapore River that the foundations for modern Singapore were laid more than 150 years ago. Beginning life as a humble bustling fishing village, it soon developed into a busy seaport as trade increased between the East and West. It wasn't long before industrious stevedores and hardworking Samsui women filled the streets and enterprising hawkers packed the alleyways with their fares. Fishermen, traders and workers from across Asia and Europe soon flooded in - adding diversity, colour, and life into the thriving and vibrant community.
Lying near the mouth of the Singapore River, the site of Clarke Quay was the centre of commerce during the late 19th century. Today, Clarke Quay is still buzzing with life and activity. The waterfront godowns now play host to a colourful kaleidoscope of restaurants, wine bars, entertainment spots and retail shops. The bustling market atmosphere of bygone days comes alive amidst the rows of charming shophouses, pushcarts, and five-foot-way merchants.
Following Singapore's founding, migrants looking to make their fortune in Singapore began arriving in droves. To ensure organized growth in the new settlement, Sir Stamford Raffles sat down with Lieutenant Jackson, the colony engineer, to draft out the Plan of the Town of Singapore, reorganising the ethnic groups into functional divisions along the river banks. From its humble beginnings, Chinatown lived through many trials and tribulations to become the jewel we know today. In 1989, the areas Telok Ayer, Tanjong Pagar, Bukit Pasoh and Kreta Ayer were granted official conservation status. Shop houses that once held coolie houses, opium dens, brothels, goods and factories, today hold offices, shops and restaurants – each of which pay homage to the historical roots of Chinatown in their own way.
Little India is an ethnic neighbourhood found in Singapore that has Tamil cultural elements and aspects of other cultures. Little India lies to east of the Singapore River - across from Chinatown. Little India is more commonly known as Tekka in the local Tamil community. The Little India area is reported to have developed around a former settlement for Tamil convicts. Its location along the Serangoon River originally made it attractive for raising cattle, and trade in livestock was once prominent in the area.
Eventually, other economic activity developed, and by the turn of the 20th century, the area began to look like a Tamil ethnic neighbourhood. Serangoon Road is the main commercial thoroughfare in Little India. Along Serangoon Road are the Tekka Centre, the Tekka Mall, the Little India Arcade, Serangoon Plaza, and the Mustafa Centre (on a side-road). Several Hindu temples, mosques, and other place of worship include Foochow Methodist Church, Kampong Kapor Methodist Church, Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, Angullia Mosque, Sri Vadapathira Kaliamman Temple, Jalan Mosque, and the Central Sikh Gurdwara.
HarbourFront Centre is a shopping mall in the heart of the HarbourFront Precinct, an area bursting with vitality. Its three-storey retail podium offers a wide array of fashion, food and beverage, electronic goods, sporting equipment and more, serving tourists and shoppers of all ages as well as the office crowd. HarbourFront Centre, which also houses ten levels of offices and an international cruise centre, is linked to Singapore’s largest retail and lifestyle destination, VivoCity, via walkways and link-bridges.
Visitors to Sentosa Island have 3 options to travel. By cable car, by monorail or by foot. Being CNY holidays, it appeared that every Singaporean was on its way to Sentosa. The waiting time to get to the monorail or the cable car was at least 90 minutes. It made sense to foot to Sentosa. A boardwalk takes you there in about 20 minutes.
Looking at the rush, I dropped the idea of visiting Sentosa. Instead, I walked halfway, took some pictures and returned. Sentosa Island is a destination in itself. The island is one big playground. Resorts, theme parks, beaches, cinemas and attractions all add up in taking away hours and hours of visitors’ time.
From HarbourFront I returned to my hotel. A little rest was much needed. 60 minutes later, I packed my tripod and went out to explore Marina Bay Sands which was only one station away.
I got out of the Bayfront Station to be bowled over by the largeness and lavishness of Marina Bay Sands. The property has over 2500 guest rooms, countless restaurants, massive shopping area, theatres and a casino. Crowning glory is the roof top observation area (there’s an entry fee of SGD 20). And the infinity pool (open only for hotel guests). The roof top is over 240 metres long and can take in 3 football fields! After walking around for an hour, I walked back to the hotel via The Helix Bridge an architectural wonder.
The Helix is fabricated from approximately 650 tonnes of Duplex stainless steel and 1000 tonnes of carbon steel used in the temporary structure and also helping the bridge to get the helix shape. The Helix Bridge, previously known as the Double Helix Bridge, is a pedestrian bridge linking Marina Centre with Marina South in the Marina Bay area.
My flight back home was scheduled the next afternoon. I had to be at the airport at 12 noon. That gave me the morning to explore Singapore Botanic Gardens. I took the 7AM train from Promenade directly to Botanic Gardens.
The Singapore Botanic Gardens is a dynamic and living monument to the foresight of the founding fathers of Singapore. Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore and a keen naturalist, established the first botanical and experimental garden on Government Hill (Fort Canning Hill) in 1822, shortly after his arrival in Singapore.
It was also during Ridley's administration that Singapore's national flower, Vanda Miss Joaquim, was discovered. An Armenian lady, Agnes Joaquim was in her garden when a new hybrid caught her attention. Thrilled with the beautiful discovery, she rushed to Ridley with the plant. Ridley confirmed that a new orchid hybrid, previously unknown to science and that flowered freely year round has been created.
By the mid 1960s, the Garden was taking a leading role in the greening of Singapore. To meet the need for urban landscapes and recreational areas, the Gardens' staff became involved in supplying planting material and in plant introduction to increase the variety and colour in road side and park plantings. In 1973, the Botanic Gardens merged with the Parks and Trees branch of the Public Works Department, which became the Parks and Recreation Department.
I reached my hotel at 10:30AM. After a quick shower I was ready to leave for the airport.
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Exactly a year later, I had the opportunity to be in Singapore again. As luck would have it, I was locked in the middle of Chinese New Year. But this time I made it a point to beat the crowds to make quick visit to the Gardens by the Bay and Sentosa Island.
With the little time on hand, I took a taxi from my hotel (it was Hotel Rendezvous at the end of Orchard Road) to be dropped at Gardens by the Bay. The entrance to the gardens is free, however you need to buy tickets if you are interested in visiting the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest.
Spectacular and innovative in design, Flower Dome is one of the icons of Bay South Garden. The Flower Dome replicates the cool-dry climate of Mediterranean regions like South Africa, California and parts of Spain and Italy. Home to a collection of plants from deserts all over the world, it showcases the adaptations of plants to arid environments.
The Cloud Forest, a mysterious world veiled in mist is entirely different from the Flower Dome. A 35-metre tall mountain covered in lush vegetation shrouding the world’s tallest indoor waterfall showcases plant life from tropical highlands up to 2,000-metres above sea level. One can ascend to the mountaintop in comfort by lift before descending via two walkways in the clouds for an aerial view of the canopy and mountainside below.
We took a tram ($5 per head) that took us on a 20-minute drive along the park. Passengers have the option to hop on and off as per their wish. There are many other highlights in the gardens including World of Plants; Heritage Gardens; Dragonfly Lake; and the Kingfisher Lake. However, Supertree Grove is likely to steal the show.
These unique trees of up to 16 storeys in height can be found all around the gardens - twelve at the Supertree Grove, while the remaining six are placed in clusters of threes at the Golden and Silver Gardens. They provide scale and dimension to the gardens while marrying the form and function of mature trees. The Supertrees also create height to balance the tall developments in the Marina Bay area. Take a stroll along the OCBC Skyway, a 128-metre long walkway that connects the two 25-metre Supertrees at the Supertree Grove to take in a different view of the gardens below and be captivated by the panoramic views of the surrounding Marina Bay area.
The next morning we headed to Harbour Front. I knew from past experience that long lines would be there to catch the monorail to reach Sentosa Island. I took my chance at the cable car station. There was a line but I managed to get the tickets in about 30 minutes. $28 ticket allowed me access to Sentosa and back all the way up to Mount Faber and return to Harbour Front which is in the middle of Sentosa and Mount Faber. Generally speaking visitors would want to buy combo tickets that include the cable car ride and a few rides and attractions. You would at least need a day to explore this beautiful island that can be roughly divided in sections – Siloso Point; Resorts World; Serapong; Inbiah Lookout and Beaches.
I just managed to enjoy the cable car ride and spend some time at the Imbiah Lookout and the Jewel Box – a restaurant atop Mount Faber. Actually, you may also want to commence your journey from Mount Faber cable car as the lines there are minimum. So be it.
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