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A Postcard from Singapore

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Old Singapore drawing

Old Singapore drawing

I first visited Singapore in 1974 when young men were prohibited from wearing hair that hung below their collar, the city consisted mainly of ramshackle open-front shops, the songs Proud Mary by Creedance Clearwater and Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul and Mary were banned, chewing gum in public was a punishable offence, and Chinese junks moored offshore.

Much has since changed, but given the commercial powerhouse that is now the city-state of Singapore, I approached my impending visit with some trepidation thinking that all I would see in this melting pot bounded by trade winds would be a jungle of cement, steel and glass. And a total lack of personality.

I was so very wrong.

One thing that has not changed in the intervening time is that Singapore is still hot and sticky with a humidity that percolates through your pores. However, relief is provided by the soft sea breeze, large shade trees, covered verandas projecting over footpaths and air conditioning. Although glass and steel buildings jut into the sky in gravity defying angles, there is no shortage of heritage, cultural and historical sites which take you back to Singapore’s glorious past. Like its citizens, Singapore pulsates with diversity and energy.

I went to Singapore to take an intensive 10 day class in Mandarin Chinese. After pulverizing the Chinese language for two hours each morning, I spent the rest of the day exploring and practicing my nascent language skills. Taking public transport is a joy in Singapore so I easily went hither and thither, scratching the surface as there is so much to see and do.

Much has been written about Singapore so there is no shortage of guidebooks, maps, pamphlets and internet websites expounding its sights. So, I list the top activities and adventures that I most enjoyed during my visit.

1. Walking across a wavy bridge

One fine way of getting around Singapore is simply by walking. It’s safe. Sidewalks, endless nooks and crannies, side streets and alleyways to wander along abound. There are heaps of parks and gardens with pathways that take you through green areas consisting of lush primary rainforest - with accompanying bird, insect and lizard life - all within the city itself: Fort Canning Park, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, the Botanical Gardens and MacRitchie Reserve Park are but a few.

I had a very pleasant walk along the Southern Ridges, a nine kilometre path that wandered under a thick canopy of forest which took me from Mount Faber Park across to Telok Blangah Hill Park and on to Kent Ridge Park. The highlight of the walk was crossing the Henderson Waves Bridge which is the highest pedestrian bridge in Singapore, sitting some 36m above Henderson Street.

What is unique about the bridge is that for 247m the wood and steel structure undulates, bends and curves mimicking the waves of the ocean. The break waves form shell-like niches which are very popular as backgrounds for the selfie set. I also greatly enjoyed the panoramic views of the city and Keppel Harbour with its array of modern vessels ranging from super tankers to sailboats.

Henderson Wave Bridge

Henderson Wave Bridge

2. Dangling in a cable car

Another fun feature of the Southern Ridges walk was riding the cable car from the top of Mt Faber Park across Keppel Harbour to Sentosa Island. I suspect that the crowds were chaotic during the rush hour, but I was there fairly early in the morning so the world was calm and I scored a cable car to myself. This meant I could move around freely without squirming kids and associated reprimanding parents, take umpteen million pictures and enjoy the view of the island and the harbour unhindered.

Once I got onto Sentosa, my ticket allowed me to take the smaller Imbiah Lookout cable car to Solosa Point on the east end of the island passing over stands of jungle and palm trees, swimming pools with the requisite water slides and exquisitely landscaped hotel complexes. The ride really made me appreciate the giant theme park that was Sentosa.

Sentosa Island beach and port

Sentosa Island beach and port

3. Gawking at buildings

I greatly enjoy learning about local architecture as it is so inextricably connected to the history, culture and lives of the people. Soaking up the smorgasbord of Singapore architecture is a free activity I could do at my own pace, with or without a map.

In the business district, there was the usual functional, rectangular glass and steel buildings, but there are so many others that curve, zig-zag, wing, jut and triangulate to the sky. Interspersed were whimsical sculptures.

Colonial building

Colonial building

National Library

National Library

Cool verandas

Cool verandas

Whimsical sculpture

Whimsical sculpture

Singapore is making a concerted effort to design and develop green buildings that are water and energy efficient. The city has 72 hectares of rooftop gardens and walls where greenery tumbles and cascades down the exterior of the building from roof to ground. The Oasia Hotel and ParkRoyal on Pickering - with its walls replicating geological strata – are fine examples of lush vertical gardens.

And one cannot miss the Marina Bay Sands Resort structure: three towers with what looks like a shiny, marooned legless salamander bizarrely perched on top.

Skyline of Singapore

Skyline of Singapore

Heritage architecture was readily found in many districts. I wandered amongst multi-coloured Peranakan terrace houses festooned with dragons, birds and brightly glazed tiles on Clarke Quay, Emerald Hill and Geyland Road. I pondered how the grand neo-classical, limestone colonial buildings such as the Concert Hall, the Old Supreme Court and Raffles Hotel – which, although being renovated, didn’t stop a queue of people waiting to get a gin sling at the Long Bar - were constructed. I could easily see how migrants left their marks when I visited Chinese temples, Hindu temples, Jewish synagogues, Muslim mosques and cemeteries, and Christian churches.

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There were multitudes of hidden surprises when you wandered willy-nilly: painted murals on walls that depict a past life, memorials and sculptures stand erect to honour the city’s heroes, stalls balance on corners where you could sit and eat smelly durian. I stumbled into one neighbourhood called Tiong Bahru which was glorious with its white and red art déco architecture, artsy bookshops and trendy shop selling vintage vinyl.

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4. Watching magical lights and gardens

Ok, it’s touristy and crowded but still pretty amazing. I’m talking about the Gardens by the Bay next to the Marina Bay Sands resort, spanning over 101 hectares featuring more than one million plants from 19,000 species. A walk across the 22-m high OCBC skyway that links the six Supertrees offered a prelude to the light and music show that was put on every night in the Supertree Grove. After sunset, I joined the masses, lying on the lawn gazing up into the concrete structures adorned with masses of plants, with LED lights glittering, throbbing and twirling in time to a rather toe-tapping range of classical and modern music.

I also visited the Cloud Forest and Flower Dome conservatories. Both were splendid, especially if you were into horticulture, floral artistry and self-sustaining buildings. The Cloud Forest replicated the tropical, highland rain forest with a 35m waterfall, surrounded by ferns and orchids with mist swirling all around you as you walked down the mini-mountain. The Flower Dome emulated the cool-dry zone of the Mediterranean so this was the place if you were into succulents. Both conservatories were housed in largest climate controlled glass greenhouses in the world, having no internal support structures, only the outside sinuous ribs.

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5. Eating

Without hesitation, I passed on the fresh frog porridge where you could choose your own frog croaking in an aquarium with its mates. However, Singapore equals food and so offers an overwhelming plethora of cuisine offered in street stalls to posh restaurants. I walked around the block adjacent to my hotel on Geyland Street and I could easily bounce from hawkers markets, to restaurants, cafés and holes in the wall indulging in noshes from sushi, chilli crab, whole suckling pig, curries, fish-head steamboat, colourful tropical fruit including the smelly durian, and never leave the block or go to the same place twice.

The big decision was what to eat and when to stop.

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6. Biking through monkeys

I decided to take a break from the hubbub of Singapore and took a one day excursion to the island of Pulau Ubin, a short ferry boat ride just across the Strait of Jahore on the north side of the city.

Pulau Ubin is not a shoppers’ mecca. The majority of the small, open fronted shops were bike hire places with the smattering of other buildings, most being restaurants of sorts. The island was flat and the bicycle paths were paved - except for the dirt paths in the western end of the island which have been designed for off road biking - so cycling was easy.

There must have been something in the way I looked as instead of a rough and tumble mountain bike with gears that other renters were given, I was handed a patsy English-marm bike with a wire basket in front.

If you pedal slow (which is expected when one is on a bike with a basket) there are lots of creatures to be seen. I spied a pied hornbill, multitudes of colourful dicky birds, wild boars, monitor lizards, horseshoe crabs, butterflies galore and my favourite, the long tailed macaque monkey. These monkeys are indigenous to Singapore and the surrounding islands. They swing and thrash through the trees but they also sit on the Chek Jawa wetlands boardwalk generally lolling around and picking lice off each other. I was a wee bit nervous when passed my first set of monkeys, but they glanced at me with total disinterest. It is illegal to feed the monkeys and people seem to heed the rule, so the monkeys have not gotten aggressive as in other places such as Bali. However, the monkeys totally terrified a couple of French girls who would not pass a small gathering of monkeys unless I went with them as they had seen me walking past a group earlier on and surviving. Walk by a couple of monkeys and you become an expert.

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7. Getting lost crossing Orchard Road

Orchard Road is THE “shop ‘til you drop” street in Singapore with its quantum of brand names, mind dazzling array of super malls, department stores and specialty shops. My aim was to visit Kinokuniya Bookstore, the largest bookstore in Singapore. Its 38,000 square foot store selling over 400,000 book titles was located in the Ngee Ann City shopping mall on Orchard Road.

You can cross the 2.2 km long Orchard Road at a number of spots. I happened to be standing on the corner of Scotts Road and Orchard Road with the Ngee Ann City mall tantalizingly close, just kiddy corner from me. Easy. However, to my dismay, I discovered that you cannot cross the intersection at Scotts and Orchard Roads at street level. You have to dive into an underground system that links six malls and innumerable small shops, giving me a perspective of daunting complexity.

This underground labyrinth boggled my mind. You enter, but you don’t know where you will come out. It consisted of massive crowds of people - all walking like robots – heads down looking on their mobile phones following invisible pathways that veered off in all directions. I have no sense of direction when underground: every bearing points north as far as I am concerned. Irritatingly, the one time I would have liked a map, there was not one to be seen. I went up and down five different escalators and always ended up on the same side of Orchard Road, with Ngee Ann City sneering down at me from the other side of the street.

I could only scratch my head every time I popped above ground like a groundhog, ducking back into the innards of the subterranean grotto asking for directions, grabbing an ice cream for sustenance and trying again. After a degree of general window shopping and nipping up and down even more escalators, I eventually made it to the correct side of the road only to get fairly overwhelmed with the size of the store and diversity of books offered in Kinokuniya Bookstore.

Downtown buildings

Downtown buildings

Final Note: I pass on to you a couple of books that gave me some background ideas for walks and more out of the way destinations in Singapore.

Grȇlé, Dominique & Lydie Raimbault (2007). Discover Singapore on Foot. Select Books, Singapore.

Hein, Christoph & Hein Sarah (2018). 111 Places in Singapore That You Shouldn’t Miss. Emons Verlag GmbH, Germany.

See the itinerary of this trip, and details about each destination.

Posted by IvaS 20:02 Archived in Singapore Comments (0)

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