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Trips to Singapore

Jenny and Charlie visited Singapore

September 20-28, 2005
 
and again April 5-13, 2015

First trip

As a 60th Birthday Present, Jenny wanted to take a trip... a big trip for a big birthday. Italy was rejected because too many people had been attracted by the television coverage surrounding the change of pope (just as we had). Bangkok was ruled out as potentially dangerous. Singapore was selected as a safe place where they respect the elderly.

The Trip

We departed from Austin at 6 am on Tuesday September 20th. Which means you are supposed to arrive at the airport at 4 am for an international flight (how about 5 am?). Which means getting up about 3 am. First leg is to Chicago, then after a few hours layover, 11 am departure non-stop to Tokyo. We arrived at Narita about 2 pm local time Wednesday (but by now it was nearly midnight in Austin). It couldn't be much farther, could it? Only a 4 hour layover before we took the quick flight to Singapore. But the flight to Singapore left a couple hours late, meaning it was close to 8pm rather than 6 pm Tokyo time before we left Tokyo (Wednesday morning in Austin). At which point it hit us... it was another 7 hour flight from Tokyo to Singapore. With a two hour time change, we might land by 2 am local time, and Taxi to the hotel in a half hour.

Our Hotel was a couple blocks off Orchard Road, the prime shopping area - like New York's Fifth Avenue. Nice, except at 230 am, no room in the inn. "Sorry, facilities problem. But we arranged a room for you at our affiliate (20 minutes away by taxi)". It was 3 am Thursday (by now 2 pm Wednesday in Austin) when we got to our room, 34 hours after we left home. It is a LONG trip.

2005 pictures

This was the first view... from the hotel window at the temporary hotel... after arriving in the middle of the night. The colors were a surprise. The whole city was not like this, but as we saw on the second trip, bold colors were not unusual in the housing.

Look slightly the other direction for a more typical view. The low buildings are schools - Christian and Muslim in this case, if I remember right. The 5 similar tall buildings are government subsidized housing - to eliminate slums, the government builds high-rise apartment buildings, then sells 95% of the apartments to the occupants. A few units are rented to people who cannot afford a mortgage. The rules on who gets what space are mind numbing, but a local resident explained that for 20% of your salary, you get housing (rent or mortgage payment), education, medical care, and all government services. Our taxes are far more than 20% and don't include housing, advanced education, or medical care.

By day these small traditional stores are open...literally. In the year-around tropical climate, no doors, few windows. The pink store sold nothing but baskets. The blue store nothing but silk cloth. And there were dozens of fabric stores in this section. "May I show you - French silk lace fabric - 6 feet wide - US$3 per yard" from the French Lace store. If you asked whether it was a yard or the slightly longer meter, they would often smile and offer the 10% longer meter at the same price.

If the traffic became too intense, you could turn down a street for pedestrians only. Yes that is a minaret for the mosque in the background. The city is roughly 40% Buddhist, 15% Islam, 15% Christian, 20% none, and others like Hindu and Tao.

Just around the corner... yes... the Central Mosque. Dramatic in 2005, surrounded by scaffolding being refurbished in 2015.

The Merlion is the symbol of Singapore - think Mermaid (from the sea) and Lion. This 28 foot tall statue seemed to be on the harbor in 2005. In 2015, the development of the other side of the water was so extensive that it now seems to be on a stream... in fact the Singapore river has been dammed as Marina Bay, and is now one of the fresh water reservoirs for the island.

Within the city there is culture wherever you look - little parks with statues telling a historical story in this case. In 2015 the public policy is to make Singapore a city in a park, rather than having lots of parks in the city. The new parks are huge.

Very interesting temples of every faith were everywhere... many welcome visitors but barefoot - leave your shoes and socks outside.

Christians are such a minority that a 2005 Vatican exhibit at a museum was interesting, but had extensive signs and struggling tour guides trying to explain the significance of Christ and disciples, and how they relate to the treasures on exhibit.

Yes, those are orchids, outside an office building with reflective sides. And Jenny examining the orchids. Just a couple days after that big birthday a decade ago. Looks pretty good, huh. And Jenny looks good too.

Second Trip

Even though it had only been 10 years, we had heard about the amazing growth of Singapore. When we discovered bargain tickets, we decided to go. Bargain? How about $508 each round trip, almost half way around the world. Oh, plus $523 each in taxes.

The Trip

Ten years later we have more choice of routes - Austin to Dallas on Sunday morning, then 17 hours non-stop from Dallas to Hong Kong. That flight was delayed, so we missed our connection on Cathay Pacific from Hong Kong to Singapore. We were booked on a later flight before we left Dallas Sunday afternoon, but since the later flight was in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, technically two days later, we couldn't get boarding passes in Dallas on Sunday - not until we got to Hong Kong. We reached Singapore in the middle of the night (now Tuesday morning), and took a taxi to our hotel. This trip the hotel was ON Orchard Road, not a few blocks away, directly over a subway station and above a shopping mall - the hotel lobby was on the 10th floor, and our room on the 13th (they did not skip the 13th floor).

For the return trip a week later, we took a different option. Japan Airlines from Singapore to Tokyo, then connecting with American Airlines for the 12 hour Tokyo to Dallas flight, and on to Austin. To our extreme delight we got a complementary upgrade to business class, including "lie flat" seats. Yes, they become completely horizontal, with a pillow larger than a marshmallow, a large comfortable blanket, and plenty of room even for too-tall Charlie. Both of us got significant sleep!

The route through Tokyo is 44 miles longer than the route through Hong Kong (out of a total of 9,900 miles). But going there through Hong Kong, we were over land almost all the trip - through Canada, along the north shore of Alaska, over Russia and China, into Hong Kong, then over Vietnam and Malaysia to Singapore. The return trip was mostly over water - South China Sea to Tokyo, then across the Pacific near Hawaii reaching the US mainland near San Francisco.

Travel Tips

Credit cards work in some stores and restaurants, but not everywhere. Therefore plan on picking up some local money from an ATM in the airport. Unlike the United States, there are no ATM fees, although some ATMs had a minimum withdrawal of s$100 (about US$75). Not all taxis take credit cards. Credit cards cannot be used for normal MRT (subway) travel from a vending machine (typically close to US$1) but can be used for larger purchases such as multi-day tourist passes bought from an MRT ticket office. Your paper ticket from the vending machine can be reused up to 6 times by adding money, with a discount for reusing the ticket.

The MRT is exceptionally convenient, fast, and cheap. (Pick up the free iPhone app for the Singapore MRT if you are unsure how to plan your route). Consider getting a 1, 2 or 3 day tourist pass for unlimited bus, train, and MRT (subway) travel. A 3 day pass for unlimited use costs s$20 (about US$15) plus a s$10 deposit, refunded if you turn the pass in at any ticket office within 5 days of purchase. (If you want more days, turn in the first pass when you buy the second pass).

Taxis are plentiful and reasonably priced and must use the meter to determine changes - the fare starts at s$3 but with numerous surcharges for time of day, toll streets, and special locations, plan on about s$5 and up. Figure about s$25 for the half hour ride to/from the airport; when we were leaving we gave a s$7 tip since that was the money we had left, and our driver acted like he had won the lottery. In the central business district (CBD) you cannot hail a taxi on the street, but there are numerous taxi stands.

The city is extremely clean. It is illegal to chew gum in public (there are no sidewalks with black chewing gum spots), and there are trash cans (with ash trays) everywhere, so the biggest mess on the streets comes from birds. I almost expect to see bird diapers if we go back again. When we travel we often stop for an afternoon beer to re-hydrate, rest and recover, but in some areas of the city there were few such places.

There is not a drug problem in Singapore. As you enter, you sign a card, basically your visa, that you carry in your passport, that is collected when you leave. On the back of that form is a notice that may explain why they don't have a drug problem.

Rest Rooms have a variety of facilities... this from a typical men's room (that was momentarily empty so I dared take a picture). The man with a cane stall has grab bars on all sides. The next two are conventional western sit-down toilets. I didn't check out the "adult with kid" stall (does it have a cage for the kid?). The last stall is a squat toilet popular in the far east - balance over a hole in the floor, so your butt doesn't touch a dirty seat.

   

2015 pictures - Orchard Road

Arriving early Tuesday morning (having left on Sunday), we treated ourselves to a few hours sleep, then ventured out to the local neighborhood.

One of the buildings a few blocks from our hotel had a shopping center (first 4 floors) and office building (next 40+ floors). It also had a (free) observation level with restaurants (top few floors), with a great view of the city.

Note the partially hidden building with the green windows - Orchard Gateway (on Orchard Road). Our "Hotel Jen Orchardgateway" was in the 10th through 21st floors of that building

I had never heard of the Hotel Jen chain of hotels, part of the Shangri La family. Based on this one hotel, the location was great, the service outstanding, and the price was reasonable - about US$180 per night with taxes and fees for a four star hotel in a prime location.

There is a small ground level hotel lobby on Somerset Road (the other side of the shopping center from Orchard Road) with a taxi stand. It has hotel staff to reassure you, offer directions, call a taxi if one isn't waiting, and express elevators to the hotel lobby on the 10th floor.

Beyond the office buildings you can see the Harbor - Singapore is the prime trade port in that part of the world. The new city landmark is the three buildings with an apparent boat across the top, the Marina Bay Sands resort and casino. It is a 2,500 room hotel, shopping center with an 800,000 square foot mall, a 1.3 million square foot convention-exhibition center, and on and on. It cost s$8 billion to build (US$6 billion), developed by the Las Vegas Sands. The "boat" on the top is a "Sky Park" with a capacity of 3,900 people. It is over 1000 feet long, with a 500 foot long "infinity" swimming pool. The technology of keeping the "boat" level and balanced on three buildings on unstable, earthquake-prone land is an engineering delight - see Wikipedia. Among the engineering marvels, it can handle a 20 inch change in distance between the buildings as they shift in the wind, and there are 500 jacks to keep the edge of the infinity pool exactly level.

Marina Bay

On the reclaimed land beyond the Sands are the "Gardens by the Bay" with lots of free walking area, numerous gardens in the style of different lands and cultures. Of course, people plant trees on their 6 story high bridges - don't you?

There are a number of metal tree sculptures that are attractive with special lighting at night, along with walking paths and metal sculptures in the water. This public recreation area abuts the Marina Bay freshwater reservoir, as the Singapore river was dammed and isolated from the salt water port.

From a different direction you can see many more in this forest of metal trees.

The paths and signs lead to a Malay garden, Chinese garden, Indian garden, Colonial garden, World of Palms, Supertree garden, and so forth.

One of the "gardens" was this huge sculpture - about 30 feet long and weighing 7 tons, balanced over the ground (no wires or aerial support; the only support is the right hand, but you have to look closely to see how it touches the ground). It is by UK sculptor Marc Quinn, who used his infant son as the inspiration.

The locals admire humorous sculpture - note the large metal ants on this tree stump.

Since the Singapore weather is tropical (about 100 miles from the equator), they need a building to allow cool weather plants to grow. Even the soil is refrigerated in this giant "Flower Dome." This part is not free - tourists pay s$28 per person admission.

You can spend hours wandering all the indoor paths, including this "fairy tale garden" currently featuring tulips,

or see these giant olive trees... 1000 years old and transplanted indoors.

Jenny took thousands (ok, dozens) of flower pictures, but I refused to include them.

With their usual sense of art, this is one of many examples among the flowers - a driftwood dragon sculpture

The next "Cloud Forest" dome (part of the same admission fee) is the tropical jungle garden, dominated by a huge 6 story tall waterfall. The inside had an elevator and walkways so we could explore the plants at different heights.

The view from the top of the falls was dramatic

Just one example of flowers from the rainforest - one side of the "mountain" was covered with orchids.

Now the test. Are these tropical flowers real? Or more sculpture? Or Leggos?

The ArtScience museum is part of the Marina Bay Sands complex, which we passed as we were leaving the gardens. It is shaped like a lotus flower and is sometimes called the welcoming hand of Singapore. Maintenance on a building like this can be complex.

One of the new pedestrian bridges across Marina bay from the Marina Sands to the older area is the Helix bridge, structured as a double helix similar to DNA. There are lights and codes to represent the four bases of DNA. The left handed DNA design is the opposite of the normal DNA on Earth, something that everyone using the bridge, of course, immediately notices (was that intentional or did the bridge designers not do their biology homework?). This bridge completed the walking loop/path around Marina bay.

As we walked from the helix bridge towards the Merlion, there was a seating area for activities and presentations, with a floating soccer field in Marina Bay, anchored at the seating area (the seating area was much larger than in this picture). Of course, everyone has a floating soccer field.

Past the soccer field you can see the Merlion in the distance

The Merlion has been the symbol of Singapore for over 50 years, but the new Marina Bay Sands is certainly unique and destined to become a symbol, including the flower shaped ArtScience Museum. Perhaps this combination is the new symbol of the future.

Just how big is the Merlion? Ask Jenny in the green shirt at the lower left.

Asian Civilizations Museum (ACM)

Singapore is trying to reduce the number of languages and dialects. On the first trip we saw 9 or more languages on many signs. Now most signs have four - English, Malay, Chinese, and Indian (Kannada language, sixth on this sign). This sign also has Japanese (fourth) and Korean (fifth).

Why Malay? They are a short drive away from Malaysia, and in 1963-65 Singapore was a state of Malaysia after leaving British rule and before becoming an independent country. Since smoked food cannot be cooked in Singapore (air pollution) locals often drive to Malaysia for dinner - it is that close.

At that museum, a group from Clementi Primary School were having a field trip. Jenny noticed the large percentage who had (and were using) some sort of electronic pad, tablet, or phone.

Among the many items exhibited at this museum were several cases of Keris (pronounced Chris), the traditional Malay-Java sword. This was especially interesting to me since I inherited two Keris from my father, who got them in Java when he worked there in the mid-1930s.

Anoother item I inherited was my father's prized "Gold Sarung". We had been told that it was really a Songket. The one in this museum was not nearly as nice as my father's, but it explained that it really was gold (or silver) wrapped threads, woven into a pattern to distinguish the Malaysian regional identity, worn by aristocrats on special occasions, woven in various shapes including a kain sarung. I don't know about kain, but maybe my father was right calling it his Gold Sarung.

Arab Street - Little India

As we were walking through a shopping neighborhood we saw this colorful public housing. I guess we were not seeing things from the temporary hotel room 10 years ago - see the first picture above.

This may also be one of the schools we saw from the hotel window a decade ago (the second picture above), but now yellow with blue rather than blue with yellow.

Of course, we had to visit a local fabric store (not one in the tourist malls). Note the lady in purple waiting for Royal Fabrics to open.

A nearby side street had an unusual arch at the end

and additional arches with pictures on both sides. Too many cultures to try and figure out the significance.

Perhaps it is related to this temple not far away. I am not sure what religion, but like many you remove your shoes to enter... see the stainless steel shoe racks to the left of the door.

One of the complaints about the affordable public housing is that some people don't want to live in a high rise apartment. Since people still have choices, perhaps these are some of the strong willed people who prize the privacy of separate houses over fancy apartments with shared space.

Safety and security do not seem to be an issue - most of the parked motorcycles had the driver's helmet just left on the seat, unsecured.

And these vendors were apparently reserving their space for market day. We saw these untouched over several days, when we toured the area and later when we returned to go to church.

Mustafa is a must-see department store in Little India, catering to the southeast Asia clientele. The main store has 400,000 square feet of display area over 6 floors, selling jewelry, clothing, fabric, electronics, groceries, household supplies, travel, and just about everything else. I bought my favorite Casio watches there in 2005 before I found them on Amazon. But to put it in perspective, think how many stores have 6 or 8 display cases, in a square with the clerks in the center. At Mustafa's that isn't for watches, that is for Casio watches. And another set of cases for each other brand of watch. And another set for gold earrings, etc. etc. etc.

They also do a huge foreign money transfer and exchange business. And arrange visas to Malaysia and India. Most of the store is like any busy WalMart, but as they expand they are starting to get fancy, as you see here.

What does it say in the red banner at the bottom? Haines, as in underwear.

Singapore River

Back to the Singapore River, near Marina Bay and central business district. This street art involves multiple cultures transacting business, including the ox cart with the goods and workers.

The Cavenagh suspension bridge was nearby. It reminds me of the private lane we lived on in Pennsylvania - we had to allow passage of cattle and oxen, but could not have a bone boiling plant nor a house of prostitution. Note this bridge as a 300 pound load limit (bet it is really more than that), and no cattle or horses allowed.

I love the public sculpture, such as this cat with kittens on a corner post of the bridge

But my favorite is the boys swimming - skinny dipping - in the Singapore River. Note that only a small touch between the boys holds the figures together and is all that keeps the figures suspended.

This bird sculpture is huge - see the people behind it.

But Salvadore Dali's Homage to Newton is better known. The pendulum inside the body and the extra finger by the foot don't speak to me!

Along this part of the river are numerous traditional small restaurants and bars. All this in front of the usual 40-50 story office buildings.

Ten years ago we saw two girls walking happily down the street, engaged in animated teenage conversation, clearly best friends. One was dressed in conservative Muslim attire, the other in the briefest of shorts and halter top. I regret missing that picture, so I watched for a replacement this trip. This was the closest I came - the girls in the long sleeves are far more conservative than the halter top we saw a decade ago, but it still pointed out how cultural and racial differences among friends are easily ignored here.

As westerners we rarely see someone in a burka (the loose garment that totally covers a woman's face and body), but assume she must be oppressed and unhappy. We were following a Muslim family through the Flower Dome. The mother in her burka joked and kidded with the members of her family, teasing the kids and laughing with them. Not my stereotype of how oppressed women must be in a burka. We saw another woman in a burka carrying a Victoria Secret shopping bag. I didn't ask what was in it.

Of course, we had to make a stop at St. Andrew's Cathedral, which played a major role in Singapore for the many years it was a British colony.

Changi

On Friday we took the train/bus to the Changi resort community near the Changi International Airport.

We decided not to bother with the ferry to Ubin Island, but rather just strolled the almost deserted beach.

I had never heard of oil production in Singapore, but those sure look like oil platforms to me.

Jenny was intrigued with the trunks of these trees along the beach.

Apparently the borders are a concern on this island as they are in other countries. Call 999 is the local equivalent of call 911.

If you have a clever sign like this, you don't need four languages - maybe not even one.

I guess you are supposed to stop in this restaurant as you wait for the ferry to Ubin island. We stopped there before we headed back to the city.

This housing was near Changi. Note also the multi-story parking garages attached to the building at the far left and center; the garages are designed to encourage pedestrian traffic between the buildings, without car traffic. Each complex becomes a community like a small city that elects its own governing body, with its own schools, stores, and medical facilities, and it's own choice of color and paint design of the complex.

Botanical Gardens

As we started our walk through part of the botanical gardens, it took us back in time... to petrified trees

It discussed how climate had changed warmer and colder, and how the now tropical Singapore had once had pine forests. As the climate continued to change the dry places became wet, the pine savanna disappeared, and was replaced by ferns.

As we continued along the path,

signs suggested the era represented around us, starting millions of years ago, and continuing to the present day

And, of course, the necessary sculpture.

Chinatown

Lots of unique architecture in the Chinatown area

as well as distinctive construction within the market area.

More of the usual ambience

If anyone was hoping for a plastic encased bug to use as jewelry, I am sorry, but we forgot to get them.

And of course, the endless markets

Light Show

From our hotel pool on the roof we took pictures of the twice nightly laser light show at 800 and 930 pm . It was okay

Later we learned that it was a symphony, water, and light show that you needed to see from the ground.

It even had pictures projected on screens consisting of fans of water. This falls into the category of "sorry we missed it."

What we missed

Or what we chose to miss. Sentosa Island was just starting to be developed when we visited 10 years ago - we even took the cable car over. Today it includes a Universal Studios, a water park, aquarium, iFly, Madame Tussauds, several beaches, a monorail, and numerous resorts with hotels. We don't need to go half way around the world to do these things. But we did check out the harbor and saw the monorail and the cable car that we had previously taken.

We did not ride the Singapore Flyer - a giant Ferris wheel like the slightly smaller London Eye and other competing giant wheels around the world.

On our first visit we went to both the Singapore Zoo (outstanding) and the unique, outstanding Night Zoo (Night Safari), only open at night so nocturnal animals can be seen in a natural environment in subdued lighting (similar to moonlight). The open environment is unique, rather than the usual houses/cages that are dimly lit during the day and bright at night to reverse the day/night cycle of the animals. Both Zoos are "Must See" if you visit. We did not get to the new River Safari that is also supposed to be very good. It is focused on Congo and Amazon river life.

Although we walked through a few of the giant extremely high-end shopping malls, we limited our few purchases to local stores. This is certainly a city where many of the visitors come to spend large amounts of money!

More Travel Tips

The weather is tropical. On the first trip, we sweat through our clothes so much that we had to buy extra T-shirts. This trip we must have spent more time in air conditioning, since we had brought too many clothes - one shirt per day proved to be plenty this time.

The weather forecast included rain every day. After carrying our unused umbrellas the first day, we realized that none of the locals carried umbrellas, except perhaps for shade from the sun. It rained a couple times while we were there, but only rained hard for a few minutes. A local explained that it rains someplace in Singapore every day, but not everywhere, and not for long. We stopped carrying the umbrellas.

The sun rises about 7 am in Singapore, and sets about 7 pm. The longest day in the summer is about 9 minutes longer than the shortest day in the winter, since it is only about 100 miles from the equator. (When I was in Quito Ecuador, on the equator, they explained that the sun rises and sets at 6:13, every day, year around)

Like many cities with unusual or multiple languages, the subway stops are being converted to a letter code for the subway line, and a sequential number for the stop. For example Chinatown on the MRT is NE4 (the 4th stop on the purple coded NorthEast line) and DT19 (the last stop on the new blue coded DownTown line)

How to eat in Singapore

Singapore is famous for food from street vendors, known as hawkers. That brought visions of Montezuma's revenge, another misconception.

Takashimaya (a high end Japanese department store - think Neiman Marcus) has a large operation in Singapore. Their huge food court is at least half Hawker oriented - buy directly from probably 50 vendors selling 150 dishes, cooked as you watch. We ate there Thursday night.

Maxwell Food Center, pictured here in Chinatown, was an early consolidation of street vendors into a "food court" with numerous vendors of ethnic specialties.

Smith Street in Chinatown had numerous conventional restaurants. To improve quality from hawkers; the city closed the street to traffic and built hawker stands (kitchen areas with running water and fake cart wheels) down the center of the street, competing with the conventional restaurants (we ate there Friday night).

A businessman who travels to Singapore monthly has a few favored high end restaurants where he eats with clients, then confesses his favorite meals are from specific hawkers.

The food court near the Harbor was also hawker oriented. We watched some pastries being made so had to buy a snack.


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