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Three Days in an Asian Oasis

Fellow travelers advised me to skip Singapore on my recent worldwide jaunt. Boring. Plastic. Too many rules. I’m glad I ignored the advice.

The Rules

Coming on the heels of a whirlwind visit to India with all its chaos and confusion, Singapore had all the right smells, tastes and sights for a weary traveler. And, as a teacher leading 85 independent minded college students to a foreign country, I welcomed “rules”- especially those enforced by the local government. Government rules meant all the less lecturing about proper behavior for me.
Though the law requiring death to drug traffickers was most likely not pertinent to my young charges, it did set the tone for good behavior. Other regulations such as fines for not flushing a public toilet or chewing gum? Terrific. The Singaporean government made it all clear. (Though we were actually advised to tell the students not to wear flip flops and open toed shoes by our American tour leaders, this turned out not to be a Singaporean rule).

Other than the rules, what first impressed me about Singapore was arriving at the ultramodern and efficient airport, which was worlds away from the sad grime and poverty at the train stations of Delhi and Agra. The memories of what I saw in the streets of India haunt me still. I wished I knew how to help. I went to Singapore, in part, because I needed a break from sadness, as self-centered as that seems. I needed to chill, as my students say. Maybe that’s why Singapore is such a popular stop over destination for travelers to Asia. Singapore does not test travelers the way most other Asian nations do.

Back to my journey. In Singapore, driving down the main highway from the airport to the city was another kind of eye opener. Our guide informed us that all the pretty potted flowering plants in the middle of the road could be taken away in a moment’s notice to create a landing field for aircraft-right there on the highway! Ingenious, I thought! These people are preparedfor what I didn’t exactly know.

Clean and green

Since we barely had three days in Singapore, we had to make the most of it. Our first activity upon arrival was a cruise down the Singapore River on a “Bumboat.” With 85 students and two teachers, we were actually a “bumboat flotilla.” The cruise took us past views of Singapore’s “mascot” The Merlion, which is a creature that appears to be half fish and half lion and spouts waterfalls from its mouth. Our flotilla also cruised by the Esplanade, shop houses, colonial-style government buildings, bridges, modern skyscrapers and the pastel open-air restaurants and bars of Clarke Quay that lined the riverbank.

It was quite a surprise that we were all allowed to sit on the roof of the boat to take photos. No threats, no caning, no “rules.” The view from the boat was spectacular. It was more than refreshing to see a green and clean city after trudging through the grimy and sad streets of Agra and Chennai in India.

Whereas in India, when one asked where to dispose of a discarded soft drink can one was shown the street, in Singapore, there is a place for everything and everything in its place. Singapore is clean. Very Clean. But though it is cleaner than many major American cities, it retains an exotic Asian charm.

As one of my traveling companions remarked, “A place doesn’t have to be filthy to experience culture’.” Maybe she has a point. Our next stop was a visit to Sir Raffles Hotel and Museum. Raffles, of course, is a major tourist attraction. It’s also the birthplace of the Singapore Sling. A chocolate dessert and special coffee for 87 people was a treat as was wandering around the vast expanse of green lawns and flowers. The quaint little Raffles museum showed a Singapore of years past with vintage photos and replicas of rickshaws and other bric a brac. It was also free of charge.

Sentosa Island

Our next stop was Sentosa Island, which was only a cable car ride away across the harbor. Singapore’s cable cars aren’t your typical cable cars. Besides being the first in the world to span a harbor, these cable cars are also glass bottomed and available for “sky dining” if you book in advance. Though sky dining isn’t on my top ten list, I can imagine that those jaded travelers who have “been there and done that” might want to give it a try.

Sentosa Island, Singapore’s mini Disneyworld, isn’t an “authentic” Asian setting. It has a kind of mini Cancun feel, which is odd for Asia. Still, it offers sea breezes, man made sandy beaches, a pink dolphin show and the high tech “Images of Singapore” exhibit. Sentosa is also home to a family friendly aquarium that is a maze of tube tunnels that gives tourists and locals a chance to get up close and personal with exotic sea creatures. The maze is a bit mesmerizing. I found it rather easy to get lost amidst the crowds of families, even on a weekday.

Sentosa Island is also known for its nightlife, restaurants, resorts and beach bars. This is where the locals go to get away from it all and the tourists go to party. I’ve heard that the zoo and “Night Safari” are also worth a visit. I will have to save them for next time!

Food and shopping

Conventional wisdom says that travelers go to Singapore for two main things: Shopping and Food.

If you want Fifth Avenue in Asia, then Orchard Road is the place to go. Rows upon rows of high end shops sell everything from shoes to electronics. I was even able to bargain for a new lens for my camera in a photo store, though prices for electronics are not any better than those in the U.S., as far as I could tell.

Food? Head to the night markets and hawker centers located all over the city. But watch out for aggressive salespeople. My travel companions and I took a cab to a nearby night market that was recommended. It was located in an outdoor park, ringed with food stalls filled with every Singaporean delicacy imaginable.

As we entered, we were greeted by several “waiters” competing for our business. Being somewhat naive, we ordered through them. As it turned out, the blue crab was delicious and reasonably priced. But the Singaporean lobster, at $80.00 (Singaporean), was not a bargain, though we did manage to negotiate a somewhat lower price when we got the bill. Apparently, we would have gotten better prices had we placed the orders ourselves, directly at the food stalls. The “waiters” were probably salespeople trying to get a commission.

Cultural attractions

Cultural attractions? There are many. But with less than three days, one has to be selective. My friends and I went out one night to the Kampong Glam area, the historic seat of Malay royalty in Singapore. The Sultan Mosque is located here. Its golden dome rises majestically above the nearby shops. This is the largest mosque in Singapore and can accommodate up to 5,000 Muslims in prayers.

The evening we visited, the mosque and surrounding streets were busy with worshippers, shoppers, a street festival and outdoor music. In the area surrounding the mosque, there are some restored shop houses that sell traditional clothes, artifacts, handicrafts, furniture and jewelry. Browsing here is an excellent alternative to the “designer” shopping malls on Orchard Road and great for finding unique souvenirs. Little India and Chinatown are also worth a visit and offer cultural insights, or so I’ve heard. Two other things for “next time.”

But what impressed me most about Singapore was the peace and tranquility I found. Even in the midst of all the hustle and bustle of this modern city-state, the people were kind, friendly and the overall pace of life was sane and serene. Singapore, to me, was an oasis amidst the frenetic pace of an around the world trip that tested me on every level. Thank God for Singapore! I’ll be back!