Singapore City Walk
Any visitor will tell you that Singapore has an atmosphere of its own – a unique blend of East and West. It’s true, the way most cliche’s tend to be. Walking around town, you will recognize elements that can belong to any metropolis – but the sights, smells and sounds are distinctly Singaporean.
Take the language for example, how to pronounce ‘Singapore’? Wikipedia tries to give you the middle-of-the-road English version: /ˈsɪŋəpɔər/ si-ngə-pohr. We prefer the much more authentic, clipped Singlish accent: singah-poah (emphasis on the last syllable).
Don’t worry – we’re not a language lesson blog. As usual, we stick to what we know: how to show you the sights and atmosphere the best we can. There is so much to tell, we have had to split our City Walk into two posts. This week, we’ll start with the Must See. Next week it’ll be Accommodation & Restaurants.
Singapore Botanical Gardens. It is free, it is beautiful, it is big, it has the Orchid garden. Just go there, relax and take along your camera.
Orchard Road. Yes, it is true. Let the eyes pop out of your head. It is luxurious, it is big, it is awesome, it is expensive, it is busy. It has everything you ever want to buy. If you’re bored, go to Orchard Road and spend some cash.
Marina Bay. Hard to imagine, but the shops in Marina Bay are even more expensive and exclusive than on Orchard Road. If your credit card isn’t up to the task, you should still go there. The reason: the top deck of Marina Bay Sands hotel. You’ll never again stand on a deck that looks like a boat sitting on top of three hotel tower blocks. Better yet, it gives you a fantastic view of Singapore’s harbour – and on the F1 road circuit! We highly recommend going here by night-time – the images tell you why.
China Town. The tourist destination of Singapore, but still worth your while. The shops, the haggling with vendors, the plastic cheap souvenirs. It’s all there waiting for you! One of our favourites is the Tintin Store on Pagoda street. On the same street, you will find a little antiques shop that sells artworks by Bei Le Xian. Though we’ve only been twice, Ingrid has turned it into a tradition to bring back one or more pieces of Bei Le Xian’s paintings.
Little India. This part of Singapore has probably the best and the worst on offer for a tourist. You’ll find the most colourful sights around, but also the most dilapidated and dirty parts. We recommend everyone to step outside Orchard Road and explore Little India to get a full perspective of Singapore. Dive into the colourful shops and temples. Don’t stop at the shops but explore the back streets and alleyways as well (just avoid Tekka wetmarket).
Bugis. The former red light district of Singapore named for the Indonesian seafarers who found a shelter in this spot during the Middle Ages. After they were forced to abandon most of their regular trade routes to the Dutch, they found a way to open new routes with Singapore as their base. By the time of the Second World War, the original inhabitants of this part of town were replaced by seamen and marines from all over the world. It became the red light district of Singapore, famous for its very beautiful transgender women. Today, Bugis shopping mall carries the image of a typical Bugis ship as its trade mark.
Maritime Experiential Museum & Aquarium. This museum recently opened on Sentosa island. If you have kids and are looking for a highly entertaining and interactive (though rather superficial) museum experience, this is the one to go to. It describes the story of the Chinese admiral Zheng He who sailed to Africa, long before Columbus even conceived the idea of venturing towards the Americas. The route of his voyage via Singapore, India, Oman and Africa is now considered the ‘Maritime Silk Road’. The museum has a really cool movie experience, pay the few singdollar extra to experience this! The whole basement floor of the museum is a commercial tourist shop (which we thought should have been used as a museum, too). The Aquarium was not open yet when we visited.
Cable Car to Sentosa Island. It’s a nice experience, and you’ll want to buy a return ticket, as it’s only two singdollar cheaper as a one-way ticket. Yes, we laughed our heads off too, when we discovered this! You’ll have a really nice view on the harbour, Sentosa island and the Universal Studios.
Accommodation & Restaurants
For a more businesslike, upmarket hotel, you can stay in the Amara hotel. The hotel has its own swimming pool and fitness area. It is close to Tanjong Pagar MRT. It is attached to a small shopping mall complete with food court. Across the street is Tanjong Pagar Plaza. There were wonderful restaurants in the hotel too, but just like breakfast, they are very, very expensive. So, we usually had breakfast at Blue Mist Cafe. Service was great and so were the cocktails in the afternoon!
Just down the road of the hotel, right on the edge of Chinatown, is Maxwell Hawker centre. It’s cheap, and the food is amazing. People will tell you: go to the stalls with the long lines during lunch time. In our experience, that means you’re waiting in line for very specific Chinese local food like fish head soup and what have you. If it’s your taste, go for it! Our taste was perfectly catered by all the other stalls!
This year, we stayed in the Ibis hotel on Bencoolen. Say what? Say where? That’s right, we stayed at the Ibis. It’s relatively new, which means clean and neat rooms. The rooms are not too big, but the basic essentials are there if you’re looking for a good place to sleep. Bencoolen is a large road connecting Middle Road with Bras Basah. The nearest MRT is Bugis, and you’ll have to go through or around Bugis night market (after one day, we chose to avoid going through – incredibly busy). In a 10-15 minute walk down Bencoolen towards the Singapore national museum, you’re at the eastern side of Orchard road and near Dhoby Ghaut MRT. Mind you, it’s hot to walk even just 10-15 minutes. Currently half the road is closed due to MRT works.
For a good breakfast, we went to The Toastbox. A local chain that offers both local breakfast (rice, noodles and curry) as well as thick pieces of toast with kaya (delicious sweet, honey and coconut spread) or peanut butter (sweet and rich). Their Nanyang kopi or teh tarik (‘pulled tea’ aka milk tea) are the best way to start your day – according to us, that is!
The best restaurant we visited was the Imperial Treasure Peking Duck restaurant. It’s in Paragon shopping mall on Orchard Road, on one of the upper levels. This is authentic Chinese cuisine – and it comes with authentic Chinese service, if you want smiles and time to clean your plate, don’t come here…. but if you want tasty, extremely fresh, tender and absurdly well-cooked – go here. The honey-glazed Peking duck is cut and served by your table and the broccoli with chinese mushrooms is simple yet stunning in taste. Save some cash in the shopping malls and spend an evening here, it is worth your while!
The Road Marco and Columbus Didn’t Take
As Europeans, we learn in school that civilization developed rapidly in Europe during the Middle Ages. Kings and queens, nobility and rich merchants stood in line to spend their money on risky expeditions. Adventurers and explorers like Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus were sponsored to venture out into the Grand Unknown. Those who stayed behind sincerely prayed they would not fall of the edge of the world. One couldn’t be too careful in the safe confinements of a Venetian mansion or Spanish court…
The voyages of Marco Polo and Columbus have been etched into our knowledge of world history – and we have their rich patrons to thank for that. Marco followed that long road through Central Asia, China and Mongolia to the court of Kublai Khan. Today, we call it the Silk Road. A few hundred years later, Columbus ventured out towards America, convinced he would find India. He did find a whole continent, America instead of India, and gave the Spanish crown its Golden Age as their armies conquered the land and people for unimaginable wealth. Their voyages have been handed down in time through memoirs, art and chronicles.
What we don’t know a lot about, is how the Asians perceive(d) this period in time. Thankfully, as we travel more extensively and everything about the world enters your living room via tv and computer – we have a great opportunity to add the Asian version of history to our own. Therefore we now know that when Marco and Columbus trotted around the globe, the Chinese had already been exploring a bit of their own. They had so many established trade routes that dated from ancient times that the Chinese ruler and his general Zheng He were now thinking of controlling all the lands connected to these routes. The one route Zheng He had in mind, was called the Maritime Silk Road. He ventured out in the 15th century with an enormous fleet to travel down the seas towards Africa.
If you or your children want to have an interactive experience of the Maritime Silk Route – visit the Maritime Experiential Museum in Singapore. On one floor, you’ll cross continents and countries, seas and cultures – stretching from China, via the Strait of Malacca to India and Persia and from Oman down the African coast to Kenya. The museum allows you to actively experience different cultures of these people and their. The climax of the museum is the movie – don’t skip it! Enjoy the rough waters as you sail in the dark, Chinese sea during a storm – it’s wet!