Sunday, September 13, 2009

Singapore: A few things to know

As you fly to Singapore, you are presented with the entry papers to fill out, nothing unusual there. Until you turn the card over and notice that they are informing you drug smuggling into Singapore is punishable by DEATH. Whoa. . .they do still take their laws very seriously and while they may seem odd to us (no gum), do us all a favor and just obey them, OK? I really do not need to hear about you getting caned in Singapore on CNN. And yes, it does happen - while I was there the news reported on a caning of a local for some offense or another.

About the airport - Changi:
I was a bit caught off guard by the airport procedure at Changi. Everything went smoothly until I arrived at my gate. Each gate has an additional security screening and there was no water or restrooms past this security point. Plan accordingly. There is the standard security screening as you enter into the gate area also – so two security gates.

What to avoid

Hotel Restaurants:
The Raffles Hotel restaurants: overpriced and frankly - just not worth it. The hotel itself is very lovely, but the food just didn’t cut it. We ate at the Long Bar, a steakhouse and it was super expensive and super pedestrian.
One-Ninety at the Four Seasons: Seriously? You are going to charge me that much for fried rice? Puh-lease. It wasn’t even that good!

Unless you call for a taxi, forget about it. The little taxi stands along the streets are worthless (you cannot flag down a cab, you must wait at the stand). We asked a local about this and were told that a cab driver makes more when responding to a call to pick up a specific person at a specific location. We would actually see cabs go by and turn on their “on call” light before passing us at the stand and then turn it back off. Either carry cards for some taxi services, use MRT or be ready to hoof it.

If you have never smelled the horrible stench of this fruit, well, I suppose in some ways you ARE missing something but not a pleasant experience. People are forbidden to buy this and bring it back to hotels and such. The stench is strong, powerful, rotten and carries a long, long distance. Since I couldn’t get within 20 feet of vendor selling the fruit, I certainly did not TASTE it . . . and really, why would you??

One Perfect Day: Singapore

I was fortunate to be staying in the Four Seasons since I was on business travel. For female travelers, you have to realize tank-tops won’t get you into the temples and mosques and will cause you to freeze in the shops and air-conditioned places. I wore a long-sleeved white linen shirt, a skirt and slip-on shoes. Obey the local laws: no spitting, no chewing gum, etc. The upside of all the laws is that Singapore is an amazingly clean, modern city with a very polite culture and excellent service wherever you go.

First stop: “Little India”. It is a bit difficult to navigate Little India – sidewalks sometimes vanish or end up being very broken and sporadic. Compared to the rest of Singapore, this is a bit disconcerting. After exiting the MRT system, we found a great place called Mustards on Race Course Road. The server kept asking me about “gravy” and I never really did figure out what he m
eant, but the food was fantastic!

There is a very notable Hindu temple to Vishnu,
Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple on Serangoon Road. It is open air and very elaborate, very beautiful. To the Western eye, it may seem like a bit much – but take a moment to realize Indian culture values color more than our culture. Look everywhere and notice everything. There are statues that are just stunning and carvings that are amazing. You must remove your shoes to enter. Continuing along Race Course Road the Buddhist temple, Leon
g San See Taoist Temple, also known as the Dragon Mountain Temple, was just stunning. Even someone as cynical I as can be truly moved by this place. Past the entrance is an open air courtyard. When I arrived the monks were singing a chant to their ancestors. There were birds in cages around the courtyard contributing in their own way to the chant – it was overall just an incredible experience.

Along the same street, there are a couple more Buddhist templates, neither as interesting as the first. The temple with the “great” Buddha (
Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple) wasn’t as interesting as the Lonely Planet book made it seem. It did have an adorable “guard cat” who was hanging out with the worshipers at prayer. If I have my history correct, this is suppose to be one of the oldest temples to Buddha in the city and notable for making slight concessions to Hinduism.

Along the way, we found the Tekka Mall. If you have time, there are plenty of vendors here happy to fit a traditional Indian outfit for you. The shops are amazing and varied – silk, gold, purses, food – definitely a place to visit, though I suspect there is an aspect of “buyer beware” going on here.

Taking the MRT to Chinatown, when you come up out of the subway it is a bit surprising. Chinatown in San Francisco and New York are a bit gritty. The Singapore Chinatown has wider streets and is spotless. It is also very, very beautif
ul! The two or three story buildings are painted a vast amount of colors with shuttered windows and the odd advertisement painting on the building itself. The red paper lanterns strung across the streets must be really made of plastic since they survived the downpour I was trapped in. The streets are paved with brick and stone and no cars allowed. During said downpour, we ducked into a place called “8 Treasures” to get something to eat and escape the rain. Air-conditioning greeted us and we scored a window seat! The place had a colonial feel to it and the staff were fantastic. The food is all vegetarian but extremely good. The spicy Schezwan soup was amazing and the olive fried rice seemed to be missing the olives but was delicious just the same. The chrysanthemum tea was a new thing for me and I loved it!

Skip the Chinatown Complex – completely lame. We ran into it to avoid the rain (which had started up again) and it wasn’t anything special. There is that special fruit that smells horrid – Durian - and there was a vendor here selling it. The smell permeated the whole complex.
Watch out for the jewelry shops. Seriously. They have A/C which draws you in “just to look” and you walk out significantly poorer. However, if you are good at saying “no” (and meaning it) and at bargaining, you can score some good deals here.

At this point, you should be thoroughly exhausted and it is time to call it a day!