Thursday, April 05, 2012

Day 164 - 167: Singapore & Our First CouchSurfing Experience

As soon as we arrived in the airport, I knew I'd like Singapore. It was modern, clean and well-signposted. Security was quick and efficient, and before we knew it, we were in an orderly taxi queue complete with signs telling us that it was illegal for drivers to tout and/or overcharge. A smooth ride later over Singapore's excellent roads, and we were at our destination: Fragrance Hotel - Crystal in Geylang. This is the red light district in Singapore, which we knew before we booked the place. However, we were short on time and hotel prices were crazy so our choices were limited. As a couple, it's always more cost effective to get a room rather than dorm beds (this may change in the latter half of our trip) but this does occasionally limit options, especially in a place like Singapore where those options are either get two beds in a huge dorm, or fork out silly money for a room. We pulled up at around half past midnight and were treated to the sight of three prostitutes hanging around just opposite the hotel. Our room itself was serviceable and clean, but the plastic-covered mattress (eugh!) with a thin sheet on top was not really what we were expecting given the cost. Still, we managed to sleep well enough.

The next day we caught a bus from just around the corner to the Botanic Gardens. If Bangkok was a polluted, dishevelled, noisy mess of a city - albeit with a certain charm - Singapore is the exact opposite. The air feels cleaner, the environs are much nicer, and it appears that the government takes great pains with the upkeep of its roads, parks and general surroundings. Leafblowers and road sweepers are out in force. After an effortless journey, we wandered into the Gardens. Tip - make sure you have the exact change, we didn't know none was given until the machine had swallowed our $5...

They are split into various themed areas, such as "The Healing Gardens" which display plants used for medicinal purposes and "The Ginger Gardens", where you'll find various members of the ginger family such as banana plants. "Swan Lake" unsurprisingly had a few swans on it, whilst there were numerous fruit trees growing in the "Fruit Trees" garden. A winding path took us around the excellent "Evolution Garden" which charted a botanic journey through the ages explaining the development of plants with tasteful features including petrified trees.








All in all, we spent a good 3 hours wandering the grounds. It reminded me a little of Kew Gardens, but with more focus on education than floral displays. There was a huge bandstand near the centre which advertised a live jazz band playing two days from then, which we made a note of to come back to. It was clear that a lot of time, money and care had gone into creating an oasis from the usual city madness, and it was much appreciated.

Having said that, a trip down Orchard Road - one of the main centres for shopping malls - was enjoyable too.  There was nowhere near the amount of traffic you'd expect in similar-sized cities, and the sheer number of shops was mind-boggling. Singapore strikes me as the kind of place Bangkok would love to be, and the malls are even more prolific here. Other than taking in the sight of mall after mall, we were also on the lookout for a Swensen's ice cream parlour. Gilly had found out that there were a number of them in the city, and we had a craving. An hour later, we found one in Centrepoint and indulged. Prices were about 2.5 times what we paid in Thailand, but it was totally worth it:


Feeling a little porky, we took a trip on the efficient and clean MRT (you can probably spot a theme here) back to the hotel to collect our bags, before doing the journey again in reverse to arrive at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). It was Friday, and a number of the museums in the city open their doors for free to the public, including SAM. We browsed the lower galleries for 30 minutes or so, which included some superb installation art. This one - V - was housed in its own room and had a simple premise: lasers bounced off a mirror in the centre of the room's floor to the opposite ceiling, making a red V. This was then complemented by intermittent bursts of smoke which sparkled amongst the lasers. It was a simple idea, but worked really well. It helped that the room itself was pretty atmospheric; the SAM was a converted boys' school, and a lot of the original architecture remained intact. Some of the other exhibits in the "Chimera" exhibition were equally interesting.





Gilly had found out that there was a free guided tour at 7pm, and after browsing the galleries we met our guide - a tiny retired Singaporean lady named Shook who couldn't have been an inch over 5 feet tall. She took us into the Wu Guanzhong gallery - a renowned Chinese artist who died a couple of years ago. Shook was knowledgeable about the SAM building, the artist and his works, and whilst his style wasn't particularly the kind of thing I'm interested in, it was good to see his work develop and have an accompanying commentary from someone who clearly enjoys art. The building was also gorgeous, especially the fountain outside:


Whilst in the gallery we met Lin and Kian: our Couchsurfing hosts. We had toyed with the idea of CouchsurfingKian and Lin drove us to a local restaurant for some chicken and rice, and bought the meal for us! Afterwards, we drove to the Marina Barrage, a beautiful complex on the waterfront with great views of the city. On the roof, there is a grass area where people come to fly their LED-covered kites at night. As you can see, the vista was stunning:







After spending some time on the roof, we saw a water exhibition downstairs being prepared for Singapore World Water Day on March 24th (the next day). Several initiatives are underway to manage the water supply in Singapore; currently all water comes in from Malaysia as Singapore has no natural reserves. Reservoirs are being built and there are desalination plants and treatment centres to convert waste water into ultra-clean drinking water. The mascot is a drop of water called Water Wally.


Kian and Lin took us back to their sizeable apartment which was spotlessly clean, had loads of room for us three couchsurfers, and had all mod-cons. We had a great night's sleep on some new mattresses - they had only recently moved into the place.


The next morning Kian had to work so Lin took us to the local market which is literally on the ground floor of their building. Convenient! Amongst other sights, we saw a woman cleaning beansprouts, and also a shop selling things to appease the spirits of the afterlife. Apparently the bigger the value of the things you burn, the more loot gets given to your deceased loved ones. Some of the items you can burn are hilarious, including a 100,000,000,000 yuan note (a mere £9.9 billion), and a Mercedes car complete with chauffeur(!). I wonder what Jeeves would feel about being sent to oblivion to live with a stranger's dead relatives?



After a breakfast of wonton noodles (yum!) we had a wander around the area that the couple live in. Singapore has a large number of facilities available to the local populace, the majority of which are free. There is a community centre with a huge badminton court, amongst other things, and it made me a little sad - in the UK, such places would be vandalised and destroyed by the local mindless youth within a week or two of being opened. It's probably why we don't have many free centres in the UK.

Kian returned at lunchtime, and cooked us a huge lunch. I almost couldn't fit it all in. I did though; it was excellent.


After we'd stuffed our faces, Kian and Lin took us out to an open house art exhibition. This is basically a free art tour, where a number of artists (who all happened to live in close proximity in a very swanky part of Singapore) open their doors to visitors, and display their art to the public. As we parked, I noticed a familiar name on a nearby street sign!


The art exhibition was different to most galleries - we got to chat with the artists in their own homes, and get a bit of background behind their paintings. The first artist we visited was Frances Allebias who was a Dutch lady who moved to Singapore a few years ago. I wasn't particularly taken with her work, but I could certainly see the effort involved in making it.

The next artist was the Chin family: Chin Oi Tow, his wife Chin Mui Siang and their daughter Chen Xing. Mr. Chin was a prodigious artist who had painted many portraits of famous politicians as well as some ultra-realistic watercolours of leaves and other botany. His wife was equally talented in watercolours, and Xing - with no help from her parents - had created a series of on-the-spot ink line drawings of various buildings around the world. A talented family, to be sure. Xing was in Newcastle, England studying for a degree in neuroscience - well, why not? - so we chatted with the parents for a good 15 minutes. A lovely couple.


Our final stop was at Barossa Studio which housed a couple of abstract artists. Neither of their paintings were my thing unfortunately, but the American artist I spoke to (Lee Gilbert) answered a question that I'd always had: what happens if you're near the end of a painting and you mess it up? This chap said he built in contingency for just that eventuality but even so, mistakes do happen. In his case, he was happy to just let it become part of the painting and he showed me an example of a racing driver's helmet which had an erroneous blob of orange paint on it. Mystery solved.

In the evening, we bought Kian and Lin dinner at Al Ameen, a great Indian experience. As a starter, Kian had bought us some durian puffs from the local bakery. This is basically puff pastry with creamed durian fruit in the middle. If you haven't heard of durian, you probably will do when you visit SE Asia. More likely, you'll smell it first. It's the most pungent fruit you can find, so much so that the majority of indoor public places ban it and even have specific signs stating "NO DURIAN". It also tastes like someone has taken out-of-date yoghurt, and dipped it in liquid garbage. The locals can pay up to £60 for a really "good" one; insanity, as it was possibly the most unpleasant taste sensation I've experienced, and Gilly was in full agreement:


Still, the Indian food made up for it.

Gilly, Karol and I decided to head to the night safari near Singapore Zoo after dinner. This is a separate attraction to the zoo proper, and consists of various enclosures with nocturnal animals, as well as a train ride around the park with commentary on the animals. Singapore Zoo is regarded as one of the best zoos in the world, and the night safari was no exception. The animals all looked healthy and happy, and I'm not usually a fan of such places. Sadly, neither was my camera which found it difficult to get any decent pictures in the low light.



The clouded leopards in particular were excellent, even if they were dozing when we arrived.


The ticket price included entry to a show where a number of trained animals (wolves, hyenas, mongooses, and so on) performed various tricks including putting different types of rubbish into the correct recycling bins whilst the host told us about the importance of managing our waste more carefully. Hey kids, it's edutainment!

At the gift shop, Gilly got very excited by a tiger hat.


It was a good night, which unfortunately ended a little awry when we missed the last bus (and connecting train) back home and had to get a taxi. Luckily it was before midnight, as in Singapore any fare after 12am automatically gets charged at 1.5x the rate. Ouch.

Bukit Chandu was our destination the next morning, specifically the "Reflections" exhibition. This was dedicated to the 2nd Battalion Malay Regiment who sacrificed their lives to defend Singapore from the Japanese. It was an excellent attraction with an audio-visual room which had a binaural experience - rather than stereo sound, it was like being in the room and hearing people talking to you despite it being recorded. There were also some fantastic videos, and lots of detail on the men who gave their lives.


We went to Chinatown with Lin and she bought us some freshly cooked BBQ pork from Lim Chee Guan. This is a "heritage" brand in Chinatown which is a status I believe is only given to a few businesses who have been around for a fair amount of time. The pork tasted amazing. Apparently around Chinese New Year, people queue up for the best part of a day just to buy meat there. It really is that good.

We had a meal in a hawker centre in Chinatown (duck with rice, and pure sugar cane juice to drink) before meeting up with Karol and Kian to go to the Buddha Tooth Temple. First though, we passed a rather impressive Hindu temple:


The Buddha Tooth Temple managed to top it:



As it is a Buddhist temple, you'd expect there to be lots of Buddhas. There were.


Of course, being a religion, there's always the need for cold, hard cash. You can sponsor one of these tens of thousands of Buddhas for the low, low price of $88 Singapore dollars a year (a mere £44). I'm not sure if you get sent photos of the Buddha on a quarterly basis with updates on how he's doing and whether he's made any friends, but I'd be disappointed not to receive at least a couple of photos.

I got to bathe a Buddha in water before I left as well. This is supposed to bring me luck.


The luck didn't extend to the weather holding out though - Kian and Lin dropped us off at the Botanic Gardens for us to see the Big Band concert in the amphitheatre, and the heavens opened as soon as we arrived...


But like on the Titanic, the band played on. Albeit in slightly warmer weather, and with less deaths and whatnot.


They were pretty good - it was actually two band performances: a swing band and a big band. I think I preferred the swing music. We'd bought a bottle of wine and some snacks to keep us going, and it was a good evening's entertainment.

When we got back, we found that our hosts had bought a cake for us as it was our last night with them. We had been continually staggered by their generosity and hospitality, and this was the icing on the literal cake. Black forest gateau...superb.


Lin also showed us how to play "Draw Something" on her iPad. The idea is for you to draw one of three options presented, with a difficulty level of easy, medium or hard. A hard challenge may be "Frodo" for example. An easy one might be "Princess". You play against another person remotely, and they try and guess it. Then they draw one for you. It's very simple but pretty addictive. Gilly's attempt at "Garfield" started well, until she tried to turn him into a bumblebee:


My effort at "throw" was, by my own admission, pretty damn good:


On that note, we ended the night. The next morning we left our luggage with Kian and Lin whilst they went to work, and we headed over to West Coast Park near their apartment for some McDonalds tea (unlimited refills!) to wake us up. Fully caffeinated, we went to play in the park. No, really. As with all their public places, Singapore's parks pull out all the stops:



You may notice that Gilly isn't wearing her new sunglasses in the above photo. The reason is that she'd taken them off and carefully placed them on the ground in front of this ride, so that they didn't fall off and break. What she didn't plan for was coming off the ride, running towards me and stepping on them. Ouch. Pair of sunglasses #4 was hastily consigned to the rubbish bin, less than two weeks after buying them.


At this point I think I'd like to take a poll on how pair #5 (once purchased) will meet their end. To date we've had two lost in rivers, one smashed in the back of a tour truck and one stamped on in a kid's playground. The possibilities are wide - perhaps a freak accident whilst skydiving? Stolen by a monkey? Misplaced in the Empire State Building (as if they'd last as long as then...). Please feel free to place your predictions in the comments.

To take our mind off the distress, we went to the Science Centre. This is possibly the best science museum I've ever been to. Granted, I've only been to a couple, but there were so many things to mess around with, and so many interesting exhibits that we somehow managed to stay there the entire day and only just got around all of the halls. These included:

A trampoline in the "Kinetic Garden":


Optical illusions:



A water park:


A device that turns you into a midget:


An ageing program which seems to think I will look like a corpse at 60:


And the highlight - a Tesla coil demonstration:


I decided to volunteer for one of the experiments that they were doing, and was placed inside a Faraday cage. 3.5 million volts were then fired at the cage. As I'm writing this, it's safe to say I survived. It was a pretty odd experience. I suspect I may not have been in such a good state if I'd touched the cage, which I guess is why they made me sit on my hands. Video evidence follows:

We spent 7 hours there and could probably have been there another 2, especially as a couple of the attractions were closed and we didn't go to the IMAX film either. There's so much to do; Adults and kids alike would love this place.

In the evening we went back to Kian and Lin's and they took us out for a final meal. I'd mentioned I'd not had chilli crab since arriving - this is one of Singapore's national dishes. They soon rectified that and took us to a place which served massive dinnerplate-sized beasts. Here are the before, during and after shots:




We had battered crab and chilli crab; the latter was my favourite, as I'm partial to a bit of spice, but they were both very good. Possibly the best crab I'd had since Kep. We also tried some stingray, which was delicious:


We were short on Singapore dollars and were only going to order one crab between the two of us but Kian and Lin insisted we try everything, and even covered the extra on the bill. Truly amazing people. Hopefully they will visit the UK and we can try and repay some of the kindness they showed us.

After dinner we took a drive to Henderson Waves, a huge bridge with great views once again of the city. There are so many peaceful places to visit at night. Around this area there are lots of walks you can do as well, something we've put on the agenda for our next visit.




When the night was over, they drove us to our last hotel - the Amrise, once again in Geylang. It isn't a good sign when hotels rent rooms out by the hour... Still, the bed was more comfortable than Fragrance even if the bathroom smelled, we had some miniature cockroaches, and there wasn't much space. You pays your money...

Out of everywhere we've visited so far, Singapore is the place we could see ourselves moving to. Everything just works. The people are friendly, there is a sense of well-being and a natural affinity for doing the right thing, the city is spotless and well-organised, the weather is lovely (downpours aside) and it's cheaper to live there. On top of which, there is a great infrastructure so all of the creature comforts you expect back home are here, and there is a booming IT market. We'll certainly be considering our options towards the end of the trip. For now though, we were concentrating on our next destination - our flight to Jogjakarta was around noon the next day.


Anonymous said...

Sounds very much like Japan!
Did they have heated toilet seats?
They are the best.
Although one I used on the Shinkansen was set to cheek burning temperatures.

Rob said...

I've never been to Japan, but it's on the list. No heated toilet seats, alas!

Zachary said...

I'm glad you enjoyed your trip! I'm a Singaporean and I was searching on couchsurfing when I chanced upon this blog. I would love to travel (haven't gotten much chance) and I'll definitely keep myself updated on your travels!