The heat and humidity slapped me in the face as soon as I walked outside the airport. Gravid clouds massed on the horizon.
The afternoon had begun and tomorrow morning I had to leave. Any trip begins and ends at the airport, and were I completely lazy I could spend the entire time here. Singapore Airport boasts endless shops, restaurants, a movie cinema, beauty salons, spas, a fitness centre, a swimming pool, orchid and butterfly gardens – even a dedicated area for sleeping (the airport was recently voted Best in the World for sleeping. Strange, but true).
Bravely, I left these wonders behind and ventured out to find a few highlights of the city.
Every taxi in Singapore is an adventure. On this occasion my elderly Chinese driver, complete with perfectly pencilled eyebrows and just a hint of powder, filled the trip to the city with a dissertation on Singapore-Malaysian-Indonesian relations. He also spoke of how the freeway from the airport was designed to double as runway in the event of war. (One taxi I caught was decorated with Lego dinosaurs, while in another icons from a dozen religions covered the dashboard.)
With such things in mind, I thought it best to start my visit with a Singapore Sling, in the bar where it was created.
When Raffles began life in 1887, it was a mere bungalow opening onto a now far-distant beach; soon it became synonymous for luxury in the heart of colonial Singapore. Although land reclamation means the waterfront is now a taxi-ride away, the world of the wealthy and the famous continue to walk through the hotel doors.
Although I am neither I did the same, quickly losing myself along the cool arcades and labyrinthine verandahs. Lush plants flowered at every turn, tumbling over the balustrades. The ghosts of bygone eras walked beside me. Literati such as Conrad, Hesse, Maugham and Kipling have stayed here (and somehow wrote, despite the allure of the bars). After escaping from a nearby circus, the last tiger on the island was shot under the billiard table of the Bar and Billiards room in 1902.
Raffles bartender Ngiam Tong Boon invented both history and the Singapore Sling in 1915, (designing the drink to look like an innocent fruit punch, so women could drink alcohol in public without censure.) The cocktail rose to fame after Somerset Maugham wrote of it in his short story, [easyazon_link identifier=”3150091837″ locale=”US” tag=”aharrison20-20″]The Letter[/easyazon_link]. Where else to try one but in the Long Bar where the drink was born? As if moved by a forgotten servant, lazy fans move back and forth across the ceiling, keeping the room cool on even the muggiest of days. Bags of peanuts are stacked around the walls and pillars, with bowls of them overflowing on every table. Everyone simply tosses the shells onto the floor – this is not a place for stilettos. After a few drinks, the sight of the Gordan Gin Bath-tub taking pride of place on the ceramic tiles does not seem at all out-of-place.
Opposite Raffles is Chijmes. Behind the walls still stands the now de-sanctified Convent
of the Holy Jesus, complete with a Neo-Gothic church. Amongst the cloisters and landscaped gardens are a range of eating spots and bars.
The convent, now an art gallery, once functioned as an orphanage. I walked around the outside wall until I came to the Gate of Hope, where unwanted babies were left for the nuns to raise. Most of these babies were female, especially if a ‘tiger baby’, for a girl born in the Year of the Tiger was considered to bring bad luck.
A short taxi ride away is the National Orchid Garden, set amongst the lush landscaping of the Botanical Gardens (established, of course, by Raffles himself). Here there are some 1000 species of orchid, plus over 2000 hybrids. The sheer number may seem daunting,
but the flowers are simply beautiful, and the gardens always a highlight of my visits. In a humid and overcrowded city they remain a cool oasis. Had I time I’d have wandered along the jungle walks and past the medicinal gardens, through the mist rooms and along the lakes and pause awhile at the sculpture displays – but the storm clouds loomed ever larger, and I had much to do.
Singapore sings a siren’s song to savvy shoppers. With her endless malls Orchid Road is a great place to start (especially during The Great Singapore Sale, running through June and July, when the entire city, it seems, is up to 70% off). What better excuse do you need? And in the malls – and indeed all over the city – are the Doctor Fish.
Considering my great-uncle was taken by a shark, it took a deal of bravery on my behalf to slip my feet into a tankfull of fish. Fortunately they have no teeth, and eat only dead skin. The minute my feet hit the water the tiny Garrarufa fish swarmed about me, hundreds of them covering every piece of exposed skin with their nibbles. Their tickles proved remarkably pleasant, and after ten minutes I was left with incredibly soft and silky feet.
Food is another highlight in Singapore, from Michelin-star restaurants to street food. Personally, I can’t leave Singapore without a visit to a hawker mall, especially the Maxwell Centre in Chinatown. Here some two dozens stalls serve all manner of food, reflecting the myriad of cultural influences which make up modern-day Singapore. Some stalls specialise in breakfast porridge, others in deserts. Dishes high on the bucket list include chilli mud crab (delicious but messy), carrot cake (not a cake and distinctly lacking carrots), the delicate Hainanese Chicken Rice and a fiery fish head curry. I always manage to end up with a drink made from a fruit I don’t recognise.
As I sat at one of the communal tables (the place is perennially crowded) the heavens finally opened. A tropical downpour is an amazing thing to experience. Within minutes the gutters overflowed and makeshift plastic walls were hastily pulled down around the open dining area to protect the diners from the rain.
Usually storms pass in half and hour or so, leaving the city refreshed; this storm, however, had settled in for the night, so it was time to retire to my hotel.
Next morning I had a little while to explore Chinatown before leaving. Every Chinatown around the world is different, from the impossible number of restaurants packed into just a few streets in Sydney, to Saigon’s Cholon, the world’s largest Chinatown where innumerable soldiers went AWOL during the Vietnam War (many never seen again). Singapore’s Chinatown is a place of colour. Densely packed by night until the wee hours, of an early morning the streets are empty. This is perhaps when the colours can be seen at their best: from the rainbow of shutters and doors, to red lanterns strung against an impossibly blue sky. Many of the shops are in restored warehouses, complete with the classic five-foot verandahs.
Chinatown was once a warren of opium dens and dubious tenements (Sago Street was infamous for its Death Houses). Now, just about anything can be bought here – in the space of thirty minutes every gift imaginable can be found, hidden amongst shops selling traditional medicines and fares. The musty smell of incense fills the air, and in quiet corners old men sit playing mahjong or practising Tai Chi. The Chinatown complex boast one of the best wet-markets in the city. Not for the faint-hearted, it is a cacophony of smells and noise as people hassle over fresh frogs or a skinned ox head; bills are still tallied using an abacus.
Should time permit, after simply wandering the streets, there is the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, full of monks and worshippers. Not far away is the river waterfront, with yet more eating and dining options (once darkness falls, the place is packed with beautiful young-ish things). Short cruises up the river is a relaxing way to appreciate the skyline of the city. There are bars and restaurants atop the skyscrapers, and a short trip away by cable car is the resort of Sentosa Island.
Indeed, always a reason to come back and spend another twenty-four hours.