Wow – what happened here?!
Somebody has taken hold of Singapore, shaken it up and injected a whole lot of fun – and I absolutely love the end result.
This tiny, expensive country is known for its high standards of living, its rich businesses, tall skyscrapers and a ban on chewing gum. When I last visited seven years ago, I spent two days in the city. It was enjoyable – quiet, colonial, stacked with bits of history and riverside bars for a leisurely lunch.
Theme parks, casinos, extravagant shopping malls and laser light displays were a long way from Singapore minds back then, yet this city state has become something I would definitely return back to after having one of the biggest facelifts I have ever seen.
The best thing is, the quaint Singapore is still there, where you can wander around endless quiet lanes, all spotlessly clean and full of interesting shops and restaurants.
My visit back in 2005 was at the end of three weeks in Australia, and I stayed at the Inn Crowd hostel. It’s in Little India, and at the time was my first ever night in a dorm room bed. I looked it up on the internet, found it was still on the go and booked myself in for my two nights in the city.
First I had to get there, and what a journey – with a company called Odyssey, I left from a place well out of the centre of Kuala Lumpur, and away from many of the tourist buses. This was pure luxury – sumptuously padded huge leather seats that recline, personal tv screen, entertainment, food and drinks served by a waiter on the journey, wifi. It was worlds apart from anything I’ve travelled in over recent weeks.
It was about four hours before we reached immigration checkpoints and a huge bridge that connects Malaysia with Singapore. Sadly, it was raining hard – the tropical weather is one of the problems in this area – but dropped off in Singapore I arrived feeling relaxed and ready to explore.
Arriving at the hostel, it was as if the last seven years had disappeared. It looked exactly as I remembered it, with its purple and orange canopy covering the doorway, nestled in between a 7-Eleven and a few bars. All around, members of the Indian community were in the streets eating some excellent looking currys and naan breads.
I had no time to dawdle though, which is a shame as its one of my favourite pastimes. I had just a matter of hours to see the city, which I am treating as a bonus stop off. After all, I never had any intention of coming this far – I was in Singapore purely because of the savings I was making by flying back to Krabi in Thailand from there. However, I wanted to make the most of it.
Logging on to Facebook, James, a good friend from school – and who travelled the world himself in the last year – tipped me off about a light show in the evenings. I’d been to one before in Hong Kong and it was spectacular, so that became my ‘thing to do’ for the evening.
I had walked just a few blocks in the sticky evening heat when suddenly the heavens opened. I got soaked. My flip flops were slipping everywhere. I contemplated turning back.
Then I caught sight of the waterfront, and everything changed. I was mesmorised by the colours, the lights, the new landscape in front of me. My memories of last time were of a waterfront dominated by a few skyscrapers belonging to the banks, the Merlion statue and a few boats sailing around in the darkness on the water. Its most extravagant building was the modern arts building, with a surface resembling some kind of metallic hedgehog.
I looked across the bay. Where once there was darkness and a horizon, there are now three huge glittering buildings, topped off by what looks like some kind of mastless yacht. To the left, a sophisticated steel bridge, adorned with the lights of thousands of cars. There’s a stage with around 20 people singing and playing odd wooden instruments, their sound filling the air. In the water, thousands of white balls of varying sizes light up in the colour of whatever light shines upon them. In the distance, radio controlled kites, lit up with neon sticks and LEDs, flit around the night sky, almost like they’re doing an excited dance to celebrate how Singapore has moved forward so quickly in the last few years.
Everywhere you look, something was happening – and then the light show started. Lasers, water fountains, music – it was an assault on the senses, and one that I loved.
I walked around to the Merlion, Singapore’s mascot. The fish part of its body represents Singapore’s beginnings as a fishing village. The lion head represents Singapore’s original name, Singapura, meaning the ‘lion city’. It’s a city still proud of its history, even that before Sir Stamford Raffles first set foot on the island and started off the transition into one of the world’s largest and most important ports, as well as being one of the biggest business and trade centres on the planet.
I sat for a while, watching the water gushing from the Merlion’s mouth and taking in everything around me. When I last sat in exactly the same spot, I was on my way home and had a 14 hour journey ahead of me. Now I sat knowing I was still on my way as part of my journey, that the journey had brought me back to Singapore, and ultimately, most of that journey over the huge landmass between this southern point of Asia and back home had been made over land.
By now I was hungry, but I’d been saving myself for one of the street food centres that I remembered so well from my last visit, mainly as, to this day, I maintain it was the best chicken satay I’ve ever tasted. I remember being sat in the middle of the street on a rickety table and chair, with a beer and a whole tray of beef and chicken on sticks for about £1.50. With nothing other than remembering it wasn’t far from the Merlion, I set off in my hunt for the same place.
It was a good hour of walking in circles before I found La Pau Sat hawker centre – and it hadn’t changed. Where during the day, cars pass along the four lanes of the road, by night its filled with Singaporeans and tourists munching away on satay and noodles, washed down with ice cold beers, while the sweet smell of glazed chicken drifts across the entire area from the surrounding barbecues.
Like most things in Singapore, the price had shot up. It was £3 for 10 sticks, but worth every penny. They tasted just as good as I remembered. Back then, the guy who sold me them got talking to me, and pinned a Grimsby Telegraph business card to his stall. It was, of course, long gone, but I wondered what had happened to him. Perhaps he was still there, sataying every night. He might have even cooked my tea once again for me. I’ll never know, but for a few minutes, everything that had happened in the seven years since disappeared as I melted back into the moment I remember so well just a few metres away from me in that same street. Delicious, and well worth a visit.
The next day I knew would be a bit of a mission – to cram in as much of Singapore as possible. I even woke up early, such was the time pressure, and I don’t do that lightly!
Breakfast put a smile on my face – it was still the ‘two eggs, two slices of toast’ rule that the hostel had when I stayed those years ago. The Inn Crowd may have had a bit of a redesign downstairs – the reception had moved, the doors had changed and everywhere was covered in wooden flooring – but it still has the same feel about it. I was even ‘welcomed back’ when I checked in, with a bit of chin wagging about how it had evolved since my first visit.
The reason why I smiled over breakfast was also because it brought back memories of one of the biggest clangers I’ve ever dropped while trying to make new friends. It was in that kitchen on my first morning there in January 2005, having woken up for my first ever morning in a hostel, that I’d made my way to breakfast and sat down with about 12 other backpackers. I’d had my toast, and in an effort to be friendly and make a good impression, I offered to make a round of tea and coffee.
It took me a while, almost as long as a tea-round in the BBC Look North newsroom, but I got there. Everything was milked, some wanted it strong, some wanted lots of sugar. All went well – until the tea was tasted.
Actually, it was spat out back into a cup by some big Scandinavian-looking guy, who then just glared at me. He was followed by a few others who glared at me. I tasted mine. I soon realised why.
The pot of sugar that I had delved into with the teaspoon was actually the main salt container for the kitchen, resulting in twelve thirsty backpackers thinking it was some kind of hilarious practical joke. Awkward, to say the least.
Thankfully the pots nowadays have labels on them, so after a nice cup of Lipton Yellow Label (still rubbish, but used to it now) and some crushed up boiled eggs on toast, I was good to go – and first stop was the Raffles Hotel, my final stop the last time I was here.
The Long Bar is the home of the Singapore Sling cocktail, where it was first mixed by a bartender there sometime around 1915, and I sipped one on the balcony there, watching the sun go down, just a few hours before my flight left for the UK almost seven years ago to the day.
Even back then it was pricey – I paid about £12 for the drink and to keep the souvenir glass it came in. I almost choked when I saw the same drink and glass won’t leave you with much change from £25. Thankfully, mine is still in a cabinet back home, so I moved on!
The colonial-style hotel is luxurious, and I do like the way they let you wander around through its grounds. It was very quiet and relaxed, with the odd staff member giving me a smile as I made my way around taking photos. Named after Sir Stamford Raffles, Singapore’s founder, it’s among the most famous hotels in the world. I was going to try to sneak into the main part of the hotel, sectioned off for residents only, but decided that with my shorts and flip flops, I’d blend in about as well as a Scunthorpe United fan at a Grimsby Town awards night.
Instead, I blagged myself into something much more fun. Well, I say blagged – it was more ‘ignore the signs and railings and see what happens’ to be honest, but I did end up on the start and finish straight of the Formula One track!
Singapore began hosting a stage of the Formula One season on its new street circuit in 2008, and became the first ever night race in the sport. Its another example of how this city state has turned around its straight-laced image – and as I made my way through some yellow barriers I found myself looking at skid marks and road markings left behind by Jenson, Lewis and co just a couple of months previous.
There was nobody else around, but I carried on walking as if I was supposed to be there. I didn’t have any tell-tale tourist signs like a bag or a camera dangling off me, and so I just carried on. There were a few workmen on the main straight dismantling a couple of stands, but even they just looked at me and carried on.
I came unstuck, however, when I found the pit straight. Still with the team names, logos and drivers names above their garages – and tyre marks on the painted shiny surface where each car would grind to a halt for pit stops – I tried to imagine what it must be like on a race day.
Then there was a man waving his hands at me. My jobsworth detector immediately kicked into action, although to be fair, I was completely in the wrong. I began thinking of an excuse, but in the end opted for a big smile.
“Not supposed to be here,” the overall-wearing bloke said to me in broken English.
“Aww, just one photo,” I smiled back.
He paused, did a shifty look around, then smiled back.
“Keep away from the petrol lorry,” he replied, pointing at a line of fuel heading into an underground tank.
Brilliant! Back home I’d have been frogmarched out by some heavies in fluorescent coats, had the police called on me for trespassing and probably banned from the area for good. Here, I’d been smiled at and welcomed, as long as I didn’t blow up the petrol wagon.
As he turned to answer a phonecall, I thanked him with a big cheesy grin and got a couple more snaps in the pit lane before moving on to the pole position place on the start grid. There was a little hole in the middle of each start position, which I’m presuming is for some sort of false start equipment, and there were little splodges on the track from the fragments of hot tyre rubber that had been worked into the asphalt.
It certainly hadn’t been on my list of places to visit, but its definitely one of the most memorable, and it’ll be fun to watch the race here on the television next season when I’m back home.
It was already lunchtime, and I still had lots to do. I walked around the marina, where workmen were throwing big white balls into the water, each daubed with Christmas and New Year messages.
They were being moved into the centre of the marina in readiness for the New Year fireworks and celebration show in a couple of days. I’m presuming they’ve been blown up and signed by visitors somewhere, and I spent a few minutes reading the messages from people who had visited from around the world.
Next stop was Resorts World Sentosa, another addition to Singapore’s fun side, located on a separate island just to the south. Much of the island of Sentosa is given over to a huge new Universal Studios theme park, but there’s loads of other places too, like a downhill luge track, marine park, casinos, shopping and beaches. Yes – beaches.
They may be man made, but they have sand, shells and clean water lapping up onto the shore. Admittedly, with the world’s busiest shipping port next door, you need to squint to block out the dozens of huge container ships and tankers on the horizon. But it’s a beach all the same, and it means after just a 20 minute journey from the centre of the bustling metropolis, you can be paddling in the waves.
An extra bonus for me was to find a plaque marking the furthest point south on continental Asia. Having spent the last two and a half months making my way overland round from Europe, this was now as far as I could go – well and truly the end of the line. With just the sea to the south, the next time I go further will be on a plane to Australia. But almost 10,000km from Moscow now, it was time to reflect on one huge journey so far – an adventure that is missed from the air. Its certainly a lot warmer here than during those cold, icy days walking through the steppes of Mongolia in the snow!
It was now 4pm, and I knew the sun would start setting shortly. I needed to get back to the city, as I’d decided to stump up the cash for a trip to the Sky Park at the top of Marina Bay Sands resort to watch the sun set over the skyscrapers opposite.
Spotted a great Christmas tree on the way though-you might need to look closely. I had a double take on the way past, and the barman told me quite a few people had spotted it and laughed!
I arrived in the vast shopping centre underneath the three huge buildings to find a gondola floating along a canal. The company that built this massive resort – and got Singapore’s stringent gambling laws relaxed for the first time – is the same company behind the Venetian in Las Vegas. Its billed as the most expensive standalone casino resort complex in the world, costing £4-billion to build, features a 2,561-room hotel, a museum, two huge theatres – one being home to The Lion King – an ice rink, seven celebrity chef restaurants…the list goes on.
There is definitely an awe-inspiring Las Vegas feel to the place, matched by some awe-inspiring prices. It costs £10 just to go up in the lift to the top floor Sky Park, set on top of the world’s largest public cantilevered platform, and where a can of Coke sets you back £4. The view, and the photos from the top, however, were worth the entry price.
Sadly, you don’t get to see, or use, the 150m infinity pool being used by the hotel guests to watch the sun set over the city just a few metres behind a security door, but you do get a great 360degree view that is surely unsurpassed even by the Singapore Flyer, the big wheel that knocked the London Eye off its ‘biggest wheel in the world’ perch.
Singapore, it has to be said, is a city – and a country – that now looks better at night than it does in the day. The lighting, the lasers, the skyscrapers – everything was big and bright.
I watched the nightly music and light show once again before heading to a brilliant exhibition at the ArtScience museum, Titanic.
Ever since my university days in Southampton, where my halls of residence were across from the former Canute Road offices of White Star Line, and just a few hundred metres from where Titanic sailed, I’ve had a bit of a fascination with the story about the ship.
Here, the story for me was brought to life, with hundreds of parts of the ship, cutlery, crockery, clothing, passengers belongings and jewellery that had been brought to the surface from the wreck.
The most amazing parts for me were the scores of portholes, window frames and huge metal parts of the ship’s structure that had been brought up from the sea bed.
To look at parts, along with an explanation of what role it had within the ship, really put things into perspective. But to know that the windows had been looked through by passengers on that ill fated liner, or that the chef’s overalls had been worn to prepare dinner before he went off duty that night – and ultimately lost his life – was really poignant.
It was done really well, and wasn’t in any way ghoulish or morbid. Sections of the museum were laid out as if it was parts of the ship, including first class cabins and bathrooms, and an excellent reconstruction of an outside deck.
I never thought I would see parts of the Titanic just a few millimetres away from my face, but thanks to a visit to Singapore, it was just one more pleasant surprise in a very surprising change of direction for the republic.
Sadly, after just 35 hours, I had to leave – my flight to Krabi checks in at 4am – and after arriving back at the hostel at 1am, decided not to go to bed for fear of not waking up in time. Instead, I packed my bags and headed straight to the airport. Tonight will be an ‘all nighter’ and i’ll probably pay the price tomorrow, but at least I won’t miss my plane!
I was so pleased I had crammed so much into so little time. It made me realise how Singapore has definitely put itself back on my map as a place to visit again. You might need buckets of cash and a brolly to protect you from the tropical rains from time to time, but instead of a city break or Oz stopover, Singapore is rapidly becoming a holiday destination in its own right.