Sing Sing

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Singapore was another whistle stop on the Southeast Asia Express. It had sights, weird food and a hash, but it also had one big difference. In Singapore I did not stay in another nameless hotel room. Instead I was generously hosted by friends-of-friends (well, I suppose they were actually family-of-friends) who found out I was coming and immediately offered their spare room. It was great. Jasmine and Scott, their two little kids Thalia and Luke and their live-in helper Khun Nisa were friendly, helpful, and incredibly generous. They gave me a bed and the password for their wifi, included me in their family activities, did my laundry, loaned me maps, suggested things to see and do, took me for dinner, and even gave me a ride to the airport. Like I said, it was great. I’m surprised I left.

Me, Thalia and Lukey, on the patio

Singapore has a reputation for being a straight-laced police state. And it’s true that you can’t buy chewing gum there, and stiff fines are assessed for all kinds of seemingly innocent things like spitting, jaywalking, or taking a durian on the metro.

Apparently durian-related offenses are so serious the fines need to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Well I am here to tell you that Singaporeans are not the cowed and submissive automatons they’re made out to be. For instance, I personally saw genuine Singapore residents jaywalking several times, and even witnessed spitting. And several times I saw people sit in the seats on the metro reserved for the elderly and infirm. So don’t let anyone tell you that a Singaporean could not hold his own in a bar fight or something, because clearly these are not a people to be trifled with.

Despite its population of hardened criminals, desperados and queue-jumpers, Singapore is a lovely, efficient and well-run place. For instance, the escalators in the recently opened Stadium metro station run at a very very low speed until someone actually gets on them, when they ramp up to full speed for as long as it takes to complete the trip and then slow down again to a power-conserving crawl. And that metro system has proper ticket machines and allows you to move from line to line indiscriminately (Are you listening, Kuala Lumpur?). Singapore is also adept at separating its population from their money. Automatic gantries levies a congestion fee on each car that enters the downtown area, via a card reader installed on the car’s dashboard. Singapore has very low taxes (around 17%), so a lot of revenue has to come for user-pay fees like this. However they make their money, though, they seem to spend it creating a place that’s clean, safe and pleasant. I think that if they just upped the taxes by a percentage or two they could afford to build a dome over the whole island and air condition the entire country. Then I’d be lining up at the immigration counter for sure.

Because I got to be an honorary auntie for a few days, I went with Jasmine, Khun Nisa and the kids to the Singapore Zoo on the afternoon I arrived. It’s a nice enough zoo – not too big, and with enclosures that seem relatively natural and don’t instantly make you feel awful for the animals as soon as you see them. Again, it was hot. In fact unless I say otherwise just assume that everything I did in Southeast Asia was done wearing a shirt that I’d sweated through hours before, and with my hair plastered to the back of my neck. Nonetheless, I gamely wandered around the zoo for a while until I finally gave up and joined the rest of the gang at what was undoubtedly the zoo’s best feature – the splash park! I don’t have pictures of the splash park because it was, you know, splashy, and it started raining not long after I got there. But it was GREAT, like a really creative play structure with the added fun of water. Water pooled around the base, water spraying from jets, even water dumping tsunami-like from a huge bucket that refilled and then overturned every five or ten minutes. It was the perfect antidote to a hot sticky afternoon.

Red parrots (well, red birds anyways) at the entrance to the zoo

Everyone else went home for supper at end of the afternoon, but I stuck around to see a zoo with a difference. The Night Safari purports to be the only zoo in the world specifically designed to showcase nocturnal animals during the hours they’re most active – at night. It’s home to 115 different species and covers 40 hectares of forest and doesn’t even open until 7:00 pm when the sun sets (Singapore is almost exactly on the equator, so the sun rises and sets at the same time every day, all year). It’s a very different experience from the regular zoo. Clearly aimed at an older crowd, the entry area boasted several restaurants and bars and when I wandered over the crowds were much bigger than I’d expected. It was, if you’ll pardon the pun, a zoo. (Heh. It had to be done.)

There was a short and slightly lame show performed hourly in which various trained animals performed or didn’t perform small tricks taught by their handlers. The show was preceded by a desperate, pleading appeal repeated over and over again by the show’s effervescent host - “Please please please turn off the flash on your camera”. It was a simple request, and it made a lot of sense. These were animals that live most of their lives in the dark, so camera flashes aren’t just disturbing to them, they can actually damage the animals’ eyes and in extreme cases can cause blindness. It seemed simple, but of course you know what happened. As soon as an animal appeared, flashes when off all over the auditorium. I can not understand this. Is it because people are to stupid to know how to turn off the flash or to tell whether it’s on or off? Or are they unaware that the flash from a camera seated in the back row will do everything to illuminate the back the head of the person sitting in front of them, and nothing to illuminate the animal fifty feet away? Or do they think the rules apply to everyone except them? Or do they simply not care? Whatever the cause, it was just maddening to watch it happen over and over and over again. Really, just smarten up, people.

The only remotely presentable picture I have from the show. Because, you know, I didn’t use my flash. (Ian: I know this one! Reticulated python!)

After the show I set out into the park. There was a system of golf-cart-like tram trains that would take you on a big loop around all the whole area, but it cost extra and the lineups were long, and I had no desire to be cooped up with more flash-wielding cretins. I took the walking paths, and it was fantastic. They wound through the dark past the dimly lit enclosures where you could make out the animals going about their business. It was kind of magic, because there was a sort of quiet calmness that came with the darkness that made you just want to be still and watch.

The best part was the bat cage – fully-enclosed area where two different species of bat flew free among the trees. I walked along the pathway inside the cage, and it was easy to spot the large flying squirrels hanging upside down. Smaller bats flapped around, landing on small clusters of fruit hanging in the trees. It was a bit alarming when they flew over my head, but watching them do their thing was fascinating. I stayed at the Night Safari much longer than I’d expected and got home thoroughly satisfied and, of course, ready for a shower.

Singapore’s Weird Food was a twist on an old favourite, the noble durian. This time though, it was in a more palatable (sort of) form: durian ice cream! Thanks once again to the Lonely Planet, I knew exactly where to find this local treat at one of the few mobile street hawkers left in Singapore who sell ice cream sandwiches on Orchard Road, outside one of the city’s many many many high end shopping malls. And when I say ice cream sandwich, I mean exactly that – it was a piece of multi-coloured pink and green bread folded around a block of ice cream.

Festive sandwich bread

The ice cream came in lots of normal, probably very tasty flavours like mint chocolate chip, raspberry ripple and mango. And it came in a few wacky flavours: red bean, sweet corn (!) and, of course, durian. I debated whether I should try the sweet corn, but in the end I thought that nothing could top durian, so I handed over my $1.00 ($1 Singapore dollar is about $0.75 CDN).

Proof that I actually took a bite

The smell was similar to fresh durian – hints of onion and strong cheese entirely at odds with the whole ice cream thing. And the flavour was similar too, right down to the growing numbness to the horror of it all. The first bite kind of tasted like cold and creamy onion-flavoured death wrapped in sweet bread. The second had more creamy fruitiness and less death, and by the end I could almost have convinced myself it was ok. Well, not really. What I was convinced of was that I should have tried the sweet corn flavour instead. Even in its cloaked and sweetened ice cream form, the flavour of durian lingers in the back of the throat for hours in that way that makes a stray burp particularly unpleasant.

I had a few much nicer food experiences in Singapore – the first thanks to Jasmine and Scott, who took me out to try the island’s specialty – chili crab. We went to an enormous seafood restaurant with tables that went right out near the water and ordered two chili crabs, steamed buns and beer. Being experience chili crab eaters, Jasmine and Scott came armed with packets of tissues and a large container of wet wipes which was my first clue that this would not be a tidy dining experience. The chili crab arrived chopped into large chunks and swimming in thick, spicy sauce. It was really tasty, but also a lot of work. Crab seems to resist consumption as if it’s still fighting for life from beyond the grave. I did my best, but I think I ended up with chili crab up to my elbows, on my shirt, under my fingernails and possibly in my hair. It was worth it.

My other classic Singapore food experience was one that simply had to be ticked off: drinking a Singapore Sling in the very bar where the cocktail was invented. Raffles Hotel is a colonial Singapore institution that first opened its doors in 1887 and is still one of the more exclusive hotels in the city. Rooms start around $750 a night, so I was happy that all I had to do was put on my cleanest dirty shirt and try to look respectable enough to be allowed entry to the Long Bar, home of the Singapore Sling.

Raffles Hotel

And I suppose, considering the price of a room, that I shouldn’t have been surprised that a single Singapore Sling clocked in at a wallet-lightening $29.45 SIG (about $22.00 CDN). Still, it had to be done. At least it came with a generous measure of ice, and was served in a room with air conditioning.

Here’s a crummy shot of me and my $22 drink. I made sure to eat LOTS of the free peanuts.

Still on the theme of food and drink, I also tried a traditional Singaporean breakfast – coffee and kaya toast. The coffee comes strong and black in Singapore, with a dollop of thick sweetened condensed milk on the bottom of the cup. It’s a perfect accompaniment to kaya toast. Kaya is described as “coconut jam” but it seemed more like a smooth, rich spread to me. Caramel brown in colour, it looked like peanut butter and tasted a bit like butterscotch. It was served on a light sweet roll that had been split and toasted. Each half was slathered with kaya, and a pat of butter was added before the halves were stuck back together and served. Needless to say, the combination of coffee, caramel-iness, butter, sweet bread and crunchy toastiness was an instant hit, and compared to the Singapore Sling it was a big bargain at $3.10 SIG in total.

What’s not to like?

If it seems like a spent a lot of time eating and drinking in Singapore, well, that’s kind of what you do there. That, and shop. And since I’m not a big shopper, I had to fill the time somehow. I did do some proper sightseeing – I wandered Little India and Chinatown, I hopped on and off a double-decker tour bus, and I cruised on the river. And of course I went to a hash. The Singapore Sunday Hash was the perfect foil for my extreme hashing experience in KL. The start of the trail was easy to get to, the run was fun, interesting and possible to complete without bloodshed, and the group was small and friendly and sang lots of familiar songs. It was the most homey hash I’ve been to in a while, and it was great.

Too soon though, my time in Singapore was over. I was sad to say good bye to Jasmine, Scott, Thalia, Luke and Khun Nisa, but incredibly excited to be moving on to the almost-last stop of the trip – Japan! And when Jasmine dropped me at the airport and I made the last dash through the steamy Southeast Asian night into the air conditioned airport, I breathed a sigh of relief and bid a fond farewell to a part of the world that showed me some amazing sights, introduced me to some great people, and caused me to lose my bodyweight in sweat every two hours.

Me on the river cruise. There’s really nothing really “Singapore” about this shot, but it’s the best photo of me I’ve had in a while. Enjoy.


Unknown said...

"...put on my cleanest dirty shirt and try to look respectable enough to be allowed entry to the..."

That's travelling in a nutshell.

Happy Trails...


Ian Timshel said...

Retics scare the daylights out of me.

Lisa said...

I have to say (and forgive me) that I LOVE your hair these days! Great shot of you on the cruise!

Hmmm "cold and creamy onion-flavoured death wrapped in sweet bread"...your food descriptions continue to amuse me to no end! said...

I laughed and laughed at the description of the durian i-c sandwich. You got it spot on. Good for you, fellow Canadian. We'll be in SPore this summer - love it. Safe travels under God's watchful eye and shelter :-)

I'm signing up so I can chuckle my way through the rest of your journey.

Kim said...

Great picuture.... hash necklace in view and all! I can't believe you've kept up the momentum on this blog and it is still as clever as ever 336 days in.

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