Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Taste of Singapore

Arriving in Singapore was a stark contrast to the cozy little island towns I had spent time in over the last few weeks.  As I climbed into a taxi, a massive downpour began, bringing cool refreshing air to the immaculately clean city with manicured palms on either side of the road.  I was fortunate to know a couple of people in the city, and my friend Kevin, whom I had met during my week at Elephant Nature Park, had offered to let me stay at his place while he was away most of the week for work.  His apartment was gorgeous, with an incredible little porch and huge windows out to a portion of the city that was overwhelmingly green and lush.  In terms of finding a quiet cafe-style place to work, here I was!  

My primary goal during my time in Singapore was to eat all the things, so Kevin immediately took me out for one of Singapore's signature dishes:  chicken rice.  We went to a spot called Boon Tong Kee Pte Ltd at 425 River Valley Road, which had started as a hawker stall but had grown into a full restaurant.  We sat down and treated ourselves to an immensely flavorful plate of chicken rice, as well as sweet and sour pork, bean sprouts, fried tofu, and a sort of limeade drink.  Completely stuffed, we returned to the house to relax a bit, before Kevin took me on a short walking tour of nearby Orchard Road.  

We then ventured back out to the airport to meet Xindi, who I had also met at ENP, who only had a few hours in between an arrival and another departure for another work trip.  We delivered her a new suitcase and retrieved a small one from her, then sat down at a Chinese restaurant in the airport for a massive spread of food that I couldn't hope to finish!  

After bidding her farewell, we dropped a few things back at the apartment before swinging by Marina Bay to see the iconic Merlion fountain, arriving just in time to catch the nightly light show projected from the Marina Bay Sands just across the water.  We continued walking around the bay, until we reached a collection of hawker stalls called Glutton's Bay.  We took in all the options, finally deciding to share a plate of fried bananas with a sort of coconut butter dipping sauce of deliciousness before returning to the apartment.  

The next morning, Kevin left for Kuala Lampur for work, and I ventured out to nearby ION, a shopping complex on Orchard Road.  I picked up a new external hard drive at the Apple store, and made a trip to H&M for some basic shirts since I was going to be in nicer, dressier cities the last few weeks of my trip, and I didn't want to keep wearing some of my ratty backpacker tank tops from Thailand!  I had a tasty lunch of crispy pork and noodles from the hawker center within ION, and I picked up some incredible fresh-baked bread (a loaf of orange chocolate and a loaf of mango raisin) for snacks and breakfast.  Bread and coffee in hand, I returned to the apartment for the afternoon to catch up on photo editing.  I stayed there the rest of the evening, only venturing out for a plate of cashew chicken from a nearby shop.

I got up the next morning determined to check out a CrossFit gym Kevin had connected me to called Mobilus.  Luckily, as I was stepping off the metro, a girl named Joann saw my outfit and the confused look on my face and led me to the gym - a small space tucked away in an alley.  Apparently, they were sharing the space with another gym for now as they got their new primary space set up.  The workout was a good one, and despite it being my first visit to a real gym in over a month, I felt pretty good!  

I made my way back to Orchard, planning to grab some lunch at the ION hawker center (as that's where the metro stopped), but I took a wrong turn within the maze of the mall complex, and I wound up in a more upscale section, surrounded by luxury brands!  But right in the center of the space was a little burger spot called Omakase Burger that was absolutely packed.  I figured if it was that busy, it must be good, and I took my place in the queue to order a cheeseburger and fries.  While it was definitely expensive, the meal was absolutely delicious, and I was amused by the efficiency of the restaurant.  Since I was a single patron, they sat another single patron at the same two-person table with me!  

That evening, I decided to try out a recommendation from one of Kevin's roommates for delicious takeout Thai.  Of course, the restaurant - called Thai Tantric - was inside of the one building in Singapore where prostitution is legal.  Orchard Towers, affectionately referred to as "four floors of whores" by the locals, is a bizarre collection of bars and "beauty spas" with scantily-clad women standing outside the various "shops" to lure in customers.  It was a strange experience to see all the ladies wandering through the building as I waited on my food, and the people-watching outside was hilarious, as large groups of young Indian men congregated around the building.  But, he was right.  The green curry I ordered was phenomenal, and the papaya salad had all the right flavors, though it was a bit too spicy for me.  It was definitely the best Thai food I had tasted outside of Thailand!

The next morning I took another tip from the roommates for a spot for lunch and coffee, though I took a wrong turn and walked for about half an hour through the sweltering heat.  At least I got a nice little tour of the other side of the neighborhood, passing a number of embassies and winding up at the entrance to the botanical gardens.  I eventually found the Nissen Hill Bakery down a road parallel to the one I had taken, where I enjoyed a plate of creamy tomato and chicken pasta and a tasty cup of coffee as I edited another pile of photos.  

I headed back out to CrossFit Mobilus that evening to make full use of their policy that the first two drop-ins are free.  This time, the workout was much harder than my first visit, and I could definitely feel my long absence from the gym as we did back squats, shuttle runs, wall walks, squat cleans, and burpees.  It was late when I headed back, and I was exhausted, so I grabbed a late dinner at ION and picked up some more delicious breakfast bread on the way home.  

The next day I was determined to try another of Singapore's signature dishes:  chili crab.  Unfortunately, I quickly learned that chili crab is a dish for sharing for many reasons, one being the price!  I quickly cancelled my order after hearing it would cost $40, and grabbed a Vietnamese pork and noodle dish instead.  

Later that evening, I decided to check out the pick-up ultimate scene.  While I used to play ultimate competitively, it had been years since I had played anything more than small, less competitive league games.  I also didn't have any cleats, and I hadn't even touched a disc in nearly a year.  But, I had a friend named Alex living in Singapore who was part of the scene - someone I had met at an ultimate tournament in Italy called Paganello nearly 10 years prior - and he convinced me to come give it a try.  I didn't play particularly well, but I did have fun, and it was nice to run around in the fresh air.  I chatted with a few of the players afterwards, learning that quite a few had roots in the southern US, including a guy from Memphis that I would later learn was friends with my good friend Caroline.  The ultimate world is a very, very small one!  

After pickup, Alex and I wandered around the surrounding neighborhood of Little India, the streets brightly lit with colorful decorations for the upcoming holiday of Diwali.  It felt a world away from Singapore, but also perhaps, just as far from India.  We settled on a place called Banana Leaf for dinner, and we shared delicious plates of butter chicken, palak paneer, chickpeas, saffron rice, and butter naan, washed down with Tiger Beer.  We chatted about the many, many years since we had seen each other, especially all of our crazy travel stories.  

The next morning, as I was chatting with Kevin about his trip to Kuala Lampur - he had returned the night before - he discovered that a bomb (really a grenade, but still) had gone off just around the corner from his hotel!  Supposedly it was gang activity rather than terrorism, but it had also taken place in a very nice, touristy section of the city.  My plan had been to go to Malaysia and particularly Kuala Lampur next, but this felt like a huge sign that I should be going elsewhere.  I also felt like I needed to get out of Singapore as quickly as possible.  I knew I was starting to impose upon the roommates, and I didn't want to affect their weekend plans by taking up the couch.  On a whim, I sent a message to my friend Amy in Shanghai about an ultimate tournament she had mentioned going to in Hong Kong.  Sure enough, it was the coming weekend, and they desperately needed women.  Flights to Hong Kong from Singapore were actually pretty reasonable, so that evening I made the decision, booking a ticket for the following day.

I still had a few places to explore in Singapore, so while Kevin had a meeting, I set out to the bay area, walking along the Marina Bay Sands to the Art Science Museum, a large lotus-shaped feat of architecture, with a small pond of lotus blooms beneath it.  I explored the two major exhibits on display:  an Annie Lebowitz photography exhibition, and another featuring Chinese artists.  The Lewbowitz exhibit was really interesting - I hadn't been aware of much of her background, and the show displayed a mix of celebrity portraits and more personal, casual photos she had taken of friends and family.  I was especially fascinated with the focal points she chose for her portraits, often a detail around the face - like the hair - leaving the eyes a bit softer.  

The second exhibit was smaller, but also very interesting, showcasing a few Chinese artists with vastly different styles.  Many were posed photography pieces, another featured a look at various shots of Mao that had been severely photoshopped (showing the originals versus what appeared in publications), and another was a series of landscapes that resembled traditional black and white paintings, but used photoshopped urban elements - telephone poles, wires, factories, skyscrapers - to construct the natural scenes.

From the museum, I continued walking over to the Gardens by the Bay, sort of behind the Marina Bay Sands.  As I walked, the gardens spread out in front of me, dozens of runners trotted past, many wearing identical outfits.  I decided to visit the Cloud Forest, one of many individual 'galleries' of plantlife, this one featuring a 7-story manmade waterfall and an entire ecosystem of mountainous and rainforest plantlife.  I wound my way through the living exhibition as it slowly became dark through the glass dome to the outside world.  

I waited outside to meet with Kevin, and he arrived just as a lightship was beginning on the enormous "trees" that looked like something out of Avatar.  We sat and watched the radiant lights and music, feeling like we'd stepped into another universe.  And as we departed, a full moon lit our way from above the colorful trees.

We walked to a set of hawker stalls called Satay by the Bay, where we enjoyed a small feast - satays of pork, pork belly, chicken, and prawn; grilled stingray with a spicy sauce; and something called a carrot cake which more closely resembled an omelet with turnips and oysters; as we sipped fresh cane juice.  We sampled a local dessert as well - shaved ice with sweet jelly and red bean paste.  

The next morning I made my preparations for departure, packing and separating out a bundle of items to be shipped home - mostly gifts and trinkets I had picked up in China and Indonesia.  Kevin took me to a smaller nearby mall for a local dish as a farewell lunch, then I grabbed my bag and we walked over to ION to catch the metro to the airport.  Kevin pointed out a spot for another local specialty that I was able to enjoy on my ride to the airport - strong, local coffee, and toasts slathered in the coconutty butter we had tried the night I arrived.  I thanked Kevin for his amazing hospitality and bid him farewell, arriving at the airport just in time to check my bag and rush to the gate, still attempting to organize where I would be staying in Hong Kong as I walked onto the flight.  

While I enjoyed my time in Singapore, and while I'd definitely like to return one of these days, I was surprised that I didn't connect with it nearly as strongly as some of the other large Asian cities I had visited.  It felt a little too clean, a little too structured, a little too expensive and luxurious.  And while the food was incredible, the hawker stalls felt hidden, and I was never quite sure exactly where I was supposed to go to find this or that dish.  It was a place where I should have found a local food tour, or taken any sort of tour in general.  In the end though, I enjoyed my time there, and I would certainly return sometime in the future.


  1. I've often heard that Signapore is "too clean" and feels sort of sterile... I'd still check it out for myself, but it's not too high on the list.

    I love your writing, and I've nminated you for a Liebster Award (read here for more information: http://lifeintransience.com/liebster-award/)

    Keep up the good work!

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