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This is a travelogue of a American first visit to this part of the world and Singapore. Share her encounters and experience of this city.


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Vivian Shapiro - Singapore trip diary
Note: as this is excerpted from my diary, it goes into excruciating detail that may, for some readers, detract from the straightforward travel info. However, if you like reading people's travel journal entries as I do, read on.

I arrived in Singapore Feb. 19 2001, 3 pm, to spend 3 nites before travelling on to Bali. As I flew from New York City, my travel time was approx. 26 hours with a small layover in Taipei. I flew China Airlines and found them satisfactory with the exception of my luggage arriving after I did.
Airport employees in Singapore are very proactive in helping you track your mislaid luggage, which in this case was a backpack slightly too large to be carry on. There's a whole team set up just for luggage tracking and they give you free government chocolate to make you feel better. I attempted to take the bus from the airport but in my overtired state (cant' sleep on planes) I got too confused and took a taxi. The cost to my hotel was S$15. I stayed at the Park View Hotel on Beach Rd. and highly recommend this cute hotel for it's fantastic location. It's about a block from Raffles and walking distance to museums, Serangoon Rd., Boat and Clarke Quays, and even China town if you are an avid urban hiker. Breakfast was included in my room price, but I didn't have any. I booked through asiatravel.com.
At first I was assigned a room with a Malaysian businessman inside it, and since that was not one of the amenities I needed, I changed rooms. The rooms are *tiny* (but so am I), about 9 x 9 with a double bed, desk, closet, fridge, coffee maker, so the only remaining floor is a narrow strip of beige carpet. The beds are short, not recommended for anyone over 5'5". But the room is beautiful with high gloss dark wood furniture and trim. They have great pamphlets and maps in the lobby and the neighborhood map in my room was indispensable.
At this point I still did not know the status of my luggage so my first order of business was to purchase some sundries and one outfit. I had a few essential items in my carry-on, but what I needed immediately were socks, face cream, a comb and possibly a skirt and t-shirt (even if this does mean being a woman using her credit card in another country to round out her empty existence ;) ). What I'd miss most if my luggage were not recovered would be my snorkel set (for Bali), my well broken in birkenstocks, first aid kit, and downloaded internet info on Bali. The rest was all replaceable.
I started out of my hotel and the most salient and immediate thing I pass is the famous Raffles Hotel. Beautiful, but they don't let you go past the lobby. At least not if you look very jet-lagged with rumpled clothing and scruffy hair. I peeked into the Raffles City Mall (no relation to Raffles Hotel except proximity). Then I wound up in a mall called Parco by Bugis Junction. On thing about malls here is that they have very intricate fountains. Feng Shui is practiced in their design. They defy written description and even photographing them doesn't give a clear idea of their appearnce since what makes them so unusual isthe pulsing and intermittent wsay in which water jets squirt.
In Parco I saw a clothing store (Bossini) that was having an extensive sale. Singapore is a great place to be missing your luggage given the plentitude of shopping). I found that generally skirts fit me well but all the shirts I tried on were too small unless I tried on men's t-shirts. I bought 2 skirts and 2 t-shirts. S$60. Then I went to a Reebok store and got a 6-pack of socks. I didn't find basic toiletry items. There were fancy ones, but no Singapore equivalent of Rite Aid or CVS (cheapie U.S. drug store chains). I knew there must be places where backpackers, maids, taxi drivers, food stall workers, etc., must buy their sundries but I wasn't sure where. I'm not sure how I wound up at Bencoolen St., but there were open markets for fruits, food stalls and exactly the bargain stores I was looking for.They are like the stores you see in Union City (northern NJ) where everything from powerful batteries to carpets and potholders and underwear are sold side by side. There are a number or american brand beauty products, but the really cheap stuff is locally made. A slight problem with that is that I don't read chinese. Only the tiny pics on the packaging were the clue as to what the item was. Nonetheless, I wound up with a decent, though oddly-textured moisturizer (it starts out lumpy and smooths over the skin) and powerful hair gel against humidity.
After purchasing these items I went to investigate the food stalls across the street. Okay, I was very nearly traumatized by the experience. You know, when I first arrived in S'pore, I thought it smelled funny. Apparently this smell generates from the myriad food stalls all over the city. Basically these stalls are set up in the dankest, darkest places resembling parking garages. There are rows of counters, each run by a different vendor. Above or under each counter are pictures of fish-head in curry with popping eye what they serve, with a preponderance of fish heads (eyes still attached) being the main ingredient. As far as I can tell, food and drink are never purchased from the same vendor, so you buy a drink then pick your food, then find a place to sit. I found the smell and the noise overwhelmping and this was hardly a pleasant, relaxing atmosphere to enjoy one's eats. I was surprised by having this reaction. Ah well. The basement level of the shopping malls all have a more upscale version of this. It smells better but they are louder and very claustraphobic. The nicest places to eat seem to be the rows of restaurants on Boat and Clarke Quays but they don't seem to be open until dinner. I'm not sure what the purpose of all those closed eateries is. I do see a number of tourists in the city (we're easy to pick out) but the place is not overrun. Ditto for local population. Singapore is much emptier than I thought it would be. So, in the midst of this foodstall I decide to forego dinner. Near my hotel there's Burger King and Starbuck's, but I'd never have that for dinner at home.... There's a foodstall 2 doors down from my hotel. I go in to buy bottled water. The vendor looks disappointed that that's all I'm getting. I guess he wanted the opportunity to wow me with his fish head soup. I'm immediately a vegetarian.
I went back to my room a little after 6 pm. There was no word on my luggage. I eat my chocolate, watch Chinese soap operas, and fall asleep very early. I was so utterly exhausted I was nearly twitching. I think the air's thickness here is what prevented my from falling over--you can't fall over into a solid block of humidity. The phone rang at 11 pm, it was China Airlines confirming my luggage made it to S'pore but it would be a little longer until they could get it to my hotel. I fall back asleep. Then at 3 am the front desk called saying my luggage had arrived and I needed to come down to sign for it. Problem solved. I went back to bed.
Tuesday, Feb. 20
I woke up around 9 am. The "must do for me" thing I'd been most interested in in terms of tourist stuff here are the bumboat rides on the Singapore River. I walked down to Clarke and Boat Quays but they were utterly deserted, which is a pity because there seems to be such a great selection of restaurants and bars (all closed) except Hooters (why!?). This is supposed to be the social center of S'pore but I guess only at night. A lot of bars advertise "crazy hour" in lieu of happy hour. The Quays are free for the karaoke clubs that seem to dominate the rest of the city. I'd arrived too late to go on the 3 hour river/harbor boat ride. There are constant 1/2 hour rides all day long. This is a rip-off but it also absolutely must be done. The Singapore River is extremely short and narrow, and there's nothing you see on the boats that you can't see on foot except for the lion fish statue. I was the only person on the boat. The driver, who did not really speak English, took pix of me with various landmarks as backdrop. There's a taped narration that plays along with the ride, with the boat driver interjecting "Singapore number 1!" occasionally. He also asked me if I wanted to drive the boat but I declined. (I'm trying to put my years as an opium trader behind me). At one point water splashed over the edge of the boat, covering me, which is how I discovered my new Singapore military/safari chic skirt is waterproof. Score! This will be indispensable in Bali.
After the boat ride I wandered around looking at more closed restaurants and decided to check out Orchard Rd. By now I'd noticed there are no beggars here and no such thing as a homeless person, though there are decently-dressed people taking naps in odd public places, like the sidewalk. Would-be beggars here are made to sell stuff and apparently you have to be visibly and severely handicapped to qualify for this career path. Another example of Singapore subtlety is on cigarette packs: "SMOKING KILLS", no blather about lung disease or pregnancy...
I found a hawker stall by the Asian History Museum and it was fairly open-air so I ventured in. The first thing I saw were peanut pancakes, a far cry from the ones I've tried in New York. I thought they'd be more prevalent here. They were awesome and the portion was so huge I could only get thru 1/3 of it. Also tried lime juice -- yummy. I sat on the fringes of the stall. When I browsed around I did see a lot of stuff I'd be willing to try. Made a note of the place.
Orchard Road is a neighborhood of high-caliber malls and shopping centers. I bought a MAC lipstick in one place (MAC appears to be quite popular here, price comparable to what I'd pay at home). There's even a MAC stand at the airport, which in itself is a shopping mall. I also ducked into some clothing stores and bought a gauzy black skirt and awesome blue Thai silk pants. Still no shirts that fit. To get back I decided to check out the highly touted MRT. It's all that, for sure. I'm not sure how many people are killed annually by MRT escalators. They go very fast -- you really have to hold on and step lively on and off. Also odd, when you first get on to descend underground, it feels like the escalator goes up, then down. In some stations the MRT train is in a glass casement over the tracks, handy against jumpers and pushers. I suppose it also makes it impossible to graffiti the trains. I suspect the whole system is computerized. I didn't see any conductors. The same computerized voice (like the one on Star Trek) narrates all stops on all trains. I took the train to city hall and switched there to go to Bugis. At Bugis I went to the basement food court and had some chicken and rice noodles. It was so so. I tried Badung Juice, due to it's pretty fuschia color. After the first sip, I was like, "this must be an acquired taste" but I got used to it quickly. It's both sweet and herbal.
After dropping my shopping bags in my hotel room, I went to the Raffles Hotel courtyard and just had a cup of tea. Then I ate dinner in a nearby diner. I ate caesar salad with spiced chicken. Not bad but I think it made me sick later. I also had the S'pore equivalent of a frappucino - nice.
I took the MRT and bus to the Night Safari at the zoo. I commend S'pore's mass transit. Singapore Zoo It's very well set up for newcomers to figure it out and get around. The Night Safari: cute idea, but a bit of a rip off. You spend a lot of the time walking and not viewing animals.On the plus side, the suspension bridge was way cool and I'm guessing very authentic. My fave animal was the laughing hyena. I'd never heard one before, and they really do laugh hysterically, certainly putting a smile on my face. I think it would be better to go to the zoo during the day. I did not have a chance to do this, nor did I have a chance to go to the bird or reptile parks.
Over dinner I was reading what I hope is Singapore's version of the "National Enquirer". The stories are sensationalistic, the cover story being about a crippled woman who's too afraid to leave her house because both her son and husband are rapists. This means they grope girls in shopping malls, causing "outrage of modesty." There was also a story about a religious ceremony in Malaysia that involved naked people so it resulted in several arrests. Then there was an article about a Jennifer Lopez press conference in which J-Lo is described as being "beautiful in a Balinese way." Seemed like a slam of sorts.
Singapore TV: Wheel of Fortune is immensely popular. What I liked are the Chinese soap operas, subtitled in English, that air at night. They are insipid but since I'm unfamiliar with them it's highly entertaining. I'm not sure if it's the translation job or chinese ideals, but women friends address each other as "miss" (I liked being called Miss Vivian at the hotel). There's lots of talk about finding a husband, American or Singaporean. But women are also shown in high level jobs, though female characters discuss how they'll quit their jobs to be a housewife and mother the second they're hitched. Divorce is prevalent among characters too. Mothers of male characters push them aggressively to get married as well and start siring kiddies. Wednesday night I couldn't turn off "You Light Up My Life".
Wednesday, Feb. 21
My stomach was sketchy so I figured a western breakfast might be in order. I went to a bakery and had a croissant and coffee. They did also serve fish head soup for those inclined.
I went to the Singapore Art Museum, but the exhibit was limited. The most provocative painting I saw was by a Balinese artist and it depicted the influence of tourism on the culture, including how tourists will photograph every aspect of Balinese daily life including bathing. Beautiful satire in terms of bite and scope. The most impressive thing about the museum is the building it's housed in. It's like Raffles Hotel with great spacious balcony hallways under series of arches throughout. It takes less than an hour to go thru the museum because so many exhibits are closed.
I went to the Waterloo food stalls and had lime juice and a Mee Goreng that ruled.
A note on toilets: in the malls and museum you have the choice of a stall with a squat toilet or a western one. Even though how to use squat toilets has been explained to me, I have no idea how to use them, especially the water part afterwards. How do you not soak your clothes? Wouldn't double dipping be unsanitary? Ho do you get your hand clean afterwards? I'm sure I'll have to use one on Bali. (afternote: while Lonely Planet makes squat toilets on Bali sound like a thing of the past this is WRONG WRONG WRONG. I have figured out the mechanics though, due to practice).
After my snack I went to the Asian Civilizations Museum. The current focus is on Angkhor Wat but I found the Nonya clothes of different regions really beautiful.This museum is also very small but they have a theater where they show documentaries. They were airing 2 on Angkhor Wat. I didn't realize Cambodian religion and arts were so similar to Bali, from what I could tell. How did that happen? I watched the doc about mask making and dance and the efforts going into preserving these arts, training new artisans and finally putting all the info down in manuals and guides for instruction.
For my afternoon I wanted to check out Chinatown and some of the temples and Mosques in the area. This was much better than I thought it would be. First of all, the architecture in C-town is very colorful and quaint with some rough edging for character. There's a lot of places to shop for everyday stuff (like around Bencoolen St.). The one mosque that's famous is very well marked. Chinatown was the one place I saw a lot of tourists. I went into the Sri Mariamman Temple (it's Hindu) - not to be missed. Very colorful with lots of sculptures on the enclosures and inside. I also visited the Thian Hock Keng Temple (Buddist) which was very beautiful with it's red trimmings with gold gilt. I took a ton of pictures in Chinatown.
After this I went to the Arab Street area. I wanted to visit the Sultan Mosque, but as there was scaffolding surrounding it, I don't think it was open to visitors. I also walked around the neighborhood fabric stores. The selections were amazing. It made me wish I could sew. I ran out of time and did not get to explore much of Little India.
That evening I went to Boat Quay to sit by the river and catch up in my diary over a few cold sodas. Then I went to the food stall next to my hotel. The man behind the counter couldn't understand what I was trying to order. I pointed to the picture above the cash register and someone else translated for mel. Roast pork with spinach rice noodles. I'm not really a pork fan but it smelled so good I couldn't resist.

Thursday morning I was off to the airport by 7:30 am for my flight to Bali.

as posted by "Vivian Shapiro" - waterwave@earthlink.net in newsgroup - rec.travel.asia 12/3/01

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