Friday, August 15, 2014

Singing in Singapore

One of the most delightful places I’ve been is Singapore. Easy to get around in, pleasant people and a common language are all characteristics to recommend this destination. But that’s not what enamored me most. The variety of cultures is the highlight of this city.

Modern Singapore dates from the establishment of a British port in the 1800s to support trade with India and China, as well as launch business enterprise in Southeast Asia. And one of the early businesses in Singapore was the Raffles Hotel, which is still in operation. Although the opulence of the hotel has faded somewhat, the
original building with its interior gardens is a reminder of those early days. Now what was the hotel is a collection of boutiques (actual hotel rooms are in a nearby high rise), but the famed Long Bar is still in operation. Of course, we had to sample an original Singapore Sling and
L to R: Chijmes, Walter, Raffles
enjoy the atmosphere that was the inspiration for this famous drink and for such famous writers as Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Hemingway and Alfred Hitchcock. A short walk away from Raffles is Chijmes. Now a site for events, shopping and dining, it was once a 19th century Gothic chapel; a part of the structure housed the clergy. The grounds are shaded and there are several fountains that help cool the area. Of course, with the high humidity and frequent rain the plants here and all around Singapore are spectacular. Also within walking distance of Raffles is the Singapore Art Museum. SAM is a great place to spend some time simply because of the diversity of their offerings. Paintings, sculptures, and mixed media from international and local artists are on display. I spent most of my time in their learning center looking at the art contributed by young people; it was imaginative, spectacular, and in some cases right outside of my comfort zone. I am also very fond of their mascot, Walter. Walter is a ‘curious colossal bunny’ who appears in various places around Singapore to remind folks that there are some wonderful things to see that they may have overlooked.

L to R: Business men, workers, skinny dipping
Art isn’t just in the museum; there are sculptures all around the city. In fact, I probably collected well over 100 images of this art form. Wandering down next to the Singapore River and the Fullerton Hotel we encountered wonderful examples ranging from workers carrying bags of rice, to business men discussing economics, to children leaping naked into the water. While many of these harkened back to the 1920s, others were much more modern, clearly linking Singapore to business leaders of today. Other less traditional sculptures included giant birds, what appeared to be ‘gummy bear’ people and masses of stone or metal that were purely representational (but we weren’t sure of what). Many garden sculptures were traditional Asian presentations of cranes, people, and scrolls.

And speaking of gardens, Singapore is home to the National Orchid Garden.  Situated within
L to R: Orchids, Cynthia, Garden entrance
the Singapore Botanical Garden, the orchid garden is a spectacular array of shape and color. It makes perfect sense that orchids would do well in this climate; it’s hot and humid almost all of the time. We spent several hours wandering through the flowers to the point that we didn’t know what we had or hadn’t seen. I knew I had taken sufficient photos when my camera got so overheated that it refused to turn off or on, requiring that I remove the battery so the mechanics could have a rest. The botanic garden, itself, is a collection of ponds, sculptures, shady paths and quite benches near excellent examples of flora from around the world. There is also a nice collection of bonsai that we shared with an inquisitive squirrel who peeked at us as he darted behind one tiny tree after another. In the central area of the gardens we enjoyed an ice-cold drink in one of the open-air restaurants before taking the bus back into the city.

L to R: Mosque, Hindu temple, Buddhist temple
While not quite as varied as the orchids, the cultures represented in Singapore are every bit as arresting. Basically there are three main groups of people: Malaysians, Indians, and Chinese.  There are also three corresponding sections of Singapore with related languages spoken throughout the city. Although English is the language of education and government, Malay, Tamil, and Mandarin are also considered native languages. Accordingly, religions are varied giving rise to interesting temple architecture. There are Islamic mosques, temples of Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism along with many Christian churches. Naturally the foods found in Singapore reflect these cultures providing more choices than we could possibly explore. We did, however, try durian pie; our waiter called it ‘an acquired taste’. Durian is a smelly fruit about the size of a cantaloupe covered in hard spines. I didn’t think the pie had a bad smell, only a peculiar one; the taste was peculiar as well but I would order it again. Evidently what is peculiar to one person is awful to another. Eating durian has been banned on all public transportation.

Public transportation is excellent in Singapore and it’s not particularly expensive. I took advantage of the ‘Hop-on Hop-off’ tour busses until I understood the layout of the city then
L to R: Singapore Flyer, Marina Bay Sands Hotel,
DNA Bridge, Merlion
switched to the city busses and the subway system. The city has some amazing architecture that is every bit as expressive as its art. Crossing the DNA Bridge leads to one of the best ways to sightsee: the Singapore Flyer. The Singapore Flyer is a huge Ferris Wheel that provides great views of the city and surrounding islands. Mornings are a better time to take the Flyer since it is more likely clear; the afternoons can be very hazy marring your views. Two of the Near-Normal travelers aren’t happy about heights, but were fairly comfortable in the large, enclosed cars, even easing over to the railings to take pictures. From the Flyer it’s easy to see the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the cruise ship on three towers that overlooks the bay. A couple of our travelers were invited to dinner on board and said the views of Singapore were spectacular, particularly when the city lights came on as evening descended. Another site that was engaging in the evening was the Merlion. This icon of Singapore actually began as a marketing ploy to advertise travel to the city. The lion head
represents Singapore's original name, Singapura (‘lion city’), with the fish body recalling the city’s origin as a fishing village. Strolling around this area in the evening allows you to watch people and perhaps grab an evening nibble from one of the restaurants located in the area. Merlion Park can be a rollicking spot to begin barhopping or a quiet, restful place to end the day.

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