Two Savages in Southeast Asia

The City of Lions

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Dripping with sunshine
Parasol keeps light at bay
Long sleeves fight dengue

Singapore no longer really lives up to its namesake, but it’s been wonderful to us today all the same. We began the day in our hostel, waking up at a reasonable hour in the air-conditioned dorm room, then stepped out into the oven to begin the day. The high today was 34C (93.2F) with humidity around 80%. Due to a dengue fever outbreak currently in Singapore, during the day we have to wear our mosquito gear (at night the dengue mosquitoes aren’t active). That means long-sleeved shirts and jeans, all day.

Some basic background about Singapore:

  • it is an island
  • it is small
  • it has been owned by every colonial power ever
  • it was city-planned by a guy named Raffles who garrisoned ethnic groups into little areas
  • it is second only to Morocco as the most densely populated country in the world
  • drug trafficking is illegal and punished by hanging, no questions
  • other things (unusual sex, etc.) are punished by caning

As a first order of business, we donned our mosquito-repelling, permethrin-soaked shirts for the first time. There’s been an outbreak of dengue fever in Singapore this year, with 9000 cases and one death reported. So we keep the little buggers at bay with our full sleeves and jeans, which unfortunately slowly melts us in the heat. We also grabbed a SIM card from Singtel (the only cell company) to stay in contact with our local friends, and they gifted us a free parasol with the card. Strange.

Our first plan was to go to Little India for a stroll recommended by Lonely Planet Singapore. We elected to walk rather than take the MRT, which led us through a fascinating supermarket (we picked up some salty snacks and water for the day) that carried things like bamboo whisky and durian popsicles. A few blocks past that, we were distracted by a not-exactly-sweet cakes shop, where we picked up a green bean and pandan cake to share.

The walk was pleasant enough, meandering through Little India’s shops, temples, and back streets. The temples are totally fascinating; we stopped in one where a guy gave us each a piece of banana from a giant tray of fruit and one where the centrepiece was a 30m tall statue of Buddha. The colors of the district were incredible, with pinks and blues melding with fierce reds, yellows, and greens, frantically covering every possible surface.

We also saw some of the Muslim culture in Singapore, including a cemetery which was somewhat puzzling in that all the stones were jumbled together in a mad disarray, and they totally lacked markings of any kind. There was not close to enough space between them to have buried bodies in any way but vertically. We didn’t find anyone to ask about it…

We wandered through a couple mosques, removing our shoes as we’d done for the Hindu and Buddhist temples. One had a digital board displaying the times for each of the day’s 5 prayers. This place is somehow all about design, possibly because its small size allows for overhauling everything as frequently as tastes change. It doesn’t hurt that this is the richest place in Southeast Asia. We also heard that there is some kind of strange leasing scheme that only lets land be leased in 30 year increments, so basically everything (malls, anyway) gets torn down every 30 years and built anew.

Our next stop was the Colonial district, downtown. We walked there from our hostel, which involved crossing some areas that in any other country would be hopellessly sketchy. We walked through the underpasses of a tangle of highways, but instead of graffiti or trash buildup, there was a lonely newspaper page blowing around and a shrine pressed up against a concrete support beam.

The colonial area is fascinating. We passed the Esplanade theatres, known lovingly as “The Durians” for their shape, as well as a war memorial and the Singapore recreational club. The SRC was founded by British gentlemen during the colonial times, and it wasn’t until 1957 that non-white people could join. It was anohter 10 years until women could come. It reminds me of the Swiss avoiding giving women the vote until the 1980s…

For dinner, we met up with Colin (our friend’s brother, previously mentioned), a friend of his named Rob, and a friend of Rob’s named Alyssa (she is a Singapore resident). Alyssa took us around to see Haji Street, which is just down the block from us and which was described as a “place for hipsters”. We wandered through some malls to the Esplanade, where we climbed to the roof of the Durians and were treated to an incredible view of the skyline as well as a free salsa concert.

Dinner was at a hawker market—a large hall brimming with stalls and open-air seating where you collect a la carte items from wherever you wish and then enjoy them at a table. We ended up with some satay kebabs and some really incredible curry crab (sauce to die for!), along with barbequeued stingray and steamed vegetables. Yum!

We walked from there to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, which looks like a trio of buildings on top of which a cruise ship has docked. Apparently you can go up to the cruise ship (for a price of $20), but we didn’t because we arrived just 20 minutes before it closed. We instead inspected the surrouding area, including a magical gardens complex which looks like something out of Avatar. “Super trees” powered by solar energy had twisted purple and blue lights stretching tens of metres into the sky in a strange circular arrangement, and giant dragonfly sculputres dotted the park. We also encountered the best idea ever: a water cooler in a bathroom. We all filled our bottles.

We wandered back through the hotel and its basement mall (which has both an indoor ice rink made of plastic rather than ice AND a canal on which you can rent boats) to take in some more sights of the skyline, then finished the night with a round of Singapore Slings in Haji St. So… much… walking…

Learn Singlish:

  • foreigner => angmo
  • eh => la (used at the end of a sentence, Canadian-style)
  • exit => way out
  • waiter/waitress => uncle/auntie (used to get the attention of servers in restaurants)

A note on Singlish: basically people in Singapore speak English, although there are technically four official languages. They have an interesting intonation, which goes up at the end of each sentence (whether or not it’s a question). There are a few dialect-specific words that they use, though, and in general everything from Learn Aussie is applicable here.