Singapore Swing

Singapore has always been a center of things. Caught in the middle of major shipping routes, Singapore’s port is one of the busiest in the world. Such trading activity can only mean one thing – cultures coming together and coexisting with one another.

What’s also really good is the fact that it hasn’t lost track of its roots. With the traditional and the modern existing side by side, it is easy to go clubbing the night before then visit a temple the next day.

First Stop

You really can’t miss the Esplanade. Its rather unique roof reminds Singaporeans of the durian, that fruit some people love to hate due to its prominent smell. It’s become such an icon of sorts that the designers of the Esplanade took it as a starting point. Now you have something as iconic and unmistakable as the Sydney Opera House.

The area is always full of people. There are often free musical performances in the evenings. In most places, you have to be in a stuffed-shirt atmosphere just to hear someone play a violin. Not here. You can haul your newest bags, shoes or clothes bought from the nearby malls and then rest your feet and your spirit as you sit down and let the music soothe you.

Those who are into music are in for a real treat, especially those on the hunt for musical scores. Located in the same building is the Library-at-the-Esplanade. This facility is still part of the country’s National Library Board but it has a twist: It caters to music, dance and theater, and there are scores and CDs aplenty. Library members can borrow any of these resources and return them at any branch of the NLB. Me? I can take some hard-to-find Broadway score, go home to the east side of this small island nation and then just drop the book off at my nearest library branch (which is also in a mall). Sweet.

Most people make their way to the area though for one consistent reason: They love the view. How can you not? There’s the water and the beautiful Singapore skyline lit up like a Christmas tree. There’s hardly any pollution in the air so sniff as much as you want. Stay for hours (as most people do) and just talk with a friend. Hungry? Take your pick of the really chic eating places or go hawker style.

This is really one of the most famous areas in all of Singapore and the fact has not been lost on the government. Just a hop, step and skip away is the Marina Bay Sands (MBS). You can actually stay and admire it from a distance and try to figure out just what that enormous thing is above the three towers. That’s where the infinity pool is (sorry, exclusive to hotel guests only). Imagine swimming with the whole Singapore skyline beneath you.

Oh, their casino is also where you can try your luck at a little gambling. If you, like me, are not the gambling type, just walk around and admire the view.

There’s a lot of shopping to be had in the area. MBS doesn’t only give you an excellent hotel, it also provides a mall right across the street. Don’t wanna cross the street? Just go underground. From the mall, you get the opposite view of the bay.

Perhaps one of the best attractions especially for photographers now is the Helix Bridge. Biology students will remember the term and it’s a fun idea being inside the thing. It also makes for an excellent photograph, particularly when used as a leading line to the triple towers of MBS.

“Let’s build it big, really big,” the people here seem to have thought when they came up with the Singapore Flyer. It’s not an entirely expensive ticket to get on it and if you’ve the need and the cash, you can even have a full course dinner in one of the capsules. Yup, they will handle everything for you. How’s that for a wedding proposal idea? Now the biggest observation wheel in the world, it’s another favorite subject matter for both amateur and professional photographers.

Another Singapore must-see is Boat Quay (pronounced ‘key’). This former center of maritime trade is now lined with shops, pubs and eateries. You get a magnificent view of the water, the Esplanade, the banking buildings and classic structures like the Fullerton Hotel. If you fancy the idea, just sit around the water and watch as others enjoy the boat rides or hop on one yourself. Hard to believe that in the late 60s, this was a very dirty and smelly river. Now, it’s a tourist attraction. How’s that for political will? The establishments here seem to really know how to play with light that the whole area is just a sight to behold at night. There are a lot of seafood restaurants all around offering you a good view of the river and the nearby areas. Looking for a good ole English pub? They’ve got that there, too.

We did mention nightlife and this being a place that caters to various types of people, there should be a place for everyone. Maybe after you’re done with your seafood meal, you can move further up the river to Clark Quay. You may get the temptation to try out the G-Max Reverse Bungy and GX-5 Extreme Swing – pretty fancy names for something that specializes in scaring the wits out of you. Do everyone a favor and make sure you don’t have a hearty meal before you try out one of these. One hurls you 60 meters in the air at around 200kph while the other starts you at 50 meters, swinging you like a pendulum at 120 kph. Even at night, the view of these two fixtures is amusing to say the least even for the less daring who’d rather entertain themselves listening to the screams coming from the two thrill rides.

There are hordes of photo enthusiasts around and it’s not hard to understand why. The place is beautiful and will easily generate memorable photos especially if you take the time to haul even a small tripod. Don’t want the extra weight? You’ll be sorry. Oh, here’s a tip: Learn how to utilize your flash and make sure you know how to adjust its output. You’ll thank me later.

On the other side of the river, things start heating up when the sun goes down. This is where all the partygoers go and there did seem to be more foreigners or at least an equal number with locals. Take your pick of the many watering holes that each have its own distinct identity. One even has wheelchairs for seats.

But I don’t only want to go out at night

Not everyone in Singapore is into the night scene and perhaps one of the things that has made this small island nation a top tourist destination is Sentosa.

Even getting there is fun – you can choose the tame way – take the bus or cab or be more adventurous and take either the Sentosa Express, a monorail that takes you deep into the area, very close to the giant Merlion where you can get on its head and have a look around the whole area, or the Cable Car, surely the best possible way to get there. You get a 360-degree view of the approach to Sentosa and being so high-up gives you the illusion of flight. Not for the acrophobic.

Once there, you are faced with some really juicy choices – go around Sentosa itself, try out the casino or fulfill some of your childhood fantasies at Universal Studios.

In Sentosa, there’s another cable car ride you really have to try. The difference? Having your legs without something to step on does wonders for your presumed lack of fear. But hey, feel free to shout your lungs out. Go up the Tiger Sky Tower and be hoisted 131 meters above sea level and then sit back as your cabin gets turned a full 360 degrees before you’re brought down.

When the sun takes its leave, try to catch the Songs of the Sea, a lights and sound show on Sentosa Beach. If just to catch the sunset, being there is already worth it. The show itself is something you can enjoy with the whole family.

Only complaint about Universal Studios and Sentosa? One day is hardly enough. Make sure to block out two to three days.

Gadgets, gadgets, gadgets

This island is known for being high-tech and it is. It’s a great place if you’re out for bargains in things like computers, cell phones, video games, etc. A word to the wise: Make sure you’re aware of the prevailing prices of whatever it is you wanna buy in your country so you don’t end up buying something that may not be really all that cheap if you consider such issues like warranties.

To be a bit more safe, head on down to the City Hall area and make your way to Funan IT Mall. This is usually regarded as a more reliable place to shop for computers and cameras. Still, always be careful. One personal favorite – there’s this shop on the first floor that has nothing but books on photography. Another is this place all the way up on top, where you have a full floor just for one shop – Challenger. You get wide choices on all sorts of computer games, accessories, etc. Prepare to lose yourself in this building for more than a few hours.

For some neighborhood choices, try going down to places like Tampines or Toa Payoh where there are a lot of cell phone shops. You can trade in your old stuff, too. What’s interesting about this option? You can have a taste of what being in Singapore is really like for residents.

Where’s the grub?

Singapore is known for its cuisine, and what’s a trip if you don’t even try the food the locals are mad about? We were on our way to Beach Road where some of the better known Steamboat restaurant places are when the driver said, “Steamboat? This one here is one of the most famous. The quality is really good and it’s been there for more than 30 years.” We stopped him immediately, got out and ordered the Song Fish Steamboat.

Now this is a good way to risk a burned tongue. Yes, there is a bit of a wait (so don’t go there when you’re absolutely famished) but, oh, is it worth it. No taste of MSG anywhere, nor was there any icky fishy taste or smell. Just good old fish parts coming together in one very rich and tasty soup.

Aside from the Song Fish Steamboat, try the Honey Spare Ribs. In other places try to find Laksa (Malay spicy coconut-based soup), a bit too spicy for some people but on a cold day, it can really hit the spot. Couple it with some popiah (Chinese spring rolls) and you’re all set. Don’t forget the Nasi Lemak (traditional Malay breakfast dish). Not such a fan of that but people do go crazy over it.

When things get too fast

Singapore’s a fast-paced city and sometimes, it can get too fast. When that happens, hop on a bus and make your way to Pasir Ris or Changi Village on the east end of the East-West MRT or go the opposite way to the Chinese Garden where you can walk your troubles away. Pasir Ris and Changi are towns with the beach on one side. You can walk freely in these areas but take note of where you’re not allowed to swim.

And since this is an almost 80% ethnic Chinese country, you really must visit China Town. Don’t miss out on cereal prawn and black pepper crab, probably some of the best and most well-known food around. Those who fancy female crabs are in for some disappointment since Singaporeans prefer male crabs with their huge pincers.

If you’re still in the middle of the city, go to Suntec City. That’s where all the major events are, including the famous Garden Festival and some of the best and biggest gadget fairs. Common knowledge is that though you may not get much of a low price, you get so many freebies that making a purchase does eventually become a total bargain. Look out for the months of March, June and September. December is another story. You go to Singapore Expo for that IT event.

What makes Suntec such a draw though is the Fountain of Wealth, the largest fountain in the world. During the day, you can walk around the central portion and make a wish. At night, enjoy the light show as the water just bursts forth. Quite a sight. Interested in taking a photo? Take a very, very wide angle lens.

Surely you came to Singapore to shop

Let’s be honest. Most people see Singapore as one big mall and things don’t get better than Orchard Road. There’s Tang Plaza, Wheelock Place, Ion Orchard, Orchard Central and so many others. Hard to believe this used to be a sleepy provincial street. It also pays to know that some embassies are in the area – the Thai, Japanese and Philippine embassies are all quite close to each other. Though the area already looks impressive at night, wait till you see it during the Christmas holidays. The place really lights up then.

If we’re to be fair to the country and all its residents though, it’s good to always remember that, fortunately and wonderfully, shopping isn’t all that is to be had anymore. Shop till you drop if you want but after, head on down to Clark or Boat Quay, find yourself in Sentosa the next day, have a crab in China Town after, walk over to Marina Bay and then end your stay with some Song Fish Steamboat. Now, things do look interesting.

Can I do justice to Singapore in these few pages? Of course not. To really do it justice, you really do have to come and see it for yourself. Then you can also write home about it.