A week in Singapore

As our plane prepared to land, we slid our window shades open and looked out. Shafts of sunlight pierced the clouds and danced on the aquamarine sea. Singapore being one of the world’s busiest ports, a lot of ships of varying colours and sizes had dropped anchor near the shore.

Thunderstorms were predicted for the entire duration of our stay. In reality, they never bothered us. Sure, we got a lot of scattered tropical showers everyday, but they were bookended by generous periods of dry, sunny spells. And whenever they came, they were welcome for the temporary relief from the hot, sticky weather they brought.

Despite regular exposure to bright sun, I don’t think our jet-lag ever fully wore off. After two days, we worked out a compromise that allowed us to get plenty of sleep and feel fresh and rested for most part of the day. We would sleep by 2:00 AM and get up around 10:00 AM. Mornings, even at 10:00 AM, were exceptionally pleasant. As we’d sip our morning tea, a gentle breeze would be rustling the leaves of the trees outside our apartment and birdsong of sparrows and mynas would still be audible. The net effect was such that we would find every trace of stress and fatigue drain away from our bodies and minds.

Singapore’s public transport is probably one of the best in the world. The metro network is fast, efficient and well connected. The trains and the underground stations are air conditioned but the overground stations are not. The latter do have oversized ceiling fans that churn the syrupy tropical air into some semblance of a breeze. They were surprisingly effective and it never felt too hot. The metro stations have names but also have serial numbers prefixed with the abbreviation of the line they are on e.g. all stations on the East West line are labeled as EW1, EW2 and so on. I wonder if they re-number the stations if a new one comes up between two stations.

Big fans outside malls, hotels and at some metro stations were very effective at churning the syrupy tropical air into a breeze. Let’s just say I am a big fan.

If the metro doesn’t get you where you want to go, the buses will. Most of the ones we rode were double-decker buses. They were frequent, air-conditioned and never crowded. For collecting fare, they used a check-in/check-out transport card system that we were used to from Amsterdam. But unlike in Amsterdam, the checkout would be blocked until the moment the doors would open at the next bus-stop.

Cars in Singapore are taxed heavily (over 100% of their market value) and that keeps car ownership low and roads generally free of traffic jams. But this doesn’t seem to affect availability of taxis. Even Uber was readily available and quite affordable. The Uber drivers were often chatty and had interesting stories to tell. I still remember a ride where a lady from Brunei, married to someone from Singapore and settled in Australia was visiting family and giving rides on Uber during the afternoon because it was better than sitting about bored at home.

Overhead pedestrian bridges to cross roads or to enter malls were another very distinctive feature of Singapore. You could gaze far into the distance from the slight elevation they afforded. Coming from Amsterdam in December, I kept being surprised by how green it was everywhere. The lush canopies of tall rain trees and the random stretches of green by the roadside dotted with bougainvillaea made me very nostalgic about my years in Bangalore.

Overhead pedestrian bridges and bougainvillaea. What is there to not like?

With all this public transport, where does one go? To the malls of course. Multi-storied, air-conditioned malls of Singapore were like mini cities. One of them even had a little indoor canal that people could take gondola rides in. Many metro stations terminated right into the malls and you could easily spend your days without being exposed to the elements. I kept thinking of the futuristic, underground cities Asimov had imagined in Caves of Steel.

The Marina Bay Sands mall has an indoor canal where you could take gondola rides. Because why the heck not?

Since our visit came around Christmas, all the malls had some form of Christmas decoration on. There were no ice-rinks in the malls, but there were plenty of huge Christmas trees, plastic snowmen, white flooring and polystyrene snow.

Christmas decoration in Singapore malls come in two flavours: over the top and over the top. Oddly, this picture reminds me of Hendrik Avercamp’s Winter landscape with ice skaters.

Shopping in Singapore is not exactly cheap, but when your pay-check is in Euros and you are spending in Singapore Dollars, you can occasionally indulge yourself. There are no Muji stores in Amsterdam (yet), but every other mall in Singapore had one. I think they are overpriced for what they sell but I still love their stationery. I especially like their 0.38 mm gel pens. This time I discovered their new line of 0.25 mm pens and picked up a couple. I wonder if they’d go any finer or if my tendency to hoard Muji pens would be diagnosed as some form of mental illness.

The choice of reasonably priced, delicious, quality vegetarian food in Singapore was mind boggling. Traditional fare from India was almost ubiquitous. But despite our vegetarianism — which can be a handicap in some parts of Asia — there was plenty to choose from Thai, Malay and Vietnamese cuisines. Sweet tropical fruits, (peeled and refrigerated) on skewers could be procured cheaply for in-between snacking.

When we got tired of malls (and a little sick of the rampant consumerism), we spent time outdoors. We enjoyed walking around Marina Bay.

Around Marina Barrage
Supertrees: I wonder what the future archeologists will make of these structures

Our other refuge was the library. The one we visited was just a small branch in a mall and yet it was remarkably well stocked. I found several copies of the book that I had been reading. I grabbed one, sat by a window and read for an hour.

One evening we took the elevator to the top-floor viewing deck of the Marina Bay Sands hotel. As the sun went down, the lights inside the skyscrapers around the hotel began to come on. A massive, dark cloud that was being regularly lit up from inside by lightning, drifted away at a safe distance and added a bit of drama an already enchanting view.

I had been to Singapore on work several years ago. The wife wondered why I had never made it here on my trips. All those years ago I wasn’t much of a traveler and would have preferred to head straight to my hotel room after work. Still, I would’ve expected someone at work to at least mention a tourist attraction like this. It then occurred to me (and a quick look at Wikipedia quickly confirmed) that neither the hotel, nor the ground it was sanding on existed during my last visit.

Another highlight of our trip was a visit to the Singapore Botanic Gardens. Botanical gardens in the west typically have a large greenhouse where they maintain warm and humid conditions suitable for tropical plants. Since all of Singapore is pretty much a greenhouse throughout the year, the botanical garden there had air-conditioned sections for plants that grow in the mountains.

Entrance to the Singapore Botanic Gardens
A sea of green

Their collection of orchids was impressive. Only nature can weave otherwise jarring colours into such perfect harmony.

As you call probably tell, Singapore left quite an impression. The buzz and the energy of the city rubs off on you. I’ve never enjoyed summer in India and I was expecting to be put off by the weather. But given that we were visiting after a dull, rainy December in Amsterdam, the sun had an uplifting effect on my mood — perhaps for the first time in my life.

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