Traveling to Singapore? My top five ‘to do’ list covers stay, food, shopping and sight-seeing. If you have the budget, chose from the hotels around the Marina Bay. I booked the Ritz Carlton Millenia through Tripadvisor. My daughter and I were spoiled silly by their gracious hospitality and stunning room views.
Next – eat. Start with an ice kachang at the Makansutra Gluttons Bay, next to the famed Esplanade Theatre. Three – explore. Visit the unusual Gardens by Bay in the vicinity. Four – check out Bugis Junction and Little India for budget shopping. Throw in Haji Street for a whiff of the unusual. Five – go for a drink and dinner at the hip Ang Siang Hill (close to China Town) as an alternate to a night at Clarke Quay.
You could do more. But hey, take it easy. Stop to savor the sunsets or the occasional rain that drenches you without warning.
How to get there
While Emirates does a direct flight, a friend told me that if I could handle a Colombo stopover, then Sri Lankan Airlines was the best alternate. A business class ticket costs Dh 2900+ from and to Dubai. Getting a visa to Singapore was a breeze.
History was in the making when I left. The televisions at the airport showed Argentinan Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, stepping onto the balcony as the new pope and waving to the masses at St Peter’s Square in Italy. Sri Lankan Airlines employs some of the warmest flying and ground staff I have met in eons. The menu is excellent (try the curry bread), the hostesses are genuinely warm and I slept well.
Time flew at Colombo airport – I was determined to finish an article and email it before reaching Singapore. But on my way back, I realized that business class passengers get a free 15 minute Ayurvedic massage session using Siddhalepa products at the tiny spa room (hidden in a corner). I enjoyed a free neck massage but paid for the relaxing thirty minutes foot massage. A must after all that walking around Singapore.
What to eat
The elusive fruity aroma wafted around my nostrils and would linger in my soul for the next few days of leaving Singapore. My first exposure to durian was in the form of a scoop of the yellow fruit sitting atop an ice kachang (a Malay dessert made of coloured and flavoured ice shavings, chendol, kidney beans and such). My foodie daughter who studies in Singapore said that I simply could not leave the country without trying an ice kachang; a great way to beat the heat and humidity in the country and akin to the Indian gola, which has less frills.
Needless to say, I fell in love with the durian and wanted more. My daughter also pointedly added that it was this very ‘enigmatic’ smell that made it a banned item on the MRT; like fresh fish on the Dubai Metro. We picked up the kachang and a chicken murtabak (a panfried stuffed pancake) from Makansutra by the Bay, which is a bustling foodie street outside the famed Esplanade Theatre. The place was packed to the gills with people wolfing down food as fast as they were served.
Singapore is foodie haven and I suspect that eating out is one of the national pastimes. During my stay, I ate a mind-blowing peanutty Sichuan style pork wanton noodle soup at the Crystal Jade restaurant in Bugis, a mean prawn Laksa with quail eggs whipped up for me by the chef at the Ritz Carlton, a deliciously chilled thai lod chong (green chendol in cold coconut milk and crushed ice with water chestnuts) at the Thai Express branch in the olde worlde Siglap residential area and a melt-in-the mouth moist paella at Los Primos, a tapas bar at Ang Siang.
What to see
Start or end with the Gardens by Bay. If possible by night – though I did it by day. Apparently weekends are sheer madness in terms of visitors. The project features conservatories but it is the Supertrees that take your breath away. “We knew that they had to be large, from the opening of the project, to counterbalance the impact of the conservatories and also to register in the local urban setting dominated by 200m high towers,” said Andrew Grant at Grant Associates, a UK-based landscape architecture consultancy when I interviewed him last year. “We could never achieve this using transplanted tree material and decided to develop an abstracted, artificial tree of a scale that would dominate the heart of the gardens.” It does. I was a bit awed, especially, when I went up the lift to the Supertree walkway (not recommended for those who do not have a head for heights).
If you are an art lover, it might stun you to know that the Ritz-Carlton, Millenia Singapore has one of the finest corporate modern art collections in Singapore and Southeast Asia, comprising 4,200 pieces. Valued at about S$5 million, 90 percent of the works were specially commissioned for the hotel including approximately 350 major, “museum quality” pieces. The collection includes David Hockney, Henry Moore, Andy Warhol and Sam Francis as well as artists such as Dale Chihuly. The lazy ones can take a self-guided podcast art tour. Ask the concierge.
I did not go up the Singapore Flyer; also in the Marina Bay area. But it is worthwhile to explore the restaurants around the entrance. Or pre-book and join a foodie tour, which was in full swing as we walked around the area. I preferred the impromptu version of a city tour led by my daughter over the guided ones.
We visited the LASALLE College of Art, near Bugis Junction, which was hosting an interesting exhibition – ‘Linking cities, designing experiences.’ I enjoyed the brilliant work, which was the outcome of a collaborative project between LASALLE and South Korea’s Sangmyung University; the aim was to offer an insight to unique visual narratives of the cityscapes of Singapore and Seoul.
Shop till you drop
Shopaholics will go crazy at Bugis Junction, the largest covered street shopping location in Singapore. Bags, shoes, clothes, vintage styled new t-shirts (read Audrey Hepburn themed) are packed cheek to jowl for the budget conscious shopper. Bargain to one-thirds of the price but do check zips and insides of bags. I brought a beautiful bag for SD20 but the decorative studs popped off in a day.
For the unusual, walk down Haji Street, which is a ten minutes walk from Bugis. You would find the same clothes at Bugis for less. But the unusual interiors of every store are worth a dekko – each one tries to outdo the other. Only suggested if you are fit to climb wooden stairs. Arab Street is so so.
If you have time and love unusual stationery, go to 313 Somerset Mall on Orchard Road and visit Typo on Level 1 – the mix includes retro Paris-themed items that can double up as show pieces. I bought an abstract metal tree with two birds on different branches. An empty cage hangs on a lower branch. Go figure.
Little India is a great place to pick up some unusual souvenirs for friends. I found some miniature chilli wall hangings. Get a quick henna tattoo for five dollars or less at Jayaram’s Creations. While we got our hands done, the skies started to pour. The weather in Singapore is very unpredictable. It can go from broody sky to bright sunshine to balmy breeze to hot and sticky within hours.
A gaggle of Chinese kids on a school trip suddenly materialized into the arcade. The teacher with a megaphone and the guide tried to channel them into some semblance of order. They finally gave up and allowed them ten minutes off to get a henna tattoo.
Talking of which, if you have to get your hair done, do visit the Team Salon at Siglap. Jean Tong, the gracious Creative Director is a truly enlightened soul who patiently guides you through the aromatherapy treatments based on your personality and connects from the heart with every client. The hair washes are transformative experiences where your scalp is massaged so gently that you may fall asleep. A rarity.
Where’s the party
The whole world talks about Clarke Quay. An old college friend asked us to take a cab and come over instead to Ang Siang in Chinatown for dinner. I was meeting him after 20 odd years. The Sikh cab driver who was third generation Singaporean said that Jaggis Parathas was the place to try some authentic dhaba kind food.
My friend walked us around the buzzing streets, which were akin to my memories of a walk down Mayfair street in London (many years ago). Office-goers, still in their formals, sipping sundowners and spilling out into the sidewalks. Bursts of relaxed laughter and chatter that preludes the joy of a weekend ahead. Once called Qing Shan Ting, today, Ang Siang features elegantly restored shophouses. Hunger pangs stopped the forays.
We chose to eat at Los Primos. Both the food and service are excellent. Despite the calamari and other starters, we shamelessly scraped the bottom of the paella dish for the last of the delicious rice laden with succulent prawns, calamari and mussels.
After dinner, we walked down to look at the rest of Chinatown. Closed for business! But I stumbled upon the Chinese Opera Teahouse and decided to save that visit, among other to-do-lists, for the next trip. What lah!