Singapore never ceases to amaze, transforming itself each time we come back for a visit. Becky was born and raised here, but hardly recognizes the country that Singapore is today. Quite possibly one of the cleanest, safest, and most culturally diverse countries in the world, Singapore is a thriving hub of activity. Keep in mind that things you can get away with in your home country (like chewing gum, smoking or spitting in public, eating or drinking on the subway, forgetting to flush a public toilet, or littering) are all illegal in Singapore and could result in a hefty fine if caught. Inadvertently, we immediately broke the no eating/drinking rule on the MRT upon arrival, but after noticing the signs posted everywhere, started complying with the rules. Despite some of the strict Singapore rules, we love this country. It is clean, efficient, and very orderly. One of the highlights of visiting this gem of an island is the food, so don’t miss a visit to a hawker center where you can load up on a variety of tasty and affordable dishes…it would be a huge mistake not to indulge your food cravings while here!
15 Nov 2012: The 2 hour Jet Star flight from Saigon to Singapore proved uneventful, although everyone complained that the seats were a bit cramped. Our arrival into Singapore was straightforward, and we cleared passport control with no issues (we were keeping a close eye on the Vietnamese members of our group since their English speaking skills were lacking). We decided our best course of action for transport over the next few days would be to purchase a 3 day MRT pass, which cost $30 SGD each, with a $10 deposit on the card itself (to be turned in within 3 days of usage). Bargain! The MRT pass offered unlimited usage for all metro and buses within Singapore and we planned to make the most of our cards. Herding everyone with their luggage to the MRT was a sight to behold, but we managed to make our way onto the first train with minimal fuss. However, upon alighting at Tanah Merah station, we had to scramble along with everyone else to carve out a space on the busy platform. Since we were headed to Chinatown, we had to hop on the green line towards Joo Koon, getting off at Outram Park. It was a packed train, but everyone soon grasped the concept of snagging a seat as soon as they became available. From Outram Park, it was yet another ride on the purple line one stop to Chinatown. Thankfully, mom and dad knew exactly where our hostel was so they led the way towards the 5footwayinn, a cozy budget option right on Pagoda Street in the heart of Chinatown. (Our hostel derives its name “five-foot way” from the two and three-story shophouses fronted by continuous verandahs that only could measure 5 feet in distance so commonly found in the Chinatown district of Singapore). Becky had forgotten that the hostel only accepted cash payments, so after dropping everyone with their luggage in the lobby, we headed back to the MRT stop where several ATM machines could be found. After withdrawing as much money as our cards would allow, we paid for the rooms and were given a quick tour of our accommodations for the next 2 nights. The 5footway inn staff were extremely helpful and friendly, but those of us booked in the 6 person mixed dorm quickly realized how tiny the rooms were. After quickly dumping our bags on an available bed, our first mission was to grab some food! The closest hawker center was on Smith Road, just a few streets over from Pagoda street so we made a beeline directly there, ordering several dishes which we split between the group. After everyone was satiated, Becky suggested an easy walking tour of Chinatown, which everyone readily agreed to. The Chinatown district was carved out back in 1822, when Chinese immigrants migrated to occupy an area SW of the Singapore River. Telok Ayer was the the landing point for most Chinese immigrants before land reclamation took place. Our tour took in Sri Mariamman Temple (the country’s oldest Hindu place of worship), Masjid Jamae (one of the oldest mosques in S’pore), and Thian Hock Keng, the oldest Chinese temple in the country. Rounding out our visit, we stopped at Nagore Durgha (an Indian Muslim shrine) and its adjacent park, Telok Ayer Green. Lastly, a quick walk up to Ang Siang Hill Park which didn’t give us the “rare Chinatown vantage point” we were looking for, so instead we just strolled back down to the nearest MRT station and hopped a ride over to Raffles Place, so we could take in the waterfront view and nearby Merlion (the official symbol of Singapore). The massive Marina Bay Sands Hotel looming in the distance certainly impressed, and everyone enjoyed our brief excursion out here. Bob had some Singapore friends (Carl and Ruby) to link up with so he split from the group, and the rest of us made our way back to Chinatown where buying ice for cocktails became our primary order of business. 4 different 7-Elevens later, and we finally emerged victorious in our quest for ice. Singapore really is a tiny country as we crossed paths with Bob, Carl and Ruby enjoying satay on Food Street, so we invited them back for cocktails before we head out for a late night dinner. Time flew and before we knew it, all the hawker stalls were closed, so we made our way to food street for some late night snacks before calling it a night. Ann and Anh Hai ran into problems with a vendor when they ordered a steamboat dish but for some unknown reason, neither of them hung around to pick up the dish once it was prepared (they mistakenly thought it would be delivered to our table). After getting impatient on the lack of food, both of them wandered off and ate some street food elsewhere. 45 minutes later, the irate vendor finally brought the now cold dish to our table and we looked at it in bewilderment as none of us had ordered it…needless to say, it was an unpleasant scene as we told the vendor we hadn’t a clue about why he brought the dish over when the two who had ordered it were long gone. Ann got an earful when we returned to the hostel to tell her she was no longer welcome at Food Street (particularly at that vendor’s stand). It was late when we finally hit the sack in our dorm, trying our best to get some shut eye after a long day.
16 Nov: The hostel provided a simple breakfast so we decided to take advantage of it before heading off to the Singapore Zoo. Becky downloaded the public transport directions (head to Ang Mo Kio MRT and then take bus 138 and get off at the final stop), and it was a breeze for all 8 of us to get to the zoo at a decent hour. Our plan was to spend a half day here, as we had Little India plans for the afternoon, but everyone seemed to enjoy the zoo so much that we made a full day of it. From the sealion show (followed by sealion kiss photos), to the orangutan feeding and photo session, the zoo did not fail to impress. The animals are kept in remarkably good conditions with plenty of room to roam around in stark contrast to the zoo in Saigon (which was the only zoo the Vietnamese family had been to prior to this visit). Robby was selected from the audience to participate in one of the shows, and he was a good sport about it. Anh Hai got to pet a rather tame wallaby but unfortunately no one was around to record the moment! Lunch was at the zoo’s restaurant section and Bob ordered the best dish (Singapore laksa). Surprisingly, the dishes were all reasonably priced, unlike the price gauging we are used to at zoos or parks in the US. Reversing our route, we took a bus/MRT back to Chinatown where we had enough time to relax for a bit before heading back out again to what is considered Singapore’s best Hawker Center, the Newton Circus. We brought the alcohol and mixers while Lou provided the ice, pitcher and cups. Since Lou and Kay frequent this hawker complex quite regularly, no one had a problem with us bringing our own booze as long as we purchased our food at the Newton stalls. Not to worry as Carl, Ruby, Lou, Kay and Penny ensured we ate a tantalizingly delicious spread of the best Singapore dishes…yum yum. While we kept the margaritas and mojitos flowing, the dishes kept arriving and we were absolutely stuffed by night’s end. Go with an open mind and try dishes you normally wouldn’t and you’ll be amazed at how tasty and affordable hawker food can be! Tonight was definitely one of the top 3 highlights of our trip to Singapore. We would have spent all night here as the conversation was fantastic and everyone was enjoying the company of Bob and Ann’s old Singapore friends, but we finally had to break free to give us some time to head towards the waterfront for the 2130 Light and Water show at Marina Bay Sands. It lasted only 15 minutes but was quite entertaining, so we were glad to have made the effort to get here. Bob and Ann decided on a romantic evening stroll by the waterfront but since we had tuckered out the Vietnamese clan (who are absolutely not used to walking around all day), they were more keen on heading back to the hostel for some shut eye so we accommodated their request. Another great day in Singapore!
17 Nov: We managed a bit of a sleep in before grabbing breakfast. Everyone had plans for their last morning in Singapore, so we decided to split from the group to visit the Arab Quarter before linking back up for lunch in Chinatown. To get to Kampong Glam, we took the MRT to Bugis Station and from there, it was an easy stroll towards Arab Street. The most dominant building in this area is the golden domed Sultan Mosque, which was funded by the East India company in 1826. We found the entire area quite interesting, from the colorful and funky Haji Lane (where street graffiti is encourage, a rarity in strict Singapore), to the souvenir shops in pedestrian only Bussorah Street, to the textile and carpet stores of Arab Street. It was definitely worth our while to come explore for an hour or two. After picking up 2 silk shirts on Bussorah Street, we hopped back on the MRT to Chinatown where we found that the rest of the group had checked out of 5footway Inn already. Lunch was back at the Smith Road Hawker stalls, and this time we wandered around and selected whatever dishes looked interesting to us, followed by ice kachang for desert. Ice kachang is a Singapore specialty, consisting of shaved ice served with jelly, red beans, sweet corn, palm seeds (Becky’s favorite), topped with condensed milk and colored syrups. It may not look like anything special, but it tastes great! Not to be missed. After ensuring that everyone’s bellies were full, we returned to our friendly hostel to pick up our bags. Robby loaded up with his beer belly (best way to smuggle alcohol onto cruise ships), and we made our way to the Harbor Front MRT. Unfortunately, Costa had not updated their website, as we soon found out that the cruise terminal had changed and was now located at the inconvenient Marina Bay. Not a good first impression of Costa! So we had to turn around and hop back on the MRT to make our way over to Marina Bay. Once there, we waited for bus 402 to take us the final leg to the cruise terminal. Of course, the skies opened up and a torrential downpour ensued, but thankfully we had some overhead coverage at the bus station to keep us partially dry. Our bags weren’t as lucky though. A short bus ride later and we were at the newly built Marina Bay Cruise Center, where we quickly dropped off our heavier bags with the porters and checked onto the Costa Victoria. Despite the careful scrutinization of our passports, we had no problems boarding the cruise which was a huge relief for the Vietnamese members of our group. Our original plan was to get off the cruise ship after checking in so we could return our 3 day MRT passes, but we quickly found out that in Singapore, it was not an option (passports must be with you when disembarking/embarking at this port of call). So with that idea squashed, we became familiar with the layout of the Victoria, confused our cabin attendants by switching up room assignments, and attended the mandatory emergency drill held in multiple languages for what seemed like a ridiculously long time. After that, it was time to test Robby’s beer belly which carried our tequila on board with no drama whatsoever and we celebrated with some margaritas. It didn’t take the group long to scope out the food situation, and everyone was stuffing their faces long before our second seating for dinner at the Fantasia. Our waiters hailed from Vietnam (we thought that was a really nice gesture by our Maitre d’ since half of our group was Vietnamese), and they worked tirelessly to attend to our every need. Our multicourse dinner was more than satisfactory, and everyone quickly realized that if we weren’t careful, we’d gain a few pounds on this cruise! Since tomorrow was a sea day, we had no plans to wake up early and our group went their separate ways after dinner to enjoy the entertainment section of the Victoria.
21 Nov: We had breakfast with a couple that lives in Singapore and they gave us some excellent tips on visiting Marina Bay Sands on the cheap. Since we had a rather quick turnaround on this trip (noon to 5 pm), we decided that we should focus our time on area attractions near the Marina Bay harbor. Costa offered a free shuttle to the Marina Bay MRT station, where we linked up with Carl and Lou for a delivery of alcohol (we managed to score some dirt cheap duty free in Langkawi that the cruise staff amazingly allowed us to cart off the cruise). The rest of our group caught a ride to the Marina Bay Sands while we decided to see what we could do about cashing in the 3 day MRT cards to get our refunds. After hopping around various MRT stations, we were told that since the grace period to return the cards had expired, our best bet was to try at the Changi Airport MRT station. Since the cards were already expired, we figured trying a week later when we were set to fly out from Singapore wouldn’t hurt matters any, so we made our way to the rest of the group at the Marina Bay Sands. We thought they would be up at the Ku De Ta bar on the 57th Floor but couldn’t find them there and it dawned on us that they probably didn’t heed the advice we were given at breakfast this morning and instead opted to pay a cover charge to gain access to the 56th floor instead. Our hunch proved correct and we were dismayed to find that despite having to pay a $20 cover charge (each) to visit the 56th floor, the views from here were subpar to what we enjoyed on the 57th floor for free! So we snuck them back up to the 57th floor where they admired the infinity pool and took some nice panoramic shots of Singapore. Bob was on a mission to check his email so we managed to find a free wifi zone in the basement shopping complex of Marina Bay Sands, and afterwards, we walked over to Gardens by the Bay, a futuristic superpark which is home to a quarter of a million rare plants. The family seemed to enjoy this excursion, and thankfully, we were only 1 MRT station away from Marina Bay MRT where we had to wait for the free shuttle back to the cruise, boarding 30 minutes before departure. Back on the Victoria, we headed directly up to the pool deck for a late afternoon snack, loading up on the fresh fruit (papaya, star fruit and dragon fruit)…yum. Even though we only had a few short hours to explore Singapore, we found the Marina Bay complex and Gardens by the Bay more than adequate for our afternoon excursion.
24 Nov: It was an early morning workout for us and happily, the gym was completely abandoned this morning, so we enjoyed it all to ourselves. We did poke around the indoor pool area and discovered the Victoria has a sauna and Turkish bath in the spa section, both of which are free. Today, we were pulling back into Singapore from 8 am – 6 pm, so we had the whole day at our disposal. We were one of the first groups off the ship by 8:15 am, and managed to link up with Lou to drop off yet more alcohol (we managed to buy some at the Duty Free store on the cruise last night). After that, it was a matter of taking public transportation to Jurong Bird Park, our destination for the day (Boon Lay MRT followed by bus 194). With Singapore’s efficient public transportation, we were at the bird park by 9:30 am and went directly to the King of the Skies show where we watched eagles, hawks, owls, falcons and vultures zoom overhead. Next up was the penguin feeding, and Anh Hai became quite attached to a baby penguin that wasn’t scoring any fish, so he raised a stink to get it some extra food. The Birds and Buddies Show entertained with performing birds (flamingoes, toucans, parrots), and the highlight of our morning was a visit to the Lory Loft, the world’s largest free flight aviary where you can feed the friendly lories a nectar mix by hand. Very cool! Lunch was at the bird park’s restaurant where of course we ordered laksa again (yum). Our afternoon in the park consisted a trip to the African Waterfall Aviary, which houses the world’s largest manmade waterfall. Here, we were able to hand feed starlings a cupful of grubs which everyone enjoyed. We stayed at the bird park until 3 pm before calling it a day. While waiting for a public bus to take us back to the MRT station, we met an entrepreneurial man who gave everyone waiting at the bus stop a ride to the station for SGP $1 each…well worth it to not have to wait on the bus. The metro/bus ride back to the cruise terminal was easy, and we were on board with plenty of time to spare. Another enjoyable day in S’pore.
01 Dec: Disembarkation day! After breakfast, we checked out of our cabin to meet the rest of the group in the theater. By 9 am, we were granted permission to disembark but of course Costa’s shabby accounting system didn’t properly debit Becky and Bob’s cabins so there was a bit of a delay in getting that settled. Once in the cruise terminal, we tried to get in the queue for the free shuttle to the Marina Sands Convention Center MRT station but were advised by a Costa rep that we wouldn’t be able to get on the bus because of our luggage. After politely disagreeing with her, we stood our ground and the very friendly and helpful bus driver had no problems letting us board (even opening up the luggage compartment for our bigger bags). It was a short ride to the convention center, where we had a bit of a scramble gathering up enough small bills (believe it or not but the ticket machine does not accept SGP $10 bills, so ensure you have plenty of smaller change). Eventually, we were able to get all 8 of us MRT tickets to Changi airport, and thankfully, due to the early morning hour, none of the trains were full which was great since we had quite a bit of luggage in tow. At the Changi MRT station, Robby was able to get a refund on our expired 3-day passes (yeah!) so that was a nice bonus. Checking in for our flight was a simple affair. Poor Ann and Di Tam couldn’t swap their tickets for an earlier flight with us (the Jet Star flight was fully booked) so they had several hours to hang out at the airport while the rest of us bid them adieu. Overall, we really enjoyed efficient and clean Singapore, despite it being quite a pricey destination.
Notes from a previous trip in the fall of 2005: Upon arrival at the Changi International airport, we breezed through passport control. Some queue cutters from Eastern Europe quickly found out the hard way that Singapore’s methodical nature would tolerate none of their bad habits. Immigration officials refused to process them, and forced them to return at the end of the very long lines. A very loud argument ensued, with local Singaporeans chiming in that queue cutters were not welcome. The Europeans indignantly refused to move, so a stand off ensued that was resolved when the line-cutters meekly made their way to the end of the line…such was our first glimpse of orderliness in Singapore!The tourist information office at the airport is wonderful. Attentive staff courteously greet weary travelers and offer very helpful tidbits on the going-ons within S’pore. We later heard that the staff can help with hotel bookings, saving travelers over 50% off published hotel prices. We found out that the mid-autumn festival, more popularly known as the Mooncake Festival, was in full swing in Chinatown. Coincidentally, Becky had booked us a room at the Royal Peacock hotel in Chinatown, so we were located right smack dab in the middle of the festivities! The staff presented us with 2 tickets for a free rickshaw ride in Chinatown, which was a generous gift from the ever-so helpful tourism department. We also learned a little bit about the festival, which we hadn’t anticipated prior to our arrival in S’pore: “Originally a full moon celebration of the harvest in ancient China, the lovely Mooncake Festival is a time for feasting and rejoicing. Children show off their paper lanterns against the night sky while adults relax with tea and mooncakes, filled with exotic fare like melon seeds and yam, Singapore’s Chinatown comes alive for the occasion. Mooncakes occupy a special place in Chinese hearts for another reason, based on the legend of 14th-century rebels. In their revolt to overthrow the tyrannical Yuan Dynasty, the rebels communicated by embedding messages in mooncakes and smuggling them to their allies.” Becky’s favorite mooncake is filled with red bean paste, but she is also open to the preserved ducks eggs and lotus paste. Whatever the filling, mooncakes are delicious, as Robby can attest to! So much so that we ended up buying boxes worth of mooncakes to savor the memory of the festival. We made our way through the throng of revelers gathering in Chinatown and fought for a table on Smith Street (which is also known as “Chinatown Food Street”). Tables are first come first serve, so as soon as one opened up, Becky pounced on it and sent Robby off to buy our highly-anticipated Singapore cuisine. He returned with Tiger Beer, shark fin soup, and a seafood platter, topped with ice kachang desert. Gotta love the mooncake festival! It was the perfect way to spend our first night in S’pore. The Royal Peacock hotel is a beautifully restored boutique hotel, (converted from shop houses), which were previously used in the red-light district of yesteryear. All in all, we were very pleased with our S’pore based lodgings as the hotel is very centrally located, and served as a great base for exploring the downtown area (MRT station: Outram park). After our breakfast, we headed out towards Chinatown to explore it during daylight hours. The Chinatown area is limited to a compact 3 square block radius, and we later learned (much to our dismay) that it used to extend out to 21 blocks, but the historical Chinatown area was destroyed to make the area more clean, hygienic and safe. What a pity! Today’s Chinatown is only a ghost of its original ambience, and we can only imagine what it was like in its original glory. First stop was the excellent Chinatown Heritage Center on Pagoda Street, a must for any visitor who is interested in Chinatown’s history. Here is a recap of the highlights from the center: “Life of the ethnic Chinese in early Singapore was simple and almost everyone lived in rented cubicles of shophouses, which were often overcrowded and disease-stricken. It is fitting therefore, that the Chinatown Heritage Centre occupies three shophouses at the ethnic quarters of Chinatown, newly restored to house memories and untold stories of Singapore’s early forefathers. Each level of the Centre takes you to a different time in the history of Chinatown and allows you to trace the lives of its early occupants. The hard life of the migrants resulted in many of them seeking solace in the four evils: opium smoking, prostitution, gambling and secret societies. But the celebration of life too was present, and Chinatown was always abuzz with activity and festivity.” We spent some time viewing the videos, and reading up on the harsh life of immigrants in S’pore old Chinatown…it was a fascinating way to spend a few hours. Afterwards, we were ready to stretch our legs out a bit, so we decided to check out the symbol of Singapore, the Merlion. This half-lion, half-fish statue has been relocated since our last visit to Singapore. It used to be located at the Esplanade bridge, but now resides at the entrance to the Singapore river, only 120 meters away from its original location. Afterwards, we strolled down towards Boat Quay and Clarke Quay (pretty good nightlife spots), where we hung out at a local bar for some beer and grub. After finding a local money changer to exchange our US $ into Papua New Guinea Kinas, we caught the MRT back to Changi International Airport for our ongoing flight to Port Moresby. Overall, a very pleasant way to spend 24 hours in Asia! We definitely recommend that anyone who has a chance for a stopover in S’pore to check it out. Its really a wonderful island nation that is super easy to get around in.