SIN­GA­PORE Small, but beau­ti­fully formed

The tiny coun­try is much more than a mere stopover en route to Aus­tralia, says Anna Goldrein

The Jewish Chronicle - - Travel -

NO T B E I N G A po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist, chewer of chew­ing gum o r p u s h e r o f drugs, I felt safe in Sin­ga­pore, a coun­try with a low crime rate and high pun­ish­ments. With its English lan­guage, West­ern level of de­vel­op­ment and lo­ca­tion — in the south China sea, be­tween Malaysia and In­done­sia — it is a coun­try well worth ex­plor­ing.

Un­til now, it has been seen mainly as a busi­ness des­ti­na­tion or as a brief stopover en route to Aus­tralia. But the sight of Sin­ga­pore’s in­au­gu­ral Grand Prix — not just a reg­u­lar road race, but a dra­matic night-time cir­cuit be­neath the sky­scrapers — may have whet­ted your ap­petite for a proper visit.

At just 273 square miles, Sin­ga­pore may be south­east Asia’s small­est na­tion state, but it knows how to keep or­der — lit­ter (and even most mos­qui­toes) know not to sully its streets.

The taxi driver who took me from the glam­orous air­port to the city cen- tre was im­pressed by my choice of ho­tel — the Fuller­ton Ho­tel (with views of the Grand Prix’s scari­est hair­pin bend if you are think­ing of com­ing for the 2009 race on Septem­ber 27).

A land­mark 1920s build­ing, it was the Cen­tral Post Of­fice un­til its six-star con­ver­sion in 1996. To­day, the huge lobby gleams with cool mar­ble be­neath an airy atrium, while a rooftop in­fin­ity-pool over­looks the Sin­ga­pore River dot­ted with bum­boats and a spa de-stresses jet-lagged guests with re­ju­ve­nat­ing and pam­per­ing treat­ments and mas­sages.

The se­ri­ously rich stay at the all­suite, but­ler-ser­viced Raf­fles Ho­tel in the Colo­nial District, while those who can’t af­ford to stay but wish to ab­sorb the at­mos­phere can nurse a Sin­ga­pore Sling in Raf­fles’ fa­mous Long Bar or take af­ter­noon tea in the Tif­fin Room or clubby Bar and Bil­liard Room.

For some­thing more bou­tiquey, you can try Chi­na­town’s funky New Ma­jes­tic with 30 de­signer rooms, or the op­u­lent Scar­let Ho­tel, a favourite for fash­ion shoots, also in Chi­na­town.

In con­trast to the or­derly Colo­nial and Cen­tral Busi­ness dis­tricts, Chi­na­town is a war­ren of in­cense-scented streets where stalls pur­vey medic­i­nal roots and things best left uniden­ti­fied; where li­lac and green jade good­luck jew­ellery is tested for qual­ity by its bell-like ring; where wafts of spice and chicken rice emerge from busy hawk­ers’ stalls; where of­fice work­ers gulp down five Sin­ga­pore-dol­lar (£2) lunches and where Daoist shop­keep­ers make peace with their an­ces­tors dur­ing Au­gust’s month-long Fes­ti­val of the Hun­gry Ghosts.

About 70 per cent of Sin­ga­pore’s four mil­lion dwellers are eth­nic Chi­nese. Their great-grand­par­ents’ jour­ney took sev­eral months, many suc­cumb­ing to the al­lure of opium as an an­ti­dote to the Coolie life they were forced to adopt on ar­rival. Now Sin­ga­pore is home, and China a for­eign land, where they go as tourists.

It’s a sim­i­lar story in Lit­tle In­dia, a med­ley of sari shops, tai­lors and curry houses. Every­one is Sin­ga­porean, pas­sion­ate about food and proud to speak English in the of­fice and Singlish — the lo­cal pa­tois, a mix of English pep­pered with Chi­nese, In­dian, Malay and In­done­sian — in the street.

In Lit­tle In­dia, I bought a pep­per­mint green, ma­roon and gold sari for a Bol­ly­wood Party. But for more up­mar­ket shop­ping, there is Ngee Ann City, in mall-lined Or­chard Road, which is home to a huge Her­mès, vast Prada and glit­ter­ing Bulgari. My pur­chase was a shiny, Ja­panese um­brella/para­sol to fend off Sin­ga­pore’s hot sun and trop­i­cal rain.

A laid-back, in­ter­na­tional crowd re­laxes in the at­mo­spheric bars of Emer­ald Hill, off busy Or­chard Road. Once a nut­meg grove, this is the district where wealthy Per­anakans — na­tive­born In­done­sians — lived in the 1920s.

As you climb the hill in the sul­try evening heat, the bars give way to spa­cious res­i­den­tial prop­er­ties in eclec­tic style that in­cor­po­rates Chi­nese-in­spired bat-shaped win­dows for good luck, dou­ble sa­loon doors for nat­u­ral air con­di­tion­ing, Euro­pean-style shut­ters and art nou­veau ce­ram­ics. In a city where most call a tower block home, an Emer­ald Hill house sells for some $5-m Sin­ga­porean dol­lars (£1.95m).

Th­ese days the dwin­dling Per­anakan com­mu­nity live in Ka­tong. On the East Coast Road, Peter Wee opens up his trea­sure-trove of a home to vis­i­tors.

His clut­tered Ed­war­dian dresser is carved with Is­lamic mo­tifs and topped by a Chi­nese dragon — like Paranakan cul­ture his home is a colour­ful mix of Chi­nese, Malay, and Euro­pean styles.

For a less per­son­alised in­tro­duc­tion to Per­anakan cul­ture, I vis­ited the just opened Per­anakan Mu­seum which takes you on a jour­ney from the cra­dle, via the gilded wed­ding, to the grave. At the Asian Civil­i­sa­tion Mu­seum, just over the Cave­nagh Bridge from the Fuller­ton Ho­tel, cav­ernous rooms are ded­i­cated to Chi­nese, In­dian, Malay, Is­lamic and South-east Asian cul­tures.

Un­like the Na­tional Mu­seum, where mul­ti­me­dia over­load drove me to exit swiftly, as­ton­ish­ing arte­facts and il­lu­mi­nat­ing de­scrip­tions drew me into the philoso­phies, re­li­gions and com­plex his­to­ries of Asian cul­ture, from fine Viet­namese porce­lain to ser­pen­tine Ja­vanese cer­e­mo­nial knives, and sen­sual In­dian tem­ple dancers carved in stone.

Vis­i­tors may keep en­trance stick­ers on to dip in and out of the mu­seum all day.

Re­lax­ing in Sin­ga­pore means vis­its to parks, an or­chid-rich botanic gar­den or its leisure is­land of Sen­tosa, which is con­nected to the main­land by mono­rail, bridge and ca­ble car.

Here, spas, re­sorts, restau­rants and freshly cre­ated beaches await, though some­what marred by the view of an oil re­fin­ery. For a glimpse of how Sin­ga­pore might have de­vel­oped if Sir Stam­ford Raf­fles hadn’t es­tab­lished a trad­ing post here in 1819, I nipped over the ocean — and the bor­der — with a 55-minute ferry jour­ney to the In­done­sian is­land of Bin­tan.

The Sin­ga­porean-owned Nir­wana Gar­dens Re­sort is de­signed to suit all bud­gets, from camp­ing and beach

huts, all the way to vil­las with pri­vate pools. Es­chew­ing its white sandy beaches, I took an eco-tour to see how is­lan­ders forge re­cy­cled scrap iron into ma­chetes for har­vest­ing co­conuts, weave palm leaves into Rat­tan bas­kets and bleed white la­tex from rub­ber trees.

Sin­ga­pore also has 60 lit­tle is­lands of its own, in­clud­ing Palau Ubin, a 15minute bum­boat trip from Changi ferry ter­mi­nal.

On shore, I hired a bike and jolted my way past Durian and rambu­tan or­chards head­ing to Chek Jawa Wet­lands na­ture re­serve. I strolled the coastal path over­look­ing sand flats where Fid­dler Crabs bran­dished their or­ange pin­cers and mud skip­pers wig­gled.

De­spite know­ing that pythons and man­grove snakes sleep, coiled in the top branches of the trees in the is­land’s dense man­grove for­est (I learned about them dur­ing my Bin­tan eco-tour), I took a for­est walk. Later, I cooled off with a chilled Thai co­conut be­fore tak­ing the re­turn boat as the sun set. By night, you can visit buzzy, in­ter­na­tional-flavoured Clerk Quay to see where For­mula 1 driv­ers par­tied.

I took a spin on the Min­istry of Sounds’ ro­tat­ing dance floor, bopped in plush R&B bars and gig­gled at The Clinic where staff in sur­geons’ gowns serve able-bod­ied yup­pies seated in wheel­chairs and the oc­ca­sional im­pos­si­bly long-legged per­son of in­de­ter­mi­nate gen­der struts by on a mis­sion.

From my pod on the Sin­ga­pore Flyer — (Sin­ga­pore’s an­swer to the Lon­don Eye — I could see the new swathe of build­ings tak­ing shape in the fore­ground: the Ma­rina Bay In­te­grated Re­sort due for com­ple­tion in 2010 and the busi­ness district’s bank build­ings reach­ing for the sky across the bay. It’s hard to be­lieve that all this has sprouted from a Malay fish­ing vil­lage in less than 200 years.

Sin­ga­pore’s Cen­tral Busi­ness District: was a Malay fish­ing vil­lage just 200 years ago

Sin­ga­pore’s water­side, where low-rise homes, shopes and cafes con­trast with the for­est of high-rises

Raf­fles Ho­tel: for af­ter­noon tea or a gin sling if you can’t af­ford to stay

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.