Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Lion City

"You can call me SG, or Lion City. I'm a small country with a big GDP."

Yes, it's Singapore. This small city-state in southeast Asia is actually made up of 63 small islands. It is highly urbanized and there is not much rain forest left. The state had increased the area by reclaiming land since 1975, after which the city has changed big time. The business district has expanded and the famous Marina Bay Sands hotel was built in 2010. The marina also consists of a theater, a high end shopping center, the Gardens by the Bay, a concert arena and several hotels. The marina is but one part of Singapore. There is also Little India, that charmed me at second glance, Chinatown with its great offer of bargains, the shopping frenzy Orchard Street and my personal favorite, Arab Street, with its cozy shisha cafes.

The business district in Singapore houses a lot of skyscrapers.

Singapores' mascot is called the Merlion, it's a mix of a lion and a fish tail. There are different stories of how the Merlion came to be, here's one of them:

"According to an ancient legend, in the eight century, a sea monster appeared. It was half-fish and half-lion and made such an impression on a Malay prince, that he renamed the city to Singapure - meaning Lion City." Source
The Merlion on Sentosa Island.

Upon traveling to Singapore I was quite worried about how I would survive the heat. The reality was worse than I expected. It was hot, hot, hot. The temperature was only around 32 degrees Celcius, but the humidity made it a hundred times worse. But that wasn't the worst thing. In Central and South Europe we're used to high temperatures during the day, but also to the fact that the temperature goes down in the evening and the night. Not in Singapore, no sir! It might have gotten around two degrees cooler, but there was no real change. On my first evening chilling out at a shisha cafe, I felt like I was going to die. That might have had something to do with the fact that I'd been traveling all day though. The second day was quite bad as well, but after that I started to get used to the temperature. Thank God my hostel room had A/C! I think I must have taken three showers every day.

I had chosen a hostel through HostelWorld mostly relying on the reviews, but I knew nothing about the locations in Singapore, so it was somewhat of a random choice. It turned out to be a very lucky one, for my standards at least. The hostel was located at Arab Street, which is not too far away from Changi Airport. At the same time it was also only about a 20 minute walk away from the marina. As I walked from the MRT station towards the hostel I got very excited. I was walking through these small streets with beautiful old houses with cute shops and lots and lots of shisha cafes. Score! The hostel was called the Shophouse Hostel which was a cute boutique hostel on four floors with two huge roof terraces. A few days later I met some local couchsurfers, who were really surprised to hear that my hostel was situated on Arab Street. Apparently the hostels are usually in Little India and Chinatown. Double score! During my stay I was happy to see that there was a food festival going on behind the mosque just one block away from the hostel. The area around Arab Street is really cozy with a middle eastern flair. A lot of fabric shops, shisha cafes and Turkish style restaurants. I really felt at home there!

The Masjid Sultan mosque on Muscat Street just around the corner of my hostel.
The area around Arab Street is full with cute shops and small cozy lanes.

On my first whole day I decided to do something I usually never do. I bought a ticket for a hop-on hop-off tourist bus. Since I only had three days, I wanted to make the most of my stay and getting to see as much as I possibly could. The company was called Duck & Hippo tours, and the ticket I bought was valid for 24 hours (not operating during the night) and it included three bus routes that concentrated on different themes (purple original route, yellow city route and red heritage route). The hostel offered discounted tickets for the tour as well as many other attractions. The tour buses were a great choice. It gave me a great overview of the city and I loved the possibility to hop on and hop off anywhere I wanted to. Another great thing about the bus tours is the audio tour that offers a lot of information on the architecture, structure and history of the city.

Marina Bay Sands with its three towers and the Marina.

Before hopping on the bus I checked out the Bugis shopping center, which was situated close to my hostel. Singapore truly is a paradise for shoppers. You have everything from high-end shopping on Orchard Street to cheap bargains in Chinatown. There is an endless amount of shopping malls and since there isn't really a clear center, shopping has spread out all over the city. Bugis is somewhere in the middle, it is quite big and there are European shops like Esprit, Mango and Body Shop, as well as Asian vendors. After walking around in the (air-conditioned) shopping center I hopped onto the bus and headed to Chinatown. In addition to a Chinese-style bazaar there are several Hindu temples and a Buddhist temple. If you're a bargain hunter, Chinatown is the place to go. I was strolling around at the bazaar for quite a while, because there is just SO much to look at. There are so many amazing things as well as a lot of crap, for very little money. There is also a shopping mall, which I didn't like that much, because didn't intend to do any shopping. I was getting hungry, so I started looking for a place to eat. I wanted to find something authentic, so after checking out a few fancy restaurants with fancy prices I found a street kitchen, where all customers seemed to be locals. I had noodles with chicken and a starter soup for just three dollars (1,80 euros), and it was delicious!

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum in Chinatown.

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple.

The Sri Mariamman Temple in Chinatown is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore.

After strolling around in Chinatown I hopped on the bus again. The bus took me through the eastern part of the city all the way to Orchard Street. I decided not to hop out there, because my backpack was overfull after all the shopping in Australia and walking around in all the fancy shops would have made it hard to resist not buying anything. I did end up buying a lovely key chain that I had been looking for during the whole trip so far, as well as a pair of lovely purple harem trousers for just six dollars. In the afternoon I ended up in Little India where I was walking around for a few hours. I didn't like it. Maybe I was tired after walking around all day in the heat, but I just couldn't feel it. I headed back to the hostel, took a shower and intended to take a little nap, which turned into a several hours of sleeping. Once I woke up it was almost midnight. After hesitating for a while I decided to take a walk. It was dark, but still very hot and I walked all the way to the marina and around there. There was quite a lot of people around even though it was Wednesday, and even though I was walking around alone in the middle of the night, I never felt unsafe.

My beautiful hand made key ring from Chinatown.

One of the biggest bazaar streets in Chinatown.

In Chinatown I met a British lady from South Africa who was raving about how amazing Singapore Zoo was, so on the next day I decided to head out there. It was a bit far outside of city, in the jungle, and a bit tricky to reach with public transport. It required taking a metro and then a bus, but finally I got there. The zoo wasn't a disappointment, but I wouldn't recommend it. The animals were beautiful and I loved the fact that there weren't really any fences, but most everything was made with natural materials. However I do think my hopes were to high and I expected something sensational. Singapore Zoo has been rated one of the best ones in the world, but I've seen better. Not that I've been to THAT many zoos, but one of my favorites is a really fantastic one in Hanover, Germany. Singapore Zoo is a part of a wildlife reserve with other animal parks as well. There is the Night Safari with night time animals, the River Safari with water animals as well as the Jurong Bird Park. There is a possibility to get a combo ticket for all the animal parks for a cheaper price than the individual price for each park.

This beautiful white tiger was showing off to the audience by walking back and fourth.

In the evening I was invited to a couchsurfing meeting in Little India, and after speaking with one of my friends in Brisbane, I decided to give Little India another chance. That was really the right choice, because this time Little India managed to enchant me! I had dinner at a very authentic restaurant, again with only locals as other customers. As I sat down I had to wait quite long for a menu, and as the waiter came, he asked me if I was waiting for company. He raised his eyebrows as I let him know that I was eating alone. I think they might not be quite that used to seeing women alone. I did get a lot of looks there and in Little India altogether. Being tall and blonde may have had an effect as well. The cultural difference is really massive.

After the meeting in Little India I decided to check out the Gardens by the Bay. I had received a tip that there was going to be a group of people juggling with light thingies underneath the Supertrees.
Gardens by the Bay is a 101 hectare park area behind the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. The main attraction in the park are the huge domes with gardens in different styles, and the Supertrees. It is an absolutely beautiful area and I'm sad I didn't get to explore it to the fullest. Next time!

You could just sit and stare at the Supertrees for hours and hours.

Light jugglers by the Supertrees at Gardens by the bay.

At the CS-meeting I met a local couchsurfer who agreed to show me around on Sentosa Island on my last day. Sentosa is a small island just outside of Singapore, and it is filled with amusement parks and resorts. Among them are Universal Studios, S.E.A. Aquarium and Adventure Cove Waterpark. There are also luxury hotels, spas and several beautiful beaches. My plan for Sentosa was just about checking out the beaches. They were surprisingly empty, but still very nice, even though they are not as lovely as the ones I visited in Australia. Mainly because they were very touristic. Everything seems to be about creating a brand and the beaches felt very fake and man-made (which they probably are), but then again Sentosa IS made for tourists. The beaches were however very clean and the water was nice a warm, but at the same time refreshing in comparison to the air temperature.

Siloso Beach at Sentosa Island.

My time in Singapore was coming to an end. But I still had a couple of hours to go, so I decided to meet up with a local couchsurfer. We had dinner at a Turkish restaurant close to Arab Street and then headed out to Changi Airport (which is quite amazing as well). I had mixed feelings about Singapore, and I haven't really come to terms on whether I like the city or not. What I do know, is that I definitely want to go back and see more of it before I give my verdict. I want to explore the Gardens by the Bay, hit the Infinity Pool at Marina Bay Sands Hotel and check out the dancing scene, that my cs-friend told me is quite good, at least when it comes to salsa and WCS. One thing is for certain though, Singapore is a shopper's city and it doesn't really matter what your budget is like, there is shopping available for all price classes. It might not be the budget travelers dream choice, especially when you compare to other surrounding cheaper countries, but it is a special experience and well worth a visit.

As I came back to Finland, one of my friends told me about this video that Mentos made for Singapores National Day celebration on the 9th of August. Since Singapores population is increasing, there will soon be no land for people to live, on so Mentos decided that Singapore should propose to Finland, to "share her land". Enjoy: