Blend of Tradition and Modernity
As you start from the airport towards your hotel in Singapore, you are struck by the grandeur of this ultra-modern and affluent city, with broad roads, immaculately clean and well maintained, streamlined and well-regulated traffic, and tall multi-storied buildings lined along the landscape. The buildings are not the concrete jungles to be found in some modern cities, but beautiful architectures, each designed differently from the others. But Singapore is not multi-storied buildings alone. Here is also the traditional architecture of different communities, well preserved through the centuries. As pointed out in one of the posters at the Philatelic Museum, “Singapore’s charm as a tourist destination lies in her rich culture and her ability to blend the old with the new. Modern buildings stand next to restored shophouses”.
Means of transport are convenient and many. There are air-conditioned public buses, tourist buses, taxis as well as the underground rail (known as mass rapid transit). Hotels in Singapore are normally air-conditioned, and reasonably priced. Luxury hotels,such as the 100-year-old colonial Raffles Hotel (one of the most famous in the world), with its huge shopping arcade and romantic courtyards, are also available.
An Epicure's Delight
Singapore is an epicure’s delight with cuisine of all major countries being there to savor at prices one can easily afford. There is, of course, a wide variety of Chinese dishes available everywhere; but Indian, English, American, French, Swiss, Thai, Japanese, Malay and Indonesian food can also be had at the numerous restaurants, basement and roadside cafes. Fruit juices, coffee, wines and champagne of varied flavors are widely available. Fusion restaurants (such as Doc Cheng’s at Raffles Hotel) are a new trend in Singapore, and they aim at creating delicious Trans-ethnic variants of Asian and Western cuisine.
A Shopper's Paradise
Singapore is also a shopper’s paradise with an infinite variety of goods, ranging from cosmetics and apparel to electronic goods, computers, computer peripherals and software available at prices to suit everybody’s pocket. Then there are the souvenirs and other items peculiar to a particular culture or ethnic group, to be found in such places as Chinatown and Little India.
At the jewelry factory one can admire or shop for the fine designs of Singapore jewelers. Many beautiful rings, necklaces and other ornaments are on display, studded with sparkling precious stones---the purple amethyst, scintillating diamonds and white pearls.
Likewise, at the Ming Village (a small factory manufacturing traditional Chinese pottery), one can buy any of the showcased flower vases or ceramic pots, as also lovely painted statues of Buddha. Here one can actually watch the girls painting the designs on the pottery with a small brush or stick in their delicate hands.
The nerve center of Singapore’s shopping activities is the famous Orchard Road, which has been likened to the Fifth Avenue in New York. Here are to be found huge multistoried air-conditioned shopping complexes, each housing hundreds of shops selling a wide variety of attractive items. Orchard Road at night becomes a glittering array of colorful streetlights and shimmering shopping complexes with their glass doors and windows.
Ethnic Quarters; Little India & Chinatown
Singapore is populated by a number of ethnic and religious groups living in perfect harmony and each to a large extent preserving its distinctive identity and culture. The broad racial composition of the population is as follows---Chinese 77%; Malays 14%; Indians 7%; others 2%. For the tourist, a visit to the ethnic areas of Little India and Chinatown is a must. Each of them has also an interesting history behind it. As for Little India, the story goes back to 1819 when Sir Stamford Raffles, British Lieutenant Governor of Bencoolen, landed in Singapore, which at that time was still a fishing village, ruled by the Malay kings. Not only did Raffles, on behalf of the East India Company, lay the foundations of Singapore as a successful trading port, but he had also brought with him an entourage of 120 Indian assistants and soldiers. These were among the first Indian settlers in Singapore and were followed by many more migrants coming in the late 19th century to find work. Gradually Serangoon Road in Singapore developed into a “Little India”.
Little India even today has the ambiance of a middle class locality in India, with its small houses and shops in typical Indian architecture. Walk through any of the streets of Little India, and you can find shops selling the type of things you would expect in an Indian bazaar. Here you can find Indian spices, betel nuts, incense sticks, ayurvedic medicines, as well as saris. At the many Indian craft shops one can discover an exciting mix of carvings, sculptures, brass-ware and artifacts.
Among the monuments of interest in Little India are the Abdul Gaffoor Mosque, known for its unusual blend of Arabic and Renaissance architecture, and the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, built in 1881, and dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Kali.
Another ethnic quarter, Chinatown, was the site where Chinese immigrants arriving in Singapore in search of work were originally lodged. These workers came mainly during the 1820s along with Chinese junks loaded with merchandise.
Chinatown boasts of small shops and houses with typically Chinese architecture. There are in Chinatown many shops selling Chinese teas of various flavors and also Chinese herbal medicines. Restaurants providing Chinese dishes and desserts abound, some of them being extensions of the family accommodation.
The Sri Mariamman Temple in Chinatown is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore (built in 1827). The colorful ‘gopuram’ at the entrance gate tells of its South Indian Dravidian architecture. Inside the temple there are beautiful images of various Indian gods and goddesses.
Quays in Singapore, such as the Boat Quay and the Clarke Quay, appear at night as glittering necklaces of shops along the narrow Singapore River. The shops sell mainly eatables and drinks, and merry groups of people throng the tables laid outside or inside the shops, which once exuded an old world charm, but are now modern sprawling glass structures, which, at night, lend their own shine to the brightly lit area.
Museums in Singapore
There are a number of interesting museums in Singapore, one being the Singapore Art Museum. Apart from the permanent collection of exhibits, the museum arranges some special exhibitions from time to time. Singapore History Museum, which is a part of the National Museum, depicts visually through pictures and brief descriptions the history of Singapore right from 1818 to the meeting of the first Parliament in 1965. Also worth a visit is the Asian Civilizations Museum. Besides the display of Chinese painting and pottery, the museum has a section called ‘The Dating Game’. In this section not only do we learn about the international calendar system used today, but also about traditional calendars still in vogue in Asia. Located nearby is the Singapore Philatelic Museum, which displays the stamps and letterboxes of all prominent nations of the world.
At the Singapore Science Center, there are more than 500 exhibits, which make the marvels of modern science easy to understand. The Omnimax Theater, forming part of it, keeps the audience thrilled with giant screen movies.
Parks and Gardens
For the lover of Nature, there are parks and gardens galore in Singapore. Among these is the Botanic Gardens, often referred to as the ‘green lung’ of the city. One can spend hours experiencing the calm and serenity of this 52 hectares’ garden. Located within it is the National Orchid Garden, where there is a rich variety of orchids on display.
Jurong Park in Singapore is a bird sanctuary with birds living in near natural surroundings. An air-conditioned monorail makes a ten-minute round, giving you a sweeping vista of the park. Of particular interest are the penguins, a vanishing species, living here in artificially created rock formations. There is also a bird show with trained birds of various species performing many clever tricks---for example, parrots competing with each other in a bicycle race. In Jurong Park is also the world’s tallest (30 meters high) man-made waterfall.
Like the Bird Park, the Singapore Zoo prides itself on the natural environment in which its animal inhabitants reside. The animal shows here afford an opportunity to witness the natural behaviors of primates, reptiles, elephants and sea lions. On offer are joy rides on elephants or ponies, or the chance to savor one’s breakfast in the company of an orang utan.
“If you haven’t experienced Sentosa, you haven’t been to Singapore,” declares the brochure published by the Sentosa Development Corporation. Sentosa is Singapore’s favorite island resort. The tourist bus takes you to Mount Faber from where you board a cable car for Sentosa Island. The journey by cable car treats one to a panorama of visual delights of the beautiful landscape below---a landscape entirely covered with thick groves of trees. A few minutes ride across this woody terrain, and we come upon the Singapore harbor where the sea is crowded with huge yellow cranes, stacks of cargo, and waiting ships. The cable car lands directly in the attractions hub of Sentosa: Imbiah Lookout. Besides this most fascinating means, there are other ways too of reaching Sentosa. Prominent among these are the Sentosa Express and the Sentosa Boardwalk, both available from Vivo City shopping mall near Harbor City Station.
Once on Sentosa Island there is a whole variety of shows and attractions to keep one engaged and astonished. One is the ‘Images of Singapore’, a wax museum depicting images of historical Singapore including the World War II Surrender chamber and pioneers of Singapore.
A few minutes ride by monorail, and there is the ‘Sentosa Underwater World,’ Asia’s largest oceanarium. Here are hundreds of varieties of colorful fishes, including sharks. What is remarkable about this oceanarium is that you glide through a glass tunnel with fishes on either side and also on top of you.
The Butterfly and Insect Kingdom is another of the must-see attractions at Sentosa. It is situated amid lush tropical greenery and replicates the sights, sounds and scents of a real tropical rainforest. It is populated with a wide variety of fluttering butterflies, and also exotic insects such as beetles, stick insects and scorpions. You can see right before your eyes the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly, and learn through guided tours the role played by various species in the circle of life. One of the fun activities in Butterfly Park is feeding parrots and other birds like sun conures from off one’s hands. One tourist has described the visit as “an extraordinary experience for both the young and old. Discover nature in the most amazing way”.
Perhaps the most sought-after sights in Sentosa is the Merlion (half-fish, half lion), standing 37 meters tall, in the heart of that island on a 23-meter hillock. It depicts the folklore of Prince Sang Nila Utama (from Sumatra) naming the place as Singapore after seeing a strange creature and being told that it was a lion. (The word ‘singa’ in Sanskrit denotes a lion, and ‘pura’, a city). The Merlion is said to have, once upon a time, saved the island of Singapore from the ravages of flood, and is believed to bring prosperity and affluence. When I first visited Singapore in 2000, the year of the Millennium celebrations, visitors were introduced to this phenomenon through a spectacular light, sound and water show that concluded with the eyes of the lion emitting laser beams into the night. But now the show is gone. Instead, visitors get to see and touch the Merlion from close range, and even to step into its mouth and climb to the top, a height of 60 meters above sea level. From there they can enjoy a stunning 360-degree view of Singapore.
Part of Resorts World, Sentosa is the Universal Studios, Singapore. Here you “enter the world of Hollywood movie magic through thrilling rides and other movie-themed attractions”. As you stroll along the “palm-lined Hollywood boulevard with its Hall of Fame”, it is as if you have virtually stepped into the ‘entertainment capital’ of the world.
Marina Bay Sands
This is one of the latest in visitors' itinerary. It is an Integrated Resort fronting Marina Bay in Singapore, and is regarded as the world’s most expensive standalone casino property. It houses a large number of shops selling famous brands of apparel, jewelry, electronic items and watches, as well as handicrafts and confectionary. Cuisines from almost every part of the world are available in the restaurants and in the Food Court. There is also an observation deck affording a panoramic view of the sea and the landscape.
The list of things one can explore and experience in Singapore is never-ending, as also the list of shows, exhibitions and celebrations, which keep changing from month to month, giving a kaleidoscopic view of the city’s rich multi-racial culture. As remarked by the Singapore Tourist Board in one of its brochures, “Singapore may be small in size, but it’s big on attractions, giving you a family holiday which will be remembered forever”.
© 2015 Sunil Mathur