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Sounding Out Singapore

I had a coworker from our Singapore office respond to my queries about weekend activity possibilities with a deadpan one-liner: “…but you do realize that the national pastime is window shopping”.

Between that kind of comment and my starting point as a business traveler staying in a posh hotel in the center of Orchard Road ‘s shopping haven, I was often plagued with fears that I would be unable to fully appreciate this marvelous island city. The short guides and web pages I’d been able to find were feeling drastically over-hyped, and my free time seemed to be being gobbled up by the gods of jet-lag (perfectly 12 hours out of step with me).

After doing some requisite shopping in Orchard Road I had the image of the Merlion, Singapore’s mascot, burned into my retinas. I couldn’t afford to do any real shopping at Gucci, Vuitton, or Rolex, so I grabbed a Starbuck’s, donned my Tilley hat, shouldered my tripod, and went to Merlion Park.

Having seen enough of the financial district from a cab arriving at a meeting earlier that day I didn’t venture in again, but the park made for a relaxing stroll, and as I circled past the Merlion I took this photo under the bridge off the Merlion’s right jowl. I heard rumour that the Merlion was due to be moved to a less congested location, and if the amount of renovation work happening in this area was any indication I believe the rumour.

Later in the week (at my next opportunity) tourist guide book in hand I made my way to Little India up Serangoon Road. It was dinner hour and the streets were packed. The lowering sun in a threatening sky lifted me out of present day, and dodging cars and motorcycles to peer down side alleys where tarps were spread to sell used goods was almost surreal. I waited out a downpour in a nearby apartment courtyard and watched lightning track the storm’s progress, and then made my way up Arab Street. Had I been prepared to buy a few bolts of silk and Batik to send back to my wife’s dressmaker I would have been in heaven. Arab Street is (and I can believe has long been) textile central.

Behind Arab Street at the end of Bussorah Street lies the gold domed and lapis walled Sultan Mosque. It’s worth a walk around (and into) if you’re in the area, and if you work up an appetite taking photos there’s a cafĂ© right there on Bussorah that served me a killer hot curry, a cool salad and jasmine rice with tandoori chicken. The lime juice was good too. Another solid destination is Chinatown, with the major draws being more shopping and eating. Antique shops abound, specializing in everything from large furniture and decorative pieces to small jewelry, porcelain and jade. Haggling, bargaining, whatever you call it, it is the rule of the day with shopkeepers. If English breaks trust commerce to prevail. I bought a trinket from a man with whom communication for me consisted of typing on his calculator and smiling for a refill of green tea.

On the topic of communication, English is generally the lingua franca, but an interesting time can be had coming to an agreement on what to have for lunch when your party has the preferred languages Cantonese, Malay and English and you’re ordering Pernakan food from an Indian waiter. The exchange will be quite functional, but quite fun to listen to as well.

If you do wind up in Chinatown you should visit the Sri Mariamman Temple. Contemplating the striking figures of this Hindu Temple will put you a world away from the city pace outside. When you’re ready to find out what British tourists preferred some hundred years ago, then it’s time to head to the Raffles Hotel. Named for Singapore’s founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, the hotel that came up with the Singapore Sling remains an opulent setting. The word raffles could practically be used adjectivally to describe decadence, and you could imagine hearing the recommendation: “Oh yes, go, it’s very raffles”. The lazily turning fans in the Bar & Billiard room were for show, as it’s air-conditioned, but they helped complete a perfect show.

This kind of thing comes at a price though, and an hour of billiards and a couple of beers cost some sing 70 dollars. The statue of Sir Stamford dates to 1887 and stands outside the Victoria Theater near the river. If you’re ready for dinner and a drink, I have a couple of recommendations. If you’ll have only one night out in your visit, go to Clarke Quay. The pedestrian streets wind back and forth to the river, combining restaurants and terraces based in conserved waterfront buildings with food stalls and salespeople with merchandise on carts. (By the way, conserved refers to refurbished or maintained buildings or heritage sites, the number of which has been seriously threatened by rapid development.) You can find something to suit your palette and your wallet, in whatever combination and from whatever ethnic origin you desire. After dinner stroll to the Boat Quay and either have a coffee or beer on the river front or go into one of the multitudinous bars and discos. If Boat Quay is feeling to rambunctious, stroll along the water out of the boat quay back to the Merlion and look at the city’s skyline.

If you have a second evening out, and are feeling a bit romantic, try Chjimes. This converted girls’ school houses lots of restaurant and a few bars, accessed from the central courtyard. At “‘Shrooms” we sat glimpsing 19th century peaks out of windows cut into thick walls while we had some of the best cuisine available. As business dinners go it was a little over the top, and it is not cheap, but this food and ambiance are worth it. You’re right across the street from the Raffles Hotel if the urge for a Sling takes you. This ends the virtual tour; any comments are appropriately appreciated. For ruther travels and photographs, see Graham Braun’s own web pages.

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