City Spotlight: Singapore, Part I–Culture

Marina Bay Sands

We traveled in Singapore all last week. It was my first time there, and I was immediately impressed by how modern, clean and cosmopolitan it is.

This city-state was fashioned by a benevolent dictator, and the benefits of its brand of social engineering are evident in good public housing and greenery throughout the city.

It’s hot and humid, so if you go, be prepared to sweat it out while seeing the city. I walked around a lot, and the heat is draining, so always bring water when you step out.

Public transportation is convenient, clean and cheap. The most a one-way bus ticket will cost is $2 Singaporean (about $1.50 USD). You can pay in cash on the bus. Just tell the driver your intended stop, and he/she will tell you the fare. I recommend the bus instead of the subway so you can see the city while riding.

Singaporeans speak English, so it’s easy to make your way around town.

View from Regent Singapore

We stayed at the Regent, now part of the IHG umbrella. It sits along Orchard Road, a main drag that runs through a big shopping area. Tanglin Mall is an upscale mini-mall on the same block as Regent; perfect for popping into the supermarket for odds and ends and browsing for stylish threads and gifts.

We had a basic room with a lovely city view from the floor-to-ceiling window. We paid an extra $50 per person per day for Club access. I wasn’t happy when they hit us up with the charge after I already started in on the buffet for dinner after the 10-hr. flight from Fiji, but I came to appreciate the convenience of having the Club right around the corner from our room. It was easy to stop in for morning coffee and for breakfast after hitting the gym in the hotel. The buffet and drinks at happy hour were just right for dinner after long, tiring days.

MacRitchie Reservoir monkeys

On our first full day in Singapore, we hiked about 11 km through MacRitchie Reservoir. There are various trails, so you can keep it short or go long. Some uphill sections make for good cardio. The trails are shaded, which helps against the heat.

If you’re lucky, you’ll see monkeys and lizards hanging around.

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum

Chinatown is a must. (More on food there in next post.) That’s where the the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum is located. I’d never been in a Buddhist temple before, and this one was striking. There was a service going on when we visited, and the gold color of the monks’ robes looked beautiful against the gold ornamentation of the altar.

The Buddha’s tooth is upstairs, encased in a shrine inside a gold-filled room (no photos allowed). There is a lovely roof garden outside the tooth temple.

Singapore Botanic Gardens

The Singapore Botanic Gardens are wonderful for wandering. If you’re more active, you can also run through the trails.

Walking through the gardens reminded me of our garden at home with its similar tropical plants. It gave me more appreciation for my own garden.

There are plenty of benches where you can sit and take in the scenery, plus picnic spots on the lawns. I walked about 3 km through the trails, with a little break to read the paper on a bench under a pergola.

The wildlife around includes chickens. I saw a beautiful red-orange rooster looking for scraps at one of the food courts.

Rooster Singapore Botanic Gardens

Gardens by the Bay is in the vicinity of Marina Bay Sands, the famous hotel with three towers connected by a stunning rooftop. Part of the gardens are free to enter. I recommend paying the $8 Singaporean for access to the suspended-bridge walkway that offers sweeping views of the gardens, the bay and the city skyline.

It’s also worth paying the $28 Singaporean to enter the Cloud Forest and Flower Dome. The Cloud Forest is a marvel of horticultural architecture. The entrance features a waterfall that drops from a great height. The Flower Dome houses flora from around the world, including orchids, the national flower of Singapore.

Gardens by the Bay

To get in some history lessons, we visited the Singapore National Museum. The building is excellently maintained, and the exhibits are well designed.

I learned that Singapore used to be called Singapura, which means “Lion City” in Sanskrit (hence, the Merlion Fountain that is one of the city’s landmarks; unfortunately, it was under cleaning or renovation when we were there).

I also learned that Singapore merged with Malaya to become Malaysia after independence from colonial British rule, then split with Malaysia to become independent Singapore in 1965.

One exhibit showed a video of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of Singapore and benevolent dictator who ruled for three decades, in which he teared up while discussing the decision to split from Malaya. I didn’t realize that the decision on full independence was an agonizing one for him. Yew was a fascinating character. He built Singapore into a modern marvel that continues to show clear signs of economic growth (I noted all the construction happening around town).

The museum had exhibits that show how Singaporeans used to live through the decades. My favorite one was the exhibit designed to look like the house of affluent Singaporeans during the 1920s. It showed smart, stylish furnishings and clothing of the time and had a section on how Singaporean women were coming into their own as members of society active outside the home.

Singapore National Museum