Singapore Sling

If you want to skip the reading and just check out the photos on Flickr, please click on the link below, and then on the box to the right of the screen entitled 'Singapore':

"This place possesses an excellent harbour... Singapore is everything we could desire" - Sir Stamford Raffles, 1819.

It would be hard to describe what makes Singapore so different, but it really is like no place I've ever been. It's lush, commercialised, busy, and yet there are pockets of tranquillity mere metres away from the hubbub. The young Asian population are modern and hip, yet a blonde woman walking around in some areas will still attract stares. There are pockets where it is pure Asia - the plastic chairs and tables of cafes, and shops selling every bric-a-brac under the sun compete for space on already crowded sidewalks, and you are assaulted by smells both pleasant and repulsive. You need a mortgage to get a beer here, they cost approximately $15 Singapore Dollars (around $12/13 Australian Dollars), but the wages match the cost of living, and expats party alongside elegant prostitutes in the brightly lit tourist areas alongside the river. The opium dens of old Singapore may be long gone, but the mystique remains in the massage parlours and karaoke bars that line dim back alleys. Step off the main drag and there is a seediness that is both alluring and exotic in the way only Asia can be.

I am staying in the Geylang area, the red light district of Singapore. Prostitutes still ply their wares down some of the dark lorengs (or lanes) off Geylang Road, and I'm told that my hotel was once a knocking shop where a room could be rented by the hour. That would perhaps explain the lack of laundry facilities, my hot water running out after about 2 mins and the fact that the wi-fi hasn't worked since I've been here.

Singapore is made up of neighbourhoods and is easy enough to navigate around. The subway system, or MRT, is quick and easy and incredibly cheap. Taxis aren't pricey, but queues at the cab ranks are horrendous, and it's obvious that demand outweighs supply. I walk everywhere anyway, and due to the dreadful rain that has plagued my stay since I arrived, it has actually been fairly cool and without any of the humidity that this island is so famous for although juggling an umbrella, a map and my camera simultaneously is starting to get tedious.

Singaporeans are friendly - I've been really lucky to meet some great people. Whether it's smoking some shishah in a Turkish cafe in the Arab Quarter, bonding over beers in Clarke Quay or chit chatting at a table in a hawker market in Chinatown, everyone has a story and is keen to know yours. I have had to buy a fake 'engagement ring' so don't freak out if you see me sporting it in photos - it deters the cab drivers. I've been propositioned by 3, one of whom did sing a fairly decent rendition of 'Pretty Woman' to me, although it wasn't so good as to make me want to marry him. The series of questions go something like this: are you on your own? are you single? do you travel alone? (these are normally followedy by pitying/incredulous/lecherous looks depending on the person asking). Easier to say that my fiance is back in the hotel sick with a tummy bug and divert the conversation to the weather, than have a massive big philosophical conversation about my personal life.

Food is everywhere here and a huge part of Singapore life - there are tons of hawker centres (cheap food courts) selling top quality noodles, soups and other Asian delights, some which look very dodgy. I've been sticking to vegetarian Kway Teow - a noodle dish that you can normally purchase for $4. It's good to sit in the food courts munching on noodles, a Tiger beer in hand, and watch the world pass by. So far the mezze plates in the Arab Quarter have been my favourite, surrounded by aromatic smoke from the shishah pipes, sipping on hot, strong Turkish coffee, and gazing at the golden dome of the Sultan Mosque. I did have one interesting food adventure. According to my Lonely Planet Singapore the 'best laksa'in Singapore is at a tiny hawker centre, between the Arab Quarter and Little India. It took me forever to find, cursing as my map got wet and I tried to figure out where the hell I was to bemused stares of passersby. This was well off the tourist track, however I eventually located the little stand, manned by a sweet old man in wellies and a white vest, and his very grumpy assistant. I asked for vegetarian laksa, was informed there was none, and figured as it taken me about 3/4 of an hour to find this place I'd opt for the meat and just put it to one side. When it arrived it looked safe enough, and I took a few tentative sips of the broth (delicious!) before starting to eat the noodles. That when something that looked alarmingly like an eye floated up to the surface. Seriously, I didn't inspect it in too much detail, however all of a sudden scenes from Bladerunner popped into my head. My stomach did a number of flip-flops, I resisted the urge to vomit, drank my entire bottle of water, and vowed never to venture into cuisine unknowns again. I'm a traveller, I'm just not a CULINARY traveller. Here on in, I'm sticking to what I know!

Here are some of the highlights of the trip so far:

LITTLE INDIA: It was once said that there were 3 ways to India from Singapore: by boat, by plane, and by a short walk to Little India. A popular backpacker accommodation destination and a slice of Old Singapore, the spicy smell of Indian food asssaults your senses as start to wander the meandering streets to the sound of bhangra and past gossiping, dhoti-clad men. Wooden shuttered buildings are beautifully painted on the second storey, but downstairs at street level is chaotic, with little room to walk on the crumbling pavements. There are several temples all devoted to different gods or goddesses including one to Kali, with impressive facades. It's not as clean as other parts of Singapore, but worth checking out for the food alone.

THE ARAB QUARTER: I loved wandering around here, past carpet sellers and tiny little coffee shops. The Arab Quarter is alcohol-free, and the guilty pleasures here lie in smoking shishah pipes. You can select the flavour you want and the elegantly adorned pipes are brought to your table. Order a plate of babbaganush and bread, bask under the golden glow of the dome of the Sultan Mosque and you feel like you've slipped into an Arabian Nights story, and a handsome turbaned prince is going to ride down the street on a white horse and sweep you away into the desert. Even if you don't smoke, the aromatic smells of shishah and charcoal are enticing. A must to check out day and night for a different experience each time.

CHINATOWN: This is my favourite place in Singapore (although the Arab Quarter is a close second). In the late 1800's, Chinatown was the pit of iniquity, with countless brothels and opium and gambling dens nestled next to each other. The original sin city, it earned its name as Bu Ye Tian: "The Place of Nightless Days". Chinatown is gearing up for Chinese New Year which is on Thursday. Thousands of people throng the tiny streets, under Chinese lanterns, ready to say goodbye to the Year of the Tiger (apparently not a good year as tigers bite) and hello to the Year of the Rabbit (bonking and good luck - yay!!). In fact bunnies are everywhere, in every shape and form: statues, toys, shirts, pencil-cases - you name it, you'll find it shaped like Bugs. The excitement is palpable. The most beautiful temple in Singapore is here, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Upstairs you can enter a room and take a look at the tooth itself - it's behind glass and encased in a 420kg gold case, but a TV shows an image of it in close up. The rooftop garden is gorgeous. It houses a room in the middle containing a large, intricately painted Sanskrit prayer wheel, in the Pavilion of 10,000 Buddhas. There was no-one up there when I went, and I wandered round the orchid garden, 5 storeys above Chinatown, listening to the soothing sound of chanting monks being pumped out of stone-shaped speakers, and felt wonderfully at peace. I sat amongst the 'Uncles', chain-smoking elderly Chinese men, at the Nanyang Coffee Shop which serves the best ice coffee I've ever tasted. You can wander for hours here. A beer only costs $5 at the hawker markets and it's a great place to hang out and chat to locals and tourists alike.

COLONIAL QUARTER: On 6 February 1819 Singapore was claimed as a trading outpost of the British Empire to "secure to the British flat the maritime supreriority of the Eastern seas". The imprint of this colonial past is indelible. A pocket of historical buildings this area is also home to the infamous Raffles Hotel, where the Singapore Sling cocktail was invented, and it's worth getting dressed up in your best gear and meandering through its impressive white corridors, and feeling like you've slipped back into the 1920's.

CLARKE QUAY & BOAT QUAY: This warehouse-styled area (think The Rocks in Sydney, or Canary Wharf in London), right on the river, contains shops, bars, microbreweries and restaurants and is normally packed full of tourists and expats happy to pay the exhorbitant beer prices, listen to local bands and pick up local girls. Wandering along the river is an absolute delight especially in the evening when the different coloured lights of the restaurants of Boat Quay reflect off the water, and you could live in Singapore your whole life, eat in a different place each night, and still not make the rounds. Tourists who aren't brave enough to sample the questionable dishes in the hawker centres can come here and find Italian, Mexican, and Western cuisine and have a pint of Guinness in an Irish pub. Stepping into the alleyways behind the surreal, glitzy facade there are still traces of the Singapore of old, as beautiful women entice willing Westerners into darkened karaoke bars.

SINGAPORE ZOO & JURONG BIRD PARK: Both of these are well out of Singapore and I had to get a taxi to the zoo although I managed to navigate my way home by public transport. Only minutes out of the high-rise mania of Singapore city and nearly at the Malaysian border, it sits amongst stunningly lush rainforest. As zoos go it's impressive, the animals are housed on fairly large areas of land, separated by the tourists from a moat. You have to suspend some belief that a huge tiger or lion isn't capable of navigating or jumping over the moat to eat a foreign snack: I assume that they are kept well-fed and they certainly looked self-satisfied in the way only big cats can, basking in their awesomeness as tourists ooh-ed and aah-ed. Highlights for me were the white tigers, the probiscus monkeys, white rhino and the urangutans. As rain poured down (and I'd forgotten my umbrella in the taxi the night before and was 'making do'with a map), I felt for the Orangutan who sat miserably with a sack pulled over his head. Maybe he was on holiday and fed up of the crap weather too. Singapore Zoo has an impressive breeding program and also pushes the 'endangered'message, including disturbing photos of poached animals on posters everywhere. I felt sorry for the jaguars, leopard and cheetahs who paced relentlessly, and I felt that compared to the tigers and lions they had very little space: but at least they are safe I suppose. It's heartbreaking that these beautiful creatures are now only safe in zoos.

Jurong Bird Park is deceptive - you think you've seen it all and then suddenly you are in a massive aviary with 20 lowries and parakeets sitting on your head. It takes a good couple of hours to walk around the beautiful grounds, and has the largest artificial waterfall in the world. They even have an American Bald Eagle - although again I felt sorry for it sitting in aviary which was way too small for such an impressive creature. It's well worth a visit and there were very few tourists although I imagine that was something to do with the wet weather. A word of warning: If you come here and plan on getting a taxi back then order in advance, get your booking number and be outside at the right time. The queue was huge, and when I called 3 of the taxi services I was told there were no available cabs in the area. Public transport is good in Singapore and once I found the bus stop it only took me 50 minutes to get home, but I was the only tourist on the bus so it depends on your comfort level.

I love Singapore. I did come here to check it out as a potential place to live and I am definitely won over by the magic. I have been spoiled rotten by people I know, made new friends and been out of my culinary comfort zone. It's safe to walk around and a myriad of different sights from one street to the next. There is something for everyone, from the retail Meccas of Orchard Road to tranquil parks and beaches. It's put me in the right frame of mind for the next part of my adventure tomorrow: Beijing, China.

Happy Chinese New Year!!