Monday, October 12, 2015

Singapore: Totally Underrated.

I've just finished an afternoon of teaching, and find myself too tired to do more PhD reading at the moment. What's up on my to-do list? Singapore!

When I was writing about Singapore in a pre-trip post, I had said that my goals while visiting the city were as follows:
- eat a lot
- experience a hawker market
- check out the night safari at the zoo
- maybe spend a day in Malaysia for more delicious food, and
- don't break any laws.

I think my current state of non-incarceration suffices to demonstrate that the last goal was (to my and the authorities'  knowledge) met. It wasn't difficult to avoid breaking laws in Singapore, despite the jokes and no chewing gum (a real law). The government does love rules, but as a tourist, many of them didn't affect my behaviour. The rules did curb my alcohol consumption a wee bit, because alcohol taxes are incredibly high, but I could hardly claim that I suffered or enjoyed the trip less for that.
Drew purchases yummy victuals
at a hawker market

Happily, my other goals for Singapore were quite easy to meet. The first goal of eating a lot was satisfied by pursuing the second goal, to check out some hawker markets. Hawker markets are covered outdoor areas lined with rows of small food stalls and picnic-table-style seating. Instead of having street food vendors willy nilly around the city, Singapore decided to put them all together in a few organized places. I think that there's a lot of competition to get a stall, and so the quality of the food sold - though extremely cheap! - is very good. Drew and I checked out a few hawker markets and ate tons of food from different places - Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, etc. I was rarely hungry because we were always eating.

We also went to the famous Raffles
Hotel, and tried the Singapore Sling,
invented here and still very good!
We patronized some stand-out restaurants, as well. One Indian restaurant, called Lagnaa (reservations recommended), will stay in my memory forever, because the food is super delicious, they take the heat levels of their dishes very seriously, and our friend, Zac, was interested in their chili challenge. The heat of their dishes ranges from 1 (mild) to 6 (extreme heat). This is not a numeric scale, but more like an exponential scale, so 2 is not medium; 2 is spicy, and Drew, Anna and I, who all enjoy spicy food, ate dishes at level 2 and were happy with our choice. Zac has an uncommon love of heat in his food, and so he tried a level 4 dish. It was good, he said, but he could have had a hotter one. If a person eats an entire level 6 dish at this restaurant, with no yoghurt-drinks or bread (to cut the heat), then that person will be invited to attend a Full Moon party, when the chef will spend all afternoon carefully preparing a level 7 dish that the attendees will share. If they succeed in eating the level 7 dish, their names go up on the wall in everlasting glory. Zac recently returned to the restaurant and had a level 6 dish all to himself. He said, though, that the heat was more than he enjoys in his food. I'm unclear about whether he'll attempt level 7.

The night safari at the Singapore Zoo is absolutely worth doing. It's touristy, yes, but it seems to me that many touristy things are popular because they're great. The Singapore Zoo is apparently one of the best in the world in terms of animal environment and care-taking, and their night safari gives visitors the chance to see a lot of animals that would normally be lazing about in the day up, eating, and running around. One of my favourites was the Fisher Cat, and we watched her pacing along the bank of a river that ran through her enclosure, carefully watching the water for fish. Part of the night safari can be explored on foot, but another part, with the larger animals, can only be seen by going on a guided tour. The tour was informative, of course, telling visitors about the animals, but was also really focused on conservation, and telling visitors about animals that were threatened or endangered because of careless human activity. The guide was very firm in telling us that Rhino horn has no medicinal value, for example, and that some of the animals we were seeing in the zoo were extinct in the wild from over-hunting and habitat loss. I really appreciated that message from this safari, which could otherwise have been a kind of empty voyerism. So check it out, get a bit sad, and then go look at the Slow Loris and be cheered! He's so cute, and so slow!!

Drew beside some
towering wax palms
Finally, rather than go to Malaysia for a day (knowing that a great spot for food, Malacca, was really too far away for a day-trip and we were getting to eat some awesome Malaysian food in Singapore), we decided to spend a day on one of Singapore's outlying islands. We went to one called Pulau Ubin, which is quite easy to get to by taking a bus to a small ferry port, and then catching a bum-boat across. Pulau Ubin has one tiny village, a bunch of friendly street dogs, bike rentals, and a protected mangrove. The day we went, the sky seemed to be threatening rain, but because Singapore was *super hot* we did not care about rain. We were already sweaty and couldn't see how it could be any more humid, so we went to the island anyway. Shortly after we arrived on the island, the heavens opened and dumped an absolute lashing of rain, but we took cover in a little refreshment stand and waited, with our rented bikes, for the worst of it to pass.

Wild piglets!
Once it had mostly stopped, we set off on one of the paths around the island. We saw some of the island's wild pigs, and the beautiful palms and mangrove, and biked up an appetite before heading back to sample the fare at the ferry terminal hawker market. Again, I recommend doing this. There is a ton of interesting wildlife that you can learn about (and potentially see), and you can take a shorter or longer time to tour the island, as you like. There were walking paths that we didn't do, preferring to cycle instead. It was really a lush, pristine jungle, with all the heat and humidity that one imagines when using that word, and was one of my favourite days in Singapore.

It's Jane Goodall if she
was a flower!
Another spot not to miss is the botanical gardens, with the national orchid gallery. The entire park is stunning. Drew found his spiritual centre in the ginger garden, and the orchid gallery is incredible - you can look at orchids named after visiting dignitaries and stars, as well. My favourite was Jane Goodall. Tip: students get in free! Make sure to take food and water with you (take water everywhere in Singapore, to stay hydrated!) because once in the park you're on your own; there aren't any restaurants inside.

I'm really happy that we decided to stop in Singapore. In deciding to go, it clearly helped that we had friends there who we wanted to see, but it was a really fun and interesting city, and there is lots that we didn't have time to do. Many people met the news that we would visit Singapore with derision - of all the places in Asia to visit, all the cool places, why go to Singapore! It's so sterile, they would tell us. Having been there, I have to disagree. Singapore is an incredibly unique place, unlike any other I've been to, with distinct architecture, history, and cultural influences. I'd have liked to visit the municipal planning museum (does sound boring, but Zac highly recommended it and he knows what's up) to get a greater sense of all the thought and organization that has gone into Singapore, making it the phenomenon that it is. I think it's terribly underrated as a place to visit, and I really think it's worth checking out when one is in that part of the world.

Drew and I would like to extend a huge thank you to Zac and Anna, our friends who live in Singapore, for their hospitality and for showing us such a great time! They really knew all the great spots to check out, including micro-breweries, bespoke cocktail bars, awesome food, and of course, the best way to see the Super Trees. Thanks, you two! You're excellent tour guides! 

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