Despite all the attractions and appeals of Singapore in the recent years, I still wasn’t quite drawn to it. I recall friends inviting me to come along for the many weekend trips — even one-day trips, to visit the Universal Studio back when it was recently opened in 2011. Back in the days when I was still the office-bound-corporate-warrior.
Maybe it was the wrong timing on those invitations, or maybe I was enjoying more of solo travelling — but for whatever reason, a visit to Singapore and its Universal Studio never eventuated.
Something was also holding me back.
It only dawned on me recently that Singapore held a not-so-happy memory. It was during one of the brief transit trips I made back in the days of living in New Zealand when I stayed for two nights with a few friends. The man of my life at the time came along and fell slightly sick on the trip, causing so much drama and heartache – which details I shall spare – I stopped feeling sorry for him at the end. Needless to say, such man is no longer in my life.
I guess that incident left such a bad taste in my mouth that I didn’t think much of Singapore since then. But as someone told me recently I “shouldn’t take it out on the whole country”.
And so I shouldn’t, for the place has so much to offer.
In September last year, my best friend Miss Sassy invited me to see the musical Lion King in Marina Bay Sands theatre. I adore musicals and have always wanted to see the Lion King, after missing it a few times in the past while travelling in Sydney, London and New York City. With a couple of months into the sabbatical, any forms of travelling was high on the agenda. Finally, it was also my chance to explore Singapore as an adult traveller – with a new mindset. I wanted to see what the fascination was all about.
For what was put on display, with the details in costumes, and the emotions shown by the casts, it was worth paying top dollars for those front seats at the Lion King musical. (Images courtesy of motherinc.org)
We also checked out the Salvador Dali exhibition in the Art Science Museum in Marina Bay Sands, taking me back to the childhood memories when I first discovered the Dali-inspired watches in a shop. I wanted to own one, but never did.
(The image below is taken with a Blackberry camera – please excuse its quality for iPhone 4S was only acquired in December last year.)
Miss Sassy and I spent some time browsing at things in Bugis, where we also stayed, and later in Orchard. We share the same fascination on books and shoes – though she’s more shoe-crazed compared to me, that she proceeded to educate me on the fun facts of certain shoe models and designers. All while toddling along the ground floor of Takashimaya and ogling at shoes.
It was fun, and that could be why we didn’t kill each other during this, our first trip together. Also because we understand each other so well, that we didn’t need to be together the whole time, unlike other people who travel together. Most of the time, I was left alone to do my exploring and photography.
As photography was high on the agenda, I had my DSLR and tripod on this trip, lugging them around everywhere. I was that keen to take photos of the sights of Singapore, with its many neatly laid out suburbs. First cluster, to the east of the city centre, Bugis and Kampong Glam.
Words such as “characters”, “chaos”, and “hyperactive” can probably be associated with Bugis and Kampong Glam Add also “quirky” and “colourful” to the mix. I could feel the chaos, albeit a mild one compared to places like Jakarta, or Hongkong – from the hustle and bustle of people (mostly tourists) rummaging through the stalls in the market. Or the sights of those carrying trays of food while trying to find the seats in the packed hawker centre, and that uncle who was trying to clear up the tables as quickly as he can.
A different vibe is immediately felt when you walk into Arab Street in Kampong Glam. The chaotic Bugis still has that Chinese feel of Singapore. In Kampong Glam, there is a strong influence of the Moslem and Middle Eastern culture. This is also characterised by the presence of the grand Sultan Mosque. Shop houses are filled with shops selling textiles and restaurants with halal food.
I love the sight of great architecture, staring at building and places of worships is one of my past times while travelling. Unfortunately I didn’t get to go in to the mosque as there was a Friday prayer session.
Haji Lane, still in Kampong Glam, would have to be my favourite spot with its colourful graffiti and quirky shops/boutiques and restaurants.
I even caught a wedding photo session taking place on the same lane
Lugging my tripod and camera – all in the name of landscape and night photography – I took a long walk from Chinatown to Marina Bay Sands passing through the riverside and Esplanade. Everyone knows that walking is one of the best ways to explore new places when travelling. And Singapore is one of those places you can walk everywhere, if you don’t mind the heat and humidity.
When I got to Marina Bay Sands, it was still bright with daylight. I really wanted to get a picture of the Singapore skyline during sunset, including those iconic landmarks. Someone suggested I head to the Marina Barrage , and so I jumped on to a cab to catch the golden hour. Alas, the sky was so gloomy and muggy I didn’t get any good ones. Something about the forest burning from…Indonesia. (Sigh)
Taken from the Marina Barrage
Despite that, the Marina Barrage is a pleasant location to relax, walk and stare at the water or the city of Singapore across. One can also go to the rooftop park to play kites, or take photos as it was in my case. I did have fun learning about the Singapore freshwater reservoir including the amazing effort the government did to clean up its river. I only dream of one for Jakarta.
The Sustainable Singapore Gallery in Marina Barrage
I got a pleasant surprise on one of the nights I was back in the Marina Bay Sands waterfront promenade – again in an attempt to do more night photography. I was trying to take shots of the Fullerton Hotel from the opposite side when I startled and almost jumped from the very loud bang, a theatrical noise coming out of the speakers around the waterfront. The next thing I know, water was splashing around, shooting up in the air.
It was the musical laser light and fountain show, a free night time entertainment at the Marina Bay Sands waterfront promenade.
My jaw dropped for a few seconds while holding on to my tripod and camera. For someone who grew up loving the sight of neon lights in the city, there I was stunned. Very happy in fact, that little kid in me.
I must have stayed with my jaw dropped for quite sometime, mesmerised by the whole thing. Despite the late night, I kept on walking and taking photos.
I did venture out to other places such as Vivo City, right at the end of the island before one crosses the bridge to Sentosa Island. I also spent some time exploring a few of the cafes and restaurants suggested by friends. There are more places, suburbs included, that one can explore to get more photos. I didn’t have time to explore places with characters such as China Town or Little India. I wanted to. In fact, I only explored a tiny fraction of what Singapore has to offer.
Next time, maybe. Whenever that is.
Lure of the lions. First the musical, then the city itself.
I was hoping to feel very excited about the place after that trip. Like “excited I can’t wait to be back here” kind of excited. Here is a place that offers lots of things to do, from shopping, eating, culture, art exhibitions, to outdoor activities. Not to forget, it has those mega attractions like Universal Studio and Marina Bay Sands. Or those short getaway trips with a ferry to Pulau Ubin, or Indonesia’s Pulau Bintan. One will certainly never run out of things to do in Singapore.
But why was I not feeling that enthusiastic about the place? It felt the place was almost too perfect, almost clinical and dare I say, a little cold. I felt like it was missing some characters, you know, those things you look for when you travel to a new place? Technically, Singapore should be a new place for me this time.
“I think you have mistaken characters with chaos”, said an expat friend of mine who is such a big fan of Singapore, he probably would give up his kidney for a chance to live and work in that place. Secretly though, I think he loves Jakarta more.
True, and I did find characters and the mild-chaos in Bugis and Kampong Glam.
Later I thought of what a friend once said to me,
“The place feels like that movie, The Truman Show.”
I found myself slowly nodding in agreement.
That is the attraction. It’s a first world country 90 minutes away from Jakarta. That everything works seamlessly in Singapore. From the perfectly manicured trees lining up those perfectly paved walkways, to the perfectly coordinated transportation system, one where the bus or train says it’s coming in two minutes, it does mean two minutes. Or the perfectly planned city that each suburb, true to each of their characters are compartmentalised neatly within this small island.
Everything was just perfect, everything works. In the eyes of many of my fellow Jakartans and Indonesians, everything that we long for, Singapore has it. I finally understood why some love the place so much they keep coming back, even enough to make some of them stay and never come back.
At the end of that September trip last year, I still wasn’t convinced to make Singapore my first or even an option of a weekend getaway, say like Bali, which I would hop on a plane in a heart beat despite having gone there so many times. I hear you, readers, one is city, another is a beach weekend getaway. But then I feel the same with Sydney, a city. I’d jump on a plane in a heart beat. Although a weekend will never be enough for this place. Even three months didn’t feel enough.
Maybe it was the familiarity of the places – the glitzy malls, the people and some of the food, ones I can find in Jakarta. Or maybe it was the fact that while food is cheap, other things are not. Like accommodations. Or drinks with alcohol mixture in it. Or maybe that I sense a certain uptightness in the air. Rigid in fact.
Whatever it was, I was still missing something. Something or someone will just have to lure me into the lion city again before I would ever make a trip there just to fulfil my curiosity.
And what do you know. Something and someone did lure me into visiting the lion city, sooner than expected.