Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Posted on February 16th, 2005

Aside from being the main and therefore cheapest hub in Southeast Asia, I chose Singapore as my SE Asia staging point because rumor had it that there wasn’t all that much backpacker appeal - unless you enjoy endless shopping - and I wanted to take a break. I’ve learned repeatedly that taking a break in a city that actually has enticing attractions is like taking a walk in Los Angeles; it’s guaranteed to fail. No matter how tired I am, the thick guidebook entries, the tales from the people coming through the hostel at the end of the day, the city maps which I inevitably stare at uncontrollably and the intriguing sights I pass as I am out getting my bowl of noodles (or what have you) for lunch are too much to resist. In order to get genuine rest, I need to find a Winnipeg-caliber city, with a quiet hostel and a comfortable bed. Singapore was oh-for-three.

After hearing countless tales of how big-city dull Singapore was, it was surprising and frustrating to arrive and discover that there were indeed a plethora of things to do and see. It was the Canberra Effect all over again. So listen to Uncle Leif kids; take everything that rumor-spreading, travel elitists tell you with a grain of salt. They can’t and shouldn’t be trusted. Singapore is vastly underrated as a destination. The variety of food available on nearly every corner at what were, up to that point, the cheapest prices I’ve paid outside of Romania were enough to keep me out on the streets, stalking the food counters for hours each day. To make matters worse, I was staying at The Inn Crowd, a fun, extremely social hostel, in an 18 bed dorm room, with beds that had a maximum of seven hours of rest potential before my back would rebel against the mattress. In short, rest was fleeting.

This is the offices of the World Red Swastika Society. I don't know and I don't wanna know.

Stopping in Singapore before heading into SE Asia has the added advantage of providing a smoother transition from western to Asian culture than if you flew straight into, say, Bangkok. Singapore’s western-friendly foundation is enhanced by a populace confluence of Chinese (76%), Malaysian (14%) and Indian (8%). There are four national languages (English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil [Indian]) and every sign of importance (read; all of them) is presented in all four languages so there are no screw-ups. Britain’s historical influence with the Asian-heavy undercurrent makes Singapore a virtually painless destination for Asia virgins, while giving one an tempting preview of what’s to come.

I had a huge ‘in’ in Singapore. Lay-See, one of my mother’s former students, is a Singapore native and she offered to meet and help me get acquainted with the city. I arrived during the Chinese Lunar New Year and Lay-See was in the middle of a five day weekend. I assumed that this might be a time for hanging out with the family, so I expected that we might have coffee and walk around a bit and that would be it, but Lay-See had big plans. She arrived at my hostel with a bag full plunder from the Singapore tourism bureau and we launched right into my introduction to Singapore’s wonders in food and drink.

Singapore island is just a hair north of the equator so the climate goes from remarkably hot and humid in the “winter” to devastatingly hot and humid in the summer. Beating the heat is a constant ordeal. The upshot of this situation are the countless juice stands all over the city, making fresh, ice infused fruit drinks to order. Mango, banana, orange, red/green apples, star fruit, dragon fruit, kiwi, pineapple, watermelon, strawberries… you name it and they’ll juicify it. I was also introduced to and developed an immediate addiction for fresh coconut juice, served while still in the coconut (they dramatically chop the top open with a meat cleaver when you order it). After you’ve sucked down the sweet, thirst-quenching juice, you are armed with a spoon, so you can scoop out and munch on the soft insides. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Right off the bat, Lay-See led me straight to one of these wonderful juice stands to start our day with some refreshment. I got a smoothie-like drink with green apples, pears and pineapples. Even though it was only 10:00AM, the heat was already kicking my ass and that drink really hit the spot.

The Merlion with the Esplanade Center in the background

Riding the juice rush, we took a ride through Singapore’s gleaming and mercifully air conditioned Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) subway system. The MRT trains are so clean that they actually smell like soap. First stop City Hall where we eluded the morning heat even further by cutting through a maze of underground shopping passages to get to the marina area. We had intended to get onto the Duck Tour, an amphibious bus-boat that takes you around Singapore’s Central Business District (CBD) and then plunges into the marina for a cruise, but the Duck Mobiles were all booked up for the day. Passing on their offer for a hop-on-hop-off bus tour, we decided to hit the streets Leif Style and hoof it. First we wandered around the marina, admiring the spiky-roofed Esplanade performing arts center and the “Merlion,” a half fish, half lion statue, Singapore’s island mascot. From there we impulsively jumped on one of the Singapore River tour boats which chug through Singapore’s CBD on old fishing boats, piloted by former fishermen. As you cruise along, the boats play cheesy, enthusiastic pre-recorded commentary on all of the riverside attractions and Singapore trivia. During the tour, the boat skirts under several bridges that are slung so low that a slight increase in the water level or a mild, support beam collision would rip the top of the boat right off.



This is the ferry that takes people to Sentosa island, an amusement island with beaches and a fun park. You can also get there by gondola cable car.

A funky foot bridge over the Singapore River

Thirty minutes later we were back on foot, cutting through the CBD and making a beeline for one of the countless open-air hawker centers (food courts) for lunch. The food stalls in these places are about the size of a handicapped bathroom. Each specializes in six to 10 dishes that they crank out with amazing speed and precision. Full meals cost a mere US$3-$5, including an ice-cold, refreshing drink. Lay-See ordered noodles with chicken and vegetables, which came with a side of wantan soup and a small dipping dish of chili paste. She ran off again and returned with two cups of sugarcane juice which was not as sugary as expected, slightly milky and, of course, refreshing as hose in the face.

After lunch, we headed into Chinatown where we traipsed through some Buddhist temples and then submitted ourselves to the Chinese Heritage Center’s guided tour. While this tour was very intriguing and the tour guide did a supreme job at keeping the stories entertaining, the tour was simply too long. Lay-see and I hung in there for 90 minutes before ducking out when it became clear that there was no end in sight.

By this point, my jetlag and snowballing exhaustion had caught up with me and I left Lay-See in a barrage of ‘thank yous’ to return to the hostel for a nap.

Check out this fan tree!

Central Singapore is relatively compact and has excellent public transportation, but car traffic is still thick and unruly, which comes as quite a surprise when you learn what people have to go through to buy a car in the first place. Singaporeans are strongly discouraged from owning cars partly to control exhaust emissions, but also I suspect because city officials realized that there’s only so much space on the island and if people kept buying cars at some point traffic would just come to a permanent standstill and they’d have no other choice but to have everyone put on their emergency brakes and turn Singapore into a used car lot. But if you really want a car, it’s not out of the question, as long as you have the funds. The main hurdle to negotiate before you can even start to shop for your car, is the acquisition of a permit that allows you to own a car. This isn’t a license or insurance or anything useful, it’s simply a piece of paper that says it’s OK for you to purchase a vehicle. The price for this ineffectual piece of paper? Thirty-four thousand Singapore dollars (US$21,250). Then, you can go shopping for your car. Unfortunately, despite your relative proximity to Japan, you will be dismayed to learn that cars themselves aren’t particularly cheap either. For a half-decent ride, let’s say you pay another US$30,000. Then tack on insurance, random fees and other expenses. Essentially, you’re looking at a minimum expenditure of about US$60,000 before you can get behind the wheel. Now the moment of truth! You worked hard, you went through the ridiculous rigmarole and now you’ve finally got your car! It cost more than your condo, but it’s all yours! While all your friends have to take the MRT, you’re cruising Orchard Road with the tunes cranked and the babes are lovin’ you. Bathed in the glory of it all, you expertly park your wheels, polish off a scuff mark and head into a hawker center for a bowl of noodles. Needless to say, when you emerge to find that a good-for-nothing, American punk kid has vandalized your car, you want blood; something appropriately medieval like a good old fashion caning. Enter Michael Fey.

Remember this? Around about 1994 Fey was busted for damaging a bunch of cars in Singapore in between his side hobby of removing stop signs from dangerous intersections. Now, call me cruel if you like, but if I had laid out the all that bling for a car and had been one of Fey’s hapless victims, I’d have been the first in line at the Singapore Caning Institute the next morning, begging for a chance to thump that kid. I don’t have the exact numbers, but Singapore sentenced Fey to something like 12 whacks with the cane, but Clinton stepped in and they halved the punishment. If I remember correctly, he came back to the US soon afterward and apparently he was so traumatized by his caning that he promptly got into a drug habit, for which he was treated at good ol’ Hazelton in Minneapolis.

There's a series of these naked statues all over Singapore's CBD.

Needless to say, Singapore, the “nanny state,” is frighteningly serious when it comes to rules and enforcement thereof. Caught smoking in a non-smoking area? Five hundred dollar fine. Littering? First offence S$1,000 fine, second offence S$2,000 fine, plus a corrective work order. That includes spitting, by the way, so if you swallow a bug, just try to imagine that it was chocolate covered. Taking drugs? Imprisonment, caning and/or a huge fine. Selling drugs? Death penalty. These guys don’t play.

The littering issue came to a head years ago when Singapore banned gum(!). I guess one day the street cleaner guys had to scrap up one too many piece of gum off the sidewalk and had a group hissyfit. The street cleaner boss man must have been well connected, because bam, no more gum. So, let’s see, in addition to drugs, toy currency and coins (what do they use when they play Monopoly? Toy debit cards?), obscene or seditious material, gun-shaped lighters, fire crackers, endangered species and their byproducts and pirated recordings/publications, you also couldn’t bring in “retail amounts” of gum into the country. Thankfully, the gum ban has been lifted for now (though the customs rule still applies for some reason), assuming people continue to deposit their used gum in the appropriate waste receptacles. Funny story; when Singapore and the US were finalizing their free-trade agreement, there was one and only one little snag. Nicotine gum. Singapore would not allow it. After much back-and-forth Singapore relaxed a bit, allowing nicotine gum to be imported, but only for sale by a pharmacist, with a prescription. And 20 hours of classroom and practical training on how to safely throw out used gum. (OK, I made that up.)

In all fairness, all of these strict laws and exhaustive rules have resulted in Singapore developing into a squeaky clean, safe and pleasant place to live. When was the last time you were in a city of 4.2 million people and felt safe to take a midnight stroll wherever you please? And where else can you drop your apple in the subway, pick it right up and keep right on eating it without a worry in the world? Well, food is not allowed in the MRT, so let’s say the side walk… No, that’s no good cause then you might get busted for littering. Well, if you do drop an apple, just run like hell, OK?

With the heroic amount of touring I did with Lay-See, I followed up the next day, by doing squat. Zip. Nada. Diddly. I needed a day of lethargy. Actually, I needed a week of lethargy, but we all know that’s about as likely as me getting a week in a nudist colony with six Salma Hayak clones. But I was a serious lazy trooper for that one day. I slept, ate, downed some coconut juice, ate again, watched a movie, then I decided to get productive. After striking out throughout the entirety of Australia and New Zealand in my quest to find and pillage a free wi-fi hotspot, my fortunes took a turn for the better in Singapore where free wi-fi spots were practically on top of each other. I went to a nearby air conditioned mall, made myself comfortable on a bench in the corner and logged on for four free hours on the Internet. It was the precise scene I had envisioned when I purchased my wireless card during my last visit home. And according to the Wi-Fi-FreeSpot Directory I had more of the same coming to me all over SE Asia. Finally, wi-fi deliverance! In your face Australia!!!

Still basking in the glow of my day out with Lay-See, I called invited her out the following day so I could treat her to lunch in thanks for her hospitality. We dinned happily at an air conditioned hawker center where Lay-See ordered yet another spread of Chinese culinary adventure for me. Newly bloated, we headed into Singapore’s Botanical Gardens. With Singapore’s urban jungle repute, I was shocked at the size and quality of their Botanical Gardens. We wandered the grounds for half the afternoon, which included a foray into the relatively gigantic orchid garden. The orchid is the official flower of Singapore, so they went whole-hog here, including a host of orchids proudly engineered on site, a system which seems to have been created solely for the purpose of subsequently naming the new orchids after visiting dignitaries and their wives. These “VIP orchids” have their very own section where you can admire orchids named after Kofi Anan, Queen Elizabeth, the prince and princess of Japan and (sigh) Barbara and Laura Bush. Barbara Bush’s orchid is appropriately butt-ugly, I might add. It looks like the thing from “Alien” having a dry heave.

The Orchid Garden

Philippino house servants gather in the Botanical Gardens for picnics and gossiping on Sundays.

While the gardens were a nice break from the city noise and chaos, our time there coincided with the hottest part of the day, which was, of course, disastrous. After more than three hours, we staggered out of the gardens like we’d just spent a month in the Australian outback and limped to the nearest fruit juice stand for sweet, ice-cold refreshment.

Somehow Lay-See redirected my attempt to repay her for her generosity into a outlay of yet more food, drink and good company. Her niece was having her 10th birthday that night and I was invited to join the family for dinner and cake. I had a ball talking to Lay-See’s brothers and sisters and getting yet more insight into the Singapore way of life. Most notably, the vast majority of the kitchen work-space at Lay-See’s brother’s house is out on the back patio! The stove, oven and sink were outside!! What a brilliant way to keep the house cool! This is only possible of course due to Singapore’s consistently warm climate. Try an outdoor kitchen in Minnesota and see how far you get.

I indulged in a full table of new and tasty Chinese dishes. After talking at great length about my love for spicy food and how I was so happy to be in a country where spicy food was the rule and not the exception, I took pause when I shoveled in a spoonful of what appeared to be a spinach-like substance that was unexpectedly hot, despite the compete lack of visible chilies. Later I dipped a piece of deep-fried pork into a chili paste that masked the spice at first, so I dipped my fork directly into the paste for a better taste and my tongue promptly burst into flames. It felt like each exhalation of breath was igniting like a Roman Candle. Once I’d doused the inferno with two cups of punch and stemmed the flow of snot that rushed out of my nose, I decided to start eating Asian food with a new level of caution.

As if feeding me to bursting and providing great company weren’t enough, Lay-See topped the evening off by casting off her aversion to driving and ferried me across town through the turmoil of Sunday evening Singapore traffic (the big night out night for Singapore’s laboring Indian population) right to the door of my hostel.

Again, I needed a down day to offset the exertion put forth in the Botanical Gardens. I put in several more hours of free wi-fi merriment before returning to the hostel for the Valentine’s Day Cross-Dressing Ball, which included a Singapore Slut pageant for the “ladies.” Many of the residents had gone down the road to the Salvation Army to outfit themselves, but with my stash of Singapore dollars dwindling and not wanting to make a special trip to the cash machine just to get in touch with my feminine side, I bowed out of the pageant and simply observed and took pictures well out of lap-dancing range.

That night, one of the hostel’s intellectually challenged clerks allowed one of the short-sighted, cold-blooded females in our dorm to convince her that it was a little too cold in the dorm room and that the air conditioning should be adjusted. Rather than turn down the air, she turned it off and with 18 hot and drunk bodies heating the place up with zero circulation, the room was a steam bath by 3:00AM. By 6:00AM sleep was no longer possible. This uncomfortable night couldn’t have been timed more poorly. With a 7:00AM flight to Kuching on the island of Borneo the following morning at Johor Bahru’s (JB) remote Senai Airport, I had resigned myself to spending the night in the departure lounge. I planned to loiter at the hostel until late in the afternoon, take the express bus over the border to Malaysia, switch to an airport shuttle in JB and camp out until my 6:00AM check-in the next morning. Having had barely six hours of sleep on my last night in Singapore promised to make the already unpleasant day/night/day absolutely excruciating.

Why do I do this to myself?

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