The return to South East Asia
Last year my summer vacation brought me to South East Asia for the first time (Laos, Thailand, Myanmar), and I fell in love with the culture of the region. So it was pretty much a no brainer for me to make a return this year. I went off for 2 weeks in July, at the early beginnings of the wet season, little discouraged after last years travel in the height of the rainy season turned out to be a lot less bad than anticipated. The weather did end up holding up quite nicely during the entire trip.
My very first destination was the tiny island nation of Singapore, that I had merely had a small layover in last year. This time I wanted to go for a proper visit. I spent 2 days/1 night in Singapore.
Arrival & capsule hotel
After a long travel time, including 12 hours flight to Bangkok, followed by a 4 hour layover and yet another 2.5 hour flight down to Singapore, I finally arrived at the beautiful Singapore Changi airport, which is one of the best and prettiest airports in the world, with several architectural marvels inside the terminals. But rather than stay around and oogle at the sights, I quickly jumped on the subway taking me into the city center, and the Chinatown area in which my capsule hotel was located.
Chinatown is a wonderfully sprawling part of town, that stays very true to it’s name. Chinese culture is everywhere here, from the food to the buildings and shops. The streets are crowded with people at all times of the day, and it is (mostly) a joy to wander around soaking in the neighbourhood. Unfortunately, Singapore is also extremely hot and extremely humid, especially for a northern european like myself, so I was sweating buckets just walking around trying to find my hotel.
My map app had unfortunately given me the wrong directions so I ended up at a wrong place at first, having to walk several hundred meters unnecessarily, which in this climate, and with full luggage equipped can be quite bothersome. In the end I found the hotel which, to be fair, also had it’s entrance placed right on the busy main pedestrian street of the Chinatown area, making it hard to spot amongst all the shops and people. I quickly signed in and got shown the capsule that was to be my home for the next 24-ish hours.
I’ve never stayed at a capsule hotel before, but given the prices of ordinary accomodation in Singapore, there really isn’t much of a choice for the budget traveller. Also I like new experiences! But all my worries and preconceived ideas were quickly blown out of the water, as each capsule is actually quite spacy, and comes with cool lights, airconditioning, plenty of outlets etc. It was actually a real joy to stay in that capsule. The sense of total privacy while still being in a room with 20 other people is great.
After checking in an settling into my new little cozy cabin, it was time to head out to explore Singapore a little bit.
Sightseeing & military parade
The primary goal of my first afternoon/evening here was to wander around the Marina Bay Sands area and Gardens By the Bay, to see the fancy hotel, and the unique giant artificial trees. Instead of taking the subway down to the Downtown/Bay area I decided it would be worthwhile to just walk down there, sightseeing along the way. Now without my backpack and in looser clothes, it was more comfortable to walk around, albeit still very warm and sweat-inducing.
I first walked out of the Chinatown area, passing by a beautiful hindu temple, but I couldn’t go inside since my clothes didnt fulfill the dresscode. Oh well. From there its a easy walk down to the downtown area, passing through the Singapore river, the city hall with its art installation outside and past plenty of taller and taller buildings reaching up into the sky.
Eventually I reached the Merlion park, which offers a splendid view-point of the Marina Bay Sands hotel, and also features the iconic water-spouting lion statue that is a symbol of Singapore. As I arrived, I noticed that there were a lot of people, like A LOT of people. Even though it was a saturday night, it seemed out of the ordinary. In the harbor, in between the Merlion park and the Marina Bay Sands hotel, was a military floating vehicle with several cannons and personnel lined up. So eventually it dawned on me that something was probably going to happen. Suddenly out of nowhere a 3 craft helicopter squadron appeared in the horizon and slowly made its way above the crowd gathered in the harbor area, flying with a gigantic Singaporean flag lowered beneath the central helicopter. It was quite the display. The helicopters flew around the downtown area showing off the flag. Meanwhile the canons on the floating vehicle started firing off empty shots, that did however give off quite some loud booms, over and over again. To quite the excitement of the crowd, myself included. Suddenly fighter aircraft zoomed into the sky above us in a big formation, showing off the military might and prowess of this tiny nation. They also continued onwards flying over other parts of the country. More aircraft showed up and made some different maneuvers in the sky above us, while the cannons still were being fired off. This all lasted for a good while before all the aircraft had disappeared, and the military floating vehicle took off.
I still have no idea what exactly was going on, the date – 29th june – doesn’t seem to be a important day in Singapore. But it was a awe-inspiring show, and my first military parade of sorts in fact! Glad I walked down to the harbor area at this time.
After the show finished, I walked along the harbor down to the Garden By the Bay area, taking in all the skyscrapers in the area. The whole area was swarming with people, probably even more so due to whatever big event was going on this day. The artificial trees in Garden By the Bay were closed down for visiting, but had some magnificent light shows going on instead. It was mesmerizing walking around in the park below the trees watching them light up. Additionally the Marina Bay Sands hotel was lit up in the national colors and the half-moon + stars symbol from the flag was projected onto the building as well. Spectacular sight.
A great firework display went off over the harbor after it had gotten really dark, but I was in the Garden By the Bay at this time, with the Marina Bay Sands hotel blocking mostly the whole view, sad!
By the time I finished walking around the Garden it was already fairly late, and it had been a very long day already, so I jumped on the subway and went back to Chinatown. Here I sat down in one of the many restaurants and had a basic fried rice dish for dinner. Then back to the capsule hotel, a quick shower, and the hitting the sack! What a first day of the trip.
Breakfast in the city
For the next day, my primary objective was to make it out to the Singapore Zoo, and back again in time for my flight in the early evening. But I decided to do a little more sightseeing first. First order of mission was to get some breakfast, and I had been informed that kaya toast was not to be missed. Kaya is a form of coconut jam, and it is actually very delicious! There’s a chain specializing in just kaya, called Ya Kun Kaya. I went to the nearest one a short walk away, and sat down for french toast with kaya, served with a soft-boiled egg. As far as breakfast goes, it was definitely very good.
Near the Ya Kun Kaya place I went to, is the Fort Canning park. Which is a nice little green space with a closed-off military fort. I took a stroll through this park, which was mostly deserted at this early hour (it was around 9am). Taking a peaceful walk through the lush plantation was a nice break from the bustle of the city. Coming out on the other side of the park, I jumped on the Fort Canning subway and headed to Haw Paw station, which is, not surprisingly located next to the Haw Paw Village museum.
Haw Paw Village is the home of some of the first chinese merchants settling in Singapore. The family built this interesting museum garden, which contains endless creative statues and displays showcasing myths, legends, and stories from chinese folk lore and buddhist lore. The sculptures and buildings are all built in a slightly creepy style, which puts them into the uncanny valley, and some of them did trigger my heebie-jeebies, but its still a interesting if unusual place to visit. The displays are all sign-posted in multiple languages including english, explaining the stories behind the display, so you can also learn something here.
The place is quite large and you can easily spend a few hours studying the various stories on display. There’s also several fountains and ponds with gold fish and turtles that you can feed. Making it a great outing for a day with the family.
Hell museum & Singapore Zoo
Finally, Haw Paw Village also contains something very unusual, a hell museum. It is a full display show-casing the 10 levels of hell according to chinese lore. Each level comes with different, but equally gruesome punishments, and reasons for getting said punishment. Some punishments includes getting thrown onto big spikes, getting crushed under huge rocks, being tied unto a red-hot metal-rod, being flayed alive etc. etc. All these punishments are show-cased uncensored, so it might not be entirely suitable for the youngest kids, although the displays are more comical than gory in my opinion.
Before you enter the 10-levels-of-hell cave, you go through a small exhibition telling about how hell is described in different religions, and how death is handled and honored in various cultures. The topic is definitely morbid and depressing, but it is just so unusual to find a museum about it, that it is really appealing.
After finishing off at Haw Paw Village, I set out for Singapore Zoo. I’m a big sucker for zoos, and visiting a zoo in a exotic country seemed interesting. And they also have a komodo-dragon, which I really wanted to see. Getting to the Zoo isn’t as straight forward as one could’ve wanted. By public transport you have to first take the subway to Khatib station, from here you can take a shuttle bus out to the zoo area. The shuttle bus is cheap but only goes about every 20 minutes, and then takes about 20 minutes of driving to get there. There’s only 1 bus at a time, and the queue can get quite long fast. I was lucky enough to get in the first bus that showed up. The good thing is that it drops you off pretty much exactly at the main entrance, not just to the Singapore Zoo, but also the River Cruise park.
The Singapore Zoo is located in a more remote part of the island, which allows the nature of the area to be incorporated nicely in a seamless fashion. The zoo is huge and has multiple zones. There a wide variety of monkeys and chimps, some free to climb around freely. Several big cats, including lions, white tigers, cheetas and leopards. Elephants, rhinos, ostriches, zebras, penguins, crocodiles, a lot of bird species, tapirs, sun-bears, a big reptile house with numerous species of chameleons, snakes, turtles, spiders etc. etc. And last but not least the komodo dragon I mentioned before. It was also the enclosure that was by far the heaviest visited, and it was hard to get a proper glimpse of it. It does help to be a tall north-european however. I was lucky to be there as they fed the komodo dragon. What a sight.
I only had limited time in the Zoo before I had to make my way back to Chinatown to pick up my luggage and head out to the Changi airport to fly off to Cambodia. I could’ve easily spent the whole day strolling around the zoo and the neighbouring River Safari park, but with my 1,5 hour available it was a rather rushed visit through the primary animals. I was a bit panicked on the way back, as I almost missed the bus back to Khatib station, but got squeezed in. In the end I made it to the airport in good time, but it was a tight fit nevertheless. Especially since 1 missed bus would’ve delayed me by 20 minutes.
And so finished my short little stay in Singapore, that still managed to pack a punch and offer a lot of impressive sights, both natural and man-made. I really enjoyed Singapore. Despite the weather being absolutely horrid, and the traffic being horrible (or so I thought, but compared to Cambodia and Vietnam, Singapore was traffic heaven). But fortunately Singapore offers a big and very efficient public transportation network, especially the subway system is huge and covers mostly everywhere in the country.
The city is also extremely clean, which is very unlike many other major cities in Asia, but it is solely because of the draconian laws that punish littering and any sort of public disturbance with big fines. It’s the price to pay for a incredibly highly developed succesful country I guess.