After a flight of more than twelve hours, I land at Changi International Airport, the airport on the northeast side of Singapore. It’s a quarter past six in the morning and, as usual, I barely slept during the twelve-hour flight. After I have arranged my electronic visa, I quickly pass through passport control. I only have hand luggage with me and walk straight to the MRT station. The MRT is Singapore’s super convenient subway; fast, efficient and clean. On the way to the city center, I notice the sign stating what you are not allowed to do in the metro: there are high fines for eating and littering. You certainly won’t find chewing gum on the floor: chewing gum is banned in Singapore.
I get off at Bugis station, in the district of the same name where my hotel is. It’s like entering a sauna: outside it is thirty degrees (the temperature in Singapore always fluctuates around thirty degrees during the day, with a minimum at night around 25 degrees) and the humidity is extremely high (always around eighty percent), which means it feels even warmer. It’s still too early to check in at my hotel, but I can get changed and leave my luggage. Then it’s time for coffee.
Singapore was once known as ‘the island at the end’ (i.e. the end of the Malay Peninsula) and was taken over from the local Sultan by British Lieutenant General Stamford Raffles in 1819. In 1824, Singapore fell to the British East Indies Company. The strategically located port city quickly became much more successful economically than Dutch-controlled Malacca. Singapore has been an independent country since 1965. It is a republic with a ceremonial president and an elected parliament. On paper it is a democratic country, but in practice one political party dominates and there is limited room for opposition.
Singapore is located just 137 kilometers north of the equator and is known as a modern, clean and safe city-state. With more than six million inhabitants, it is one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Nowadays there is a lot of attention to sustainability and biodiversity, but almost all the original nature on the island has disappeared. The city is characterized by a mix of ultra-modern architecture, traditional temples, colonial buildings and many Chinese and Indian restaurants. You can also see from the people on the street that Singapore is a multicultural city; Chinese are the largest ethnic group, alongside Indians, Malays and Europeans. The population groups live side by side in harmony, but it’s not really a ‘melting pot’.
On my first day in Singapore I first visit Chinatown. Against the backdrop of the high-rise buildings of the Central Business District (CDB), Chinatown consists largely of low-rise buildings, partly from colonial times. The Buddhist Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is not that old, but the temple, which was opened in 2008, was built in traditional style. Impressive on the outside and richly decorated on the inside. The Taoist Thian Hock Temple has been around for a while, since 1842, and although it is a bit more modest, it also has a more authentic feel. In addition to some tourists, there are also Singaporeans who come to perform traditional sacrificial rituals. On the outer wall at the rear of the temple you will find a large mural that tells the story of the Chinese immigrants.
In Chinatown you will also find the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore: the Sri Mariamman Temple, built in 1827. Behind the gate with a high tower lies a colorful and elaborately decorated temple. It always strikes me how great the difference is between the serene tranquility in Buddhist temples and the liveliness in Hindu temples.
There are many restaurants in Chinatown and many of them cater to tourists. For real local food, it is better to go to the Chinatown Complex, a large (somewhat dated-looking) shopping center, with shops on the ground floor, a fresh market on the floor below and a variety of street food stalls on the top floor, where you can eat for a whole lot. few can get a delicious authentic meal and eat it among the locals.
In the afternoon I walk to Little India. Where in Chinatown everything was in Chinese and the streets were full of Chinese shops and restaurants, here everything is in Hindi and there are Indian shops and restaurants everywhere. Locals of Indian descent dominate the streets, evident from both their facial features and their clothing. The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple is unfortunately closed and can therefore only be viewed from the outside.
The next day I first walk through the Colonial District of Singapore. Located north of the Singapore River and Marina Bay, this district consists of a mix of colonial architecture and modern high-rise buildings. A fine example of colonial architecture is the luxurious Raffles Hotel, which started life as a simple hotel in 1887. The Sikh who stands as a doorman at the entrance to the ivory white building is a striking appearance. Then I walk down North Bridge Road. The two stately buildings that once housed the City Hall and the Supreme Court are now connected by a modern atrium and house the National Gallery. Behind it is the modern new Supreme Court building, with a kind of flying saucer on the roof. Around the corner is the pristine white colonial Victoria Theater & Concert Hall, with an equally white statue of Lieutenant General Raffles in front of it.
A little further on I come to the quay on the north side of the Singapore River. This separates the Colonial District from the CDB. This river was once used to ship merchandise and warehouses stood on the quays. The Empress State Building, built in 1865, stands on the corner. In colonial times, British government services were located here, but today the building houses the Asian Civilizations Museum. The 1869 Cavenaugh Bridge connects the two river crossings and on the other side of the water is the Fullerton Hotel, Singapore’s central post office until 1996.
From the promenade on the north side of the river you have a great view of the modern high-rise buildings of the CDB on the other side. At the end of the quay I cross the river via the Elgin Bridge. The quay on the other side is the popular Boat Quay. With the modern high-rise buildings just behind them, there is a row of old former ‘shophouses’ along the quay, so called because a shop or workshop was located downstairs with the house above. Now it houses restaurants and bars. The CDB starts directly behind Boat Quay and here you will find, in addition to a number of beautiful modern buildings, also a number of works of art by famous artists. On the square under one of the modern office buildings is Salvador Dali’s ‘Homage to Newton’ and on the quay you will find Botero’s ‘Bird’.
If you turn the corner at the end of Boat Quay, you will come to the Marina Bay. This is perhaps the most famous place in Singapore. On the water is the white statue of the Merlion, a mythical figure with the head of a lion and the body of a fish. The Merlion is the national symbol of Singapore. Across the water is the unmissable Marina Bay Sands, which you see in many photos of Singapore. This iconic building houses a hotel, casino, theater, exhibition space and a shopping center. The Marina Bay Sands consists of three buildings (supposedly they resemble playing cards placed against each other) with the SkyPark, which looks like a huge elongated ship, sitting on top of the three buildings. If you are willing to pay 23 Singapore dollars, you can go to the observation deck on the 57th floor. Next to the Marina Bay Sands is the ArtScience Museum, which is shaped like a white lotus flower.
I walk over the Jubilee Bridge and along the Esplanade around the Marina Bay towards the Helix Bridge. Opened in 2010, this striking metal and glass pedestrian bridge has the shape of a double helix, inspired by the shape of human DNA. From this side of Marina Bay you have a beautiful view of the skyline of the CDB. In the afternoon I go to the Gardens by the Bay, a more than hundred hectare park and botanical garden on the Marina Bay. In addition to two futuristically designed greenhouses (the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest), you will find the Heritage Gardens with tropical plants and trees, and in the middle of the Gardens you will find the so-called Super Trees, tall works of art that represent trees and whose trunks are real plants are provided. In the evening the Super Trees are illuminated (which makes for beautiful pictures) and twice an evening you can attend a (in my opinion a bit kitchy) light show.
After spending two and a half days in Singapore, I leave early on Monday morning by bus to neighboring Malaysia. I booked online, the bus leaves at 7:15 am two blocks from my hotel. Where exactly is not entirely clear; There are no signs, but there are a few people at a bus stop who say that the long-distance buses stop there, so I decide to trust that. My bus indeed shows up, a little too early, and is almost empty: a German woman and I are the only passengers. After half an hour’s drive we arrive at the border with Malaysia. First we have to go through Singaporean customs at the Departure Hall, then a short distance by bus, and then through Malaysian customs. It’s not busy, so it all goes very quickly.
At the end of my trip I return to Singapore, where I spend the last day of my trip. Mid-morning I check out of my hotel and leave my luggage there. I walk to the National Gallery, the art museum with Singaporean and other Asian art, from ancient to modern. Part of the collection relates to the colonial period, with captions that emphasize a slightly different perspective on colonialism than a European museum would. The Asian section also contains many paintings, old photos and writings from the former Dutch East Indies. From the roof of the museum you have a beautiful view of the Singapore skyline. In addition to the National Gallery, I also visit the Asian Civilizations Museum. Here you will find many historical artefacts from various Asian countries, including many beautiful Buddha statues.
After this cultural conclusion to my trip, the long wait begins and the much longer flight back to the Netherlands follows. Realizing that I have only seen a small part of Singapore, I can say that I think Singapore is a pleasant city; clean and safe, with friendly people and a relaxed atmosphere and lots of good food. Just a bit of a shame that it’s always so incredibly hot. 🙂