Singapore is considered a city-state and is an independent island nation located at the tip of Malaysia. It has long been a melting pot of cultures and people, with its heaviest influences coming from the Chinese, Malay, Indian, Arab, and British cultures. Singapore is a destination for people who love food – the street food here is continually voted the best in the world. After arriving in the middle of the night, I woke up excited to take a look at Singapore in the daylight. I walked out of the hotel and was immediately assaulted with the usual variety of city odors, but with an undertone of exotic spices. For breakfast, I had the traditional kaya toast, which is toast with kaya, a coconut spread made with eggs and sugar.
I next tackled the city bus system to move from my hotel near the airport to my hostel in Chinatown. Like any city founded by large populations of immigrants, Singapore has areas known for which people historically (and in many cases, still do) populate the area: Chinatown, Little India, and Arab Street. Chinatown is a busy place, with several streets crowded with street vendors selling souvenirs, household items, jewelry, and pretty much anything you can think of. The streets were decorated with red and gold paper lanterns in honor of Singapore’s Golden Jubilee celebrating 50 years of independence.
After finding my hostel on one of Chinatown’s bustling streets, I decided to explore the city my favorite way: on foot. Since I had plenty of time and no real schedule, I figured walk across town would be a good way to see the city and get a feel for the layout and the vibe. Walking is a great way to explore and see unexpected things. As I walked along the streets of Singapore, I was greeted with the usual city sights, sounds, and smells. Singapore is a mix between giant skyscrapers and colonial-era buildings. One of the most well-known symbols of the colonial era in Singapore is the Raffles Hotel.
The Raffles Hotel (and the Raffles Hospital, the Raffles Institution, Raffles Boulevard and so on) are named for Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore. Raffles was responsible for getting the treaty that gave the British control over trade and protection of Singapore signed by Sultan Hussein Shahin 1819. Basically, as far as I can tell, Raffles is to Singapore what Cecil Rhodes is to Southern Africa. The British remained in control until Singapore’s independence in 1965, with the exception of 1942-1945, when the Japanese occupied the island. The Raffles Hotel is one of those places that is often referred to as the “last bastion of colonialism” or some equally flowering phrase. It certainly does evoke the grand days of the British Empire, with ornate wrought iron designs and that whitewash that is common to tropical buildings. This is a place that makes you want to use words like “cornices” and “wainscoting.”
The main reason I wanted to check out the Raffles Hotel was to have a Singapore Sling at the place where it was invented in 1915, the Long Bar. This bar was a favorite for many writers, including Ernest Hemmingway, Joseph Conrad, and Rudyard Kipling during its heyday. A Singapore Sling is a gin-based cocktail, with cherry liquor, Benedictine, grenadine, and pineapple juice among other ingredients. It was delicious (though overpriced) and the bar has a great atmosphere.
Next I continued on my walk, with a quick stop for a durian milkshake. The durian is an infamous fruit known for its incredible stench. However, since I just got the milkshake, I didn’t get to smell the fruit in its husk, which might be why I enjoyed it so much (also, the ice cream may have been a factor). The flavor was pretty mild, reminiscent of pawpaw or custard apple (soursop).
Finally, I arrived at Arab Street and the Malay Heritage Center.The Malay Heritage Centre is housed at the Istana Kampong Glam. The Istana Kampong Glam was the palace for the family of Sultan Hussein Shah. The museum is fairly new and has a lot of interesting information about the role of the Malay people in Singapore. It was the first museum (but probably not the last) that I have had to take my shoes off to explore.
After the Malay Heritage Center, I decided to walk back to my hostel. Along the way, I stopped at one of the malls to take a break from the heat. As it happened, I had arrived in Singapore just in time for the Great Singapore Sale, a yearly sales event that almost every store participates in. Much like Milan, shopping is an important part of life in Singapore, and a major reason people visit. I checked out a few shops at Suntec City, which is one of the world’s largest malls, including many American chains and bought a belt, a bag, and a tank top for S$20 (US$15) – not too shabby. I also stopped by the Fountain of Wealth, the world’s largest fountain and made a wish.
I continued my journey across the city and walked along the esplanade, making sure to stop at the Merlion statue. The merlion, as the indicates, is a mermaid lion. It’s considered the national personification (merlionification?) of the nation of Singapore. Like Singapore, the merlion draws equal strength from the land and the sea. By this time, I was hot and tired and headed back to the hostel to take a break. And then it was time to tackle one of the most interesting things about Singapore: the food centre or hawker center.
At the hawker center, dozens of merchants (hawkers) gather in a food-courtesque space to sell their goods. The stalls and their residents are permanent and each has pictures showing what they have. The windows of these stalls are filled with chickens and crustaceans, and the various smells of exotic spices fill the area. There are plenty of seats, and people can sit anywhere. People gather here with friends and family and often share dishes from several stalls. It can be overwhelming as it is not super tourist-friendly: the signs don’t offer a description, only a name and many of the hawkers do not speak much English. Luckily I had done a little research ahead of time and could recognize a few things that I knew I wanted to try.
My first dish was char kway teow, a fried rice noodle mixture with cockles, bean sprouts, chili and soy sauce. Next up, I tried laksa, which is a spicy coconut soup with noodles (similar to spaghetti noodles). The total of these two dishes was S$6; less than $5 US. While much of Singapore is pretty pricey, these hawker centers do offer some bargains for some amazing food. I also noticed that instead of asking for size, servings are offered based on price. So instead of a small, medium, or large portion, you order a $3, $4, or $5 portion. Fully satiated, I headed back to the hostel and called it a night.