January 1-4: Singapore
I arrived in the Lion City, as Singapore is known, and was predictably shocked by the Western comforts and extreme contrast with India. We were coming from a place where only 1 in 4 bathrooms had toilet paper, and suddenly–hot water! Toilet paper! Trashless sidewalks! A logical flow of traffic! Delicious Western food! I felt as though I had arrived back in the US, except a more orderly version of all of the major American cities. Coming from India, Singapore was almost unnervingly clean, like some sort of fake, unlived-in movie set instead of a real, thriving metropolis. The streets were impeccably clean, as was just about everything else, and everything worked extremely efficiently and logically. In comparison to the ridiculously user-friendly Singapore MRT, the NYC subway seems like it was built in the stone age. The city was plastered with PR campaigns to “be a good person,” “prevent crime,” “move to the side of the train when you get on,” “speak better English,” and every other self-improvement possible.
Confronted with American chain restaurants after 3.5 months in Laos (which is thankfully free of them still) brought out the hidden fast-food junkie within, and I found myself at McDonald’s and Starbucks more than once over my 4 days in Singapore. Luckily, the city had much more to offer in the way of food as well (although everything seemed incredibly expensive compared with Laos, Thailand, and India). On my first day, Andrew took me to a hawker center, which is essentially a food court. These renowed Singapore street vendors used to be on the street, but the government decided to centralize all of the vendors at food courts around town. The result was a 2-story building of deliciousness, from personal pizzas, to all types of Chinese food, to freshly-pressed sugar cane juice.
Much like the hawker centers, Singapore’s famous ethnic neighborhoods, like Chinatown and Arab Street seem like sanitized versions of the real thing. The falafel and spring rolls are fresh, and the decor seems authentic, but everything still has a modern, cleaned-up Singaporean feel. In Chinatown, for instance, we visited the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, complete not only with a supposed tooth of Buddha’s (which I didn’t see because it only comes out on holidays), but with an elevator, underground parking decks, digital map of the temple, and rooftop garden. 21st century Buddhism at its best.
The Singapore fellows also took me to the ultra-stylish downtown area of Singapore at Orchard Road, which they described as “all of midtown Manahattan in a few blocks.” We got off the MRT at the Singapore equivalent of Times Square, with flashing billboards, and oversized stars and Christmas trees still adorning the boulevard. Multiples of every luxury brand (at least three Louis Vuitton shops in sight) beckoned well-dressed customers. Our walk took us to Marina Bay, for an impressive view of the skyline and a look at the swanky Marina Bay Sands hotel/mall, which is designed to look like a ship on the top of a skyscraper. Malls literally connect to other malls underground. We ended the nighttime stroll near Singapore’s mascot, the Merlion fountain.
On my last day in Singapore, I took a walking tour during the day which included the Raffles Hotel, where the Singapore Sling was invented in the bar, and rooms start at $700 per night. I ended my visit with some luxury of my own at the New Asia Bar, which is on the 70th floor of a building downtown and offers impressive panoramic nighttime views of the city.
Even leaving Singapore was an attraction, as the budget terminal of the Changi Airport is probably nicer than half the hotels we stayed at in India. There’s a crayon and stencil craft area, free wi-fi, free computer consoles, couches, a playground… It was tempting to stay, but Thailand beckoned. Next stop: Chiang Rai.
See more photos from Singapore here.