Singapore Sunsets

Friday, June 28, 1996

Ooops, my laptop battery seems to be very unhappy. It’s only lasting about 1 1/2 hours now compared to 2+ when it was new. I wish I knew why. I guess it’s the stupid memory effect, because the integral charger will automatically charge the battery whenever it’s plugged into a wall socket. I really hope I don’t have to buy another one before I get home. Grr

William Gibson once called Singapore ‘Disneyland with the Death Penalty’, but I don’t think it’s quite that bad. Unlike most of Asia, the whole country is very clean and organised, and where Thailand is full of Buddhist Temples, Singapore has shopping malls. However, after a brief look at the ads in the newspaper I can’t see who can afford to shop in them. The wages on offer were not impressive, and cars were incredibly expensive.

The flight was uneventful, and not much more expensive than the trip to the airport with a Liverpool-supporting taxi driver. However I was a little concerned about the wingless plane parked alongside the runway. I hope it’s for fire-training or something rather than the result of a recent crash, but perhaps Thai pilots are as crazy as Thai taxi-drivers. The arrivals card was emblazoned with ‘DEATH PENALTY FOR DRUG SMUGGLERS IN SINGAPORE’, one of the few things that I actually knew about the country. The airport at the other end was very efficient, I was out in the arrivals hall within a few minutes of leaving the plane.

Finding someone you’ve never met is always interesting, but I had more luck here than in some cases. I’d hardly passed the waiting crowd and begun looking around when my Internet pen-pal found me. We grabbed a taxi to the hostel to drop off my stuff, then after a brief walk amongst the huge bank skyscrapers we took the MRT train to Boat Quay where the Net Cafe is located. It’s a nice place, full of upmarket bars and restaurants, and the river is pretty at night. The biggest problem is dodging everyone who tries to drag you into their restaurants.

We chatted while we ate desserts and drank soft drinks. Food was to be a big part of this trip, as like Bangkok eating seems to be one of the main entertainments in the city. Fish ball soup was quite nice and entertaining to eat with chopsticks, but I’m not really a seafood fan. The satay club at Clarke Quay (where various traders set up stalls around a group of tables and chairs) was good too. However, I still feel somewhat guilty about tearing apart shrimps which have been cooked for me to eat. It’s the eyes that do it, I think – I don’t like food that watches me as I eat it.

Durians… ah, well. My penpal also took me to a Durian shop. For those who don’t know, it’s a large green fruit which smells like it’s been in a sewer – the smell is so bad that they’re banned from the MRT trains. However, if you can get past the smell it tastes very nice, if a bit strong. She was surprised that I did eat almost all of it, as she’d never met a Westerner who didn’t hate it before. She also tried hard to convince me that it didn’t taste of coffee, but I still claim that it does. We watched the few others who came in to try it and the guy behind us was amused by our stares as he took the first spoonful. He was on a business trip from Florida and his business associates decided to test him before he left. I was surprised that he liked it as well.

Getting lost was another fairly large part of the visit. The first night I tried to return to the hostel by myself, but as I left the MRT station I took a wrong turn and realised that I couldn’t remember the route. Oops. After half an hour of wandering around and trying to distinguish one huge skyscraper from another I finally arrived in time to get a few hours sleep before meeting up the next morning. I was a little surprised that I could wander aimlessly around the financial district after midnight without anyone stopping me; the City of London is always on high alert after the terrorist attacks of the past.

We did just as badly with buses at times. Not that I minded as I got to see parts of the city which were well off the normal tourist routes. Singapore is more than just the tall skyscrapers which we see on TV. The outlying parts of the city seemed a lot like Bangkok with small Chinese and Indian shops and a fair amount of dirt. The $5000 fines for littering presumably help to keep the rest of the city clean.

Another problem I had was getting up in the morning. Having mailed my alarm clock back to my parents to reduce weight I discovered that the alarm on my watch didn’t work. Aaargh.

Singapore Zoo is quite nice, with most of the fences carefully hidden to give the impression that they’re not there at all, and the animals seem happy enough. The elephant and sea-lion shows were both quite fun, and I liked the numerous marine/freshwater exhibits with perspex sides so that you could see the animals swimming underwater. Around the site we spotted signs to the ‘naked mole rat’ exhibit, and as we’d never seen a mole rat, naked or otherwise, we attempted to follow them. Each time the signs stopped just as we thought we were close to our goal. Or perhaps the mole rats were suffering from an attack of modesty and didn’t want to be seen naked.

We’d planned to visit the island of Sentosa, south of Singapore (Hmm, ‘Sentosa, South of Singapore’ – sounds like the title of a bad seventies adventure movie, perhaps I should write that one), and go to one of the water parks, but it was closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays. After a lot of thought we finally decided to go ice-skating instead, a nice change from the heat outside. I’d done a lot of skating in my misspent youth, but my penpal had never tried it and was hoping not to fall over.

I was surprised by how bad I was when I first got on the ice and took a few minutes to get the hang of shifting my weight around from foot to foot again. My penpal did pretty well, after half an hour she was skating around happily holding my hand and after an hour or so was skating complete loops by herself. That’s a lot better than I did on my first try! And she didn’t fall over!!!! Yay!

Other sights we visited included the bizarre Occupation Monument and the famous Raffles Hotel, which is incredibly expensive (up to about US$3500 per night) and somehow both very quiet and very cool in the courtyard. The view from the harbour was very pretty, with the ferries leaving for Indonesia and Sentosa in the background. The sunset there was wonderful, the orange light illuminating huge thunder-clouds. We sat on the wall by the sea and talked while a photographer took pictures of the happy couple from a Chinese wedding. I was still surprised that the sun set around 7pm down here, and she was surprised that it stayed up until 10:30pm or later in England. I knew that the day was very long or short in the Arctic Circle, but for some reason I’d never thought that it would be so short near the Equator.

The last night we just wandered around the city and chatted, which was fun. When we left the Net Cafe in the evening, heavy rain was falling; for some reason rain seems to follow me everywhere I go, guess it’s the English influence. We walked along the Quay hiding from the rain in the covered walkways outside the restaurants. Every time we had to run from one part of the Quay to another we were rapidly soaked.

We took the MRT and looked for a beach but took the wrong road. Ack. Eventually we gave up and did vampire impressions as we looked for somewhere to sit down. The city never seems to get cool, even at night. It does, however, get deserted soon in the evening. Probably no worse than London, but empty compared to New York or Jerusalem. Another strange thing about being down near the Equator – perhaps I’m hallucinating, but the moon is at a weird angle. It’s almost horizontal rather than almost vertical.

We found some tables and chairs outside a mall and sat down until the security guard arrived on his bicycle and kicked us out. We walked to the monument and checked the seats but they were soaking wet. As we left we surprised a courting couple canoodling on the steps. I don’t think they expected anyone else would be around after midnight.

Eventually we found some seats by the MRT station and watched the ants taking leaves to their nest. My penpal began an concerted mosquito and ant-swatting campaign, which I should probably have joined. In the morning I found loads of bites, the first I’d received in Asia. We chatted and watched the taxi drivers who accumulated across the road. With no-one to carry around the city I guess they had nothing to do but talk all night.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to meet either of my other net.friends in the city. One had emailed me to say that he was having a minor operation while I was there and the other was still bleary and jet-lagged from a trip to America. I wish I could have spent more time there, but the flight was the only one I could get. Singapore is an odd place, but I’m sure I’ll go back to visit sometime. Although this report probably doesn’t sound that exciting, it was quite fun. However that might be more to do with the company than the location.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, all I’d heard before I arrived were stories about the death penalties for drug smugglers and other kinds of strict law enforcement. During my visit I only remember seeing two police cars (one parked outside a doughnut shop). I guess that in a similar way to England the laws are observed because people just can’t be bothered to break them rather than because the government do enforce them strictly (though as with most countries the speed limits are widely ignored).

That’s good in some respects because it is a fairly nice and clean place, but on the other hand it does seem somewhat, well, boring, at times (again, like England). I guess we’re back to the perennial question of freedom or safety? I tend to lean towards the former, which is probably why in still preferred Thailand even with the pollution, touts and language problems. Same with America over England.

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