November 30, 1995 - December 13, 1995
Arrival and Orientation
Arriving at the airport in Singapore (no visa required for entry, though MasterCard and
American Express are accepted :-), the first thing that struck me was how hot and humid it
was! A day ago, I'd been scraping ice off my car, and now I was sweating like a pig! I
don't think the temperature dropped below 75 degrees Fahrenheit the whole time I was there
(Singapore is only one degree off the equator, after all).
When I took the cab to my hotel, I thought I was getting ripped off when the cabbie
charged me S$30 for a S$20 cab ride: it turned out that there is a 50% surcharge on cabs
after midnight and before 0600 (Singapore runs on military time). I got a look at the fare
charge sheet later: it was about three pages long! All sorts of restrictions about times,
where to drive (many streets are Restricted Zones certain times of the day), and other
(By the way, If you need a good moderately-priced hotel to stay in, the Chinatown Hotel
is a GREAT place. Not as many frills as the big Hiltons or Marriots (which can also run
about S$400 a night!), but it is very close to the subway stations, very
clean, and only S$90 a night.)
I'd arrived on a Friday night, so I had the weekend to myself. After a snooze I found
myself waking up around 0530 in the morning, and could NOT get back to sleep (I didn't
myself in sync until just before I had to leave, about two weeks later). That morning I
decided to take a walk around.
The First Days
One thing struck me immediately: the smells. The feeling was probably enhanced due
to the fact that I was in the middle of Chinatown, but the place just smelled so different.
Not all were bad smells, although a few things cooking in the street shops did make my
stomach lurch a bit.
Shopping, by the way, is BIG BIG BIG. Orchard Road, one
of the main shopping districts, is just CRAMMED with stores of every
kind. At least every other shop was selling electronics of some kind, usually in a small
range: one store would sell cameras, another stereos, another CD players, etc. Lots of
store selling interesting little knick-knacks. I was struck by how westernized most of it
was, though: I had to really search for stores that did not sell things I couldn't find in
the department stores in America.
I've heard that you can get a suit very cheap in Asia: I didn't find out, though. Not
for lack of trying on the part of the clothing stores, mind you. Once they spot you as a
Westerner, they practically attack you! Every one wanted to give me his card, know where I
was from, which part of America, would you like my card? I got the hang of just ignoring
them after the first few tries.
Most people were very polite, actually. Everyone speaks English (more or less) and all
signs are in English, making it very easy to get around. Not that it would be too hard in
any case: Singapore is only about 25 square miles, with about 3 million people (less that
the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area!). You can practially WALK the
whole island, for Pete's sake. Plus, there is an excellent subway and bus system that can
take you anywhere in the island within minutes. Or off it, for that matter. I took a trip
to Sentosa Island via cable car, did a little tourizing, a
little shopping, and was back at the hotel in time to find some local cuisine before it
got too dark.
Speaking of food, just about anything you can think of (and a lot you rather wouldn't)
can be found to eat. I tried fish balls, prawns, various fruit drinks, various
unidentifiable substances, the works. There is Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Korean, Muslim,
food everywhere. Lots of little stalls were all along the streets, selling different
foods. And when I started craving a burger, there are about 20(!) McDonald's and other
Western restaurants floating around.
The Next Weekend
After a week of work, I did some more tourizing of Singapore. I visited the Chinese and Japanese Gardens, toured the Jurong
Bird Park, and nearly got eaten at the Crocodile Paradise.
All lots of fun. I especially liked the Night Safari, which was a
nighttime tour of parts of the Singapore Zoo. Many of the animals are more active at
night, so you got to see a lot more than you would normally during the day. You can get
tours at many of the parks, or you can explore on your own.
None of the parks were very big, of course: Singapore is too small for a park like the
San Diego Wild Animal Park or a Disneyworld. But everything, including the parks, is very
clean. The cleanliness is enforced, too: Singapore is a very regulated society (far
fewer freedoms than in the US) and has high fines for all sorts of things: spitting,
chewing gum, jaywalking, etc. Some fines reached into the thousands of Singapore dollars!
I also took the time to do souvenieur shopping. I found that you can still get ivory in
Asia, but since it's apparently illegal to bring any into the U.S. that's under a century
old, and I sure as hell don't know how to date ivory, I skipped that particular
temptation. There were some fascinating jade carvings, lots of stones (there was a really
nifty fossil fish on display at one store, but alas it was too pricy for me), watches
priced outrageously (would you pay S$20,000 for a watch?!?) and, of course, lots of
electronics. I should have picked up a calculator while I was there. What I did get were
some fish-bone carvings and a few other assorted knick-knacks. Then I found out that the
cash machines in Singapore accepted my cash card. Uh-oh!!
After completing my tasks, and figuring out what I did with my sweater, I steeled
myself for the 24-hour trip home. I was caught a little flat-footed a the airport (there
is a S$15 fee just to leave the bloody country!), but otherwise was glad to be going home.
All in all, though, I'd say Singapore is a great soft introduction to Asia. I hope I get
to go there again.
- William Geoffrey Shotts