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Next: Minangkabau in West SumatraPrevious: Mersing

The Merlion and other Tales of Singapore

On an island just under the mainland of Malaysia, lies the city state of Singapore. This former colony of England was as such part of the Malay federation for years. But the different ideas of the prosperous and mainly Chinese harbor and trade city soon led to a separation with Malaysia. For us, Singapore is a transit to Indonesia. But we also want to take a look into this, as we are told, super clean and modern city. While we are there, we learn the story of the Merlion, and other tales of Singapore.

Festival Market in Singapore

Over the causeway

Our trip from Mersing to Johor Bahru per local bus goes smooth. In Johor Bahru we have to transfer to either a local bus or an express bus over the causeway (bridge) to Singapore. We would like to take the local bus, but because of the crowds there, decide to take the express bus. We have to buy tickets for our luggage as well, but the fare is still reasonable.

After a short ride we have to get out just in front of the causeway for the formalities. Then we are put into an other bus to bring us over the 1 km wide causeway, after which we have to get out again, only to take the next bus to bring us into town. A bit of a hassle, if you ask us.

We pass the outskirts of the city state of Singapore. These parts are inhabited, but cannot be considered part of the city. There are even still forests here, although most of the wildlife that used to live here (tigers, to name just a species) is gone.

It takes half an hour to get us in the center of Singapore. It is around noon and navigation on the sun is close to impossible: it shines right on top of our heads. But after a small search we know where to go. Singapore is well organized, with a footpath beside the roads (that's rare in Southeast Asia) and street signs on every corner (even more rare). So in half an hour we reach the neighbourhood containing some budget hotels.

Budget Hotel?

Entrance of the Raffles Hotel in SingaporeA budget hotel in Singapore in fact is a contradiction in terms, if you compare it to the rest of Southeast Asia. The cheapest hotels are more than 10 times the prices we are used to, and don't expect much for that price. The first hotel is full, except for a filthy bunk bed in the lounge, no thanks. On our way to the next, however, we are approached by a woman in a Chinese restaurants, offering a room. The room appears to be clean and reasonably priced (35 Singapore dollars, about 25 US dollars or 20 Euro), so we decide to take it.

After checking in and a shower, we have a meal in the restaurant. An Englishman here tells us that the backpacker area around Bencoolen street is as good as gone. Backpackers have too many cheap and good options outside of Singapore, apparently.

Raffles Hotel

On our way to the subway we pass Raffles hotel. It is the most prestigious hotel in Singapore, including many shops in its premises, making it possible to pass through. We are a little out of place, both personnel and guests are dressed up, which cannot be said from us. We also take a look in the lobby of the hotel, but decide not to ask the price for a dorm bed.

Public transport in Singapore is well arranged, with buses and subways. In no-time we are in the shopping mall area. In one of the malls are a few second-hand bookstores, but no second-hand guidebook for Indonesia on sale. We decide to trade our Thailand guidebook for a new one for Indonesia, not a bad deal either. We also buy some second-hand novels, so we are prepared for the next long journey.

As we return to our room, the owner asks us how long we will stay. He got a letter from the civil service that the water will be shut off the next day. He arranges everything for us to move to an other hotel, and an hour later we are in a car on our way to Chinatown. We are told to get a more expensive room for the same price, but we think it's less value for money. At least we have air-conditioning, although it doesn't work very well.

City Walk

Hindu temple in SingaporeFrom our new location we decide to make a city walk. Singapore consists of 70% Chinese, so it's strange that in the middle of Chinatown also a mosque and Hindu temple are located. In the Hindu temple, a ritual is performed, accompanied by an Indian flute and drum. We cannot follow what is happening, but still feel a little in India for a moment.

On the tourist map, the places of interest are well indicated. Next is a renovated old Chinese quarter. Nice old shops with a lot of green, but not much more. The next mosque and Chinese temple aren't very interesting either, and then we arrive in the office center, with a lot of skyscrapers. In between those buildings, however, is the festival market. A colonial looking building with a small tower in the middle. Inside are a lot of food stalls, arranged in a star shape around the many tables in the middle. We decide to eat from a banana leaf here before we move on.

Colonial area along the river

We arrive at the mouth of the Singapore river into the sea. On the pier, sightseeing trips on the ships are offered, but we just want to watch the beautiful Chinese junks. Then we pass the bridge where two large theatres are being built in the shape of durian fruits: large, oval, with many pointy spikes, very ugly. We just hope they will not smell as the fruit does.

On the other side of the road is the colonial area. On a huge lawn the English used to play cricket. Around it are war monuments and memorial signs. And on the other side of the field are the buildings: the Town Hall, House of Parliament, and the beautiful Victoria building with the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore.

Drawbridge in the colonial area of SingaporeBack at the river there are more colonial memories. A nice drawbridge, at the place where Raffles first set foot on land (again a statue), and the quays where the trade used to take place. Now they are full with restaurants, catering for the tourists.

Fort Canning Park

We walk along the river towards Fort Canning Park. It is located on a hill, and named after the fort that once used to be here. The walk up-hill is nice and is accompanied by signs with historic facts. From the fort, only an ugly gate remains, and the hill mainly serves as a water reservoir. Drinking water is the biggest problem in Singapore, so they try to catch as much rain as they can. Other than that, there is also a large building and terrain for parties and festivals here.

At night we take a look at Boat Quay, the old quay along the river. We already ate, so we are not tempted by the many restaurant touts asking us in. We do not even take a drink, which would cost us more than our meals. Instead, we buy a big bottle of beer in the super market and drink it at the Quay. That's the backpacker way.

Sentosa

The Merlion behind the fountains in Sentosa, SingaporeBesides the main island, Singapore also consists of the island Sentosa. This little island is transformed into a large resort and theme park. We want to take a look, especially for the underwater world and the dolphin show. A quick calculation learns that we might as well take a discount package, so we can see all the attractions.

A ferryboat takes us to Sentosa, although there is also a bridge. On the island we hop on the monorail, moving in a slow speed across the island. The first stop is underwater world, with a lot of aquariums with tropical fish. We recognise several from snorkelling, and take some pictures. Than the main thing: the tunnel under the main tank with sharks, rays etcetera. Always a nice sight, especially when they are fed.

History in wax sculptures

The next stop of the monorail is fort Siloso. It is an English fort where wax sculptures and sound fragments relive old times. Well done and, although long-winded, very informative. Back on the monorail, it brings us to the center of Sentosa, where we watch the butterfly park and insect museum.

Than lunch, and on to "Images of Singapore", an exhibition about the history and culture of Singapore. More wax sculptures show us how after arrival of the English, many Chinese came here to seek their fortune. The poor living conditions are on display, and so is the attack of the Japanese, which was lost before it even began, since they came from Malaysia and the fort was pointed towards the sea on the other side. Finally, the exhibition also shows the festivities of the Chinese and Indian population.

Dolphins

Then, we arrive at the dolphin show. We have to take a walk to get there, and when we arrive early, we take an extra ride with the beach train. It passed a point with a sign "most southern point on the mainland of Asia". Strange, we thought we were on an island, lying in front of an other island.

Kissing a dolphin at the dolphin show in Sentosa, SingaporeStill early, we are back at the show, where we are suddenly approached with an offer to participate. That's great, and a bit nervous we wait for more instructions and the start of the show. We are introduced to the audience and the dolphins make their entrée. Then we get to go into the water, touch the animals, feel their teeth, and play with them, very cool. The rest of the show is good as well, but we are especially impressed by our close encounter with the animals.

Merlion

Our last item is the ascend of the Merlion, the symbol of Singapore. This mythical combination of a lion and a fish (like a mermaid, but with a lions head) has saved Singapore once from the sea, according to the legend. The tower built in the shape of the Merlion give a beautiful view over Sentosa, over the harbors of Singapore, and over the Riao islands of Indonesia.

After the descend it is almost dusk, and we decide to wait for the fountain show. With beautiful sound and light effects there are projections on water screens, dancing fountains, etcetera. A beautiful ending of a wonderful day at Sentosa.

Singapore truly is an amazing city. Although not as clean as expected (there are some cigarette stubs here and there), the lack of open sewers and garbage disposals is a welcome change to the rest of Asia. Our budget goes fast compared to the surrounding countries, but it is still less expensive than western countries. A lot remains from the colonial period, and the Chinese and Indian culture are also very present here. With also a theme park/resort island Singapore thus is an ideal stopover, both for long flights as for overland travellers.



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