Singapore day 6: cable cars, giant lions, and lazing on the beach

We awoke in the resort on Sentosa, with one more full day before heading back to chilly Melbourne.

Breakfast buffet. I totally ate too much, and I didn’t even get to have an omelette (made fresh by chefs in the buffet area).

But anyway, time to explore!

View from the cable car at Sentosa, Singapore

View from the cable car at Sentosa, Singapore

Sentosa island has two cable car lines. One goes east-west across it, the other heads north across the water to the mainland of Singapore. We went across the island first, looking down on the various attractions, theme parks, hotels…

Near the eastern end of the cable car is the Merlion, a 37 metre-high symbol of Singapore, a guardian of prosperity. This particular one was apparently sculpted by an Australian.

Merlion, Sentosa, Singapore

The area around the Merlion definitely had a kind of Luna Park feel to it. The monorail from the mainland (which connects the giant VivoCity shopping centre to Sentosa) zoomed past every few minutes.

Most of the time when I spotted the monorail trains, they were overcrowded. In the evening when a lot of people were heading back to the mainland, there seemed to be long queues on the station platforms. Their capacity isn’t great. Like the cable cars, they’re really a toy, not a mass transit solution.

Not impressed.

After a look around, we caught the cable car back halfway and switched to the other one to go to the mainland. This took us way up high over the water and shipping, but what really got me feeling a little giddy was after a station in the middle, it went even higher over roadways and forest, up the mountain to nearby Faber Point.

View from the cable car to Sentosa, Singapore

View from the cable car to Sentosa, Singapore

View from Faber Point, Singapore

At Faber Point was a glorious view over the Harbourfront area, and a nice breeze to cool us down – it was getting pretty warm by this point, and the cable cars aren’t air-conditioned.

We caught it back to the middle station at Harbourfront, which as the name might indicate is all about shipping. Walking around there we encountered a load of passengers about to board a cruise ship, all pulling their suitcases along.

Into the VivoCity shopping mall, not looking quite as frantic as the day before, and we caught the MRT one stop, then changed to the East-West line and hopped off at nearby Redhill. I wanted to look at an example of an elevated railway station – M didn’t really care, she just wanted to stay out of the sun.

Redhill station, Singapore

I’ll write all about that later, but from there we went back to VivoCity and after some hunting, found some lunch in a faux hawker stall.

Lego cable car, Sentosa, Singapore

The cable car was more crowded heading back to Sentosa. At the interchange station they had a cable car museum, including a slightly odd fully-sized cable car made of Lego.

We got back to the hotel. When we’d first arrived at the resort, I’d noticed a warning on the hotel window about roaming monkeys on the balconies. I read it but thought little of it.

Warning notice, Shangri La resort, Sentosa, Singapore

But now I looked out to see… a monkey! I grabbed my phone and got a photo, then dashed back for my “real” camera to find it had gone.

Monkey at Shangri La resort, Sentosa, Singapore

I went out onto the balcony and looked around. Other people on nearby balconies were looking as well. One said it had climbed all the way to the top of the building, but I didn’t spot it again.

We got changed to have a laze on the beach, accompanied by drinkies. My sister and her family were heading to the airport to go home, so we said goodbye to them.

It was pretty hot, but pretty relaxing at the same time. It’s quite luxurious having your drinks served to you on your beachfront lounge chair.

Drinkies at Shangri La, Sentosa, Singapore

After some serious relaxing for a while, we went back to our room, then headed for dinner.

Famous dumpling house Din Tai Fung (which also has an outlet in Melbourne’s Emporium) is back near the Merlion, so we caught the cable car back there (for an extra dollar, we’d paid for two round trips… at this point evidently enough boxes had been ticked on our tickets that had the cable car ticket checkers seemed to start to eye us with a little suspicion… clearly we weren’t going to get away with any more rides than we had paid for).

Din Tai Fung at Sentosa, Singapore

There was a 25 minute wait at Din Tai Fung, but we happily took the time to look around and fill in the menu/order form, and the food when we got in was totally delicious.

A relaxing cable car ride back (“Where are you going?” “Siloso beach”) and back to the hotel for one last night in Singapore.

Singapore day 5: Boring tunnels and resort islands

About a week before leaving for Singapore, I’d been in a meeting with some people from the Victorian government, talking rail tunnels and level crossing removals.

I mentioned I was going, and asked what I should look at. Turned out they were about to send some of their people off overseas to exchange ideas with counterparts in various parts of the world – including Singapore, on a day I’d be there. And would I be interested in tagging along? You bet I would!

So it was arranged, on Saturday morning I headed for a hotel off Orchard Road for our meeting. We were taken to the nearby Orchard station site for a briefing and a tour.

Thomson-East Coast Line MRT construction near Orchard station, Singapore

Much of what I saw has been included in my post about the Singapore MRT, but some other things worth noting:

  • The Thomson-East Coast Line is designed to relieve other lines, as well as speeding up travel times to key destinations
  • Blasting for underground tunnels includes going underneath a hospital. Timing is worked out to not clash with MRI sessions. They’re also tunnelling close to the Prime Minister’s house.
  • Each station on the line is separate contract, but the whole Thomson-East Coast line is costing S$24 billion. It has a projected daily ridership 400,000, which isn’t too much lower than the ENTIRE Melbourne rail system.
  • Underground stations are developed with provisions for development above, but there’s no real certainty it will happen – it’s up to property developers. From what I saw around Singapore, development around and above stations is common, but not universal.
  • Part of the project includes a triple deck train depot (to save space – approximately 60 football fields – we’re not the only city that measures land area in these terms) combined with an adjacent bus depot, to store 220 trains and 550 buses.
  • Importantly, they make a big effort to keep people informed. There’s a construction blog, and an education centre for hosting briefings like ours.

We looked at the tunnel boring machine (TBM) on the site, which was very impressive, and not at all boring.

Thomson-East Coast Line MRT, Tunnel boring machine, Orchard station, Singapore

Thomson-East Coast Line MRT, Tunnel boring machine, Orchard station, Singapore

Model of a rectangular tunnel boring machine to be used on the Thomson-East Coast Line MRT construction

Interestingly the Singapore project is using a new development in TBMs… a rectangular “box jack” TBM. This got the Melbourne people rather excited – parts of the Melbourne metro rail tunnel project would benefit from emerging technology like this.

This of course is the whole point of getting our people heading around the world to look at others’ projects – the exchange of ideas could be of huge benefit.

Alas I couldn’t stay for the whole tour – they went on to look at a lot of different parts of the network.

Parliament, Singapore

Singapore river

I headed back to the hotel. We had to head to the island of Sentosa for the wedding.

But first we walked down to the river, past the Singapore Parliament building, and found lunch in the back of the museum: a rendang burger and crisps. Yes, crisps. And a Nutella milkshake. Nom nom nom.

Old Parliament House, Singapore

Man pushing bicycle cart, Elgin Bridge, Singapore

Back to the hotel and we picked up our bags and caught the MRT to Harbourfront, exiting to the huge VivoCity shopping centre above. It’s like Chadstone with a railway station.

Ah. Saturday afternoon. Peak shopping time? Huge crowds, both coming off the train and throughout the centre itself, made progress with luggage a bit slow.

Harbourfront station, Singapore

Our destination was a hotel on Sentosa, a resort island on the south-western side of Singapore. It’s an island dedicated to recreation – with beaches, amusement rides, cable cars, theme parks, restaurants and hotels.

We eventually found the stop for the shuttle bus to the hotel. Of the various transport facilities I saw in Singapore that weren’t under construction, it was the least well-appointed. I wonder if that was because it was provided by private enterprise, not the well-organised Singapore government.

With the assistance of some fellow shuttle bus riders (no don’t get off here; that’s the hotel staff entrance), we arrived at the very fine Shangri La resort and checked in.

We headed up to the room, with me desperately trying to Google whether I should tip the porter/bellhop or not – before he arrived with the bags. (The conclusion, as far as I could make out, is that you never tip in Singapore, except in the case of porter who bring your bags up to the room. Lucky I had a $2 note handy.)

Shangri La resort, Sentosa, Singapore

Shangri La resort, Sentosa, Singapore

Shangri La resort, Sentosa, Singapore

We went to explore the resort. Of course it’s right on the beach – with a view of numerous container ships sailing past – but also has swimming pools, and numerous other facilities for either active (swimming, table tennis) or passive (lazing around sipping drinks) recreation.

And so to the real reason for being in Singapore: the wedding of my cousin Justin and his fiancee Valerie.

It started in the afternoon, and the reception went into the evening. The rain held off, and I’m not going to drone on about it, but it was all perfect, and a pleasure to be there.

Wedding, Sentosa, Singapore

Cleaning up after the wedding, Sentosa, Singapore

Singapore day 4: the zoo, the prang and the architecture

We were meeting my sister and her family (also in town for the wedding) to catch a shuttle bus to the Singapore Zoo for breakfast. Not just any breakfast – breakfast with the orangutans.

Yep, you get to eat a buffet breakfast while apes frolic nearby. Have I mentioned that Singapore is the land of buffet meals? During a week’s holiday, we had buffet breakfasts, buffet lunch, buffet dinner… all delicious.

After getting our photos taken with some friendly beasts (the zoo staff will happily take your photo with your phone or camera, and they’ll also try and sell you additional photos) we looked around the rest of the zoo for a few hours.

Breakfast with the animals, Singapore Zoo

Rhinos, Singapore Zoo

Zebras, Singapore Zoo

Kentucky Fried Zebra, Singapore Zoo

Singapore Zoo

Singapore Zoo

Singapore Zoo

Proboscis monkey, Singapore Zoo

As you’d expect, they specialise in animals from their region, but also have exhibits from other parts of the world. Alas the Australian exhibit was closed for maintenance, but there was plenty of other stuff to see.

At one point I saw a distinctive proboscis monkey, which left me chuckling, reminded of a scene in Tintin: Flight 714, which of course was set in the jungle. Note: minor spoiler from 1968 ahead.

Evil genius Rastapopoulos and one of his henchmen (Allan, I think) are chasing Tintin and friends through the jungle. Allan hears a noise, then realises it’s a proboscis monkey. He laughs at its nose, remarks it reminds him of someone… then looks around to see Rastapopoulos (who has a big nose) fuming. Here’s a scan of this (via this page).

It was a great zoo, but what the kids (and probably the rest of us) will remember about it is getting into a minor prang on the way back.

We were waiting at a traffic light with two right turn lanes… and another car decided to try and make a third lane, wedging itself between us and another vehicle. Cue sound of crunching metal.

Singapore traffic prang

Perhaps our driver was trained not to swear in front of children; perhaps all Singaporeans are very polite. He let out a wordless exclamation of frustration and hopped out. We watched as the three drivers involved calmly inspected their vehicles and took photos of one another’s’ driver licences and licence plates.

On the bright side, nobody was hurt and it didn’t appear that the damage was serious.

We asked our driver if he needed witnesses. He said no… because he was in the right. He certainly was, though the confidence that he would get no problems with insurance claims was perhaps an interesting insight into Singapore culture.

That excitement over, M and I headed down Orchard Road for lunch. We were following a tip in the Lonely Planet book which turned out to be a dud – despite being a new edition, we found a couple of times during the trip that the listed attraction had shut up shop. Lesson: Google it before setting out.

We found lunch elsewhere then wandered around the area to look at the House Of Tan Yeok Nee, one of the last remaining Chinese mansions in Singapore, dating back to 1885.
We also wandered up Emerald Hill Road, where there’s some other historic architecture. It’s interesting to see what while Singapore in general is awash with new development and bold modern architecture, they are also preserving selected historic properties.

Parking rates, Singapore

Emerald Hill Road, Singapore

From there we got back on the MRT and headed to Tiong Bahru, a suburb known for its somewhat eclectic shops — at least according to the Lonely Planet book. It seemed like something interesting to see that was off the tourist path.

There we found art deco architecture of a less imposing type than the Parkview building the day before. The so-called “horseshoe block” was built in the 1930s, as some of the first public housing in Singapore.

It was also interesting to get a look at non-downtown Singapore. High density still abounds, but for all the efforts to help get more people walking, cycling and using public transport, the footpaths can be pretty poor outside the downtown area. They were often narrow, with sharp drops either side, close to fast traffic, and not accessible to wheelchairs.

Some quirky, Brunswick (Melbourne)-style shops, an ice cream (we’d earned it) and a bakery later, we caught a bus back to downtown and the hotel.

Tiong Bahru, Singapore

Tiong Bahru, Singapore

Singapore ice cream

Don't go in here. Singapore

By this point I was running out of clean clothes – I prefer to travel light, but I may have miscalculated this time – so I made enquiries about the hotel laundrette. It would cost S$16 to do a load of laundry, and presumably take some time, so I decided to just go and buy some new clothes instead.

Robinsons Department Store (established 1858) in the nearby Raffles Centre shopping mall is a bit like the Singapore version of Myer. Except that it is far better staffed; I wandered around looking for a few things and kept encountering helpful staff members. I was told about three times that I could get a discount if I bought another 3-pack of socks, and kept explaining that I didn’t need them.

Overall in Singapore I found there weren’t too many big chain stores you wouldn’t find in Melbourne. Some exceptions: locals like Robinsons is an obvious one, but Marks & Spencers is another.

I got back suitably equipped for the rest of the stay, and we decided to follow the Lonely Planet book again and head to nearby Purvis Street, for the apparently traditional Chicken Rice dinner.

From the helpful way the staff interacted with us, I’m going to bet they don’t get a lot of westerners in there (perhaps only those following this specific Lonely Planet book), and it was the only shop I recall where they didn’t seem to speak English. But the food was good and cheap.

Another walk around in the heat, and back to the hotel via an ice cream shop, ready for the big Saturday ahead: a day of tunnels, a resort island and a wedding.

Singapore day 3: Little India, art deco overload

Our destination today was Little India, which we reached via MRT of course — the hotel is closest to City Hall station, but only slightly further to Clarke Quay, which is just a few stops from Little India.

The Lonely Planet book we had recommended a specific walk, so we set out, admiring the historic colourful buildings, taking in the sights, sounds and smells, and getting very sweaty in the hot weather.

Little India, Singapore

Little India, Singapore

Peacock feathers for sale, Little India, Singapore

High rise residential building, Singapore

Found by chance (and of interest to myself more than M) was an MRT station under construction along the walk. As we kept going, the Indian shops gave way to mosques – apparently we’d found ourselves in the Muslim section of town, perhaps given away by the thoroughfare name of Arab Street.

The weather seemed to be getting hotter, and we started looking for somewhere to have lunch.

We ended up eating at an apparently well-known restaurant called Zam Zam… on offer were various delights, including fish head curry. We opted instead for murtabak, a kind of bready meaty dish of deliciousness. The food was good, perhaps more important by that point, the air conditioning was excellent.

Opposite the restaurant was the very impressive Sultan Mosque, dating back to 1824, and rebuilt extensively in 1932.

Sultan Mosque, Singapore

Refreshed by lunch, we decided to walk along North Bridge Road back towards our hotel. Along the way we stumbled across the Parkview Square building, a massive art deco skyscraper opened in 2002.

It’s quite stunning – I love art deco, and the building exterior and the ground floor lobby and bar area was absolutely overflowing with it.

Apparently locally it’s referred to as the Gotham Building, which doesn’t surprise me in the least.

(Click on the photos to see them larger… it’s worth looking at some of the detail.)

Parkview Square building, Singapore

Parkview Square building, Singapore

Parkview Square building, Singapore

Parkview Square building, Singapore

From there we headed back to the hotel, passing the National Library, and a mall of bookshops which proved to be not quite as impressive as described in Lonely Planet – but there was a good bookshop near the top specialising in design and architecture.

Next to our hotel was the Funan DigitaLife mall, which I decided to take a look at. It’s basically six levels of electronics shops, which for a geek like me was great to explore. I had half a mind to see if I could buy a cheap camera lens. Sadly it appears to be closing down soon; many shops were vacant, and the signs suggested the rest only had a few weeks to go – this turned out to be right; it closes at the end of June.

Funan Digital Life mall, Singapore

After a rest at the hotel, we headed on the MRT to Orchard Road – well, a bit off Orchard Road – for a dinner with relatives, in a very expensive-looking apartment block. I’d assumed it’d just be a handful of people but it was actually a sizeable group of various relatives – those both resident and visiting Singapore for my cousin’s wedding.

I eventually gave up trying to wrap my head around where all the various people sat on the family tree. I’m told that in Chinese culture, everyone of the appropriate age just ends up being called Aunty or Uncle or Cousin, no matter what the actual relationship, and I can certainly see the benefits of that. It ties in with the sense of hospitality – if you’re family, even remotely, you’re welcomed with open arms.

After a thoroughly delicious buffet dinner and a great catch-up with the relatives, we headed back for the hotel.

Singapore day 2: Museum, Raffles, Garden

All Singapore holiday posts. Click on pictures below to zoom.

Our hotel booking didn’t include breakfast, and while I like a hotel buffet, we decided to look elsewhere for a morning feed. Being downtown, there should be plenty of options, and after some walking around we found a bakery in the Raffles Centre shopping mall nearby.

Back in the hotel, I’d given up on finding a Singtel SIM, and decided to just cough up $70 for a Telstra “Travel Pass”, which would avoid the excessive ($3 per megabyte) roaming charges. It’s expensive, but the plus of this is not having to fiddle with my phone to swap the SIM over, and anybody texting or phoning from home could reach me on my usual number.

The problem is it didn’t work. I could text or phone out, but nobody could reach me, and data wasn’t working. The Telstra Twitter bloke I reached was excellent in getting it investigated from their end, and making suggestions — made difficult by the fact that I could only talk to him while in the hotel on WiFi.

Eventually we got it working. It turns out that buried deep in the Android settings a “Data Roaming” option was switched off, which was disabling data, but also counter-intuitively preventing inbound voice and text.

Or… possibly… as the Telstra guy had suggested, it just took a couple of hours for the Travel Pass to activate properly.

Singapore in the rain

We had considered meeting my sister and her family and going with them to Gardens By The Bay, but at this point it was pouring down. Tropical heavy but warm rain. From that point on I vowed to carry my umbrella everywhere for the rest of the trip.

Instead we decided to head for the National Museum Of Singapore. The rain was really belting down, and I’m sure the locals are used to it. At a zebra crossing I watched an umbrella being passed back and forth between people who apparently didn’t know each other. I wonder who donated it?

We reached the Museum sodden but not cold. Like many big buildings, they had bags for wet umbrellas at the entrance, and happy to be inside again, we explored the exhibits.

There was a big display of artefacts from the British Museum, which was very impressive. The items, from various times and places, were fascinating to look at.

The only slight disappointment I had was that I saw nothing about the British Museum’s collections themselves; the controversy over some items being taken to Britain in the first place; the campaigns for them to be returned; and (somewhat amusingly) the merciless catalogue stamps that some precious items ended up having thanks to curators from centuries gone by.

Portrait Head, from Honduras, circa AD 776. Apparently acquired in 1886.
Portrait Head, from Honduras, circa AD 776. Singapore National Museum: British Museum exhibit

Thumbs up from this harvest god, from Malaysia, late 19th century
Malaysian Harvest god, Singapore National Museum: British Museum exhibit

The Museum also had various other sections, including one on the development of Singapore, and another all about the WW2 occupation by Japanese, which I found quite moving. It sounds like the Japanese Military ruled the city with an iron fist, going so far as to behead resisters and display their heads as a warning to others.

Japan occupation posters, Singapore National Museum

By this time the rain had stopped, and we met up with my sister and headed back to the hotel to change into our finest to attend High Tea at Raffles Hotel (just down the road). The dress code specifies that gentlemen must wear a collared shirt, and no shorts, no jeans.

There were many many cakes. And much tea. And harp music. And superb atmosphere. As a symbol of colonial splendour, you can’t beat it. It’s quite right that they prohibit jeans. Elastic waist pants might be more suitable — we didn’t need dinner.

Raffles High Tea, Singapore

Raffles, Singapore

Something I haven’t seen before: a gold ATM, at Raffles.
Gold ATM, Raffles, Singapore

Back to the hotel to change into more practical hot weather clothing, we decided to walk it off by heading to Gardens by the Bay.

This took us down past playing fields, another grand hotel, the Fullerton, some kind of floating soccer pitch, and the helix bridge, a rather marvellous bridge shaped like… well, that would be giving it away. Across the bridge crowds of people were headed out, I believe from the big Communicasia conference which I knew was on, as I knew some people attending.

Marina Bay Sands hotel, Singapore

Singapore subway under road

Singapore: Helix bridge and Marina Bay Sands hotel

With dark clouds gathering and the threat of rain looming, we reached Gardens By The Bay. One attraction, the Skyway (an elevated walkway among the “super trees”) was closed, but we looked through the Cloud Forest (which includes elevated walkways) and the Flower Dome, which has themed collections of different flora. It was all very impressive, and well worth a look.

It was almost 8:45; in nearby Supertree Grove at 7:45 and 8:45 every night there’s a music and light show. Very well done; quite spectacular. The whole thing was great, and quite unlike anything I’ve seen in Australia; I’d recommend it.

Supertrees at Gardens By The Bay, Singapore

Gardens By The Bay, Singapore

Dragon, Gardens By The Bay, Singapore

Supertrees at Gardens By The Bay, Singapore

Night skyline, Singapore

We decided to go back to the hotel via the MRT. It was a fair walk to the nearest station, Bayfront (near the Marina Bay Sands) — a new line being built will include a station at Gardens By The Bay.

Along the walk we took a wrong turn, and ended up going through the rather spectacular Marina Bay Sands hotel itself — which is basically three tall buildings with a mock cruise ship on top. It’s visible from many spots around Singapore. There’s a lot of eye catching modern architecture around Singapore, but this just has to be seen to be believed.

83 cents was the MRT fare back to City Hall, via a long interchange part way. Yes, I’ve got a blog coming all about the MRT.

When we got back to the hotel, my phone was telling me we’d reached 21,000 steps for the day, so hopefully we’d earned that High Tea.