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.

Singapore here we come

(This post backdated. See all Singapore trip posts on this link)

As I previously mentioned, we were invited to my cousin’s wedding in Singapore, so we decided to go for the week. Why Singapore? A distribution of family between Belgium, Singapore and Australia.

It was very cold when setting out — only about 3 degrees — so I found a combination of clothes that’d keep me warm on the way to the airport but not weigh me down unnecessarily in warmer weather.

I’d packed the night before, and headed out about 8am, onto a train for Southern Cross.

Is it just me, or is there no sensible way to get from the metropolitan platforms at Southern Cross to the Skybus terminal? It pretty much involves leaving the station complex, or negotiating a flight of stairs (not a good idea with wheeled luggage), or following some suspect signage to…somewhere?

Double decker Skybus FTW! Scored the top front seat. Going under the low Dudley Street bridge certainly woke me up.

Tullamarine Freeway

Some heavy traffic inbound on the freeway, but our outbound bus made good time, it was about at the advertised 20 minutes when we arrived.

Some confusion around check-in. When I’d done it online the day before, the Qantas web site didn’t let me choose seats. I couldn’t find any other way to do it, and ended up shelling out $60 for choosing two seats, just so we could sit in a double, and I could have a window seat. But the lady at the airport said this was just a request, not confirmed, and it hadn’t been granted. It shouldn’t be charged to my credit card then, right? Hmm we’ll see.

I think the problem had been that online check-in had been done for one person at a time, not the two of us together, because I didn’t have details of one of the passports handy at the time. The system then decided it was too hard to give us any choice of seats. Watch out for this one the next time you fly.

Through security and any number of duty free shops… Do they do anything with those Departure Cards? Can’t they gather all that information from the data the airline gives them? And what on earth is Essence of Kangaroo?

Melbourne Airport: Essence of Kangaroo?

We found our gate and waited.

That clever Google Now app on my phone was prompting me, telling me the plane was delayed 15 minutes. I don’t know how it worked out I was meant to be catching it (I think it rifles through my Gmail account), but I’ll give it points for smarts. A little later they announced just such a delay.

The flight was pretty good, on-time and tasty food. But the in-seat entertainment system could have been a bit better: the touch screen didn’t quite work when you touched it — this was fine on the way home a week later, so perhaps it was that specific seat.

I’d forgotten to bring my own headphones, and the airline ones aren’t great — they made it impossible to hear dialogue on most of the available videos, and subtitles weren’t available for anything, which must be a pain for the deaf — I wonder if that’s in contravention of the Disability Discrimination Act?

Being daylight, I snapped a few photos during the flight, though I don’t really know where some of them are. I’m guessing these are both are somewhere in Indonesia.

View from plane to Singapore (in Indonesia?)
Bridge on way into Singapore (possibly in Indonesia?)

We landed and passed through immigration easily.

A “Skytrain” rubber-tyred train got us from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3, then we took the lift down to the MRT station. I’d been given a couple of EZ-Link smartcards, and it turned out they had $10 each on them — memo to pay Tony back for these.

Singapore MRT train in peak hour

Train from the airport (with a cross-platform change and quite a bit of elevated rail along the way — lots more about the MRT later). The trip from the airport to City Hall cost us just $1.70 each.

Navigating the streets wasn’t too hard, and we got to the hotel in good time. A slight glitch at check-in; my Mastercard decided not to cooperate. I realised later (when the bank emailed me) that some time ago I’d put a lock on overseas in-person transactions. Whoopsie. Easily fixed once we got the hotel WiFi happening, and thankfully I had another credit card.

The hotel was the Peninsula Excelsior, in the downtown area, and this proved to be excellent. Very central, not too expensive, and room was quite roomy — you know when hotel rooms and their bathroom seem just a little bit too small? No problem here. Very helpful staff. The only criticism I’d have was there was a bit of noise from a neighbouring room on a couple of nights, and from the hallways early in the morning. Like perhaps many hotels, not designed for noise-proofing. But I’d definitely recommend this hotel.

After settling into the room, we explored down North Bridge Road. Despite being well after dark at this point, it was pretty warm. Ramen noodles presented themselves for dinner.

A walk around the area found us at the Memorial for the Civilian Victims of the Japanese Occupation. Silent and empty at night, it was still quite moving. As we’d find at the Museum the next day, the WW2 occupation by Japan has understandably left its mark in Singapore.

Singapore war memorial

Back to the hotel via a 7-11. We bought milk for making tea (the hotel fridge had only UHT), and I tried for the second time to buy a local Singtel tourist SIM. The first had been at the airport; they didn’t have the right ($30) one. At the 7-11, the lady just said she couldn’t sell me one now. Not sure if that meant she was out of stock or something else, but with a queue of people behind me, it didn’t seem like the time to ask.

Hardly urgent; it could wait for tomorrow.

A day in Maldon

A day (and night) in the countryside began by heading out of Melbourne in the car.

I learnt a lesson on the way, somewhere near Sunshine: if you’re going to try and overtake (well, “undertake”) a truck on the left from a standing start, be at the front of the queue at the lights AND have plenty of space. The lane ended sooner than I thought, and the cars in front took off slowly. Thankfully the truck driver was paying attention, and gave me a bit of extra space to merge in.

Anyway from the Western Highway it’s a beautiful drive up to Trentham through the bush. The target was lunch at our friends’ place just south of the township. I’ll put in a plug for them as they’re selling the house: it’s a glorious mudbrick home, with a lovely walled garden and a tower! You’ve always wanted a tower, haven’t you! There’s even a sundial or two.

View from the tower, Trentham

The garden, Trentham

From there we headed north, up through the town, then via Dayesford to Maldon to stay the night in a B+B/French restaurant called the Rendezvous, in the old Eaglehawk hotel. The owners of that are also selling up. After settling in, we had a walk around the town.

Old Eaglehawk Hotel, Maldon

A small collection of engines in the station yard.
Railway yard at Maldon

They seem to also have a relative of Thomas here.
A relative of Thomas, at Maldon

Railway cat, Maldon

Maldon Main street. It was after 5pm, and the crowds had vanished.
Maldon Main Street

They have a heritage post box… and heritage rubbish bins. I remember when style was everywhere when I was a kid, but most have vanished now.
Vintage post box and rubbish bin, Maldon

Rego Brand self-raising flour. (Was this a prominent brand? I couldn’t find anything on Google, though apparently they also made cordial.)
Old advertising, Maldon

The Anglican church. Note the mining and mobile phone towers on the mountain behind.
Anglican church, Maldon

Dinner was a three-course taste-fest. I had cheese fondant, then duck, then a chocolate souffle. I’m not normally one for photographing my meals, but as you can see, I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Dinner in Maldon

(Breakfast the next morning — croissants, muesli, egg and salmon on brioche — was great too, resulting in a similarly clean plate.)

I had to get back to Melbourne, which meant we didn’t get to ride the steam train, but during a morning walk before breakfast we spotted it getting ready for its day’s duties.
Maldon, Victorian Goldfields Railway

These towns — Maldon, Daylesford and Trentham — were all once connected by regular passenger rail services. (Maldon had passenger trains from 1884 to 1941. Trentham and Daylesford had passenger services 1880 to 1978 — I remember as a kid going to Daylesford by train; it must have been shortly before services ceased. Regular train with old wooden carriages to Woodend, and a rail motor from there.)

All three towns are getting very busy on the weekends thanks to tourism. In fact some of our group went back to Melbourne the way we’d come, and found bumper-to-bumper traffic around Daylesford. Evidently the three coaches per day on weekends (two from Woodend, one from Ballarat) don’t cut it.

Even on weekdays there are only three coaches from Daylesford via Woodend/Castlemaine, and you can’t reach Melbourne before 9:27am. Chatter among the locals is that while some hardy souls commute to Melbourne from this area, most moving to the area with this in mind live in the towns along the (main line) railway line. Those in the other towns tend to drive to a station — hardly surprising.

Anyway, it’s a nice part of the world. I don’t think I’d fancy that kind of commute every day, but it’s good fun to visit.

A week in Singapore

In a couple of months I’m going to Singapore for a week, for my cousin’s wedding.

Any recommendations? Things to see and do? (The wedding itself is on Sentosa Island, at one of the resorts.)

It’s been ages since I’ve been overseas. What’s the best way to organise mobile/data coverage?

What’s the shopping like? Is it like some Asian cities where you can find good cheap suits?

Hmm, what about camera equipment? (I’d love a new lens to play with.)

The weather? Warm I’m sure. I remember from flying back from Europe via Singapore in 1998, looking at the TV weather forecast and seeing a row of 25-32s forecast…

Weather forecast in Singapore, September 1998

Any other tips?

Yes, I’ll be checking out the MTR.

Comparing Sydney to Melbourne in transport and urban planning

Each time I travel (which isn’t often enough), I note the things that are different, and the things we can learn from.

From my most recent short trip to Sydney, here are some notes — not an exhaustive study, but just some observations.

Sydney Central station

Central Station is a rabbit warren compared to Flinders Street Station, though FSS may veer that way when the new underground platforms are built as part of the metro rail tunnel. What was really striking was that the Central Station “grand concourse” looked so much nicer — less chaotically laid out, and tidier.

Glenhuntly station, Melbourne, standard LED "PIDs" displays

Sydney suburban station next train displays

Suburban stations in Sydney have colourful screens on the platforms. In Melbourne if you’re lucky your local station has a two-line LED display, which won’t tell you any more than the basics — and these are common even at major interchanges like Caulfield and South Yarra.

The screens in Sydney, which seem to be universal, can tell you the next three trains, the precise stopping pattern of the next one, and also give a warning (accompanied by an automatic announcement) when a train approaching is running express through the station.

(Melbourne is currently getting colour screens in stations showing tram departures. This is a great idea, but ironically means at most stations the information provided for trams will actually be better than for trains. Lift your game, Melbourne!)

Sydney Trains are spotless. It took us 2 days to spot any litter (a banana peel on a seat). I don’t recall any tags or other litter on the trains (though there was plenty of tagging along the rail corridors). The stations were similarly spotless, even those that are unstaffed most of the time. All stations had bins, even in the CBD.

Opal beats Myki in most respects. The readers are fast and much clearer. You can check your balance on an NFC-equipt Android phone (very helpful if you can’t remember how much money is left). Card and top-up availability was a problem last year, but this is being addressed — it was easy to find both this time.

It’s unclear to me what the long-term strategy is, but so far they seem to be phasing out most non-single-use tickets, but keeping a few single use paper tickets as an option alongside the Opal cards.

Sydney Opal: Light rail touch post

But the Sydney fare structure is broken. It’s bad enough having to transfer modes; separate fares for train/bus/light-rail and ferry are just twisting the knife — particularly as the new bus route structure encourages people to switch to trains in the CBD.

And even the pricing is crazy — a $15 cap Monday to Saturday, but only $2.50 on Sundays? Why not even it out a bit, say $5 on weekend days?

In fact a NSW Audit Office report released last week says 25% of trips on Opal are free (eg the user has hit a cap), including 47% of ferry trips! Discounts are great, but someone has to pay for them — the revenue stream needs to be sustainable such that the money coming in increases as ridership increases, to help pay for upgrades.

Google Transit Maps in Sydney - the info was wrong, the bus didn't go to the Downing Centre

Google Transit is great, but not perfect. As noted previously, our bus ride took as to an unexpected (but not inconvenient) location, so something apparently didn’t quite work. Even so, it was a boon being able to easily navigate around, particularly on the bus network with its myriad of route, without first loading up some unfamiliar clunky city-specific app as visitors to Melbourne must.

Boarding assistance point at Carlton station, Sydney

Sydney still has train guards. Perhaps there’s a benefit from safety, though so many cities manage this with door sensors, mirrors and CCTV that I doubt it. The Sydney guards seem to have little to do other than make announcements (some excellent, some unintelligible — I think I’d prefer auto). They help load wheelchairs (but their position in the train varies from the middle to the end, which must make things challenging for wheelchair users.)

The problem with having two staff on board every single train is it doubles the wage cost when adding extra services. Melbourne and Perth have solved this, with Single Person Operated Trains (SPOT for short, in Melbourne!). Sydney’s new north-west metro line is set to be driverless to get around it.

Sydney train at Museum station

(Virtually) no level crossings in Sydney. And if it seems natural, that’s because it is — as can be seen in old maps, it turns out Sydney never had the huge number of crossings Melbourne has, partly through good planning, and partly because the topography (lots of hills) made it easier to avoid. But they also made a point of removing (almost) all the ones they did have. (They have about five left, on minor lines.)

Lots of lifts are being installed at Sydney stations. Historically most Sydney stations had stairs but not ramps or lifts, and were thus not accessible. They seem to have made great progress in retro-fitting lifts in many stations.

Sydney T4 line timetable, Saturday night

Train stopping patterns are all over the place. Even at 8pm on a Saturday night, on the T4 line there seemed to be at least three stopping patterns in use: Stopping all stations, Express Sutherland to Hurstville to Redfern, and another more complicated pattern that would stop at a few, skip a few, stop at a few, skip a few more.

This resulted in the station we were waiting at (Carlton) having only trains serving it every 30 minutes, with lots of expresses passing by. I suppose it makes the patterns more consistent, or at least more consistently confusing. I wonder if less than ideal acceleration on the big double-deck trains means they are keen to keep express running at all times of day?

The train line numbering is very easy to understand for tourists, but inconsistently used. Perhaps that’s a work in progress.

Pedestrian crossings in Sydney CBD are a mess, partly because of the many one way streets, but mostly because the traffic engineers have clearly prioritised car movements. The waits to cross the street are often really long, because they have complicated cycles allowing for lots of turning traffic. In Melbourne the basic grid pattern means a smaller number of cars get to turn each green cycle, and tough luck if they have to queue — traffic going straight, and pedestrians are (mostly) more important.

Penshurst, Sydney

Zebra crossings seem prominent in Sydney suburban shopping centres, much moreso than in the CBD, and moreso than in Melbourne suburbs. It was good to see; it made walking around much easier.

Roundabout zebra crossing in Carlton, Sydney

That said, they do sometimes fall into the trap of providing crossings at roundabouts that are in no way placed so that people are likely to use them.

Suburban density was clearly higher in Sydney. Apart from big centres like Hurstville, it was common in otherwise quiet suburbs like Penshurst to see 3-4 storey buildings in the areas close to the railway station and shops which would probably have Melbourne NIMBYs up in arms. But what I saw didn’t seem to intrude on the shopping strip, nor on the overall neighbourhood. It’s the sort of thing we need to see more of in Melbourne to help sustainably grow our population.

Obviously, we can learn a lot from Sydney. I dare say they can learn some things from us too.