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.

Orchard Road, Singapore - getting in touch with my inner old Chinese bloke

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.

Next day

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.

Next day

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. (Edit: Here it is!)

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.

Next day

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.