“Do you know that a Singaporean does not need a visa to travel anywhere in the world?” This is what our guide Josephine said when she was introducing Singapore to us. It was my first visit to the world’s only island city, state and country and I was amazed by it even before I landed. Well, I can explain.
As my flight descended, I was surprised to see the changing landscape. I saw a stretch of beautiful greenery that morphed magically into the blue ocean with boats and ships and then a sea of high-rise buildings. Perhaps this was a precursor to a sojourn that was going to be truly memorable. Known as the ‘Little Red Dot’, Singapore has a vibrant culture that comes from a mixed ethnic background of Chinese, Malay and Indian that gives it a unique flavour that I discovered by mixing an itinerary with both offbeat and well-known places.
I started my day with a walking tour in one of Singapore’s most happening neighbourhoods, Tiong Bahru. With delightful cafes, art deco shop houses, boutiques and hip stores, this is all heritage. Stop at the Tiong Bahru bakery for the most amazingly soft croissants and do try the almond croissant that melts in your mouth! Walk ahead to the Qi Tian Gong temple that dates back to the 1920s and is dedicated to a monkey god like Hanuman. The temple has more than 10 monkey god statues and the oldest among them is said to be more than 100 years old!
In fact, looking at the architecture of the homes in this plush locality, there is much to discover. For instance, there is the post-war Singapore Improvement Trust flats characterised by the use of boxes to carve out the interior spaces of the buildings, and have spiral stairways and five-foot ways as part of the design. The famed horse show block that straddles Moh Guan Terrace and Guan Chuan Street is designed in the shape of a horse shoe and houses the first air raid shelter to be included as part of a public housing project. Artisan groceries, organic stores that have a delightful collection of local produce and even a sweet store where you can sample the famed Pandan chiffon cake are all here. If you like books, stop at the delightful store aptly called Books Actually. Outside the store is a mystery book-vending machine that doles out books wrapped in paper—you do not know what you will get. The store itself is a storehouse all things books, writing and vintage artefacts.
To get a feel of the different flavours of the city, I head to China Town and visit the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, a Tang-styled Chinese Buddhist temple with ornate interiors that also has a museum with beautiful exhibits on Buddhist art and history. And yes, there are plenty of books kept outside the temple—all free!
After satiating my spiritual side, I go back to being the “big city girl” by heading to the glitzy Marina Bay Sands. Designed by Israeli-born architect Moshe Safdie, this is an extravagant hotel, mall, casino, museum and theatre complex. The three towers of this property are connected by the cantilevered Sands SkyPark, a long terrace with an observation deck, infinity pool and restaurants. As evening sets in, you can take an elevator to the 57th floor and soak in eclectic views of the city. And yes, Singapore takes conservation and environment also very seriously, which I saw at the 101-hectare Gardens by the Bay, a futuristic century botanical gardens home to 12 ‘Supertrees’ and bio-domes that replicate climates around the world. The OCBC Skyway that connects two of the Supertrees offers splendid views of the gardens and a lesson in ecology.
A night out in Singapore is incomplete without a stop at Clark Quay, one of the city-state’s busiest riverside quays, dotted with nightclubs, bars and pubs and a meal at one of the numerous hawker centres that dish out the famed and delectable freshly grilled satay that is so tasty that you will lose count of how many you ate.
I rounded off this trip with a visit to the well-known Sentosa island, home to the Universal Studios. But wanting to do something different, I decided to ditch the jaw-dropping rides and headed to the S.E.A. Aquarium that gives you an adrenalin rush of another kind. After a walk-through of an eye-popping display of the silk route across China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Galle, Kozhikode and Oman, I am transported to ocean world. I lift my head and see a huge shark fly right on top—well, the aquarium has a dome-shaped design that brings you up and close with all sea beings! Walking along I am amazed at the display, from brightly-coloured fish, man-eating sharks, moray eels, manta rays, jelly fish, poisonous frogs, coral reefs and more. This is where I got an education in marine life and conservation efforts like aquaculture, too.
After this I headed to the Trick Eye 3D Museum—an interactive space that stimulates your imagination and creativity using the Trompe-L’OIEL technique through your vision. For the uninitiated, Trompe-L’OIEL means 'trick of the eyes' in French. The myriad displays and paintings here come with a twist. Just head for a picture and you become the subject of the image yourself. And can you imagine the results? It is a whole bunch of good fun and laughs, which means your day is certainly well spent. And if you want a selfie but don’t have a selfie stick you can actually rent one here.
Singapore was such a revelation to me but I realised that I had only touched the tip of the iceberg. And well the ‘Little Red Dot’ is certainly not little and I know in my heart that I will return and explore this huge dot again.