by Keith Stanley
|Central Business District||Singapore skyline over Marina Bay||Marina Bay & Skyline|
Arriving in Singapore
We arrived at Singapore Changi Int’l Airport around 10AM, March 31, 2012, and took a taxi to the Ibis Hotel at Bencoolen. We drove into town from the airport on a beautifully landscaped divided highway lined with evocatively beautiful, mid-sized rain trees, looking so much like life-sized bonsai trees with their wavy, undulating, twisting branches spreading upward to form a broad crown. The trip into town stoked my memory – I’d been on this road once before, taking a taxi to airport in 1998, seeing the trees along this road for the first time, the same then as now and just as delightful to my sensibilities, feeling regret that perhaps the most evocative part of my visit should come unexpectedly, as I was leaving, confined to a cab, making me wonder what other wonders I may have missed. Singapore is green and lush, rain-washed and clean! Some of the best hotels in Singapore offer the same clean and lush environment. It was a delightful drive into town, glad to be arriving, looking forward . . . .
The Ibis at Bencoolen was a find! Excellent value and location, new and clean, great service, friendly, making a good first impression, modern lobby, simple lines, nicely designed and lit, same with its café. This is not a high-priced hotel. We were paying only S$185 per night (about $150 USD), which is what made it the more amazing. Our room was small but extremely well-designed to make the best use of its small space. The room had plenty of light at night – so many lights (& bright enough). I liked the light wood flooring, both for its look and for its feel on the feet. Light wood shelving and accents completed the look. Free wifi. Comfortable bed and fully function a/c. The hotel economized on the size of the room, but not on amenities, form & design. The room was a bit cramped for two people, each with a couple of pieces of luggage, but manageable. I’ll take this trade-off any day of the week!
After resting a bit, we walked an area within a couple of blocks of the hotel and got something to eat at a hawker centre. Later, in the evening, we were out again, walking more extensively, stopping by the National Library (nice), then walking down toward Raffles Hotel & Shopping Arcade and St. Andrews Cathedral. Much has changed since the last time I was here. The entire area around the backside of the Cathedral is developed, a sunken court of nice retail eateries, busy on a Saturday night, and, beyond that, a ground level warren of more trendy retail eateries, bars, etc.
Ah-Liang’s excellent tour
The next day (Sunday), my wife's good childhood friend, Liang (Ah-Liang), and his wife picked us up at the hotel and gave us an extensive tour of Singapore and took us out to dinner. Our tour around town was fabulous, I really loved it, a great overview, so much to see! A memorable part came right at the beginning when we drove down Esplanade Drive, past the Esplanade (Durian shaped performance hall), then across a bridge that afforded us a stunning view of The Sands Hotel (& casino, etc.) across Marina Bay. To the south in front of us was the Central Business District with its modern skyscrapers – all new since last time I was here. In fact, a good bit of the land itself hereabout has been reclaimed from the sea since last I was here. Further, Marina Bay is a man made freshwater reservoir of desalinated water, separated from the sea by a man made barrier, The Barrage. We drove all around Marina Bay, making a big circle around Marina Bay and The Sands, 360 degrees.
From the Marina Bay area, we drove out toward the airport on the East Coast Parkway (ECP), nice drive, beautiful blue sky, sunny day, passing ritzy condo buildings close-in, then government developed/subsidized (for Singapore citizens) housing estates. Next, we went west to pick up another of my wife's (J's) childhood friends, then returned to an East Coast waterfront park for some snacks and juice, before heading back downtown on the ECP, then heading west on the Ayer Rajah Expressway (ARE) (south coast expressway) all the way across the southernmost part of Singapore Island and across the Tuas Second Link into Malaysia (the Johor Baru area) for a delicious crab dinner.
The drive along the ARE was notable for some nice architecture along its eastern section and for the businesses of foreign national companies along its western section. All along, as we drove, we learned more about life in Singapore from Ah-Liang. This is by far the most efficiently run city-state I’ve ever seen. The lives of Singapore citizens are managed in a benevolent/authoritarian, very capable manner by the government (democratically elected, parliamentary, but one party has been in complete control forever). Housing, retirement pensions, medical coverage, etc., all are managed by government mandated private savings schemes. It’s been a very good system thanks to the capable administration of Lee Kwan Yew and his successor (but at the cost of personal freedom of action as the state may be described as “paternalistic”). Lee Kwan Yew was like a benevolent philosopher king, albeit one with a very conservative, rather authoritarian philosophy. It’s been a golden era – let’s hope the culture of effective government continues, else the lack of personal freedom will surely bind.
After dinner in Malaysia, we were delayed for an hour or two getting back into Singapore, owing to the line of vehicles at the border (apparently due to fact that this was the week of Ching Bing, the time when Chinese families honor their ancestors by tending to their graves in a ritual ceremony). Quite a few Singaporean Chinese, who had emigrated from Malaysia, had gone back for ceremonies over the weekend.
Back from Malaysia, we ended the day back at Marina Bay, near The Barrage, where we walked up a curving walkway for a nighttime view of The Sands and the Singapore Flyer (giant Ferris wheel). It was a beautiful, balmy evening with young lovers strolling along the bay or sitting on the park's grassy lawn, watching young people flying their fancy kites high in the night sky.
On Monday afternoon, we moved to the Copthorne King’s Hotel on Havelock Road, which was the conference hotel for J's workshop. At first I thought the new hotel was in a ‘dead’ neighborhood, not very near the MRT or any tourist attractions (or even eateries). The hotel itself was nice [rated a 4-star business boutique hotel] and the service excellent. Our room had a small, semi-circular balcony (very nice amenity!) with a good view of the wide avenue below and the buildings across the way (mostly hotels and apartments). I liked stepping out on that balcony, sometimes just to warm myself, to enjoy the view, to ‘take the air’ (feel the breeze). The room had good light. The bathroom was a delight to the eye – black & white, mirrors and light, with a backlit cutout grill of silver under the black marble countertop.
That evening we discovered that the Singapore River ran just behind the buildings on the other side of Havelock Road from the hotel and that, just a short way down, was the beginning of the Riverwalk Area (w/i 5 min walk) with upscale restaurants in nice settings, people strolling, runners running. The Riverwalk ran for a thousand meters before reaching Clark Quay, a node of trendy nightlife.
Tuesday, April 3rd was a golden day for me. I started out by retracing the our previous night’s walk along Riverwalk, but on the opposite side of the river, then moving on beyond Clark’s Quay, discovering the Asian Civilizations Museum. I spent several hours there drinking in the exhibits showing patterns of trade and cross-fertilization among Asian civilizations, just the ideal thing for me! Afterwards, I met J in the lobby of the Fullerton Hotel for a snack, then we walked out across the historic bridge, through part of Esplanade Park, taking pictures of the durian-shaped building (The Esplanade), then walking along the north side of Marina Bay, all the while enjoying (and taking pictures of) the nearly breath-taking views of Singapore’s magnificent high-rise skyline, beautiful structures, lights on for the evening, night approaching. We walked across the helix footbridge connecting north Marina Bay with The Sands Hotel integrated resort complex and, when we got to the shopping area were WOW’ed by the size and the opulence. We caught the tail end of ‘fountains and lights’ show from the waterfront amphitheatre (one unexpected highlight after another!).
The following evening, J & I were over at the Sands Hotel to see the Singapore night skyline from the rooftop SkyBar, where I ordered a Singapore Sling. I'd never had one and figured what better place to try one than in Singapore. The Singapore Sling was pretty sickeningly sweet or off-sweet, a mixture of a lot of different things, and didn’t seem to pack a lot of punch. I would certainly not recommend it.
In any case, the view from the rooftop was fabulous, and we discovered that, upon leaving the bar, we could take a left turn and go down the stairs to the open observation deck one floor below. The view is more wide open on the observation deck and there's more room to wander around. It was quite a delight being up there, floating above the city, drinking-in the view.
Before leaving Singapore on our final day (April 5th), we went over to Sentosa Island to visit the Maritime Experiential Museum. Very nice. A good bit of its focus is on seagoing trade in the south Asian seas during Silk Route times. I especially enjoyed its focus on what types of goods for trade might be encountered at various ports of call. One could imagine some of the patterns of this maritime trade, which coincidently was a theme of one of the current exhibitions at the Asian Civilizations Museum. Also on display is a hand-built Arab dhow, the Jewel of Muscat.
For an account of my first visit to Singapore in 1998, see Singapore (1998).
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