The multicultural city-state of Singapore provided me with a gentle entrance into Asia. Arriving at 5 am at the Changi International Airport, I took the efficient and clean metro train into town and walked into the financial heart of the city (which reminded me of Shanghai and Vancouver). A mix of well-dressed Asian, Indian and European people were walking to work with coffees, teas and other multicolored drinks in their hands.
After dropping off my luggage at a hostel on the waterfront, I went for a long walk around town. I changed some money in a small center full of money changers, called Change Alley, grabbed a strong traditional coffee mixed with concentrated milk and started walking to Chinatown.
As it turned out, this was the first of many Chinatowns and Little Indias that I visited during my trip in Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia. I find it interesting (and humbling) that these neighborhoods in South East Asia have been around much longer than our modern notions of globalization and multiculturalism became such fads.
It was great to see Taoist and Buddhist temples, Muslim mosques and Hindu temples sit next to each other. I visited an interesting temple, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, that houses (you guessed it!) one of Buddha’s teeth in a golden shrine. The temple also had a number of very detailed wax models of senior monks in meditation poses.
Walking around Singapore, one runs into amazing buildings that are often combined with or inspired by themes from nature. Famous examples include the durian-shaped Esplanade, and, of course, the stunning Gardens by the Bay.
Other amazing buildings include the Marina Sands Resort that looks like a building with a ship on top (a tribute to Noah?!) and the Park Royal hotel.
Other fun things to spot around town are tasteful uses of color in normal buildings:
… and sculptures by some surprisingly famous people including, Dali and Botero!
In Singapore, I visited several excellent museums and galleries. My favorite was the National Gallery of Singapore that is housed in the former Supreme Court Building and the City Hall. The site has historical significance, as it is the place where Japan surrendered to the Allies during WWII. The art in this museum was exquisite and ranged from meditations on nature by Chinese master Wu Guanzhong to refreshingly political and social art by a range of artists from Southeast Asia.
Other interesting museums that I visited included, the Asian Civilizations Museum, with treasures from different corners of Asia (including Iran); and, the National Museum, which provides a nice overview of Singapore’s history (including a fascinating and dark account of its occupation by Japan during WWII). One of the things that I saw a lot of in Singapore was an interesting use of digital media including projection mapping around town, including at the i Light Marina Bay festival on the waterfront and in the National Museum.
The most fascinating modern art piece I saw, however, was at the Changi International Airport: an amazing kinetic sculpture, called Kinetic Rain, by the German design firm ART+COM. I had heard about this work at the Design & Emotion Conference in Bogota before, but seeing it first hand was amazing.
I was pretty jet-lagged during most of my stay in Singapore, so I would get sleepy pretty early and also get up early. On one of these early mornings, I took a bus to the famous Singapore Zoo. Despite the heat and humidity, it was a fascinating trip and I saw some stunning animals. Some highlights was a crazy busy baboon colony (with some very naughty monkeys!); a man performing energy healing on an orangutan; a fascinating animal called Malayan Tapir, whose upper lip and nose are connected (!), and, finally, the Proboscis Monkey, a monkey with a stunningly large nose and bloated belly full of enzymes and bacteria that might explode if the monkey eats too much sugary fruits!
The food in Singapore is fascinating and is a festival of Chinese, Malay, Indian, Thai and Singaporean tastes. I particularly enjoyed visiting traditional food courts, called Hawker centers, where you can try a variety of dishes from local family-run stalls for reasonable prices. Some amazing foods I tried were a spicy laksa soup, a magnificent fish head curry and a stunning chili crab!
This last dish was so deliciously hot that it almost destroyed my tongue and I could not feel it for about half an hour. Needless to say, I still highly recommend it!
Singapore has long been a trade center in Asia and a meeting place between West and East and this spirit still pervades. I walked through the financial section that funds the city many times and was reminded that the city’s heartbeat revolves around finance and commerce. A lot of the stunning buildings, beautiful light shows and fashionable events felt like pats on the back for the success of the city-state and its residents as a whole. Also, a pat for surviving in the most expensive city in the world!
At the end of my stay, I had mixed feelings about Singapore: while it was easy to travel there (e.g., I imagine it’s an excellent place to travel with children), and it has good culinary, cultural and artistic offerings, I found it over-organized and a bit stifling. I had a feeling I was constantly being watched (the many security cameras did not help) and needed to behave. Despite the diversity, there seemed to be a clear path of “success” to be followed. I was ready to move to a more wild and open space. A feeling that was perfectly rewarded by my next stop: Thailand!