February 27, 2008

Travelling in South East Asia- Singapore

Singapore is situated right in the centre of South East Asia (SEA) and is a favourite destination for travellers to Asia to stop-over for a few days to enjoy its amenities and to recharge before charging back into the rest of their travelling in Asia.
Singapore is a tiny citystate and is probably only good for 3-5 days of stay at most. This is especially so considering is is quite an expensive destination by Asian standard. But because of its compact size, many places of different themes and interests can be reached rather easily with its efficient transport system compared to most other Asian countries that boast similar but better quality attractions. Most of what one sees in Singapore can be seen in other parts of SEA and in more "original pristine" conditions in those countries. For example guidebooks often rave about Singapore's Chinatown but hey, the whole of Singapore is a Chinatown- one cannot avoid bumping into a Chinese in Singapore every other minute!! It used to be quite quaint with nice old pre-war shophouses but after so many rounds of renovations, demolitions and rebuildings by the government, such shops certainly look overly artificial. The same goes for street market at Bugis Street- miniscule and overpriced compared to the likes in other SEA countries.
However there are a few notable attractions that stand out:

- Orchard Road is definitely worth a visit even though one is not keen to do much shopping but to ogle at the shops and the ladies (and guys). Nearly every major luxury brands in the world are represented here and they are supposedly cheaper than anywhere else in Asia. Serious shoppers can really shop till they are dead- even tourists from all over Asia come to Orchard Road to shop.
- Little India is probably the place with the
most Indian-like atmosphere outside of the Indian Sub-continent; especially on a Sunday evening when most of the thousands of South Asian foreign workers in Singapore come out from their workers' enclaves to enjoy their holiday, shopping and meeting with friends.
- Old kampong (village) charms at Pulau (Island) Ubin. This is a small island only few minutes away on a bumboat from Changi Village. It is better to explore this place by cycling (bicycle rental next to the jetty) and finish off with a seafood meal at one of the few old-time coffeeshops on the island.
- Walking in a real primary jungle of undulating trails at the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. This is one of the best experiences for someone who has not been inside a tropical jungle. Bring insect repellants as the mosquitoes will definitely love you.
- The Botanical Garden is a pleasant place, amongst the flowers and birds. It also has a Rainforest Trail that has remnants of Singapore's original rainforest. One can get close to giant trees, see some colour butterflies and forest birds.
- The Zoo and Night Safari is reputedly the best in Asia and a very worthwhile experience. But beware that the experience will set you back a bit financially.
- Singapore's museums especially the Asian Civilisation Museum is worth a visit. It has good collection and often hold special exhibitions.

On top of such "mainstream" activities, there are also some "hidden" gems that probably only locals will know. Some of these interesting outings would include:

- people watching and getting crowded in at Little India (as above) on a Sunday evening.
- watching street walkers (yes, they are many in this supposedly squeaky-clean state as well) and deals being struck on the narrow lanes between Geylang Lorong 8 and 22 especially along Westerhout Road (only after dark). Also interesting to see how brothels are decorated Singapore-style (from the outside) on these lanes.
- watching beautiful sunsets and the flames from distant oil refineries at Pulau Bukom lighting up the evening sky at Labrador Park.
- sipping ginger tea (teh halia in Malay) and chilling out in the open air along Baghdad Street and puffing shisha in the various cafes along Arab Street in the Kampong Glam area (also known as Arab district).
- sampling local food at a hawker centre or coffeeshop- see this blog for good recommendations.

As alluded before, Singapore is an expensive place and its hotel rates are among the most expensive in SEA. For budget travellers, these are the cheaper but clean, safe and fantastic options- A Travellers Rest Stop (oops- just found out that they have stop operating due to end of lease), Backpacker Cozy Corner Guesthouse and Betel Box Backpackers Hostel. Go to Hangout @ Mount Emily for a slightly pricier option but with more facilities and choice setting (also member of YHA).

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