Thursday, August 9, 2012

SINGAPORE: More Than An Amusement Park


I usually load up on chewing gum before a flight because it helps equalize ‘airplane ear,' fights boredom on a long flight while freshening my breath. But on a flight from Manila to Singapore, I was ‘chewing gum’ free. You see, before I left Manila my friend reminded me not to chew gum in Singapore. They also reminded me of the caning of an American boy, and the ‘Contemplacion Story’ (a story about a Filipino domestic worker who was executed in Singapore). Ancient history I thought!

The reason I went to Singapore was to take advantage of the United Airlines Mileage Plus multi-city booking that I only paid with 80,000 mileage points. Without the mileage point, this booking would have cost me around $14,000.00. It was a multi-city flight from San Francisco to Tokyo, Tokyo to Manila, Manila to Korea, and Korea to San Francisco with a connecting flight and 10-hour layover at Singapore Changi Airport. Not wanting to wait at an airport for 10 hours, I decided to book a 3-night hotel in Singapore and to make it a ‘trip’. Oh the intrepid traveler in me!

As I stepped out of Singapore Airlines, I found some truth to a certain rumor. It was hard not to notice the bold warning ‘DRUG TRAFFICKING IS PUNISHABLE BY DEATH’ written on the embarkation card. The rigid laws were evident in the behavior of the airport employees. There was no line to get through customs. The custom officer stamped my passport, no questions asked, no delay – very streamlined. The airport was spotless.

The impression of a disciplined country and people continued as I hopped into a taxi. It seemed we were driving through landscaped streets. There was no traffic, in sharp contrast to the city (Manila) that I visited before Singapore. When I made a comment about the beautiful lush trees and the manicured bougainvillea plants that lined the street, the taxi driver said, “This is an expressway." “Even the highway is landscaped”, I thought. Getting closer to my destination, the city felt as if it was a theme park, lined by fancy malls, the driver pointing to a place where he said I could get fresh seafood.

I arrived at the hotel before noon. After exchanging niceties, the hotel staff apologized that my room was not ready yet (code for check-in time is 2pm). The front desk clerk did not offer the ‘early check-in, late check-out privileges’ accorded to a hotel program gold tier members. Instead, the front desk clerk escorted me to the restaurant/bar lounge where I was given the WIFI passcode, a cup of coffee, fancy chocolate and pastry. I noticed the front desk and the restaurant/bar were manned mostly by Filipinos. At around 2pm, the front desk clerk came to get me and announced that my room was ready. Funny, it was the exact check-in time. It occurred to me that the people of Singapore are so disciplined that following rules is like second nature to them.

My hotel was located at the heart of Singapore. It was beside the Marina Square, Millennia Walk Shopping Mall, across Suntec City and the tour bus and Duck Tours (land & water vehicle) station. It was walking distance to Marina Bay and Makansutra Food Market. For me, not having a plan was part of the excitement of travel. Fortunately, the tour bus station was across my hotel. I took the tour bus just to survey the city. We passed the shiny malls of Orchard Road, Little India, Raffles Hotel and the Marina Bay. After the bus ride, I returned to my hotel and put on my walking shoes. I walked nearly the length of a five Manhattan city block indoor through the air-conditioned Millennia Walk Shopping Mall. Then braving the afternoon heat and humid air outside, I meandered around Marina Square, the Quay until I reached the Marina Bay Sands Complex.

As I entered the Marina Bay Sands Shopping Complex, I thought, "This place is massive." This place looked like somewhere I had been before. The sign ‘Louis Vuitton’ was very prominent from the outside. Inside was a succession of luxury brand-named and designer stores like: Chanel, Cartier, Hermes, Emporio Armani, Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Salvatore Ferragamo, Herve Leger, and Montblanc reminiscent of Paris or Rodeo Drive. It seemed all luxury stores and designers were represented there. Peering down I saw a canal ran through the length of the shops in the same style as the Venetian in Las Vegas. I strolled leisurely through the realm of this massive complex, passing a casino, theaters, celebrity chef restaurants and high-end stores until I found myself at the lobby of the Marina Sands Hotel. The lobby was also massive comprising of 3 hotel lobby towers. More restaurants and gift and specialty stores could be found within the lobby. 


The hotel was topped by a 'SkyPark' - an observatory with restaurants or bars and the infinity swimming pool. Since I was not a Marina Sands hotel guest, I paid $18 SGD to go up to the SkyPark Observatory where I saw the modern architectures below, a 360 degree view of Singapore and a glimpse of Malaysia.

As the afternoon unwound, I headed outside to explore what was on the other side of the bay. I decided to take the water taxi to get to the other side of the river. I saw what appeared to be a water station/ticket booth at the back of a lotus shaped structure (the Art Science Museum), one of the contemporary architectures that can be found along the water. When I got to the ticket booth, the agent pointed me to the opposite end of the complex where I could purchase the ticket and take the water taxi. It felt almost like California as I passed along a strip of fancy bars. Farther down, along the water, the atmosphere changed to Florida as I walked along the promenade lined by Palm trees. Finally, I reached the water taxi station. The ticket booth was manned by a Filipino and the water taxi operator was a Filipino. I was struck by the number of Filipino workers in Singapore. I could only assume that there was a shortage of local Singaporean workers and that a well-run company/country would take advantage of a cost-effective workforce like the English-speaking Filipinos.

I was on the boat as the sun sank to the horizon. A local girl was playing a Pipa- Chinese stringed instrument in the background. The Marina Sands and the prominent SkyPark, the neon lights reflected in the canal. Tourists were disappearing down a street of red lanterns. The Sky Park, which floated like a ship on top of a building, was impressive within the Marina Bay Sands. But it wasn’t the massive shopping complex, or the interesting architectures along the water that impressed me. But it was the reflection of the moon, the neon lights in the canal forming hues of blue and purple like Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night.'

I got off at Clarke Quay and walked to the Makansutra Food Market (an open restaurant) where I had dinner of noodles with prawns and squid, and grilled chicken on the skewer.

The $35 SGD bus tour ticket I purchased the day before included the tour to Sentosa Island. So the following day, I went to the bus station across my hotel. But the tour bus to Sentosa Island was not schedule to run until 9am. While waiting for the bus, I went inside the Suntec building and found a food court and rows of international food stalls. The display of cut fruits at the smoothie stall caught my attention. The cut fruits were priced from 25 to 75 cents. They’re supposed to be smoothie ingredients, but I coaxed the vendor on selling me a fruit bowl. It was a bargain for a fruit bowl of papaya, mango, star-fruit, dragon fruit, kiwi and other exotic fruits. After eating my fruit, I wandered around the building to find another shopping mall. Considering that it was early in the morning, the shopping mall was empty. But I could not help noticing a lot of “50%-75% Sale” and “Store Closing” signs and wondered about the sustainability of increased development and new shopping malls like the Marina Bay Sands Shopping Complex.

Man-made Beach
In less than an hour, we reached Sentosa Island (labeled as an Island Resort and marketed as ‘Asia’s Favourite Playground’ and is home to Casino and themed attractions like the Universal Studios, Fort Siloso and Siloso Beach, Underwater World, Sentosa Luge & Skyride, and Palawan beach and rainforest , Song of the Sea ). Let me try to get real for a while here! I would not go to a foreign country to visit Universal Studios…well, maybe Disneyland in Paris. But having just spent some time in the real Palawan, Philippines, maybe it’s unfair for me to criticize these two themed attractions – Palawan Beach and the Underwater World. Palawan Beach really did look like a fake beach with sand and rocks that looked like a part of a landscaping. The water was not exactly a replica of the pristine waters of Palawan. There was a barrier, I guess, to keep the oil-polluted water from the cargo ships and the refineries off-shore. Palm trees were planted to block the sight of commercial and cargo ships. There was also a rope-bridge where at the end, the sign “The Southernmost Point of Continental Asia” could be found. I almost believed that I had been to the southernmost point of Continental Asia, but on second thought, this was a theme-park. The Underwater Aquarium was okay given that the corrals and the fish came from the Philippines. I had to pay extra $18.00 for the dolphin (dog & pony) show. The show was held outside on a 100+F degree temperature. I was sweating bullets during the show, and I thought I would pass out. I took respite from the heat and went to the nearby Shangri-La Hotel/Spa and had lunch at the 3-8 Noodle Restaurant (a Chinese restaurant that seemed to have a long history of noodle-making).

I went back to my hotel before sunset. Thinking that I will probably not come back to visit Singapore any time soon, I decided to ride the Singapore Flyer. It didn't seem to move. But the 30 minute ride gives you a view of the city in different perspective. After the ride, I walked across to the Marina Sand’s passing the Art Science Museum; it’s wonderfully lit at night. Approaching the waterfront, I heard loud music. It was coming from the show, “Wonder Full”, a free show reminiscent of Disney's California Adventure’s water-light show, “World of Color”.

After walking to the shopping complex, I peered down the escalator and saw a food court. What I discovered was no ordinary food court. It was a line-up of Asian (Japanese, Filipino, Thai, Vietnamese, Singaporean, Korean, Thai, Indian) street food stalls. It took me a while going from stall to stall, and deciding what to eat. I ended up ordering food from the middle stall called ‘Raspura Masters’, where the cook was making noodles from scratch.

Having spent my 2 days in Singapore at the Marina Bay Sand/integrated resort and Sentosa Island/theme-park, I felt I have never left the United States. I thought I would spend my last day finding out what’s unique and authentic about Singapore, so I visited some historical places like Little India, the Old City Hall and Raffles Hotel. Inside the courtyard of Raffles hotel is a bar. But that was not the bar I was looking for. I was looking for the birthplace of ‘Singapore Sling’. I found it in the Long Bar. If you have the desire to litter, then the Long Bar is the place to be. Here, a box of peanuts is part of the fare. And it’s a tradition to toss the peanut shells on the floor. But mind you, this is only within the confines of The Long Bar. I walked back to my hotel via the Millennia Walk Shopping Center where I found a Starbucks. Again, that sense of familiarity hit me, of every space looking like somewhere I have been before. 
 
It was raining when I left the hotel for Changi Airport. I noticed a car pile-up on the side of the road, “an accident” according to the taxi driver. Even a car pile-up looked so orderly in Singapore. The rain and the accident did not cause any traffic delay, so I had a few minutes to use the WIFI kiosk before my flight. I went to the gift shop to get my sister a magnet to add to her collection. This time I had difficulty deciding which magnet to buy: The Marina Bay Sands w/ SkyPark and Infinity Pool or the picture of a butterfly and orchids. Perhaps Singapore was once known for its orchids and butterflies and the increasing development has driven these natural creatures out of their homes. I just hope they would not vanish forever or else the only butterflies left will be on postcard and magnets.

Changi Airport was quite a revelation. It was not until I visited the butterfly garden that I found what was unique about Singapore. What’s unique about the city of Singapore is that it’s a gigantic theme park – man-made this, man-made that, man-made island, man-made forest and a collection of shopping centers set along landscaped streets.

Of course the best thing about any journey is that you always get a new perspective. As I left Changi Airport, I thought back to Manila, the city I visited before Singapore. Singapore seemed a world away from Manila in terms of traffic, pollution and economic status. It’s not difficult to see why. The population issue that each country face may be on the opposite side of the spectrum – over-population growth in case of the Philippines, and under-population in case of Singapore. Nonetheless, it is a critical variable in the economic impact equation. I could not help but think back to the Filipino staff I met at the hotel, at the bar, the theme-park, and the woman at the store who told me that ‘theirs’ is the fastest growing community in Singapore. Oh the irony!

I may have not seen anything awe-inspiring in Singapore, but I left Singapore with more questions – questions about politics, economics and the environment and sustainability.

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