Not knowing what to expect when I arrived in Singapore with my sister and her boyfriend, I began to grow a excited as our 777-300ER began it’s descent for Changi International. After a short taxi to Terminal 4, the seatbelt sign was turned off and we were ready to disembark. We went from an air conditioned aeroplane to the air conditioned airport terminal, so I still was unaware as to just how hot and humid the holiday was going to be! My first impressions of the airport was just how clean everything was. Changi’s terminals are all carpeted to reduce noise, it kind of felt like I was in a hotel lobby or something. After making our way through a rather slick passport control area, it was time to collect bags, find my mother at arrivals and begin the two week holiday.
A short bus trip to Terminal 1, we collected our MRT cards and made our way to the correct platform. Almost everything is automated getting to your train, the other only staff you see were there to assist you. It immediately became clear that although there were lots of people, no one pushed in front of you, no one shoved and everyone just went about their business. When it came to boarding trains, there are directional arrows on the ground to show that you must stand on the platform to the right and left of the train doors so that when people need to get off the train they can get off easily. I was already beginning to enjoy everything being so civilised. The train trip lasted about 40 minutes, with a few train changes, but in no time we were climbing off at our station at Ang Mo Kio, and crossing the street, but only when we got a green man, to my parents apartment.
We dropped our bags off, picked up some cash and took a walk down to the Hawker Centre to grab some lunch. Hawker centres are all over Singapore, and it’s where the locals eat. At the hawker centres there are numerous food stalls to choose from, and you can get anything from Satay, to noodles, and even Singapore’s traditional chicken and rice. A meal at a hawker centre is incredibly reasonable, most meals will cost between S$4 and S$6. I left my camera bag at our table and went off in search of something to eat, looking back to make sure my bag was still there, but this wasn’t South Africa, no one even considered helping themselves!
Later that evening when my dad got home from work, we discussed what each person wanted to do. I had a few things on my list I wanted to see but was pretty happy to go with the flow. One outing that was a little unexpected was going with my dad to one of his companies ships that he needed to inspect, I was excited to go with, but a little anxious about having to climb up and and down a pilot’s ladder, which was nothing more than a rope ladder dangling down the side of the ship.
Over the next few days we did some exploring, one place I was really keen to get to was Chinatown, but more specifically I wanted to see the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Chinatown historically was the area of settlement for the Chinese who arrived in the then-British colony.
The most popular street was Pagoda Street which was extremely busy, lined with colorful double storey buildings, with shops below. There is a vast array of shops, selling everything, each shop owner greeting you happily as you walk past, then trying you inside their shop offering you hand painted Chinese zodiac signs, or silk dressing gowns for S$10 for your special someone.
Zig-zagging down two side streets, we arrived outside the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Just before we entered the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple my brother and I stopped outside a stand where a little Chinese lady was selling Buddhist mala beads, we had to ask nicely to be able to have a look at and buy some Sandalwood mala beads which were kept in a small bag at the back of her stand.
In ancient Buddhist tradition, Sandalwood has been celebrated as the perfect meditation tool for thousands of years. The mala beads are a traditional tool used to count the number of times a mantra is recited or the amount of breaths taken while meditating. Traditionally there are 108 beads, signifying the mortal desires of mankind.
The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple stands along Bridge Road in Chinatown. It is a relatively young temple which was first conceived in 1989. It was only built finally in 2007. The temple is a traditional Tang-style design and stands five storeys high with it’s red lacquered walls.
The temple seems to be more of a working museum, but upstairs on the fourth storey the temple houses the sacred Buddha tooth relic. After taking your shoes off you can enter the Sacred Light Hall, a large quiet room with people meditating on the raised meditation platforms on either side. The ceiling is lined with many ornate lanterns.
The inner chamber is where the sacred tooth relic is kept. The chamber is decorated with gold statues, guardians to keep watch over the relic. There is also a large mandala on the ceiling directly above the relic. The floor tiles are made from actual gold. A truly breathtaking room.
Just around the corner in Telok Ayer Street is another ornate Buddhist Temple called the Thian Hock Keng Temple. Built in 1839, it is the oldest temple in Singapore.
The temple was built without a single nail. It is built of stone, tiles and wood with intricate carvings of dragons and phoenixes. The Thian Hock Keng Temple was built to worship Mazu, a Chinese Sea Goddess. What we found out later, after chatting to a Chinese man at another temple is that all the temples around Singapore are for worshipping different Gods. It was well worth a visit to this temple too.
Just around the corner from Chinatown is Keon Saok Road, we took a walk down it back to the bus station to get home. I only found out later, the road had a rather interesting past. The road was a former red light district, lined with brothels and the homes of rich business men’s mistresses, alongside a mix of clan houses, coffee shops and other general businesses. The road now is mixture of boutique hotels, bars and co-working spaces.
Something my parents didn’t know about, but I wanted to see was the Japanese cemetery park. It was a little distance from my parents apartment, but within walking distance if you had some time. A few days after Chinatown we had some time so we decided to take a walk.
After about 40 minutes of walking in the blaring sun, we arrived at the cemetery park. It is the largest Japanese cemetery in Southeast Asia and consists of around 900 tombstones. The park includes graves of young prostitutes, scientists, civilians, soldiers and convicted war criminals sentenced to death at Changi Prison.
Some notable graves include Yamamoto Otokichi, the first Japanese resident of Singapore. Tani Yutaka who was a secret agent for the Japanese military who died in hospital in Singapore. Another notable grave was of Ueyama Kantarō, the first son of the inventor of the mosquito coil.
After we had done, we began our walk back to the apartment, and we had no sooner begun walking back when it started to rain, luckily there was a hawker centre close by where we could take shelter, and have a beer! After the rain stopped and the beers were finished we continued on. In Singapore almost every afternoon it rains, and today was no different. Due to the rains, Singapore has started to build sheltered walkways on the streets. To date they have built just over 200 kms of covered walkways, but the route we chose clearly was for the next phase! By the time we got home we were soaked through, our wet shoes squeaking on the foyer tiles.
Another must-visit place on my list was the Orchid garden, which was something my parents weren’t too keen to see. My sister, her boyfriend and myself set aside a day and headed off to check it out. We caught the MRT and climbed off at the Botanical Gardens station. The entrance to the Botanical Gardens was across the road. The orchard garden is situated inside the Singapore Botanical Gardens, which is free to enter and is open every day of the year from 5am till midnight, however entry to the Orchid garden costs S$5. The orchid garden is located on the highest hill in the Botanical Gardens and it is home to around 60 000 orchid plants. There are approximately 1000 species and 2000 hybrids.
There were a few items I wanted to buy while I was in Singapore, a lucky Japanese waving cat, some traditional temple incense, a Buddha and a Thai amulet. I went shopping with my brother for the amulet, he knew the correct spots. After visiting a Buddhist Temple near Macpherson we caught the MRT to Bugis and went in search of the shop that sells different amulets. You ask one of the ladies there for amulets based on the effect you’re looking for like protection, luck, or wealth. They then have a look through cases upon cases of different amulets, and show you the different ones you can choose from.
After choosing the amulet that seems to speak to you, I ended up choosing a Hanumarn. Another lady will then put it onto a chain for you, and you then head inside, where you make a small donation and then stand in line for the monk to bless it for you. The whole process was quite an experience. In Thailand, Hanumarn amulets protect from evils/darkness. Destroy all obstacles, dangers and misfortune.
For New Years Eve we caught the MRT down to Clarke Quay and took a walk along the river, grabbing a slab of ice cream wrapped in rainbow coloured bread. We then headed to Marina Bay Sands to watch the fireworks, we weren’t the only ones who had thought of that idea, I think the whole of Singapore was down there too! Even with all the people, the crowd control was fantastic and the police had complete control. The fireworks went on for at least two hours, and the final showpiece was unbelievable! Once all the fireworks were over, everybody started the slow walk back to the train stations. Even with all the people, everyone was happy, chatting to each other and we slowly filtered underground to catch a train. Not once did anyone bump me or push me.
It was a bit sad having to leave Singapore to head back home. It was great to experience such a modern, safe and civilised country. Even though we were visitors, everyone we met was happy to chat, was more than happy to offer assistance, and we met some interesting people at the hawker centre, like Toto the beer girl who looked after us and knew us as JE, JJ and KK, and would come running over when she saw us to get us a seat and offer us some beer. Some things there are expensive like restaurants and alcohol. But if you eat with the locals, and use public transport over taxis it didn’t feel that expensive. Being able to leave my camera bag on my seat while fetching dinner, and being able to walk in public parks after dark without any issues is one thing I will miss a lot. In Singapore everyone just gets on with what they are doing, without no attitudes and there’s no violence, looting or burning things. I’ve only been home a few days and I already miss the place. I definitely will be back!