I’ve been sightseeing again and this time I can say, with utter confidence, that it was a resounding success. I’m trying to see or do one new thing every weekend, to make sure that I get out of the house, and because I’m in Singapore, I don’t want to sit around in my pyjamas watching TV all day like I do at home. I know, very industrious of me. Anyway, this weekend I was in a quandary about what to do. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to see here if you know what you’re looking for, and I have a list as long as my arm of places I want to visit, but I was out on Monday night and I didn’t want to commit myself to a complicated plan and then wake up hungover, feeling like I was dying and just curl up into a ball and give up on the day. So I made no advanced plans until about 2am on Tuesday morning when, worse-for-wear, Cheyenne and I decided to meet up in Chinatown for lunch the next day. It seemed like a good idea at the time and I can still say now that it definitely was. I’ve moaned here before that Singapore has destroyed quite a lot of its history and heritage by knocking down buildings to put up glass skyscrapers and dull looking HDB buildings, and from what I’d seen up to this point I wasn’t particularly optimistic that I was going to be able to see anything built before 1970. Chinatown, with its rows of colourful shop houses and quirky market stalls, proved me more than wrong.
It’s a weird sensation, emerging from the MRT into the heart of Chinatown. You pick your way through throngs of the slowest walkers in the history of using two feet as transport, up countless escalators wondering just how far underground you actually were, and suddenly emerge into a scene right out of the turn of the 20th century. I didn’t see Chinatown when I came out of the station, I heard it and smelled it before my eyes managed to take it all in – the noise of a lively market, shop keepers trying to lure you in, rice, spices and questionable meat products cooking in back rooms, it was surprising, overwhelming and brilliant at once (all the more so because I was hanging). I know I say this about every single place I’ve been to, but I think it’s one of those places you can only appreciate fully when you’ve been on multiple visits. There are dozens of market stalls and hawker eateries down little side streets that I didn’t have time to visit, and so many places that I walked past and then thought ‘I should have gone in there’. Despite this, returning to Chinatown will never be the same as visiting it for the first time, it can only ever take your breath away once. I did some minor browsing in the shops crammed into the shop house ground floors, and while most of it is the tourist-baiting tat that you come to expect from anywhere that gets large numbers of foreign visitors, there were some places selling some interesting and quirky things. Chinese fans were dotted around the place alongside brightly coloured chopsticks, questionable cooking ingredients and some really beautiful antique-looking combs. It was a real mismatch of cultures, which made it an absolutely fascinating place to get lost in. Chinese New Year is coming up next month, and although Chinatown will be shut down for the majority of it it would be interesting to visit beforehand to see what curiosities are brought out in the build-up. The main reason for our excursion to Chinatown was to find lunch and hopefully keep at bay the hangovers that were creeping in. Food Street is pretty unique compared to the other hawker places I’ve visited. There are hawker stalls dotted about down other allies but Food Street is mostly made up of wooden shacks selling various different Chinese dishes separated by clusters of tables. I’m not explaining it very well, but it’s difficult to do, because Food Street in Chinatown isn’t a hawker centre or a street of hawker stalls, it’s somewhere between the two, and far more organised than either. Perusing the menus, there were some pretty interesting things on offer, including fried chickens feet and the perennial Singapore favourite, pigs trotters, neither of which I have any intention of eating. I decided to go for the Chinatown staple, Laksa. I have no idea what half the ingredients are in Laksa, and I feel it’s one of those things where it’s better not to ask, but broadly it’s a spicy, coconut milk-based soup with noodles, bean sprouts, egg and something that could be mussels or oysters. There was also some unidentified spongy thing which could have been tofu but I don’t think it was, and a few other ingredients it’s probably best not to dwell on. Whatever was in it, it was really good, and the array of things on offer in Chinatown make it a good place to go if you’re not sure what you want to eat.
Post-lunch, and feeling a bit more human, we took a walk so that Cheyenne could show me a famous temple on the outskirts of Chinatown. Sri Mariamman Temple is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, founded in 1827, and is so unbelievably beautiful that it has been named a national monument. I’d never really seen a Hindu temple before, other than on TV, there aren’t exactly that many purpose-built ones in England. Of course we have cathedrals, which are architecturally stunning, but Sri Mariamman is playing a whole other ball game. For a building approaching its 200th birthday I couldn’t believe how vivid the colours still are, and looking at it closely takes your breath away. I’m not going to try and describe what it actually looks like to you, that would be pointless and would take too many words to accomplish absolutely nothing, but instead you can applaud my first class photographic skills and see for yourself.
Interestingly there is also an archway into Chinatown on the right of the temple guarded by a massive cow statue. I think the cows are part of the temple, but they look a bit prop store against it. You can see a few more in the left of the picture. There are a lot of cows.
It’s only a few weeks to Chinese New Year, as I’ve already mentioned, and so Chinatown was beginning to get ready for the celebrations. I’m not sure what exactly goes on here during it, although I think they have a big parade. The decorations that were starting to go up were pretty cool, and if I can get anywhere near it during the week of celebrations I think it’ll be a sight to see. With Chinatown thoroughly seen we wandered towards Clarke Quay, with Cheyenne pointing out interesting architecture along the way. I don’t know how but I keep managing to cajole people into being my tour guide for the day, I’m becoming pretty impressed at my own skills. I’d been as far as Clarke Quay MRT before but it was dark, and there’s never a lot to see around an MRT station. Cheyenne offered to show me around a bit, as its her neighbourhood, and suggested we did a riverboat tour which, in my humble opinion, is the only way to travel. Clarke Quay is best described as the trendy, upmarket district. Just off the CBD it’s the haunt of bankers and other hot shots, and I saw more Westerners in our little stroll through it than I’ve seen in my whole time here. It’s another area of the city, like Chinatown, that’s surprisingly untouched by the frenetic rebuilding that grips the rest of Singapore. The banks of the river from Clarke Quay down to Boat Quay are lined with multicoloured, higgledy-piggledy shop houses and the awnings put up by the side of the river, so that patrons of the dozens of bars that fill them can have a drink with a view in any weather, give it a lovely relaxed atmosphere. Weirdly it reminded me a bit of some European cities with the mismatch of colours and general party atmosphere.
Anyone who knows me knows that I love a good boat tour, and this one did not disappoint. A whole fleet of eco-friendly bumboats take tourists, and eager beavers like me, out every 15 minutes on a 40 minute commentated tour of the city, from Robertson Quay down to Marina Bay. I’m not going to re-create the tour here, because that would be boring for everyone involved, so instead I’ll give a brief précis of the tour and tell you to do it yourself (and if you do, take me with you!). I love seeing cities from the water because it immediately removes the hoards of people that always ruin sightseeing. On this particular tour we cruised under a lot of bridges built by some distinguished Brits (and the odd Scot) and past some of the most famous sights in the city, including the Merlion (who you don’t normally get to see from the front), the Marina Bay Sands Resort and the Theatres on the Bay, which looks exactly like a durian (the smelliest fruit in the world). The Asian Civilisations Museum is housed in the old Empress Place building and alongside it sits the Queen Victoria theatre, two of the oldest (probably) and most beautiful (definitely) buildings in Singapore. I saw swanky Marina Bay on New Years Eve but it was filled with people, so getting a view of the impressive One Fullerton Place and the Old Customs House from the water was definitely worth the entrance fee. Of course I took about 5000 pictures, so I won’t bore you with them all here, but I’ll follow with some of my favourites, just to encourage you to do it yourself.
Update: I went to fake Waitrose again yesterday and have found the most ridiculously unnecessary imported product. While hunting for peas I discovered Waitrose frozen cauliflower florets. I can’t even begin to imagine how you manage to import frozen cauliflower from halfway across the world, let alone why you would want to, but there it is.
Leah Out X