Wednesday, October 30, 2002

In the Footsteps of Raffles

October 2002

I had always wanted to drink a stenga at Raffles Hotel: ever since reading a novel about the Japanese invasion of Singapore during World War II, it had been my ambition to sit on the balcony of said venerable establishment, in the steamy tropical sundown and gently sip from a tall glass filled to the brim with Scotch, soda and ice.

Well, there was Raffles Hotel and here I was, with my wife, on a tour bus gliding past in the pulsing Singapore traffic. That was about the closest we got to this iconic landmark, because for the next three days in this remarkable city state, there was just no time to sit idly anywhere, let alone on the veranda of Raffles Hotel.

But I'm not complaining: far from it. Our stay in Singapore was serendipitous. We were on our way back from a wonderful five week holiday in Australia and New Zealand and decided to take a special deal offered by Singapore Airlines for a three-night stop over at a five-star hotel at a ridiculously low cost. We were put up at the Orchard Hotel, on the famous Orchard Road and immediately got a taste of at least one reason why Singapore boasts nearly 8,000,000 tourists a year. The service, from the moment you step inside the hotel lobby is nothing short of superb.

"Good morning Mr and Mrs Butchins, welcome; would you like a smoking or non-smoking room? - Double bed, king size or singles... (we chose the king size): higher floor or lower floor... (we chose the middle)..." and so on. And then the room itself was magnificent, "sheer looxary" and all for about US$30.00 a night on a special Singapore Tourism Board promotional deal. (Is this a plug? Perhaps, but it's well earned…)

We weren't planning on sitting around our hotel room, air-conditioned and gorgeous as it was. We wanted to experience Singapore in all its vibrant, cosmopolitan, sweltering splendour. Oh yes, sweltering it was...way up beyond 32C and climbing and as humid as you can get. We'd just come from an early Sydney spring, rather tepid and pleasant (somewhat different to the Tel Aviv heat we were used to), and Singapore came close to this...but with a good mix of sub-tropical ultra humid Durban (SA) in mid-February thrown in for good measure.

Our first trip was a night safari at the Singapore zoo (discount courtesy of the Singapore Tourist Bureau). This is not just another kitschy set of holding pens with sullen animals peering at gawking humans through bars. The Singapore Zoo is known as an "open zoo". It is quite unique in that all the animals are kept in totally natural surroundings; dense overgrowth exactly matching the South Asia jungles, running streams, grassy grazing areas, spacious, landscaped enclosures separated from visitors by moats concealed with vegetation.

If animals have to be in zoos (and that's another discussion entirely) then these are perfect conditions. Visitors are taken around the enclosures in a motorized train or they can do it on foot, along winding paths through the tropical forest. After our introductory train ride we chose to walk along the well defined, but very dark, pathways. The air was steamy, muggy, it was like wading through treacle; the sounds of the night all around, chirping insects, the occasional grunt of a wild cat, the chatter of monkeys...ominous slithering sounds from the undergrowth; we clambered through an enclosure filled with bats and viewed tapirs up close and personal. A small leap of imagination and we were a troop of Wingate's Chindits slogging our way back to base...

And then, the highlight of the evening – coming face to face (thankfully through some rather thick, reinforced sheet glass acting as a screen), with a real, live, 400-lb White Royal Bengal Tiger. A quite magnificent very rare creature, royally reposing on a fallen tree trunk, lord of the few hundred square metres he surveyed.

After our night-time jungle experience we headed back to our hotel and our welcoming air-conditioned room, to catch some "zees" in preparation for tomorrow's day on the town.

Next morning, after a really five-star breakfast, we hit Orchard Road and made our way to the nearby Singapore Stopover "Hop On" Bus Stop. This is where you can hop on a brightly coloured bus which takes you around the city on a designated route, allowing you to jump on and off at will. Busses run every 30 minutes during the day and this is the ideal way to get to see this compact, vibrant city-state. We headed down towards the centre of town, street maps in hand, and planned to take in Arab Street, the Indian quarter – known as Little India – Chinatown and then head towards Suntec City – the huge multi-towered mega mall and office complex which dominates Singapore's skyline.

Arab Street itself is a colourful panoply of all the sorts of things you would expect in any "shuk": leather goods, basket ware, flamboyant fabrics; sweetmeats. The area is dominated by the Sultan Mosque with its impressive gold dome and large prayer hall. Depending on your propensity to buy any and everything in site (great price, by the way), it should take a couple of hours to wander through this district. But time's a' wasting and there was much more to see and do.

We made our way back up to Little India – and it was like being back in Durban's Grey Street; the heart of that city's Indian community. The smells of pungent Indian spices, the sounds of Hindi music blaring from shops – different tunes, different volumes…quite a cacophony. The fact that it was in the middle of Deepavali, the Hindu festival of lights, made it that much more of a kaleidoscope of color, noise, aromas and excitement. The streets were bedecked in ribbons and garlands, bells and lights, and most of the shops were decorated with a vast array of lights (flashing electric, candles, oil lamps). The shops themselves were perfect replicas of those I remember from Durban; small, neat, family-owned stores, presenting a vast range of goods from gold and silver jewelery to bolts of sari fabric, tourist memorabilia, vegetarian food…and of course by now my mouth is watering for a good curry. Still, I had to forego that as my wife was gently tugging on my and whispering into my ear: "Suntec City, Suntec City, Suntec City..." I should explain that she is a shopping mall and supermarket fiend. And we had heard that there was a fantastic hypermarket in Suntec City, so that was our (well, her…) main objective. But on the way, I insisted we visit Chinatown, because I had heard that was where we could get a really good deal on a really good digital video camera.

So we hopped on the "Hop On" bus once more, made our way down towards Chinatown and that's when we saw it: Raffles Hotel, in all its colonial splendour – almost immediately opposite the Suntec Mall. I WAS tempted, I must confess. My thoughts flickered around suggesting: "Well dear, there's the Suntec Mall, go and have a wonderful time – I'll be relaxing on the veranda enjoying my 'stenga'…" But marital bliss seemed a lot more important than what was essentially just a Scotch-on-the-Rocks, albeit a hugely symbolic Scotch-on-the-Rocks, and I restrained myself to just declaring: "There's Raffles…" and took a picture through the bus window. Such are the joys of limited time and a surplus of things to do and see.

Chinatown was not dissimilar to Little India or Arab Street…except the majority of people were Chinese – or tourists. But we did find our camera and after half an hour of bargaining with Mr. Chee in his Temple Road photographic emporium., walked out with a wonderful little Canon at a wonderfully little price. Much better than we could possibly expect in Israel even at the duty-free shop. That little camera has done some sterling work, but it was stolen in Tel Aviv recently…another long story; so now I'm gong to have to spend more than I originally would have at the duty free on a new one. Bitter irony.

Mission accomplished, a look at the nearby Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple and now it's back to Suntec! Aah – except the "Hop On" only goes in one direction and we didn't feel like travelling all the way back around Singapore, back past the hotel, down Orchard Road again…for what was essentially a six minute ride back to the mall. Or so we thought. OK, we'll walk, we decided. NOT a good idea. As I mentioned Singapore was hot, very hot and sultry and we were soon bathed in perspiration…and walking in completely the wrong direction.

The only alternatives were a bus or a cab, so we chose the latter, paid a few Sing. Dollars and were soon standing in the awesome presence of the Suntec towers. By now we were also getting pretty peckish: we'd been on the go since around 8:00 am and had spent more than five hours taking in the local colour. Now it was time to take in the local cuisine, mall-style, and we headed for the food court where we found a great little rustic American country-styled restaurant. Did I say "rustic American country-styled" in Singapore? Yes, because Singapore is nothing if not cosmopolitan and the Suntec restaurants epitomize this. You can find food from almost anywhere in the world, at great quality and reasonable prices.

To give you a blow-by-blow on Suntec would need an article on its own, and quite frankly, unless you're a mall and supermarket aficionado like my wife, it's not that interesting. The shops are magnificent: all the designer labels you could want, the world's brands laid out before your eyes, the mall itself is beautiful and it's BIG. The Carrefour hypermarket – yes Carrefour, the same famous French chain – is huge and full of exciting produce and things and temptations. But it's not Singapore. Ignoring the multi-ethnic clientele and the Chinese, Arabic, Hindi and English labelling, we could have been in any super/hypermarket anywhere in the world. Globalization at its best (or worst, depending on your point of view).