Right now, I’m sitting on a fast boat heading from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, north to Siem Reap, where we’ll be staying for 3 nights, visiting Angkor Wat, a temple known around the world for both its size and beauty. I’m excited, and Adrianna is brimming with enthusiasm. The banks of the Mekong are speeding past (just like this vacation) and Cambodia is slowly revealing the bits and pieces it’s willing to show to foreign tourists. But I’m not writing about Cambodia today; today, I’m writing about Singapore, a city that I’ve fallen deeply in love with.
Singapore is relatively new city/country/nation-state. It was a fishing village until the early 1800s, when a British employee of the East India Trade Company, seeking a regional advantage to rival the dutch, decided to create a city in the then swampy area at the southernmost tip of the Asian continent. Sir Stamford Raffles founded a city that is today one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen. Though Singapore is popularly known for some rather harsh laws (don’t litter or you’ll be hit with fines upwards of $1000), it is also a city with a well constructed infrastructure and awe-inspiring architecture. And pandas. The zoo also has pandas.
We hit the airport at 7:30 p.m., cleared customs in a flash, bought MTR cards, and arrived at our hostel by 9pm. The hostel was…inexpensive, but the staff–which seemed to consist of one man–was incredibly helpful. Our host gave us a map and some good instructions as to where we should go, how we should get there, and what we should see. After a light dinner (Adrianna’s stomach was still feeling a little iffy from the case of Bali Belly she contracted in Indonesia) we hit the sack, promising each other to rise early and attack the zoo.
We woke the next morning with the sun, rinsed the accumulated traveling dust off our bodies (maybe we should have done this the night before, but we were tired. Don’t judge us), and set out for the Singapore Zoo. I had middling expectations; our host had touted it as the best thing in Singapore, but we didn’t know yet how right he was. The zoo was beautiful, and full of a panoply of rare and interesting creatures. A polar bear (huge), some proboscis monkies (funny), elephants (large!), warthogs, meerkats, otters, manatees (not dugongs), alligators, crocodiles, and dozens of other beautiful exotic creatures were kept in comfortable enclosures. And there were two pandas.
Adrianna has something of a love affair for pandas. She claims that one of her life goals is to see and cuddle every black and white animal, a quest that took us to the Audubon Aquarium’s “Penguin Experience” last February for her birthday, where we got to hold a delightful little waddle-bird. Later this year her quest will likely take us to Chengdu, China, where the zoo allows patrons to hold young pandas in exchange for a “donation.” Adrianna didn’t get to hold a panda in Singapore, but she saw one for the first time, and she was animated with joy. We gazed upon the pandas for some time, and after Adrianna’s eyes had drunk their fill of black and white fur, we moved along.
We stayed in the zoo from about 9am until 4pm. After we’d experienced as much wildlife as we could handle, we caught a fast bus into the city. We took a quick walk through Chinatown (pretty similar to China, except a million times cleaner) before stopping at a Buddhist Temple, the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. It was beautiful and tranquil, but the rest of the city called. We walked from point to point, taking in breathtaking sights, watching an unexpected (and a little bizzare) show by Marina Bay, and just relaxing in the contradictorily tranquil yet busy nature of Singapore. We got back to the hotel at around 10 pm, tired but happily pleased that Singapore had proved to be much more than we expected.
Day 2 began a little bit later. The perpetual jet lag on this trip doesn’t catch up to us everyday, but it does catch up once in a while, and we left the hostel closer to noon than to the sunrise. After our whirlwind tour of day one, we were determined to direct ourselves a bit more intentionally, and headed to the Singapore History Museum, where we learned a bit about the tumultuous and relatively brief history of the city we were coming to love. After the history museum we stopped at the Singapore Art Museum, which was hosting a Biennale celebrating East and Southeast Asian artists. Some of the exhibits were beautiful, some of them moving, and some of them confusing verging on insane.
By mid-afternoon my eyes and mind had seen nearly as much art as they could encompass.
Adrianna and I headed into town, compelled to seek out the fabled Merlion, a symbol of Singapore that resembles a lion’s head attached to a fish’s body. It’s kind of strange, and I’m not quite sure why such an awkward statue represents such a beautiful city. Still, it’s in a pleasant location, and something worth seeing.
For our last stop in Singapore we choose the Arab Quarter, an area populated by Arabs and dominated by, to some extent, Arab culture. There was a large mosque, and as we sat eating dinner outside at a small restaurant we heard what I presume was a call to prayer, a beautiful sound that served to enhance the sense of peace and tranquility prevailent in the city. I can’t quite explain it; such a sound, in nearly anywhere else I’ve been, would be bizarre and out of place, but there, in that moment, it was perfect. That dinner, besides being delicious, was an exercise in finding joy in your surroundings.
As we headed home, I tried to fix the stillness, the calmness, and the peaceful nature of Singapore within my mind. It’s an oxymoron of a place; simultaneously busy and calm, large and small, bustling but quiet. Singapore was such a refreshing change of pace, especially after the loud, dirty, crowded city that is Shenzhen, that I can only hope that a return trip in the future won’t be colored by my imperfect memories.