What to do on Day 1? Why, a "Death March," of course!
06/23/2016 - 06/23/2016 94 °F
Statue of Stamford Raffles, the Brit who won the rights to build a trading base in what would become Singapore
Before I began researching it, I guessed that I would need 3-4 days to see the sights I wanted to in Singapore. I mean it is just a big city, right? There would probably be one or two museums I'd want to hit up, a few historic sights, a couple nice views, and then I'm done. Right? I'm not necessarily a big city guy. I've never wanted to live in L.A., fuggiddabout it New York, and I really only like Chicago because of its pizza! Boy, was I wrong about Singapore!
As I was compiling my list of things to do, it kept growing and growing. So many amazing temples or religious sights from a half-dozen faiths. Outstanding nature, great museums, History -- my notes kept doubling in size. I came to the realization I should have budgeted a lot more time when I purchased my plane ticket. I decided I would simply make do, and check off as much of the things I wanted to experience as I could. Those who know me realize what that means. And those who have traveled with my were probably breathing a secret sigh of relief that they wouldn't have to endure that interesting -- but potentially excruciating itinerary -- the Worldwidemike Death March. Toss in the 90+ degree Southeast Asian heat and you're talking serious potential for injury!
A few days before I began my 30 hours and three flights to get from Columbus, Ohio, to Singapore, I had one of those moments when I thought: "Wait a minute, did I...?" The question was, since my flight arrived after midnight, did I book my first night's hotel for the correct date? Even though I technically arrived on the 23rd, I would need to reserve a room for the night of the 22nd. After more than a solid day of travel the last thing I would want to do would be to cool my heels in a hotel lobby for half a night! I checked. Nope. Booked it to start on the 23rd. Sigh. What's more, my awesome deal for the normally $200 a night Hotel Village Katong (for just over a quarter of that price!) was no longer available. Oh, they had rooms, but they'd charge their normal rate to extend my reservation a day forward. So, I ended up instead at the $50 a night Noble Hotel in the Little India neighborhood, finally checking in at 3 am.
Whimsical bronze statue of children playing along the waterfront
You'd think I'd sleep half a day, but I was awake and couldn't get back to sleep by 8 am. Checkout wasn't until noon, so I went through my list and marked what was nearby in Little India. As it turns out, today would be my Temple Day. I began at the Daoist temple, Leong San See. The smell of incense filled the air, and Daoist music played from hidden speakers. I love the look of Eastern temples. The statues, the gold, and the tiny offerings and devotions of the worshippers. There was an inner sanctuary beyond the first room, all of it gilded and colorful. My guidebook pointed out the carved wooden beams, but frankly, I would have missed them amidst the splendor.
Ceramic statues in the Daoist temple, Leong San See
Next up was a Buddhist temple I just happened to see while I was walking towards the one I'd picked out to visit next. When I peeked inside and saw the massive, brightly-painted, sitting Buddha, I had to check it out. The temple loans visitors a laminated card, which goes into great detail to explain the decorations. It was fascinating reading, and explained everything I was seeing. There were quite a few more worshippers than at the Daoist temple, and as always, I was carefully to stay out of there way and be as unobtrusive as possible. Besides the 45-foot tall statue, my favorite part was the story of the life of the Buddha told through more than 20 dioramas with painted, 2-foot tall statues. The temple even had a relic -- a piece of the tree under which the Buddha sat when he attained enlightenment. I'm sure historians would scoff, much as they do about the pieces of the "true cross" that Crusaders found 1,000 years after the crucifixion. Still, it is belief that makes a religion -- not peer-reviewed sources.
Towering seated Buddha in a Singapore temple
A Hindu temple was next, the first of two I'd visit that morning. Sri Srivinasa Perumal Temple was built in the 1850s, and features one of those towering gopurams that make Hindu temples so colorful to visit. What's a gopuram? It is a tower carved with layer upon layer of brightly-painted statues from the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses. This temple's tower was 60+ feet tall! and the temple was dedicated to Vishnu the Preserver -- one of the three main gods. An interesting aspect of Hinduism, which many say is the world's oldest active religion, is that all of its hundreds of deities are actually considered to be aspects of one overall God -- Brahman. The individual gods and goddesses are just avatars of how he manifests himself on our world. I explain it to my students to think of him as the giant video game player in the sky, and Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesh and the rest are just his "characters" he's created to play this game called life.
Slightly-faded statues along the roof of Sri Srivanasa Perumal temple
The coolest and most colorful Hindu temple I'd see in Singapore was my next one -- Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple. It was dedicated to the goddess Kali, who Indiana Jones gave a really bad reputation to in "The Temple of Doom." She is a somewhat gruesome goddess, usually depicted trampling or killing some unfortunate soul, and wears a necklace of skulls. I didn't see any priests pulling beating hearts from sacrificial victim's chests, but both Hindu temples I visited had active worshippers making offerings, praying, and wearing traditional garb. I loved the statues encrusting the roof and walls of the building. Kali was there, along with my favorite -- a lion-headed God roaring his ferocity. The sun shone on them brightly, and against the backdrop of the blue sky, they were an awesome sight.
The Hindu goddess Kali reigns in her intimidating glory at her temple in Singapore's Little India neighborhood
I changed gears next, with a 20-minute walk to the Muslim Malabar Jama-Ath mosque. The Malabar Muslims are from the southern Indian coast, and were some of the first of their religion to settle in Singapore. The interior was very plain, and devoid of worshippers, since it wasn't during one of the prayer times. I was actually disappointed, as there was very little decoration and the blue tiles my guidebook described were nothing compared to the exquisite, Persian-style mosques I'd seen in the Middle East. I had to cross the street to get a decent picture of the mosque, and then left soon after. Checkout time was at noon, and I hurried back to finish packing and take a taxi over to my main hotel.
Village Hotel Katong was gorgeous, easily a four-star hotel (above what I normally stay in, but hey, when hotels.com gives you a great deal, you take it)! I'd booked the entire vacation's worth of nights through hotels.com. I really like how you can read reviews, look at the map view and compare the hotel's location to what you want to see, and make your decisions at your leisure. I unpacked, and relaxed and enjoyed the cool air conditioning. I dug out my map and guidebook and planned my afternoon sightseeing. This is where the "death march" know kicks in, for those who aren't familiar with how I travel. The closest metro station was a 30-minute walk away (tomorrow, I'd learn how to take the bus there). Along the way, I wanted to check out some of the Perankan-style homes. The Perankans are the community that grew up from Chinese immigrants who had intermarried with the Malay locals. There homes are two-story, brightly-painted homes known for the upper level terrace which can be closed off with wooden shutters. The homes are also elaborately carved with columns, animals, and sometimes bright tiles inlaid in the walls. I took lots of pictures, and would notice this style of home throughout my stay in Singapore.
Perankan homes, colorful and ornate, line many of Singapore's streets
After my circuitous route, it was after nearly an hour's worth the of walking under the bright sun and humidity before I arrived at the metro station. I had purchased an EZ-Link card from a convenience store, which you merely tap on the reader to have it automatically deduct the fare for any public transport you take in Singapore. The metro was air-conditioned and modern, with a lighted display board showing exactly where you are on that line. Announcements in English and Chinese detail each stop, along with a British-style reminder to "mind the gap." I alighted at the Raffles Place metro station, found my bearings, and headed towards the waterfront. My first stop would be the Asian Civilizations Museum, which my guidebook quite rightly raved about. I took my time wandering the three stories of exhibits. Everything was thoroughly explained in English, with pamphlets available in each room translating it into other languages. If I neglected to mention it before, English is the official language of Singapore. So, it you're looking to explore a Chinese or Asian culture, Singapore is an excellent introduction for the beginner. It is modern, efficient, friendly, and packed full of sights -- just like this museum. What's more, you are permitted to photograph the exhibits. Some of my favorites were the stone, Southeast Asian style temple carvings. I also enjoyed the intricately carved wooden boxes and furniture, and the brightly-painted porcelain. One really interesting part of the museum is the room containing the cargo hold and relics recovered from a Tang Dynasty ship that had sunk on its way to the Middle East. It was a fascinating treasure trove.
I wandered along the waterfront for awhile, taking pictures of the massively tall skyscrapers that stretch towards the heavens from Singapore's central business district. Many had interesting or unique silhouettes, or shiny or unusual facings. I was reminded of Dubai and its intriguingly shaped modern buildings. After a fountain soda to cool off, I navigated my way to St. Andrews Cathedral -- completing "Temple Day" with Christianity's most important religious site on the island. It's ornately-carved, pure white spire rises nearly 200 feet above the ground, but still is dwarfed when you compare it to Singapore's skyscrapers.
Some destinations have the iconic "thing" you have to do if you're a visitor. For Singapore, it is to head to Raffles Hotel and have a drink at the Long Bar. The Singapore Sling was invented here, and the hotel does brisk business with tourists bellying up to try one. I stuck with a pint of the local Tiger Bear, instead. I was surprised to find bags of peanuts on the bar for patrons to crack and munch on, tossing the shells onto the floor. It seemed somehow un-British to toss your refuse on the floor. I indulged, though, chiefly because I hadn't eaten all day except for two small chocolate buns that were complimentary in my morning hotel. Oh, that's another aspect of one of my death marches -- an almost ascetic, self-denial of food. I honestly think fasting can hone your senses. Plus, airlines tend to over feed their passengers, and it is also partly in attempt to right the balance that I eat little in my first day or so. The peanuts hit the spot, and I would actually go to bed that evening having eaten no meal all day.
As I left Raffles, dusk was settling in on Singapore's bustling streets. I headed for the bay to get pictures of the skyscrapers lit up at night. My feet were getting sore, as I'd been walking for more hours than I cared to think about. I was rewarded with a delicious panorama of the city lit up by night. It was also my first real look at the Marina Sands Hotel, a building that should feature in a Star Wars movie. Three futuristic hotel towers are topped by a gleaming boat-like structure that is home to gardens, an infinity pool, restaurant, and of course, observation deck. I would visit it later on the trip, but it rose out of the bay like a science-fiction model, and is surrounded by similarly futuristic looking buildings. The lights of the city skyscrapers gleamed brightly, reflecting on the water. The mirror images of the buildings were sliced apart periodically by boats cutting wakes across the placid surface of the bay. I always carry a tiny, collapsible tripod with me for moments like these. I circled the half moon of the waterfront, taking pictures along the way and savoring the view.
Finally, it was time to head back to the hotel. I limped a bit, having foolishly warn my Teva sandals rather than walking shoes. It would turn out that I had developed and torn a blister on my left foot. After the uncomfortable half an hour walk from the metro station, I picked up a package of Band-AIds to wear for the next few days. Having a shoppingi center -- including a supermarket -- in your hotel is a handy thing. After a refreshing shower, I thankfully settled into bed and slept away the rigors of one of my signature death marches.