Safari, So Good

Trip Start Nov 08, 2003
Trip End Oct 22, 2004

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Flag of Singapore  ,
Friday, May 7, 2004


Our 9am Kuala Lumpur-Singapore flight took off half an hour late due to queues at immigration control. It seemed the whole of KL wanted to leave and who could blame them?

An hour later and we were back at our favouritest airport in the whole wide world, Changi, for the second time this year after our brief time in transit en route to Koh Samui a couple of months ago.

After sweeping through customs we headed for Singapore's clean (a word I may repeat in every sentence), ultra-efficient tube system, the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit). We bought a couple of tickets to Bugis station, the nearest stop for our hotel and made our way to an empty train carriage that was shockingly bereft of graffiti and empty crisp bags. Shouldn't be allowed . . . what kind of weirdly clean land had we set foot in?

A half hour later and we were backpacking our way through a very humid downtown Singapore looking for the quirkily named 'New Seventh Storey Hotel' in completely the wrong direction. We then turned our map up the right way and found the hotel protruding by itself on a large green with a huge banner on the side oddly offering money off Epson products for a few nights stay. There was no turning back though as we'd pre-booked a room on the recommendation of the Lonely Planet online forum, who had described it as the best budget accommodation in the city.

We were checked in by a cheery Hawaiian shirted receptionist and were shown to a sixty year old lift and were surprised to see another Hawaiian shirted member of staff operating the controls. Our £30 a night room was on the fifth floor and on entering we were taken aback by the sight of a TV with DVD player, a first on our travels. We still had about 20 fake DVDs we'd accumulated so it was touch and go whether we'd actually leave the room to see Singapore. The room was big enough with a good sized bathroom and seemed really clean, which was at odds with the advice that had been given to us from fellow travellers with regards to not paying less than £100 a night or you'll be cuddling cockroaches under the sheets come bedtime.

After testing a few DVDs on our new little toy, we dumped bags and shot out again heading into town on the MRT for a quick look around. On exiting the air-conditioned tube we were hit by the heat and the sight of the mile long, mall lined, shopping metropolis that is a living shrine to the power of capitalism and globalisation, Orchard Road, one of the world's densest shopping areas.

We walked up and down its length daring to gaze through the shop windows of Prada and Gucci before being shooed away like little Dickensian urchins, until we finally came upon what we'd been looking for, well, what I'd been looking for anyway, The Apple Centre. Our trusty laptop was in need of some new software and memory as it was beginning to creak under the weight of three thousand digital snaps and with 20% savings to be made compared to UK prices I launched myself into a sweaty 100 megabyte-sized shopping frenzy, flitting around the aisles in such a demented way that even Dale Winton would have been proud of.

After a couple of hundred quids worth of software, some deep breathing exercises and a few lungfuls of oxygen I managed to regain control of myself and we headed for a well earnt alcoholic beverage in the shape of two pints of Carlsberg that set us back 800 English pennies. A rip-off 99% of the time but a bargain to us at that very moment.

We then headed back to our hotel to load software and watch Finding Nemo, adding yet another viewing to our own world record of 48, and on consulting our city guide for local eateries we had a craving for spicy food to satisfy. This led us to Bangles Indian restaurant, a fifteen minute walk north to the Little India area of Singapore, and on entering through the quaint wooden double doors we could see we'd taken them by surprise as we walked into an atmospheric, but empty room. They soon began to get their act together as a delicious hot-looking Indian waitress in full sari-mode began to deliver equally delicious hot-looking food to our table. As per usual we'd ordered too much and with Soph bowing out with full belly, it was left to me once again to hoover up the remainder with a plate full of naan bread leaving me with a gratifying dose of heartburn, sure-fire sign of a superb Indian meal, and it was.


After 'The Night of a Thousand Bhajis', we decided to power-walk our way into town, shunning the cool haven of the tube for a total body workout. As we crossed roads we noticed the locals wouldn't cross even if there wasn't a car in sight, they'd wait patiently for the little green man to appear. Talk about well trained or were there heavy fines for jaywalking?

Ten minutes down the road and we were at the most famous place in Singapore, Raffles Hotel, but after a swift circuit around the perimetre we headed onwards, deciding on a visit to it's fabled Long Bar later on in the day.

Around the corner was an arts-centre housed in a disused power station called Substation, where we had lunch at their recommended café, The Fat Frog.

We were now ready to hit Orchard Road in earnest and visit every mall on the strip beginning with Orchard Plaza followed by Orchard Point, Centrepoint, Emerald, Heeren, Paragon, Lucky Plaza, Wisma Atria, Tangs, Wheelock Place, Orchard Towers and finally Tanglin. It was all too much and after beginning to find the same shops being repeated in every mall we headed for the MRT towards City Hall.

Across the road from City Hall station was Chijmes, a 150 year old building with a fountain and cobbled walkways. Up until 20 years ago it was a school and orphanage but nowadays it houses a shopping and restaurant complex, a tactic that was becoming all too evident as we walked around. If it's empty turn it into a mall. There we ate a plate of nachos and another couple of expensive beers.

Opposite was the familiar sight of Raffles and the lure of pink cocktails with mini-umbrellas proved too much as we walked up the stairway to the Long Bar, where they invented and have since served Singapore Slings for the past 90 years. We made our crunchy way through the colonial bar to a table in the corner, the floor being covered with discarded monkey nut shells, a tradition of the bar. A waiter came over and asked us what we'd like, stupid question or what, and a few minutes later a couple of Slings were delivered. They were surprisingly nice especially when complemented with a bowlful of monkey nuts that we cracked and popped into our mouths relentlessly and nonchalantly flicked the shells in every direction except the bin.

5.30 came, and the bar began to fill with office workers and tourists so we stayed for a couple more cocktails. Opting for a change, but keeping with a couple that were exclusive to Raffles we chose a 'Tiger Lily' and a 'Million Dollar' and after four cocktails and a wheelbarrow full of nuts our bill came to $74 (about £25), not bad for another of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

We made our way home on foot for an hours siesta before heading back out again towards the Jalan Besar stadium, scene for tonight's sold-out World Cup qualifier football match between Singapore and Japan. As we walked past the stadium the teams were just walking out and the sea of blue shirted Japanese supporters that made up three-quarters of the crowd jumped up and down wildly like only the Japanese know how to.

In the field next door were a couple of cinema sized screens relaying all the action from the ground, and a few thousand Singaporeans sat on plastic chairs behaving themselves impeccably, politely clapping each accurate pass. It was a great atmosphere as we sat watching the first half where Singapore gave as good as they had against the more skillful opposition, but by half time it was 1-0 to Japan.

We wanted to go to the Night Safari in the north of the island that evening so we left the crowds and made our way to the MRT station, but as we sat on the tube and the stations passed by we soon began to realise we'd left it too late and we arrived at Ang Mo Kio station at 10pm with a thirty minute bus ride to follow. The safari closed at midnight and being a must-do attraction on Singapore we turned back for home deciding to delay our visit 24 hours.


It was our last full day in Singapore which meant a busy day awaited us so after a hearty, artery-clogging breakfast in McDonald's we jumped on a city bound MRT with a national newspaper. The front page was awash with headlines praising the national football team as heroes after being cruelly beaten 2-1 by a goal ten minutes from time.

We got off at City Hall were we walked through Raffles City Plaza shopping mall towards a very dry looking Fountain of Wealth, with a water jet of 30 metres, the world's largest fountain that only really comes to life at 8pm with a watery laser and sound show, so we began to walk in the direction of the shiny, modern Esplanade arts development along a series of well signposted covered walkways.

The Esplanade, Theatres on the Bay, to give it its full name, was designed to resemble an old-fashioned microphone and houses various concert halls, theatres, studios and art galleries and is destined to become an icon to match the Sydney Opera House. Although quiet during the day, we wandered around the modern interior a while before heading underground through a labyrinth of subterranean shopping malls back to the city. Once again we ended up on a tube, and at Tiong Bahru we hopped off and into a waiting taxi that would take us the rest of the trip to the top of Mount Faber.

Mount Faber is the location of the cable car that takes you over the port with its giant cranes and the sea to Sentosa Island, an island holiday resort that was once a military fortress. We dangled hundreds of feet over the briny, but once more we were glad to see the cable car kings of the world, the Austrians, had reassuringly designed and built it.

At Sentosa there were a number of transport options including monorail and coach but on such a tight last day itinerary we decided to sprint off on foot to all the local attractions including the Images of Singapore museum, a potted history of Singapore's evolution, which was totally absorbing and a lot more time consuming than we had allotted for. Next was a short walk through a surreal world of peacocks to the Musical Fountain for a daytime performance of a few thousand perfectly timed squirts of water that was a whole lot better than I'm trying to describe it.

There was so much more to do on the island including an Underwater World, Carlsberg(?) Sky Tower, Dolphin Lagoon and Volcano Land but our schedule meant we'd have to jump on a courtesy coach back to the mainland where we were dropped off at Harbourside MRT station. From there we headed north back to Ang Mo Kio and the Night Safari, where we jumped on a connecting bus eventually arriving at 8pm.

The daytime zoo was just closing which meant the night safari could begin. The queues were already long but we were soon buying our tickets for general admission and a tram ride around the whole enclosure for $48 (£16). Well, we can safely say that we've never spent a more worthwhile £16.

A tram pulled up and we got into the front row of seats. We then slowly set off in the dark with various themed enclosures either side of us all subtlely and strategically lit. A safari commentator stood in front of us acting as a spotter and guide as we cruised through various regions including the Indian Subcontinent, Equatorial Africa and the Himalayan Foothills to name a few, and as each region loomed into view we were astounded to see each animal sat there preening and feeding in a subdued spotlight as if they were mechanical.

The list of animals read like a who's who of every animal in the world with all the usual suspects showing their furry faces including lions, tigers, giraffes, rhinos, hippos, leopards, deer, hyenas and elephants. Interdispersed with the main attractions were smaller but no less interesting animals that all seemed to be on the verge of extinction such as capybaras, marabou storks, oryxs, tapirs and my favourite, bongos.

Every animal appeared as if it were stage managed but it was all natural. They weren't caged in, just a deep pit separated inquisitive humans from certain death and where the animal was extra scary and extra bouncy, a hidden electric fence saved our skin.

At the end of the tram ride you had the opportunity to jump off and walk around the jungle on trails dissecting the assorted compounds for a closer look. We wandered around lonely pathways including the Fishing Cat Trail, Forest Giants Trail and the Leopard Trail and at times you'd be on your own walking through dimly lit paths as if you were in the wild. It was all too realistic and extremely well created.

11pm came all too soon and we had a last tube to catch back to the city, so outside we hopped into a taxi which took us to the nearest station. An hour later we were back home with satisfyingly blistered feet.


It was our last half day in Singapore and after the previous few days we were still hungry for some more of this city's sights and sounds, but first of all we had an appointment with a big brown box and a post office. We were on the edge of rucsac meltdown so clothes, mementoes and fake CDs and DVDs had to be sent home in preparation for our travels through OZ and NZ, so come mid-May a box full of dirty laundry and cheap tat will have made their way from Singapore by sea-mail to the doorstep of Soph's mum in a small town in North Yorkshire. You can't get more exotic than that.

Our flight onwards wasn't until late this evening, so off we went once more in search of Singaporean culture and found it in the shape of the Singapore Art Museum for our regular tablespoon full of modern art. We weren't disappointed as we strolled, hands clasped behind backs, through an externally old yet internally modern building, tipping our heads sideways at priceless works of art that could have been knocked up by a seven year old. It's not the quality of art that grabs us, it's the lack of any real talent that knocks us for six.

After an energy giving muffin in The Dome next door, we quick-stepped our way under a few rain drops towards The Padang, an open field surrounded by the remnants of British colonialism. At one end sits the Singapore Cricket Club Pavilion, opposite is the Singapore Recreation Club and along the side runs Parliament House and the Victoria Theatre. The Padang was once a place to promenade during the evenings so we did just that . . . until it pi**ed down and we dived under a bus shelter.

Once the downpour passed we headed for a statue of the man who 'founded' Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles, who arrived in 1819 and settled rival claims by the Chinese and the Malays by claiming the land for Britain, and just around the corner on the river was another statue of the man himself looking rather smug at the scene of his first landing on Singapore soil.

It was getting on and it was now time to head back to the hotel to pack for the next chapter of our travels and a trip 'down under'.

Singapore proved to be a surprise packet. We'd expected Kuala Lumpur to be a lot more interesting but Singapore outscored KL in every way. It was clean, traffic-free, had excellent transport and the polite multi-cultural locals kept themselves to themselves, but all that doesn't make a city. This place had the sights and sounds to back up its argument with its major tourist draws offering either free entry or nominal fees. Modern skyscrapers rubbed well-designed shoulders with colonial buildings and everything seemed walkable even in humid conditions. Singapore is a shoppers paradise, a culture-vulture's paradise and a food-lovers paradise all in one. In short, an urban paradise, and given half the chance we'd emigrate gladly . . . for a month or so.

All in all Singapore had rivalled our previous favourite metropolis, Bangkok, and we could have stayed a few days more but all this was going to be severely tested in 24 hours time when we'd land in Sydney.

Login soon for the next chapter . . .

The Riff-Raffles
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