Couchsurfing and living it up in Singapore

Trip Start Nov 30, 2009
Trip End Jun 01, 2011

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Flag of Singapore  ,
Friday, June 25, 2010

Singapore airport was very slick in comparison to Kota Kinabalu, beautiful building with all mod cons.  Slight panic when the first three different ATMs wouldn't give us any money, not a good start, with our only other cash being US $20.  Just as we were starting to panic and consider trying to hitchhike our way to our hosts the ANZ Bank came to our rescue and gave us some money.  We had lined up some couch-surfing hosts to stay with for our first 2 nights in Singapore.  Not sure what to expect as it was the first time we’d used that website.  Couldn’t have been better, just a 20 minute cab ride from the airport and we were pulling up outside  a really flash high-rise development, with what looked like a garden complete with trees half way up the building on the 8th floor.  Our home for the weekend turned out to be a very smart and stylish apartment next to the river with views across to the city sky line.  Interestingly our hosts were Parisians, yet another opportunity to work on Kev’s views of the French.  Really lovely family, with two very cute kids of 3 and 5 who amazed us with the ability to switch between French and English without missing a beat – plus some Chinese language skills to boot!

After a chat our hosts, Olivier and Dzong gave us a few ideas of where to go in town. We took a bus into the Esplanade area, with its iconic theatre and arts building that kind of looked like big spiky durian fruits next to the waterside.  Dinner was at a nice outdoor food court, full of local families and groups of work colleagues relaxing after a week at work.  Prices had ramped up again, taking the per head dinner price up towards 4, a big change from the 1 a head we had in India, probably a good lead into arriving in Oz, where we were going to have to get back to spending real cash again!.  Everyone in Singapore seems to be doing very nicely thank you.  Lots of designer handbags well turned out in the latest fashions and fancy bars and restaurants all along the riverside bustling with people.  The buildings are a mix of traditional old and funky new apartments and offices. Good skyline, lots of neon signs. Along the river there happened to be a festival on. Dotted around were various stages with performances of dance music.   Some very good, others rather terrible!  Including some rather painful song and dance routines from 8-15 year olds from all over Asia, some kind of Asia’s Got Talent for kids. 

Got up early on our first morning in the city to go for a run along the river path, great to not have to worry about traffic.  Interesting to see the locals enjoying the start to their weekend.   Lots of hired help out walking their employers’ dogs.  Seems everyone has some sort of small dog here in Singapore, and by the looks of it little groups of them meet up daily for play dates in the park, with the dogs running and sniffing about while the home helps gossip together.  There is a huge Dragon Boat racing event coming up in July, so the river was full of teams practising.  Looks like it would be a great way of keeping fit, although I think it’s a sport that you need to be fit to take up in the first place, as looked pretty tough, especially with all the shouting and chanting.   After our run we made full use of the facilities back at the apartment, taking a dip in one of the longest swimming pools I’ve ever seen.  Really lucked out with the couchsurfing, it was like staying in a five star resort!  For Free!!!

Into town and we visited the Marina Sands Hotel and Casino which had just opened a couple of weeks previously.  All very new and very Vegas.  Really amazing futuristic building that is bound to become the new icon of Singapore.  Consists of three towers with a boat shaped platform perched across the top of them.  The platform forms a Sky Garden complete with palm trees and an infinity swimming pool designed to look like its floating above the city.  We’d hoped to go up to the top and view the city, but at $20 each just for the pleasure of going up there, and the pool and restaurant on the roof reserved for hotel guests only it seemed a bit pricey for a view, so just explored the inside of the hotel instead

Made us of a free shuttle bus to take us across the city and made our way to the botanical gardens for a wander.  Felt very much like being in Hyde Park in London as we sat next to Swan Lake, watching people feeding the ducks and fish, with the only difference being we were both melting in the heat.  We’d agreed to meet up with our couchsurfing hosts in the evening and headed to the edge of Chinatown to meet them in a fantastic rooftop bar.  It turned out that we’d timed our stay with the official practise weekend of the Independence Parade that takes place in August.  Just as we’d got ourselves settled with our drinks 5 Air force jets screamed overhead, trailing smoke behind them and performing all kinds of stunts.  Drinks in Singapore are outrageously expensive.  The government wants to discourage a drinking culture and as a result alcohol is heavily taxed.  Kev ordered a small bottle of Stella and I had 15! Needless to say we sipped them very slowly.  Good job we were getting free accommodation to make up for the drink prices.   Olivier and Dung arrived, bringing with them 3 others to join us, her sister, brother in law and another friend, Vincent.  After drinks we headed to a small restaurant in Chinatown for a Steamboat dinner.  The waiter provided us with an A5 sheet with a huge tick list for the ingredients we wanted to order, and then set up two camping gas stoves on our tables and two pans of stock.  We then received endless plates of raw meat, fish, vegetables, noodles and seafood which we then cooked ourselves in the stock.  Interesting cooking experience, but by the end we were all a bit flushed and red from all the steam, a bit like having a facial included with your dinner.  Rounded the evening off by taking a ride back to the apartment on the back of Vincent and Olivier’s motorbikes.  Very exciting driving on the expressway with the bright lights of the city all around.  Couldn’t have asked for more from our Couchsurfing experience, they all made us feel really welcome and it was great to explore a city accompanied by some local residents who could let us in on their inside knowledge and show us things we wouldn’t have found otherwise.  Definitely made our stay in the city memorable, and the accommodation with a million times more luxurious than the backpackers’ hostel we had to resort to when we moved out of their place for our final 2 nights in the city.  Talk about down to earth with a bump, or perhaps that should be bunk, as we had to stay in our first dorm room of the trip.  To say Kev was unimpressed would be an understatement!  Hard parting with $40 for 2 bunk beds, at least twice, if not three times as much as we’ve been used to paying for a nice on suite double room elsewhere in Asia.  Definitely a good incentive to try and line up more freeloading and couchsurfing.

We’d contacted  several couchsurfers while trying to line up our free accommodation, and as a result had received an email from a guy named Mani, who although couldn’t put us up invited us to his home for dinner.  In the spirit of embracing random of kindness and knowing that some of our most memorable times on the trip have been when we’ve gone out on a limb we decided to accept.  It turned out to be a bit of trek across the city out to the suburb when he lived, but after 40 minutes on a bus we finally alighted next to the right apartment blocks.  In addition to privately built and owned blocks of apartments there are also government built and owned developments, the sale of which is controlled to favour Singaporeans who are married and over 25.  There are rules governing their resale and they are usually located close business and industrial parks where the residents work, saving people from having to commute long distances to work.  Each development usually has 4 or 5 high rise blocks, and is self contained in terms of services such as doctors, dentists, shops and food courts.  They also encourage a strong sense of community by having retiree social clubs, community events and sports facilities.  Sounds like perfect sense to me.

We were a little bit nervous as we climbed up to the 5th floor and knocked on the door, not knowing what to expect and knowing nothing about our host.  Mani turned out to a lovely Indian man, originally from Chennai, but a resident of Singapore for the past 10 years.  He’s a journalist by trade, specialising in Business and Economics documentaries.  He’s recently set up his own production company so is responsible for directing as well as pitching his programmes to the various TV companies.  Really interesting man, who made us feel very welcome in his home.  The apartment was nothing like we would have imagined from the outside, all quite open planned and much larger than we had expected, with all mod cons.   There is a large Indian population in Singapore, with a not so little 'Little India’ district with great Indian shops, restaurants and businesses all packed together in what feels like a more gritty and real part of the city.  Sundays are a real event, as this is the only day off many of the Indians get as most work a 6 day week in the construction industry.  It turned out that he had a family celebration that day as his niece had just turned 6 months and it is Indian tradition that they celebrate when a baby starts to have its first solid food.  There had been a big ceremony at the temple earlier in the day and the whole family were going to have dinner that night, us included it turned out.  So after an hour or so in his house, off we all went on a bus to meet his brother and family at a neighbouring suburb, where we were treated introduced to various brothers, daughters in laws, sons and of course the star of the show the little baby.  All a little surreal, but nice of him to include us.   Sadly we found ourselves having to clock watch as it was England V Germany that night and Kev was desperate to make sure we made it back into the city to watch it in a bar.  Finally managed to say our goodbyes and thank Mani for his kind hospitality as 9.20 – giving us just 40 minutes to figure out how to make it back into the city of the train.  Made it with 2 minutes to spare, only to have to suffer 90 minutes of tourture in a bar surrounded by people supporting Germany.  Not Kev’s favourite highlight of the trip to say the least.

Time to get dressed up and go posh on our last night, visiting Raffles Hotel for the obligatory Singapore Sling to celebrate our final night in Asia.  Kev’s Auntie Yvonne had given us Christmas money that we’d been holding on to in anticipation of treating ourselves to cocktails in Singapore, where she once lived.  All togged up in our best togs (i.e. the only smart clothes in our backpacks) and with me sporting a new pair of sandals bought for the occasion in a cheap shoe shop in Malaysia.  Killed my feet and gave me blisters but looked the part.  Sitting in the long bar was an experience in itself, full of old world charm and with the added bonus of huge boxes of monkey nuts on tables which I ate by the handful dumping the shells onto the floor as seemed to be the tradition. A little surprised to see a resident pigeon making its way round the floor and scavenging for uneaten nuts amongst the mountains of shells everywhere.  Cocktails were fantastic, although of course in line with Rosborough tradition Kev managed to order the smallest one.  When will he learn! 

For anyone planning to visit Singapore I would definitely recommend the city, but would strongly encourage people to seek out a Global freeloader or Couchsurfing host in order to see it as more than just super efficient, modern city with great shopping.  We loved it and will definitely choose to come back if we have the option of a stopover on another trip through Asia. 
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