EXPLORING SENSATIONAL SINGAPORE
We spent our day exploring the best of central Singapore, from the old Colonial District to Chinatown and along Orchard Road. It was great fun and reinforced our thinking on this cosmopolitan city state: Singapore is sensational!
The island city state of Singapore has been inhabited since the 2nd century and was part of the Sultanate of Johor until 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles convinced Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor to sell the swampy island to the British East India Company. Raffles established a trading post in Singapore but after the company collapsed, the island was ceded to Britain and became part of its Straits Settlements in 1826. Raffles is still honoured as the founder of Singapore, however, and there are streets, monuments, and shopping malls named after him. There is also, of course, the famous Raffles Hotel too.
The Raffles Hotel was our first stop in the Colonial District today. This luxury hotel opened in 1887 and was a favourite with the British colonial elite and glitterati for many years. Ernest Hemingway was repeat guest, for example; he often frequented the Long Bar, which is still in operation. The Long Bar is also where the national cocktail, the Singapore Sling, was invented. You can order one at the bar is you’ve got a spare $36SGD floating around. At 9:30am we had neither the money nor the inclination to order a cocktail at the bar, however, and so just took a look around and moved on.
Walking around the Colonial District we passed a number of other 19th century buildings, all venerable reminders of British rule in Singapore.
Singapore became independent from Britain in 1963, and initially united with other former British territories to form Malaysia. By 1965, however, it was obvious that the predominantly Chinese-descended inhabitants of Singapore didn’t share the same ideologies as the rest of Malaysia, and Singapore was expelled from the Malay Federation and forced to go it alone.
After a few early years of turbulence, and despite lacking extensive natural resources, the tiny nation developed rapidly and flourished. In particular, the stewardship of Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew helped shape Singapore into the Asian success story it is today. Lee Kuan Yew ruled the island nation for more than 30 years and led Singapore from 3rd world status to 1st world affluence in a single generation. His emphasis on rapid economic growth, support for business entrepreneurship, and strict rules governing civil conduct, set the nation on a path that has made Singapore one of the most modernised, prosperous, and developed nations in Asia. Signs of Singapore’s modernity and prosperity are everywhere today, as we saw when we took a short cruise up the Singapore River.
Departing from the Colonial District, the boat trip took us under the shadows of the skyscrapers of Singapore’s CBD and past its glittering financial district.
We cruised past Singapore’s unique icon, the Merlion. Part lion, part fish/mermaid the Merlion was originally a marketing icon for a bank but quickly became adopted by Singaporeans as their national mascot.
Further up the Singapore River we passed Clarke Quay, an old commercial riverside quay where trade boats would come and off-load their cargo. In the 1970s the quay ceased operating and was revamped into a trendy commercial, residential, and entertainment precinct.
We hopped off the boat at Clarke’s Quay and made our way on to Chinatown, where Chinese migrants have lived since 1330. As the largest ethnic group in Singapore is Chinese, Chinatown here is less of an “ethnic enclave” than in many cities; it’s more a collection of shops and restaurants where distinctly Chinese wares can be purchased.
The markets in Chinatown are fun to walk through. A lot of the stuff on sale is cheap and very tacky, but there were still enough weird and wonderful authentically Chinese wares of offer to make it interesting.
Being such an old neighbourhood, Chinatown has some fascinating temples to visit too – and not just Chinese temples either. The Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple and Muslim Jamae Mosque are both in Chinatown, as is the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple – all of which we passed by today (after stopping at Food Street for a bite to eat).
The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple is a Chinese Buddhist temple housing what is said to be Buddha’s molar. The tooth is housed in a giant stupa and is shrouded in mystic and legend. Unfortunately only monks from the temple are allowed to see the actual tooth, so we had to settle for just admiring the temple itself (which still pretty darn cool).
Around the corner is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, the Sri Mariamman Temple. Dating back to 1827, the temple was built by immigrants from Southern India and is dedicated to the goddess Mariamman, known for her power to cure illnesses and diseases. The temple is ornate and elaborately decorated, with an iconic gopuram (i.e. grand entrance tower) that has become something of a landmark for generations of Hindus and Singaporeans alike. Its 6 tiers are covered with sculptures of deities and mythological beasts.
From Chinatown we hopped on the MRT, Singapore’s ultra-clean and super-efficient subway system, and headed back toward our hotel. We’re staying at Mt Emily, just behind Orchard Road, which would have to be one of the most extravagant temples to consumerism in the world!
Orchard Road is essentially a 2km-long boulevard lined with shopping malls, movie cinemas, and restaurants. The road got its name from the various orchards and plantations that existed in the area in the early 20th century, but is today a glittering, ultra-modern tribute to shopping and entertainment. Mall-trawling on Orchard Road is always fun and at the moment the entire street is decorated in Christmas lights, making it even more colourful and fun!
We spent our whole afternoon strolling along Orchard Road and even had dinner there before heading back up the hill to our hotel. What a day! I think we can confidently say we explored most of central Singapore today. Tomorrow we’ll have to venture further afield…