9 AM: Wake up in Singapore! Head to the Jalan Berseh Food Centre, one of the open-air food stall conglomerates that hold Singapore’s best and least expensive food options. To help regulate and improve food safety, the Singaporean government organized Singapore’s many street food vendors into these hawker centres, aka mini food paradises, all over the country.
This morning we dine light, splitting an order of light, fluffy, crisp kaya toast (with butter and coconut jam) and an iced coffee apiece. We also enjoy a couple of savory kueh. Kueh refers to a vast array of glutinous rice treats; soft, sticky, and scrumptious. These are substantial and bursting with vegetables. The chive and dried prawn is good, but the shredded turnip is my favorite.
11 AM: Walking to the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a UNESCO World Heritage site and lush oasis near downtown. Singapore places particular emphasis on conservation and green space, so parks abound. Developers also must include greenery in their architecture, so even skyscrapers here sport vast roof gardens and towering trellises winding their way up the sides.
We head to the jewel of the gardens, the National Orchid Garden. Singapore’s national flower is an orchid (Vanda ‘Miss Joaquim’, named for the horticulturist Agnes Joaquim, who bred it in the 1890s.) One of the world’s premier orchid gardens, it boasts thousands of varieties and has housed a massive orchid hybridization and breeding program since the late 1920s. Visiting dignitaries, luminaries, and celebrities of note receive orchids named in their honor, which makes for a fun scavenger hunt. We spotted Nelson Mandela, Princess Di, Empress Michiko, Jane Goodall, and many more! The orchid below is Margaret Thatcher’s.
1 PM: We head to Orchard Road, a major shopping district, for lunch and gawking at the sheer scale of swankitude one could achieve here. Need three Cartier stores on a single street? Of course! Go to Orchard Road. Running low on Chanel, Dior, or Louboutins? Not a problem. Do you require elaborate light displays to grace the air above you at all times? Orchard Road’s got you covered. We pass mall after mall, many of them connected via vast underground labryinths that keep shoppers out of the heat.
We duck into Paradise Dynasty on the top floor of the ION Orchard Mall, which looks unobtrusive from the outside, but lives up to the “paradise” moniker inside. We order up a feast of small dishes: steamed peanuts and chestnuts, cold poached chicken with a spicy sauce that leaves my lips tingling, green beans with “preserved olive vegetables” which I think may be salted black beans, dan dan noodles topped with chili-smothered pork, and xiao long bao, the famous dumplings with soup on the inside.
But the stealth winners of this meal are a couple of dark horse candidates. First, Japanese cucumber salad – tart, vinegary, and exceptionally crisp, with plenty of garlic – is humble but so refreshing. Second, three little buns pack savory, juicy pork into the lightest, fluffiest bun I’ve ever had, which is then pan-crisped on the bottom for crunch. In short, OMG.
3 PM: We’ve regained our strength, so we head to the National Museum of Singapore for a history lesson. I didn’t know much about Singapore’s past, but it’s extraordinary. The expertly curated museum walks visitors through the little that’s known about “Singapura” – Sanskrit for “City of the Lion” – prior to British interference beginning in 1819. Singapore’s location was ideal as a trade port to assist the British in disrupting the Dutch monopoly, and the British made it an official crown colony in 1867, yielding massive and rapid population growth, industrialization, and expansion.
Opium; Western-inspired fashion; Belts for a wealthy woman and a coolie
Keep walking and learn about how the British fostered a crippling opium crisis in Singapore, and, leading into the 1900s, began to carefully monitor native Singaporeans and nearby Malayans for “subversive” sentiment. Then head into the World War II era, where Singapore was deemed the “Gibraltar of the East,” and suffered horrific atrocities under Japanese occupation from 1941 to 1945. During these years, Japan renamed Singapore “Syonan-To,” or “Light of the South,” murdered an estimated 20-30,000 citizens in the sook ching purge, and tortured and killed even more prisoners of war and civilians on the Death Railway from Thailand to then-Burma (now Myanmar).
Fast forward to the post-war period, where Singapore first gained self-government in 1959, united with Malay to gain full independence in 1963, and then separated as a sovereign nation in 1965. Post-independence, the country was governed largely by the People’s Action Party, and particularly the extraordinary leader Lee Kuan Yew. Though much of the museum was amazing, watching a seven-minute clip of Prime Minister Lee was my personal highlight. It’s clear that the nation’s staggering progress in the past fifty years – from a fishing port with no natural resources or domestic market to the third-richest country in the world – is due in large part to his vision, steely resolve, political acumen, and profound love for his country. Anyone know of a good biography?
5 PM: Now appropriately awed by this determined, self-made nation, we head to another gorgeous green space, the Gardens by the Bay. I’m dying to see the statue of Singapore’s national mascot. Like the orchid, it’s a hybrid. Unlike the orchid, it doesn’t actually exist (we think). It’s a “merlion,” or half mermaid, half lion. I’ve become rather fixated on this limbless, improbable creature, which is as majestic as it is thought-provoking.
Designed by British icthyologist Alec Fraser-Brunner in 1964 for the Singapore Tourism Board, the merlion represents Singapore’s history as a fishing village as well as an ancient myth about a Javanese prince (Sang Nila Utama) who discovered the island and named it “Lion City” (Singapura). And of course, the lion symbolizes courage. These statues were sculpted by Lim Nang Seng, and installed in 1972.
Wrenching myself from the merlion, we admire other sights, like the Double Helix bridge (which includes nucleotide base pairs inscribed all along the footpath, science ftw!) and a special installation of colorful tiles for Diwali. We’re also treated to an amazing performance art piece courtesy of Pokemon Go, when a Dratini spawns somewhere in the park and literally hundreds of players start running, biking, and otherwise hustling past us to catch it.
The tail end of the Pokeswarm, a building designed to look like a durian fruit, the Helix Bridge, an $1 ice cream sandwich (which unfortunately tasted like durian), and the Diwali tiles.
What a world.
7 PM: Dinner at Satay by the Bay, a hawker centre full of grilled meat on sticks. We grab a combo plate of beef, chicken, and mutton, and have it with steamed gai lan (one of my favorite Chinese dark greens). Alongside is chai tow kway, a dish of stir-fried radish cake with dark savory sauce and scrambled egg. The local name for this is “fried carrot cake,” despite its utter absence of carrot. Whatever, it’s awesome. Oh, and a tall cool glass of cucumber juice with sour plum, very refreshing.
9 PM: Headed home after walking back through the Gardens by the Bay. At night, the gardens look even more impressive as various nifty installations light up. There’s the Marina Bay Sands hotel, which sports a rooftop infinity pool that is both the largest and highest in the world – it looks like a spaceship landed atop a 57-floor skyscraper. We caught a light show projected onto sheets of fountaining water.
There’s a Louis Vuitton store that sits as a self-contained island, in the bay. There are supertrees – tall plant cyborgs that combine tropical plants with manmade “branches” that generate solar power, collect rainwater, and cool and ventilate the air.
What is this place?
A shower felt amazing after walking almost eleven miles in Singapore’s heat and humidity today! Thanks for sticking with me through a truly epic blog post, and to my host D whose travel planning skills are truly unmatched.