I recently returned from a vacation that took me to Malaysia, Singapore and South Korea. It was my first time landing in Malaysia and Singapore but not South Korea. I had been an English teacher in Korea almost 20 years ago. When I was there, I wrote a bi-weekly column for a Nova Scotia newspaper about my experiences. I’m doing that again except this time, the columns are for my own blog.
Part II of Singapore ‘16
We’re were only in Malaysia for less than 72 hours. There was a lot to see in the country but we had other plans. Friends were waiting for us in Singapore. After 12 hours of sleep, my husband and I packed up our stuff and walked to the train station to board a car to Kuala Lumpur Sentral, the main station, and then take an express train to airport.
The heat was there, as always, and rotating fans whirred above our heads on the train platform. It sounded like hundreds of bees are buzzing around. Which is what Kuala Lumpur reminds me of: a busy bee flying from brightly coloured flower to brightly coloured flower. Always on the move. Like most of its people. Always going from here to there to here. And here we are. At the airport.
Thankfully, my husband’s backpack is here too. He exchanged his passport for a security pass and was allowed to lug his baggage from arrivals to departures. We checked in to our AirAsia flight and soon, are up, up and away to Singapore.
Singapore is a place I’ve never thought about visiting until close friends moved there a couple of years ago. They told us that their new apartment had lots of room if we ever wanted to visit the city state. So about two years ago, Singapore ’16 came into focus. Jason and I added side trips to Malaysia and South Korea. Malaysia was close, bordering Singapore, so why not see it? The reasoning for South Korea was that I lived there 20 years ago and wanted to see it again.
After landing at Singapore’s airport, Changi, Jason and I got a taxi to take us to our friends’ home. Driving through the roads, I noticed how everything was in order: nothing was out of place. The lush vegetation around and along the streets was trimmed neatly. Traffic streamed at a comfortable pace. No one going too fast or too slow. There was no litter on the sidewalks. Everything was tidy. Except that heat. It was an unruly beast that smashed into me again.
The temperatures were high again in Singapore but we had a lovely respite. Our friends’ have an apartment with air conditioning and cool tile floors. There’s also an outdoor pool and refreshing gin and tonics to wind down a hot day. Our first full day on the island was our hottest. That was when the sun came out from behind thunder clouds.
We went for a morning walk to the Singapore Botanical Gardens, a 156-year-old green oasis and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The garden with its orchids and glass-still ponds is a leftover from British colonial times. Some of my Scottish relations had also lived in Singapore during this time and I wondered if they had ever been to see the flowers. Orchids bloomed everywhere I looked and were abundant as weeds.
I thought I was dealing with the high temperatures and humidity well. I felt calm, cool and collected. Until I looked into a mirror at the gift shop. There was so much sweat that it couldn’t even trickle or stream down my face. It pooled above my lips and in the hollows of my cheeks. I was a mess. Time to find a place to mop up. We hopped — or really slid sloppily — into a taxi to a hip area of town, Tiong Bahru, and had drinks with huge chunks of ice and a chocolate cupcake.
Our time in Singapore, just short of a week, was more about hanging out with friends than
sightseeing. We saw a lot though from the outstanding city view from the Marina Bay Sands Hotel to shopping on Orchard Road, to eating and eating and more eating. Singapore has a lot of restaurants with its own local flavours and from away. For one lunch we went to a hawker centre at a busy market. A hawker centre is like a giant food court. The different smells of things frying and cooking as well as the steam blasting out of the tiny food booths was overwhelming. There were too many choices. We ended up having one of Singapore’s national dishes, Hainanese chicken rice, (basically rice with chicken and spices) from a booth where there was a long line-up. There was a lot of choice too when it came to sit-down restaurants. We had steamed pork buns, Thai shrimp dishes and sushi. Not at all the same place. We also got to eat Tasmanian beef, mangoes, jackfruit and snake fruit. (The snake fruit didn’t bite.)
In between eating we had gin and tonics and went to Raffles for a Singapore Sling. Raffles is a renowned hotel from 1887 and named after the founder of Singapore Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. The place was a stopping point for anyone who was anyone. Now anyone and everyone can have a drink at the Long Bar (even in acid wash denim jean shortshorts. Which mortified our host.) I enjoyed a sweet Singapore Sling, a drink created at the establishment in 1915 by bartender Ngiam Tong Boon.
On our last day, Jason and I went to Pulau Ubin, an island off the eastern side of Singapore. Ubin is the last of the rural and traditional villages in the area. We took a bus to the ferry terminal and then hopped on a “bumboat” for the 10-minute ride out to the small hunk of land in the sea.
We hired two bikes in the busy village for $16 Singapore dollars and pedalled around the island being pummelled by sunlight. At first, we cycled along shaded paved roads and there was a cool (ish) breeze pushing the heat away from our bodies. But then I wanted to see the German Girl Shrine and we started going uphill on a sandy pathway, out from underneath the protection of the green canopy and into the scorching sun. Jason and I had some heated words while we both melted into the dirt trail trying to find the shrine. He wanted to turn around and I wanted to find the spot where a young German woman died and then became a deity. The 18 year old had lived on the island with her coffee growing family in World War I. She ran off during a British raid on the property and died. Her body was found by locals and she has since been turned into a divine being who smiles upon gamblers.
We did turn around and stumbled upon the path to the shrine. It’s filled with offerings of flowers and dolls. A stray dog met us there. He looked at me and then walked away. We followed him out and back into the tangled cover of the jungle. We left the island shortly after on another chugging boat filled with tourists like us. The sea breeze dried our sweat and calmed our tempers.
Back at the ferry terminal, I spotted the word Brewery stenciled on a building. My husband is a beer geek and so we walked over to the Little Island Brewery Company, a pub and restaurant.
“Where are you from?” the Singapore server asked us.
“Calgary, Canada,” we replied.
“Oh, I went to school in Halifax, Nova Scotia.”
“I went to Acadia!” I shared proudly. Of course he had been there. It is a small world after all.
After a drink, my husband and I went to a Peranakan restaurant. Peranakans are people of mixed local and foreign ancestry. They have great food. Jason and I shared ayam buah keluak, a beef dish with some kind of nut used for flavouring. We asked our server about the nut and she said we could eat it. So I chomped down on the hard shell. Ouch.
“No, no,” she laughed. “You eat what’s in the shell.”
She told us the nuts are harvested and then buried in the ground for a period of time. Then they’re dug up and used in food. They have to turn a certain colour before they’re used, otherwise, they’re poisonous. What kind of cooking spice is this? Turns out, the nut is actually a fruit produced by the pangium edule tree. The “football” fruit contains hydrogen cyanide but when it’s fermented, it lets go of its deadly flavour. Yum!
We saw a lot in our short time in Singapore but friends were the impetus for the trip. They were why we went and it was here we reminded each other of who we used to be with stories from high school and university. It was here we told each other who we were now as we spoke about our lives today. It was here we told each other who we hoped to be in the years to come.
Almost every morning, around 6:30 a.m., I got up to do laps in the pool at my friends’ complex. Even that early, the temperature was still 27 C and the water was warm, actually too warm to do long sets, but inviting enough that I didn’t shiver when I got in. The sun was always just rising and sending tendrils of light into the sky. The only noises then were of birds and insects, calling the city to wake up. I had already started my morning and was propelling my body through the water and into a new day with new stories.