Thursday, June 28, 2007

Our Unique Singapore Vacation

A Disconcerting Start
There’s a sense of urgency and a surge of excitement whenever you arrive at the departure terminal of an airport. It’s embarking on another grand adventure of discovery; one that enriches our memories and makes us hunger for more at the end of the day.

But we’re getting ahead of the story.

Cebu Pacific 5J803 bound for Changi Airport in Singapore took off at exactly 8:52pm. The excitement would be temporarily replaced by discomfort. Being a budget flight (no meals, no comforts), we had to endure the uncomfortable and cramped seating of an A320 plane. Luckily we had requested for window seats and we didn’t have to share the next seat with anyone allowing us to stretch a bit.

The hard part of standing five-feet-ten and a half is that long legs don’t fit in cramped seats. We both had to sit sideways and fidget around a lot to find our comfort zone (not that there was one). All of a sudden, the three-hour flight seemed a long and agonizing journey. We should have requested for exit seats what with the extra leg room.

By the time we taxied onto the tarmac of the Budget Terminal of Changi it was 11:49 in the evening. Thankfully, the tailwind helped us get there a lot faster. Instead of exiting through a tube we descended onto the tarmac on elevated stairs yet that didn’t stop me from purposely croaking, “We’re here!” It’s an expression we first used during our Hong Kong adventure last year and it’s a staple exclamation whenever we go to a new place.

We were in Singapore. The smallest country in Southeast Asia that is a mere 85 miles from the Equator and maybe as big as the whole of Metro Manila. But before we could get inside the country proper, there was the matter of getting our travel documents stamped and collecting our belongings. The passengers of our Cebu Pacific flight were the only new arrivals in the terminal that was rather spacious in spite of its smallness. As of now, only Cebu Pacific and Tiger Airways make use of the Budget Terminal but it should get busier when it accommodates more airlines.

It didn’t take long for us to claim our luggage. The MRT to the city had shut down for the day (it only operates until 1230am) and we had to look for other means to our hotel that was in the Geylang district. Unfortunately, we hired a rental service that was plain highway robbery (S $47). Being unfamiliar with the new terminal and the mode of transportation, we hesitantly agreed.

That changed to chagrin once we found out from fellow Filipinos who took a cab to the same hotel yet only paid S $25! Aaarrgh!

We settled in the smallish and Spartan digs (bed, television, and bathroom) and got out for a late night meal for we were famished! Remember there were no meals on the flight. Not even a cookie (we had two each during that Seair flight from Manila to Boracay that was not only shorter but more expensive).

Red Light Night Life
Geylang is the Red Light district of Singapore. And we were smack in the middle of it. At first we thought it was a residential area... well it was. Except that the first thing you notice are the bungalows are actually motels that rent out rooms for you know what.

The streets were teeming with people even at 1am. Whether hanging out drinking coffee or a Tiger Beer, pigging out to Indian, Malay, Chinese, or Middle Eastern cuisine, or engaging in the sex trade there were people everywhere. During our first meal, three Indian women sat in the table in front of us for a late night meal as well. A few minutes later, a man sat in front of one of them and gave her some bills. We didn’t think anything of this until we saw them later checking into the hotel we were billeted in. Hmmm.

The incredible thing is we couldn’t tell the real females from the faux ones. But we guess that didn’t matter to many of their male customers who didn’t seem to care (remind us to tell the story of a six foot transvestite in our hotel elevator when we meet up in person).

Shiok of our lives and the hunt for great-tasting satay
“Shiok” means delicious in Singapore and being in the land of multi-cultural culinary pleasures where food is a 24-hour business from the trendy eateries along River Point in Clark Quay to the hawker centres at Geylang, we were certain to lose a battle with the bulge.

For our first meal in the Lion City, we found ourselves a nice and quiet Indian restaurant where we ordered a chicken rice meal to go with a cheese prata with curry. It was quite good and the price not too bad. It cost us like S$6.20 including a soda. Prior to tonight, the only Indian food I ever knew was the Indian chicken curry that my mum likes to cook and I’m afraid I have never been terribly fond of it along with most spicy food. But since living in the United States, we have opened up to other cuisines. Greek and Mediterranean food may be our favorites but we like to try other stuff every chance we get.

The chicken rice meal and the cheese prata were simple fare but we really loved it and made sure to eat something similar every day during our Singapore vacation.

Later still, we had Nasi Basirya (Indian-style fried chicken with fried rice, cucumbers, and curry sauce) and Murtabak (an Indian pancake stuffed with mutton or chicken and chopped onions pan fried to a chewy and crunchy square pizza size). Yum. Just the thought of it makes us hungry for it again.

Singapore is known for its cuisine and June and July are the food months aside from the great sale. Every time we travel, we try to sample as much local cuisine as we could in an ultimate pig-out. So much for working out and trying to lose weight. We gain a lot after every trip. Thank God it’s not too often lest we become poster models for Fat Boy Slim.

One of the foods we just had to eat was authentic satay. Back home, we normally order that at Oody's and here we had a chance to eat it the way it was intended. And the best place for that was at Lau Pa Sat food festival market right in the heart of the business district (we took the MRT and got off at Raffles Place; it’s a short walk from there).

Lau Pa Sat is this huge food market underneath the largest Victorian cast-iron structure in Southeast Asia. It has stalls where they serve all types of ethnic foods including Filipino we figured having found one named Ka Roger's. But its claim to fame is satay. Every stall seems to serve them.

We chose Rahim’s Satay run by some Indonesians who speak impeccable English. The minimum order is 10 sticks at .50 cents per stick. And they’ve got different kinds of satay: mutton, chicken, beef, duck, and turkey. Whew. Satay heaven. They also serve prawns. Mai’s up for that but not me since I’ve got a terrible allergy for seafoods (I love eating them; it’s my body that doesn’t like them).

The verdict: good. But little did we did we know the best was to come the following night.

During our first day, we went to Clarke Quay for our River Boat Tour (more on this later). The riverside was lined up with restored pre-World War II houses that were now home to some cool eateries, bars and lounges, entertainment centers (see the Hed Kandi bar that is said to be packed during weekends) and hangouts. At first glance, Clarke Quay will remind you of the Serendra except that the neighborhood of restaurants rounds four different areas alongside the Singapore River.

In our second night, we decided to forego the cheap food hawker stands of Geylang to treat ourselves to an expensive dinner at Clarke Quay – we do splurge once in awhile you know! We were choosing between Marrakesh (Moroccan food) and Bayang (Balinese cuisine) when we saw that the former was more of a bar and lounge than an eatery. Now since none of us drink, Bayang it was!

Bayang is located in the middle of Block 3 of Clarke Quay if you go straight up the River Point Bridge. It has some 25 tables that seat 50 to 60 people. It’s elegantly furnished and its dim lights and candles make for a quiet romantic dinner…except for the music that plays western pop that is so totally not kosher.

The resto is staffed by three eager-to-please waiters who seem a bit overwhelmed by the number of people eating at the restaurant and who ask for a glass of cold water every now and then (perhaps to fend off the spice in the food).

But the food was simply fantastic. Just forgive the prices.

Here’s what we ordered:

Sate Madura
(1/2 pound of skewered and well-seasoned barbecued chicken) S $10

Main Course:
Sapi Lada Hitam
(pan fried sirloin beef w/ black pepper on a hot plate) S $16
Ayam Pangang
(barbecued chicken with salad and coconut rice) S $14
2x Nasih Putih
(white rice) S $2 each
Coke Light S $5

S $57.15 with all the taxes. Ouch! But one of the best meals ever!

So if you’re ever at Clarke Quay, check out Bayang at 01-05 Block 3A (tel. no. 6337.0144). It's a gastronomic experience.

That's me with Hussein of Dimado's. A Turkish Ice Cream stand at Clarke Quay. Hussein's got a cool "magic" schtick that just attracts customers to his stand. The ice cream is different from anything we've tasted. Is it good? It's okay. It's an acquired taste. But not bad for S $3 each.

We’ll fly to the zoo.
Remember that segment on Sesame Street where this family of bumble bees debate on how to get to the zoo – do they ride or do they swim? The dumbkoffs eventually realize that they could fly since they were insects.

And so when we flew into Singapore, one of things on our to-do list was to go to their world-famous zoo (S $20 each including tram ride). We took the MRT to Ang Mo Kio station then transferred to the bus terminal opposite it (like the Port Authority in New York/New Jersey) where you take Bus 138 (S$1.50 each) to the Singapore Zoo.

How fun can a zoo be? Well, simply put, this was one of the highlights of our vacation. It was an ecological and cultural experience where we got to see up close the main stars of the show… the animals.

We spent like almost three hours there and it really tugged at the kid inside of us. At times we wondered if we landed in the middle of a Jurassic Park set. Like in the rainforest where amidst all the flora and fauna there were fruit bats flying all over and with animals running around or passing us by like we weren't there.

Easily our favorites were: the otters and the bearcat, the white tigers, and the kangaroos where I got to feed them for S $5 and pose for posterity. The kangaroos were fun especially when they starting hopping around and this little girl began squealing with delight to her mom, “Did you see that? Did you see that?”

Our top pick was the rain forest where we got to see an ant-eater crawl up the steps, a bunch of playful Malay Flying Foxes, fruit bats, and all sorts of wild ducks and birds that would just scoot under your legs.

Wish we had time for the Night Safari.

Row row row your boat
The ride through what was once the heart of Singapore’s thriving fishing industry is part history tour and equal parts photo opportunity. Being history buffs ourselves this is just the sort of thing we enjoy. And it doesn’t hurt to take part in what was nominated in the Tourism Awards as one of the Top 10 Family Experiences of 2006.

We got our tickets for free as part of our hotel package but according to the tour brochures, the fee for adults fetches S $12 each.

The 30-minute bumboat (a motorized version of the traditional means of transport back when Singapore was a fishing village before it grew into one of the region’s biggest ports) ride took us on a scenic view of the waterfront with some of the famous hotels that dot the area such as the Fullerton and the Mandarin as well as the Parliament House, the Victoria Theater, and the Asian Civilizations Museum. There are statues everywhere along the way that recount the island nation’s history, historic bridges that connect the riversides, and landmarks including the majestic Merlion that should be in everyone’s photo op.

The Search for Chelsea
I am a huge Real Madrid and Liverpool FC fan. But just the same, I like Chelsea as they play an exciting and frenetic brand of football. One of my all-time fave shirts is an adidas Chelsea tee that I wear once in awhile. It’s tough that we don’t get too many authentic football kits here in Manila (save for knock-offs that I don’t really patronize) so when I’m abroad I buy what I can.

The most popular jerseys we can see around are Inter Milan’s (with Pirelli emblazoned in front), Manchester United’s old Vodaphone kit, and the Benq Semiens of Real Madrid. We scoured Orchard Road and found none available so I was beginning to get desperate. Mai would laugh and think it was insane to be driven by the hunt for a football kit. On day two of our vacation, I spent part of the day in an Orlando Magic Tracy McGrady jersey to help combat the humidity. Yet in spite of that I wanted the Chelsea blue.

One of the hawkers at Lau Pa Sat told us that the best place to go for sports wear was in Queensway Shopping Center in Queenstown. I’ll admit it sounded like a wild goose chase but we were off there nevertheless when we had a chance.

Queenstown is eastward on the green line. From the MRT you can see that this is an affluent suburban area. The houses are nicer, the condos look bigger and better, and the cars and shops around have that feel of prosperity. But why are we surprised when we’re in Singapore, only the 18th richest country in the world?

After we alighted from the MRT, we took a short cab ride to the mall (S $2.70). And man, the Queensway Shopping Center will remind you of Virra Mall in Greenhills. It’s primarily a textile, clothing, and sporting goods mall with a few eats and other shops as well. But we were in the right place.

I spotted my Chelsea jersey right away and not soon after, I got it for S $76. I wore it instantly and Mai remarked that I was like some kid who just got his Christmas present.

The Muslim Quarter
Also along the green MRT line that runs from Boon Lay in the east to Changi Airport in the island’s western tip is Bugis Street. Back before the beautification drive of the country, this used to be an infamous transvestites’ hangout. Now it’s become a trendy site with some cool malls that will remind one of Eastwood back here in the Philippines. This place is perfect example of the melting pot that Singapore is. Close to the art deco design of the Parkview Building is the Sultan Mosque. In the picturesque Kandahar Street is a line of curio shops, Moroccan and Indonesian restaurants, and a coffee shop run by a Briton.

Smiley Sam’s Café would be a better fit if it were in New York’s East Village but somehow it’s blends along nicely with all the batik colors of the Middle Eastern silk and cloth shops and money changers (where they’ll even take Philippine pesos). Smiley Sam’s has this home setting where you could just sit down on one of the sofas inside and surf the internet one any one of the three PCs near the counter. You can also lounge by the porch while sipping some coffee or iced latte.

Aside from the search for the island’s best satay, we were also in the hunt for some real good coffee. I’m pleased to say that Mai has come to love the friendly neighborhood Starbucks caramel frap so the iced coffee here at Smiley Sam’s is okay but it's nothing fab for the price. We met up with a friend from the Philippines over here where we spent a couple of hours catching up with the goings on of our lives to go with three iced coffees that netted a freaking incredible S $14!

We like the place but I guess we’re sticking to our caramel fraps double blended.

Shop 'til you drop
While Singapore isn’t like Hong Kong, which is one giant shopping mall, the Lion City is no slouch itself. Its famed shopping center, Orchard Road is 10 city blocks of shopping delight from where it intersects with Tanglin Road to the north to Le Meridien beside Buyong Road in the south. We didn’t get to all of the shops since we already bought what we wanted -- Giordano (a lot of nice tops), Borders (British football mag Four Four Two), and HMV (Badly Drawn Boy’s Have You Fed the Fish, U2’s 18 Singles CD/DVD special edition, Sparta’s Threes, Deathcab For Cutie’s You Can Play These Songs With Chords, and a DVD of Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait).

Getting around
Nothing beats effective mass transportation. And Singapore has it. It’s relatively easy to get around. The subway and elevated MRT system isn’t as confusing as New York’s and there are buses, trishaws, taxis, and ferries to get you where you need to go. After that initial debacle when we forked over S $47 during our arrival, we saved a lot by going around using the MRT system.

It was a fantastic and fun vacation. We tired ourselves out by doing a lot of walking – hope we’re not getting any varicose veins in the near future -- but anytime you’re in another country, walking around gives you the opportunity to see more of the place. We wanted to do and see more except that we didn’t have too much time. So who knows, maybe a return trip is in the cards.

And yes, the MRT trip from Al Juneid in Geylang (where we stayed) to Changi Airport cost only S $1.50 each.


  1. I've been trying to post a comment for about five times now but nothing happens. Hey, Rick. Great blog. Keep writing. And nice pictures!


  2. the bumboats rock no?? great post!