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how I fell In love with ----j the cleanest, safest, most exciting city in the world
BY SUZANNE GERBER
"In Singapore, we do three things," my new BFF Naseem Huseni is telling me over a bowl of spicy noodles and a surprisingly elegant Australian Shiraz. "We work, we eat, and we shop. And we tend to do all three a lot." Not that I harbor any doubts, but I need to see for myself whether this legendary gateway city, smack-dab in the middle of Malaysia, Indonesia, Southeast Asia and Oceania, really offers the best 36 hours of eating, drinking, sightseeing and shopping to be found on the planet. After ali, I live in New York, not exactly chopped liver when it comes to food, work and bll-ig.
And the Clock Starts ... Now!
Like countless other travelgirls (and guys), I have chosen to overnight in Singapore, nickname "Spore," on my way home [rom somewhere else. There's no extra charge, and it seems like a fun way to break up 30 hours ill the air. Naseem is a certified Singapore tour guide, and by stroke of luck, we have the same caste in pretty much everything. So we stan our adventure on a balmy Wednesday night in June with dinner at the White Rabbit restaurant in Dempsey Hill.
You'd never guess that trendy Dempsey Hill used [Q be a British military recruitment center in [he 19605. These days it's a nightlife destination, home to 18 blocks of bars and restaurants, The: White Rabbit is a standout A convened church, it has
swhat's a travelgirl to do in, .. singapore?
Opposite page: Arab Street, one of Singapore's many ethnic areas. This page: Singapore is a melting pot of cultures and with that comes a melting pot of food.
40-foot vaulted ceilings and playful touches inside and Out, including an animal-themed topiary garden, all inspired by Lewis Carroll's famous book But what comes OUt of the kitchen is serious business. The chef is one of many rising Spore stars with Asian and Western training My veggie noodle dish is packed with flavors 1 can't readily identify (lernongrass? exotic peppers'). We pass on Signature dishes such as the macn-cheese with truffle sauce, choosing to keep it light, since this is just Meal One of goodness knows how many.
Eating in Singapore isn't something one does merely for sustenance. It's a hobby, a passion, a thrice-daily event. lnterestingly, Singaporeans' obsession with food is rivaled only by their obsession With thinness. There are literally thousands of eateries in this tiny nation that occupies some 200-plus square miles (about two-thirds the size of New York City)_ Because food is so plentiful, cheap and readily available, few people bother to cook. Any day of the week, you can have Malay (also the predominant ethnic group), Indian, Chinese, japanese, Mideastern, Mediterranean, Dutch, French, Italian, last food or pizza And, as I will soon learn, street vendors, Spore's famous food hawkers, are the most popular of all.
Eating in Singapore isn't something one does merely for sustenance. It's
a hobby, a passion, a thrice-daily event
The dock chimes 9, and it's rime [Q explore one of the city's busiest attractions, the Night Safari. (For the record, Singapore bas the distinction of being an island, a ci ty and a country)
At first I balk: Surely a "Night Safari" in the heart of the city is going to be some cheesy tourist trap_ But no: Every night from 7:30 to midmglu, the place is a buzzing Benenon ad sprung co life, with young and old milling shoulder-to-shoulder around me 40 hectares (about 100 acres) of dense secondary forest. We walk quierly under the dim lighting, designed [0 recreate the jungle at night, until Naseern suggests we. take the twomile tram ride that loops through "Himalayan" foothills and grassy "African" savannahs. I don't care how old you are or how many stamps you have in your passport: seeing the likes of leopards, giraffes, elephants and hyenas in their natural habitats is always a thrill.
Pump Up the Jam
Singapore lights up at night, literally. The whole city feels like a gigantic Times Square. There are so many things to do and see [hat it's dizzying. To get the big picture, we head for the top of the Equinox Complex, to the New Asia Bar, the love child
of a Hollywood movie set and a Tokyo nightclub Singapore girls are glammed up in skimpy dresses and skyscraper heels. The seats are plush, and the room is dark except for neon lights, the glow of a monumental chandelier, and the glitter £rom a, yes, disco ball. The music is heart-stoppingly loud. The cocktail menu rivals War and Peace for word count. And the panoramic views from 70 floors up are priceless.
From the "Crushed and Muddled" section of the Frisbee-
shaped drink menu larder something with Patron, Absolut Citron and kumquats (no, really), sink deeply into my chair and struggle to talk between beats. The famous Singapore Flyer (Ferris wheel) dominates the cityscape, but Naseem
also points out casinos being built, the esplanade for cultural events, five-star hotels and a shopping center with a rooftop pool. There are more than 60 islands off Spore, and many great beaches. And plenty of outdoor tracks and parks to walk, run, cycle, skate and do Pilates and yoga al fresco. Too tired to dance, we finish our drinks and head home for the six hours sleep we've alloued ourselves, believing like so many ardent travelers that we'll sleep when we're dead.
Not Dead Yet. ..
Nine a.m. finds us in Little India, and shopping is very much on the morning agenda - but not before breakfast. (Singaporeans don', greet one another by asking, "How are you?" but with [he question, "Have you eaten?") We sit down to a traditional Sout h Indian meal of thosai (or dosai, huge triangular lentil crepes stuffed with spicy potatoes); vadai, "a delicious fried thing" per my notes; iddti dumplings with coconut chutney and a lot of strong hopi, (coffee), A huge tray of food for two: $6.50.
Wandering the clean streets, Naseern explains how the city came to be such a melting pot. In the 14th century this island, then called Ternasek, was a busy tTading center for Chmese, Indians, Malays, Arabs and Europeans. Legend has it that a sealaring prince landed here, saw a creature that looked like
a lion in the harbor and named the city Singa Pura, or "Lion Ciry" Hundreds of years later, in 1819, a principal of the British East India Company, Sir Stamford Raffles, recognized chis crossroads as an opportunity to create an international trading pOSt and bought the land from the local kings. He invited different ethnic groups to come and establish their own businesses - without the pesky burden of taxation. RafOes built it, they carne.and 190 years later, Singapore is a vibrant modern city of nearly five million people [rom dozens of cultures.
Little India is a [apes cry ol Sights (fabrics, clothing, temples, jewelry, rugs, brassware, garlands, deities), smells (spices, fruits, curries, flowers, incense) and sounds (sitars, tablas. pop tunes, shouting shopkeepers, honking trucks). It feels like a true lndtan village minus the cows.
»what's a travelglrl to do in ... singapore?
I buy some bangles and a blouse but skip the henna tattoo and the psychic reading from a parrot.
We walk on to Kampong Glarn, or Village of the Gelam trees, once the seat of Malay royalty. History, culture, religion, lood and shopping mash up in another dizzying kaleidoscope or sights, sounds and smells. We visit the stunning Sultan Mosque (donning a full robe upon entering), and Window-shop our way to Arab Street, a charming collection of carpet shops, wearables, statues, carvings, food, oils, fabric and an. I am drawn (Q the ornate windows of a Muslim perfumerie, and the agreeable salesman indu lges my need to nose every vial in the place. ! finally settle on a delicate rose, which he pours into the tiniest bottle and secures the top fOT its long trip home to me
In this low-rise dismct, the buildmgs are as impressive as the wares. Elli.ng street after colorfully painted street are tWOstory "shop houses," where [or the past 150 years the merchants have lived upstairs while conducting business below.
It's been more than three whole hours without food, so clearly it's time for lunch. Naseern cakes me 1O the traditional Malay restaurant HJH Maimunah, which i.s packed to the rafters with lunching colleagues, couples and families. No one dines alone. As everywhere, there's loud, piped-in music. When they're not eating or shopping they're working long hours, so Singaporeans need to eat fast, which explains their penchant for cafeteriastyle eateries and their obsession with street hawkers.
1 let my host do the ordering while I grab the only free table in [he place She finds me - bearing a tray packed with red onion salad with cucumber, pineapple, chile and vinegar; letruce leaves with chile sauce; baby eggplant with spicy sambhal sauce; some dsrk leary green In coconut sauce; tapioca leaves; jackfruu in a coconut-curry sauce; potato croquettes; a big bowl of rice; and water and soda. "Expecting company?" 1 ask She shakes her head and smiles. "So how much did all this set you back?" "Oh, this is an expensive place," she admits. "This cost $8."
Of course every bite is delicious. We sample every thingthe jackfruit is a revelation - and head out 1 steel myself for what's next: Orchard Road.
Imagine wD.lking along one blight clean street [or several miles. Now picture every square block of that street lined with a mall. Every single window you lay your eyes on is a storefront. That would be Orchard Road, arguably one of the most famous shopping addresses in the world,
I ask Naseem how many malls Spore has. She scrunches her face to calculate. "Well, let's see. Singapore is divided into north, south, east and west. East Singapore, where 1 live, has the most: 15 or 20. So I would guess there have to be at least 50 malls in the city." I'm astounded: that's thousands of stores on this small land mass. "Oh, but that's no! counting [he individual scores, strip malls and shopping districts."
Here's how seriously Singaporeans take their shopping:
The central train station is in the busy Mal-ina district, home to many fancy hotels, restaurants and watering holes: There's
a walkway to Suntec City, a popular mall with shops as well
as offices. Much of the population passes through here every weekday. There ale shops an along the walkway, Naseern cells me, so people can shop on their way to shopping. And if that's not enough inducement to shop till you drop, which they never seem to do, there's an annual event, which l just happen [0 be in [Own for, called The Great Singapore Sale. Every year from late May to late july, vendors discount their merchandise up to 80 percent. Asians, Malaysians and Westerners in the know plan entire holidays around this .. Locals take staycanons to maximize their shopping hours. Each mall has its own personality, its own specialties - and everyone has a favorite.
List in hand, I follow Naseern's brisk lead to the Mustafa Center, open 24/7, to check out camera accessories and
CDs. 1 Opt for some local flavor: Bhangra (check); Ghazal (check), Tamil (check}. Twenty discs set me back $85 - and these weren't the typical bootlegs (shrink-wrapped as proof). Somewhere along the way 1 acquire a cute pair of black sandals ($l8), some batik fabrics that will become drapes and a tablecloth ($34), a camera lens (a bit more), birthday presents and one large bag ($3.50) (Q can it aU home.
Last stop of the afternoon: Chinatown, which, unlike New York '5, isn't teeming with fish sta LIs, plastic Buddhas and $20 imitation Louis Vuirtons. I'm drawn (Q a shop selling - could it be' Money. "Look closely," explains Naseem, "It's not real. There's a Chinese tradition of burning these wads to bring prosperity." I could use a little financial help, so I buy a stack of funny money and plan to have a bonfire when I get home.
In the course of our expedition, we pass everything one could imagine, and then some. The House of Condoms, right on Orchard Street, indeed sells but one commodity, and I'll bet the guys working at the 24-h.OUT Thong Delivery Kiosk have some stories to telll
There's national healthcare, forced retirement, and it's illegal to litter, or buy or sell gum, though chewing it is not a crime.
It's that time again, so we find a mall I club the Food Temple, with hundreds of the faithful chewing down on small stools. We sit down for some tea and somerbrng my BFF insists I try: bread with durian spread (on my taste meter,
the Asian "king of fruits" ranks somewhere between Marmite and pOiSON. But 1 eat, while she tells me a bit more about Singapore's Iascinaung background. The city was founded on British law, and the State takes a lead role in the lives of its citizenry. There's virtually no unemployment, poverty, crime or homelessness, People are required to save 20 percent of their income in government-sponsored banks. That money goes toward either the purchase of a (government-subsidized) home - once they turn 35 (before [hat, they live at home) or their retirement. There's national healthcare, lOTced. retirement, and it's illegal to liner, Of buy or sell gum, though chewing u is not a crime. And don't even think about nafEi.cking in drugs. Your first offense is your last: The penalty is death.
srom top left: On top of the Singapore Flyer, the world', largest "ob,ervation wheel;" Singapore is A5ia'5 mo;! sophisticated yet diverse shopping destination; Amoy Street
in Singapore', colorful Chinatown; Spirat staircases on bu,t/ing Bugi, Street./armerly a residential area thot is now commerclot. The muiti-coiored hues ore Q modem addition.
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»whats a travelgirl to do in ... singapore?
A Grand Finale
We end the shopping day with a spin through a food hawker center: everything from fresh juices and curries to all variety of seafood, sweet and baked goods (at a stand called Bread Pi.tt). There's an outdoor cart section, which goes on for a city block, but Naseem says [he better stuff is inside. And she's righe: It's like every concession stand in a ballpark was put side by side. Each one has a government rating. so you can tTUSt the quality. No matter how your food preferences run ~ and I'm strict vegetarian ~ this is a must-do in Singapore. Surprisingly, it's all quite sanitary ~ including the drinking water.
With the clock ticking, we squeeze in a [our of the bustling Clarke Quay waterfront. A short boat ride that ends at dusk is a great way to get the whole scope of this nightlife hub, with trendy bars and restaurants frequented by locals and tourists alike. And then it's time for an absolutely exquisite vegetarian feast at My Humble Home on the Esplanade, not merely a restaurant but a multi-sensory dining experience .
There's a small pond inside the restaurant, and chairs and tables that appear lifted from the pages of a children's fairy
tale. Our table looks OUI on the water. The food is so incredible l have to ten you everything we ate We start with an
amuse bouche of tomato. with blueberry sauce and crispy
lotus root with fruit salsa. First course is seared fresh "bai
ling" mushrooms in truffle jus with mixed greens" Honestly,
I could've quit t hen and been saris 5.ed. But rio. next comes
a double-boiled shredded melon with yellow mushroom and bamboo pith. Then another kind of mushroom C'crispy monkey head") with sauteed asparagus, and a wok-fried rice with diced vegetables. Our des sen platter of tropical fruits lives up to its "Perfect Ending" billing. How we manage to walk out of [here unassisted remains the mystery of the evening.
Bur we do, and it's with a profound sadness that I bid my guide and friend goodbye as I head to the airport. My bags are overflowing, my stomach is full, and my camera card is maxed out. And yet I have not had my fill. 1 know there's another visit in my future, only this time it won't be a stopover.
When to Go: As soon as possible! The weather's always fi ne. Located jus t 70. miles north of the equator. Singapore has a tropical, wet climate, mean-
ing hot. humid. and rainy with little seasonal change. Average temperatures range from 73 to 82 degrees F.
What to Pack, Nice su mmer clothes.
• Women in Spore really dress up! Of course, whatever you don't bring, you til n pick up ina heartbeat. If you plan to do serious shopping, bring bubble wrap and an extra bag. Don't even thi n k about drugs, I lghters or chewing gum.
Getting There; Singa pore Ai r has da i Iy flights from 10 maJor US cities. Crossing the dateline means "banking" one day that you "withdraw" on your retu rn ..
Helpful Website5: www.visitsingapore.com www.newasia-singapore.corn www"greatsing<lporesale.com.sg/2oog www.stb.gov.sg
3 2 t,.avel~irl
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