While reading about the recent coverage of Lee Kuan Yew’s death, I reminisced back to our first visit to Singapore a few years ago. Having spent a week in Borneo exploring the terrain at Borneo Rainforest Lodge and The Kinebatangan River Valley, both spectacular places in the wilder and often forgotten part of Malaysia, we relaxed for a few days and soaked up some luxury at The Shangri-La Rasa Ria Resort near Kota Kinabalu. Perhaps the best kept secret in the luxury chain circuit, we had more than enough splendor and probably should have visited Penang at that point for some serious expat destination research. Innocently unaware I’d be laid off one year later, instead we chose five days in Singapore. Thinking the remote jungle atmosphere left us longing for a big expensive city filled with expensive food and touristy glitz, we headed out to Malaysia’s enormously small but powerfully wealthy next door neighbor.
Aware of the city’s reputation for shopping as a national sport, we decided to skip Orchard Road and all the cheesy attractions at Sentosa Island in favor of soaking up some culture. Realizing the best way to do this was explore the city’s ethnic neighborhoods, we opted for a few days well spent in Little India, one of the best places for Indian culture outside India itself. Naturally, Chinatown was also on our list of must-do places since Diane is Chinese and all real New Yorkers like myself love Chinese food but with our mutual fascination of all things Indian, we hopped on the immaculately clean and beautiful subway system and headed out to see what we might find. Like all good tourists, we did a bit of research and decided to try The Original Singapore Walks to get a feel for things before exploring some more ourselves. Ironically, it must have been the right tour guide because a few months later while watching an episode of No Reservations, lo and behold, there’s Anthony Bourdain taking the same tour (albeit just him and his crew) with the same woman who guided us.
Sincerely apologetic to all those familiar with Singapore, I must admit many of the cultural and historical facts we learned slip my mind and I hate posting things that anyone can simply look up on the internet so instead I’ll share pictures and any associated stories I remember. Unlike North America’s oldest, filthiest and most disgusting excuse for a commuter rail system (the BART system here in Utopia), the Mass Rapid Transit in Singapore (SMRT) must rank up there with some of the world’s most beautiful and efficient examples of how to move its citizenry from point A to point B. Easily understandable, we boarded at Marina Bay station, transferred at Darby Ghaut and went one more stop to Little India.
Meeting up with the Singapore Walks Guide, it gets fuzzy exactly what route we chose or even where we went but I do recommend their services as a good method of getting your bearings. Interestingly, we were the only tour participants able to name a mangosteen when the guide asked the group if anyone could identify a strange local fruit she picked up at a marketplace. (only strange to white people not married to Asians I guess). Seemingly annoyed with the fast pace of progress, the guide explained a bunch of facts about wet markets and old style cooking while grumbling as she passed all the pre-mixed spices and herbs.
Having completed the three-hour tour we felt like LIttle India veterans and set out exploring. As the featured image shows, one of my favorite activities was wandering into the cloth and clothing store where Diane agreed to be fit for a traditional sari. Although she hates these pictures, I love them but she’s still not convinced that saris keep you cooler.
Feeling left out, we walked a bit further through one of the larger shopping complexes and I found a place that gave me a henna tattoo. Assuring me it only stays visible for a few days, I chose a pattern, picked an inconspicuous place on my hairy arm and sat down while they did their magic. Enjoying it thoroughly, I felt conspicuous but proud as I walked around over the next few days displaying my body art on a very non-Indian looking body.
Encountering a typical street vendor, our guide told us we had to partake in one of their amusing fortune-telling rituals. Sporting a cool looking parrot, we paid the vendor a few bucks and he performed a traditional short “ceremony” whereby he blessed us and the bird came out of the cage and handed us our fortune.
Finding Little India an assault of the senses, the sounds, sights and smells almost made us forget the torrid heat and humidity. Enjoying many small shops selling everything from herbs to clothing we spent the afternoon visiting the museums, cultural sights and of course stopped at the bakery for some treats
Easily the most impressive structure in Little India, the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple is worth stopping for.
Here are some other great pictures of the area
Of course the very best part about any visit to Little India has to be a trip to a great eatery. Taking the advice of our guide, we returned the following day to a restaurant whose name slips me but boasting mostly Indian patrons for lunch, we knew her recommendation would be a good one. Served the traditional way on banana leaves and optional cutlery, it takes while to understand how to partake in a finger licking (literally) good meal while still displaying the proper etiquette like eating with the proper hands so we chose forks and spoons. Ordering a variety of delicious looking tomato based dishes with the best naan I’ve ever tasted, one benefit of visiting Singapore was a realization that Penang also has amazing Indian food so we won’t have to travel far to feast.
Followers of our blog probably know I love noodle soup. Unlike Diane, however, my love of soups isn’t limited to Asian food or even noodles. Searching many restaurants for one of my favorite Indian dishes, they brought out a perfect bowl of fish head soup cooked to spicy perfection. Perhaps the highlight of my Singapore gastronomic activities, words can’t describe how much I enjoyed it.
Singapore wouldn’t be Singapore without signage. Obsessed with rule and regulations, signs post everything from where to walk to what you can or can’t eat. We’re told the regulations have relaxed over the years and the days of caning an American citizen for spitting or some other ridiculous minor infraction are long gone but I’m divided on the issue. Basically a 50+ year social experiment, Singapore’s always represented an unspoken contract between its citizens and its government that seems to promise basic prosperity in exchange for simply following the rules, not exhibiting “freedom of the press” in any way that degrades the government and a strange division of wealth that most everyone doesn’t really complain much about. At least that’s my uninformed American take. Now that change is inevitable, we think living next door to the most powerful economic force in Asia should prove quite fascinating.
No matter what happens to Singapore under its new leadership, Diane and I hope the Little India district retains its unique cultural feel and they never get rid of the sights, sounds and smells of one of the city’s best attractions. But like most everyone else, we couldn’t afford to live there if we wanted to so we’ll happily choose Malaysia and anxiously await the magic day only 15 days away where we file our MM2H Visa and begin the journey !!
Coming Soon: Our visit to Singapore’s Chinatown