We set out this morning with a guide for a reintroduction to Singapore. Since we spent the previous day exploring on foot, it was a good contrast to reorient ourselves by car. Because it was still early in the morning, we were faced with establishing our route to avoid excess tolls from Electronic Road Pricing (ERP), the scheme implemented by the government to reduce congestion in peak traffic hours.
With nearly 5 million people (Chinese (76%), Malays (15%) and Indians (7.4%) , Chinese Singaporeans make up the majority of the population. The proliferation of high-end residential dwellings not only supports its residents but also is attractive to over 1.5 million non-residents – a hefty 30% of occasional dwellers. This multi-racial, multi cultural dense state (a democratic meritocracy) prides itself on respect and tolerance for religion (Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism), language (Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, English/Singlish), as well as its cultural differences.
We arrive in Little India where we walk through the open-air markets of flowers, vegetables, and spices. It isn’t long before we realize that this area is really gearing up for night events with colored lights, ethnic dishes of curry, dancing and drinking. A Pongal Heritage Carnival (Hindu festival for Indian Tamils) attracts school children and us to view cows – a rarity in the city. The artwork on the adjacent Singapore Club wall is amazing.
We move on to the Kampong Glam district which hosts the Malay Heritage Centre, a refurbished Malay palace, that was reopened in 2005 showcasing Malay heritage, culture and history. The grounds offered a botanical view of Singapore’s native plants.
Also in the district is the Sultan Mosque, originally built in 1824 with the financial assistance of Sir Raffles, Singapore’s founder. The building we visit today was redesigned and rebuilt in 1932. The gold domes are ringed by glass bottle bottoms gifted by the local Muslim community. Wearing our temple clothes, we visit the large interior space. However the mosque is ready for visitors and has plenty of robes and clothing for anyone in need of respectful attire.
We move from the mosque to Chinatown, the site of the Buddhist Temple and Museum of the Relic Tooth. Unlike most religious buildings we visit, this one was opened in 2007 following a S$62 million plus construction cost and displaying a Northern Chinese Tang Dynasty style. Similar to our experience in Kandy, the temple is said to house the tooth relic of the Buddha. It was said to have been found in 1980 in a collapsed stupa site in Myanmar. The building enjoys modern aspects of an elevator, underground parking (built following the above ground structure), electric lighting, a roof top garden with a prayer wheel, and a beautifully designed museum. The embroidered canvases are exquisite and the gold/red interior is impressive of the thought and money in the temple.
It is close to lunch time so we walk down to the Maxwell Hawker Food Center (you may recall from Crazy Rich Asians). Here tourists and locals including nearby office workers crowd in to order and eat the best of the city’s local foods: steamed chicken and rice, fresh fish soup, dim sum, veggies/noodles/eggs, etc. The surprising low cost, high quality is complemented by the efficiency of all the food stalls, clean up crews, and attentiveness to cleanliness.
Doubling back on our walk in Chinatown, we pass the Sri Mariamman, the oldest Hindu temple in the city, built in 1827 for the goddess’s attention to healing diseases. We detour a bit next to enjoy the wall murals of Yip Yew Chong, street artist extraordinaire. The Chinatown Complex offers a large assortment of hawker stalls upstairs and an complete wet market in the basement. Fish, sea food, frogs, eel, meat, in all stages, are on display or being prepared for sale.
Across town, we return to the Gardens by the Bay. Unfortunately the Flower Dome is closed. So we leisurely go to the top of the Cloud Forest and meander down viewing each level of exhibits. The cool misty environment is a big draw for escaping the daily Singaporean humidity.
We elected to have a traditional seafood dinner within walking distance of our hotel: Red House Seafood at Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel. Upon arriving in the 2nd floor dining “hall”, we were quickly shown to a table in the corner where we could observe that we were the only non-residents. The vibe was more like a traditional Chinese managers restaurant where workers came after work to eat and socialize with their bosses and co-workers – equivalent to the expense account dinner. Whatever the restaurant lacked in ambiance, cozy seating, low lights, it made up for it in great food and attentive service.