Singapore Fling: 48 nonstop hours: for Condenast Traveler US edition

So much to do, so little time—at least if you’re Shoba Narayan. Her manic mission: to wring the most out of this nonstop island-nation in just forty-eight hours. Let her loss (of sleep) be your gain—and guide

Published July 2005

Staid, chaste, strict, small—Singapore has heard it all. But this island-nation of 4.2 million people has one thing going for it (many things, actually, but we’ll get to that later): Singapore is a sure fling. Changi Airport’s superefficient staff get you out in thirty minutes or less. Half an hour later, you’re in the city center and the island is yours to savor. Singapore is clean, manageable, and safe; you can drink the water and get around easily; and people don’t pester you if you’re a woman traveling alone. Best of all, it is small enough (about the size of Chicago) to sample in a day or two. Which is precisely my intent. Having lived in Singapore for two years, I have returned wanting to revel in it as a tourist—to see it all and do it all within forty-eight hours. But what might once have been a leisurely pursuit is shaping up to be a herculean undertaking.

8 A.M. I roll out of bed at the Fullerton (where a cab deposited me in the wee hours after an overnight flight from New York) and fantasize about ordering a Singapore Sling but order a coffee instead—the first of many cups. Singapore is blessed with a panoply of good hotels. I’ve chosen the Fullerton mostly for its location near the highways and the harbor (which will allow me to duck in and out during my harried, carefully calibrated itinerary) and the quiet formality of its staff. The Ritz-Carlton has more effusive service, the Oriental a fantastic spa, the Four Seasons greater intimacy, the Shangri-La a soothing setting, and Raffles all that history. But as a package, the Fullerton is my favorite.

8:30 A.M. Singapore isn’t perpetually jammed like Bangkok or Bombay, but rush hour is just that, so I reverse-commute to Jurong Bird Park for “Breakfast with the Birds,” a popular activity. The buffet isn’t anything to write home about, but the fowl are captivating: eagles, parrots, pink flamingos, and storks. I board a golf cart for an hour’s tour with a well-informed guide. Do this. And be sure to stop at the Lory Loft, a giant enclosure, with a treetop boardwalk, that is fashioned to look like the Australian Outback. Buy a bowl of nectar and watch the parrotlike lories alight on your arms. Truly a treat.

10 A.M. Since I am already in Jurong, I decide to run into the Singapore Science Centre, a great place for kids—and, I might add, adults. (At each stop, I give my driver strict instructions to wait out front. He’s a local but lacks a New York cabbie’s killer instincts.) The two IMAX films interest me. I buy tickets to Mysteries of the Nile and Mystic India before deciding, regrettably, that I must be going.

10:30 A.M. The ubiquitous hawker markets are the gustatory soul of Singapore. Pick any high-rise and you’re bound to find one at its feet offering a colorful glimpse of life at street level. Toothless Chinese men gossip, sari-clad Indian women bargain fervidly for fish and vegetables, hijab-wearing Malay matrons scurry through, children in tow. Singapore isn’t beset by racial tensions, even though three distinct groups—Chinese, Indians, and Malays—make their home here, mostly in separate ethnic enclaves. When I first moved to Singapore from New York, I was struck by how the passion and politics that surround race in America are virtually absent here. I think it’s because Singaporeans accept ethnic and religious differences with a live-and-let-live attitude that is more like Canada’s salad bowl than America’s melting pot. Nowhere is this more evident than in the hustle and bustle of the hawker stalls.

Maxwell and Tiong Bahru are considered the best, Newton Circus and Lau Pa Sat are for expats and tourists, and each Singaporean has his or her preferred vendor of chicken rice, chili crabs, curried fish cakes, egg tarts, prawn noodles, roti prata, and satay. My favorite is Alexandra Village Hawker Centre, nestled amid shops selling tires and automobile parts. The chilled avocado juice at Exotic Juice Cathay is the best I’ve ever tasted, and the durian, honeydew, kiwi, and soursop aren’t bad either. I am still hungry but not worried. In Singapore, food is everywhere.

11 A.M. The shops at Orchard Road are just opening. I hit them with the precision of a stealth bomber: Forum for kids’ clothes; Palais Renaissance for the Bollywood-inspired store Mumbai Sé; Tang for its famed housewares department selling bamboo baskets, clay pots, slow cookers, sushi sets, woks, and other Asian necessities; Takashimaya for its chinoiserie, discount handbags, feng shui fountains, and food hall. I pick up delicious green-tea muffins at the St. Leaven bakery and Thai mango salad at Thanying Express.

Shopping is a blood sport in Singapore, aptly described by the local Chinese word kiasu, which means “always wanting the best, no matter what.” In Singapore, everyone is kiasu. Morning store openings bring huge lines of jostling shoppers who want to be the first in the door. Fistfights between women vying for the same dress are par for the course during the June and July sales. People hide potential acquisitions in the wrong aisle so they can come back at a more convenient time to claim them. None of this intimidates me, of course, having cut my teeth at the semiannual sales at Barneys.

All of this shopping does, however, take its toll, and so I submit my aching head to an aromatic scalp massage at Takashimaya’s Clinique d’Esthetique before taking the underpass to the Paragon mall. Most people come here to stock up on big-name labels before lunching on scrumptious pork dumplings at Din Tai Fung. I just gawk.

1 p.m. When I tell my driver that I want to go to Geylang, he stares at me. Geylang is the Malay stronghold of Singapore. It is also the red-light district.

“You want to go to the fruit part or the bad part?” he asks.

“It is one o’clock in the afternoon,” I say. “Who’d go to a brothel now?”

“You’d be surprised,” he says.

We set out for the fruit bazaars along Sims Avenue, which sell luscious longans, lychees, mangosteens, rambutans, and the notorious durian (“smells like hell but tastes like heaven”). I had put off tasting a durian during my two years in Singapore but am now determined to try one. They stink, yes, but then so does fish. The payoff is in the flesh: impossibly light, like mousse or the fluffiest of cheesecakes. Not bad, I decide.

1:30 P.M. Getting to Sentosa requires crossing a bridge, always a pain, but it is home to some of my favorite attractions. As traffic piles up at the toll booth, I am already late for my appointment at Underwater World. I’ve never even dived before, but here I find I can swim with the sharks for sixty dollars. Swimming with me is a Bulgarian tourist who seems to have dived since birth. I am mildly freaked out, but the Chinese instructor is infinitely patient. We get into a 26,000-plus-gallon tank. I panic. We come out. The Bulgarian rolls his eyes. We go in again. This time I figure out how to breathe through the cork clamped in my mouth. There are fish all around, swimming in schools, coming up to me inquisitively. The instructor gives me a thumbs-up. I touch one shark and then another and another, usually when they are swimming away. Half the fun is having people gawk at you through the glass. I pose for photographs feeling like a minor celebrity.

2:30 P.M. I am tired when I emerge. Thankfully, I have an appointment at Spa Botanica, Singapore’s best spa, a mere five minutes away. I’ve signed up for the four-hands massage followed by an aromatherapy facial. Both are sublime.

3:30 P.M. My driver and I race from Sentosa, at one end of town, to Suntec City, at the other. I have a friend waiting there with tickets for a seventy-five-minute amphibious Duck Tour of Singapore. The tour guide turns out to be spectacularly bad—so bad that she is weirdly enjoyable. She treats us like a kindergarten class. “Can everyone say, ‘Quack-quack-quack’ as we set off?” By the time the bus splashes into the water, I am ready to jump in and take my chances.

5 P.M. The Singapore Art Museum is blessedly cool. Housed in a lovingly restored British colonial building, it contains the world’s largest public collection of twentieth-century Southeast Asian art. I really can’t spare the time for the nearby Philatelic Museum, but my kid collects stamps and the museum is tiny so I run in. To my delight, there is an exhibition of Hans Christian Andersen stamps from Denmark. The Asian Civilisations Museum, though, is my favorite. Most of my expat buddies are members of its hugely popular Friends of the Museum program, in exchange for which they receive docent training and attend lectures on interesting if obscure Asian topics such as Nawabi jewelry and Chinese funeral artifacts.

6 P.M. Thirsty, I emerge from the museum and make a beeline for Bar Opiume, known for its proseccos and popular with the museum crowd. Its decor is Chinese courtesan meets Czech count. After a quick drink, I walk along the waterfront, admiring the playful bronze sculptures, en route to dinner at the Fullerton. The hotel has two great restaurants: Jade, which specializes in modern Chinese—try the steamed crab claws stuffed with shark’s fin—and San Marco, serving elegant Italian atop the hotel in an erstwhile lighthouse. I do double duty by having appetizers at Jade and a main course at San Marco before running out. Nobody runs at the Fullerton, but I have a bungee to jump.

7 P.M. I have been longing to try G-Max Reverse Bungy, in Clarke Quay, a waterfront complex of restaurants and bars where yuppies converge after work. Imported from New Zealand, the three-seat contraption launches me sixty feet into the air, at two hundred miles an hour, before plunging me back to earth. It takes all of five minutes, and I scream my head off the whole time.

7:20 P.M.Cruising down the Singapore River in a traditional bumboat is an ideal way to enjoy the sunset. At the opening to the harbor, a merlion—Singapore’s mermaid-lion mascot—stands guard. Directly across the water is where the government plans to erect two massive megaresorts—complete with casinos—at a cost of several billion dollars, which has caused a furor among the citizens. A lot of Singaporeans are hobbled by gambling debt racked up abroad, and building a casino here, they fear, will only compound their problems. The government’s proposed solution is to charge stiff entry fees—a hundred dollars per person—but this might actually make things worse. As a Singaporean friend says, “Knowing Singapore’s kiasu mentality, charging a hundred-dollar entry fee will make us more determined to gamble. I mean, this is a culture where people stuff themselves at buffets to get their money’s worth.”

Lost in thought, I lose track of time. I have tickets to Madama Butterfly, which begins in ten minutes at the durian-shaped performing arts complex, the Esplanade. If I am late, I will have to wait until the doors reopen at intermission. I beg my boatman to drop me off at the Esplanade’s pier. He refuses. It’s illegal, he says. I take out a fifty-dollar bill. Miraculously, I am at the Esplanade a minute before the doors close.

9 P.M. I bail at halftime. I have tickets to a stand-up comedy show at 1 Nite Stand, where visiting Australian, British, and Canadian comics play to full houses. I take a boat back to Clarke Quay feeling a little like James Bond—or at least his stunt double—as the driver guns it under low bridges.

10 P.M. As I amble from one nightclub to another, I ask myself what is unique about Singapore’s bar scene. The downed drinks, jammed dance floors, loud music, and sweaty people could be in Berlin or Buenos Aires. And then it occurs to me: What’s unusual about this otherwise standard-issue club scene is that it is in Singapore at all; it’s been less than two years since the government legalized bar-top dancing. I spot a new Indian restaurant, Ras, and can’t resist going in. The decor is modern and minimalist, but the food is traditional and good.

Midnight I am drunk and exhausted but otherwise feel terrific. Good enough, in fact, to give the G-Max Reverse Bungy another go. Big mistake: Out comes dinner.

1 A.M. My driver and I keep moving. A young girl has passed out on a bench outside Phuture. Mid-lifers lounge around Velvet Underground. At Zouk, couples make out, break up, and storm out. Hookers strike poses outside Attica, the club of the moment. Also-rans include Este (Paris meets Shanghai), Gotham Penthouse (Las Vegas meets Bangkok), and Zenzie Bar (Spain meets Kyoto). The floor is packed at China Jump because the drinks are gratis. I ask the bartender for orange juice. “Six dollars,” he says. Water? Also six bucks. Whiskey? Free.

4 A.M.I proceed to the only reasonable alternative at this hour: Mustafa, Singapore’s 24/7 mall, where I stock up on Indian curry powders, Indonesian lulur scrubs, Lebanese dates, and Tiger Balm.

5 A.M. Back at the Fullerton, I request a wake-up call in two hours and fall into bed. At last.

7 A.M. I begin day two by going to the Botanic Gardens and joining groups of old Chinese people doing tai chi. There is a mystical quietude to the place, broken only by the odd dog walker, jogger, and shadowboxer.

8 A.M. The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf at Paragon is hopping. People sit on couches barking instructions into their cell phone while sipping mochaccinos. I down a double espresso, then another and another. I walk out a new woman. A friend meets me at the American Club down the street. It used to be my oasis when Singapore’s “Singlish” got to me. I revel now in its American twang, poolside smoothies, and great quesadillas.

9 A.M. The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, in the heart of Little India, is one of the oldest and busiest in Singapore. Bells clang, devotees pray, and priests chant, yet all is serene. Outside, I devour a cheese masala dosa (a type of Indian crepe) at Dosa Corner before driving to the Buddhist temples on nearby Race Course Road. The Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya (a.k.a. the Temple of a Thousand Lights) has a fifty-foot Buddha that presides sternly over the communing masses. Opposite is the charmingly intimate Leong San See Temple, with an interior that resembles a Tang dynasty palace.

10 A.M. Arab Street. Mee goreng noodles, nasi padang, rojak salad: Malay cooking—or “Muslim Food” as it is called here—abounds. Outside the storefronts, bamboo baskets, hand-painted batiks, and silk sarongs sway in the breeze. The grand Sultan Mosque, with its gold dome, offers a cool, quiet respite from the heat.

11 A.M. Chinatown is just waking up. I go first to Telok Ayer Street, where Thian Hock Keng (the Temple of Heavenly Happiness) sits. Arguably the prettiest in Singapore, this exquisite carved-wood temple was assembled in 1821 without nails.

I love Chinatown. Temple Street sells Chinese herbs and inexpensive trinkets. Pagoda Street has stalls hawking everything from cheap souvenirs to spirulina powder (huge over here) alongside furniture stores peddling handsome Chinese antiques. Eu Yan Sang is highly regarded and stocks traditional Chinese medicines in modern packages. Along Trengganu Street is the real thing: piles of herbs that an in-house physician will weigh and mix before instructing you to ingest them in the form of a soup.

The basement of Chinatown Complex has a wet market selling eels, frogs, pig’s trotters, snakes, and turtles, all consumed with gusto by the Chinese. Three-story Yue Hwa is one-stop shopping for chinoiserie, right down to bespoke cheongsams. I get a reflexology massage at Kenko—a local chain—and am rejuvenated.

12:30 P.M. At the edge of Chinatown is the Sri Mariamman Temple, where busloads of tourists descend every morning. I drive up to Keong Saik Road—née Prostitute Road—which is now known for its art galleries and the Whatever yoga café. I browse through the café’s psychic offerings—angel healing, crystal channeling, tarot card readings—before settling on a pesto and onion jam sandwich that my daughter used to love.

1 P.M. I am nearly full, but that has never stopped me before. I lunch as reserved at Jaan, on the seventy-second floor of the Equinox Complex at the Swissôtel, where I endure mediocre food and slack service for the sake of spectacular views.

2 P.M. I can’t keep my eyes open. I go to The Oriental hotel, which boasts one of the best spas in the city. My husband and I once had a couple’s massage here that melted all our quarrels away. After sleeping through my massage, I speed to the Ritz-Carlton’s spa for an “express” manicure-pedicure-facial that takes an hour.

4 P.M. Time for tea. I go to the Cedele bakery, for its pesto breads, which come closest to the San Francisco sourdough I love, and the Canelé Pâtisserie, for its decadent chocolate cakes.

5 P.M. East Coast Park is Singapore’s Central Park equivalent. You can bike or in-line skate beside the water after or before eating messy but delicious chili and black pepper crabs. You can also kite-surf, sail, and windsurf.

7 P.M. The Line, at the Shangri-La Hotel, is the restaurant of the moment. Designed by Adam Tihany, the sprawling place has an all-white decor accented with bright orange panels that is indeed stunning. High-class hawker food is Singapore’s latest trend, and The Line’s several open kitchens prepare fresh juices, pastas, salads, soups, and sushi. The service is impeccable.

9 P.M. When in Singapore, you must not miss the Night Safari at the zoo. It’s a hyped-up tourist gimmick, but the zoo itself is world-class and the concept is unusual: Visitors board a golf cart with a guide who points a flashlight at nocturnal and sleeping animals in their habitat, after which there is an animal circus.

10 P.M. I go to Garibaldi, an old favorite, for Italian food that’s only decent but service that’s exemplary. Down the street, Killiney Kopitiam beckons. I’ve put off visiting a kopitiam, Singapore’s version of a coffee bar, for one reason: The popular accompaniment to coffee, or kopi, is toast slathered with a green jam made of coconut milk, eggs, and sugar. It looks as unappetizing as it sounds. The atmospheric Chijmes complex is a short walk away. Established as the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in 1854, today it contains not a nunnery but a wealth of watering holes. I hit Father Flanagan’s Irish pub, La Cave Wine Bar, Carnivore (the name says it all), and others. The night air is uncomfortably close, but I keep on walking.

12 A.M. I am dying for Indian-Chinese food and go to Ghaangothree, in Little India, for dishes such as Hakka noodles and Manchurian vegetables. The restaurant is closed, but the lights are on and I persuade the chef to part with some leftovers. Then it’s on to Club Street, where my gay friends like to go. I chill out at Aphrodisiac—blue lights, soft music, killer “lycheetinis”—and catch up with old friends. Maybe it’s the music, maybe I’ve had one lycheetini too many, or maybe, just maybe, I’ve reached my limit. Whatever the reason, I pass out.

3 A.M. My friends rouse me. They are off to another bar, but I still need to pack before heading to the airport. Although my flight leaves at dawn, there is no need to show up at Changi three hours early and endure abuse like I did at JFK. Having checked in forty-eight hours prior via the Internet, I arrive a scant hour before departure—ample time, as it turns out.

With forty minutes till boarding, my body is still in overdrive. Hmm, what shall I do now? I think to myself. My legs jig in unconscious imitation of my eight-year-old. I could take a dip in Terminal One’s rooftop swimming pool and go for a jog around the cactus and heliconia gardens, but I’m not sure that my wasted, middle-aged body can cope with the sudden burst of health. I could catch a game on one of the twenty-four flat-screen TVs at the Skyplex Entertainment Lounge. Or confess my sins in the multi-denominational Prayer Room. In the end, I do what comes most naturally: I enjoy a last drag in the smoking room and then shut myself in a pod at the Oxygen Bar for a ten-minute zap of pure O2. After a few minutes of deep breathing—huffing and puffing, really—I am on cloud nine.

An hour later, as the tiny island recedes from my window, I settle back into my seat and prepare to return to Mommy mode. The last forty-eight hours have been fun. Surreal, but fun. Like I said, this city has many things going for it.

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