When a business trip brought me to Singapore, I stayed an extra day to explore the modern multicultural melting pot. Here's what I managed to see in of the city in one jam-packed day.
At 165 metres high, the Singapore Flyer dominates the downtown waterfront. It was only recently de-throned as world's tallest observation wheel (the High Roller in Las Vegas beats it by two metres). I decided to start my sightseeing on the Flyer to get an overview of the city skyline. And a breathtaking overview it was!
After passing through the sleek ground-floor reception area, I walked into one of the spacious air-conditioned tube-shaped pods, along with a handful of other visitors. During the 30 minute rotation, I was captivated by 360 degree views of the city skyline and out into the Singapore Strait.
At $30, it wasn't cheap, but I thought worthwhile. You can save 10% and some time in line by buying tickets in advance.
Church, mosque, temple, towers
The real fun in exploring Singapore is in seeing and experiencing the variety of cultures that co-exist peacefully on the island, primarily Chinese, Malay, Indian and British.
For a taste of how Christianity is represented in Singapore, I headed St. Andrew's Cathedral, just across from the huge Raffles City office and shopping complex. Its pure white spires stand in contrast to the shiny office towers that surround it.
I was surprised to learn that the church was built almost entirely by Indian convict labourers, the whole concept of which is a fascinating piece of Singapore's history. Assuming most of the workers were not Christian, I wonder if building a temple for a religion not their own was a particularly painful form of spiritual punishment?
Two stops north on the yellow line of Singapore's MRT (Mass Rapid Transit), it wasn't hard to find the glistening golden onion dome of the Sultan Mosque just off of Arab Street. It was built in the 1920's to replace an earlier mosque. In the surrounding streets are kebab houses, shisha bars and shops selling Middle Eastern spices and textiles -- a compact slice of Arabia inside of a compact slice of Asia.
For lunch I walked a few blocks over to the famous multi-level Golden Mile Food Centre. It's one of many 'hawker centres' in the city -- a giant collections of food stalls. The choices were overwhelming, with every variety of Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and local Hainanese vendors offering a dizzying selection of dishes. I'd heard about a local dish called Hainanese Fried Rice, so that was my lunch of choice. It was hot, fresh, rich and delicious.
The Hindu temples of Little India were next on my list. With the increasing heat of the afternoon and no direct metro connection, I flagged down a cab to whisk me there in air conditioned comfort. One of the most interesting (and hard to pronounce) was the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple on Serangoon Road. It's a shrine to the goddess Kali who annihilates evil. Its doorway is decorated with ornate carvings of her and dozens of other gods and goddesses.
There are a couple of other temples in the surrounding streets, along with sari and spice shops and Indian restaurants. It really felt a world away from the other neighbourhoods.
Chinatown & chili crab
I hopped back on the MRT and traveled 3 stops south to the Chinatown Heritage Centre. It provides a fascinating overview of Chinese history in Singapore, including normally taboo topics like opium addiction, prostitution and gambling. The surrounding streets of Chinatown itself are also lively and vibrant, and worth getting lost in.
My final mission was to try Singapore's famous Chili Crab, a fresh whole crab smothered in sweet-hot chili sauce. It's offered by many of the restaurants in Chinatown. I walked around a bit before settling on a place that was bustling with what appeared to be more locals than tourists.
I was a bit embarrassed to put on the paper bib the waitress brought, but I noticed plenty of other patrons wearing them proudly. It wasn't pretty (or at least my face wasn't after eating it), but the crab was messy, spicy goodness. The bib's functional value far outweighed any embarrassment.
Stuffed and satisfied, my day in Singapore had come to a close. There's much more to see -- enough to keep one occupied for at least three days -- but my whirlwind day gave me a nice overview.
Singapore is a non-intimidating place for English-speaking tourists to ease into Asia. Its low crime, spotlessly clean streets, decent public transport, friendly people and prevalence of English signs and speakers make it easy to navigate. I may not be the first to christen it 'Asia Light'.