While it was difficult at first to imagine that a 704-square-kilometer island could hold so many ethnicities and cultures, just by standing close to Raffles Statue and looking at the river, it’s easy to understand the contrasts Singapore combine. Here, it was clear how Singapore has infused these cultures and intertwined the different phases of its short modern history.
Behind me were three-storey buildings reminiscent of British 19th century architecture. The Raffles statue is a tribute to the Brit that built modern Singapore: Thomas Stamford Raffles.
On the opposite side of the Singapore River, and in a stark contrast to the colossal off-white constructions behind me, much smaller and colorful buildings line the riverbank.
Not so long ago, the area was dominated by warehouses that catered to the non-stop trade that used the river as a main route connecting Asian nationals through Singapore.
I was immersed in this contrasting and culturally rich past as I munched on a meal that combined the different tastes of Asian cuisine on one table – the Thai coconut curry sauce was placed next to a salad that mixed tropical fruits with vegetables in a zesty dressing. The spices were a mild touch of Indian and Malay food that I was yet to sample in a stronger flavor. With everything put together and small changes made to these Asian recipes, the meal, I was told, is now true Singaporean cuisine.
As I tried to envision how the different ethnicities brought their cultures and traditions (and their recipes) to the island to make this cultural mosaic, I was brought to our time with the sight of the modern towers in the background.
This cultural mosaic is engulfed in a metropolitan dream. Whether you are heading to Chinatown, Little India or the Arab street, you take roads aligned by robust shopping malls featuring the latest in world fashion and sleek urban-designed buildings catering to the business and residential needs of this buzzing city. And if you fail to notice the tall buildings, the buses decorated with seemingly-protruding and colorful advertising is bound to grab your attention.
I stayed in this time and ethnic trance throughout the whole trip. Walking down the shopping malls on Orchard Road, I was greeted by a different nationality at each stop. One shop the salespeople were of Chinese origin, the next Malay and at another place they were Indian.
The shoppers were even more diverse in this tourist activity – ranging from Japanese and wealthy Indonesians crowding the expensive designer shops like Gucci and Louis Vuitton to an array of Europeans, Americans and other Asian nationalities.
And even though the malls close by 10 pm – except for the last Friday of every month when some close at midnight – the city doesn’t sleep then. The streets remain buzzing with people making it even safer to take a late night walk.
The good weather, although humid, makes these walks very appealing. The only downside is that if you re hungry late at night, your options are limited. The 24-hour shops are only available in certain areas like Chinatown. You could walk right into the many McDonald’s and Burger King outlets, which serve halal food (there are over 1,000 halal restaurants in Singapore), or head straight to one of the numerous hawker centers.
Again in an ethnic mosaic, these centers are rounded seating areas, surrounded by small shops serving every Asian cuisine known to man, some even serving halal food. It was there that I tried Malay and Indian cooking and tasted Singapore’s famous Ice Ketchup, all while sipping on coconut juice through a straw dipped in the actual fruit.
But aside from the shopping, which covers the most expensive shops to the very cheap markets, and the cuisine sampling, the city has more to offer. Although it doesn’t have the abundance of exotic exclusive beaches that characterize its Thai, Malay and Indonesian neighbors – Singapore is often a stop on vacationer’s way to other Asian countries – it offers a unique experience, albeit an urban cosmopolitan one.
Besides the network of gardens and tall trees that distinguish the city – the government aims to make Singapore “a city in a garden – the Botanic Gardens dwarf any idea I’ve ever had of how parks should look. Besides the multicolored collection of orchids, the Gardens feature different controlled climates catering to plants from other parts of the world.
Moving from the humidity to a mountain climate surrounded by a man-made waterfall was mesmerizing.
In addition to the man-made gardens, the Bukit Timah Nature reserve, a patch of equatorial rainforest, provides exciting hiking experiences.
For a more spiritual and cultural tour there are a range of temples and worship houses to visit, admire their captivating designs and tip in the mysticism. The Thian Hock Keng Temple or the temple of Heavenly Happiness is a testament of Chinese architecture; the Sri Mariamman Temple is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore with an eye-catching multicolor gopuram (tower); the golden dome of the Sultan Mosque is another must-see in this spiritual tour.
It was a shame I couldn’t catch a night show at the Esplanade, a state-of-the-art cultural hub, or treat myself to one of Singapore’s famous lavish spas. But as I was on my way back, I was already planning another trip. Enjoying the much-talked-about premium service of Singapore Airlines, sipping on their aromatic Japanese green tea and then getting comfortable in their cozy reclining beds. em seats, it was difficult not to dream of further exploring the Far East. As I was closing my eyes, I had already decided that Singapore would definitely be my first stop in an extended Asia tour.