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Okay, I knew last week’s clues – "897 miles from Bangkok, and it’s against the law to eat or drink on the subway" were too easy. Almost everyone guessed the correct destination, which was -- Singapore! But before we can try a Singapore Sling we need to get there. Remember, last week we left off in a taxi on the way to BKK (the Bangkok Airport).
After I painlessly checked in for my flight I needed to use this machine (conveniently located next to passport control) to pay the $12 departure tax ($12). I was fortunate to be flying up front on Thai Airways, so I got a free pass to their airport club (actually, "clubs" – Thai Airways has several at this airport). Remember I wrote a few weeks ago that the Thai Airways club in the Osaka airport was disappointing? Well, this was the opposite. It had it everything (except high speed). I loved the modern Thai interior design, because it was so clean and inviting. They offered all kinds of free food and drinks, along with comfortable places to sit, relax and watch TV. A shower was a huge bonus (especially for those on a long layovers), but the kicker was…are you ready? Hold on to your chair--a FREE 20-minute traditional Thai massage. Yes! And ooooh did it feel good. This was one when time getting to the airport early was a really good thing.
Walking through the airport, I realized how big Thai Airways is. They fly all over the world – literally (72 destinations, 37 countries, 4 continents). I learned that most of their 83 aircraft are wide bodies. My two-hour flight to Singapore was on one of them: a two-class 777. Economy was full, but Business Class was wide open. The Business Class flight attendant was really nice, and had the coolest Thai accent I’ve ever heard. Unfortunately, I didn’t speak to her long. I was so beat that after eating my delicious minced chicken entrée I passed out. The worst part was that I didn’t even get to read my Frommer’s Singapore guide book, so I entered a new country not knowing much about it.
SINGAPORE: I don’t know about you, but ever since that American kid was all over the news back in the ‘90’s for getting caned after committing a minor crime, I’ve been a little skeptical about visiting here. Everyone has heard how strict the government is, with all kinds of rules like no chewing gum. The positive side of all those rules is that this is one of the cleanest and safest countries in the world.
I thought I’d heard everything, but the flight attendant’s pre-landing announcement caught me off guard: "Do not carry goods for other people. If the goods are or contain dutiable, controlled or prohibited items (chewing gum, chewing tobacco, obscene articles, publications, video tapes/discs, reproduction of copyright publications), you will be held responsible. Under the Singapore law, the penalty for the illegal importation of controlled drugs such as heroin or morphine is death."
Gulp! I have never entered a country in which the welcoming announcement contains the phrase "punishable by death." That made my stomach drop. I never go near drugs, but I was traveling by myself, and coming from Thailand – well, my mind started playing tricks on me. What if someone at the airport planted something in my bag? I know it sounds totally paranoia, but I had reason to be a little bit nervous. I had some other goods considered "contraband" in Singapore (chewing gum for my niece and nephew, a bootleg DVD and CD that I bought at the night market, and my computer, which gets so many spam emails a day that I am sure it had some unsolicited porn).
I prayed I didn’t get busted.
When we landed at Changi International Airport around 11 p.m., I walked a few hundred yards from the gate to passport control. I was not impressed by the airport. That surprised me, because it’s often voted one of the best airports in the world. Maybe it was the lighting, but to me the airport looked sterile and not much fun. Then again, maybe it was just that I was nervous about getting caned.
The passport control line was long, because a United Airlines flight arrived just before us from Hong Kong. I wasn’t upset, because I was not in a hurry (especially to go to jail). Besides, it’s always nice to see a United plane so far from the U.S. They are like my second home -- I fly them more than any other carrier.
The lady in my line took a while approving passports. If she was trying to make me sweat, it worked. When I finally cleared customs, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief.
Here’s the DL on Singapore: It’s a small island located between Malaysia and Indonesia, with 58 smaller islands around it. The country is only 424 square miles -- slightly more than 3.5 times the size of Washington, D.C. That’s why the government can enforce so many strict laws.
Fifty percent of the land is urban. The other half is made up primarily of parks, reservoirs, plantations and open military areas. The population of 4 million is 77% Chinese, 14% Malay, 8% Indian and 1% Westerners. The primary language is English, but many people speak Malay, Chinese or Tamil. Forty-two percent of the people are Buddhist, 15% Muslim, 14% Christian, 9% Taoist and 4% Hindu. Major industries include manufacturing, electronics, chemicals, trade, business and financial services, shipping, tourism and construction. Singapore’s major trading partners are the U.S., Malaysia, Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea.
The weather in Singapore is always the same: hot and humid (it’s just a few miles north of the equator). The temperature rarely drops below 75 degrees, even at night. During the day it usually gets into the upper 80s. But don't let the heat stop you: Most buildings are air conditioned. In fact, the a/c works so well you may want to bring a sweater. The wettest period is between November and January; the driest is May to July. That’s the opposite of Thailand (which is weird, because they are not far from each other.)
There is a lot of history in Singapore. Let me paraphrase what I (later) read from my Frommer’s guide book. The Srivijayas (9th-13th centuries A.D.) named the island Singapura, which translated means Lion City. The leader claimed to have seen a strange lion on its shores. In the 1800s Singapore started getting popular, when European powers competed for major trade routes. The British East India Company sent Sir Stamford Raffles to find a new trading post. Raffles discovered Singapore in 1819 when the country had only 1,000 people, mainly Malays. Raffles signed a treaty with the local administration, and set up a trading post in return for an annual payment. When Raffles returned 3 years later, Singapore was becoming a success story. The population had grown to more than 11,000 -- mostly Malays, Chinese, Bugis (from Celebes in Indonesia), Indians, Arabs, Armenians, Europeans and Eurasians. Since there were so many ethnicities Raffles drafted the Town Plan of 1822 and assigned specific neighborhoods to the ethnic groups that had settled. They remain much the same today. The most popular are Chinatown and Little India (I visited both and will show you lots of pictures). The sad story is that Raffles died of syphilis in London, a failed and penniless man. However, today Singaporeans regard him as a national hero and honor him with statues, buildings and street names.
In 1824, the Dutch signed a treaty with Britain acknowledging Singapore as a permanent British possession. Many Chinese workers migrated over. Singapore had an image as a lawless boomtown, with gambling, street crime and violence. Indians were quick to become Singapore's second largest community . Most were traders or laborers. The island lacked natural resources, so it looked to trade for survival. This was greatly improved in 1869 when the Suez Canal opened, linking the Mediterranean and Red Sea and putting Singapore in a prime position on the Europe-East Asia route. In addition, steamship travel made the trip to Singapore less dependent on trade winds.
In 1941 the Japanese invaded the island with almost 20,000 troops. Within days they were victorious. They ruled the country harshly and brought terrible conditions to Singapore, including mass executions. Not until 1945 did British warships arrived. A week later the Japanese surrendered. Singapore spent the next 10 years revitalizing itself. There was much resentment against the British for the way they abandoned the island to the Japanese. In 1949 the British military regime turned Singapore over to a civil administration as a crown colony. On August 9, 1965 Singapore found itself a newly independent country. Paraphrased from Frommers.com
Back to the present. There was no wait for a taxi at the airport. The ride to my hotel in the historic district took only 15 minutes, and cost $14 Singapore dollars ($8) (1.00 SGD = 0.58 USD).
The first thing I did in the taxi was whip out my Johnny Jet international cell phone and call home, to tell my loved ones I made it safely. Calling the U.S. late at night is the best time, because Singapore is 12 hours ahead of the East Coast (midnight in Singapore is noon in NY).
As usual I had a local number, since I brought a Singapore SIM card (that way locals don’t have to call the U.S. to reach me). The good news is that it’s very inexpensive to call the U.S. (only 17 cents a minute). If I ran out of my prepaid minutes I still received incoming calls for FREE, regardless of where they came from. To get more minutes I could go to any newsstand, and buy a recharge for as little as $9 (USD).
The first two nights I stayed at the InterContinental Singapore. The hotel had Peranakan (Straits Chinese) architecture and 403 rooms; a variety of restaurants; a bar, lounge, fitness center, room service – you name it. It caters mostly to business travelers, which is not surprising because Singapore is more a business destination than leisure (it must be because of all the rules). The only negative I see for business travelers is that high speed was not accessible from the room. Users had to go to the business center (open 24 hours), where it wasn’t cheap: $3 for every 15 minutes. The business office is open 24 hours, but the attendant leaves at 11 p.m. InterContinental Singapore, 80 Middle Road; tel.: +65 6338 7600, Fax: +65 6338 7366.
I was in the business center around 2 a.m. when I received an email from girl I used to know (pre-AmberAirplane days), saying she was sorry to hear about our breakup. She just moved to Sarasota, Florida. I do a bimonthly radio segment in that area, so I emailed her the show times and station website. A few minutes later she emailed me back saying, "Are you suggesting something?" I clicked the link myself, and it was a porn site! Oh boy -- what kind of trouble did I get myself in on both sides of the globe?! I sent her an apology and immediately IM-ed the radio station host. He responded that they forgot to renew the domain name, and a porn site bought it. I wrote back saying, "Do you know I could get caned for clicking that link where I am?" (I’m not sure if that was true, but I wouldn’t be surprised). The guy in Florida had no clue where I was.
When I woke up that morning I took a walk around the block to see what it looked like during the day. It was nice -- especially the different color buildings. The hotel location was perfect for me. Not only was it connected to a nice mall with a great looking food court, but there was a subway station too. It was early and the shops had not yet opened, so I decided to hop on the subway and explore.
The Singapore subway is called the MRT. It is very easy to use, and inexpensive. All the signs are in English, and it goes all over the city -- I mean, the country. How weird is that?
To use the MRT, buy a card from a ticket machine. If you plan to take the subway a lot, buy a card the locals use. It’s worth the non-refundable deposit (about $4 USD). Otherwise you will have to keep getting a new card for each trip, which is kind of a pain. Unlike most subway ticket machines, you don’t swipe the card or insert it. All you have to do is tap it over the reader.
Remember not to eat or drink on the train, or in the station. If I were you I would read this long no-no list before riding. How crazy are those rules?! You can’t even bring durians (a tasty but smelly fruit) on the train.
My first stop was one of the shopping world’s most famous streets: Orchard Road. They call it the Champs-Elyees of Singapore, and with all the trees, cafes and shops it kind of resembled it. There were many Westerners there, and throughout the city (a mixture of visitors and expats). It was neat to see Singapore Airlines’ huge advertisement for their new record-breaking nonstop service, which was about to launch from Singapore to New York. Actually, that was the sole reason for my trip there --so I could take the inaugural flight. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you all about that soon.
Near the Singapore Air billboard was a juice stand with a great display of all kinds of fresh fruit, ranging from the usual (apple, strawberry, watermelon, kiwi, banana) to the exotic (lychee, rombutan...). The man behind the counter was super friendly, and asked if I wanted some kiwi-banana juice. I said I didn’t think so. He said if I didn’t love it, he would make me something else free. I took him up on his offer, and I’m glad I did. It was the best damn smoothie I ever had! It cost $3, which is expensive for Singapore, but it was well worth it.
I walked almost all the way down Orchard Road. It felt long, but that could have been because it was so hot and humid. I found shelter in one of the many malls. Of course, the first place I went was the food court. All the food courts in Singapore malls must be run by the same company, because they were all identical. They serve a variety of Asian cuisine, with one station selling unappetizing-looking Western food.
Here are a few of the food stations. These people served something called a hakka dish. The main ingredients are tofu, fish cake with green pepper filling, or other kinds of vegetables. Nasty!
This one lost my sale because they kept the heads on the poultry, which just hung from the rack. The locals call it Hainanese chicken and rice.
These guys serve nasi padang. That’s Singapore’s version of Indonesian food (a lot of rice, with mixed dishes of meat and curry).
Food in Singapore is very inexpensive. I’m talking under a few US dollars for lunch. You gotta love that! I don’t know what I was thinking, though. It was steaming hot outside but I opted for hot soup with chicken and macaroni (hey, it looked too good to pass up). On top of that, like a fool I listened to the cook, who recommended I add some homemade hot sauce. I learned real fast that Singaporeans can basically eat fire. This was hot stuff -- and I can usually eat spicy food. I was sweating bullets, even with the air conditioning on full blast. I am sure the passersby (who kept staring at me) thought I had SARS.
When I was finished I wasn’t even hungry, but this dessert stand caught my eye. I bought a peanut butter pancake for 46 cents. It was just a pancake rolled up with sweet peanut butter, but it turned out to be one of the tastiest things I’ve ever had. It also cooled my mouth. The only problem was that the minute I walked back onto Orchard Road, my stomach didn’t think it was the best (must’ve been all those food combos). It rumbled like Mt.Vesuvius in 79 AD. I knew something was about to explode. I thought I better hurry up and make it to my hotel before I got thrown in jail for breaking some law. I ran (walked fast) down the street with short strides, and without bending my knees. I made it! Phew!
Next week, as we start wrapping up our Asian tour, we’ll show tons of pictures of the city -- I mean country. We’ll also check in to a very special hotel you don’t want to miss.
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|TIP (OR JOKE) OF THE WEEK|
Most money exchangers will only take paper money, plus you lose money every time you exchange it because of commissions and the rate spreads. The trick is to exchange only as much money as you are going to need in a country. Try as you might, however, you will inevitably end up with some small change leftover when you leave a country.
Some travelers save exactly what they will need for transportation out of the country, then apply their remaining foreign currency to their last hotel bill, charging the balance due. Others I know run around at the train station or airport on their way out, wildly spending the rest of their remaining cash. Others search out the charity collection bins at many airports which are setup to relieve foreign tourists of their "useless" change and put it to good use at local charities.
Your best option, however, is to donate your leftover currency to those in need (chances are, you won't be using the coins for anything more than novelty when you return, anyway). The United States Fund for UNICEF has made it easy to turn your remaining currency into charity with their Change for Good program. To date, the program has raised over $31 million for needy children around the world. You can even donate old currency that is no longer valid after the Euro conversion.
To donate your leftover currency, mail it directly to:
Attn.: Jessica Lynch
Change for Good® for UNICEF
JFK Airport Terminal 4 IAT
Jamaica, NY 11430
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Airfare 101, Part 3: Save a fortune with last-minute flights |
In our first installment of Airfare 101, we went over a back-to-basics approach to booking airfare. In part two, we explained how to name your own price. This time, we'll discuss how to save money by booking last-minute travel. Click Here To Read Article
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