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Enough already! After receiving countless emails from people who felt I was way too harsh (pun intended) regarding Singapore’s strict laws, I reread what I wrote, and I agree. However, if I had included the rest of the story -- which I do in this week’s newsletter -- everyone would have seen that the strict rules do have a positive side, and that I really did enjoy the country (and airport). So relax. No one is going to jail -- or even getting fined -- as we take a tour of the lion city (lions are the symbol of Singapore).
Unfortunately, all of my friends have moved away from Singapore, so I turned to my colleagues at VirtualTourist.com (See Website of the Week for a description). They suggested I contact one of their avid users, Sharrie, to see if she would show me around her city. Luckily for me, Sharrie agreed. (Don’t get your hopes up -- she’s not a professional tour guide, even though she could be.)
Thanks to the web, when I met Sharrie in my hotel lobby we felt like we already knew each other. Sharrie has been to all seven continents and wonders of the world (not too many people can say that). So touring me around Singapore was a piece of cake -- especially since this city is so easy to get around by foot and subway.
We started off at the financial district, which is fitting because Singapore is ranked the ninth richest country in the world. This is also where Singapore’s tallest building is located. It’s called the OUB, (Overseas Union Bank Center) and is 919 feet high. That makes it 43rd on the list of the world’s tallest buildings. What’s the tallest? Right now, the newly constructed Taipei 101 stands 1,671 feet high, with 101 floors.
From the financial district we walked a short distance to the Fullerton Building. This used to be the site of a fort; now it’s an upscale hotel.
Across the street is the merlion (half-fish, half-lion) statue. This is one of Singapore’s most famous tourist attractions (similar to Copenhagen ‘s Little Mermaid). Many years ago a prince claimed to have seen the merlion at this very spot next to the Singapore River. I think he was probably smoking some strange plants, but hey, the story gets people to go to that spot.
Just across the Singapore River is the Esplanade, which is Singapore’s new performing arts center. It’s very popular for both its acoustics and unusual design. The press release says the design expresses harmony with nature, reflecting the balance of yin and yang. That’s a little deep for me, but I enjoyed it both inside and out. To the far right of the Esplanade is the Ritz Carlton, one of Singapore’s best hotels.
A few blocks away is the City Hall and Supreme Court building. The Supreme Court was built in 1939. There are giant Corinthian columns on the outside, and murals by an Italian artist on the inside. It was not a building I expected to see in Asia. If you are interested, you can watch a presentation on the Singapore judiciary system. I chose a soccer game and cricket match instead. They were played (at separate times) on the huge field in front of the building. I don’t know about you, but I can’t for the life of me figure out cricket -- and I watch and play a lot of sports.
My favorite building in Singapore (it had such a good feeling about it) is just around the corner. It’s the Old Parliament House, and is Singapore's oldest government building. It was a two-story private mansion until the government took it away from the Scottish bloke who built it, and turned into the parliament building. Today it’s becoming the new hip place for arts and corporate events. FYI: The bronze elephant statue in front was a gift from King Chulalongkorn of Siam (Thailand) in 1871.
Our next stop was the Boat Quay. Walking over there, an interesting thing happened which I think says a lot about the residents of this country. I wanted to get a picture of this guy’s rickshaw bicycle, but he quoted me $10 for a shot. I counter-offered $5. He said no. My new friend Sharrie got upset. She spoke to him in Chinese, and the next thing I knew the guy was putting me on the bike. When I got off I went to hand him a $5 bill, but he refused. When we walked away I asked Sharrie what the heck she said to him? She said it was hard to translate, but basically she told him he was not portraying a good image of their city. Nobody in Singapore wants to do that. And it wasn’t because of fear of the government, but rather pride.
The Boat Quay was my favorite place to have dinner, because in the evening all the restaurants and pubs have amazing views. While dining outside on the patio overlooking the river filled with colorfully lit boats, and the magnificent Singapore skyline in the background, I realized this has to be Asia’s most beautiful city. It was an incredible sight -- and the temperature was perfect.
We ate at the House of Sundanese, which serves excellent Indonesian food. I love spicy food, and this place had plenty of it. To quench my thirst (and cool my mouth) I drank four lime juices -- the local non-alcoholic favorite. The only thing I didn’t like about the Boat Quay was getting hounded by hostesses and maitre d’s as we walked past their restaurants. By the time we got to the end of their property, they were offering us all kinds of discounts. But the food is so inexpensive, you don’t even need special deals.
Over dinner, Sharrie explained why the Singaporean government has so many strict laws. It has to do with money. The government of Singapore loves making money, and hates spending it. For example, chewing gum is banned because people used to stick used gum on subway doors, which then broke. I can’t really complain, because this is one of (if not the) safest and cleanest countries in the world. As a reader pointed out in an email (below), he would be happy to give up some personal liberties to avoid some of the other inconveniences (like murders, rapes and car thefts) that the rest of the world experiences regularly. Obviously, I choose America.
By the way, it’s not like police are everywhere, handcuffing people and issuing tickets. In fact, the whole time I was there I did not see one person getting a ticket — in fact, I hardly saw any police at all.
After dinner we walked to nearby Chinatown. We passed a Western Night place, filled with Chinese people dancing and singing country music – now that was something to see. Chinatown is Singapore's cultural heart, and offers visitors a peek into the old days of Singapore. There are many restaurants, temples, decorated balconies, and a ton of inexpensive indoor and outdoor shops. You can buy everything from fresh fruit (whole pineapples cost only 50 U.S. cents!) and tasty desserts (called Tu Tu Coconut cake) to all kinds of souvenirs. Remember to bargain like you’re in China. I was told by a local to offer 10% and never go higher than 30%, but I think that‘s a little low -- I usually do 50%.
The next day I had the privilege of checking in at one of the world’s most famous hotels: Raffles. It’s 5 stars, and complete luxury. In fact, it’s often described as a “Singaporean institution”. The hotel was named after our boy Sir Stamford Raffles, who as you remember from last week’s newsletter founded modern Singapore. The hotel was originally built in 1887 as a bungalow. By the 1920s and ‘30s it had expanded to become a playground for celebrities like Charlie Chaplin and various kings, sultans and politicians (one entire wall is filled with pictures of famous guests). Raffles also has one of the most famous bars in the world: the Long Bar. This is where the Singapore Sling was created.
In 1987 Raffles was declared a landmark, and restored. The white building now has an elegant wraparound porch, with comfy chairs and magnificent landscaping. Inside, there are high molded ceilings with spinning fans, tiled teak and marble floors, Oriental carpets and antique furniture.
When I arrived I immediately noticed the incredible service. One person opened the taxi for me; another grabbed my bags, and a third escorted me to the front desk. What’s really nice is that every staff member was not only dressed to the nines, but they were genuinely friendly. Every hotel worker greets visitors -- and they look at you in the eye and smile.
All 103 rooms are suites – yeah, baby! The bad news is they’re not cheap – prices range from $375- $3,500 USD. The first room in each suite has a small dining area and living room with oriental carpets, reproduction furniture and a TV. The next room contains a large bedroom with a four-poster king-size bed, a beautiful armoire and ceiling fan. The bathroom was divided into two parts, with a shower, bath tub and bidet. There were all kinds of nice bathroom amenities made by Aveda.
Every night the maid would turn down the bed, and put out slippers and a Fable of the Exotic East. Every room comes with what the hotel calls a “valet” -- a personal butler. Man, are they efficient! I called down for one (to hook up high speed in my room). He arrived within minutes, and was not only friendly but very knowledgeable.
The hotel has eight restaurants, two bars, a billiard room, outdoor pool, business center, salon, and a small fitness center with Jacuzzi, sauna, steam and spa. It is connected to the Raffles Hotel Arcade, with over 50 specialty shops.
The hotel is a national landmark, and hundreds of people pass through the lobby each day. To keep tourists at bay the enforce a strict dress code for visitors, and allow them in only a small portion of the lobby (signs read "Residents Only”). This is one place you want to be a resident of! Raffles Hotel, 1 Beach Road; tel.: +65-6337-1886.
Jumping up and down on my bed in excitement worked up an appetite, so I walked around the block. Guess what I found. That’s right -- another mall. How surprising! Shopping must be the only thing these people do. This mall was called Raffles City, and you don’t even need to ask where I went — you know it was straight to the food court. I was starving, and the first station I came upon had fresh sliced fruit and juices. Everything looked great. They were so inexpensive, I ordered three different kinds.
I then ate all kinds of fried vegetables and chicken dumplings. I had to try a local dessert, which would have been a tasty snow cone until they ruined it by adding cream corn and other nasty toppings. In case you’re wondering, Singapore does have American fast food restaurants, but shame on you if you go to one. It’s a total waste of a meal -- and an experience.
As you can see, there are many malls in Singapore and a lot of them are connected. Rafffles City Mall is physically connected to Suntec City, Singapore's largest shopping mall. Suntec City has over 200 shops, 70 restaurants and a bunch of adjacent buildings, including Singapore’s International Convention & Exhibition Centre. At Suntec City Mall make sure to visit (and touch) the water from the Fountain of Wealth. It may not bring you wealth, but at least you can say you saw the world’s largest fountain.
I then met back up with Sharrie, and we explored some more. We took the MRT (conveniently located throughout the city) out to Little India. This is a colorful area of town, along the southern end of Serangoon Road. The road is lined with Indian restaurants and shops that sell everything Indian: silk saris, elaborate gold jewelry, aromatic incense sticks, spices, furniture and music. All the shops are jammed packed with… you guessed it: Indians (and a few tourists, of course). What I liked best about this section of town was all the Hindu Temples – they were so colorful.
From there we took the MRT out to the northern end of the country. We had to change trains, so it took about 45 minutes (there were stops every few minutes). When we arrived we were almost at the Malaysian border (it’s only 35 minutes from the heart of the city), and our destination: the Night Safari, next to the Singapore Zoo. To reach the park from the MRT, visitors must take either a short taxi or bus ride. We should have taken a taxi to and from my hotel. The ride home took only 20 minutes, and cost around $11 USD.
The Night Safari is the world's first wildlife park built strictly for night visits. It’s a great idea, especially because 90% of all tropical wildlife animals are nocturnal. Thanks to subtle lighting techniques designed to create a moonlit effect, guests are able to view over 1,000 nocturnal animals, in 100 species. All are in their natural habitats, when they are most active. The park does not open until 7:30 p.m., which is about the time the sun sets everyday in Singapore.
The animals live in landscaped areas, with barriers that are hard to see by visitors. We took a guided tram (for an extra $3.50 USD), and a lion looked pretty damn close to me. I was thinking, I really don’t see a fence, which means if that dude is hungry he could pounce on me and treat me like a kitty cat does a mouse. But that didn’t -- and doesn’t – happen because there are barriers. The tram ride is definitely worth the few extra dollars. It travels through different "regions" designed to resemble the Himalayan foothills, the jungles of Africa, and of course Southeast Asia. It takes 45 minutes, and covers almost two miles. The best part is that it makes stops, so visitors can get off, stroll along the walking trails for closer views, then hop back on a later one. They come every five minutes.
Unfortunately I have no decent photos of the Night Safari. Flash photography is strictly prohibited because it would disturb the animals and we wouldn’t want to do that, now would we?
My advice is to get there early or late, because when the line opens at 7:30 p.m. it is l-o-n-g! The park closes at midnight, and admission ends at 11. If you plan on visiting the Singapore Zoo and/or BirdPark (which I hear is excellent), buy a park hopper pass for a discount. The Night Safari , 80 Mandai Lake Rd.; tel. 6269-3411.
The next day I walked past the Boat Quay to Clarke Quay. This is the area of Singapore's first riverside village, and there are more than 30 shops and 20 places to eat or drink. In the evening it becomes a huge night bazaar. I went because I wanted to take a boat ride down the Singapore River. It’s better to get on here, because most tourist board the boats (called junks) at the Boat Quay, so those are packed. Guess how many people were on my boat? Zero! I had it all to myself, for the entire 30-minute ride -- all for $7 USD. Clarke Quay.
The last thing I did with Sharrie was have high tea at the Equinox restaurant on the 70th floor of the Stamford Hotel. The floor-to-ceiling views of Singapore are breathtaking (especially if you are afraid of heights, like me!). From up here you can even see Malaysia and Indonesia. How close are those countries? Earlier in the day I smelled smoke. Later, I heard on the news it came from Indonesian forest fires (unfortunately, they burn quite often). High tea was not just a spot of tea, but rather a late lunch or early dinner. They serve all kinds of food and desserts – and plenty of them -- and there is something for everyone (even picky eaters like myself). High Tea is served from 3 - 5 p.m., and reservations are recommended.
Well, guess what time it is? Time to say goodbye to Singapore. Next week we fly back to America on a very special (and long) flight. In fact, we will be part of history as we take the inaugural flight of the world’s longest – that’s right, the very first one. Don’t miss out on all our pictures and stories!
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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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