This is part two of my story, on my third visit to Singapore in a span of less than 9 years.
The moment I saw the skyline of downtown Singapore, coming out of the East Coast Parkway (from Changi Airport) almost 9 years ago, I was awe-struck. This is the gem of South East Asia, the role model of urban civilization in a part of the world surrounded by developing and some under-developed nations. It is quite literally, a glittering diamond in the rough.
The Singapore I saw back in the middle of 2002 was already a highly developed mega-city. The whole city was ultra-clean, as if it had been sterilized, sanitized and filed in the most organized manner possible. The urban development around Orchard Road, the Central Business District and the area around Suntec was amazing, and the rest of the city-state was so spic-and-span, a piece of trash would stand out as an eyesore.
I also thought Singapore was already at its apex, being so developed that it had nothing more to develop, but apparently not. On this most recent visit, we intentionally bypassed all those places that we had already gone to on my previous two trips. These include the shopping stretches of Orchard Road and the Bugis junction, the Clarke Quay,the Suntec City complex, the Singapore Zoo, the Night Safari, the Jurong Bird Park, and most of Sentosa. But, such is the rapid continuous development of Singapore, that even if we avoided this multitude of places, there was still plenty to go to.
On the first part of this story I showed you around the brand new Universal Studios Singapore, now let me take you to the other places we went to.
One thing that Singapore didn’t have yet until recently, was a grand icon…something that would scream “Singapore!” even at first glance. It didn’t have anything in the magnitude of the Petronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur, the Grand Palace of Bangkok, the Bank of China and International Financial Center of Hongkong, or the Oriental Pearl of Shanghai. It had the Merlion of course, but it looks like a small pet kitten in a world of grand landmarks that up coming mega-cities are putting up. Not anymore though, on this latest visit.
The Marina Bay Sands.
There’s no more “adhesive” symbol of Singapore nowadays than the three column form and futuristic roof deck of the new Marina Bay Sands Casino and Resort complex. The structure looks so space-age and unique, it sticks in your mind like an image in photographic film. It is also so new, that the land that it sits on wasn’t there yet when I visited Singapore for the second time back in 2006, if I remember correctly. The whole resort lies on reclaimed land on the mouth of the Singapore river, opposite the bank where Esplanade is. Whereas before, the view outside of the Esplanade, facing the river, would be dominated by the water spewing Merlion statue, now it is overwhelmed by the eye-catching, scene-stealing Sands just a little farther to the East.
We weren’t able to actually go inside the casino/resort and go up to its iconic roof deck named the “Sky Park”. We just viewed the imposing structure from the Youth Olympic Park at the opposite bank. The park is connected to the resort by an artsy and attractive pedestrian bridge called “The Helix”, which is also an attraction and a landmark in its own right.
Another of Singapore’s new landmarks is a gigantic wheel called the Singapore Flyer. Built in the same fashion as the famous London Eye, but bigger, it is currently the world’s largest ferris wheel. It sits on reclaimed land beyond the Suntec area (coming from Orchard/Bras Basah), on the same bank as the Esplanade, and almost directly opposite the Sands.
A whole rotation of the wheel takes 30 minutes, so you have half an hour to enjoy the scenery. The altitude, especially as you get close to the wheel’s apex, might be quite unnerving for some, but the capsule is solidly reassuring enough even for an acrophobic like myself. The best time to board the wheel is just before sundown, or during the evening, when the sky starts to show interesting colors, or the city lights go full blast. We purchased our tickets on site, and there was no queue, but then again it could be because we went there late on a Thursday evening.
Though the flyer is a very good observation platform, it’s not the place to get that “Kodak moment” landscape photograph of the city, especially on evenings. The most obvious problem is motion. The Flyer moves very slow, but it continuously moves nonetheless. Second, the interior of the capsules are well lit, meaning reflections galore on the glass. Third, dirt and droplets of rain can obscure the picture, especially after a drizzle. Still, it’s one experience no visitor should miss, just take your “Kodak moments” from elsewhere.
The wheel’s boarding platform also sits atop three storeys of commercial space, which has shops of various kinds, as well as restaurants, including a hawker-themed food court called the Singapore Food Trail. The Food Trail’s stalls are dressed up to look like old hawker pushcarts, complete with old-fashioned bicycles. The numerous stalls run the gamut of Singaporean culinary influences, from the Chinese influenced noodle dishes, to the Malay influenced Nasis.
With the Flyer being a primary tourist destination, I was surprised to see so many locals dining at the Food Trail. In fact, it felt like locals outnumbered tourists 10:1, or even more. I’m no good judge of Malay-Singaporean food, but looking at the number of locals swarming the place, you could tell that the food there ain’t bad at all. I had a plate of Hokkien Mee for 5 Dollars Sing., and my wife had a plate of Chicken Rice for the same price. Could be more expensive compared to a real hawker center, but what the heck, it’s right below the Flyer. Be prepared for some sign language though, as some hawkers can’t understand English at all.
Vivo City opened in late 2006 (after my second visit), with the largest retail space in Singapore, overtaking Suntec City Mall as the largest mall in the city-state. It’s sits on a portion of an area that was still called the World Trade Centre when I first came to Singapore in 2002. When I came back in 2006, the area had already been renamed the HarbourFront Center, and Vivo City, as one of its components, was already under construction.
Vivo City sits right beside the bridge connecting Singapore Island and Sentosa, and the Sentosa Express – the new monorail that goes cross-channel, actually has a terminal inside.
The mall has three floors, with the Ground Floor being almost all indoor, and connected to the HarbourFront MRT station. The second level, though also mostly indoor, has some open air decks, including one that serves as a children’s playground, and another that serves as a promenade facing Sentosa Island. The third level meanwhile is mostly an open air recreational area with little commercial space. It has an open air amphitheater, a landscaped garden and a shallow pond, where we found some people leisurely wading at ankle-deep waters. The terminal of the Sentosa Express is also at this level. The mall does draw several similarities with another mall back home that also sits right beside the water, the SM Mall of Asia.
The Rasa Shangri-la Sentosa
I’m going to go off-tangent now and veer away from the latest and greatest of Singapore. The reason that brought us back to Singapore this year, was really to witness the wedding of one of our good friends. The reception was held at the Rasa Shangri-la Sentosa Resort, one of the long time preeminent resort hotels in the island. I’ve seen this resort on my first visit to Sentosa, from the now defunct Sentosa Monorail. Its unmistakable terrace-like architecture is surrounded by lush vegetation that looked impregnable, and hence made the resort feel ultra exclusive.
Lo-and-behold, less than 9 years later I would find myself actually in it. While we may not have stayed there for the night, we at least savored the grandeur of its lobby, and its cuisine (poor me, huh). The pool area of the resort reminds me of another Shangri-la, the one in Mactan Island, Cebu. And while this Shangri-la has been around from quite some time, the age doesn’t show, at least from the lobby and the function room. And a Shangri-la being a Shangri-la, the opulence seems to permeate from every wall.
YMCA One Orchard
There was no way we could stay at anything like the Shangri-la though. As a Tagalog phrase goes, “asa ka pa”. For this trip, we chose to stay at the YMCA Hostel at One Orchard. It didn’t take a lot of convincing for me to agree to this place. It had me at “One Orchard”. We looked for a place that wouldn’t bust the wallet, but also close to the center of action, and we couldn’t have chosen a better one.
The YMCA sits on one end of Orchard Road (hence the address, One Orchard). It may take a good 10-15 minute walk to get to the part where most malls are, but everyone in Singapore walks a lot anyway, and tourists are not exempted. Singapore is also one of the most walkable cities, with wide and organized sidewalks and crosswalks.
Transportation, to and from the hostel, is also convenient. There’s a bus stop right in front, where you can board buses headed for the HarbourFront (it’s where we took the bus to Vivo City), and should you wish to take a bus headed the other way (to the Esplanade and Marina area), then the stops for those are along nearby Bras Basah. May I also add that Singapore is one of the few places where, as a tourist, I’m brave enough to take buses on my own. Their bus route system is one of the most comprehensible in my experience, next to that of the Swiss. Singapore isn’t called “Switzerland of the East” for nothing, after all.
There’s also an MRT station a mere 5 minutes walk away, and if wish to take a taxi, there are lots of them passing in front. It’s also just one small block away from the Bras Basah and Bencoolen corner, where you’ll find some restaurants and fast food stores.
The rooms at YMCA are not large by any means, but you still get enough space to move around and store your things, including a fully opened luggage. There’s just enough space, but not more than what you’ll reasonably need. The breakfast too is pretty decent, and is actually quite impressive already for a “low cost” hostel (Low cost by Singapore standards. The whole country is, in general, quite an expensive place).
I still never cease to be amazed at how fast Singapore changed. The Singapore that I saw almost 9 years ago was already very different from the Singapore that I saw this year. The city it seems, keeps re-inventing itself.
* This visit to Singapore was made on March 2011. All photos taken with Olympus E420, and Zuiko 14-54mm f2.8-3.5.