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Singapore

Singapore is where Kung and Barry first met in September 2000. Kung was studying English while staying with her oldest sister who lives there, and Barry visited Singapore to visit his oldest brother who also lives and teaches there. We have lived in Singapore on and off for over a year in all since we met.

     Singapore is a small island nation at the southern tip of Southeast Asia's Malay Peninsula (left photo). Its total size is similar to the size of the Clearwater/Saint Petersburg peninsula in central Florida in the USA (see the to-scale comparison in the right photo).

     Singapore became a country when it separated from the Malayan Federation in August 1965, and since then has become one of the most progressive countries in Southeast Asia under a benevolent dictatorship. Today it is perhaps the world's cleanest, safest, and most modern city. Its strategically located port, which ships must pass when traveling between India or eastern Africa and points in Asia or the Americas, is the busiest port in the world.

     Singapore's climate is mostly unchanging throughout the year, as it is about one degree north of the equator. The coldest it has ever been in Singapore in recorded times is 68 F (20 C) and the hottest around 96 F (36 C). The weather in January and July is similar, as is the length of day and night.

     Singapore is a great place to sample one of the widest varieties of food from around the world, as so many cultures are represented there. Singapore's population consists of people of ethnic Chinese, Malay, and Indian heritage, and Singapore also has a large expatriate community from Australia, America, and many European countries such as the UK and Germany.

     In early August 2004 we traveled to Singapore with three of Kung's friends from Thailand: Kim, Pla, and Pook. Pook's husband and son also came along, making us a party of seven. Kung's friends stayed in Singapore with us from a Friday to the following Monday for a long weekend. Here are some of the highlights of the four days of activities we planned for them, covering many of the interesting areas and attractions of Singapore.

 

     Our trip started from Bangkok, Thailand on Friday on a relatively new discount airline, Air Asia. The flight was on time and the service was fine. As we expected, no food or beverage was provided for free and there were no pre-assigned seats, so there was a bit of a push getting on the airplane. We couldn't complain, as the round-trip airfare of 3,850 Thai baht (less than US $100) was half of what it would have cost on other carriers. It would have been even cheaper had we booked more than three weeks in advance, but all the cheaper seats had already been taken. On the flight back home Kung's friends talked to someone who flew round-trip for 499 baht (about US $12.50)!

 

     After landing at Singapore's Changi airport, supposedly one of the world's nicest airports, we took Singapore's rapid transit train, the MRT, to downtown. After visiting Kung's sister who has a shop at the Thai shopping center complex known as Golden Mile, we took a walk down Beach Road to do some shopping at Parco Bugis. In the photo to the right, you can see several Singapore buildings behind Kung and her friends: the one on the left is Shaw Tower, and the one in the center is the world's tallest hotel, at 66 stories.
 

     After a little shopping at Bugis, we proceeded to the nearby Quon Im Chinese temple (left photo). Amidst throngs of devout Chinese, we all gave the traditional offerings of a Lotus flower and three sticks of burning incense to the beautiful golden Chinese goddess inside, made a wish, and asked a question for guidance.

     Each of us shook a can full of sticks with a gentle repetitive motion until one fell out, then the number on the stick that fell gave us the answer to our question and a simple fortune. The fortune was in ancient poetic Chinese and difficult to interpret, but at least we could tell who would have good luck and bad luck in the coming months! Outside the temple, we also rubbed the lips and belly of a Fat Buddha (right photo) for good luck, another Chinese tradition.
 

     We walked back to Bugis Junction MRT station, and boarded the train headed for Orchard Road, Singapore's most famous shopping street. The MRT is clean, modern, quiet, and a pleasure to ride. Each person uses a magnetized EZ-Link credit-card sized card as they enter and leave the stations, and the card readers automatically calculate and deduct the correct fare for the trip. The same EZ-link card is used on Singapore's efficient bus system, making getting around the city easy and convenient.

     In line with Singapore's strict public policies, no eating or drinking was allowed on the trains or buses, or you could be hit with a fine of up to a thousand Singapore dollars (over US $600).  Later, on Monday, when Barry without thinking carried an unfinished cup of watermelon juice aboard a city bus, there was a moment of panic until we quickly wrapped it in paper and stuck it in one of Kim's bags before anyone reported us!

     It is also true that no gum-chewing is allowed in Singapore, making Singaporean sidewalks and table undersides clean and free of those annoying sticky gum spots caused by gum-chewers in most other major cities.

     Curiously, for all its strict law and order, Singaporeans generally ignore the signs that tell them which side of the escalator to stand on as they ride up or down (so that people may walk past if they so choose), and they also ignore the arrows on the floor telling them exactly where to stand when the MRT trains stop, to let passengers alight before new passengers can board the trains. Even Singaporeans have to flaunt the rules sometimes.
 

     On Orchard Road, we enjoyed a nice supper at the food court in Singapore's famous Takashimaya Japanese department store on Orchard Road. Takashimaya is one of several huge Japanese shopping stores in Singapore, which has a supermarket and nine storeys of goods. Singapore's best bookstore is located in the same building. For supper, Kung's friends sampled famous Singapore Laksa for the first time, a spicy coconut curry and noodle soup with fish balls and optional mussels.

     After supper we walked Orchard Road, which was decorated for Singapore's National Day celebration only a few days away. In addition to the Singapore flags in the photo to the right (which are somewhat similar to China's flag) you can see the message "Happy Birthday Singapore." Orchard Road was the last stop for our first busy and very long day in this orderly city-state.
 

     Saturday morning we got up late, and enjoyed a nice Asian pork and rice porridge breakfast. On our way out for the day, we paused for a photo in front of Kung's sister's house where we were all staying. The weather was quite hot and sunny, noticeably hotter than Thailand had been, due to the bright sunshine. The weather was like this for the whole visit. There was no rain, unlike Thailand to the north which is in its rainy season.

    We set out on a city bus to Singapore's most famous tourist attraction, Sentosa Island. Sentosa has an aquarium, an insect and butterfly museum, beaches, resorts, a monorail, a World War II fort, and much more.
 

     We chose the most exciting way to get to Sentosa Island, the short cable-car ride, which gives breathtaking views of the World Trade Center complex, Singapore's busy ports, downtown Singapore, offshore oil storage facilities, Sentosa Island itself, and even the nearby Indonesian islands of Batam and Bintan.
 

     The first attraction that we visited was the Insect and Butterfly exhibit. There was an interesting museum full of fossils and mounted specimens, along with many interesting facts and figures about various insects and butterflies. The highlights were definitely the outdoor area which you could walk through with thousands of live butterflies and even a waterfall (left photo: if you look closely you can see a butterfly or two) and the live scorpions which could climb on your body (right photo with two very scared and nervously smiling girls).
 

     Underwater World is probably Sentosa's most popular attraction, featuring a long plexiglass tunnel and a conveyer belt which carries you under a huge aquarium tank with a plethora of interesting marine fishes and mammals of all sizes and colors. It was amazing to see large manta rays and small sharks swimming around and even over us, as if we were in the water ourselves.

    At this attraction, we were all especially captivated by the colorful sea horses, voracious piranhas, eels, and especially the camouflaged fish that looked just like floating sea plants!
 

     After a visit to Sentosa's Dolphin lagoon and an exciting show featuring trained dolphins, we walked the beach until we reached a tiny island separated from Sentosa Island by a rope bridge. This island is famous for being the farthest point south of the Asian continent. In the left photo, you can see Kung and her friends on the bridge, and to the right, all of us standing at the "southern end of Asia." Next stop, Indonesia and the Earth's equator! Behind us you can see some of the ships plying the shipping lanes off of Singapore's coastline.
 

     In the evening we had some Thai curries, rice, and noodles at Sentosa's food court, saw an amazing light-and-laser show at Sentosa's huge and majestic fountains, and visited Singapore's icon: the Merlion.

     The Merlion is a cross between a lion and a mermaid. Here it is shown by day (left) and by night (right), apparently breathing fire! The night view was our last impressive sight of Sentosa Island, before running back up the hill to Cable Car Station to catch a cable-car back to the mainland.
 

     Sunday morning, after another relaxing breakfast at the house, we headed to the Jurong East part of Singapore on the MRT to visit Snow City. This attraction is the only place that Singaporeans can go to experience snow and winter.

     A large refrigerated building, cooled to a few degrees below freezing, provides an indoor snow play area complete with a snow-man, igloo, and several snow slides, in addition to a small indoor hill (right photo) where you can go snow-tubing! This was a lot of fun for everyone, especially Donut, who found that he liked throwing snowballs just like most other eight-year-olds. None of Kung's friends had ever seen real snow before, so this activity was a big hit.
 

     In the afternoon, we took the MRT back to Little India, where we bought chocolates and snacks at bazaar-like, inexpensive Mustafa's department store. Next we headed to Suntec city to see the world's largest fountain and to have some dinner at yet another one of Singapore's seemingly infinite set of Asian food courts. In the evening we went over to Boat Quay (pronounced 'boat key') to see the Singapore River (see photo to right) and Singapore's financial district with its high-rise, beautifully-lit bank buildings at night. This was a nice ending to our third day in Singapore.
 

    Monday, the final day for Kung's friends, was a day to relax and unwind a little. In the morning we took the MRT back to Bugis Junction and walked to Sim Lim Square, one of Singapore's technology shopping centers. There you can find the best deals on computers, computer accessories, cameras of all types, audio equipment, and much more. We couldn't find the computer memory that Pla wanted to buy at a better price than Thailand, but Kim was quite pleased to find a Shure microphone at a better price than she could find at the Bang Kapi mall back in Thailand. Pook did some comparison shopping for digital cameras from a dealer who spoke excellent Thai, and who even knew relatives of Thailand's royal family.

    In the afternoon we took a bus to Singapore's East Coast park, a seven-mile (10 km) recreational trail that stretches Singapore's entire east coast from downtown to Changi Airport. After a nice lunch of more Singapore noodles and curry, Donut (left) and Kim (right) tried roller-blading for the first time. Kim was scared and only tried it for a few minutes, but after 45 minutes Donut skated like a professional!

     On Monday evening, the end of the trip for Kung's friends was marked by the National Day fireworks display, which we saw by running upstairs at Kung's sister's house and peering out of a third-storey window. At 9:30 PM, we said good-bye to Kung's friends when the taxi arrived to pick them up for the red-eye flight back to Bangkok. A great time was had by all.