09 December 2007

The Hallerbergs in Singapore

While I flew back from Bangkok, Mom and Dad traveled in style: the Eastern & Orient Express. Their trip took them to the River Kwai, then down through southern Thailand, through Penang, Butterworth, and Kuala Lumpur and down peninsular Malaysia, over the Straits of Johor and into Keppel Road Station in Singapore. The station is actually still part of Malaysia, and it bears much resemblance to the country, with its food and coffee stalls and signs in Bahasa Malay.

Proving just how small the world is, I was greeted at the platform by an old boss of mine from Sabre, who is now retired and happened to be on the train with Mom and Dad. They had chatted and realized that I was the Eric they had in common. It was incredible!

I got to peek in the train, and it looked like a great way to spend a few days. I will let the actual travelers fill you in on their experiences there. We certainly had plenty to chronicle during their time in Singapore.

After letting them get settled at my place, we headed out for dim sum. We had a number of different dishes, and they even ate chicken feet! Really, this is a novelty for me, as there just isn’t any meat. It is a delicacy to some, but I have tried it twice, and that is enough.

The weather had been overcast and very humid earlier in the day, but the humidity was letting up a bit as we headed to Clarke Quay and a bum boat tour of the Singapore River. The bum boats were the wide-bottom freight boats that ferried goods from the riverside godowns (warehouses) in old Singapore out to the harbor. They now provide nice tours of the river starting at Clarke Quay, down to Boat Quay, past Parliament and the Fullerton Hotel (a grand building which used to house the colonial post office) and into the harbor, with its views of the Esplanade (the new performance halls that look like bug eyes or durians) and the Merlion. After the ride, we took a walking tour of the area – the weather had turned almost Autumn-like. After seeing some of the sights up close (including a picture session for a bride and groom), we headed to a little street tucked away behind Boat Quay that is home to a number of restaurants and pubs for happy hour at my favorite local brewery, Archipelago. This Singapore brewery produces really good, refreshing beers, and it is located on a corner, allowing it to draw back the floor to ceiling shutters and become an open-air bar with refreshing cross-breezes. The weather was perfect, and it wasn’t too crowded. It was a good start to their stay.

That night, we decided to go to the Long Bar at Raffles for Singapore Slings. We ran into more people from their train, who were staying for a few days in the city, as well. It was clear that everyone was having a good time. But, the day had been long, and after a quick pizza across the street, it was time to head home.

The next day, I took them to Chinatown and the Heritage Center, which has an interesting Chinatown history tour in a converted shophouse. After, they sampled a local delicacy – sugar cane juice – and we headed for Lau Pa Sat, a well-known (and huge) hawker center in the Central Business District that has every kind of Singapore food you can imagine. We had a sampling of chicken rice, mixed-beef noodles, popiah, and char siew/won ton noodles. The skies threatened rain, so we jumped on the MRT (I am proud to say that the two adapted very well, buying MRT cards and riding the trains and buses when convenient) to go home. The walk from the station takes you by a local kopitiam (coffee shop), so we stopped for local coffee and butter kaya toast, and Dad had a chendol. This is a mix of several “sweets” (defined differently here than what I am used to), including grass jelly and red beans. For dinner, we tried an interesting little place called the French Stall. This was started by a French chef here who wanted a restaurant similar to one in his small hometown in France that served good French food at moderate prices. The result is an open-air kopitiam-style restaurant just at the northern end of Little India. And it is quite good. We happened to eat there during their celebration of the new harvest of Beaujolais Nouveau, which was a nice complement to the excellent beef dishes we had.

The night was not quite over, however, as it was off to the Night Safari. The Singapore Zoo is well-known for its daytime natural habitats, but its neighbor has an impressive night show as well. You walk into a Disney-style setting with several themed restaurants and bars, along with a live native fire-dance show. After a fun performance of “Creatures of the Night” in the amphitheater, which starts with a wolf coming out on a rock outcropping to bay at the moon and includes owl flights, marmocets crawling across suspended ropes, an interactive session with a python, and a cute lesson on recycling with the help of otters, you are off to a tram tour of the park. This felt very Jurassic Park-like, as you crawl through the jungle on a three-car, open-air tram, with close proximity to all kinds of animals, from deer to water buffaloes to giraffes and hippopotami to tigers and lions. I really liked it, and the trip through the forest kept the temperature down. That made it a full day, however, and it was off to home.

Friday morning started with a walk around Orchard and then up past several embassies to the Botanic Garden. I had heard good things about it but had not visited. It covers 157 acres (or, 64 hectares here) and includes the National Orchid Garden. This is nice greenspace in the middle of a city with much greenspace, but it was hot.

After, we took a taxi up Mount Faber to board the cable car to Sentosa Island. On a clear day, you can see the cable cars from my condo. They take you from the top of the hill, over the port and to Sentosa, which is a resort-style (read: touristy) island just south of the main island of Singapore. There are a number of tourist attractions as well as golf and resorts there (the Singapore Open, and Asian PGA Tour event, was just played on Sentosa), and the island will be home to Singapore’s second casino in 2010 (the first is due to hope at the Marina in 2009). We all enjoyed Images of Singapore, which is a wax museum walk through Singapore’s history and showcase of its multi-cultural heritage. And the island’s 37 metre tall Merlion is impressive, allowing you to view the city through its mouth and from the top of its head. All this is dampened by the overt touristy nature of the island, however. Everywhere you go, they insist on taking a picture which they will try to sell to you at the end of your visit. And all attractions exit through gift shops. It is just a beat-down, and I question whether this is the image Singapore wants to portray to visitors. We had had enough (the picture-taking actually started at the Night Safari), and I told the photographers on our way to the cable car for our return trip that there was no need to take our picture.

A quick respite helped us recharge for our Friday night out. First, we headed to Boat Quay and the Penny Black pub, which is a fully-reassembled Victorian London pub that was shipped piece-by-piece to Singapore. There we met up with Mark Corley, the third of six Corley brothers, who was in Singapore on Microsoft business. We then headed across the river to Indochine, which is a wonderful French-Asian fusion restaurant for a night of good wine, great food, and excellent storytelling. I learned more about my friend’s family – and about mine – than I had in a long time. Mark had an early flight to Sydney the next day, so we called it a night after dinner.

Saturday was Mom and Dad's last day in Singapore, but we all were a little tired and eager to get ready for Bali. Dad and I toured Fort Canning Park, just down the road from me, which was home to the old Government House in colonial times, as well as the Battle Box, the command headquarters for the British military in Malaya before Singapore fell. The tour of the Battle Box is fascinating - they really do a good job of recreating the days leading up to the surrender. After a quick visit to Clarke Quay, it was back home for a bit of rest. We wanted to catch the opening night of Christmas in the Tropics, the big holiday lights celebration on Orchard Road. We made our way to Orchard in early evening, booked our bus tour, and then enjoyed a little dinner as the lights came on. Unfortunately for us, the buses were delayed by more than an hour, and we did not want to wait. We had to be out of the house at 7 am the next morning for the flight to Bali. So, we called it a night, and that was the end of their stay.

I think they had a great time - it was fun playing tour guide. I did some things I hadn't done before (and wouldn't without a visitor), which was great. To get their perspective, however, you'll have to ask them directly.

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