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Posts Tagged ‘Asian Civilizations Museum

Back to Basics: 72 hours in Singapore

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In a departure from matters strictly Myanmar, this general article is about escaping to Singapore for a long weekend of basic indulgences that are tough to find in Yangon. A slightly altered version was originally published in the Nov 2013-April 2014 issue of Mingalabar, Myanmar Airways International’s inflight magazine.


Cognitively confusing architecture in Singapore

Singapore offers plenty of big-ticket attractions to entice visitors from around the globe, with major draws including Sentosa Island, Universal Studios, Marina Bay Sands, and Gardens by the Bay.

I had been to all of these destinations on previous trips to Singapore with my wife, so on our most recent visit in October we decided to get back to the basics and spend three days exploring some of the country’s old standbys, including the Colonial District, Little India, and Orchard Road. We wanted a short holiday from Yangon that combined eating, shopping, soaking up some culture, and exploring the outdoors, all of which are easily done in Singapore.

We decided to start at the very beginning. On the afternoon of our arrival from Yangon, we walked along the north bank of the Singapore River from our hotel near Clark Quay to the statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, commemorating the site where Mr. Raffles landed on January 29, 1819. He later signed a treaty with local rulers to establish a trading post, thus beginning the long march of development that has made Singapore what it is today.


Chinese tourists scrutinize bronze statues outside the Asian Civilizations Museum.

Nearby is the Asian Civilizations Museum, which is an essential stop for anyone who wants to learn about regional culture. Located in the beautifully restored Empress Place Building, the museum showcases more than 1,300 artifacts displayed in 11 galleries. Permanent and changing exhibitions focus on the cultures of Southeast Asia, South Asia, West Asia, and China.

Two notable temporary exhibitions during our visit were “Lacquer Across Asia,” featuring lacquerware from mainland Southeast Asia and China; and “Devotion and Desire: Cross-Cultural Art in Asia,” showcasing objects that reveal “surprising connections between Asian cultures, and between Asia and the wider world.” Both shows included rare objects from Myanmar, which were nice to see but also served as a sad reminder that some of the country’s important cultural treasures were plundered long ago and dispersed to museums around the world.

Leaving the museum, we crossed the elaborate, pedestrian-only Cavenagh Bridge, passed the stately Fullerton Hotel, and crossed the road to Marina Bay to check out the goofy Merlion statue. A big crowd of tourists was already there, photographing this cartoonish half-lion, half-fish symbol of Singapore that spits an endless stream of water from its mouth into the bay. We snapped some pictures of our own, then wandered south along the water until we came across a food festival sponsored by the U.S.-based Ben and Jerry’s ice cream brand, complete with live music, prize giveaways, games for kids, and of course people dressed as dairy cows. Our discovery of the event was unexpected, and it illustrated for us how there is always something happening in Singapore. A casual wander around the city will inevitably uncover plenty of surprises and special activities.


The pride of Singapore: The ludicrous, water-spewing Merlion statue

For dinner we headed for Boat Quay along the Singapore River, which is home to a collection of diverse restaurants offering everything from Chinese, Japanese, and Korean to Thai, Indian, and British pub grub. We opted for rich, delicious northern Indian food at Haldhi Restaurant (chicken tikka masala, kadai paneer, basmati rice, garlic naan, and mago lassis), then ambled a few doors down to The Penny Black Victorian London Pub. By this time darkness had long since descended, and we watched the illuminated tour boats plying the adjacent waterway as we sipped Guinness (me) and vodka-and-cranberry-juice cosmopolitans (my wife).


Northern Indian food at Haldhi Restaurant on Boat Quay

The next day was earmarked for shopping, but with most malls not opening until 10am, we had time for an early-morning visit to Singapore Botanic Gardens west of Orchard Road. The gardens open at 5am, admission is free, and the morning air is cool and fresh, so it’s a great way to kick off the day on a relaxing note.

Singapore is currently campaigning to have the gardens listed as the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for good reason. Already on UNESCO’s list of “tentative sites” for their “outstanding universal value,” the gardens were founded at their present site in 1859 by a local agri-horticultural society. They now encompass 74 hectares (183 acres) and boast a number of attractions, including a 6-hectare tropical rainforest; an Evolution Garden that shows how plant life developed on Earth over millions of years; a ginger garden; a children’s garden with a playground, maze, tree houses, and interactive exhibits; three lakes; an outdoor concert area; and several restaurants.

The centerpiece is the 3-hectare National Orchid Garden, which holds a collection of more than 1000 species and 2000 hybrids of orchids. It’s the only area within the gardens that charges admissions (US$5 for adults, US$1 for students and senior citizens 60 and above, free for children under 12), and it’s open from 8:30am to 7pm daily.

After enjoying the greenery, it was time for a headlong plunge into Orchard Road, a world-class shopping destination that is lined for block after block with everything from megalithic malls to small electronics shops. I don’t remember many details of the retail cyclone that swept us along during our spending spree; all I know is that we started at one end of Orchard Road with full wallets and empty hands, and came out on the other side several hours later, much poorer but our arms laden with full-to-bursting shopping bags.

As might be expected, there are also countless eating options on Orchard Road, ranging from elegant, high-end restaurants to food courts serving inexpensive but delicious rice and noodle dishes. For lunch we opted for tasty gourmet kebabs at Shiraz Mazzeh, a roadside branch of the main Shiraz Persian restaurant on Clark Quay.


Diwali decorations along Campbell Lane in Little India

In the evening we took the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) subway to Little India, an atmospheric neighborhood where colorfully painted vintage shophouses line the narrow streets and alleyways. Little India is always energetic, but it was even more so during our visit, which coincided with the lead-up to the Diwali, an important Hindu festival of lights aimed at thanking the gods for happiness, health, wealth, and the knowledge within us. Busy Serangoon Road was festooned with beautiful electric lights and other vibrant holiday decorations, while a “festival village” had been set up on adjoining Campbell Lane and Hastings Road where vendors sold Indian ethnic wear and jewelry, arts and crafts, Bollywood movie and music discs, and special Diwali sweet treats.

Since we were already in Little India, we could not pass up the opportunity to enjoy Kerala food from south India. We found a place on Dalhousie Lane called Premaas Cuisine, and we took it as a good sign that the restaurant was packed with South Asian families dining on biryani, roti prata, crab masala, and fish curry.

The next morning was dedicated to outdoor adventure. We took the No. 2 bus from Tanah Merah MRT Station to Changi Bus Interchange, where we hopped on a small bumboat for the 10-minute ride to Pulau Ubin (S$2.50 each way), a sparsely populated island just off Singapore’s northeastern coast. Our main activity was cycling on the island’s quiet roads and dirt pathways, but the island can also be explored on foot.

We rented bicycles near the dock for around S$10 each for the entire day, and set off to explore the jungle-covered hills, peaceful coastline, and mangrove forests. It’s a great place for bird watching, and visitors are also likely to see big lizards and some other small wildlife. There are several religious shrines around the island, as well as an observation tower and a sensory trail meant to be walked with eyes closed to better understand the sounds, smells, and textures of the surrounding environment.

We spent several hours on the trails before cycling back to the jetty area. There were a number of restaurants there, and we picked one where we could sit outside and enjoy a lunch of Singapore’s signature dish, chilli crab – which, despite its name, is more sweet than spicy – washed down with a couple bottles of beer.


Cycling the pathways of Pulau Ubin

After lunch we headed back to the Colonial District in the city’s center and stopped by the Singapore Art Museum. This institution normally holds very good exhibitions, but during our visit most of the galleries were closed in preparation for the Singapore Biennale 2013, a huge contemporary art show held once every two years at venues around the city. This year’s event, which runs from October 26 to February 16, 2014, is well worth checking out because it features work by 82 artists and art collectives from Southeast Asia presented under the theme “If the World Changed.” Participants include installation artists Nge Lay and Po Po from Myanmar.

Not far north of the art museum is Bugis Junction, another one of Singapore’s outstanding shopping areas. We browsed the stores, ate ice cream and then ducked into the air-conditioned cinema to catch a movie – in this case Gravity starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, a spectacular film to see on the big screen. The silence of outer space plays an important role in the movie, so we jumped at the chance to see it in Singapore – where the audience is polite enough to stay quiet in the theater – rather than in Yangon, where moviegoers routinely gab away on their mobile phones and let their kids run up and down the aisles in their squeaky shoes.

We capped off our long day with a visit to Clark Quay along the Singapore River, which is home to a vibrant collection of bars and restaurants of every description. The place was jammed with hungry and thirsty locals and tourists, and we wound our way through the crowd until we settled on Muchos Mexican Bar and Restaurant for enchiladas and margaritas. Afterward we strolled across the river on a pedestrian bridge and sampled a few pints of micro-brewed beer at the sprawling, factory-like Brewerkz. My favorite was the dark and malty Black Pig Stout, while my wife preferred the faintly floral Golden Ale. The extensive and diverse selection of beverages was a welcome change from the tragically limited beer options available in Myanmar.


Singapore after dark

We spent the morning of our last day in Singapore enjoying a short stroll in Fort Canning Park near our hotel. Hundreds of years ago the hill was avoided by locals out of respect for the fact that it was home to the sacred shrine of Sultan Iskandar Shah, the last ruler of ancient Singapura. Now the park features shady footpaths that wind around the hill, and it attracts tourists, history buffs, runners, and anyone else looking to escape the chaos of the city. Music concerts and other special events are also frequently held there.

One of the main historical sites in the park is the Battle Box, where the decision to surrender Singapore to the Japanese was made by the British during World War II, but during our visit it was closed for maintenance. Still, we were able to enjoy the Edenic atmosphere within the park, and the slight elevation gave us the chance to enjoy one last view over scenic Singapore before we returned to our hotel, checked out, and transferred to Changi International Airport for our flight back home to Yangon.