Fresh off a recent trip to Singapore, Senior Editor Mark Rogers takes a look at the the country's attractions and intriguing Peranakan culture.
Two weeks ago I attended the first ever ITB Asia, which was held in Singapore. While much of my time was spent attending press conferences and making site visits to hotels, I managed to sample some of Singapore’s top attractions. While Singapore is a top-flight business destination, it’s fast becoming an appealing leisure destination as well.
My guide during my trip was Winnie Ubbink ([email protected]). As we were zipping in and out of traffic to one site after another, I asked her to give her picks for the top three family attractions in Singapore. Winnie immediately rattled off the island of Sentosa, the Singapore Zoo and the Night Safari. Her pick for not-to-be missed museum is The National Museum of Singapore. If you’re looking for the most romantic restaurant in Singapore, Winnie recommends My Humble House. “The ambience and lighting is so beautiful— it was designed by Chinese artist-musician Zhang Jin Jie,” says Winnie. “While the cuisine is traditional Chinese, it’s served in a very nice Western way.”
During my visit I had the chance to visit both the National Museum of Singapore and the Singapore Zoo. I’m not a big fan of zoos. A trip I made to New York’s Central Park Zoo back in the 1970s, when I came face to face with a dispirited red fox in a tiny, cramped cage, soured me on zoos big time. So, to be honest, I wasn’t looking forward to my visit to the Singapore Zoo. I was pleasantly surprised— the Singapore Zoo brings the free-ranging concept to a whole new level. In many cases, the animals are almost within touching distance. I could have spent hours at one exhibit alone— Hamadryas Baboons behind a spacious glass-enclosed setting that recreated their Ethiopian environment. It was easy to get wrapped up in the baboon’s Alpha male displays, meticulous grooming of each other, the babies riding along on their mothers’ backs and the playfulness of the adolescent games of tag. It’s recommended that visitors schedule at least three hours for a visit to the zoo. Also, if possible go on a weekday— the weekends draw the biggest crowds.
By its name alone, the National Museum of Singapore conjured up endless displays of arid documents and official oil portraits. Once again my misperceptions were stood on their heads. This is a hands-on, emotion packed and hip venue that does a great job of illuminating Singapore’s history and cultural heritage— both low and high culture. I especially enjoyed donning a pair of headphones and listening to Singapore pop music of the '60s, and viewing a multi-screen display of short clips of Singapore’s cinema from the '30s— including a Singaporean take on the vampire myth.
I suggest visiting the National of Museum of Singapore early in your visit – it will set off shocks of recognition throughout the rest of your stay and deepen your experience of the destination.
The museum is also a good introduction to Singapore’s Peranakan culture, which dates back to the 17th century when Chinese men traveled to Singapore in search of their fortunes and ended up marrying Malay women. The two races intermingled to create a unique culture of their own. Singapore knows a good thing when it sees it, so you can expect to see some clever marketing of the Peranakan culture in the future. I think one of Singapore’s drawbacks for leisure tourism was the perception that it was a thoroughly modern society with its eyes firmly locked on the future. Tourists desire a cultural aspect to a long-haul journey and the Singapore’s Peranakan culture will provide that.
The word iconic gets thrown around a lot, and the idea of an “instant icon” is a bit of a contradiction. But the Singapore Flyer has achieved that status in less than a year. This luxury state-of-the-art observation wheel rises 541 feet into air, providing panoramic views of Singapore’s Marina Bay and the financial district skyline. If you’ve seen the London Eye you’ll have a pretty good idea of the Singapore Flyer. Each of the 28 capsules is fully air-conditioned and accommodates up to 30 people. Unlike the National Museum of Singapore, I suggest experiencing the Singapore Flyer later into your trip. I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy pointing out the places you’ve visited, seen from a birds-eye vantage point. I rode the Singapore Flyer as the sun was going down, as the skyline began to light up and the cars switched on their headlights on the highways below. It added a dramatic element to the experience. The ride lasts about 37 minutes so consider timing your ride during the sundown hour.
I’ve always felt that each journey is actually two trips— the one you take, and the one you experience in your imagination before you arrive. Over an Indonesian Rijsttafel (rice table) lunch with Ted Utoft, a U.S.-born actor now working in Singapore, I asked for his tips on which books and movies a Singapore-bound traveler should seek out in advance of his trip. Ted recommends "Saint Jack," Paul Theroux’s bawdy novel (and the Bogdonavitch-directed movie made from it); "Tanamerah," a romantic novel of Colonial times written by Noel Barber, and "Notes from a Small Island" by Neil Humphries, a collection of short stories based on real experiences.
See images of Mark's journey in Singapore in the slide show below.