Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Little Red Dot

Singapore's been on my radar for a number of years.  It's a major stop-over location as well as a destination in its own right.  My friend Mylinh has lived there for 13 years with her husband, starting a family as well as her own PR company Epic and basically living the dream lifestyle including home being a top level condo with rooftop terrace!  Mr Rosanna and I also contemplated doing the ex-pat thing two or three years ago but the closest we got was Manila in the Philippines, which is a far cry from a first world country such as Singapore.  In the end, the deal fell through but we had lost interest beforehand.  When you have children, their needs rise in terms of prioritising schooling, housing, safety and lifestyle.
Me on the Mount Faber cable car
While we had initially planned a European vacation, in the end Mr R and I decided that it was a safer bet going to Asia for our first overseas holiday with children for all sorts of reasons including distance and cost.  We'd booked cheap one way airfares then decided to take up a Luxury Escapes deal to Malaysia, which ended up being a very good idea - Singapore was once part of Malaysia and is the closest country to it.  We flew into Singapore - the island nation whose national emblem is the lion - on a Monday afternoon.
Koi carp pond at Mount Faber
While I was expecting Singapore to be pretty warm, it was unbelievably hot and humid, which I had forgotten all about in Asia.  The kind of wet heat that wipes you out if you spend too long traipsing around the streets in the midday sun.  My first impression of Singapore was Queensland meets Hong Kong in terms of buildings and trees but more sedate, ordered and manicured.  That is the thing about Singapore - everything works and it's all very structured and regimented but perhaps lacking a bit of soul?  People there call it 'Asia lite' which I didn't understand at first until I'd experienced it myself and in many ways that's what it is.  You get a westernised, cultivated version of Asia but perhaps not the full depth of what most Asian countries have to offer.

It's multicultural in that you get Chinese, Malays and Indians but there is a discernible class system with Indian workers at the bottom - something that I wasn't expecting.  We spent 10 days on Sentosa Island, which was too long at the completely manufactured Resorts World Sentosa.  If you're going for 3 - 5 days just to experience Universal Studios, S.E.A Aquarium and Adventure Cove Waterpark, it's fine but given we stayed at the Festive Hotel - we didn't enjoy all being in the one room (no separate rooms for parents and kids unless you pay an arm and a leg in Asia) right next to the casino where hordes of loud mainland Chinese descended every day and night to gamble and buy luxury brand watches - it was quite dispiriting.  If you do go - sister hotel Hard Rock next door (where you can also swim) has the better pool, a gym, childcare and buffet breakfast (which you have to walk to anyway if staying at Festive).

Festive Hotel pool
View from our balcony - Festive Hotel
One of the best things about Sentosa included the cable car to Mount Faber, which is highly recommended.  There's a cafe at the top with amazing mountain views in the relative cool where you can have a drink, feed the koi carp and ring the Bell of Happiness.  There's also a more stylish gift shop where I bought a Supermama porcelain plate set of one of the 'Singapore Icons' - the heritage-listed Tembuso tree that resides in the Singapore Botanic Gardens.  These series of plates have won the President's Design Award Singapore and make a lovely keepsake.
Above & below - Hard Rock Hotel pool
The other cable car across Sentosa Island was also worth taking a trip on just to see the width coupled with then catching the 'electric tram' beach side from Siloso to Palawan to the sensational Tanjong Beach Club which has a private resort feel - we had lunch there and you can hire towels for $10 to enjoy the members' pool.  Beach side has a completely different feel to the garishness of Resorts World Sentosa where we felt captive.  We also didn't get a chance to visit Sentosa Cove near the marina where the millionaires live - you need to catch the bus there if you're staying on the island, but I think it would be a lovely spot where you can find W Hotel, Mykonos-on-the-bay and Kith cafe.  My friend Mylinh and I had also planned on having a drink together at The Knolls at Capella Hotel until our plans were dashed by sickness.
Sentosa Island cable car
Sentosa Island 'electric tram'
Our time in Singapore was marred by both Mr R and son number one getting horribly sick - my son within 48 hours of arriving and then Mr R 48 hours later.  We still don't know what they ate which made them so sick but it was a lesson to us to take a full first aid kit next time complete with gastrolyte and imodium - we just weren't expecting that in a first world place but you can get food poisoning anywhere and anytime - it's just worse in the tropics as I found out when speaking to the nurse on the phone to our travel insurer.
Tanjong Beach Club pool (above) and dining room (below)
While we lost a couple of days due to illness and recovery time, we did enjoy getting the Sentosa monorail across to the mainland then the MRT (train) to the Kampong Glam (Middle Eastern) district, which I loved.  There's old school Arab Street, where I bought some body balm from Sifr Aromatics, as well as the very cool Haji Lane and Bali Lane.  We managed to grab a seat at a bar under the air conditioner so I got a chance to buy some socks at Craft Assembly and a Yacht 21 top at Dulcet Fig on Haji Lane.

We sadly didn't get a chance to go to Chinatown or Little India (and its neighbouring hipster area called Jalan Basar) but I think both places would be pretty awesome at night with cool bars and hawker food markets.  Given I have a child with allergies, we also had to be pretty careful about food and where we ate in Singapore and Malaysia.
Kampong Glam Sultan Mosque (above) and Haji Lane (below) 

We did get to visit the imposing Marina Bay Sands building filled with high end retail shops as well as the neighbouring and impressive Gardens by the Bay - again a better place to visit at dusk or night-time once the heat of the day passes.  By the time we got there, our kids were too hot and tired to wait 30 minutes to walk amongst the super trees and that is one thing you need to take into account if you do go to Singapore - I actually think it's much better suited to teenagers who have the stamina to deal with the heat and the walking.  It's the frustrating thing if you do go overseas with kids and want to do more sightseeing than what they are capable of, which Mr R and I had to keep reminding ourselves.
Marina Bay Sands building above and below 

Gardens by the Bay above and below
Super Trees at Gardens by the Bay 
Indian Garden at Gardens by the Bay
The other place we did get to visit was art deco area Tiong Bahru in the inner west - it did give us a sense of old Singapore from the quaint housing developments to the old man without a top walking with his trolley along the street to the locals eating food at their local hawker centre.  I loved some of the shops in the village on Yong Siak Street including Books Actually where I bought a copy of The island in the Caldera for my kids to the Plain Vanilla Bakery selling Singaporean flavoured ice-cream to Strangelets Design and fashion store Nana & Bird - it's a very cool part of Singapore but also more laid-back - a good place to stroll.
Tiong Bahru streets above and below

The highlight of our trip was spending time with my friend Mylinh and her family.  Mylinh and I studied together in Melbourne before she went and worked in Hong Kong and met her husband before moving to Singapore and starting a family and a business.  We booked tickets online for the Night Safari at the Singapore Zoo (be warned it's not close to the city so allow plenty of time if you visit as you need to catch a taxi or bus once you get to the closest train station) and all clambered aboard the talking electric trams around the zoo.  I wasn't prepared for how popular it is - there were hundreds of people there and entry is staggered to cope with the numbers.  We grabbed a bite to eat in the outdoor food court, did the safari plus a bit of walking in the cool of the night before grabbing gelati icecreams at the end and saying goodbye to each other.
Kids at the Night Safari
My boys at ION Orchard
The next day we spent indoors at the malls which is what the locals do - the enormous mid-range Vivo City shopping centre is across the road from Sentosa Island via the monorail or boardwalk so we spent time there having lunch and watching a movie before going to ION Orchard on Orchard Road.  Singapore is expensive - our dollar is almost the equivalent of theirs - slightly less so we didn't actually buy much while we were there.  I was a bit regretful we didn't make it to the retro Chinese mall Tanglin Shopping Centre as I think that would have been more my style of place as an arts and culture lover.  The other place we didn't get to visit was Raffles Hotel nor the Botanic Gardens and neighbouring ex-pat area Holland Park in the west.  I'm sure there will be a next time however so it's good to have other places to visit.
Me and Mylinh on her rooftop balcony
With our partners (above) and views (below) of Singapore  
It's always reassuring to have friends/know locals in the place you're visiting and Mylinh had us over to her place the following night for an Aussie-style BBQ which was funny given her partner is Irish-born and it was actually Singapore National Day.  It was amazing to stand out on her rooftop terrace with 360 degree views of Singapore and see the planes flying around the sky in celebration.  It was lovely to have some home-cooked food and hospitality where we really relaxed.  The only thing I still feel a bit ambivalent about is the domestic helpers in Singapore - Mylinh and her family have one and they pay her the equivalent of what a doctor would earn in their helper's home country, but it still makes me feel slightly uncomfortable - I think the feminist in me will always have an issue with it.

Our last day was spent sleeping in, watching the Olympics and having a swim in the pool followed by a night-time tour of the Merlion where we had fantastic views from his head and mouth, finished with a beach side dinner at Coastes at Palawan Beach, which was a perfect way to end our holiday in Singapore.  Given we spent 10 days there, it did give us a feel for what life is like although to be honest, I was expecting to love Singapore more than I did and I will expand on that when I recap on our holiday after Malaysia.

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