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Neil Sealy, Sales Manager at TransIndus, tells us about his return to Singapore with his family, 25 years after he left.
As the plane took off from Heathrow on an easterly late evening departure and climbed through the cloud layer covering the city of London, into the indigo sky above, I gazed out of the window at the amber glow from the city lights below the clouds, and contemplated what I might experience at the other end of this 13 hour flight to Singapore. I spent my childhood in Singapore, and when I was 13 my father retired from his job as a captain with Singapore Airlines to move back to India. We visited Singapore once, a couple of years later in 1986, and I haven’t been back since.
Was it going to look the same or would it be completely different, akin to visiting a new destination altogether? Were my distant memories accurate, or was I in for a surprise, even disappointment? I had to wait several hours to find out, so I figured I’d settle in with a glass (or two) of red wine, dinner and maybe a movie before getting some sleep so I’d be fresh for our late afternoon arrival in Singapore the following day.
I had specifically chosen a window seat when we checked-in online the night before, so that I could have a view of the approach into Singapore, having done this several times from the cockpit jump-seat behind my father in the 70s and 80s. I turned out to have, unknowingly, chosen the wrong (left) side of the aircraft, because we flew down over Thailand and along the east coast of Malaysia with a direct approach into Changi, giving me a nice view of several islands along the way, but no view of Singapore itself or even the Malaysian mainland.
Changi airport was just as I remembered it, so absolutely no surprise there, except that I was still amazed by the efficiency – we walked straight off the aircraft and were through immigration very quickly but our suitcases were already lying beside the carousel because they had been around too many times and the airport staff had decided they had to make way for more baggage.
We were in a taxi on our way to Sentosa, and the brand new luxurious Capella Singapore – our home for the next three nights - within about 40 minutes of landing. As we drove out of the airport I explained to my wife, Margaret, and four year old son Joshua how I had watched the iconic Changi control tower being constructed in 1980 or thereabouts, with the central column being built first, and the actual control centre being built around it at ground level before being hoisted to the top and fixed in place. I was already feeling quite at home. Even the taxi driver seemed impressed at my knowledge - now the pressure was really on!
We drove onto the East Coast Expressway and yes, it was just as I remembered it (or very nearly, anyway). We drove along East Coast Park, where I used to go cycling (renowned for some excellent local eateries specialising in Black Pepper Crab and Chilli Crab – two local favourites which I highly recommend!), and into the busier city area before turning left at the swanky Vivocity mall and onto the bridge linking Sentosa to the main island.
This is one thing that has definitely changed since my time in Singapore when the only way to get across to Sentosa was by cable car or boat. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to get across now – literally about five minutes to cross the bridge and our hotel entrance was located conveniently near the Sentosa end.
After paying our (very polite and friendly) taxi driver for the 25 minute drive from the airport we stepped out to be met with a truly warm welcome by several of the hotel’s staff. Joshua was quickly whisked away (with our permission) to the library, from where he returned a short while later with a stuffed crab, who came to be known as “crabbie”, and a book, his to keep for the duration of our stay. Word of the newly arrived four year old spread quickly and it soon seemed that all the female staff in the hotel had congregated in the lobby vying for a cuddle from Josh!
Check-in was smooth and pleasant, and we were shown to our very comfortable suite with a panoramic view of the South China Sea. The usual formalities followed, with us being shown how to operate the switches, television etc (the state of the art touch screen controls at the bedside to operate the lights and curtains/blinds were a real hit with Josh) before we freshened up and made our way down, past the very inviting bar to the restaurant for some dinner.
I couldn’t wait to get myself outside of some Singaporean food, and the food at the hotel’s main restaurant, The Knolls, provided a perfect start to this quest! Josh opted for some chicken nuggets for his first day on holiday, which was perfect for him too. A few Tiger beers and some Char Kway Teow and Laksa later we decided to head back to the room for a much needed rest.
The next morning found us practically unconscious till nearly 11, thanks to the 7 hour time difference. On waking, we realised we had to act fast if we were going to salvage this day, so we had a quick brunch in the restaurant and got a ride in one of the hotel’s golf carts down to the main road where we could catch a bus to the cable car station.
Having purchased our tickets we hopped into the next cable car and were carried out over a lot of construction activity and onwards over the shrinking stretch of water between Sentosa and the “mainland”.
We got off the cable car at the Harbour Front Terminal, and walked across to the MRT station. I soon figured out how the system works (it’s quite simple really) and once we had obtained the right amount of change we bought our tickets and got on the next train headed (with one change) for Ang Mo Kio, the nearest station to the famous Singapore Zoo. We jumped into a taxi outside Ang Mo Kio station not a moment too soon, because the heavens suddenly opened and we found ourselves driving through a very heavy tropical downpour.
On our arrival at the zoo we decided that there would be no point in trying to walk around looking at animals in the rain, so we hung around, with an ice-cream for Josh, a soft drink for Margaret and a beer for me until the rain lightened up and it was time to go across to the night safari. I’ve often been told that the Singapore night safari is an experience not to be missed, and even with the high expectations that had been built up, this is probably true.
This is without doubt an awe inspiring experience for a four year old, but a wonderful experience nonetheless for adults. The animals are in an environment as near as possible to their natural habitat, with lights very strategically placed to seem natural while providing sufficient illumination. Having had some Satay and more Laksa at the food court (Margaret was beginning to yearn for an Indian curry by this time!) we boarded the night safari tram, and this was followed by a walk along some of the trails to have a closer look at the animals.
At the end of this wonderful day out we took a taxi to the Mount Faber cable car station and boarded a cable car back to Sentosa, an experience even more magical by night. A short bus ride and a slightly tiring walk up the hill from the main road (made even more challenging with Josh on my shoulders!) to the hotel and we were ready to collapse.
The next morning we managed to be up slightly earlier, and out of the hotel for the monorail ride, this time, into town. The monorail runs parallel to the road bridge straight into the Vivocity mall, with its wide selection of shops, food courts and restaurants. Margaret quite rightly observed that every public place in Singapore smells of food! We then took the MRT (we were experts by now) to Bugis station and walked to Fatty’s Weng Seong Restaurant, a local eatery which was highly recommended by some British Airways crew. The popularity of this establishment with airline crew became evident when we walked into this simple but pleasant restaurant and saw a picture of a Qantas 747 hanging on the wall!
We ordered the Oat Prawn and Spicy Clay Pot Chicken which didn’t disappoint! Joshua was becoming more adventurous by this stage and went through a plate of shrimp fried rice. If you are thinking that this visit to Singapore is becoming more and more about food your are correct – food is a very important part of the “Singapore experience” and is probably one of the easiest and most pleasurable ways to experience this island’s multi-cultural diversity.
Singapore has four official languages: Mandarin, English, Malay and Tamil, and public signs and notices are in all these languages.
After lunch we headed through the colourful and bustling Bugis market back to the MRT station and down to Clarke Quay, one of Singapore’s more popular tourist haunts, with a selection of bars and restaurants which really come to life after sunset. We walked along the Singapore River, and when Josh spotted a boat cruising past it became evident that this part of the holiday was not going to be complete without a river cruise.
This is something I never did in all the years I lived in Singapore, and it actually turned out to be a lot of fun. The river cruise takes you down from Clarke Quay past Singapore’s old riverside dwellings dwarfed by huge skyscrapers in the background to the mouth of the river where you see the Merlion, a well established symbol of Singapore, and back to Clarke Quay again.
After a bit more walking along the river we headed back to Sentosa for a quick wash and change before taking a taxi to Bedok, a residential area between the commercial district and Changi, where I lived for some years, to meet some old family friends for dinner. This was a very pleasant evening, with a few drinks at their house followed by a wonderful seafood meal (including the aforementioned Black Pepper Crab and Chilli Crab) at a local restaurant. We also drove past the last house I lived in in Singapore, which looked very much as it did when I last saw it in 1984.
The following day was planned as a “chill-out” day, before our 5 pm departure from the hotel to the airport for our night flight to Sydney. We spent the morning beside one of the three very inviting pools at the Capella, then took the monorail across to Vivocity to meet a former colleague for lunch and a few nice cold beers at a Tapas Bar (yes, it was time for a change of diet, and there is enough variety to please every palate!).
We returned to Sentosa for a ride on the beach tram along Siloso Beach, with its array of lively Mediterranean style bars and cafés. A quick walk along the beach was all we had time for, before we had to rush back to the hotel to change, pack and call for a taxi to the airport. Fortunately the Capella doesn’t do fixed check-in and check-out times so we were able to keep our room until our departure for the airport – a huge benefit. It took about 10 minutes for a taxi to arrive, and 25 minutes later I was browsing the menu at an eating joint in the airport!
We had another night and day in Singapore on our way back from Australia, and used this time to explore another one of my childhood haunts, Changi Village (home to another good food court and several local bars and restaurants!). We took a “bumboat”, a local ferry, across to Pulao Ubin, a small island sandwiched between Singapore and Malaysia, where one can experience Singapore as it was in the 60s, with traditional Kampongs and a handful of small local restaurants.
The most popular way to explore the island is by cycle (there are cycle rental shops near the jetty). There are several well marked cycle trails, including mountain bike trails, which pass through forest and along many disused quarries, allowing the more adventurous visitor to experience Singapore’s “last rural corner” encompassing coconut and rubber plantations, mangrove swamps, fish farms and traditional fishing kelongs.
So, 25 years on, has Singapore changed? Maybe a bit, but the actual soul of this island city-state has remained largely as it was a quarter of a century ago. I had heard, with horror, many tales of how expensive Singapore has become and how the people were always “rushing about” and were even “impolite”, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that everyone we came across was extremely friendly, polite and helpful.
Yes, Singapore has been ranked the 10th most expensive city in the world to live in, and the 3rd in Asia; there are designer shops and plush restaurants, and if this is your thing you will be spoilt for choice in Singapore, but if it’s a bargain you’re after, or some good local food which costs next to nothing, there is lots to be found – you just have to look, or even ask. Singapore is still a safe, clean and efficient island with lots of character, and makes an ideal stopover or even a destination on its own, for those who wish to experience a kaleidoscope of what Southeast Asia has to offer, in a “nutshell”.
And I wasn’t disappointed at all. In fact, I can’t wait to go back!