Scenes From Singapore

Singapore Parliament House @ the Heart of the City

Singapore Parliament House @ the Heart of the City (Photo credit: williamcho)

Singapore was a very difficult place for me to be. No doubt a huge part of that was being so far from my family. I loved the people I met and worked with, saw and tasted many beautiful and interesting things, but after about eight days away from my children, my body started to fall apart.

Last year it was my children’s bodies that deteriorated. I came home from ten days in Singapore to a daughter with a staph infection on  top of hand, foot & mouth disease, and a son with a burst eardrum. This year a bug bite attempted to attack my entire leg before the excellent medical care in Singapore intervened with a timely shot in the butt.

It was an incredible privilege to be invited across the world to teach a writing camp to young Singaporean writers. The kids were eager, adventurous and welcoming. My colleagues were industrious and intrepid about trying completely new ways of thinking about teaching kids to write.

These consummate hosts went to great pains to introduce me to the incredible sights and especially the exquisite cuisine of Singapore.  Although the relentless urbanity, devoted consumerism and polished presentation of this particular city were not to my taste overall, I did find a great many experiences to treasure during my two visits there.

If you find yourself in Singapore, be sure not to miss these destinations!

Singapore Botanic Gardens

Singapore Botanic Gardens established 1822. Ec...

Singapore Botanic Gardens established 1822. Eco-lake at the Bukit Timah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Botanic Gardens were a short morning walk from the Marriott Singapore Hotel on Orchard Road. I could tell I was heading in the right direction by the proportion of joggers, dog walkers, and Europeans that I encountered along the way. There is nothing more refreshing in Singapore than vast swaths of green, which are nevertheless interrupted in the distance, everywhere, always, no matter where you go, by the city skyline. Still, it is a relief to enter the Botanic Gardens. They are huge and varied, a place where SIngaporeans feel at home to be themselves, a place where foreigners feel comfortable and safe. Lots of mamas and strollers here.

The entrance fee to the Orchid Gardens is well worth it, for the misty, cool, temperature-controlled conservatory alone. But the blossoms there are spectacular. Take your micro lens, and get lost in the tiny universe of a flower’s vulva. I have never encountered a more meticulously groomed garden. I passed workers kneeling by a stone wall, tweezing the moss into a particular pattern.

Note: To view enlarged versions of photos in galleries, simply click on the first photo, then use the arrow keys to navigate the gallery. Press escape to return to the blog when finished.

Little India

Plain roti prata (left) and egg prata (centre)...

Plain roti prata (left) and egg prata (centre), with a bowl of chicken curry on the side (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My favorite place to wander and lose myself in Singapore. In spite of my Pakistani-born father’s ambiguous relationship to his mother country, I am nevertheless always comforted by the cadences and aromas of that region, no matter where they occur in the world. Don’t miss Mustafa-Centre, a 24-hour department store encompassing two city blocks. Tekka Market right next to the Little India MRT station provides a rich canvas for photographers; its wet market includes butchers, fishmongers and fruit sellers. The hawker center there is the perfect place for a midday snack. This is where to get the best roti prata, and a iced chai tea or dragon fruit juice will cool you off after the curry.

Dragonfruit juice

Dragonfruit juice, © 2011, amomnextdoor

Sri Veeramakaliammon Temple (141 Serangoon Road)

Photo credit: Matthias Rosenkranz

Photo credit: Matthias Rosenkranz, Source: Wikipedia

By far the most moving experience I had in Singapore was my visit to the Sri Veeramakaliammon Temple, a temple built for the worship of Kali. As soon as the water from the faucets outside on the temple steps splashed over my feet, I was enveloped in the experience of worship. I kicked my shoes into a huge pile, to intermingle with its local counterparts during my stay, before entering. Inside, the incense and chants erased my sense of time. I squatted on the cool stone floors with other worshippers, watching and listening and feeling completely welcome.

I had initially worried about trespassing in the sacred space of others, but any visitor with even the dimmest skills of observation and the slightest sense of decorum could easily fit in. There were a few other foreigners there, most of whom did not stay long enough to really settle into the experience. It was a festival day, and the temple was crowded. A new priest was being blessed in the main hall, to the accompaniment of live musicians. Various other priests waited in the diverse shrines rimming the temple’s outer circuit. Believers paid a fee to have their prayers written on scraps of white paper, which they then delivered to the priests, who exchanged offerings of fruit and flowers with the supplicants, and fed the scraps of paper into the feet of the goddesses & gods.


© 2012, amomnextdoor

Trays of scraped lime rinds waited to be filled with ghee and lit with flame. These were set at the feet of the gods & goddesses. Everywhere people prayed, each in their own way. The interchange between human and holy struck me as intensely personal. One man stooped in front of the statue of his god, and clapped sharply for attention. Another man prostrated himself to the floor, laying face down on the cool tile floor.

A grandfatherly gentleman gestured to me that I should “Take pictures! Yes!” He introduced himself as Ganeshi (“named after the god”), and proceeded to include me in the worship. It was a feast day, and everyone would come, he said. They would take home the blessed offerings and leave them out all day and all night. The priest flung holy water over the crowd, dipping banana leaves over and over into a large tin pot filled with the water that had been used to wash the statues of the gods and goddesses. Then the priest ladled sweet milk that had been used for the same purpose into my palm. I lapped it up and felt honored to be included by the generosity of Ganeshi’s adoption. I stepped back into the heat of the Singaporean midday refreshed and transformed.

Gardens By the Bay (18 Marina Gardens Drive)

My hosts surprised me with a visit to the Gardens by the Bay one evening, and I was tragically without my Nikon or treasured micro lens, but the iPhone 4s did well enough. I may have to go all the way back to Singapore one day, just to photograph these incredible gardens. I did not have a chance to walk the grounds, and only visited the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest.


© 2012, amomnextdoor


© 2012, amomnextdoor

We caught the last of the afternoon sunlight in the Flower Dome, which was perfect for photographing the amazing plants within. The dome featured a seasonal floral display in the center, but what captured me was the amazing and extensive succulent garden.

We passed to the Cloud Forest just as twilight set in. This was a miraculous time to visit the taller dome, because the evening lights made such a show with the plants: orchids, pitcher plants, and other exotics.

© 2012, amomnextdoor

© 2012, amomnextdoor

In this dome, you enter to the crash of the falls, then take an elevator to the very top and wind your way down on aerial pathways, past plants dangling from slick rock walls. The crowning jewel was the source of the falls, a still pool lit from below by twinkling lights that slowly blinked on and off, evoking the night sky reflected in dark water. From this pool the falls descended in a long rush to the dome floor.


© 2012, amomnextdoor

The dome offered on every side spectacular views of the cityscape and bay. Concluding our visit to this architecturally astounding building, a sobering movie demonstrated the predicted effects of global warming, degree by degree. The Gardens are a feat of ecological innovation, a self-contained system producing its own energy, cooling itself and filtering its own wastewater.

Arab Street, located near the Bugis MRT station on the East-West line, was another treasure of texture and color for the wandering tourist. Hookah cafes, perfumeries, clothing stores and restaurants all line Arab Street off Victoria Street, leading straight to the Sultan Mosque.

I didn’t get a chance to ride the Singapore Flyer, the tallest Observation Wheel in the world, but enjoyed its statuesque neon display from across the Marina.


© 2011, amomnextdoor


© 2011, amomnextdoor

High Tea at the Fullerton Bay Hotel

My first trip to Singapore ended with a small bout of food poisoning. I think it was the korean bee-bim bop I had in the Novena Centre food court. One of my favorite dishes, but not in reverse at 1 a.m. at the end of an intense teaching gig. Oh well…my compensation was High Tea at the Fullerton Bay Hotel when I recovered by appetite, and felt ready for tea and toast transformed into a truly elegant and luxurious experience. From the embroidered linen napkins to the lobster salad sandwiches, this tea was impeccable. The Fullerton was extravagantly decorated for Christmas, so I got to sit in the lobby with my novel and Earl Grey, watching brides and grooms pose for their wedding portraits.

This year I had High Tea at the Shangri-La instead, and was disappointed by comparison. The buffet was excessive, but not terribly fresh or well-made, with an emphasis on Chinese cuisine which was not my craving by the end of the trip. The tea sandwiches in particular were so old they’d had a chance to reform their crusts. Service was extremely negligent; I had to get up twice to get my servers attention. However, the servers’ dresses were extremely tight and high-slit, so I imagine that would compensate for some. Perhaps their cultivated demure demeanor kept them from noticing a guest in need of more cream!

Singaporean cuisine is incredibly varied, with dishes from the Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, Indian and Peranakan cultures. Be sure to try these during your visit:

  • Siao long pau (broth-filled dumplings)
  • Chai tow kway (a savory “carrot” cake, actually made from daikon)

Photo source: Open Source Food

  • Hainanese chicken rice (steamed chicken served with rice cooked in chicken broth, with chilli sauce, soy sauce and ginger paste as condiments)
  • Chilli crab
  • Curry puff (epok-epok, a flaky pastry stuffed with curry chicken)
  • Nasi lemak (rice steamed in coconut milk, wrapped in banana leaves)
  • Otak-otak (spicy fish cake)
  • Butter chicken
  • Kaya toast (sweet coconut and egg jam on toast, served with a soft boiled egg)
Susan Fenigers STREET Kaya Toast

Photo Credit: Susan Feniger

  • Murtabak (stuffed roti prata dough)
  • Biryani
  • Roti prata (hot crispy-soft griddle bread stuffed with ingredients such as egg and cheese and served with curry, or else served with honey or chocolate as a dessert)
  • Laksa (a Peranakan spicy coconut milk curry soup)

The desserts in Singapore are truly a revelation, perfectly cooling and refreshing in the hot climate. Try:

Chendol ais,

Chendol, © 2011, amomnextdoor

  • Bubur cha cha (yam and sweet potato cubes in coconut milk and sago)
  • Chendol ais (coconut milk with palm sugar syrup, pandan-flavored starch strips, shaved ice)
  • Or-ni (sweet yam paste, coconut paste and gingko nuts, served hot)
  • Ice kacang (a mound of shaved ice topped with jellies, red beans and sugar syrups)
  • Penang Ban Chang Kueh (crispy peanut pancake)

Singapore Travel Apps

Singapore MRT & LRT RGuide Metro (TSP Holdings LImited) is a must-have. It includes a trip planner that generates price and trip-time estimates. Be sure to click on the triple bars in the upper right hand corner for the names of the various MRT lines: you’ll need to know the colors and names to navigate the stations to the correct platform and train. In-app links to Google Maps allow you to get the big picture of where you’re going.

Singapore Travel Guide by Triposo is really the only travel guide you need to Singapore. Add it to your phone or tablet before you go, and you won’t need to carry the extra paper. The articles included are comprehensive, informative and interesting. I was really surprised when reading about the arts in Singapore to find a comprehensive description of historical and contemporary Singaporean writers. Since I was in the country to teach writing, this was an incredibly helpful resource. Be sure to read the section on Food in flight. It includes a descriptive and comprehensive list of some of the most interesting and unique Singaporean dishes.

Traditional Guidebooks

DK Eyewitness Travel Top 10 Singapore turned out to be a great buy. Easy to scan, neatly categorized, well-photographed and not too hoity-toity, this guidebook even came with an extremely useful and durable pull-out map.

Phaidon Wallpaper City Guide: Singapore was elegant but disappointing. It featured sites and activities for the most discriminating (i.e. rich) visitors. If you’re really into architecture, this book could be a valuable guide.


© 2012, amomnextdoor

My final and fondest impressions of Singapore are from a distance, safely back home with my children. This über-urban city will never hold my heart, but away from its crowds and bustle and glitter I can fondly remember the warmth of its people, the diversity of its cultural landscape, the impressive social engineering of its leadership, and the elegant and luxurious vacation experiences it offers. To read a poem I’ve published based on my experience of this country, find “Tourist” on my Published page (sorry, password protected to protect the identity of my children and the dignity of my husband).


© 2012, amomnextdoor


© 2012, amomnextdoor

The Last Word

The teaching assistants at the Adam Khoo Learning Centers in Singapore were amazing collaborators with Bay Area Writing Project (BAWP) in the creation and success of Young Writers Camp Singapore. But by far their most impressive contribution was the writing they themselves did as they participated along with our young students. One of the core beliefs of the National Writing Project is that teachers learn best how to teach writing by doing their own writing. Tanisha Manocha of Singapore opened herself to the experience of teaching and writing in new ways, and I want to leave you with her poem as the last word.

Beauty Queen
by Tanisha Manocha

Poor unfortunate you
     You only face forward and never back. You know where 
you’re going, but not where you came. You see the here and the now, 
but you never question the why or the how.                 

                             Progress, progress, progress you say

Poor unfortunate you
     You see my pearly, brilliant rows of teeth and you love me. 
But these teeth were once old and stained and decaying. 
Teeth with soul, and spirit and stories to tell
Yet you ripped these teeth from my raw, tender flesh. 

                                        Out with the old, you say

Poor unfortunate you
      I sat in silent meditation. But inside, I screamed as you 
shoved into my throbbing, bleeding gums your visions of newer, 
brighter, cleaner. You feel proud of my lifeless sham of a smile. 

                                    New is always better, you say

Poor unfortunate you
	You question my simple, unembellished past. And you think 
you know the answers. But behind this veneer of polished splendour, 
I have my secrets. You’ll never find them though. 
You only stare forward.

                                  Onward, onward, onward, you say

Poor unfortunate you
	You’ve ravaged me, defiled me, and ripped me apart. 

             And yet you find nothing

13 thoughts on “Scenes From Singapore

  1. Thanks for sharing your beautiful photos and your experiences. I appreciate that you included the positives and negatives.

    • My hosts were so generous and caring, I felt a strong obligation to rave about Singapore. There are places in the world that call to me, but this is not one of them. However, I enjoyed a number of unforgettable experiences there. Go back to the post again to see my young Singaporean colleague’s incredible poem about the country. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Wow, this is an impressive report back, easily worthy of publication in many a travel mag. If you haven’t yet, you might want to take a look at the Lonely Planet Guide to Travel Writing. I read it for a class at Mills last semester. Lots of good tips as well as examples, with very practical advice about pitching pieces to publications.

    What really hits me with this piece, though, is that visceral experience of being separated from your children by an ocean or two. When I went to Seoul for the Young Writers Camp, my kids and I didn’t deteriorate physically, but there was a sorrow I felt. You come back and, unlike the Einstein scenario where astronauts go away and return younger than the people back on earth, I was older and they were older and a chunk of our lives together was gone, ejected into deep space. That sounds more melodramatic than it was, because I was, like you, also very grateful for the experience. The strange fact is, though, if the choice were take a lazy bike ride with my kids vs. explore some new exotic country by myself, I just might take the bike ride.

    • I really appreciate having you read my work–you are such an insightful and interesting reader. Thank you for the Lonely Planet tip. It hadn’t really occurred to me to seek publication for this type of piece, but I appreciate the encouragement.

      Yeah, the physical experience of separation was really stunning to me; I did not expect it. I actually weaned my daughter for the first trip to Singapore, and when I came back it was absolutely clear how much my children still need me. Sometimes it can be hard to grasp, when they are whining about wanting more movie or arguing about cleaning up their toys. But they really do still depend on us for so much. I didn’t really have the experience you had of being gone, however. Perhaps because I am mostly SAHM, I did appreciate the opportunity to get away and be on my own. I just didn’t need it to be quite so far away, or quite so long. Really, the airplane trip alone was enough–what a luxury!

  3. I’m a food & travel magazine/blog addict and I really must say that your blog post about Singapore is one of the most thoughtful, provocative, well-balanced travel pieces I’ve read! Most of the time I find myself reading articles that either praise a city to high heavens or those that are full of unjustified criticisms. I like that you wrote about both the merits and shortcomings of Singapore.
    One line that caught my attention was this:

    “This über-urban city will never hold my heart, but away from its crowds and bustle and glitter I can fondly remember the warmth of its people, the diversity of its cultural landscape, the impressive social engineering of its leadership, and the elegant and luxurious vacation experiences it offers.”

    Your post is both honest and heartfelt. I also feel like you were genuinely interested looking beyond the hustle and bustle of the city and the glitz and glamour of Orchard Road. Many short-term visitors to Singapore managed to see only the ‘touristy’ version of the country, but I am glad that you had the opportunity to have a more authentic experience.

    I’m also glad that you enjoyed the food here in Singapore (save for an ill-prepared bi bim bap!). I think it was Anthony Bourdain who once remarked that the dinner table is the best reflection of a nation and the fastest way into a culture. As a food lover, I can strongly attest to that—especially in a highly food-centric cultural melting pot like Singapore.

    Though this post may seem like a travel review piece on the surface, I feel that the combination of (somewhat heavy) emotion and witty, self-depreciating humor has given it a multi-layered quality that is lacking in so many travel pieces.

    Thank you for a wonderful read.

    • Tanisha,
      Your review of my post is so well-written, I feel like it elevates my own writing and reveals a whole new layer. I worked really hard on this piece because I knew it would be featuring your poem; your words evoked a deep thoughtfulness about my experience of Singapore, and also a desire to provide the perfect foil for your work! Thank you for sharing your writing with me yet again, via this comment. Every time I read your words, I am enriched.

  4. I simply want to mention I am all new to blogging and site-building and seriously savored this blog. Almost certainly I’m planning to bookmark your site . You really come with exceptional well written articles. Many thanks for revealing your web-site.

  5. I really enjoyed the vivid and rich description, both internal and external. So glad I got to read this! It brought me back to my own experience in Singapore of feeling enjoyment, estrangement, and embrace, all at the same time. If I go back will definitely visit the botanical treasures that I missed the first time around, too. Thank you for sharing your work with us.

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