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!
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.
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.
Sri Veeramakaliammon Temple (141 Serangoon Road)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
- 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)
- Murtabak (stuffed roti prata dough)
- 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:
- 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.
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.
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).
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