In a tropical place like Singapore, everyone expects an abundance of green leafy gardens. What’s not expected? People who don’t shove you out of the way on a busy sidewalk and a spectacular light show of metal Supertrees and Pleasantries: An Introduction to Singapore (A Travel Adventure).
On Day 3 of my travel adventure, following an unexpected detour to Dubai, I finally reached my destination: Singapore.
No grass on the impeccably clean streets grew under my feet. After arriving, my best friend and I set off for the first item on our official tourist agenda, a visit to the Botanical Gardens.
As I would come to expect of Singapore, the Botanical Gardens were a massive undertaking of perfectly groomed beauty. Singapore is a sovereign city-state that feels equal parts familiar and unusual. The towering, sleek buildings mixed in with pockets of well-kept colonial architecture adhered to the requirements of any big city.
What set Singapore apart from New York, Paris or London, for me, was the orderliness of it all. Despite crowds so massive in the subway system or even in the shopping centers that it was impossible to see the walls, there was no rushing or pushing or shoving. In New York on a busy street or the subway, people will brush by with a huff or an outright growl if you’re impeding their progress. (And to be fair, I was one of those people.)
Not in Singapore, at least not any part I saw of it. And don’t get me started on the subway. People actually WAIT for other people to get off before rushing into the cars. Arrows and lines painted on the ground indicate where people should stand and people actually follow it. Seriously, it’s like from another planet or, rather, like a parallel universe. I imagine New York City is a free-wheeling, borderline barbaric city and Singapore is its refined, friendly and controlled other dimensional counterparts.
[Travel tip: Use the Singapore public transportation system. The day passes make it easy. However, if you’re going to the outer edges of Singapore on the bus, be sure to ask the driver to let you know when your stop arrives. It’s not always clear.]
Orderly. Polite. Clean. If New York and Pleasantville had a baby, it would be Singapore. In every shop, on every subway, even in parking lots there are reminders to be polite and kind to your fellow human. I totally loved this!
And while this makes for a lovely, pleasant travel experience, I must admit as a person with a rebellious streak, part of me wanted to jaywalk (an illegal act punishable with a $20 fine to $1000 fine or three months in jail) or sing a loud “ballad” or song with “obscene” lyrics in public (an act punishable with imprisonment for up to three months, a fine, or both). Not that I ever would do these things because my first rule of travel is to respect the culture and rules of the place where you are. I was a guest and I acted like one. But the urge still burned inside me.
These types of laws may seem draconian to some outside Singapore. (I am honestly not sure my personality would do well in such a culture for an extended amount of time. I like to chew gum for one, an act frowned upon in Singapore and you can earn a fine and jail time for bringing or selling the sticky stuff into the country.) However, I can’t deny the rules governing Singapore are effective in maintaining at least the aura of near societal perfection.
Describing Singapore’s political and social system is complex. It is not a place that can be easily categorized, which I know can frustrate some people. We like our definitions. It is a democratic country with elected leaders. However, it also has aspects of socialism and capitalism. Strict rules and structure made Singapore one of the safest places in the world. I had no qualms about walking around alone by myself at night.
It’s the age-old question, right? Safety vs our freedom to basically be jerks to each other, which do you value more? Not a debate I plan to get into right now. And I want to be clear, I was only in the country for a little over a week and am not an expert on Singapore. This was simply my impression. It’s a lovely, safe city with kind, friendly people tinged with a little bit of Big Brother.
If you’re traveling there, one of the best benefits of this complex mélange of governmental and societal factors is its diversity. Every directional sign includes translations in at least 4 different languages – English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. Singapore goes to great lengths to maintain racial, ethnic and religious harmony. And from an outsider’s perspective, they seem to succeed. Another benefit of their policies is that Singapore is just downright beautiful, everywhere. Every building, every street and every garden is meticulously maintained. Even the blocky, cement buildings in the Tiong Bahru neighborhood have an odd beauty to their bleached white walls and winding staircases.
It was of little surprise then that my best friend and I wandered through the gorgeous, sprawling Singapore Botanical Gardens for hours, taking pictures and enjoying flora and fauna.
[Travel tip: Singapore is HOT, even for someone like me who LOVES the heat. 85 degrees and humid is my favorite temperate. However, Singapore is on the equator. Let me say this again. Singapore his HOT. Wear sunscreen. Bring a fan. Did I mention it’s hot? Do outdoor things in the mornings or evenings and hit the pool or nap in the afternoon.]
As we would come to learn, although Singapore is a small city-state both in population and geography, everything feels much more massive. Buildings skyrocket into the air leaving massive glass-walled levels in the clouds to explore. And public parks spread out so wide, many are nearly impossible to visit completely in a single day.
While my best friend and I were unable to visit all parts of the Singapore Botanical Gardens, we did enjoy several of its more unusual features, such as gardens filled with red bamboo, which might be commonplace in tropical Asian countries, but was completely fascinating and new to me and ponds with the biggest lily pads I have ever seen.
One of the highlights was probably the orchid garden. I never knew there were so many different varieties of orchids. My favorite were the miniature ones!
This would not be our last visit to a garden. There is no shortage of them in Singapore. In fact, that night we visited another garden called Gardens by the Bay, which we would return to again later in our trip as there is a lot to see.
[Travel tip: If headed to Gardens by the Bay, it is worthwhile to swing over to the nearby Satay by the Bay hawker for food. A hawker is essentially a person in an outdoor food court who sells awesome food. Food courts are very popular in Singapore and some hawkers include Michelin starred stands. All have incredible, delicious options for food for which I could not partake due to a gluten allergy but my best friend, who I lived food vicariously through, assured me everything was delicious and she has good taste. Sorry had to throw in that pun.]
Rising high above lush gardens with paths lined in stone sculptures is one of the most often visited parts of Gardens by the Bay – the Supertrees.
Giant metal cylinders covered in greenery sprout wiry limbs into the sky. By day they are imposing pieces of artwork. At night they become a spectacular, dizzying light show. Along the trunks and branches, lights twinkle while disco music pumps from unseen speakers. Yep, disco music. It sounds cheesy perhaps, but it is not. It’s memorizing and beautiful. Somehow the disco works as retro fun rather than silliness.
All and all, I think my best friend and I had a pretty good first day in Singapore where we visited the “standard” tourist sites. Not to detract from their beauty. They’re standards for a reason. However, as I climbed into bed that night, I itched for something different, something unusual. And, on the next day of our trip, I find it at Haw Par Villa. But that will have to wait for my next blog.