A little get-away to Singapore

Apologies for this post being up so late! But better late than never, right? Well… three weeks ago, due to Chinese New Year, we had a one week holiday – perfectly timed, considering that trial exams were approaching and secondyears need time to study and prepare. I packed my suitcase last minute, throwing in a few shirts and shorts according to the number of days I would be spending abroad and on Friday the 13th – I know, we picked quite the right day to fly, buckily both of us are not superstitious -Jessica (Lebanon/Slovakia) and me hopped on an airplane for a short little get-away to Singapore. The flight went well, despite very strong winds and a bumpy half an hour between the clouds, which I spent reading a book on TED Talks. After four hours in the air we touched down in lovely Singapore and were greeted with sunshine and summery warm temperatures.  The airport was decorated with sheeps and flowers, welcoming the soon to be arriving Lunar New Year. Traveling with only a carry-on was lovely, I don’t remember the last time I did that, considering that usually I look like a heavily decorated Christmas tree: two giant suitcases, a bagpack almost my own size, a big camera bag, purse and a duty-free bag filled with all the things I could not pack into the other pieces of luggage 😀

So, only equipped with my camera dangling ove my shoulder and a carry-on, I felt quite “naked” and liberated at the same time. Happy about the weather and the extensive MRT network in Singapore we purchased our EZ link cards and made our way to our hotel.

Our hotel was inbetween two MRT stations, hence we were not quite sure which one to get out off. We asked a few locals and one lady, named Tina gave us a surprised smile and then hysterically asked us: “Why would you book a hotel there?!”, her face blank with shock, then quickly giving us an apologetic smile. “That is the red light district, girls. It is not a nice place to stay for two young girls.” Jessie and me gave each other a surprised then worried look. Our credit cards did not accept online bookings fro some strange reason, hence we had asked our parents to book the hotel (who had not researched the area the hotel was located in). Our initial reacton slowly tunred into laughter. and giggles Of course this could only happen to us – we had not traveled one single time together without either encountering a hilarious situation, meeting incredibly interesting or even famous strangers or returning with a suitcase full of unexpected gifts. Tina turned out an angel and phoned the hotel for us, explaining the situation and asking to transfer us to a new hotel. She gave us in the hands of a cab driver (who also laughed at us once we told him our address) and told us to give her a call if we needed her help with finding a new place to stay. And so we both made our way to Geylang – Singapore’s infamous red light district, that everyone, except for us knew about 😀

Geylang turned out to be far away from the sketchy place the Singaporeans we met had described to us. Compared to the polished and shiny skyline of downtown SIngapore it does indeed look a bit worn down, but nonetheless I would rather describe Geylang as a beautiful mess, an atmospheric and colorful quarter on the east coast of Singapore. It is lively at any time of the day (not only for the services it is known for), but for its vast number of food stalls, restaurants and markets offering some of the best local food on the island:  fresh fruits and vegetables, Peranakan, Indian, Malay and regional Chinese standards, including the famous coconut rice and curry chicken at Bali Nasi Lemak, spicy noodles Kuching Kolo Mee and the Hakka favourite of rice, vegetables, tofu and peanuts in a tea-based broth at Lei Cha Fan. Despite the hotels that were numbered “81, 68”, etc. Geylang to me is beautiful, feauturing little houses with  great period architecture and colorful stands selling anything from phones, souvenirs, all the way to shoes and clothing.

Our hotel was very nice and luckily it was not offering any “services” and unlike most other “hotels” in that area, it was indeed nothing but a normal hotel with very kind staff and cute little rooms. We settled in, dropped off our suitcases, went on to explore the area a little bit and then Geylang, an then met Shuhei, one of our Japanese secondyears from LPC to have dinner together. We decided to go to an Indian restaurat at Clarke Quay, a historical riverside quay by the Singapore river now turned a hub for colorful restaurants and hip cafes, live music perfromances and a lively crowd.

The next day we visited the Singapore Zoo, which houses more than 315 species of animals, of which 16% are considered threatened. I am usually not a supporter of animals in captivity, but compared to other zoos, the vast conservation efforts of the Singapore Zoo and its operator Wildlife Reserves Singapore got me convinced that it was worth a visit: WRS  contributes to the protection of wildlife in their native habitats by funding local and regional conservation and research projects and also collaborating with likeminded organisations such asNGOs, government agencies, academic institutions and nature interest groups to ensure the best possible conservation outcomes for the species or environment of concern. It is working together with the IUCN Species Survival Commission and has successfully helped breed and release thousands of individuals from threatened species.

As a lover of rainforests and a particular weak spot for Orang Utans – back in Germany I participated in a project that managed to fundraise enough money to help the Borneo Orang Utan Survival Foundation buy back rainforest from palm oil plantation and expands its rehabilitation territory – I was quite surprised to find out that the SIngapore Zoo houses the largest captive colony of orangutans in the world. Here is a fun fact: in 1977, primatologist Dr Francine Neago lived inside a cage with eighteen orangutans for six months to study their behavior and communication.

The Zoo was great, particularly because of its location on the upper margins of the Upper Seletar Reservoir – lots of water beautiful views and tropical fauna making it feel like a walk through the rainforest. I had a cute little chat with a ringtailed lemur (my own King Julien :D), we watched beautiful otters holding hands and play with rocks and giggled quite a lot once we found out that pygmy hippos are to heavy to float. You can click on the pictures below to enlarge them:

The next day we also visited the Dover Campus of UWC of Southeast Asia and meet a few fellow UWCers who were on campus and shared home-made Norwegian oatmeal, fresh fruits and our UWC stories with them. Of course our “UWC-day” did not just end with that: we concluded our day with a UWC alumni dinner. Well, Jessie and me are nota alumni yet, but this dinner was a wonderful excuse to get to know more UWC students and spend quality time together. We went to a lovely little place in the heart of the city and joined the alumni who were all already finished with college and had jumped into their career lives: a half-Jordanian-half-Filipino, two Thai, an Indian and a Chinese Alumni. Time passed faster than anticipatd and we shared many moments of laughter, philosophical discussions and tory-telling about “UWC then and now” Before heading back to our hotel we made a quick stop at Haji Lane, a colorful street located in the Arab neighborhoud  of Singapore. At nighttime it turns into the city’s major hub for jazz cafes, latin American music, street drummers and decorated indie boutiques  filled with a fruity scent floating in the air at. We had to dance our way through a big crowd that was happily moving in synchrony to the beats of a DJ who had set up his mixer on a corner of the street.

Even though Singapore is small, it is full of little (and big) surprises. My absolutely favorite place in Singapore waswithout a doubt the Gardens by the Bay: elegant and mssive greenhouse gardens with exotic plants and trees, mesmerising waterfront, all of which is spanning over 101 hectares of land and houses over 500,000 plants! Right after entering the gardens we had the opportunity to admire the beauty of plant life from around the world displayed at the Supertrees – towering vertical gardens that extend into the sky and look just like their name suggests like “giant trees”

We decided to visit the two cooled conservatories – the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest – first. The Flower Dome made us feel at home: it replicates the cool and dry Mediterranean climate! We toured around the 9 different gardens – including the Baobabs and Bottle Trees, Australian Garden, Succulent Garden and Olive Grove – which where all decorated with colorful lanterns, lights and flower arrangements in the shape of the sheep.

After the Flower Dome we continued to explore the Cloud Forest. It was absolutely amazing and we felt like we had been catapulted into a tropical rainforest. Everywhere around us orchids, pitcher plants and ferns from the cool-moist tropical montane regions where blooming and mist was descending from the top of the conservatories giving the dome a magical aura paired with the dim lighting. We descended through the surreal mist-filled Cloud Walk from the top of the waterfall and explored the smaller zones inside the waterfall.

After leaving the zoo, we met a group of tourguides – one of them who had just started his job – who made us laugh quite a lot and shared hilarous stories with us. One of them bluntly showed us a few “tourist” packages with a daily program for sightseeing, only to dismiss it a few seconds later as “bull***t” and make us a wonderful and individualized offer of only the tickets to attractions that we wanted and needed. The two of them were absolutely lovely and after roughly an hour of sharing hilarious stories about their work and their origin (both were Filipino) we decided that it was time to go back to our hotel. There was no MRT at the Zoo and the net bus would arrive in an hour, but the two tourguides solved our transportation problem by promptly calling their tourbus “captain” and out of the blue Jessie and me were sitting in a gigantic tourbus with fancy lighting, driving back with two Filipino tourguides who made our day by singing songs with us and a Singaporean driver who could not stop smiling the whole way back 😀

And that is also how we ended up visiting the Universal Studios the next day – with unlimited rides and no need to stand in line. It was liking diving into my childhood – we walked around hugging Shrek and Pinocchio, got scared by mummies during Egyptian themed rollercoasters, took pictures for my brother with Transformer robots, indulged in the smell of sweet popcorn and even ended up dancing to Jailhouse Rock together with four singers in “Old New York” in front of an applauding crowd. It was wonderful being a child again for a day!

Time passed too quickly and even though we only had a few days, we were quite happy to have seen the “big sites” as well as cozy small corners of the city within that limited time frame. We ended the last day of our trip with a ride on a Merry-go-Round (yes!) and wonderful dinner by the riverside and finished packing in order to go back to Hong Kong the next day.

Happy ( very belated) Chinese New Year of the Sheep  to all of you! Gong Xi Fa Cai and Kung Hey Fat Choy!