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We asked around before visiting Singapore what we should see. Several places were mentioned including the Night Zoo and Sentosa Island. But on our cab ride to the cruise ship, we passed the Gardens on the Bay. We saw its artificial trees (called supertrees) standing out and wondered what they were. And as we got closer to the ship, we passed the entrance. Our cabbie said it was worth a visit. And during our cruise, others also recommended it. So after we visited Chinatown, we checked in at the hotel, and hopped a cab to Gardens by the Bay. Just one word to describe it. Wow!
The Gardens occupy 250 acres of reclaimed land adjacent to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. The park consists of three large garden areas as well as two conservatories and two supertree groves. The entire complex cost over a billion Singaporean dollars to build.
As a public park, there is no admission charge. Residents and visitors are free to enjoy most of the park without charge. But the conservatories charge an admission fee of $28 per person.
The conservatories are massive. The larger one, the Flower Dome, covers three acres. It stands 125 feet high and is the world’s largest columnless glass building. It features seven different gardens representing various semi-arid sub-tropical vegetation from around the world. Its temperature is maintained at between 23 and 25 degrees C. It seems cool compared to the outside temperature which is tropical. Singapore sits just above the equator.
We paid to go in and it was a stunning experience. It is hard to convey the vast scope of the Flower Dome. During our visit, one of the areas was decked out for the Year of the Monkey with red lanterns and topiary monkeys.
The conservatory also features many intriguing wood sculptures that look like they are pieced together from driftwood. We hoped to pick up miniatures as souvenirs but the gift shop did not have any.
There was one garden devoted to Australia and others included South Africa and South America. The gardens are at different levels, tiered with sloped walkways. It is very easy to navigate.
I’ll create a separate post of just pictures so you can see more of this breathtaking masterpiece.
We expected the second conservatory, the Cloud Forest, to be anti-climactic after the Flower Dome. Were we wrong on that! While it covers a smaller area – two acres, it is much much higher than the Flower Dome. When you walk in you see its centrepiece – a 138 foot high mountain in the middle with five waterfalls pouring from the summit creating spray and mist. The Cloud Forest recreates the cool, moist mountains of the tropics. The mountain is covered from top to bottom with vegetation – orchids, ferns, and other vegetation indigenous to tropical mountains.
Inside you walk around it and then take an elevator almost to the top. A short hike up brings you to a small mountaintop lake. Then there are elevated walkways that take you all the way to the bottom again. Some of the walkways run close to the mountain so you can see the foliage at close hand. Other parts extend away from the mountain – aerial walkways that have you walking over the vista below.
Again, words cannot convey the size and scope of this amazing display so I have created a separate photo gallery. At the end of the tour is a presentation on global warming that I found a bit alarmist.
It had started raining just before we went into the Flower Dome and it was still raining when we exited the Cloud Forest so we had dinner at Majestic Bay, a nice Chinese restaurant just below the Flower Dome. We hoped it would clear up by dinner’s end as we wanted to see the light show at the Supertree Grove as well as walk along the elevated walkway that connects some of the trees.
The supertrees are, in fact, connected to the domes and help regulate the temperature and conditions inside. The trees range up to 160 feet high. As Wikipedia relates, “The Supertrees are home to enclaves of unique and exotic ferns, vines, orchids and also a vast collection of bromeliads such as Tillandsia, amongst other plants. They are fitted with environmental technologies that mimic the ecological function of trees – photovoltaic cells that harness solar energy which can be used for some of the functions of the Supertrees, such as lighting, just like how trees photosynthesize; and collection of rainwater for use in irrigation and fountain displays, exactly like how trees absorb rainwater for growth. The Supertrees also serve air intake and exhaust functions as part of the conservatories’ cooling systems.”
The rain had indeed let up when we finished dinner and so we headed to the grove for the light show. All the supertrees are lit up with various colours and flashing lights in time to music. It’s a 15 minute production and a marvel to watch.
After the light show we walked through the gardens and on to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. It is an amazing structure itself, with three towers supporting an infinity pool and restaurants at the top. Guests can swim right to the edge and look over. Not for the faint of heart!
Room rates are quite high starting at $479 a night. We heard that the hotel is booked up every nigh
t and you should make reservations six months ahead. We wandered through the lobby straight out to boardwalk around the Marina Bay Sands Shopping Mall on the other side. We had a pleasant walk around the boardwalk before taking an escalator down to the mall itself – which, like many malls in Singapore, is large. Very large!
We loved our visit to the Gardens by the Bay. A must see for visitors. Be sure to check out the two additional photo galleries I’ve compiled below.
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I was surprised to discover that Singapore had a Chinatown. Since most of the people are Chinese, I figured the whole city would be one big Chinatown, but that’s not the case. The city is a vibrant modern city with giant skyscrapers and shopping malls – lots and lots of shopping malls. Chinatown is more traditionally Chinese, an enclave within the modern city, much like the Chinatowns in Vancouver and San Francisco.
We first encountered Chinatown on our trip to our hotel after our cruise. We drove right by the gateway to Chinatown which was fully decorated for Chinese New Year which falls on February 8th. Our cabbie pointed it out and recommended a visit.
Since it was still morning and our hotel room would not be ready for a few hours, we opted to check it out. Our hotel was the Furama Waterfront on Havelock Road. It’s not near a subway station. So we asked the concierge where we could get a Starbucks coffee. He directed us to a twin office tower a few blocks away – the Great World City about a ten minute walk away. We found it and it has a terrific mall under the towers and a Starbucks. We had a coffee and checked our maps.
After our coffee break we headed outside to catch a cab and discovered there was a free shuttle bus to Chinatown. It runs every hour on the hour and since it was almost 11:00, we hopped the bus which dropped us off on Upper Cross Street, just a block from New Bridge Road. We walked past the giant Og Department store and an alley leading to a large food court, then found ourselves at the gateway to Niu Che Shui as they call it in Chinese.
We turned right just before Hotel 81, whose windows look like sets of double doors that don’t open. Not surprisingly, Singapore’s Chinatown is much larger than Vancouver’s. Besides two Buddhist temples, it also has a Muslim mosque and a Hindu temple. New Bridge Street has many restaurants and food stores.
Colorful lanterns were everywhere and we soon turned down a narrow street with market stalls on each side. Most were selling clothes and souvenir trinkets.
We had promised our daughter’s fiancé we would pick up three silk ties for him, so we kept an eye out. Spotting some, we stopped and looked at the rack of ties and the vendor talked them up. How much? $20 each. But he offered two for $30. I asked how about three for $30? We decided to check out more shops and as we walked away he offered three for $40. We kept walking. Three for $30? Thanks we said. We may come back.
And we continued to walk until we came to another vendor. He was standing at the entrance and held out his hand to shake mine. I did and he wouldn’t let go as we were pulled into the shop. Do not shake hands with a vendor! It is a fish hook to get customers into the store!
In any event, we told him right off the bat we had an offer of three for $30 from another vendor. Oh no! he said. They can’t be real silk ties. His are the genuine article. He brought out a calculator and told us he could give us three of his superior ties for $55. Nah! No deal. We dickered. And we turned to leave. He came back with three for $30 and we bought them.
We continued to explore, passing a Hindu temple as we went up and down more streets. And what did we find? A rack of ties offered at three for $25! Same ties. Same labelling. Identical in every way to the other two vendors we had seen. So two rules about shopping in Chinatown. Haggle on price. Walk away and see what their best offer is. Shop around some more before making a decision. We had committed to our purchase but wondered if we could have got the three for $25 guy to go even lower.
We got back to New Bridge Street and walked back passing an interesting sight we had noticed before. A lineup two blocks long to buy meat at a deli. Must be damn good meat I thought.
So I asked a vendor near by what the deal was with the lineup for the sliced pork. Seems that traditionally, Chinese people buy sliced pork to serve and to give away as gifts for Chinese New Year.
We passed Chinatown returning from Sentosa Island the next day and mentioned the lineup to our cabbie. He said there are other stores selling sliced pork for New Year, but this particular store had a long tradition of being the shop to get sliced pork.
One thing we did not see was the open air food shops common in Vancouver’s Chinatown with vegetables, nuts, grains and meats out on display. This is not to say that Singapore’s Niu Che Shui doesn’t have such shops, just that we did not see any.
We enjoyed the colour and spectacle of the area. We were fortunate to have been there just as Chinese New Year was approaching and there was such a festive air. But I am sure it is an entertaining place to explore any time of year.
Tomorrow’s blog visits the Gardens on the Bay.
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My wife and I just came back after two days in Singapore, a fabulous city with much to offer the visitor. We first got there after midnight on January 22nd, got some sleep at a nice hotel, and then embarked on a seven day cruise before getting back to the city on the 29th.
On our way to the cruise ship terminal, our cabbie remarked proudly that Singapore is known for being clean, green and safe. “Look around,” he said. “Do you see any police?” In fact we did not and we did not see any in the two days we spent here after the cruise. He explained that most of the police are undercover. You never know who is a policeman. The guy walking behind you on the street. That fellow talking on his iPhone. The shopper looking at the latest fashions.
The Wikipedia article on the Singapore Police Force notes that only 8000 or 20 percent of the force’s 38,587 strong force are uniformed. Additionally, the Volunteer Special Constabulary augments the police. “The VSC,” notes Wikipedia, “comprises volunteers from all walks of life, from businessmen to blue-collar workers, bonded with the same aspiration to serve the nation by complementing the Singapore Police Force. VSC Officers don the same police uniform and patrol the streets, participate in anti-drug operations and sometimes even high-speed sea chases.” And presumably most also are undercover like the cops themselves.
So Singapore ranks as having one of the lowest crime rates in the world. This is not to say Singapore is without crime, but most of it is petty crime – pickpocketing and fraud. Indeed, along one wall of a subway station there was poster after poster warning against various frauds. One of these frauds is to be aware of con artists claiming to be an undercover policeman and telling you to cough up a fine on the spot. Real police will not demand money from you advised the poster.
Also contributing to the low crime rate is the draconian nature of Singapore law. Drugs are strictly forbidden and if you are caught smuggling drugs, you could end up at the end of the hangman’s rope. When you fill out the customs declaration for Singapore, it warns you in large capital letters: DEATH TO DRUG TRAFFICKERS. From 1994 to 1999 Singapore had the second highest per capita execution rate in the world, most for drug offenses. The law was liberalized considerably in 2012 with no executions that year or the following. But in 2014 two people were hanged, both for drug trafficking. It should be noted that firearms are strictly forbidden in Singapore and use of a firearm carries the death penalty as well.
Also contributing to the low crime rate is the use of caning as a punishment. While many western countries are outlawing corporal punishment by parents, it is encouraged in Singapore and the country has over 35 crimes that include caning as punishment. As well as some serious crimes, vandalism is also a corporal punishment offence. A notorious 1994 case saw an American teen caned for spray painting a car. Spare the rod and spoil the felon could be Singapore’s motto.
And its cleanliness is no surprise. Littering comes with a fine of up to $2000 and you can be sentenced to community service for littering. Thirty-one percent of littering fines were assessed against non-residents in 2013. And since 1992, chewing gum has been illegal. Jaywalking is also an offence. In fact, there are a lot of things that we accept in Canada and the United States that are illegal in Singapore. Including homosexuality and, of all things, failing to flush the toilet.
So we’ve covered clean and safe. Now on to green. Without a doubt, one of best things about Singapore is its greenness. There is a lot of green space and many parks. Many buildings have green space. And driving along the highway to the airport when we left we noticed stretches of trees overhanging the pavement as well as greenery growing over the metal safety barriers along the side of the road.
When we took a cable car from Sentosa Island across to the main island, we were stunned by the lush forest below us. Greenery was even growing up the tree trunks. And Singapore boasts a botanical garden as well as two of the largest indoor gardens and arboretums we had ever seen. The country is lush by design. Absolutely stunning.
One of the reasons Singapore is so green is that it sits almost on the equator and has a tropical climate. It is always hot and humid. And almost every afternoon it rains for a half hour or more. It rained on two of the three days we were there. Most of the day is sunny with some scattered clouds, but the clouds turn to rain in the afternoon.
A few final notes. Singapore has a Goods and Services Tax (GST) which a tourist can claim as a rebate on purchases over $100. Note, however, that you must go to the GST counter at the place of purchase and get proper documentation. There is a fee for this which is deducted from the rebate owing. You will be given a special receipt which you must present at the GST Refund Desk at the airport when you leave. You must also present the goods purchased. Don’t misplace the receipt as we did or you won’t get your refund.
Singapore has an extensive subway system, but taxis are cheap and plentiful. You can get around to most places from $7-$15. A bit more to and from the airport. But use metered cabs. Their rates are strictly regulated. There are also unmetered cabs, usually limo services, which you can also use. But they are much more expensive.
Singapore cabs have a basic rate, and depending on the time of day, a surcharge for peak periods or off-hours. There is also an airport surcharge. When travelling along in a cab, you will see two metered prices – the basic rate and the surcharge. At the end of the ride, the two are summed to give the total fare.
And Singapore runs on a 220 volt electrical system. Our hotel was an older one and only had one outlet to accommodate 110 volt razors and such. My wife’s hair dryer could not be plugged in because it had one of those polarized prongs – slightly larger than the other. Luckily the hotel had a dryer. But my laptop had a three pronged plug on the charger and I could not recharge it.
That covers some basics to get you around Singapore. Over the next three days I’ll post about specific attractions – Chinatown, the Gardens on the Bay, and Sentosa Island. Following my Singapore series, I’ll write about the cruise. I already covered Kuala Lumpur, our first port of call and will follow up with posts on cruising in general, Penang’s Temple of the Thousand Buddhas, Patong Beach in Phuket and a trip to the sea caves in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand.
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My wife and I are currently on a seven day Southeast Asia Cruise aboard the Mariner of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. On Jan. 23rd we docked at Port Klang, the port city that serves much of the province of Selangor in Malaysia including the capital city of Kuala Lumpur.
As is usually the case with cruises and their ports of call, various excursions were offered and we took one that took us to Kuala Lumpur itself, an hour and a half drive by bus. Here’s how our day went.
All those taking shore excursions met in the theatre at 8:15 and were assigned to various buses. We boarded and set off on our journey. Our guide was a chatty Malay fellow, not always easy to understand with his heavily accented English, but we could pick up most of it.
We passed development after development of relatively new row housing. Our guide told us that many of these developments were designed to provide housing for poorer people. They all were a minimum of three bedrooms and could be bought for 42,000 ringgits, the Malaysian currency. A ringgit is about a third of a Canadian dollar. So if you’re below a certain income level in Malaysia, you can buy a modern three bedroom apartment for around CDN$14,000. These developments went on for mile after mile.
We also passed a large plant manufacturing the Proton car, a Malaysian built car. The Proton company was a government operation at first but was later privatized. Cars, in fact, are plentiful in the country.
The highways are all tolled and our bus passed several on our trip. We also saw many motorbikes on the road and our guide told us that motorbikes under 100 cc are exempt from the tolls, so those small motorbikes are very popular there.
We finally arrived at Kuala Lumpur, a vibrant, modern city, lush with greenery at every turn. Its main industry, according to our guide, is computer parts. It is a high tech hub.
Our first stop was a Chinese buddhist temple in the middle of the city. Its up on a hill and our bus navigated some windy roads getting there.
The temple itself was gorgeous. Because Chinese New Year is coming up on Feb. 8, red paper lanterns were everywhere. In fact, our cruise ship has also been decorated for Chinese New Year.
The temple, in pagoda style, is colorful and elaborate. We had to take our shoes off to enter the worship area and we were impressed by the ornate ceiling as well as the three large buddha icons.
After visiting the temple, Janis and I wandered around a bit and came across a lovely garden with waterfalls and two ponds filled with turtles. Buddhists release turtles into these ponds for good luck and long life.
Next stop was a short one at the King’s Palace. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy and the king is the nominal head of state.
After that, it was back on the tour bus for a meandering ride through a working class district of town. Lots of row housing here too, but older and not as pristine as the newer ones we passed on the drive in. What’s interesting is that almost every home has an air conditoner (it is very hot and muggy in this area), most homes have satellite dishes or antennas, and everyone hangs their laundry out to dry on the balconies. Some buildings were awash with laundry.
The trail ended at the Royal Selangor Pewter Company where we stopped for a tour. It is a large modern plant and displays a bit of the history of pewter making in Malaysia. Tin is widely mined in the area and it is the main ingredient of pewter, along with smidgens of copper and antimony.
One wall near the beginning of the tour showed colour slides of notables who have visited the factory, including the Prince of Wales, Bill Clinton and Martha Stewart.
Along the way we saw various artisans at work handcrafting artifacts. One woman spent all her time hammering dimples into the surface of a container shaped like a tin can revolving on a lathe. Bang! Bang! Bang! Just hammering away.
The tour ended at the gift shop, of course, as many such tours do. Many beautiful handicrafts were on display including a Star Wars collection – Princess Leia, Han Solo or Darth Vader stauettes in pewter. They were good sized pieces – six to eight inches long, polished to a nice shine, and going for 1200 ringgits each or about CDN$400.
Outside was the world’s largest pewter tankard according to the Guinness Records Book.
We left this district for the center of the city, stopping for a short visit to the Petronas Towers. These world famous 88 story towers were the world’s tallest buildings from 1998 to 2004. They remain the tallest twin towers. (Are there any others?) The towers formed an integral part of the 1999 movie Entrapment starring Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
We had hoped to go up the towers but the tours are booked at least a month in advance so it was a no go. But after a tasty buffet lunch at the Commodore Hotel, we went up the KL Tower, the fourth tallest communications tower in the world. It looks much like the CN Tower in Toronto but is a bit shorter. The observation level offers a terrific panoramic view of the city, including the Petronas Towers.
The tour ended, we took the bus back to our cruise ship for the next leg on our exciting holiday.
A few notes for tourists. Although the city is modern, some older places like the temple often have squat toilets and no toilet paper or paper towels for drying your hands after washing them. Ladies should wear skirts or dresses for this eventuality as pants are awkward. You should also pack a roll of toilet paper. Later in our trip we visited Penang and some of the washrooms had a faucet on the floor attached to a rubber hose beside the squat toilet, the hose be used in place of toilet paper. Ewwww! Be forewarned! Modern buildings have modern bathroom facilities and will usually have at least some western style toilets.
Also, while Malaysia is a multicultural society, it predominant religion is Islam, with large Hindu and Buddhist minorities as well as some Christianity from British colonial days. Our tour guide was, by Western standards, quite politically incorrect, making snide cracks about both the Chinese and the Indians in their society.
There is a strong animosity towards Singapore, which interestingly enough, used to be part of Malaysia. But unlike Quebec separatists in Canada and the Basques in Spain and France who want to secede from their countries, Singapore didn’t secede but was expelled by Malaysia over political differences. The largely ethnic Chinese Singaporeans have been disdained by many Malaysians ever since.
Finally, Malaysia, like Singapore, has very strict drug laws and the death penalty for many drug offences. While there are movements to decriminalize marijuana in Canada and the United States, bringing some into Malaysia could see you at the end of a rope.
But all in all, we loved Kuala Lumpur and would love to visit again for a longer period. It is relatively inexpensive and although we didn’t do any shopping, I’ve heard it is a shopper’s paradise.
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In 2009 we took a repositioning cruise with our friends Chris and Sheila. The ship, the Navigator of the Seas, left from Fort Lauderdale and was at sea for seven days before finally reaching our first port of call, Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands. As with all ports of call on cruises, there was a variety of shore excursions we could take. Or we could just wander around the town of Santa Cruz. We opted to take the trip up Mount Teide, the island’s volcano.
Mount Teide last erupted in 1909 and is considered dormant. It could erupt again in the future. At 24,600 feet (7500 meters) it is the third highest island volcano in the world after Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa in Hawaii.
The bus took us on a meandering road through fields and villages and finally into Teide National Park, which gets about 2.8 million visitors a year. As we got higher and higher we had many spectacular views of the villages and the sea below. Upon entering the park, the peak drew closer and closer. We stopped for a photo op part way there.
We left the verdant landscape behind as we continued on our way. Soon we were left with nothing but lava fields all around with sparse patches of vegetation. Almost a moonscape.
It was here in this wild setting that parts of the movie One Million B.C. with Raquel Welch were filmed.
Finally we arrived at our destination – not the summit, but a tourist area where we could get off the bus and wander around at our leisure to take in the many interesting rock formations.
From one vantage point you could see a frozen river of lava in a bowl between the peaks. I called it the Teide Bowl (Tidy Bowl). My warped sense of humour.
After some time here the bus took us on the long and winding road back to town.
We took a slightly different route on the way back, one that took us past Tenerife Airport. This was the site of the world’s worst aviation disaster in 1977 when two Boeing 747s collided.
We arrived back at Santa Cruz with enough time to explore this bustling seaside city. It is a lovely city with a good-sized pedestrian mall and lots of shops and restaurants to explore.
The Canary Islands are an autonomous community of Spain, sort of like a state in the U.S.A. or a province in Canada. Spain’s government is very decentralized with a lot of power residing within the smaller divisions of the country. We visited three more Spanish ports of call on our trip, as well a Lisbon, Portugal. I’ll cover the highlights of those in later posts.
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129 kilometers north of Perth lies the seaside town of Lancelin (about an hour and a half drive). It’s a sleepy little town of 600 whose population swells to 2500 in the summer months (December, January and February in Australia).
We took a day trip out from our daughter’s place in Ocean Reef in early January. It was very pleasant drive along the Indian Ocean Highway. The scenery was constantly changing from forested to scrub land to farm land and sheep grazing land. Along the way we spotted some emus in a field but we were going too fast for me to get my camera out in time to snap a pic.
We also passed a brush fire inland a bit from the highway. Brush fires are a big problem in Australia. In the summer the climate is so hot they spread very quickly. And Western Australia in particular is very windy which does not help. When we went back home in the late afternoon, we had to take a long inland detour because the fires had spread and the Indian Ocean Highway was closed for a stretch.
Sadly, another even larger brush fire occurred south of Perth later in the month, destroying most of the town of Yarloop. The lightning stoked fire destroyed 162 homes and killed two elderly men.
Finally we got to the turnoff for Lancelin and drove into town. One of the main attractions here are the giant sand dunes just north of town. They are about two kilometres long and about 30-50 meters high (my rough guess). They are very accessible and they are free.
Once we got to town, we were not done driving. The dunes are north of town and so we drove some more, finally getting to a dirt road leading to the dunes themselves. You can drive right up to the base of the dunes, though the trail is very sandy so caution is recommended. We saw one vehicle stuck in the sand as we left.
The dunes are spectacular – pure white sand – they look like giant snow drifts, that’s how white they are. You would think the sand would be hot underfoot under the blazing Australian sun, but we walked up the dunes barefoot and it was remarkably cool. Well warm maybe, but definitely not hot.
I hiked up to the top of a ridge for a good look around. A terrific view of the area. We saw quite a few sandboarders up there. We didn’t bring boards ourselves so we wandered around for a while, taking in the action, before heading down again.
We drove back in to town and parked near a restaurant. Then off to the beach. Lancelin’s beach is, like most Australian beaches, sandy and beautiful. There are two islands at either end of the beach, the larger being Lancelin Island which lies about a kilometre off the shore. It is a nature preserve frequented by various species of birds as well as sea lions.
Because of the windy clime, windsurfing is very popular here. We had a swim, took a stroll down the beach and back, and then settled in at the Dunes Restaurant for a tasty meal. And then the long drive back.
Because of the detour, we headed inland and turned onto Military Road. And it was along this back road that we found another interesting place to visit. A place something like Science World in Vancouver or the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. Only this one is set in the middle of nowhere! And that’s a topic for another post.