Singapore and Beyond
The perfect post-summer retreat for the travelling soul
By Arefa Tehsin
Oh yes, most things are high about Singapore. Its glittering high rises, hi-tech amusement parks, high-end shopping streets, the 541-feet high Singapore Flyer, the dizzyingly high Marina Bay Hotel’s swimming pool and the highest indoor waterfall in the world at Gardens by the Bay. Highly artificial though it might be, Singapore still has character, unlike the green desert of Dubai. Night Safari, River Safari, Clark Quay, Little India and not so little malls, the round-the-clock open Mustafa choking on electronics and the Sentosa Island with its nightly star attraction—a surreal light, sound and water show on the sea. There is something to do for every age group, the island country attracts tourists in drones.
Having been there and having done all that a couple of times, the Lion City does not dazzle me anymore. But this time the highlight of the trip was a cruise from Singapore to Penang Island and back. Before that, however, Universal Studios beckoned. If you have a family group 29-people-strong and you do all the rides together, Universal can be universally fun. From being a part of the Transformers’ mission to save the world to being inside a boathouse in a stormy New York City to being tossed like a tropical salad in a roller coaster, the theme park has the makings to give you either a hell of a good time or a panic attack.
Colourful Cycle Rickshaws in Georgetown
After the usual sightseeing (posing before the Universal Globe, the Merlion, the Marina Bay Hotel etc. posted by 50 other Facebook friends), we boarded the giant Ovation of the Seas, a cruise liner of the Royal Caribbean that falls in the Quantum Class—the second largest class of passenger ships. So what do you feel like today? Wind surfing? Pixels show with robotic screens? Rock climbing? A country pub? Live music? Gambling in a casino? Robots making you a cocktail? Japanese food? Mediterranean? A Las Vegas style show? Bumper cars? Jacuzzi? Football? Viewing the ship 300ft up in a capsule? Basketball? A massage in the spa? Nah… none of these. What if you just feel like flying in air? No big deal, you can do that too. And though you’re made to dress up for dinner daily, don’t expect a Titanic style grand ball.
However, one needs to book some activities months in advance. Else, you can miss out on much, especially if its a short 4-night cruise. The customer complaints redressal person would flash a dazzling smile and tell you they can’t do anything about you not being able to do any of the activities for which you took the cruise in the first place. So you have to pretty much be content with shopping, swimming and getting dressed in your fineries for dinner.
The best part of the cruise for me was when I stepped out of it. The ship docked in George Town, the capital of the exotic Penang Island and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You need more than a day to explore this heady cocktail of a city, an eclectic mix of the time-worn old world charm and the outlandish new. Imagine a city punctuated with crumbling yet colourful Chinese shop houses, pedalling trishaws, mouth watering hawker stalls, unexpected museums (like the Upside Down one), Buddhist temples and Chinese mansions. Above all, George Town epitomises street art. The 3D artworks decorate the streets with their quirky humour and offbeat imagination. You can push the cycle with the two happy kids on it or crouch behind a boy crouching on an old motorbike. Or you can just stand and admire the art, without making a motley fool of yourself.
Dragon Art at Gardens by The Bay
Not to be missed in George Town is the Blue Mansion. Built by the iconic Cheong Fatt Tze at the end of the 19th century, the mansion rose from its ashes in the 1990s when a couple of Penang conservationists purchased it from Tze’s descendants. Now a heritage hotel, the lavish mansion stands proud on its indigo blue walls flaunting its granite floored courtyards, louvred windows, art nouveau stained glass and Feng Shui design. You can take a guided tour of the place. We were lucky to get the tour from the owner of the Blue Mansion herself. We saw the grandeur, got insights into the Chinese architecture and history and even saw some possessions of the family, including those of the most favourite seventh wife, while some men in the group sighed about the good old days.
And then we were back to the Kingdom of Singhapura, with its skyscrapers and friendly taxi drivers. Oh yes, you need to visit Hong Kong to see that most of the cabbies and others don’t want to flex their face muscles to smile. The last stop was pure delight for me - the Singapore Zoo! The real, after the artificial. Twenty-six hectares of a lush forest where white tigers roar, lemurs check you out, iguanas give you a withering look and orangutangs have their breakfast nonchalantly as you sit goggling at them.
Street Art in Georgetown
On the way back to the airport our tour guide gushed about Singapore being so “green.” Yes it is, green. But where were the other colours…of birds? It is uncanny that in a city with so many trees, there are hardly any birds. The guide said, “Oh, they are resting on the treetops.” What she didn’t tell was the Singapore government’s policy to shoot pest birds, who dirty their city, in thousands - common mynas, crows, feral pigeons, white-vented myna, purple backed starlings and Philippine glossy starling. The official culling program started in 1973 and today the Singapore’s National Environment Agency employs a security agency as well as volunteers from Singapore Gun Club to shoot the birds. To quote an article in New York Times (Nov 8, 2006), “Crows are everything that Singapore is not — raucous, indisciplined…and disorderly — and they are not welcome here.” That sounds more like tourists from our part of the world. If only the birds could sing their way into the island with Singapore Dollars too.
Photos: Adityavikram More