As a kid when I dreamed of escape, the image I had in my mind was always of a place like Singapore. I grew up land-locked in a small town in Central Wisconsin. My parents, hell everybody’s parents there, were about as likely to have the means to travel as they were to fly to the moon but that didn’t keep my imagination from walking the earth. There was this thing called the Vietnam War going on at the time which kept my mind on Southeast Asia and the certainty of going there to get shot. Luckily, it turned out, I would be a year too young to get drafted but that part of the world continued to fill my head with dreams of the exotic, maybe of danger and certainly of adventure.
There is another, albeit more pragmatic, dimension to Singapore. Flights to Singapore are inexpensive now. At the time of this writing United Airlines has been offering round-trips from Chicago for around $750. That’s less money than to most places in Europe and if you have a need to escape Midwestern winters, Singapore is almost as far away from here as you can get.
The downside of a trek that prodigious is that going to Singapore means around 30 hours of time in the commercial transportation system. That’s the home-to-hotel rub from Milwaukee. I never let a chance to over-think things go by so, in preparation, I try to get on West coast time a week ahead of the trip and then on Hawaiian time a few days prior. This serves to make me so miserable before we leave that the “tomorrow plus 13 hours jet lag” tends to feel kind of normal. There is good news though. On the run from San Francisco to Singapore United Airlines is flying a Boeing 787 Dreamliner that sports a couple extra inches of leg room in Economy. That makes a big difference for me! My wife, Joanne, and I actually slept for about half of the 17 hour Pacific crossing. Singapore found us on a somewhat dopy, travel high, overjoyed at not being totally miserable.
Joanne and I figure if you’re going to blow money on a really nice hotel, do it when you’re suffering the aforementioned jet lag. Normally we stay in places where thread-count is measured in single digits but when you’re doomed to walk the earth zombie-like for a time, then why not be pampered in a five star palace? We went whole-hog and tossed our bags at Singapore’s Parkroyal on Pickering. It is in a central location in Chinatown so gentle, brief forays into the urban jungle are doable either by foot or by Singapore’s spotlessly clean, air conditioned subway. When one feels one’s ex-time zone casting a shadow on one’s hypothalamus, signaling the approach of a paralyzing jet lag coma, it’s nice to know that there’s a lounge chair next to the Parkroyal’s fifth floor infinity pool with your name on it.
Our swanky hotel’s charms notwithstanding and trying to keep my puppy-like excitement at being on the verge of another Asian adventure, Joanne and I wandered out into the tropical heat and humidity to explore Singapore. If there is a better place for a holiday or for a basecamp for further exploration I don’t know of it. Here are a few reasons:
It is safe and clean. Petty theft, mugging, pick-pocketing…are virtually nonexistent. On the downside, some will say, is that Singapore has gone overboard. It is too much of a police state…too strict. Maybe, but people aren’t spitting all over the streets and the sidewalks are clean. There aren’t many traffic jams and, unlike some countries I’ve traveled to, traffic laws are a thing. I don’t mind waiting for the signal at crosswalks and I hear that tourists may now possess chewing gum in small quantities, without a prescription. (Fines are still quite strict for spitting out gum in public places.)
It is a city of the future. I’ve been to Singapore three times. It gets better every time. I’ve watched it transform from a city of sprawling slums punctuated by a few hoity-toity neighborhoods to one of the most uniformly coolest places I’ve ever been to. There is always something world-shakingly new here. The Gardens By The Bay are a recent city upgrade that attracts a lot of attention .
It is a mixture of cultures. Singapore is famous for being a place where diverse people get along. Cultures include Malay, Chinese, Indian and European. Official languages are English, Tamil, Mandarin and Malay. It is an opportunity to learn about diverse peoples in a small space.
Food. When I asked the flight attendant on United Airlines Flight 01 what she does in Singapore, her eyes widened and she spoke one word, “Eat!” Singapore is a food city; for some, THE food city. Expectations are very high. Singapore has “hawker food centers” (think armies of food trucks without wheels in a mall) some with Michelin ratings. That means you can spend about US $5.00 and get world class, amazing food. Hawker stalls are regulated. That means there are hygiene requirements. Enjoy.
There is a good subway system: The Singapore MRT is clean, easy to use, pretty cheap and air conditioned. If you get overheated (did I mention it was really hot there?) a cool refuge is not far away.
I like travel because it shakes me out of my comfort zone. I love new, weird experiences. A trip that goes smoothly, for me, is a trip devoid of stories….forgettable. Where is the romance in safe, predictable, lawful, sane Singapore? It may be a little “sanitized for your protection” but that means freedom from worry…freedom to explore without looking over your shoulder. You can roam around to your heart’s content and it is still exotic. It is a rich mixture of Asian cultures in an environment of warmth, hazy amber sunsets and wind in the palms. It’s interesting, I think, to be both comfortable and enjoy exotic, new experiences. Maybe I could get used to it.