Singapore Railway Station is an anomaly. If you’re a tourist arriving by air into Singapore, you’re immediately wowed by Changi Airport, renowned the world over for its cleanliness, efficiency and facilities including a free cinema, areas where sleep is actually encouraged and all-night shopping where you could possibly even be arrested for so much as asking for chewing gum.
It’s one of the few airports on earth where I’d actually rather be delayed than on time and, typically, never am. I’d also go so far as to say it’s one of the safest too. When I was in transit many years ago, I treated myself to a shower. I entered the marble shower cubicle with its glass door and looked up to the concrete roof to see a sprinkler. Every shower had one. I checked.
It’s hard to believe that there are people in the world that consider showering in a cubicle made of incombustible materials to be an activity that puts you at so much risk from fire that you need your very own sprinkler. It’s even harder to believe that someone exists on the planet that thinks that an inflammable shower cubicle is the kind of place where a fire might actually start.
But I digress.
Basically, you arrive in Changi and you are welcomed into the tourist haven of Singapore. You arrive at Singapore Railway Station and you can be forgiven for thinking that they’d rather not have you here at all.
There’s no tourist information whatsoever. There isn’t a single map of the city within four hundred metres of the building that isn’t sealed in plastic in some bookshop and costs more than breakfast. They haven’t bothered to connect it to the subway system. There isn’t anywhere to leave luggage. In fact, pretty much anywhere you ask in Singapore about storing a couple of backpacks for a few hours and you get the answer “Oh, you should go to the airport. I think they do it there.”
So, we were staring the possibility of looking around steamy Singapore for the day with our baggage on our backs. Not fun. That is until Sheena spotted (as only Sheena can) a coffee shop she recognised: Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Memories of Korea (thankfully, the good ones) came flooding back. Coffee Bean is, outside the US, only available in a few select countries. Sheena spent more time in them in Seoul than she did at home (not really, but it seemed that way sometimes )
I left her happily sitting there while I went in search of a place to leave our bags and a hotel that would possibly let us use their pool for a price. After two hours, Sheena had achieved more by sitting on her bum in Coffee Bean than I had hot-footing it all over the city. She also had less blisters. The woman serving her had chatted and, hearing our story, had offered to put our bags behind the counter while we headed off to explore. Ah well, at least I got to see the inside of some nice hotels.
We decided that we’d head off to Chinatown as it was nearby and was one part that Sheena hadn’t seen before. I was also interested in seeing how it had changed since I’d visited it when I was a teenager back in the mid-1980s. It has changed remarkably in fact and much much more for the better I thought.
Singapore has worked hard, it seems, to actually preserve a lot of the buildings that give Chinatown its charm. There are still streets of shops selling absolutely nothing anyone in the world needs. They are still densely packed with people with surplus income. But the architecture has been lovingly and tastefully restored. Buildings have been painted in vivid shades of colour which, in the strong tropical sunlight, really stand out and this has been complemented by pedestrianisation and the installation of modern architecture which tastefully integrates the whole.
Some of the charm of Chinatown has disappeared in this redevelopment it has to be said. Gone are the streets of rubbish-strewn gutters. The pavements show a marked absence of phlegm and you can actually hear your companions speech while sitting on the pavement terrace of a restaurant without it being interrupted by horns, shouting street-sellers or the general cacophony of Chinese conversation. But progress has its price I suppose.
We visited the Lucky Lucky Restaurant for lunch. It’s always a good rule of thumb that any restaurant abroad, no matter how bad it looks, is usually worth visiting if it’s packed out with locals. This was what led us to the place and proved absolutely true. We had some prawns in ginger and frogs legs with garlic and lemon all washed down with a Tiger Beer and a ginger tea to finish. Fantastic!
We also took the opportunity to visit a couple of temples that I hadn’t seen before. I always have mixed feelings visiting religious buildings of any sort. Cathedrals, shrines, temples, football grounds: they all fill me with sadness at the efforts to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. They spur me on to tell the world that Jesus did it so we don’t have to.
If you’re into Buddha in any way, then the temple in Chinatown is for you. I’ve never seen so many before.
We’re not particularly into Buddha so we didn’t stay long. On the way out, I picked up a little booklet entitled “Everyone can get to heaven, just be good!” It was packed with advice on being good… just trying hard is all we need to do. Find me a single person on the planet please who has successfully become good by trying. Bring them to me and I will buy them lunch. During lunch, I guarantee you, they will so something bad. I’ll make sure of it.
Anyway, I digress again.
We wandered back to Coffee Bean, picked up our bags and headed out to Changi Airport. We had a flight to Australia to catch and, for the first time, we were flying Qantas’ budget version, Jetstar. But that’s another story…