It’s shaped like a diamond. And it’s clean, like Tokyo or Dubai. But it has its own pulse, a rhythm, an order.
Singapore is notably the country where those caught in possession of chewing gum face fines and imprisonment. Of course, should one engage in criminal activity more serious, like vandalism (as in the case of the American who pleaded guilty to vandalizing cars and stealing road signs), caning is part of the sentence.
I like a country that takes its laws seriously. And I like a country that punishes its lawbreakers seriously. That may be why I’ve yearned to visit this country ever since I witnessed public outcry over the American vandal who was going to be caned.
Fortunately, Michelle was keen to visit Singapore as well, so we chose it as our destination for New Year’s Eve 2015. (Ringing in the New Year overseas is a tradition we’ve enjoyed for awhile now.) This year’s celebration in Singapore, in fact, would be my 13th New Year’s Eve in a row celebrated in a country outside of the USA.
We departed on Christmas day from LAX. Typically, our holiday begins the moment we pass through TSA and enter a lounge. However, this year we were given a $30 food voucher by our airline, Air China, because our flight was delayed by two hours. (Fortunately, I already knew our flight was delayed, as I checked the airline’s website the night before, and I’d reconfirmed by phone in the morning. Thus, we weren’t inconvenienced nor surprised by the delay. Of course, we still eagerly accepted the $30 food voucher.) We went to the food court in the Tom Bradley Terminal and enjoyed an Umami Burger! (and fries, and sweet potato fries, and a smoothie).
Then, we took the escalators up to the Star Alliance Lounge.
I was here in November, and it was packed! But on Christmas Day, it was absolutely perfect.
We had some vegetarian turkey chili, some pho, and a cappuccino or two. Then it was time to board.
Loyal to Star Alliance, we chose to use points to fly Air China Capitol Pavilion Business Class and Forbidden Pavilion First Class.
Air China’s 777-300 Business Class configuration is 2x2x2. In order to ensure unobstructed aisle access, select the middle seats. (Or go to SeatGuru to make sure you don’t find yourself in a sub-optimal spot for the next fourteen hours).
Michelle was happy with her seat.
Here’s the amenities kit:
Once we reached cruising altitude, the sun started to set.
And it was time to eat. Again.
At some point during the flight, Michelle explained to me that we should not risk facial dehydration. I didn’t quite understand what that meant, but she proceeded to remove two hydration masks from her purse, which were then applied for ten minutes.
Then it was time to eat again.
And then sleep.
I watched Pixels and then spent the rest of my time reading Flash Boys while listening to Chinese pop star Genie Chuo.
After a 14-hour flight, we arrived in Beijing. At 10:00 p.m., Peking Airport was a ghost town.
Michelle showered in the lounge. I changed my socks. We both ate some pork shumai. And then we had one more flight: 6.5 hours to Singapore.
Upon arrival in Singapore, Michelle and I were immediately impressed by Changi Airport’s efficiency.
Changi is a huge airport, yet from stem to stern, we not only deplaned and made it through Passport Control but also collected our luggage . . . in a little less than fifteen minutes. It’s no wonder that Skytrax, in 2015, declared Changi “The World’s Best Airport”.
We exited the airport and hailed a taxi, giddy to experience Singapore for the first time.
There are few countries that have only one city. And while The Vatican and Monaco may be smaller, Singapore consists of approximately 276 square miles — about 2/3 the size of New York City. So just as we might navigate Buenos Aires by barrio, we might pinpoint locations in Singapore by quay, subway stop, or ethnic cluster (Chinatown or Little India).
Our first stop was the Mandarin Oriental. Since I knew we’d be arriving in Singapore around 7:30 a.m., I made arrangements to find a hotel that might accommodate us earlier than the typical 3:00 p.m. check-in. In this case, I booked our hotel via AMEX Fine Hotels and Resorts, which typically affords guests a noon check-in and a guaranteed 4:00 p.m. late check-out.
The lobby was especially snazzy.
The elevators looked like fun.
As expected, the Mandarin Oriental offered to have our room ready by noon. Since it was only 8 am, we decided to have some breakfast at a nearby Toast Box.
The fairly ubiquitous Toast Box serves Nanyang Kopi, their signature coffee designed to pay homage to the Singaporean coffee shops of the ’60s and ’70s. They also serve Kaya Toast, which is basically toast with sweet jam, toast that we failed to dip in the runny, soft-boiled eggs with which they provided us. (I just lopped off the top of each egg shell and drank the contents. Shortly thereafter, we learned that each shell should be drained of its contents, as the runny yolk makes a nice dipping sauce for the Kaya Toast! Lesson learned.)
With a few hours remaining until check-in, we did some sightseeing.
Our first stop was to Gardens By The Bay, specifically to the Flower Dome (a climate-controlled bio-dome. I could feel an “oxygen buzz,” likely due to the high concentration of plants and trees. It felt great!)
Our next stop was to Cloud Forest. (This is another climate-controlled bio-dome, but it has a walkway that provides an aerial view of the canopy and “mountainside” below). I thought it was nice. Michelle found it thrilling and unnerving, as even though she recently went skydiving . . .
she’s still not particularly fond of heights.
We worked up an appetite after looking at so many plants and trees and flowers, so off to the food court we went! Food courts are fairly common in Singapore, having become the more modern, air-conditioned form of the hawker center. Often located in shopping malls on the lowest floor, we found a flurry of food options at the Marina Bay Sands mall. Noodlestar became our favorite, as the noodles and dumplings were handmade for immediate consumption.
There wasn’t much uniformity in the noodle size, as they’d just been made moments earlier. It was reminiscent of our time in Sicily.
We were now with full bellies and the desire to nap; fortunately, our room was ready. Here’s our view pre-nap:
If it seems like all we really do is sleep and eat, then we’ve likely been fairly pegged. We awoke with voracious appetites, and the international buffet at the Mandarin Oriental met our needs. Below are some of our favorite selections.
Our rate included breakfast, so we dined again at the Mandarin Oriental. (If we have to pay for anything, we want the ripple of every dollar to somehow make its way back to us). I enjoyed seared yellowtail over soba.
We both enjoyed the fresh fruit.
And then a swim.
Of course, while the Mandarin Oriental was great, we’d been drooling over the Marina Bay Sands ever since we began planning this trip. (You see that surfboard atop the three towers? That’s where the infinity pool is. It’s the highest and largest infinity pool in the world. We had every intention of swimming in it. Immediately.)
Walking across the Helix Bridge to the Marina Bay Sands was a bit like stepping into a photograph. And when we reached the infinity pool on the 57th floor, that’s when it probably hit us for the first time: Wow. Wow! We are in Singapore.
Much like setting foot onto the Great Wall of China, or chomping on a fresh date as you enter the Burj Al Arab in Dubai, stepping onto the deck of the famed pool atop the Marina Bay Sands was something that goes unrivaled by the photos that compelled us to see it in person. It’s one of the few things we’ve seen that lives up to the hype.
The Sphynx? An oversell. The Great Pyramid? It under-delivers. The Temple of Karnak? Amazing. Extraordinary. You must see it in person.
And therein lies the rub. How do you know which sites will live up to your expectations? How do you know which ones will exceed them?
Every once in awhile we are surprised. The Marina Bay Sands did it for us.
And there’s Michelle, greeting the Singapore skyline.
In the morning they put out some lanelines. For a little while, I had the pool to myself.
And then our friend Keish arrived!
We spent the day hopping on and off a double-decker bus.
We saw Chinatown.
We stopped at Zion Road Food Centre. I ate the best Chicken Katsu Curry Don.
We walked along the Clarke Quay.
The quay was dotted with reminders that 2015 marks Singapore’s 50th year of independence.
Keish and I enjoyed a fairly sizable dessert:
Orchard Ave. was ornamented nicely for Christmas and the New Year.
If you can see the tower below with the pagoda-style roof, that’s the Marriott where we spent our remaining six days.
We stayed up late for the New Year’s Eve fireworks show and countdown.
The next day we met up with our newlywed friends from Ireland, Tiernan and Karen, for afternoon coffee. They were in Singapore for their honeymoon!
And then Michelle and I did what we do best. We ate. And ate.
Air China: Lackluster American movie offerings. Smoking pilots. (I’d read about this previously on FlyerTalk. Unfortunately, our experience on Air China led us to believe that the pilots were smoking in the cockpit or on the flight deck, as the smoke wafted back toward our seats). Great lie-flat seats. Great food. Poor snack offerings in the galley. Decent lounge in Peking with very small shower rooms. The next time we fly to Asia, we will likely opt out of Air China and, instead, stick with Air Canada, Singapore Airlines, United Airlines, Asiana, ANA, or EVA.
Mandarin Oriental: Brilliant. Clean. Most excellent value via AMEX FHR, which included a complimentary dinner for two ($95/person), a complimentary breakfast for two ($55/person), a room upgrade, early check-in, and late check-out.
Marina Bay Sands: Do it. The pool is amazing. To maximize your time in and around the pool, arrive in the morning on the day of check-in. While your room probably won’t be ready, you can get two key-cards that give you access to the pool. This helps turn what would typically be a 20-hour hotel stay (3 p.m. to 11 a.m.) into a 29-hour hotel stay (you can collect your key-card at 6 a.m.).
Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza: Clean, safe hotel with a prime location on Orchard Ave. Easy accessibility for public transportation (train, bus). We used points for our stay, and when you use points at a Marriott property for four nights, your fifth night is free.
Wi-Fi: We had free Wi-Fi at the Marriott, but in order to have consistent Wi-Fi outside of the hotel, we reserved a device resembling a hockey puck via rentafi Singapore, a 4G Portable WiFi rental with a battery life of 8-10 hours. We paid $85.50 for 8 days. They send it to your hotel, you leave it at the front desk when you’re done, and it fit comfortably in my front shorts pocket.
Value: Singapore is expensive. Food, beverages, transportation, hotel accommodation . . . it is the opposite of traveling in neighboring Malaysia, for instance. If you play the points game, though, “earn and burn”. Earn your points, and burn through them in Singapore in an effort to offset some of the things that otherwise might become cost prohibitive. The simplest way to do this is by acquiring an airline credit card with a hefty sign-up bonus (United Airlines or AEROPLAN, for instance), a hotel credit card with a hefty sign-up bonus (Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, SPG), and a credit card that transfers 1:1 to your airline of choice (American Express has some good options, as does Chase via its Sapphire and Ink products). This is a simple method for turning a trip that should cost over $7,000 into a trip that costs under $1,000.
Safety: For those of us who travel often, safety may or may not be a concern. Part of the adventure and the thrill is, at least for me, stepping into harm’s way (like when I coerced a guard in China to let me onto the Great Wall at 3 a.m. so I could hike the forbidden parts) or crawling into the unknown (like when I shimmied through the Cu-Chi tunnels in Saigon, wanting to glimpse what the Viet Cong experienced 50 years ago). However, now that I have Michelle and Kona, I’m not keen to risk life and limb for a passport stamp. I’m looking for safe, awe-inspiring, international travel. Singapore met my criteria.
Do it again?: Absolutely. And why? Because it’s safe, it’s clean, there’s a lot to do, and there’s a ton to eat. Further, for a guy who’s becoming more and more introverted as he ages, Singapore provides the linguistic isolation that I crave. “Singlish” is a mashup of English and other languages like Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. It’s a sort of local slang often evident when an extra word is attached to a sentence or question: “Got it, lah?” And while English seems to be the first language of Singaporeans, it’s not the first language they reach for. And when they do, it is a rapid-fire elocution. It’s a bit like listening to the Irish speak. I have to pay close attention to get it the first time around. In Singapore I can be alone with my thoughts; the other languages create a white noise. (I think in English, so the language-void liberates me, yet there are people around me, allowing the physical experience to remain shared.)
Final note: On our last day, it rained. Hard. Michelle was inside one of the malls. I was walking back to our hotel, shielding a book from the rain by tucking it under my shirt. A local man spotted me at the crosswalk and tilted his umbrella to keep me dry. He offered to walk with me until he reached his car, which was a block or two away. We started chatting, and once he reached his car, he offered me his umbrella. He wanted to give me his umbrella. I told him I can handle a little rain. We chatted for a few more minutes, about his life in Singapore, about my life of teaching and racing, and then we parted. But as he walked away he said, “You know, as a triathlete, I thought you’d be more tan”.
And just like that, a gentle reminder. Break time is over. Perhaps it’s time to start training again.
So there you have it. One week in Singapore. We walked. We ate. We swam. We smiled.
Singapore, we will see you again someday soon!