The Road to Singapore (Little Indias not so little!!)

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November 22nd 2018
Published: December 1st 2018
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Since our return from Cuba it’s been four weeks of UK TV; wall to wall soap operas, reality shows and a damp climate. The time had come to leave all that behind once more. We both managed the biggest smile when we knew we’d hopefully be rid of the biggest soap of them all – Brexit!! The only reminder we may have in the weeks to come is when we meet non-Brits and, once they realise where we are from usually start the conversation by politely asking: ‘What do you think of…’

We are going to be away for four weeks first flying to Singapore via Warsaw on LOT Polish airlines. Why LOT? During our original research we found that flying LOT, business class was not much more than flying British Airways, Premium Economy. For such a long journey it seemed worthwhile despite the inconvenience of travelling via Poland.

We will spend seven days in Singapore in an apartment where, during this time, will meet up with Adeline, a lady we met last year on the Trans-Siberian trip. She is a local who has been very helpful in preparing for our stay. Our cruise on the Sapphire Princess will take us to Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. It is a twenty-day voyage that will take us to several ports in each country but for now I will refrain from listing the ports as they didn’t (and still don’t) mean a great deal to me. There will be more on the ports in due course.

We will have a few more days in Singapore to mop up any ‘must sees’ we didn’t see first time round!!

The day before our flights, we took the train to London and stayed at Heathrow Terminal 4 Premier Inn. At 03:30am I was lying on my back, in bed, looking at the ceiling, wide awake, listening to the rhythmic breathing and gentle snoring of Mrs H. Yeah right, about as gentle as a Hyena with colic!!

Blimey, I thought, I’ve got jet lag and I’ve only travelled two hundred miles…by train!! I dread to think the effect of an eleven-hour flight from Warsaw to Singapore will have on us.

The first leg of the flight was a short two and a half hours from London to Poland and was uneventful. We then had a wait of just over nine hours before the second leg of our flight. During this time, it was possible to venture in to the city. We chose to stay for this whole time in the airport. That just goes to show how much I love Warsaw!!! It’s not their fault!! The city is steeped in tradition and history going back as far as the middle ages. The old town of Warsaw dates back to the 15th century. However, throughout the course of the second world war, Warsaw was constantly bombed so much so that after the liberation in 1945, once the dust had settled, the city had been reduced to rubble and now resembled a very poorly maintained building site!! All the buildings in today’s old town, despite being designed based on the medieval originals, are post war. The town planners did their best but, in my opinion, the city has a very bland feeling about it. No, staying put was a good shout. As we were flying business class, we had unlimited access to the lounge; comfy chairs, no crowds, copious amounts of free food and drink, free wi-fi and football on the wide screen TV and even someone to clear up after you. It was just like being at home!!!

The time passed amazingly quickly and it was soon time to board our LOT Dreamliner. On boarding the plane, as well as the expected flat bed, we were presented with the most comprehensive overnight survival kit we’d ever seen. Apart from the standard socks, eye mask, tooth brush with paste and ear plugs, our packs also contained a comb, mouth wash, foot soothing balm and a shoe horn!! The only thing that would have taken this pack from fantastic to amazing (for me anyway) would have been the inclusion of a pair of nail clippers. I just imagined for one second the luxury of me sitting on the edge of my bed, my right foot resting on my left upper leg, grappling with my over grown toe nails before pinging one across the cabin. On second thoughts, now I know why nail clippers are not included!!

The cabin service was exemplary. Gone was the trolley service that we’re accustomed to. We received an eight-page booklet containing the in-flight menu. Meals were brought to us individually direct from the galley. No mini bottles of wine with your meal either. The sommelier appeared with a 70cl bottle of wine, a drop was poured in your glass before being encouraged to taste it. I was asked if I wanted to taste the merlot I had requested. ‘No thanks, just pour. I’ll tell you when!!’ I said in true Brits abroad style!!

As you are travelling with the Hodgsons, the trip would not be complete without one incident! This came as soon as we had lifted our luggage from the carousel. Roisin observed that someone has been in her case. Furthermore, the locking mechanism had been damaged to gain access. On inspection, both washbags had been opened (and not rezipped), a purse containing medication had been rifled through and a travel journal had been unwrapped and thumbed. Clothes had also been disturbed. Thankfully nothing had been taken but a brand new perfectly sound case had been unnecessarily vandalised. Customer service did not seem surprised and directed us to another office. Lost and damaged luggage advised us (after consulting with the manager) that we needed to speak directly with the airline responsible. However, LOT do not have any representatives based at Changi airport. How very convenient!! I can see this drama lasting a little longer yet!

Normally we would have taken the Metro or other public transport from the airport but the nearest Metro station to our accommodation was a ten-minute walk. Not that far, even with luggage, but it was raining quite heavily outside so decided a taxi was the best option. After having endured a long albeit very pleasant and comfortable eleven-hour flight, a taxi was really a no-brainer.

‘Does it often rain in Singapore?’ Roisin asked the taxi driver trying to engage him in conversation.

‘Yes!!’came the reply. ‘At this time of the year as it is currently the middle of the rainy season. It usually rains early morning then mainly in the evening’ Luckily we had the foresight to bring a couple of umbrellas with us.

Our accommodation, in Niven Street, is what is known as a shop house. It’s exactly as it says on the tin. These were, and some still are, apartments above shop fronts. The block that housed our accommodation, though, had long since been converted to both upstairs and downstairs apartments. We obtained the key, through a lock box adjacent to the double fronted narrow doors. Now for bizarre feature number one. On opening the front door, there is immediately a fish pond that stretches across the small hallway. A glass segmented bridge spanned the fish pond. We managed to cross the pond, luggage and all, without further incident!!

Singapore is known as a city state and is found at the southern most tip of the Malaysian peninsula. It is thirty-one miles across from east to west and seventeen miles north to south. That makes it a similar size to the Isle of Man but more similar in shape to the Isle of Wight!! Singapore drives on the same side as the UK which believe it or not, was confusing at first as when Roisin and I usually travel abroad we have to adjust to most of the countries driving on the right. Singapore also use the square three pin electrical plugs so no messing around with adaptors!!

Written guidance was waiting for us, taking us through the amenities and facilities at our disposal. I got my priorities right by making a bee-line for the TV, associated boxes and their remote controls. I had difficulty in understanding the instructions to access the multi-channel cable box. ‘It may as well have been written in Chinese’, I snapped at Roisin. She took the instructions from me before pointing out that it was!! It had been a long day!

The owner of this shop house apartment had been kind enough to leave us some basic provisions such as bread, butter, milk, tea and coffee. She also left directions to the nearest supermarket, less than five minutes walk away. After freshening up we ventured out, following the directions to the ‘Tee’. It was raining steadily. It had been since we left the airport. With the driving on the left, the three-pin square plug and now the rain, this was starting to feel like home!! The humid night air and the 27C in the middle of November soon brought us back to the reality of being almost 7,000 miles from the UK!! Despite our best efforts we found no super market. This could be due to the fact that we were looking for a Tesco or Sainsburys when in reality a super market in Singapore seems to be no bigger than a large convenience store. We managed to purchase our requirements from one of the many 7/11s that appear to be located on every block!!

Now with the pre-amble over, we had seven days to explore Singapore. The conclusion from our research told us that it would be impossible to cover all the major attractions and iconic land marks that this city state had to offer. Three days would certainly want you coming back for more. In order to ensure we had all the must sees covered, we created an itinerary. Neither of us are big fans of sticking to a time table whilst we’re away as there are too many variables that can throw the schedule in to chaos (weather, fatigue, delays or what seemed like a good idea at the time then falls in to the ‘couldn’t be arsed’ category!!). We were mindful to keep our itinerary flexible. Rather than continue writing this blog as a narrative, I will proceed with sub titling the places on our list and write about our experience in a more structured format. Our first full day was taken up by exploring two nearby districts; Little India and the Arab Quarter.

Little India

Only a short five-minute walk from our Accommodation saw us at the 8 lanes of Bukit Timah Road and the top of Serangoon Road that marks the gateway to the district known as Little India. This is not a nickname for a district of Singapore that happens to have a high volume of Asian residents after all, 90% of Singaporeans are Asian as Singapore happens to be IN Asia!! Little India is an official ethnic district of Singapore complete with its own Metro station known as an MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) of the same name. We had arrived in Singapore at the height of one of the most important religious festivals in the Hindu calendar – the festival of light: Deepavali. Also known as Diwali, this festival is as important to Hindus as the Christmas holiday is to Christians. The gateway to Serangoon Road, Little India’s main artery was decorated with outlines and arrangements of clay lamps which symbolises the inner light that protects one from spiritual darkness. The peacock was prominent in displays throughout the district symbolising the cycle of time. The peacock is also associated with the Goddess Saraswati, a deity representing benevolence, patience, kindness, compassion and knowledge. All qualities which are usually required when travelling by cruise ship!!

It was a hot and humid day as we strolled in the relative shade of row after row of shop houses. Some more ornate, showing off the intricate Indian designs, others just painted plainly in bright and vibrant colours but all adding to make this district unique from the rest of Singapore. The pleasant smell of a mix of spices and incense lingered in the air and seemed to follow us with every block we traversed.

There were a couple of main reasons for walking through Little India - two equally important but aesthetically different temples along Serangoon Road. The first one, Sri Veerana Kaliamman Temple was built in 1881 by labourers from Bengal and is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Kali, a firm favourite of Bengalis!! The turquoise and green façade, constructed, so I am told, in the style of south Indian Tamil temples, was adorned with many figures, some of which must be Kali, others I suspect are not!!

A few blocks further on we came to the perimeter of a courtyard that was painted red and white stripes. At first glance we thought the Big Top had come to town or we had stumbled on the Where’s Wally (Waldo) headquarters (Asian branch). However, a few more yards and we were standing outside one of the oldest temples in Singapore, Sri Perumal Temple. Constructed around 1855, the pyramid-like tower atop the entrance showed the different incarnations of Lord Vishnu. There were hundreds of mini Vishnus covering the five tiers of this tower. This guy has had more incarnations than Dr Who!!

The Arab Quarter

Half a mile or so east of Little India lies the Arab quarter. We didn’t need a map or GPS to tell us we had reached our destination. The street sign that read Arab Street and the golden onion domes of the Sultan Mosque on the opposite side of the road were massive clues!! The Imam had just started his call to prayer when we arrived so the main prayer hall and the rest of the mosque grounds were out of bounds to non-Muslims.

Whereas Little India is the official name of the district, the Arab Quarter is most definitely a nickname for the district that is specified on all maps as Kampong Glam. However, whilst Little India would be memorable for its aroma of frankincense with a hint of cumin, there is no pong emitted from Kampong Glam despite its name. The Arab quarter had a more visual sensory attraction. The name, Kampong Glam is derived from the gelam trees that once grew here. As for the sensory attraction, Arab Street is the traditional home for Singapore’s textile dealers. We were stopped on more than one occasion by a dealer asking if we wanted to buy a carpet. ‘The carpets may be a good deal’, I said to Roisin, ‘but I bet you there’s one hell of a fitting charge!!’ As delicately as some of the woven carpets on display, we ‘weaved’ in and out of several silk shops specialising in sarongs as well as an array of stores selling crafts and curios. (I apologise for any pun that may have crept in to the last sentence but it couldn’t be avoided!) As we headed in to Hadji Lane we felt a few spots of rain. The umbrellas went up as we continued down this passageway where I can only describe as old and traditional meets the new and funky. Gaily painted shop houses and boutiques traded alongside more traditional market stalls. This wasn’t just a tourist spot as many locals seemed to be frequenting this lane as well. Opposite a bar toward the end of the lane where it looked as if graffiti artists had taken over the asylum, was a salon that specialised in body massage, Indian head rubs, and other well-being, touchy feely things. ‘Oh, look, I said. ‘they perform henna tattoos’, turning to Roisin who was already in the store picking out a suitable pattern. Ten minutes later, she emerged from the store with her right ankle ensconced in a brown, rather intricate floral pattern.

We completed a full circle and headed back towards Sultan Mosque, Singapore’s largest where we briefly wandered around the gardens of the Malay heritage centre which lies immediately adjacent to the Mosque. This heritage centre used to be the residence of the son of the first Sultan of Singapore and dates back to the 1840s. There was still a threat that the spots of rain we were currently experiencing turned in to something a little nastier so we decided to head back to our apartment to freshen up before heading out for dinner.

We visited a recommended restaurant in the heart of Little India called the Banana Leaf. On entering Little India, we were greeted with an amazing array of colour from the Diwali decorations that we had seen strewn above Serangoon Road earlier today. Only now, after dark, all lit up, the decorations emitted hues of purple, gold, red, green and blue but mainly purple!!

Meanwhile back in the Banana Leaf the food was as delicious as we were led to believe. The highlight, though, was to eat my food from off of a Banana Leaf.

‘Now I know why the restaurant is so called’, I said to Roisin.

‘No shit, Sherlock’, she replied.

‘No, actually it’s Chicken Chilli Masala!!’ I retorted. ‘Well at least it saves on the washing up!!

Roisin had never set foot in an Indian restaurant before this evening. It was her first visit to an Indian restaurant…ever!!

If she is on a roll I wonder if I can convince her to ride the cable car across to Sentosa Island later in the week!!!

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