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Singapore - Transport, tourism, shopping, beds, and off the beaten path

by Charles Smith

April 23, 2006

After being in SE Asia 6 yrs I’ve always considered it refreshing to spend a few days in clean, efficient Singapore where everything works and runs smoothly and on time. But lately it is beginning to pale. Especially this time, March 2006, as the “Konsortium Bas Ekspres” from Penang went off and left us while we were clearing Immigration so we had to stand 1+ hrs in a very long queue to catch a slower “express” city bus on into town. If possible try to avoid arriving in Singapore on Monday mornings ­ you would not believe the enormity of the crowds of people trying to get across the causeway and back to work!!!

For shopping they have almost everything.  And new models of cameras and electronics seem to get there at least 1 to 3 years before they hit Malaysia.  But be aware that warranties are normally good only in Singapore. The dealers will say, “No problem, any trouble just telephone me and if you have to send it back my shop and I will take care of it.”  But I have been nicked three times ­ an ‘LG’ LCD television, a high end Epson Scanner, and a World Space Satellite radio.  E-mails or letters are completely ignored and phone calls are an exercise in dead end passing you off with the old army game.

20 yrs ago Singapore wanted to be a modern city so frantically began tearing things down to get rid of the old and on with the new.  Couldn’t get rid of all the old stuff fast enuf, randomly and rapidly tearing down everything in sight to make way for the new Singapore.

Then suddenly they looked around and said, “Hey! What happened to all the tourists who used to come here? Why aren’t they coming to see our beautiful new modern (and expensive!) city?”

As for tourism you can see the more interesting stuff in two days easily. Their most vigorous tourism promotion efforts are the expensive Boat Quay area along the Singapore River, and Sentosa Island.  Last time I was there, Nov 2005, they had torn down the ‘around Sentosa monorail’ and were building a new one so almost anything you might want to see involved very long detours walking around the extensive construction and it looked like it will last a long time.  Also they tore down the nice maritime museum they had there.

But my usual haunts are not in any tourism guide books and definitely cannot understand why they are not made known.  A favorite is the Omni-Theater and Science Center.  5 minute downhill walk from the Jurong East MRT Station.  Website: www.science.edu.Singapore   The theater is in a large spherical planetarium equivalent of five floors high and the picture completely surrounds you, making you feel every motion and sound.  Try to sit in the center.   Sometimes they also show I-max movies, much smaller format and not the complete surround view but still plenty large.  The adjoining Science Center is interesting too and if you want to do both there is a package deal.  If interested could easily spend a complete day there.

A stop just as good or better is Haw Par Villa, or Tiger Balm Garden. 9AM ­ 6PM.  SBS bus #10, 30, 51, 143, 188 and 200 ­ off at stop #B18 or 20 on Pasir Panjang Road.  Or, # 176 ­ off at stop B04 on West Coast Highway.  Just a bit west from Sentosa Island and the World Trade Center.  A unique, interesting, intriguing and incredible example of a Chinese billionaire’s fantasy environment of tablaux, statues, motifs, portraying old Chinese folklore, mythology, legends and values.  His own personal theme park, built on grounds surrounding his opulent and unusual hilltop mansion.  All worked out in interesting walks in mazes of tunnels and pathways that lead you thru the stories and examples of the virtues of good versus evil and rewards or sufferings you will have in your next life for what you did in this one.

The city owns it now and admission is free.  The large bizarre mansion was torn down years ago and they are slowly and discretely trying to get away with tearing down the rest as it is a high maintenance cost, and for high rise buildings the property would be worth billions.  So, as they are trying to give it the soft key it is not on any tourist info anyplace and almost no-one knows about it so you will never see many people there.  I saw the other one too, in Hong Kong, but it was torn down more than 30 years ago for the same reasons.  A real shame.  They were built by the Haw Par Brothers, the ‘Tiger Balm Kings’ who originated and marketed the Tiger Balm Products that are still popular today.  But to get full value of a visit you will have to try to find out some of the stories pertaining to what you are looking at.  Some are explained with signage but some are not.  If you go in “the jade room” they have some old books with lots of pictures about how it was when the mansion was there.

If you enjoy buying or perusing useful and unusual trinkets, mostly small hardware and home appliances, plus boat instruments and compasses, travel accessories, etc etc, look for the ‘Meng Store’.  A small shop in #02-14 Clifford Center, near Marina Bay and the Singapore River and next 2 the Raffles Place LRT Interchange.  I even finally found nice ‘fits all sizes’ sink plugs there, so handy in all the guest houses and hotels that have no drain stoppers in the sink and you want to wash some clothes…  Although the Clifford Center is a large new looking building the old man who runs it has been in the same shop location 30 yrs and some of his stuff has been there that long too!

Most common shopping list items in Singapore are hand phones, electronics, and cameras.  My priorities on digital cameras would be: batteries, pixels, zoom. Zoom takes time and you might even miss a shot while fiddling with it.  So first go for LOTS of pixels, if you have that you can just point and shoot.  Then use your computer to select and blow up just the portion of your shot that you want.  But the less pixels you have the less you can enlarge anything.  Of course lots of zoom is big benefit but does take time so if you need to grab a shot in a hurry you can forget the zoom if you have plenty of pixels.  And, DON’T buy any camera that does not offer the option of using standard AA torchlight batteries.  You can buy them anyplace and it avoids the disappointment of missing photos because your camera’s battery is dead.  There are now rechargeable AA batteries up to 2500 mAh which means they will last longer than most camera batteries at much less cost.  And when your camera is a couple years old they will probably discontinue that model so might quit making the proprietary battery for it too. Believe me, I have already experienced it!

I have two Ricoh Cameras that used to be one of the better German brands.  But like almost everything else they are now made in Japan or China.  One camera’s lens went sour after two years and the repairman said the model has been discontinued and when they discontinue a model they also discontinue the spare parts…  Also Ricoh is now focusing more on office equipment rather than cameras.

Decent sleeps in Singapore are not cheap.  Lots of hostels but most could more aptly be called flophouses.  One reasonable one tho used to be, “D’Simple Hostel”  Loke Yew Street, in block SW of intersection of Hill St and Stamford Rd (continuation of Orchard Rd)  about two yrs ago was double or twin w fan and shower S$26, Air Con S$32. Clean, central, cheap.

I’ve tried several places but my personal favorite is the ‘Sakura Garden Hotel’.   Nice place but cheap because it is too near the red light district in Gaylang.  6 yrs ago it was brand new, was the ‘Princeton Hotel’ and their cheap rooms were S$39.  New ownership and new name now but same price.  But, in Nov 2005 and still in Mar 2006 they had a big banner advertising S$35 special promotion price, a very good deal by Singapore standards.  All rooms have AC, double bed, big TV, hot water, electric coffee pot in the room with instant coffee supplied, and drinking water.  Tall Skinny building 9 floors high, with lift, on Lorong 15, between Sims Ave and Gayling Road.  If you go to Singapore by bus the main bus station is ‘The Golden Mile’ on Beach Road.  Go across Beach Road and catch the #100 bus, get off at Lorong 9 in Gayling (on Sims Ave) and walk two blocks farther and turn right on Lorong 15.  Bus will probably cost S 90 cents.

A ‘must do’ first stop in Singapore should be the Bugis Junction MRT station. Go underground to where you buy the train tickets and get an ‘EZ Link’ card.  Load it up for any value you might need as it is good for any bus or train while traveling around the island of Singapore and at much reduced rates.  When you leave they will refund any unused portion except S$5 for the card.  Or if you might come back it is good for seven years.  At the same window buy, “The Public Transport Map” for S$5.  It is the best map you will find ANYPLACE.  Has all bus and train routes, all streets and they are indexed, most large buildings are named, all pages show which way is north, and all for sides of every page show the number of the adjoining page.  In Singapore every bus stop has a sign showing the street name and stop #.  And they are all indicated on the map.  If you don’t have that map you should stay home….!!

When leaving you can buy a bus ticket in Johore Bahru for less than 2/3 the price.  So If interested in doing that go to the Queen Street Bus Station, two blocks north of Rochor Road and catch an express bus to JB for S$2.40.  Keep your ticket.  You will need it because you get off at immigration.  At Singapore check-out you catch same bus if you hurry but Malaysia check-in takes much longer so the bus goes on and you catch the next one.  At Larkin Bus Station in JB a tout will jump into the bus to ask where you are going.  Big station so you could screw around forever but he knows all the buses including the independent ones so will get you onto the very next one to go.  Usually in less than 15 minutes.  Will charge you RM1 extra for the ticket, about US27 cents, for a good bit of streamlining so no rip off there…

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