South East Asia Part 1: Singapore

The Plan

The planning for the family trip to Singapore started in 2014. It was then that I got the idea in my little brain that we could actually afford a trip abroad and not be bankrupted or arrested or something unpleasant like that, either by being too poor or too confused about what to do. This began the planning phase that would ultimately go on for over 3 years. Which is particularly ironic since we ended up going with a travel agency and didn’t actually plan anything on the trip.

The trip was always postponed in favour of other trips and this was usually blamed on me. While I admit it was true that it was true that I did push the trip back in favour of going to Bhutan, I can’t possibly take all the blame. Even if it wasn’t my suggestion, I was blamed anyway especially in the case where my family decided to go to Darjeeling and Sikkim for the winter. The idea was from my mother, the confirmation was from my aunt, the fact that this would postpone our Singapore by a year, my fault apparently. Thus is life.

A random ad which offered a 15000 rupee per person discount on Thomas Cook India’s website ensured that the trip would be between Christmas 2017 and new year 2018. As with most things I do, years of planning proved to be unnecessary as I am apparently a sucker for a good discount. The primary objective to go for a relatively reputed tour agency was because my parents can be rather particular about food. Having them suffer through the food they’re not comfortable with or running around looking for the South Indian food they are comfortable with didn’t seem like my idea of fun, so a tour operator seemed to be the best idea. It was with this in my mind that I made the announcement that the Singapore and Malaysia trip was finally happening, to my extended family, all my friends, both past and present, casual acquaintances, the milk lady, the local fruit vendor down the road, the weird kid from across the street who keeps trying to steal papayas from the tree in my house and anyone else who would, or would not, listen.

So understandably, I was utterly and truly horrified when my colleague informed a few days later that he, along with his parents, would be joining me on the trip. He had apparently liked the idea and had gotten his family onboard within a week. This was sacrilege. He hadn’t earned this trip. He hadn’t slogged for the years I had. He didn’t deserve it. He ended up coming to Singapore regardless. Finally in December, after a lot of worrying about passports, currency and a mess created by my tour agency resulting in the Visa arriving at the last minute, we were finally on our way.

Day 1: Arriving in Singapore and Gardens by the bay

The journey started the day after Christmas when we packed up, tried to remember in vain the things we may have forgotten to pack, which unfortunately turned out to be my toothbrush because the universe hates me, and finally caught a cab for the long ride to Bangalore airport. The airport was still decked up in Christmas decorations and looked far too jolly and bright to my sleep deprived eyes at 11 pm. After passing through security at the entrance, handing over our check-in bags, convincing customs we’re not trying to defect to Singapore or Malaysia, and convincing the second round of security that neither we nor the stuff we own was likely to go boom, we finally ended up at our departure gate.

Ye Christmas spirit in Namma Bengaluru

This area of the airport was far more soothing, with dimmer lighting and a smaller crowd. It was her that my parents had their sitcom cliche moment. They had never met my friend or his parents before, so they didn’t recognise each other when they met at the water fountain near our gate. After a long chat, they came back to where I was sitting and announced that they now have company on our tour as they had met another friendly, vegetarian family who was also on the tour. This seemed suspicious to me, so upon further investigation, it was discovered it was my friend and family. After a good laugh and awkward hellos, we finally boarded the plane at midnight.

The flight was long and exhausting. I gave up my window seat to a bratty Australian kid and his dad since it was past midnight and there really wasn’t a point to it anyway. Dinner was surprisingly good though, all things considered. We had a Malaysia Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur after which we had to catch our connection to Singapore. So a desperate dash through KL International airport, which saw me losing my favourite water bottle to security, and a short hop later saw us at Changi international airport in Singapore.

One of the many gardens in Changi Airport

Changi airport is supposed to be the best airport in the world, a fact I, unfortunately, did not really get to experience as we only saw the arrival hall here. The first impression you get is the sheer scale of the place, you can keep walking for what seemed like kilometres on end between terminals or to various counters. It truly is massive. We met up with our tour manager, a jolly woman named Prerna from Mumbai, and proceed to do what I discovered to be a big issue on organised group tours like the one I was on, wait for the remaining members of the group to arrive.

Home for the next 3 days

Once everyone had finally arrived we started the 40 min bus ride down Singapore’s immaculate roads. The hotel we were staying at is the Quality Hotel Marlow near Little India. A posh 4-star affair we usually wouldn’t even have considered due to the cost. But, because it was part of the package we stayed in an upmarket place for once and live the life of the almost rich and barely famous. With a few hours to kill before the tour began we freshened up and got some of what would turn out to be a rare commodity on the trip, sleep.

Our first stop of the day was the Gardens by the bay, a massive park built on reclaimed land. With the imposing Marina bay sands on one side and the ocean on the other, it’s an interesting place to get lost in for the whole day. It was therefore rather unfortunate that we only had a few hours here, though what we did see in those few hours was stunning. Excited for our first proper outing in Singapore, we hopped off the tour bus and started doing what we do best on these sort of trips, taking pictures.

A supertree with the Marina Bay Sands in the background

The Gardens, which I might add is technically called the South Bay Gardens, have a number of large structures called “Sky trees” which function as everything from planting beds to Solar power plants. There is even a walkway connecting a few of them from which one can get a panoramic view of the garden. The other major highlights are the flower and cloud forest domes located at one end of the park near the Marina reservoir. These are massive themed greenhouses that are a must visit. Given the unfortunate time constraint we had we could only visit the cloud forest dome, but I do hope to return sometime to see the rest.

The waterfall and the path back down.


Some real, some fake, all awesome

The cloud forest dome was crowded, a sad truth for all the places we’d visit as it was the last week of December and everyone was on holiday. It is also huge. It’s built around a man-made hill that houses thousands of plants and other interesting attractions, ranging from sculptures to documentary videos. It’s actually all pretty breathtaking, from the sudden chill in the air that greets you as soon as you enter, a stark juxtaposition to the hot Singapore evening outside, to the bright greens and vivid colours of all the plants inside. We walked past the waterfall that was the primary cause of the chill at the entrance and made our way to the elevator that will take us to the top of the hill from which we’ll begin the slow winding walk back down.

The beautiful walk back

The walk down was peaceful and colourful, to say the least, with a variety of plants along the metal walkway which alternates between sticking out along the hill and passing through it. The walk interspersed multiple rooms filled with stalactites, various sculptures and more plants. The path slowly descends back to the base of the waterfall from where we made our way back out through a souvenir shop. After regrouping with the rest of the group and having a snack we made our way back out to the tour bus. The entire garden was lit up in bright neon at this point and looked quite surreal.

Straight out of an 80’s SciFi movie

After getting back into the bus and confirm what optional activities we would be going for the next day, we drove back to the hotel through the well-lit streets of Singapore. Staring out the window of my room, at the traffic below and the skyline above turned out to be an interesting habit that I did not donate nearly enough time to. The city looks immaculate, especially to someone who’s used to the dust, potholed streets of Bangalore. After a long call back to India to tell everyone about how we’re international travellers now, we called it a night.

The Singapore skyline as seen from my room at night

Day 2: The Aquarium, Singapore Flyer and travelling like a local

An early start the second day, with breakfast at the hotel, had us set off to Sentosa Island. The plan today was the Aquarium and an optional visit to the Universal theme park. An option I chose not to opt for. Going to a theme park with my 60-year-old parents who neither know or care for the movies on which the rides are based didn’t seem to be the best idea. Also, high thrill rides really aren’t my thing either. The expensive entry ticket and the crazy crowd during the Christmas weekend backed up our decision.

Sentosa baby!

Sentosa is a resort island separated from the Singapore mainland by a small channel. It is connected via road, monorail and cable car, all of which we got to experience. The bus dropped us off at the ridiculously huge underground parking. We were given a briefing on what to do and the set of to the Aquarium, which was at one end of the island and overlooks the marina and the Singapore mainland. After showing the student volunteers our tickets, we descended down into the massive aquarium complex.

Crowded into a little cage for the fishes to view.

The complex housed a wide variety of marine creatures, from shrimp and crabs, to a wide variety of fish all the way up to dolphins, sharks and manta rays. A lot of the tanks are so massive that it seems more like the fish are viewing us and not the other way round. There are 2 long tubes in one of the tanks through which one can walk through with a variety of sharks peering down at you, as well as a large circular column of a tank housing a number of small fish was another interesting area, with all the fish continuously swimming around in circles at their own speed. As some who’s idea of an aquarium was fish in glass boxes this was all eye-opening.

Feeding them fishes.

The largest piece of plexiglass I have ever seen formed the viewing panel for the manta ray tank. There was a diver feeding the rays, 2 of which appeared to be 3 times his size. An assortment of smaller sharks and fish rounded out the ensemble in this massive tank. The bottlenose dolphins were the next attraction, a first-time experience for me. Unfortunately, the viewing window was a lot smaller and was very crowded. The dolphins would whizz by and while everyone desperately tried to take photos and usually failed. There was a souvenir shop that sold fish shopped soft toys. Business seemed to be good.

Flipper says hi.

The entire thing took about 4 hours to complete. Once we were out we spent a little while loitering about the marina before heading towards the monorail station. Since we hadn’t opted for universal studios we had the rest of the day to ourselves and only had to regroup at the hotel at 7 pm for dinner. We hopped onto the monorail for a free ride back into the city. You only have to pay for the monorail while entering Sentosa. Rides around the island and back into the city are free. The monorail dropped us off at the Vivocity mall in the city.

The marina and the view back to Singapore

Being the typical South Indians we are, we headed to the Saravana Bhavan located in the food court for lunch and had what was one of the best lunches on the entire trip. Also, a point to note is the Singapore water supply is so clean that you don’t need to buy bottled drinking water anywhere. You can drink straight from the tap. A decision made easier by the fact that drinking water bottles cost a ridiculous amount. Just carry an empty water bottle with you and you should be fine.

For the next leg of our journey, we boarded the Singapore MRT system at the station under the mall, after collecting our tickets from a ticket machine, another new experience for me. We had the option of the short route to our next destination, which involved 7 stops, a train change and about 20 min of travel or the long route which involved just one train but close to 30 stops and about an hour of travel. Since we had been on our feet the whole day and wanted a break we chose the latter option. So with a long break on the empty MRT train, we got down at the Bugis MRT station to walk to our next destination, the Singapore Flyer.

The flyer is this, but bigger.

The Singapore Flyer is a massive observation wheel, similar to the London eye wheel but apparently a little bigger. It takes about 30 minutes to finish one revolution giving a spectacular view of the city along the way. The was absolutely no crowd at the wheel, so we got the slightly pricey tickets and were at the entrance in a matter of minutes, after passing through the apparently mandatory mini display and souvenir shop that seems to be a mainstay for these kinds of attractions. We had to wait about a minute for our capsule to slowly descend before we hopped on board.

The view from the flyer.

The wheel never stops rotating but is slow enough for one to just walk into the capsule. Each is glass enclosed Air conditioned space that’s the size of a city bus. We were accompanied by a family with a small girl, who was adamant that she could see her house from the wheel, notwithstanding the fact that her house is apparently in Delhi. The ride is slow and relaxing with great views of Singapore’s attractions, cityscape and reservoir. You can even book a drink or a whole candlelight dinner to be enjoyed in your private capsule if you’re so inclined. It was a relaxing and enjoyable experience overall.

The view from the bus.


Singapore after the rains.

After the flier, we got a local bus back home. While Google is very reliable when it comes to route numbers the prices mentioned on the net as well as in the bus stops wasn’t right. Once you board the bus you are expected to drop your fare into a small box next to the driver and no change will be returned. There isn’t a conductor in the bus to assist you with the same. An easier option will be to get a prepaid smart card. After a short bus ride, we were back in Little India, where we walked around for a bit and did a little shopping at the Mustafa centre, a massive Supermarket located in the area. A 10-minute taxi ride took us back to the hotel just before the bus for dinner arrived.

After dinner at another restaurant in Little India, we explored the area for a while on foot. It was then we realised that even the Uber Eats delivery people seemed to be running around on superbikes, a sign of the affluence of the city we were in I guess. At around 11pm we finally boarded the bus back to our hotel and called it a night.

Day 3: Jurong Bird Park, The Merlion and back to Sentosa.

After an early start and a lot of whining and crying on my part about getting up early, we began the long drive to the other side of the city where our first destination for the day, Jurong Bird Park, is located. Our guide briefed us about the park, about how it was one of Singapore’s first attractions back when the little city state was still up and coming, about how apparently the then Prime Minister had asked all visiting heads of state to get 2 native species of bird along with them for the park, about how it slowly grew to be a star attraction in the city and finally about how the park will be shifting to a new area, which is even further away, in a few years so that Jurong can be redeveloped into a residential area. Space being the one luxury Singapore can’t afford.

A gloomy morning greets a gloomy me.

Space management in Singapore is actually a pretty interesting system to watch. Most people don’t own houses in the city but rather live on rent in government-sponsored housing projects. But, unlike government projects in most countries which normally mean low-income housing, the houses in Singapore go all the way up to high-end condos for the uber rich. Given their drive to maintain what open space and forests alongside their high standard of living they’ve developed a complicated lottery system in assigning people homes. It all seems to work, though apparently there are issues with costs and a big gap between supply and demand.

The start of the show.

We reached the bird park by mid-morning and were just in time for one of the shows. Called Kings of the sky, the show had a lot of birds of prey perform various dives and other little tricks for the audience. The birds in the show included eagles, hawks, falcons and vultures. There was some audience participation as well, though it was limited given the fact that some of the birds were massive and pretty dangerous. A highlight for me was the vultures since I had never seen any before. They were humongous and had a fun hopping kinda walk that would have been comical if the bird didn’t look so menacing. It was like a mob boss with a funny limp, amusing, but you don’t laugh cause it’ll murder you and your family.

Why is this peasant walking towards me?

A ride in a train that took us around the park followed, they showed us the various sanctuary environments the birds live as well as the feeding area where guests can feed the birds if they want to. It is also here we get an idea of the verticality of the park since the train kept climbing up a slope and then rolling down another just to repeat the process again. It was a good preview of what all the park has to offer. We then spent sometimes judging a flock of flamingos who were standing on one leg and looking judgmentally at us.

The supermodels of the avian kingdom

After a little more exploring we attended our second show of the day, called High Flyers. Cockatoos, Hornbills, Flamingos and Pelicans were just a few of the bird that performed. The crowd loved it when the birds flew over them, with a lot of twittering and hooting and noises from the birds too. The highlight was a cockatoo that sang an Indonesian love song and Happy Birthday, better than most humans I know. It really was a unique show.

Sharp dressed birds.

After the show, the final attraction we viewed were the best-dressed birds of the Antarctic, Penguins. This was the first time I actually saw a penguin, which seemed to be the case for most in the group, so it was all pretty amusing for all of us. The birds were in a climate controlled enclosure that was modelled after the icy slopes of Antarctica. They kept sliding down the slopes and waddling back up, which was fun to watch. Unfortunately, they didn’t try to escape like the Madagascar movies which were a bit of a disappointment, though in all fairness my expectations may have been a little unrealistic. After this, we trouped back into the bus, penguin style and drove away to our next destination.

The financial district

After lunch at an Indian restaurant with buffet we headed to Merlion Park. It’s located near the reservoir in Singapore’s financial district, near the Singapore Flyer and opposite the Gardens by the bay. The buses dropped us off at a local park, on the other side of the Singapore reservoir from where we walked to the statue. The path took us across the Esplanade bridge, from which we got our first glimpse of the Merlion and a good view of Singapore’s business district. It was a lot smaller than I expected it to be. The Merlion is a beast that has the head of a lion and the body of a fish, hence the name. It has a jet of water that shoots out of its mouth and into the reservoir as well. It was conceived to promote tourism in Singapore and became a national icon, hence why they went with a mythical creature and not an actual animal.

The Merlion welcomes you.

We had an option of going for a small boat tour of Singapore from the dock next to the Merlion statue. So of us hopped on and some didn’t, I was a part of the latter. My main motive for not going was the ominous signs of rain in the sky above, and as per the usual with these things I was right, it did start to rain before those on the boat could get back to the dry safety of the bus. The boat takes you along the shores of the reservoir and up the Singapore river before returning back, giving you a different view of the city, including the bright colours of Clarke Quay, Singapore funky party area. Since we hadn’t gone on the tour we walked back to the bus and bought an ice cream sandwich from a local street side vendor. This was literally the only thing I got in Singapore for 1 Dollar, it really is an expensive city. We then ran back to the bus as it started to pour.

After a soggy bus ride, we ended up at our next destination just as the sky began to clear a little. The plan was to take the cable car into Sentosa if the weather allowed it. Thankfully the rain Gods were in a good mood so we did get a little ride over the marina to the resort island. After a beautiful, if slightly precarious ride, given the winds, we stepped out at the station at the other end on onto Sentosa island. This was one of the 2 cable cars on the island. While the one we rode can be used to get on to and off of the island the other runs perpendicularly along the island and can be used to get around the island. The tickets for both are separate.

Sentosa again.


The big daddy Merlion.

There is a massive building-sized Merlion statue here, which one can climb if one is so inclined, which we, unfortunately, weren’t. After a snack break and impromptu photoshoot, we walked over to the Images of Singapore and Madame Tussaud’s museum attractions. It’s actually one continuous attraction with a small tunnel of love style boat ride breaking it up. The images of Singapore is a live performance depicting the various stages of development of Singapore, from a small fishing and farming community to the formidable city-state it is now. One has to walk from room to room each of which is set up to look like a separate time period, with an in-costume performer narrating the scene. We went in with low expectations and were pleasantly surprised by how good it was. With the modern history of Singapore done we finished the 5-minute boat ride before heading over to Madame Tussauds.

Yes, we can!!!


Taking back the throne

Madame Tussauds is a wax museum with figures of famous people from all over the world. It’s walls house statues of everyone from actors and sportsmen to major political figures and revolutionaries. While most of them were standing upright, quite a few of them were posed doing their signature moves. While I had seen max figures before, notably in Lonavala, I was excited about this. The one in London is really famous and the one we were at is a franchise of that. In that respect, it was a bit of a letdown. While it was good, I think my expectations may have been a little too high. After we finished the museum we took a free monorail ride over to the end of Sentosa Island where our dinner and the final attraction of the evening was.

The best show in Singapore

After dinner in an overcrowded Indian restaurant, as per our usual, we headed for the last event of the evening, the Wings Of Time show. While have see musical fountain shows before, a highlight being the Indira Gandhi Musical Fountain in Bangalore, this makes all the rest look like children playing with torches. It was that good. We were seated on benches built on a beach and the show began with two actors running across the beach playing lovers, which didn’t set my expectations really too high. The rest was all animated with a sheet of water acting as the screen for the projected image, there were laser shows and pyrotechnics along with the fountains that made up the show. We could feel the blast of heat from the pyrotechnics from where we were sitting. It really was awesome and we were upset the show got over after a measly 30 minutes and we were asked to leave.

With the final show of the day done, we walked slowly back to the bus, with me having to endure a barrage of Dad jokes from my dad and colleague who both seem to have the same, unfortunate, sense of humour. It had begun to sink in that this was our last night in Singapore and nobody was happy about it. With the slow drive back to the hotel, we said goodbye to our local tour guide and the bus driver, before heading to our room to pack and prepare for the early start the next day. We spent our last night in Singapore snoozing away in preparation for the long drive to the next city on our tour, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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