I type this from the Pachamama hostel in Managua, Nicaragua, housed in a former safe house that the Sandinista regime occupied and used to host Fidel Castro during the revolution in the 1980’s.
The road has called to me one last time. It’s been an incredible yearlong sabbatical: 3 continents, 23 countries, countless humbling experiences and encounters with people across the cultural spectrum. This trip will cap it all off.
Tomorrow I head to a small and charming (I’m told) colonial town called Granada. Unfortunately it looks a bit overcast here at the moment in Nicaragua’s capitol, so I’ll take this time to write a bit about my favorite city I visited in Southeast Asia: Singapore.
Dad and I roll into the city center from the airport and are welcomed by a towering skyline peeking through the lush trees hanging over the road.
Singapore is the world’s only island city-state. Much like Coruscant in the Star Wars Universe, the whole thing is covered by a sprawling urban utopia. Formerly a trading post of the East India Company founded in 1819, Singapore became an important epicenter for trade and commerce in the Orient. It gained independence from the UK in 1963 and officially became a sovereign nation two years later. The past half century has seen Singapore became a global hub for finance and maritime. I am in awe as I get my first glimpses of the picturesque concrete jungle that has largely been erected in the last half century.
Dad landed a teaching gig at a local law school and was thus occupied for our first day. So I took to the streets by myself, armed with a smart phone and free data plan provided by our hotel (the incredibly upscale Hotel Elizabeth. Traveling with my badass father has its perks).
My first stop is Marina Bay, which was formed by land reclamation efforts in the 1970’s and today serves as a beautiful waterfront site framed by the Central Business District.
A walk along the bay takes me to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Casino. Visible from virtually everywhere in the downtown core of Singapore, Marina Bay Sands was completed in 2010 by the Las Vegas Sands Corporation and is considered the world’s most expensive standalone casino property, valued at a whopping $8 billion.
Sheldon Adelson’s gem of a structure features three towers and over 2,600 rooms. Stroll around and you’ll find a mall with over 300 shops, a museum, two large theaters, “celebrity chef” restaurants, two floating Crystal Pavilions, a skating rink, a 120,000 sq. ft. convention center, and the world’s largest atrium casino with 500 tables and 1,600 slot machines. Atop the three towers sits a skypark in the shape of a boat. There you will find the famous infinity pools, the site of a zillion basic Instagram posts. I’m no insta-addict, so I chose to bypass this admittedly breathtaking photo-op (plus, the pools are accessible for guests only. Also, who am I kidding, follow me: @jackralphjack).
After perusing the incredible property for a bit, I make my way to the other side of the bay for one of Singapore’s signature attractions: The Gardens by the Bay.
For all its staggering urban development, Singapore has made strides to become a “city in a garden”, with the goal of raising the quality of life by enhancing greenery and flora in the city. The Gardens by the Bay are the centerpiece of this movement. Sitting on 200 acres of reclaimed land, the gardens are a vast network of tropical horticulture, forestry, colorful flower beds, manmade waterways, reservoirs, conservatories, sculptures, and other forms of artistry. One could spend several days exploring the grounds and not tire of its immense and fascinating natural beauty.
Supertree Grove was without a doubt the highlight of the gardens. The Supertrees, in actuality just vertical gardens in the shape of trees, dominate the landscape due to their immense height (25-50 meters). They perform a multitude of functions besides being ridiculously awesome looking. Straight from the Wikipedia page:
“The Supertrees are home to enclaves of unique and exotic ferns, vines, orchids and also a vast collection of bromeliads such as Tillandsia, amongst other plants. They are fitted with environmental technologies that mimic the ecological function of trees – photovoltaic cells that harness solar energy which can be used for some of the functions of the Supertrees, such as lighting, just like how trees photosynthesize; and collection of rainwater for use in irrigation and fountain displays, exactly like how trees absorb rainwater for growth. The Supertrees also serve air intake and exhaust functions as part of the conservatories’ cooling systems.”
Yeah. Supertrees are supercool.
For a fee, you can stroll along a skywalk that connects two of the larger Supertrees. While up top I enjoy amazing views of the gardens, business district, and the Singapore Flyer (aka the poor man’s London Eye).
In many ways Supertree Grove embodies much of what makes Singapore great. Seeking out a perfect crossroads of industry and nature. Promoting clean energy and the recycling of resources. A congruity of human initiative and natural development. (Or whatever, as I alluded to I’m only in it for the Instagram likes).
Like I said I could’ve spent days exploring the grounds. But my time was limited so I moved on to the central business district, about a half hour walk from the gardens led by my hotel smartphone and sweet, sweet data plan.
Akin to Supertree Grove, Singapore’s city center is a paragon of harmonious interconnectivity. Everything fits together like a colorful, intricate puzzle. The towering buildings overlook wide sidewalks that are riddled with trees and plants and abstract sculptures. People stroll along without getting in each others’ way, unobstructed by pipelines or garbage. The streets are clean, well organized, and pedestrian-free, in particular contrast to the craziness of my previous destinations (Bangkok, Phnom Penh, and Saigon).
While admiring the city scenes I see sleek million dollar cars moseying through the grid of roadways. I imagine many belong to finance professionals. It’s the late afternoon and I see such folk spilling out of the towers, Asians and westerners alike, dressed to the nines, lighting up their cigarettes, talking animatedly on their phones, perhaps discussing various multimillon dollar investment deals.
I take to the metro for my next destination: Chinatown. This underground railway is the gateway to all of downtown Singapore. Transiters weave through a labyrinth of tunnels to either get to their train or just to walk a few blocks, since there are virtually no crosswalks downtown. Colorful directional arrows on the floor help tourists get where they need to go; native Singaporeans navigate through without even looking up from their phones. Seemingly every station has a veritable mall attached to it as well. Singapore’s vast concoction of commerce apparently is not limited to above ground.
Chinatown provides a different vibe than the business district altogether. Skycrapers give way to a series of narrow streets featuring markets and the pungent smells of street food.
I spend about an hour walking around, munching on dumplings, and haggling, before I find a nice Indian man willing to negotiate on a colorful dragon for my collection.
Later that night Dad and I would reunite and set off to add to his collection, Starbucks mugs. To our delight we happened upon Singapore’s very first Starbucks just a short walk from our hotel. It is situated on Orchard road in the main shopping district, which was decked out with holiday lights up and down the street.
The next day I spent the morning and early afternoon relaxing in the shade by the hotel pool. I had spent the whole day before in the sun, and two weeks of nearly constant activity day-to-day had left me completely drained.
In the late afternoon I accompanied Dad to a law firm downtown where he gave a seminar on Law of the Sea (of particular interest to Singaporeans, due to the importance of maritime for their economy, and, you know, it being an island and all). Students and professionals alike gathered to hear him talk for about an hour on the 28th floor of one of the towers I had been looking up at for the previous two days. Being an insta-savant, I obviously I took some pictures.
After the seminar we are joined by some of the lawyers of the firm and other interesting people for dinner on the bay. I was treated to my first laksa, a coconut-based rice noodle curry soup dish with Chinese and Malay roots. Perfectly spicy and with a healthy serving of lobster meat, it was easily one of the best meals I’d had in Southeast Asia.
Perhaps the most interesting dinner guest (other than Dad of course), was a Singaporean MP (member of parliament). A lifelong academic, he explains he was actually elected to his post by other academics, not the general public. I learned that Singapore actually allocates some parliamentary positions to “group representation constituencies”, meaning certain industries and coalitions of professionals, like scientists or land developers, get to elect one of their own to represent them in government. I thought this was super cool.
Later in the meal he explained a newly enacted policy in Singapore that is a bit more puzzling. Apparently the country will start having “reserved elections” as of the next presidential election. This will ensure a rotating presidency based on the three main ethnic groups in Singapore: Chinese, Malay, and “everyone else” (mostly Indian). He explains this is designed to help underrepresented ethnic groups that have not had their challenges addressed, and to involve more voters in the voting process, as many typically vote simply based on their ethnicity rather than policy positions. Though this may seem contradictory, the idea is that when their ethnicity is not up for election, they will have to vote based on the candidates strength rather then blindly voting for the candidate of their ethnicity. The MP even shows me his driver’s license which lists his registered ethnicity. Were he to run for President, he would have to run on a given year when his ethnicity is up for election.
This seems a bit backwards to me. But who am I to question Singapore’s decision making? The Little Red Dot is a beacon of urban wonder, immaculate infrastructure, and environmental progress. It is the pinnacle of the Asian tigers, an engine of production, innovation, and high quality of life. Perhaps addressing race on an electoral level will prove to be the latest in the series of successful progressive steps the country has taken.
If you haven’t yet added Singapore to your list, go ahead and do it now!