My leg started buzzing while I was sitting in a meeting in Washington, DC a week-or-so ago. When everyone in the room began glaring at me, it became clear that “vibrate” does not mean the same thing as “silent” on a cell phone.
I, of course, played it off. With an annoyed look on my face, I joined the others by searching around the room for the source of the distraction. They didn’t fall for it. To make a long story short, the buzz was a text message saying, “You’re going to Singapore for a client meeting.”
Candidly, I had to ask exactly where Singapore was. I knew it was in Southeast Asia somewhere near Indonesia. Unfortunately, my knowledge of the neighborhood is extremely limited. For those of you with the same question I had, I’ll use some big landmarks: It’s a little island northwest of Australia and east of India nestled between the Philippines and Indonesia. It’s a city state (one of only three in the world) on the southern tip of Malaysia with about 5.3 million people.
What I did know about Singapore going into the trip was just what a “fine” city state it is. Indeed, there are fines for just about everything. Spitting, Yelling, Cursing… And for some things, there are even punishments like Caning. Remember Michael Fay who got caned for his youthful indiscretions? Yup. He was a teenager living in Singapore. For awhile, chewing gum in Singapore was a “canable” offense, too. Just in case, I stuck with Altoids for this trip.
They do take their cleanliness very seriously in Singapore. Almost too seriously, in fact. The floors are so clean and there’s so much rain that unless you focus on each step, you stand a 50/50 chance of slipping and falling at any given time.
Unfortunately, I was recently introduced to Candy Crush, which meant that my eyes were often on my phone so my attention was even more diffused. I had my share of embarrassing slips in Singapore.
It wasn’t easy getting there, either. It took 22 hours of flying for me and about 48 for my suitcase. For some as-yet-undetermined reason, it got a brief tour of the baggage carousel in Jakarta.
I also used this trip as an opportunity to pick up a suit. If you’ll recall, I got some tailored clothes in Hong Kong and I’d heard that the experience was the same in Singapore (fast and cheap), but that the quality is a bit better. It turns out that rumor was true. If you need a recommendation for a Singapore tailor, I gotta guy.
Singapore is truly one of the most multicultural cities I’ve encountered. Although about 80% of the residents are Chinese, people from all over the world are welcomed. Everyone I met seemed to be sincerely gracious and eager to get to know me.
Although public transit is extremely good in Singapore, I relied on taxis. It added to the sense of adventure. Many of the drivers are…aggressive. I was luckier than some because I was only in one minor fender bender and witnessed only one near hit-and-run — a gutsy construction worker barely won a stare-down contest with a fast-moving cab.
The taxi business is brisk because people are always going somewhere. Very often, it’s for a meal. Singaporeans love to eat out. You can’t blame them. The food is out of this world! Before I left the States, a friend told me that Singapore has the best food in Asia. Since I haven’t yet been everywhere in Asia, I can’t speak to that, but I can say it would be tough to beat what I’ve eaten here.
The best of Malay, Chinese, Thai, Indian, and Japanese cuisine combine in Singapore. Beef marinated in coconut milk, Dumplings filled with hot soup, curry… The list of great food I tasted is pretty long.
The Merlion is the symbol for Singapore. Apparently several centuries ago, a prince from somewhere nearby was out on a guys’ trip with some of his buddies. They were fishing when they came across the island we now know as Singapore. The prince spotted a lion on the beach. This was noteworthy since lions never lived in Singapore. I think the guy was probably just drunk. But, because he was a prince, his buddies kept their mouths shut. Ever since that prince “saw” that lion, the “Merlion” has been important to Singapore. It combines the body of mermaid, the tail of fish, and the head of lion.
Today’s Singapore is vastly different. It’s a capital of commerce and a playground for all of Southeast Asia. To that point, when I learned that Singapore was the second largest gambling market in the world (even though it only has two casinos), I had to check out the scene. I hopped in a cab for the Marina Bay Sands, which was developed by the Sands Corporation based in the world’s top gambling destination – Las Vegas.
The building is spectacular. The three towers are capped by a stylized boat, which I think looks more like a Bratwurst. All told, it’s 57 stories tall and the views from the top are unbeatable (and come at a cost of S$20). On a clear day, you can see the Philippines. Or maybe Indonesia? Or both? I don’t know. Anyway, on a clear day, you can see really far away. I need to get a map.
After a trip to the bar on the bratwurst at the top of the building, I went downstairs into that casino like I owned it. You know, I was ready to win big. Unfortunately, I was greeted by a smiling (but very, very large) guard standing in front of a security checkpoint. That’s new.
“Passport, please” he asked.
“Are you a Singapore Permanent Resident?”
“You can only enter the casino with a passport or a Singapore PR Card.”
It turns out that Singapore residents must pay a S$100 levy to enter the casino (it’s only good for 24 hours). If you receive any kind of government assistance, you can’t enter at all. Since I don’t receive any Singapore Government Assistance and was still eager to get my fair share, I hopped back in a cab, got my passport, and returned. Fortunately, it turned out to be a smart decision…the Roulette wheel was in my favor that night.
Hopping into the cab to head back to my hotel wasn’t a big deal because Singapore is such a small island. Everything is always nearby. In fact, it only takes 45 minutes to get from the extreme far end of the island to the other extreme far end. The whole island is only about 450 square miles. It used to be 310 square miles, but thanks to land reclamation, it’s grown.
The government has done a very careful job of controlling traffic, too. It begins with an extensive road network. If you were to stretch them out, the roads would be 2,100 miles, which would get you across the US. The government also limits cars by requiring a COE, which is a Certificate of Something-that-starts-with-an-E. Currently, these certificates cost about USD$80,000. Further, cars are subject to a tax of about 150%. All that combines to mean a BMW 3 Series will set you back about USD$300,000. Oh, and there don’t seem to be as many BMW 3 Series-es as there are Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Maseratis.
One in six households in Singapore includes a millionaire.
I squeezed in one more adventure by riding on the 541 foot tall Singapore Flyer. It’s the world’s tallest Ferris Wheel (although there’s one being built in Las Vegas, which will be taller). The ride and views were nice. But the real adventure came when I tried the “Fish Spa” at the bottom. Several years ago, I saw Samantha Brown on the Travel Channel stick her feet into a pool somewhere in Asia. Fish began feeding on the dead skin on her feet. I knew right then: I had to try it. So try it, I did.
The fish, which are called Garra Rufa or The Doctor Fish were first discovered in a hot spring near Kangal in Turkey. The place I visited has a series of three tanks. The fish get progressively larger as you move from one tank to the next. I didn’t make it to the final one, the middle-sized fish were enough for me.
The tingling was, at first, off-putting. Slowly, it became overwhelmingly pleasant. The best part was becoming a tourist attraction in my own right. There was a steady stream of people who wanted to look at the fish eating my feet. Not all of them spoke English, but they clearly wanted me to say something. I just offered a thumbs up. After it was done, my feet did feel better. Unfortunately, the feeling was short-lived because I spent the rest of the day walking around the city in flip flops.
I’ve just arrived in Tokyo for a quick meeting tomorrow before I head home on Tuesday. I hope to have a bit to report from Japan, too!