The twenty mile trip across the Singapore Strait was a welcomed culture shock for us. Indonesia to the south, where we had spent the past two months, is about as third world as it gets, beautiful but impossible. Singapore, on the other hand, is the complete opposite, up to the minute and the epitome of first world Asia. Modern, clean, attractive, cosmopolitan and vibrant are just of few of the long list of adjectives that I would use to describe this island/nation/city of four million people.
The Singapore Strait is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. We motor sailed across, weaving our way through a steady stream of shipping traffic, dodging a few intimidating lightening squalls, unexpectedly adjusting our heading around some recently reclaimed and uncharted land that had blocked our course line, and, as usual avoiding a myriad of fish traps set in the main channel of the Johor Strait. After three hours of exhausting vigilance we parked up in the renowned Raffles Marina after more than two months of living on the hook.
Raffles is a first class marina in every sense of the word. Upon our arrival two smartly uniformed dock attendants were on station to catch our lines as we eased into the two-fingered slip. Phil Blake, the marina manager and a distant relation of the late Sir Peter Blake, personally greeted us shortly after we were tied up. In addition to all the usual amenities one would expect from a marina, in Raffles’ country club-like complex are a well stocked chandlery, a full-service shipyard, a dry stack boat shed, two fuel docks, two excellent restaurants, a bar, a resort-style pool with swim-up eating and drinking, guest rooms for those wishing to get off the boat for a bit, a gym, a spa and even a rock climbing wall. Chauffer driven golf carts or “buggies” are available upon request to help you move people, gear and provisions to or from your boat to anywhere on the site. A fresh copy of the Straits Times newspaper is delivered to your companionway each morning, gratis. Wireless broadband Internet (WiFi) is available for on-board surfing. Raffles provide regular free shuttle bus service to the nearest shopping mall and the connection point to Singapore’s excellent public transit system. All of this for about the same as you would pay for an average marina in Mexico. In our opinion, the only negative to Raffles Marina is its location. Situated on the Johor Strait on the northwest side of Singapore just across from Malaysia, it is a half hour by taxi and an hour by public transit to get to all the action in Singapore Central.
The evening we arrived, we were greeted by good mates and former MooCrew Guy Cross and Eric Strasser, both of whom now live and work in Singapore. It was great to catch up with some old mates, half way around the world over a few “Strassritas,” which are Eric’s own special version of the classic Mexican cocktail. It was also cool to have lots of great “local knowledge,” a place to stay downtown, the use of a car for running errands, and some great nights on the town during our month’s stay. Thanks guys!!
The entry formalities for Singapore were painless. Immigration met us at the marina the day we arrived and their part of the check-in took us about ten minutes in the comfort of the harbormaster’s office. We made a trip downtown the following morning to handle Customs and Port Clearances at the One Stop Center near the main shipping port. Imagine having Customs, Immigration, Quarantine and the Port Captain all in one office and being able to do all of the clearances by interfacing with only one person. What a concept! We were in and out in less than ten minutes, which is truly amazing considering the amount of shipping traffic that comes through this one little country. No mordida, no baksheesh, no stupid boat searches, no bullshit-the way things ought to be and just one of many examples of the user friendliness of Singapore.
Singapore is situated just slightly north of the equator so the weather hot. There are just two seasons here, winter which is hot and humid, and summer which is hot, humid and rainy with thunder and lightning. We arrived on the cusp of the two seasons, so got to enjoy the best of both seasons. Step outdoors on a sunny day and any exposed skin will feel like it’s been touched with a branding iron. The only thing that makes Singapore bearable is air conditioning. I read somewhere that aircon accounts for the majority of Singapore’s electrical consumption. Ours certainly saw plenty of service while we were there.
During the previous six months, we had been almost constantly on the move and almost never had the luxury of shopping at the same grocery store twice in a row. In Singapore we had planned to spend a full month to chill out, be “dock potatoes,” catch up on a bit of boat maintenance, and of course take in a few of the many attractions.
One of Singapore’s main attractions is shopping. With more than a hundred malls, Singapore is a shopper’s heaven. Orchard Road is Asia’s version of Rodeo Drive, with dozens of glitzy multi-story mall complexes lining both sides of the road for more than a mile. For the technophiles, there are not one, but two six-story shopping complexes in the city that sell nothing but consumer electronics. These malls are literal candy stores of personal computers, digital cameras, cell phones, flat screen televisions, home theaters, iPods, video games and other assorted electronic goodies. Tempted by the huge selection and low duty and tax free prices, we couldn’t help but make a few minor upgrades.
Fortunately there is a lot more in Singapore to keep one entertained. The ethnic neighborhoods of Little India, Arab Street and China Town all bring their own flavors to this city and offer some great opportunities for strolling, shopping, dining and experiencing the respective cultures.
Singapore is a culinary city. On offer is virtually every type of cuisine in the world. We enjoyed an array of food from superb Italian cuisine accompanied by California wine, to Indian curries served on a place mat sized piece of banana leaf and eaten with the hand (the right one, of course) while attempting to cool down our overheated palates with Tiger Beer, the local brew. For those into cheap eats, there is an entire culture built around the food courts or “hawkers” stands as they are known. Clusters of these tiny food stands can be found all over the city. The variety of dishes on offer is endless and the quality ranges from pretty good to downright incredible. You can tell which ones have the best food because they usually have a queue during peak lunch and dinner hours. We visited them frequently and most of the food was very good, if not excellent and the average price for a meal was about 2-3 US dollars per person. The government rates them with an A, B or C based on their cleanliness and their ratings must be clearly posted. We couldn’t afford to eat at home as well for as cheap and it was fun to sample a variety of new dishes.
Our all time favorite meal was a local favorite called pepper crab. The crab itself looks and tastes somewhat similar to a Dungeness crab, only with a thinner shell. It comes drowned in a steaming hot black pepper sauce that makes the dish look as if was put under the oil pan of a car and the plug was opened. The large back plate part of the shell comes with it, and inside it is usually the tastiest part, the roe. When the crab is all gone everyone mopped up every last drop of the pepper sauce with bits of bread.
Between meals, we managed to take in a few of the sights. Singapore is a very easy city to get around in. The public transportation system is easy, safe, clean, comfortable, efficient and inexpensive. The streets are impeccably clean and safe so walking is a joy. You’ll never step in chewing gum here because selling it is illegal. There is wide variety of architecture ranging from British Colonial to Chinese shop houses to ultra modern skyscrapers and everything in between. There are plenty of parks and green spaces and all sorts of interesting sculptures dotting the cityscape.
Thanks to our good mate Eric, we had the use of a car for a couple of weeks and found driving in Singapore pretty easy. The roads are excellent, well marked and there is surprisingly little traffic due to the astronomical taxes placed on automobiles, which add about a third again to the base price. There are also special tolls for driving during peak hours. Road tolls and public parking charges are deducted automatically from a prepay card that is in an electronic device mounted on the car’s dash, so one doesn’t have to fumble with change or queue up at toll booths. The only challenge with driving is navigation in some of the suburbs. There seems to be a shortage of street names as many names are used over and over. We saw Tuas Road 1, Tuas Road 2, and so on up to number six, all running parallel to each other in one neighborhood. I had to pick up a part for the outboard at the local Yamaha distributor on Joo Koon Way. To get there I had to get off the motorway at Joo Koon Road, cross Joo Koon Street, hang a left on Joo Koon Crescent, bear right on Joo Koon Avenue, follow it down to the end to Joo Koon Circle and then take it around to Joo Koon Way. Try this with a road map that doesn’t show about half the streets!
Outside of the city are the Singapore Zoo and Night Safari. The Zoo is by far the finest I’ve ever visited. The grounds are beautiful and the cages and barriers are so well designed and camouflaged that, in many cases, it feels as if there is nothing between the animals and the people. The animals appeared to be very healthy, happy and active, even the polar bears and penguins, which were slightly out of their usual environs. Now I visited the Singapore Zoo while I was on a business trip there 15 years ago and will never forget the ginormous crocodile that I got nose to nose with (through two inches of tempered glass). Well, I think the same one is still there and even bigger now. After dark, the Zoo closes and next door the Night Safari opens to offer a peek at the nocturnal hunting and feeding animals, when they are most active. In some cases, as with the giant fruit bats and flying squirrels, we had to duck to avoid them as they flew just inches away from us. This is no place for the twitchy!
While there is no such thing as a Utopian society, Singapore would certainly come much closer than most places we’ve visited. We found numerous cultures living together in extremely high density, but in apparent harmony. Virtually everyone we came in contact with was friendly, helpful, pleasant and gracious. We saw no evidence of homelessness, very little evidence of real poverty and, in general a relatively healthy looking population. High “sin taxes” on alcohol, tobacco and automobiles seem to prevent the proliferation of their use. Stiff penalties for crime, including mandatory death penalty for murder and drug trafficking, appear to keep crime low and the streets safe. You can call it a “good vibe” or just a happy place, but we thoroughly enjoyed our time in “Sing” and can’t wait to visit again.
A month passed in a snap and after an easy check-out, we headed north up the infamous Straits of Malacca towards Malaysia.