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Archive for the ‘Singapore 2019’ Category

Changi airport is frequently and widely regarded as the world’s best airport. Not only does it do its basic job efficiently – be an airport and handle around 60 million passenger a year – it seems to do it with style and panache. And of course it’s very ‘Singapore’ – like Apple stuff, everything a) works and b) looks a million dollars. Over recent years Changi has continually upgraded not only its fundamental facilities (to handle those 60 million passengers, and more in coming years) but also the soft stuff – keeping them entertained and, dare I say it, delighted. I haven’t yet been to the terminal with the butterfly garden, for example….

The latest facility is Jewel. It’s actually a shopping and entertainment mall. It’s Landside, not Airside, so people can go and visit it from the city, as I did, even when they aren’t flying; and from the number of people I saw there with luggage, they were also visiting it on their way out of the country or even on their in.

The most obvious aspect of it is the enormous waterfall in the middle, surrounded by terraces of trees and greenery. (Officially these are known as the HSBC Rain Vortex and the Forest Valley.) There are a couple of forest walks laid out – you can walk up and down the terraces, enjoy the views, sit down and rest (yes – benches! not associated with restaurants!!). Access to this area is free of charge. Up on the top floor there are a number of chargeable attractions, for young and old. There’s a scramble net up in the ceiling; a mirror maze which, I gather, some people have found seriously disturbing; and a host of other things. You can find the full list here.

I just walked around the forest area for a while, took loads of pictures, and then went back to the city. Seems a strange way to spend an afternoon, but it was in fact relaxing and fun. And that first glimpse of the Rain Vortex is truly stunning and, yes, delightful.

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One of the more unusual things I did on this trip was to visit the HDB (Housing Development Board) Hub. I hoped to learn something about how Singapore has pretty much solved its housing problems. In the event I didn’t quite manage that, but it was interesting in a number of ways.

First, though, a bit of a recap. When Singapore became fully independent in 1965, it was not the place it is now. While it wasn’t exactly ‘3rd World’ it definitely wasn’t 1st world. It was a place of contrasts. On the one hand there was former colonial housing (think tropical bungalows) and modern businesses, and on the other hand there were traditional Asian enterprises: shophouses and waterfront go-downs on the one hand, and a number of traditional Malay villages or Kampongs. These were all badly over-crowded, had poor or non-existent sanitation, no connection to other central services – you can imagine the picture. Today these have all gone, apart from those shophouses and occasional Kampong house that have been preserved and re-purposed, and the population mainly lives in high-rise apartment complexes. Some of these are privately-built, but the great majority of the complexes, housing about 80% of the population, are provided by the HDB. And they work! – they are clean; they are well-maintained; there is no crime (actually, that’s true of Singapore generally); and there’s some strange way in which although these apartments are publicly provided, they are in fact individually owned. (more…)

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Marina Bay is these days the central location of Singapore city. There are other popular locations: the various quays along Singapore River all of which are now converted to bars and restaurants, Kampong Glam and Little India, but it’s Marina Bay that dominates the downtown landscape.

This is actually a new thing – the whole of the southern  and eastern side of the Bay is reclaimed land. I’ve tried to show this in the crude illustration above. Everything to the right of the black line is reclaimed (or new) land. The dotted section indicates that the quayside just to its left, Collier’s Quay, was the limit of the land, and faced the open sea. If you look at the road names you can get a clue about this – Esplanade Drive at the top of the map suggests that originally that was the shoreline, and Raffles Quay near the bottom suggests the same. (The roads themselves are new, of course – there were no dual-carriageway express roads until the last couple of decades or so – but they’ve inherited names from former roads and landmarks.)

So even the land on which now stand the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and the new business district did not exist until 30 years or so ago. Even after that Singapore took its time deciding what to do with it, and undertook various other required infrastructure works first – for example, the cleaning up of the Singapore river (which feeds into Marina Bay). Another huge project was the water management and the construction of the Marina Bay barrage – extraordinarily, what was once the mouth of a heavily-polluted river and the open sea into which it flowed is now a fresh-water reservoir, from which Singapore gets 10% of its water. So it was only in the early 00’s that serious construction started on the big projects around the Bay – Gardens by the Bay, the new financial district, the renovation of Colliers Quay, and the Marina Bay Sands hotel and its associated structures – and final development work continued until maybe 2015 or so, with the completion of the various components of the complete pedestrian route around the Bay.

It’s a popular area with visitors and Singaporeans alike. As I mentioned above it’s now possible to walk all round the Bay along dedicated pedestrian footpaths. Two dramatic footbridges cross open water – the Helix bridge near the hotel which crosses the lower end of the Bay, and the Esplanade bridge which crosses the mouth of the Singapore River. The whole walk is a few kilometres long, and, given that this is Singapore, walking it can be a hot sweaty business. Best to do it in stages, which is easy – there are air-conditioned restaurants, bars, and shopping mall every couple of hundred yards or so along three sides of the square.

For me, the big attraction is the scenery and the opportunity to take pictures. I had my camera with me and some lenses, and I’d even managed to squeeze my tripod into my suitcase (and my checked baggage allowance). I went out and took images around the Marina Bay three times. The first was in the daytime on my first full day. That was a very grey day (after the sun I got in Haji Lane) and turned to heavy rain in the late morning, so I regarded that walk round as just a location scouting exercise. The following evening I went back and took a number of shots as the sun went down and in the early darkness; and the evening after that I went back again a little later in the evening to catch the nightly laser show from the Marina Bay Sands hotel. Enjoy!

Notes:

  • the Marina Bay Sands hotel is, in part, a casino (Singapore’s first). This is supposedly reflected in the architecture – if you look at the towers you’re suppose to think that each one is actually two playing cards on end and leaning into each other. The top deck includes an observation deck, and (for residents only) an infinity pool and various relaxation areas. But with 2,500 rooms, getting your turn in the pool is apparently a struggle;
  • The merlion is the symbol of Singapore. There are a few Merlion statues dotted around – I’ve seen a small one up on top of Mount Faber – but this is the official one. There are always crowds of people around it;
  • The Fullerton Hotel was built during the colonial period. It was originally the main Post Office for the colony. It stood at the mouth of the Singapore River and at the head of Collier’s Quay, the main landing point for passengers arriving by ship.

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On my first morning I walked around Haji Lane in the Kampong Glam area of the city. I have in fact visited this area before, but it turned out that my hotel was literally at one of the lane. It’s an older area of the city in which the buildings are conserved/preserved, although in the case of Haji Lane it looks it’s just the exteriors that are original – and even then, a lot of the ground floor frontages have been modernised. What’s in these old buildings are a range of small designer stores, refreshment bars, and general moments shops. A unifying feature is that each shop has been painted as dramatically and colourfully as possible; the whole Lane is a swirl of colour. I was happy to wander up and down for a while before heading further into the city.

Then it was on to the Shoppes (horrible word…) at Marina Bay. This is an upmarket shopping mall associated with the Marina Bay Sands hotel. It’s just a mall, really – the usual over-priced stuff (when did buying and carrying a truly expensive, branded bag become a defining item of consumption?) but the mall itself has one interesting element – there’s a canal inside it…. See the image below!

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Emirates A380 being prepared at Manchester

I mentioned in the previous post that I flew with Emirates again, and the main reason I gave was that I preferred to break the journey. That’s not the only reason, to be honest. Over the four trips I’ve made to Asia I’ve found the Emirates experience to be good, and value for money. I know from various YouTube videos I’ve watched that there are other Middle East and Asian airlines that match them – Singapore Airlines would certainly be in that list, as probably would Thai, Qatar and Oman airlines. (I’ve heard it suggested that Etihad, who fly to Abu Dhabi, aren’t quite as good these days, following their multi-billion dollar losses in the last few years.) I’ve been happy to stick with Emirates: since I know it’s good, and it gives me the routing I prefer, why change?

But it’s probably worth outlining the reasons why Emirates appeals to me:

  • first, it offers excellent value for money. Although I booked this last flight through a travel agent (Trailfinders) I could equally easily have done so online, and examining options as I write, I see that, as expected, I could get a return economy ticket from Manchester to Singapore for just over £500 for dates in March next year. That would include 25kgs of hold baggage plus 7kgs of cabin baggage, plus all the onboard facilities. For an extra £200 (i.e. £700+ in total) I could buy an economy ticket with more options: this would include complimentary seat selection (standard seats only, not extra legroom) which would be worth £80, more points for the loyalty club, and cheaper options to change the flight arrangements or get a refund. This compares with over £1000 for a shorter economy return flight from Manchester to Memphis in the USA, on much older and smaller aircraft;
  • secondly, the onboard services are excellent. Each flight I’ve done has included two free meals (one full, hot meal, and one snack) with metal cutlery!, free drinks (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), and one of the best in-flight entertainment system in the air that gives a selection of hundreds of films and TV programmes. I’ve included images of a meal tray from 2017, and a menu card from my most recent flight, below;
  • the aircraft they use are modern and well-equipped. The flights between Manchester and Dubai are in an Airbus A380, and Emirates have equipped them with comfortable seats and pretty good legroom. OK, I’m not tall so maybe it’s easy for me, but they’re a huge step up from Ryanair or Easyjet. Above all the A380s are very quiet. (The Boeing 777s that they use between Dubai and Asia aren’t quite as quiet, but the seats and entertainment options are every bit as good.)

Any 7 or 8 hour flight is going to be a bit of a trial at times. I’m sure that travelling in First or even Business class would make it so much more bearable, but Emirates do a pretty good job even in economy. I’m a happy customer.

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Parked Thomas Cook jets at Manchester on 23 September 2019

it’s a very long journey to Singapore. I have a choice of flights from Manchester: I can fly direct with Singapore Airlines, or I can go via Dubai with Emirates. My preference is the latter – although this makes the total journey time longer (two flights of just over seven hours each plus three hours at Dubai International airport) I’m not sure I could manage an 11 or 12 hour flight in an economy seat, no matter how good the aircraft or airline. So I made my usual choice, and was due to fly out of Manchester on 23 September at about half-past two on an Emirates A380. That would arrive at Dubai at just after midnight, the onward flight would leave at 3am, arriving at Singapore Changi airport around mid-afternoon on the 24th. I’m pleased to say that everything was pretty much on time, and the flights, while long, were up to Emirates’ usual high standard.

As an aside, the 23rd was the day Thomas Cook collapsed. It was sad to see their jets parked up and not moving. A few were still arriving, but most were stuck at the remote airport. I also heard from an airport worker that I got chatting to that an Air Malaysia A380 had already arrived at Manchester to participate in the repatriation exercise.

On previous trips I’d had Trailfinders arrange a private car to take me into the city to my hotel, but this time I decided that as I knew my way around I would make do it myself. I’d researched and found that there was a shuttle bus system that would drop arriving passengers at various hotels for just 9 Singapore Dollars (S$9) per person, and I decided to use that. I had cash –  I’d already bought S$300 back in the UK because I knew there would be some early purchases that I would need to make. I also picked up a local sim for my phone while I was at the airport. A 7-day sim with M1, which would give me 100Gb of data plus 20 minutes of international phone calls, cost me S$12. Given that the exchange rate is about S$1.6 to £1, these prices were about £6 for the shuttle bus and £8.50 for the sim. A final purchase, made after I got to my hotel, was a Tourist Pass for the Singapore MRT, the underground system. That was S$30 for unlimited travel for 3 days, but S$10 of that was for the actual piece of plastic, which I could reclaim by handing it in when it expired.

I was staying at the ‘ParkRoyal on Beach’ hotel. ParkRoyal Hotels (part of the Pan Pacific group) have three hotels in Singapore. I’d previously stayed at the ParkRoyal on Kitchener, which is in the Little India district and is a solid 4* hotel; this one (… on Beach) is rated at 4+*, while their final hotel, ParkRoyal on Pickering, is rated 5* (and has prices to match). The hotel was fine – very comfortable room, very effective air-conditioning, and good breakfasts. I didn’t take any other meals in the hotel as it turned out that the ‘+’ in their rating element perhaps referred to their fancy restaurant. Nothing on their menu really appealed, and the prices definitely didn’t.

So by about half-past four local time I was there and all set. Raring to go? – not after those flights; in fact I worked out that if I included the journey from Sheffield to the airport (which Val very kindly drove me), I had been travelling for about 24 hours, with not a lot of sleep. But I find that on the journey out I can keep going – probably it’s just the adrenalin. (The journey home is a lot less energising, of course.) So I went out and exercised my MRT pass, found my way down to Marina Bay, walked around, had a quick burger in a food court, and eventually made my way back to the hotel and my bed later in the evening. I woke up once in the early hours but to my surprise was able to get back to sleep, and finally woke up at about 8 o’clock the following morning for my first full day.

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Back to Singapore

marina_bay_sands The iconic Singapore image: the Marina Bay Sands hotel and the Art Science museum

I’ve visited Singapore a couple of times in the last few years, and there’s something about the place that I really like. Perhaps it’s that it is a well-ordered society; or maybe it’s the amazing architecture; or the history; or just the fact of being in a place and a society that has a reasonable claim to have been the most successful in the world over the last 50 years.

My previous visits were in the late winter, March 2017 and February 2018. This year (2019) I went to Bangkok at that time, and we already have a big trip to the USA arranged for April next year, so there wouldn’t be time to do an Asian trip before that. So in July I booked myself a short break in Singapore for the end of September.

I had just five full days there, plus the late afternoon and evening of my arrival day and a very few hours on the morning I flew out. That turned out to be long enough to do everything I wanted on this trip. I decided that mainly I would go to places that I hadn’t visited before, so I gave the Gardens by the Bay and the National Museum a miss. Instead I went to other places, perhaps a bit more unusual. That said, I did find my steps leading towards Marina Bay on quite a few occasions – these days it is the heart of Singapore city.

I did have one big worry both before and during the trip. This summer I have been plagued by outbreaks of Achilles tendinitis in my right ankle/heel. Not only is this painful, it’s extremely disabling; basically, during a flare-up I can’t walk any distance at all. In fact it’s a struggle just to get around the house, let alone any further. So I was worried that I might not be able to go, or that I would get there and then find myself immobilised. In the event I was OK. Perhaps it was the exercises that I have been doing more religiously than in the past couple of years or so (I have had this problem before, most recently in 2010), or perhaps I was lucky and the next flare-up is just around the corner. Either way, I got there, had the holiday and did a lot of walking around, and then got home without problems.

Anyway, it was a good trip; I visited a number of interesting places; and I took what seem to me to be some good photos. I’ll do detailed posts over the next few days.

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