Tuesday 1st December
Jet lag struck as expected! We made an early start in the hotel gym and headed out for an early morning run at 7am, going past the cathedral and theatres, and around Marina Bay. The sun was rising behind the Marina Bay Sands building - a huge building comprising three towers with a top storey in the shape of a boat balanced on top. From where we stood we could just make out the palm trees in the roof garden. We stood by the Mer Lion fountain/statue and ran over/through the steel double helix pedestrian bridge/tunnel.
Singapore is a city of sights, surprises and contrasts, and every way we turned, there was something to see. Old and new, different cultures all side by side.
Back at the Grand Park City Hall Hotel we were glad to cool off in the roof top swimming pool and were still in good time for breakfast.
In addition to all the usual fruit, cereals, eggs and bacon there were many unusual additions such as a salad bar, curry, noodles, steamed root vegetables, crispy seaweed, prawn dumplings and chicken porridge.
The next challenge was to navigate our way to Chinatown via the MRT metro using our $10 tourist day pass. It turned out that the train was the easy bit. What was more tricky was navigating our way into Chinatown from the MRT station as all the roads and pavements were being dug up and which ever way we turned we seemed to meet red bollards and barriers.
It was 32 degrees and very humid. Crowded pavements of disorientated and frustrated pedestrians did not improve our joie de vivre!
We ducked into a little shop selling tea, tea cups and teapots. It was cool, quiet and soothing and we browsed peacefully for about ten minutes, before hurling ourselves back out into the sweaty melee!
We knew our first destination - the bizarrely named 'must-see' Buddhist Tooth Relic Temple'. It was clearly signposted, albeit via s rather circuitous route.
We were not sure what to expect but it was astonishing. The first problem was the dress code which I had completely forgotten about. Fortunately I was not alone and most western tourists were taking advantage of the temple's dressing up box of sarongs and shawls to cover our knees and shoulders. By western standards the temple seemed rather gaudy, with red walls and carpets and numerous golden figures on altars. There were no windows, just artificial lights focussed on the decorated figures. The walls were lined with smaller golden Buddha figures and icons. It was a dramatic contrast to our churches and cathedrals at home, where even the most ornate religious buildings tend to be quiet grey stone with tiled floors, stained glass windows and subtle oil paintings and carvings. Also of note here was the behaviour of the local devout congregation, oblivious and/or indifferent to the curious gazes of multi-national tourists like us, they approached the altar rails - hands together, bowing, kneeling, reciting silent prayers or sitting motionless in corners, meditating. It felt strange to be intruding and watching and yet they made us feel welcome. There was a visitor information centre next door. We visited and were informed - and discovered another three floors of artefacts, a chamber containing a vast prayer wheel and 10,000 miniature Buddhas lining the walls, and a roof top garden full of orchids. We also discovered a gallery full of dramatic carvings and statues and wax models of former religious leaders now deceased.
To be honest it all felt rather strange and a bit spooky to us and we were ready to get back outside into the bustle of Chinatown. The streets were lined with shops and stalls selling food, ornaments and more. We had been encouraged to try some street food but our hotel breakfast had been filling and the various dishes on offer didn't appeal. We went on to visit the Mariamamman temple, an ornate building decorated with carvings of animals and fruit. We were reluctant to leave our shoes outside in the pile on the pavement and so peeped inside and moved on.
After Chinatown, the shopping mall at Marina Bay Sands seemed to be a different world. Spacious and light, cool and airy, and full of designer brand shops. Along the centre of the mall ran a shallow river of clear water along which small boats were punting. They passed under a miniature Cambridge style bridge into a small circular lake, surrounded by tables and chairs. We sat and were cooled, both by the setting and by the iced coffees that we ordered.
Over head was an attractive clear glass panelled dome, unusual in that it was concave rather than convex, and had a central hole. We soon found out why. On the hour, water started to trickle down the sides of the glass bowl and pour into the centre of the pool below. Slowly the volume of water increased, creating a whirlpool effect in the bowl above our heads, and a vortex in the central hole so that the water falling into the pool swirled in a noisy thundering cylinder, making conversation quite a challenge!
Next stop was the 'Gardens in the Bay' - a new forest containing a series of botanic areas representing different regions or aspects of plant life. As we wandered in the gardens it started to rain. Only a few spots at first, but the distant rumble of thunder sent us scurrying back to the tube station and the hotel.
It was time to get ready for the main event of the day - afternoon tea in the Tiffin Room at Raffles Hotel.
Dressed in our Sunday best we declined the short walk along the rain soaked pavements in favour of the $4 taxi ride.
On arrival we were greeted by a turban clad, white jacketed commissionaire holding a large umbrella, and shown inside. (I was careful to get out of the car ankles and knees together, It all felt rather posh!) Meanwhile the rain continued to fall in sheets around us and over the courtyards and banana palms surrounding the hotel. The decor was bright, white and felt colonial. The tables were dressed with white linen cloths, gleaming cutlery and orchids. A harpist played Christmas carols and Ein Audi music quietly in the background.
Our tea arrived on a three-tier cake plate and the Darjeeling and Green tea arrived in silver pots. Service was immaculate and the whole thing was amazing. There was a selection of dainty triangular sandwiches and tiny delicate cakes. The scones were served with strawberry and rose preserve. This was their Festive menu and so it also included mini mince pies and tiny slices of fruit cakes as well as stollen and Christmas log.
In addition to the traditional tea there were spicy and oriental dishes too.
The room was full of other people having a special time which made for a lovely happy atmosphere. The harpist played throughout, people smiled and chatted quietly except for one obnoxious American wearing a baseball cap bearing the motif " I'm difficult". He sulked and huffed and made his point to the waitress over something or other and then left early. The rest of us exchanged brief amused looks of relief and carried on having a lovely afternoon.
Like everyone else, we lingered over or tea for a couple of hours and then drifted away.
We returned to our hotel by taxi and made more plans. We had hoped to visit the main Botanic Gardens, open until midnight, but 15 tube stops away and it was still raining... Our other plan was to go to the top of the tower building at One Raffles Place. The cocktail bar '1-Altitude' on the 63rd floor is the highest in Singapore and Mike had recommended that we go there for a Singapore Sling at sunset. Hmmm... There were dark grey skies and low clouds obscuring the horizon. No sign of any sun or any distant views.
Still undecided we donned kagouls, trousers and boots
(A bit of a mistake as it turned out!) and headed back down to the underground. As we splashed along the pavements we were (briefly) glad of our sensible footwear. We joined the queue to head out on the north - south metro line towards the Botanic Gardens and 1-Altitude cocktail bar. After two trains full of commuters passed by we abandoned that plan, got on the nearest empty train and stepped out back at the Gardens by the Bay. Good decision!
The whole place had come to life in the dusk. In addition to the outdoor gardens there were several installations including a 'Flower Dome' - an enormous cool dry greenhouse, the cool moist 'Cloud Forest' dome, and a small forest of 'Supertrees'. These enormous and rather beautiful man-made trees are vaguely the size and shape of a tall mature deciduous tree, but have solar panels and the ability to collect rainwater. Together with the controlled combustion of chipped vegetation from the rest of the forest /garden they have made the entire gardens project self-sustaining and very impressive. The Supertrees are connected by an illuminated sky walk and at night are covered in lights. Even we 'cityphobes' thought they were just beautiful.
We went into the cloud forest dome . Having been lucky enough to go to the Monteverde cloud forest in Costa Rica last year, we might have been a bit sniffy about it all, but it was brilliant. In the centre was the highest indoor man made waterfall - 35 metres high and covered with ferns, mosses, bromeliads and other cloud forest plants. After wandering in the half light at ground level we took the lift to the top (seventh) floor and then followed the spiral path down.
The creation was convincing and beautiful and the message was clear - the human race is gradually destroying places like this. The temperature of the earth is gradually rising and this could lead to loss of many habitats and extinction of many species the next 100 years or less. There are many factors involved, but the human race, deforestation, transport, animal rearing and forest fires all contribute. This message was well explained and inventively displayed in the dome, although sadly most visitors seemed more interested in posing in front of the displays taking selfie photos than listening to the messages.
Following this however, we climbed out of our pulpits, stepped down off our soap boxes, put away our halos and joined the throngs in 'Winter Wonderland'!
Now whilst we have been travelling we have pretty much missed out on the traditional build up to Christmas with its cooking, planning and shopping. It has felt really strange to see shop windows decorated with reindeers and snowflakes, whilst people stroll past in shorts and flip flops. Suddenly we were in the midst of the Singapore equivalent of the Nuremburg Christmas market crossed with the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. Without the snow and bobble hats.
By now the evening was in full flow. It seemed as if every resident of Singapore was outdoors, feeling festive. The rain had stopped, the temperature had risen and the humidity was rising. How we regretted those kagouls, trousers and boots.... Everyone else was wearing shorts and flip flops and we wished we were too!
In amongst the already spectacular Supertrees had been erected a series of lighted arcades and arches covered in thousands of coloured bulbs. There was an ice rink. There was a snow centre full of real snow where children could hire wellies, socks, gloves and anoraks, build snowmen and play snowballs. Every hour on the hour a snow machine blasted clouds of artificial snow into the air. Then the Christmas musical extravaganza started. Loudspeakers blasted every Christmas song imaginable and the lights in the arcades and the trees changed colour and flashed in time to the tacky Christmas music in patterns that looked almost like fireworks. We couldn't help laughing and dancing like everyone else! We took the lift up to the skywalk and walked amongst the Supertrees. It was great. Quite nonsensical and silly and ridiculous, but great. Everyone was so happy.
After the music died away we realised that we still hadn't managed to have our Singapore Sling in the 1-Altitude bar... On a mission, we tramped bank to the MRT station and on to Raffles Place station.
The MRT station here disgorges its passengers into a series of subways largely connecting the tower blocks of the business and banking district and many of these landmark buildings have bars or restaurants on their top floors. They usually charge you to go up to their bars unless you have a table reserved for dinner, in which case it's free. They also have very similar names and addresses, incorporating the words Raffles Quay / Place/ Street, Sky, Altitude, Marina, Number One, etc. We wandered in the labyrinths of brightly-lit, clean, shiny marbled passageways for a while. We followed signs , went down escalators, along passageways, around corners and up other escalators and round in circles. Lots of friendly Singaporeans stopped sympathetically to try to help the two sweaty English tourists. They in their chic little office dresses or suits. Us in our kagouls and boots... In the end a kindly banker in his 30s must have seen the look of quiet desperation in our eyes, and directed us to a bar called 'Level 33' on the 33rd floor of the MBFC tower where, amazingly there was a craft brewery. We just stepped into a small lift at the end of a corridor and pressed the button '33'. It seemed too good to be true. Getting out of the lift felt like being Dorothy arriving in the land of Oz! A skyscraper bar serving great cold craft beer on a cool open air balcony.
From the balcony we could see the lights of Singapore including the gardens and Marina Bay and giant wheel. And that beer was just wonderful. We admired the view, soaked up the city atmosphere and chilled.
By the end of that drink we realised that we were pretty exhausted. We took the MRT home, just making it back to City Hall Station before our day travel pass expired. (In fact Bill got through the barrier with seconds to spare and I didn't, but the ticket officer took pity on me!)
I suppose we must have walked back to the hotel and got into bed, but I was so exhausted I can't remember!