Singapore: setting up, tourism and more

So here comes a longer post to help all of you, my dear readers, to catch up on what I have been doing in Singapore so far.

I arrived in Singapore early on Wednesday morning, after not having slept much at all on the flight (Danish time it was about midnight, and I usually don’t go to bed much earlier than that). The airport was efficient, but not particularly architecturally inspiring, this probably due to us going through Terminal 2, which is one of the older terminals. Immigration cleared, and luggage collected (see previous post), I headed straight for the MRT (mass rapid transit, i.e. the metro-system) station, to beat the morning rush hour. But no such luck, the MRT line from the airport is a feeder service onto one of the main lines, the EW (east-west) line, so after 10 minutes pleasant ride on the train in my own seat, I had to change onto the (already quite packed) train that would take me directly to the MRT station nearest my RC (residential college). The MRT system has much to commend itself with, it is fast, frequent, has a simple (distance based) fare system, and the carriages are clean. Initially I thought that it was aircon’ed slightly too much, but later I discovered that it is quite pleasant to be chilled thoroughly after e.g. walking to the station (not that Singaporeans seem to do that much, preferring to take the bus even when it is only about a kilometre to the station).

The uninspiring terminal at the airport.

Having stood on the train for about an hour (airport is on the east side of the island, university on the west), I got off at the aforementioned MRT station close to the RC. My eight-wheeled four-axled suitcase served its purpose very well, even though the pavement was a bit irregular at some points. (The pavement is constructed using large concrete slabs laid down in sequence to make a path. The problem is that the roots of the trees that line almost any larger street push up the corners of the slabs, making some transitions between them almost step-like).

Arriving at the residential college, I spoke with Hannah, who had also just arrived in Singapore (from the USA). We were both waiting to check in, and in the mean while got the wifi working (for me though, I have still not got it working on my laptop, a job for next week I think). After checking in and occupying my room, I had a quick shower, and then set off for the tour of Singapore arranged by the WelcomeFest and the IRO (international relations office) that I had signed up for. I half-noted that the room did not include a pillow nor any bedlinen, and filed this under things to sort out later. Walking from my RC through UTown I was quite impressed by the architecture of this modern part of campus. The rather simple task of building RCs to house around 2400 students (my estimate based on four RCs, and one of them supposedly having 600 students), which is done using tower blocks, is made a bit more friendly by making sure the landscaping complements and wraps round the buildings: no straight roads and monolithic facades, instead, paths twist in and out under and through the buildings, and trees and patches of grass (which are swept clean of leaves every day it seems) provide a bit of green. As I later discovered, the provision of covered walkways is almost a necessity, they provide both shelter from the rain (authentic tropical thunderstorms) and the sun (brutal from a clear sky, although luckily the high humidity means there is often a haze and light cloud cover).

Cinnamon Residential College, where I live, behind a tree.

UTown, the new part of campus that I am staying on, is connected to the main campus by a road-, bicycle- and (covered) footbridge, called CollegeLink, that spans the AYE (Ayer Rah Expressway, one of the motorways going west from the centre of town). Walking across it does not take long, and I arrived at YIH (Yousef Ishak House) in good time to join the city tour. We travelled in groups of around 10, with two local students acting as guides, we visited Little India, which combines colonial era buildings with the vibrancy of an authentic asian feel. Shops have open storefronts, and display their wares on both sides of the pavement, and above as well (the facade of the buildings often stick out over the pavement from the first floor (called the second level here in Singapore)).

The bridge to UTown, seen from main campus.
Inside a shop in Little India.

We visited a Hindu temple, beautifully ornamented outside, and inside full of devotees praying, receiving food etc. We were not allowed to take pictures inside, but it was quite an interesting building. One of our guides, Vino, was a Tamil Singaporean, and she explained about a lot of the customs that we saw evident. Singapore’s third largest ethnic group are Indians, especially from southern India, and all important signs are quadlingual, written in English, Mandarin, Tamil and Malay.

Fading colonial buildings in Little India.
The Hindu temple we visited.

After the Temple, we visited a shopping centre, except that it was totally dominated by two things: the ground floor was a food court and market, of the type one finds many of in Singapore, and the first floor almost exclusively sold saris and other Indian garments. Quite the colourful sight! At this point, the rain started, so we had lunch at the food court. Food courts, also known as hawker centres, are a good example of Singapore’s fusion between Asian culture and modern standards. The typical food court will have a central seating area consisting of chairs and tables, and surrounding it there will be 10-30 stalls, each one rented by a stallholder. Each stall often has its own character, some selling Chinese noodles, others selling rice and fried vegetables, still others selling Muslim cuisine. Indian food and western food is also a common theme for many of the stalls. Some stalls even specialise in only one thing: at this particular food court, there was a roti stall, selling an Indian rice-based bread, cooked on demand. The stallholder eagerly explained how he prepared the dough and when making these breads individually for each customer, he would explain what he was doing. I had a roti with egg and onions, this was done by firing up a large circular hotplate, throwing (sic!) some oil on it, and then spreading out the dough into a flat circle. The egg was then broken and poured out on top, and the onion was chopped and scattered. The rice pancake (interesting thought) was then served on a plate with a sauce in a side tray, and we then sat down to eat. Some of the other participants on the tour had ordered other dishes from other stalls and we compared the dishes and the prices, which were very cheap (see previous post). At this particular food court, there was an opportunistic stallholder who went from table to table offering lime juice. This is quite a good idea, because it means the juice arrives at your table, saving you from having to balance a plate, cutlery and glass through the busy court to your seat. Once the food is consumed, common practice is to just get up and leave: dishes and so on are picked up and cleaned centrally for the entire food court.

The friendly stallholder at the roti stall.

When the rain subsided, we took the MRT to a central part of Singapore, Clarke Quay on the river.

The Singapore River.
The tourist. CBD (central business district) in the background.

We walked along the river, past parliament house, across the Padang (the field next to the old governor’s house), and over to the Esplanade, Singapore’s new concert hall overlooking Marina Bay, an artificial freshwater bay fed by the Singapore River, created when the Marina Bay Sands area was reclaimed from the sea. From the top of Esplanade, I could look across to Marina Bay Sands, where the integrated resort (an euphemism for casino) is located, along with hotels and other quite amazing bits of architecture, such as large glass conservatories that have an internal temperature lower than the outside, housing European and Australian plants in the “Gardens by the Bay”. The obligatory group pictures taken, and tour officially over, some of us went to a shopping centre to try and acquire linen and pillows for the beds. I was not particularly impressed with the linen offerings, but picked up a pillow.

Parliament House.
A flower in the garden on the roof of Esplanade.
The obligatory group photo. Marina Bay Sands resort in the background.

At this point I was feeling quite tired, having been walking around town for around 6 hours, and three of us from the group took the MRT to Clementi, the shopping centre closest to university. I did not like the linen offerings here either, so took the bus back to campus, and resolved to go to IKEA later. At this point my hunt for a SIM card also starts: I asked at every single 7-eleven I passed (and there are a lot) whether they had any SingTel prepaid SIM cards, and when I finally did find a 7-eleven that had one, they told me I needed my passport to purchase it. Ah well, a job for the next day. From UTown to IKEA is not particularly far, but it is tedious. It involved taking the internal university shuttle bus from acrross the bridge to Kent Ridge MRT station, and then changing onto the EW line to Queenstown, and from there, either a short bus ride, or, as I decided to do, walk. The time was now getting on 9 pm, so the weather had cooled a bit, but still warm in a shirt and trousers, IKEA was open until 11 pm, and I picked up some linen and coathangers, and had a bun from the restaurant. Walking back to the MRT station, and getting home, I went to bed, exhausted after 30-something hours awake with half an hours sleep on the flight.

But waking up the next day, I realised how clever I had been: Staying up for so many hours essentially tricked/kicked my brain into Singapore time, which was quite an easy way to overcome jetlag it seems. Thursday was spent going to Clementi again, this time for some flip-flops, fruit and other essentials that I needed. The apples were from New Zealand, but I had a slightly better consciousness buying NZ apples here than I do in Europe! (Look at a globe, and you will see why). After this, I headed home and attended a travel talk about the places in Asia one might wish to visit. Talk over, I spent some time with Ivan from Taiwan (whom I had met on the city tour) and Hannah, and then went to the pool. The pool is a 50m, 9 lane affair, outdoor (of course, when the temperature never drops below 19 degrees even on the coldest nights and is above 25 degrees most days), nothing special, but a good pool. Here I discovered that I have not been swimming enough during the summer holidays, but still managed 250m.

Later that evening Jake, my flatmate, and I participated in the Cinnamon RC formal dinner to honour the incoming undergraduates. We had asked the management office earlier whether we were invited, and they did not actually know, but said we were welcome anyway.

The formal dinner with a dance performance, held in the dining hall. Apologies for the image quality.

Friday was the day of bureaucracy: we had to formally register at the University in the MPSH (multi-purpose sports hall). Wisely informed by my flatmate Jake from Conneticut (I live in a 6-bedroom flat unit, sharing a large bathroom and living room, within the RC) to be there early, I was there half an hour before, which meant I only had to wait about 15 minutes after the first ones were served. This done, I went off to the UHC (University Health Clinic) to have my medical examination done, a prerequisite for turning my IPA (in-principle approval) into a real Student’s Pass. The medical examination consisted of a blood sample to check for HIV and a chest x-ray to test for tuberculosis. Total cost: S$45 (around 250 DKK, compares favourably with the 1000 DKK plus I would have had to have paid in Denmark).

During the afternoon I managed to get a SIM card, and then attempted to set up a bank account at DBS (Development bank of Singapore), that have a branch on campus. It is quite an interesting branch, with transparent touchscreens and touchscreen tables, one of them employed as a games table to entertain the people who are currently waiting. I played checkers, and beat the AI on easy. But after having played checkers and space invaders for a bit, an assistant came up to me and asked what I was waiting for, upon hearing my purpose, she apologised and said that there would not be time for me to set up an account on that day. Ah well, something to do next week.

A transparent touch screen in the DBS branch on campus.

Later I was shown around campus (which is huge) by Sanyam, my “buddy” (mentor and friend and so on, a local student who helps international students cope with their first few days at NUS) at the RC, and then attended the introductory talk for exchange students. This done, I eat dinner with Ivan and Peter from Switzerland at the Science faculty food court, and we then set off for Singapore Night, an evening with performances and other amusements showcasing Singapore arranged by the IRO and WelcomeFest. It was raining heavily, but the stalls and so on were underneath a massive sunsail, that prevented everyone from getting too wet. After having tasted some of the tropical fruits, and Singaporean treats, we headed inside, and then some of us that had met up on the city tour debated what to do for the evening. When the rain had died down, Louise and Connie, both from Australia, Frederick from Belgium and myself, resolved to go into town, to meet up with some other exchange students. We spent the late evening at a night club called Helipad, which had a spectacular view of the Singapore River.

Singapore River at night.

Getting home by shared taxi, I went to bed and slept until 2 pm today. Today was spent eating lunch with Hannah, swimming, and cleaning my room (either dust accumulates very quickly here, or it had not been properly cleaned when I arrived). And as I am writing this, the time is getting past midnight, and I will be off to bed. Goodnight from Singapore.

The friendly stallholder at the roti stall.

Author: jpamills


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