2 January 2005

Travelog: Bottomless Singapore

It was one of the first things that struck me—unlike their fat-arsed Australian counterparts, most Singaporeans have no bums. They are a slim, small-hipped people with very petite behinds. Sounds like the start of a bad joke. “So what do they sit on?” “Chairs!” Boom, boom!

Acknowledging the different local build, Marks & Spencers, that bastion of ordinary Englishness, have racks full of bras made specially for Asian women, though I’m sure they’d be happy to sell them to men or women of any ethnicity.

Singers Marks & Sparks bras

With only five hours between flights most sensible people would enjoy the air-conditioned sumptuousness of Changi airport, surely the world’s finest, with its magnificent shops, excellent eateries, free movie lounge. fitness centre, pool and tropical gardens.

But not I. I decided to make a dash through customs and jump on the SMRT (Singapore Mass Rail Transit system). With enthusiastic but unintelligible instructions from one of the station staff who seemed to think me his mission in life, I finally managed to work out where I was going and purchase a ticket. “Where to now?” I asked, because I couldn’t actually see the train station. “Now you just take the train,” he said, and pointed vaguely towards a huge atrium behind glass doors. So there I went, but where was the station? Where was the platform? Then I realised that this huge, spotless, shiny hall was the station and the platform, separated from the actual track by extensive sliding doors which only open when there’s a train on the other side of them. Neat, tidy, sensible and safe, words easily associated with many aspects of Singapore.

Singapore MRT station

The train is smooth and quiet and became very full as we headed for the city. A fascinating ethnic mix of Malays, Indians, Chinese ignored me on mass, with odd sideways comments to a friend. I was conspicuously touristy, with functional lightweight travel gear, juggling a large map and with the Nikon D70 as a necklace. And I was conspicuously the only such person on the train.

In fact, for a city which hosted in excess of 8 million tourists in the last year alone, there were precious few of us about, even on Orchard Road, the heart of Singapore’s shopping precinct. The amazing range of shopping may appeal to tourists, but it exists primarily for locals. My theory is that Singapore shopping has evolved as a means to escape the oppressive humidity. Each time you cross the threshold into a shopping centre a cool wave of air-conditioning washes blissfully over your face. It’s an amazing relief, rather like the first 3 seconds at the urinal. On the other hand, walking back out into the humidity is the opposite experience. I cope with these conditions so badly now that I find it hard to believe I was born and brought up in the tropics.

Singapore at Christmas is a dazzling spectacle. Every shop, building and lamppost is awash with lights and colour, and even at 10 pm on a Sunday night on Boxing Day, there are people everywhere as most of the shops are still open. There’s a buzz in the air, though, which is much more than just petty consumerism at its most vigorous. There’s actually a genuine feeling of enjoyment, energy, and socialness as well. The air is rich with enthusiastic conversation and laughter, and the bright lights of the shopping centres are constantly punctuated by the flash of digital cameras. Suddenly I felt less like a tourist.

Singapore crowds at 10pm on Sunday

Outside one shopping centre was this lavish Christmas tree, and every passing group seemed to want to be photographed with it. But since everyone had a camera, everyone started photographing every group. This young couple with their chihuahuas must have had dozens of photos taken of them by complete strangers, and became amusingly embarrassed.

Embarassed couple with dogs

And if there is one memory I will take out of Singapore today, it’s that people were universally happy, enthusiastic and helpful. When I was last in Singers about 10 years ago, I only seemed to sense that in Little India. This time it was everywhere, from the airport staff to shopkeepers to taxi drivers. On the way back to the airport my driver actually asked me to add my email address to the several others in the back of his notebook. He’s passing them on to his wife and daughter so they can practice their English and learn about different parts of the world, and he insists I am to visit his family next time I am in town.

Frankly, that won’t be soon enough. Singapore really is a great place to visit, but I always seem to be here for only a few hours at a time, and therefore only do the touristy things. Next time round I am determined to take a few days and get out of the city and experience more of the place. It charms really do seem bottomless.Go to eebahgum!

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