Happy by the Bay

Singapore, 12th -13th January

Official apology: Due to lack of negligence and distraction, a large part of the Singapore photographs have been lost forever. The Vivid Key creative team apologiseс for this monumental mistakes and will do their best to fill the visual gaps.

12th January

I don’t know if you’ve noticed that good luck has been with us from the first day on the roads of the world. If we go back in time we can see that we successfully avoided the Northern Territory (Australia) wet season. Yes, we may have melted from the heat but drowning would have been the only alternative otherwise. Also, we somehow skipped all bushfires on the way and were never in any danger, especially during the newsworthy events from the end of last year. We are yet to pick the right time to go back to Europe before all borders close due to the well-known pandemic.

But one event from this series of fortunate events is missing. Seemingly a big event, but it was lost in between the others. On the 12th of January 2019 (today), the Taal volcano erupted in the Philippines and brought great destruction to the archipelago. According to our initial plans, we should have flown to the Philippines after Bali - meaning we would have landed there today. But destiny guided us to skip this stop of our trip and distanced us from the natural disaster. If that isn’t pure luck ...

This morning, we get up early and load ourselves in the taxi to the airport with Balinese bracelets for health tied around our wrists. At Denpasar airport we check in the luggage and enter the terminal looking for breakfast. Who could have known that would be a big mistake? Why would it be a mistake? Because it turns out that we had food included with our flight. And when buying the tickets, Nic didn’t realise that so ordered extra. So now, after two large falafel wraps at the terminal, we end up with four more airplane food portions. Wow! Maybe we’ll take them to the hostel.

Since the plane isn’t taking us to the Philippines, it will land in Singapore. A city-state located in the southernmost part of the Malay peninsula, a hop, skip and a jump away from Indonesia. It is half the area of London and double that of Sofia. An ex British colony, the city is now an independent state and one of Asia’s titans. They call them the Four Asian Tigers (or Dragons) because of their incredible economic bloom in the second half of the 20th century - China, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong. And that means only one thing for us, the tourists - Singapore is an incredibly expensive destination. Anyone who has visited would warn you not to plan a long stay because of its ridiculous prices. Fortunately, it is only a city.

Our first aim is located at the airport itself - The Jewel or the inside waterfall at the main terminal. I have definitely been waiting impatiently to see it in real life. The entire airport complex has been planned as a tourist destination, not just as a portal to one. You don’t need a boarding pass to enjoy the colourful sculptures, water installations, family walking paths, restaurants and shops. Why leave the airport at all?

Nic and I wander up and down the corridors with our bags on our backs (because someone didn’t want to take a trolly) and we can’t find our way. It is time to ignore the manly instincts of my husband and ask for directions. But at the Information desk, we get quickly disappointed - “The waterfall is closed for maintenance until the 15th January”. Great! Exactly the day we’re leaving. No, I haven’t at all been waiting for a year to see it. I am not at all disappointed by this turn of events.

Let’s just get to the shuttle for the tram then. It’s not like there is much to see here any more. Tired, overfed and annoyed. With a swing, I slam my rucksack on the floor like a child angered by the smallest difficulties. Nic is trying to diplomatically get me on the correct bus, perhaps some time in the stuffy space would calm down my nerves. Why did I listen to him not to take a trolly for the bags? Why do I have to carry 25 kilograms on my back when I can just push it???

While we wait for the tram to arrive, we are intrigued by an interesting structure. The access to the tramlines is blocked on the entire platform. Once the train arrives, the doors line up with those along the platform which open only so you can get on. There isn’t a single moment when there is a possibility of one falling (or jumping) under the machine. The Singaporean transport system is the first in the world to install such screens for the safety of all passengers, as well as the acclimatisation of some areas. Every station we visited was barricaded in such a way, even those in the open. With a thought for sustainability …

And in the subway itself, we are accompanied by colourful stickers that remind you of the manners we should follow in public transport. #StandUpStacey advising us to offer our seat in need. #MoveInMartin, on the other hand, is guiding us to stand closer during peak hours. Around them are also #BagDownBenny, #GiveWayGlenda and #HushHushHannah. How could you not be an example commuter when there is always someone to remind you in such a fun way?

The line to downtown Singapore is long but we reach the end anyway. It is hot and sticky outside and we are yet to find our hostel with 25 kilos on our backs. We have booked a place in Little India which is the Indian equivalent of Chinatown worldwide. The streets are busy, colourful and smelly (nice or not so much), full of trinkets that you would never need but buy happily regardless.

The hostel lobby allows us to breathe in deeply with its cold conditioned air. But it is also full of people and their luggage. There is another hour before check-in; everyone is waiting in the cool. Well, we won’t miss that either. We line up our bags to the wall and relax into the only free chairs. Not that I want to waste precious time in Singapore, but such are the circumstances. Or maybe not … Nic is quickly called back to the receptionist. “If you cancel your reservation on Booking.com, we can take you to your room immediately for the same price.” Someone doesn’t want to pay commission. But what do we care?

Our beds are in a room for twelve. I would give anything to be the first to choose our places and they aren’t even asking anything of me. The dormitory is narrow, with one shower and two toilets for so many people. The bottom bunks have short curtains for privacy, the tops don’t. I pick the ones with a nook in the back to toss rucksacks into and not worry too much about something disappearing. The lockers are also next to us to put in all our valuables under a key. Well, we’ll manage somehow.

We lock up everything valuable (but heavy), change clothes ready for the sticky climate and get out into the heat confidently. We don’t have a specific destination in mind, we’ll just plod through Singapore to get to know it. With our first steps, we are transported to Chinatown. We are surrounded by a temporary market - the typical Chinese red and yellow can be seen everywhere. Everything is being sold. But on the map, Chinatown is in a completely different spot - in the opposite direction. It takes us a bit to realise that this is all for the upcoming big Asian event - the Lunar New Year or, as everyone calls it, the Chinese New Year. Just as our streets are filled by Christmas decorations from the first days of November, the people here are getting ready for the holiday. To welcome the year of the Rat.

We exit the holiday markets whole and with every step, we get closer to the central business district. The sky becomes full of skyscrapers. Some new and glazed merge with the landscape, but others older, in their concrete designs, cut the blue and take all the attention for themselves.

Yet, led by some goal, we arrive at the Fountain of Wealth. Marked by a solid gold structure, the water installation is on a sublevel in the centre of a roundabout. Which in itself is surrounded by a huge mall. A complex of five tall wings - all shops. We pace around through the buildings and floors to find the entrance of this underground fountain. I swear, we passed an ice-cream shop at least three times before we accidentally ended up in the right place. And there is a guard at the door not letting us in. It is closed for tourists - “Come back in an hour”. Then who are those people taking pictures behind the glass? Fine, we weren’t that passionate about it anyway.

And so, this mall ended up being just a tool to walk through an air-conditioned space. It takes us about twenty minutes to walk through in a straight line towards the Singapore Marina and we’re closed in by it the whole time. What would happen if you add the many floors and turnings from the “main” path? If I have to come here for shopping therapy, I’d rather be sent to electroshock.

Exiting the mall, we cross the street and are faced with … another mall. But we just left the biggest one I have ever stepped foot into. How could there be another one on the back of it? Although we get a headache from the colourful trinkets, imposing smells and mixing musical rhythms, we can’t deny ourselves the convenience of air-conditioning.

And yet … Singapore, is it possible for you to be more consumerist? Who is buying all this rubbish on your endless shelves? I feel like we should be outside getting to know this new destination better, but I am starting to realise the shops ARE Singapore and this is an authentic walk through it.

We finally manage to get on the shores of the marina and the view can’t be skipped. With a few exceptions, we can see the most valuable elements of the city-state from here. On the right rise the skyscrapers – gathered together as if in a secret meeting of the board of directors. In front of them, our attention is grabbed by Singapore’s symbol – the Merlion. A figure with the head of a lion and the tail of a fish. It comes from the previous name Temasek – from Java “Sea city” and the Sanskrit origin of the modern name – Simhapura – “Lion City”.

On the left, however, stands tall the most distinguished jewel of Singapore. Marina Bay Sands - a luxury hotel of three building tethered like sales on the wind, connected by a joint observatory deck. Well, you must have seen this hotel online even if you didn’t know it belonged to the Singaporean skyline. In front of it is the ultra-expensive shopping centre of the hotel with some of the most luxurious brands in the world, alongside the special building of the Artscience Museum. It is in the shape beloved by all Asian cultures of the lotus and is definitely trying and succeeding to steal attention from Marina Bay Sands behind.

We take the necessary pictures of the view and continue onwards. I can’t wait to pay more attention to each of these places but we will leave it for tomorrow. Today, we will try to just get to know the essence of Singapore. What makes it tick, as people say. Without much effort, we stumble across a different sight. On the way to the cathedral, we pass under a large bridge. We are surrounded by groups of young people sitting on the floor. Some on nylons, some on their jackets. Some with their own music, others listening to that of their neighbours. Our initial reaction is to add them to the group of the homeless. Back home in the west, it is only them that sit in underpasses. But after a deeper look, we can’t miss the fact that they are all well dressed, with expensive phones and don’t hold out a tin of coins. Here, this is cool. To hang in the shade of a bridge with your amigos.

We cross the green space towards a building that stands out of the landscape. With the background of the grey skies (it might rain) and the greenery, the tower of the Anglican cathedral St. Andrew’s rises up. A British colonial building, as if from a handbook - not that I have read such handbooks. White as a sheet. With wooden shutters instead of colourful stain glass. With white fans hanging off the basilica’s arches attempting to save you from the sticky heat. It screams from a far “I don’t belong here!”. If this is not what you picture the churches to be like in the tropical areas, you are wrong. The English have built them all around just like it.

We sit down to take a breath and dry off.

It isn’t yet time for dinner, but we haven’t eaten since our huge breakfast this morning. It really was enough for three meals today, but we are greedy little piggies after all, so we open the app. Neither of us are surprised when the navigations take us inside a mall. It would seem the people here don’t know how to function outside of shopping centres. The restaurant is lovely and offers typical Singaporean dishes and everything on the menu can be made vegan. The waiters aren’t too busy as every table has an empty form where you write the numbers of the dishes you’ve chosen and take it to the kitchen yourself.

Some of the chosen dishes turn out to be familiar Italian-American style. But the oyster omelettes aren’t something that can be missed in Singapore. We, of course, can’t eat either eggs or oysters but that doesn’t mean that the cook can’t prepare something as close to the authentic recipe as possible. On our plate, we have a tofu omelette with the so-called oyster mushrooms and truffle oil, which isn’t a traditional ingredient, but we are going for it. Our feelings are mixed. The idea of tofu and mushroom sounds wonderful, but the strong aroma of the truffle takes over the entire palette and leaves space for nothing else. Taking risks doesn’t always pay of … And with this early dinner, we are starting to see exactly how expensive Singapore is and are glad we only have three days to spend such money.

Back out, not in shopping areas, the architecture of Singapore is so refreshing. You can find everywhere elements, small or big, that just fill your soul. Like for example the white building of the police station with window shutters in all colours of the rainbow. Their laws may be strict (very strict), but that doesn’t get in the way of having fun with colours and ornaments. Or the lit-up bridges and garish boats in the bay. The houses and console bars at Clarke Quay are also not worth bypassing. They call us so strongly that we quickly sit under the lit-up pergolas for a pint of local lager - Tiger. Even with the knowledge of the extortionate bill we will get at the end.

As we drink our expensive beer under the colourful shelters, we see a phenomenon that has long not been part of your days - rain. And not just rain, but a down-pour! A storm! Those grey skies I mentioned are now coming down on the city. And we are enjoying it in the dry. Only the ones in the boats should be worried. Though we aren’t in a safe place either as something comes over us and we order a second round of beers.

The rain doesn’t stop, but we can’t risk staying at the bar any longer. We get out in the pouring rain and run to the closest tram station. But even in that wet dash, we don’t miss the opportunity to see the colours of Singapore further. Next to the bridge, there are a few streets, connected by modern, tall, bright roofs. Restaurants, music, people. Singapore is having fun.

Back in the hostel, Nic and I hide behind the small curtain of the bed. Almost all ten neighbours are present - some eating smelly pot noodles, other getting ready to just now go into the city after sleeping all day. At night, we end up squishing together onto the lower bunk. It is the only one with privacy and the air-con is right above us. Whoever sleeps on the top will most definitely have a runny nose tomorrow. Did we make a mistake with a room for twelve?

13th January

After we walked through Singapore yesterday and got to know it roughly, this morning we wake up impatient to dive deeper. We will start with a walk in the Gardens by the Bay. We didn’t see them from the marina yesterday, but they are probably the most attractive tourist place in the city-state. From the central areas, we get on the bridge that leads straight into Marina Bay Sands. We have to take pictures at every step - the angle gets more and more dramatic as we approach.

From the bridge, we enter straight into the Shoppes (interesting spelling) - the luxury mall. In here, it is posh, expensive and shiny. From the places that you sort of wish your whole life to have enough money to shop in freely - Chanel, Hermes, Furla, Boss, Cartier, Bulgari, Rolex, Tiffany’s … Louis Vuitton in a floating pyramid in the marina … A river flows through the lower floor with active gondolas in it … And yet, I don’t know if I’ll ever have the insanity to spend my money here, even if I had them.

A few paths can take you from the shops, through the hotel to the gardens. We choose the most unattractive one of them all. The one that requires walking around the hotel instead of through its parade atrium. But oh well … With this bypass, we end up straight into Floral Fantasy - exactly where we want to be.

Before I go into detail about the separate elements of the gardens, let me try and paint the general picture. “Gardens by the Bay” is the most impressive urban park that I have ever seen. In real life or just on a picture. With its colours and shapes, the park is extremely futuristic and even in person, it doesn’t seem to be real. I definitely imagined it was only a concept when I first saw it in one of David Attenborough’s documentaries a few years ago. But no. The park is completely real and part of Singapore’s ambitious programme to turn the “city park” into a “city in the park”. With its aerodynamic greenhouses, massive pink trees and worldwide awards for flower arrangements, the Gardens by the Bay are simply stunning. (And that is why I am so sad these are the exact pictures we lost.)

In Floral Fantasy we dive into exactly that - a fantasy of flowers and colours. A small (compared to the others) greenhouse, entirely dedicated to the imagination of florist masters. From the doors, we are welcomed by dancing arrangements - twenty or so balls of living flowers that come down from the ceiling synchronised to the music. Further in we “meet” a friendly giant with flowers in his head. A colourful terrarium of tiny poisonous frogs. A thin waterfall out of nowhere. Flower. Flowers. Flowers. In some places, we’re in a jungle. In others - in an English garden. But everywhere we’re in a dream. A surreal floral fantasy.

At the end of the vivid walk, we are invited to watch a short 4D show. But, of course! In the video, we “are” a dragonfly which flies through, over and around all areas of the park. We feel the wind that changes its direction and the water that spray from the waterfalls. But most importantly, we see the key elements of the Gardens by the Bay. Now, we know the details and exactly what there is to be seen. The dragonfly even gives us a hint of the Rhapsody - an audio-visual show that happens in the park each evening. Well, we need to arrange our plans well because there is so much to see.

The gardens themselves are free to enter. You can pass the bridge from Marina Bay Sands at any time and walk around the Supertrees or the Japanese gardens, or the tons of sculptures scattered through the park. Only the entrance to the buildings is paid for but we aren’t crazy enough to skip it. Can’t waste a wedding present, right?

We see the “dragonfly eggs” in the river and the giant floating baby and we are officially faced with the Supertrees. That’s the names of the unique structures thought of by some creative and brave mind. The tall “trees” are of tangled pink steel that blooms open on the top - between 25 and 50 meters. In every gap of the vertical trunk, countless quantities of plants have been planted that make these man-made structures spring to life. We know from Sir David that the main goal is to allow nature to grow more vertically. And the point of these new natural habitats it to be homes of wild animals returning to the city where they are just as important for the circle of life. Naturally, tigers and monkeys aren’t expected, but every newly rehomed bird is.

From the eighteen Supertrees in the gardens, we see twelve in this central Supertree Grove. In its centre soars the tallest one with an observation deck that we climb up without thinking twice. Our colourful journey starts from the elevator - screens cover the closed space and project an animation of flowers. As if we’re climbing in the hollow trunk of these unique trees. Up there, we walk out on a path that surrounds it. We see it all. Marina Bay Sands, Singapore Eye, all Supertrees, Floral Fantasy, Flower Dome and Cloud Forest. Everything through the pink “crown branches”. Endless, futuristic, vivid beauty.

And just as we’re about to get back into the lift back down, they ask us if we’ve been up yet. There is more? We climb the steps one more level and here, we are now on a deck with a 360 view. Nothing can escape us. The pink branches also end on this level and don’t disturb the new angle. Not that they don’t add the necessary uniqueness to our pictures. Naturally, we aren’t surprised that this platform is covered in solar panels that power the entire complex. Could we expect sustainability in such heights without the use of renewable energy resources? There is plenty of sunshine here.

We might have chosen the wrong time to visit Singapore, however, because we are again faced with “Closed for maintenance” issues. After we’ve already missed the Jewel at the airport, now we learn that the Cloud Forest is also not working today. Even the gift-shops in the entire park are closed for stocktake. Nic and I think that all these checks and preparations are for the forthcoming Lunar New Year. They are most likely expecting a great influx of tourists around the holidays and can’t allow the embarrassment of unwashed windows and broken light bulbs. And those that aren’t tied up with maintenance have been sent to arrange animal figures. There doesn’t seem to be a space where the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac aren’t represented. Naturally, the cute rats are in the centre.

Regardless, we buy a double ticket for the two domes and the lady hand-signs them to be valid tomorrow when maintenance is over. Relaxed, we enter the Flower Dome. The design of the two greenhouses is inspired by seashells, slightly dug unto the sand. For the English audience, I can quickly describe them as the Singaporean equivalent of the Cornwall Eden Project. Huge tropical gardens in glazed domes - those in Singapore are the size between 60 and 75 Olympic swimming pools. But here, in the Flower Dome, the difference of twelve years between the two projects is visible. In south England, the greenhouses have had so many more years to grow and their riches show from afar. Here, you can still tell that the project is in a much earlier stage. Even with eight years of experience.

We are welcomed by a collection of succulents and cacti with the memorable name “Aloes in Wonderland”. After that, we pass through a baobab forest - some very ugly and yet impressive trees. From the second level of the greenhouse, we are observed by a dragon carved out of wood. In the centre of the hall, our eye is caught by a small Chinatown gate with rats in front and all other animals in the back. Sculptures of all kinds are hidden under palms and behind flowers. It is nice, however, I wouldn’t say stunning.

Just as we’re about to pass the Italian restaurant in the dome, we realise we might actually be hungry. In other places around the world, lunch in the park itself would be crazy expensive. Not that it isn’t, but it is not like many places in the city offer better prices. For two sandwiches and soup, we pay much more than I am willing to admit. And Nic is annoyed with me for spending the whole time eavesdropping on our neighbours - two Bulgarians. One clearly lives here and the other is visiting her. I didn’t introduce myself

I go back out willingly, to warm up. That is what happens when you’re dressed for 35 degrees and eating lunch at 19. We pass under the Silver Supertrees on our way to the Serenity Gardens. Only one style of gardening can carry this name - the Japanese. Perfect shapes, water cascades and mirrors.

Knowing that tomorrow we will be returning by the bay we are ready to explore new parts of Singapore. Starting with Marina Bay Sands. We leave the gardens by the parade bridge and enter the hotel atrium. On a bridge above the lobby. Luxury is pouring through everything! Although, I am secretly comparing it to a dorm for twelve. But other than a quick look towards the reception, the three restaurants that can be seen from up here and the hanging corridors above it, we won’t go into too much detail this time. We pass through the Shoppes again and are just as smitten by how some people in the world live.

Our next big stop is the lotus Artscience Museum. I am tickled by the word the Singaporean have come up with to separate their museum from all the others worldwide - Artscience. Two separate fields but merged into one. This is not a place for art and/or science Here, the two can’t exist independently. They merge into each other unnoticeably and develop in perfect symbiosis. If you can’t quite picture it, I shall help. One of the three paid exhibits in the building is “Disney: Magic of Animation”. The art of drawing the characters and their environment and the science to fuse them in a moving picture that conquers the souls of big and small. If this activity doesn’t require the full integration of both, I don’t know what else would … Our other options are “Future World: Where Art Meets Science” and “2219: Futures Imagined”.

Although the installations in “Future World” look stunning, the cashier quickly informs us that is it simply an interactive exhibit for children and we will most likely not find it very interesting, as pretty as it is. Well okay, we should have learned a lesson from Bali - we won’t pay to take pictures in a few places where everyone else takes pictures. We have a rough idea what to expect from Disney so we enter 2219.

Well, I was not prepared for the next hour of my life. In short, the exhibit is about climate change and what the life of people (specifically Singaporeans) will look like in 200 years. But neither a year ago, nor today, do I have the words to describe the mastery, artistry, emotions that were put into these halls and corridors. Nor is there any point in me trying to say it in words. If it could have been synthesised in words, no one would have gone through the trouble of creating it visually. Socio-cultural videos of the past, future and present; songs of communities; photos and collages; interior design of the future houses - over or underground; stories of jellyfish as the most sustainable living organism on the planet; interactive lessons of the power of human touch and nature.

I cried. A lot. From the first room. Nic didn’t realise it until we left the building. Everything around me awoke so many feelings. For Nic too. Sad, hopeless thoughts. On one hand, I am glad we saw Disney after 2219 to put something childish and innocent back in our souls. On the other hand, I am sad that I could enjoy my favourite characters that I have grown up with and continue to keep me company on winter evenings with a cup of hot chocolate or on long road trips with the songs I know every word to.

Back under the sky of Singapore, we sit on the steps at the marina. At the same place, we emerged yesterday to see this view for the first time. It takes us a while before we get our heads around it. But if the Universe thought we should see the 2219 exhibit and feel those strong feelings, I can’t say anything against it. We just need some time to understand what is expected of us.

For dinner, we find a nice vegan restaurant in Clark Quay (shopping centre). We sit by the windows on the third floor with a wonderful view. Everything we saw yesterday but now we’re looking at it instead of being in it. It is not bad when food is wonderful as well.

Tonight, we are in no rush to go back. We don’t think that right now we need the atmosphere of our depressing hostel. Quite the opposite. We need clean and cool air to blow away our thought and calm us down before bed. If we don’t get enough sleep tonight, how will we continue our walk to the fullest tomorrow? What a day!!!

Singapore definitely welcomed us with a new boom. Like a blend of experiences from Australia and Bali together. Expensive, modern, western and colourful, loud and Asian. Singapore is the perfect destination for small trips. You don’t need more than three days here. You can properly incorporate some real and active tourism and a more relaxed,luxurious holiday. In three days, as expensive as it is, it is nice! I totally recommend a visit. But nevertheless, wait to hear the rest of our experiences on Singaporean lands, before you buy your plane tickets. (Or for the pandemic restrictions to be dropped. Whichever comes first.)

Stay Vivid,

Vassya (and Nic)

Video: A look into today as well as a teasert for tomorrow.

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