Singapore: Jewel of the East
By Doug Hansen
Drums beat rhythmically as a dozen men maneuvered an undulating 30-foot-long red and yellow dragon along Orchard Road, a tree-lined boulevard known for its upscale stores and hotels. This symbol of strength, power and good luck in Chinese culture was part of a Chinese New Year celebration -- just one of the surprises that awaited us in Singapore.
This has become one of my favorite places, but I'll start with the only two drawbacks I can think of. First, Singapore is consistently ranked among the most expensive cities in the world, along with Paris and Hong Kong. Second, due to its proximity to the equator, Singapore's average temperature hovers around a daily high of 88 degrees and a low of 75 degrees, with 84 percent average humidity and rain showers possible on most days. The all-time low temperature is 66.9 degrees.
Modern Singapore was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819 as a trading post for the British East India Co. The island city state (just 279 square miles) blossomed in just six decades from a place of strife and relative poverty to a global powerhouse for entertainment, education, finance, healthcare, manufacturing, technology, tourism and transportation.
During our visit to the National Museum, we were struck by the magnitude of the country's accomplishments: Singapore is consistently rated as one of the world's safest and cleanest countries; it has the world's top rated airport and airline; its students rank No. 1 in the world for science, reading and math; it is the world's second busiest container port, third-largest global foreign exchange market and third-largest oil and refining center; and it ranks as the eighth healthiest country.
Invariably we found the Singaporeans to be kind and helpful. Fortunately for us, English is their main official language, followed by Malay, Mandarin and Tamil. The country focuses on policies that ensure that people from different countries and cultures can live and work together peacefully. Every July 21 they celebrate Racial Harmony Day, a reminder to themselves of how important this element is to their success.
We opted for an unorthodox way to explore the city by staying in hotels in three different areas. Our first hotel, the Six Senses Duxton, placed us near Chinatown, the elaborate Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and across from the Maxwell Hawker Center, one of the city's best places to try tasty yet inexpensive Singaporean dishes. The boutique hotel is located in a row of carefully restored trading houses, which accounted for rooms named the Opium Room and Shophouse Room.
While much of Singapore has been rebuilt with towering modern buildings, the city now rigorously preserves the remaining historic homes and shops as heritage sites. The NUS Baba House, a carefully restored Chinese home built in 1895, gave us a glimpse into the lives and traditions of a wealthy Chinese family in that era.
Our next lodging, the Capitol Kempinski Hotel, had recently opened after a restoration that combined two historic structures. This location placed us within walking distance of several major museums, the famed Raffles Hotel, St. Andrew's Cathedral and the spectacular bayside Merlion Park, all within a 10- to 15-minute walk.
We headed first thing in the morning to the 160-year-old Singapore Botanic Gardens. We delighted in exploring this UNESCO World Heritage Site, whose 203 acres of tropical gardens offer miles of hiking and jogging trails, three lakes and a spectacular orchid garden.