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SINGAPORE TRAVEL GUIDE

“The handiest and most marvellous city I ever saw”, wrote the natural historian William Hornaday of Singapore in 1885, “as well planned and carefully executed as though built entirely by one man. It is like a big desk, full of drawers and pigeonholes, where everything has its place, and can always be found in it.” This succinct appraisal seems apt even now, despite the tiny island’s transformation from an endearingly chaotic colonial port, one that embodied the exoticism of the East, into a pristine, futuristic shrine to consumerism. In the process, Singapore acquired a reputation, largely deserved, for soullessness, but these days the place has taken on a more relaxed and intriguing character, one that achieves a healthier balance between Westernized modernity and the city-state’s traditional cultures and street life.

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The foundation for Singapore’s prosperity was its designation as a tax-free port by Sir Stamford Raffles, who set up a British trading post here in 1819. The port plays a key role in the economy to this day, though the island now also thrives on high-tech industry, financial services and tourism, all bolstered by a super-efficient infrastructure. All these achievements were accompanied by a major dose of paternalism, with the populace accepting heavy-handed management by the state of most aspects of life in exchange for levels of affluence that would have seemed unimaginable a couple of generations ago. Thus it is that since independence much of the population has been resettled from downtown slums and outlying kampongs (villages) into new towns, and the city’s old quarters have seen historic buildings and streets bulldozed to make way for shopping malls.

Yet although Singapore lacks much of the personality of some Southeast Asian cities, it has more than enough captivating places to visit, from elegant temples to fragrant medicinal shops to grand colonial buildings. Much of Singapore’s fascination springs from its multicultural population, a mixture of Chinese, Malay and Indian, which can make a short walk across town feel like a hop from one country to another, and whose mouthwatering cuisines are a major highlight of any visit. The city also rejoices in a clutch of fine historical museums that offer a much-needed perspective on the many successes and sacrifices that made Singapore what it is today, plus a lively arts scene featuring no shortage of international talent and local creativity.

Singapore’s climate is simplicity itself: hot and humid. The island experiences two monsoons, from the southwest (May–Sept) and the northeast (Nov–March), the latter picking up plenty of moisture from the South China Sea. Consequently, December and January are usually the rainiest months, though it can be wet at any time of year; during the southwest monsoon, for example, there are often predawn squally showers sweeping across from the Straits of Malacca. The inter-monsoon months of April and October have a tendency to be especially stifling, due to the lack of breezes. At least it’s easy enough to prepare for Singapore’s weather – have sun cream and an umbrella with you at all times.

Shaped like a diamond, Singapore’s main island is 42km from east to west and 23km from north to south, compact enough to explore in just a few days. The southern corner of the diamond is home to the main part of the city – “downtown”, or just “town” to locals – which centres on the Singapore River, the creek where Raffles first landed on the island in 1819. After a full day’s sightseeing, it’s undoubtedly the top place to unwind, lined with former warehouses that are now home to buzzing restaurants and bars.

The main draws for visitors are the city’s historic ethnic enclaves, particularly Little India, a couple of kilometres north of the river. Packed with gaudy Hindu temples, curry houses and stores selling exotic produce and spices, the district retains much of its original character, as does nearby Arab Street, dominated by the golden domes of the Sultan Mosque. South of the river, Chinatown is a little sanitized though it still has a number of appealing shrines; an immaculately restored Chinese mansion, the Baba House; plus a heritage centre documenting the hardships experienced by generations of Chinese migrants in Singapore. Wherever you wander in these old quarters, you’ll see rows of the city’s characteristic shophouses; compact townhouse-like buildings that are the island’s traditional architectural hallmark.

Of course, the British left their distinctive imprint on the island as well, most visibly just north of the Singapore River in the Colonial District, around whose grand Neoclassical buildings – including City Hall, Parliament House and the famed Raffles Hotel – the island’s British residents used to promenade. Also here are the excellent National Museum, showcasing Singapore’s history and culture, and Fort Canning Hill, a lush park that’s home to a few historic remains. All these are constantly being upstaged, however, by the newest part of town, Marina Bay, built on reclaimed land around a man-made reservoir into which the Singapore River now drains. Around it are arrayed the three-towered Marina Bay Sands casino resort, the spiky-roofed Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay arts centre and Gardens by the Bay, with its two huge arch-shaped conservatories.

Nearly as modern as Marina Bay, but steeped in tradition as far as Singaporean consumerism is concerned is Orchard Road, a parade of shopping malls that begins just a few minutes’ walk inland from the Colonial District. Just beyond is the finest park on the whole island, the Botanic Gardens, featuring a little bit of everything that makes Singapore such a verdant city, though most tourists make a beeline for the ravishing orchid section.

Downtown Singapore is probably where you’ll spend most of your time, but the rest of the state has its attractions too. North of downtown is the island’s last remaining pocket of primary rainforest, the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, and the splendid zoo, where the animals are confined in naturalistic enclosures rather than cages. There’s more fauna of the avian kind on show in the west of the island at the excellent Jurong Bird Park, while eastern Singapore is home to some sandy beaches and a museum recalling the infamous Changi Prison, where so many soldiers lost their lives in World War II. Among the many smaller islands and islets that lie within Singapore waters, the only one that is close to being a must-see is Sentosa. Linked to the main island by causeway and cable car, it boasts Southeast Asia’s only Universal Studios theme park and several slick beach hotels.

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