Seeing in the New Year

I’m at my last stop – Singapore 😦 I could’ve come home for New Years but being in this part of the world, I thought about where I could add a quick city break. Singapore has been recommended to me and I am a bit of a skyscraper junkie.

Being here, it’s also given me the opportunity to reconnect with an old university friend, Shivani. She lives here and currently oversees the family business (trading in timber). She insisted on receiving me at the airport. Arriving at Changi Airport was smooth from Bangkok. But I had a strange passenger next to me who managed to smuggle a stinky boiled egg on board.


I hit a small problem upon arriving to Singapore. I’ve been using a currency card whilst travelling, it’s the easiest way to manage various currencies whilst backpacking. But when I tried to withdraw money, I was unable to. I was sweating because I knew I had funds. But after a frustrating 30-minute telephone call, it turned out that there is a limit to the amount of withdrawals I can make. And I’d have to wait at least 12 hours before I could make a withdrawal. I had a little cash in my wallet but I’d feel more comfortable knowing I had access to my money ASAP. On top of that, NatWest temporarily blocked my account because they thought it was suspicious that I’d changed countries. Another frustrating phone call, but I felt reassured that my bank was concerned about security.

Back to Shivani. She took me to her place for dinner. She deservedly lives a life of luxury. There was a Rolls Royce Phantom in the driveway, the gardens were epic and her home was very grand. I walked in and was approached by her puppy Baileys, which is admittedly the cutest dog I’d ever seen. He was clearly excited and tried all sorts of stunts to impress me. I met her sister and friends, lots of names and I felt like I was on an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. Her domestic servant then served me a massive dinner. This world was a little alien to me and it’s not something I’m used to. I tried to wash my plate, as I usually do. But it was quickly snatched away from me.


After dinner I discussed my itinerary and I emphasised that my main goal was to see the New Years fireworks. Shivani added some local knowledge and suggestions to help me. One of those was to see the Gardens by the Bay at night. This was because there were still some Christmas lights remaining. The Gardens are very similar to the Eden Project, just on a bigger scale. Singapore already felt more humid than Thailand to me, I could feel the gloss on my forehead building.

My hotel was centrally located and also a stones throw from Chinatown. The New Year decorations were already in place here for 2016. I woke up the next morning in search of kaya toast, a Singapore speciality. It is a snack prepared with kaya, a topping of sugar, coconut milk and eggs, pandan and butter. Lonely Planet recommended Ya Kun Kaya Toast, a coffee stall established in 1944. The interior isn’t the most inviting and the all female team don’t do service with a smile. However, the toast and tea is absolutely delicious. The service is lightning fast. So fast, that when I split some tea, a lady emerged from behind me in seconds to wipe up before I’d put the cup back down. I liked this place so much I went back the next day. However, they mistakenly gave me peanut butter! I had to take a precautionary antihistamine. I hate taking them because they make me so sleepy, but it had to be done.

I wondered about through the city on my first day. I didn’t use a map because I like to explore. All of the attractions are well signposted and all of the signs are in English too. The roads were a lot more disciplined compared to other parts in Asia. The crossings reminded me of Sydney because they made the same sounds when the green man flashes. The city was so clean too. In fact the cleanest city I’d ever seen!

Most of you know I’m a ‘foodie’ and enjoy tasting various cuisines. My research showed that Singapore was a ‘foodie’ heaven. I could see why. I headed to the famous Lau Pa Sat market, one of many ‘hawker centres’ in Singapore. There was so much food to choose from. My brain was feeling fuzzy from all of the choice. I settled for some Korean food that day. I came back to Lau Pa Sat a few times. The food is mouthwatering and the prices are extremely reasonable for backpackers. Each time I visited, it felt like I was eating healthier food. I couldn’t tell you what I was eating most of the time. But there was often Hainanese chicken rice, a broth and plenty of vegetables. I also tried their acclaimed fried carrot cake. I was intrigued by it. I didn’t taste cake, nor did I taste carrot. In fact, it’s not even a dessert. Having eaten it, I still don’t know what it is, but I didn’t eat it again. I’ve also become addicted to lemon iced teas. I’m certain it’s pumping through my veins now.

  
I explored Chinatown on my first day too because it was so close. The street markets reminded me of Hong Kong, lanterns and bright colours everywhere. There were some peculiar stores too, particularly grocery stores. I ended up in a few by accident and what I witnessed and inhaled should be on a bush tucker trial. If I could’ve said “I’m a celebrity get me out of here,” now was the time. I can’t believe people eat some of these things. Anyway, you have to admire the street art in Chinatown, it’s really cool. It’s a hub of culture too. There’s a Hindu temple, a mosque and the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum. I spent quite some time at the latter. As you know from my trip to Nepal, the Buddhist architecture and way of life fascinated me. This temple was no different. It was beautiful and also inviting. There was a mediation area for all. I’ve never meditated but when I sat down, I felt peaceful. Being in other places of worship, I’ve noticed everyone talks to one another, but being inside Buddhist temples I can see the difference in etiquette. You’ll also find plenty of old men playing games too by the temple. It all looked very serious.

  

For the evening I attended the Night Safari at Singapore Zoo, another Lonely Planet recommendation. The animals are not tamed or hurt in any way here. You couldn’t see every animal because it was pitch black in places. But seeing the lions and elephants in the dark was pretty awesome. My biggest fear is snakes and rats. This is the first time in Asia that I hadn’t seen a mouse or a rat. However at the zoo, bats were flying past me. That’s pretty much a flying rat in my opinion. It creeped me out a little.


I had an early start the following morning. I found Evolve, a world renown MMA gym close to my hotel. They had a Muay Thai beginners class at 6:30am. I’d flirted with the idea before and been intrigued by it each time I’d been to Thailand. I wanted to do boxing training when I was younger, but Mrs C told me I needed keep my brain cells. I needed to do something active though. I’d been away for a month and not done anything physically strenuous other than walking and a small spot of rowing and carrying a bloody backpack. I knew this was going to be tough.

I was welcomed into the class by Daorung ‘Papa’ Sityodtong. He said: “I will kill you today England!” I was referred to as ‘England’ throughout and he kept shouting “follow, follow!” I was trying FFS, I was just dying slowly. It was also the first time I’d picked up a skipping rope since trying my sister’s. I was not good with it. I was sweating buckets and ready to heave. Working on the bag was tough work and my feet were burning, but I didn’t quit. I kept getting my stance wrong too. It was a bad habit from my tae-kwon do days. “Come on England,” he kept shouting. It was an incredible workout and I’m so happy I did it. I signed up for Yoga MMA the following morning out of interest. I was intrigued about combining the art of inner peace with combat. Sadly though, the class was cancelled.


After a gruelling start to the day, I took my battered body onto the MRT – the Singapore tube – to take a trip to Sentosa Island. The trains here are so spacious and spotless. There are videos reminding passengers on the train and on the platform about good manners whilst travelling. Imagine that happened in England, would people take notice? There are also fines for eating on the train. The fines for littering here are huge. It makes sense why it’s so clean.

  
Sentosa Island is a playground island to unleash everyone’s inner child. It’s mostly popular for Universal Studios and its casino. However, I needed a lie down on one of their three beaches. It was a really quiet beach, but had that family feel to it. Some even brought their dogs into the sea!

I looked around Unuversal Studios but chose not to enter. Being in an amusement park alone just didn’t appeal to me and I’d rather visit the one in the States. I was quite parched and got myself a Mango Festival from Smoothie King. It was here that I saw a notice, which I found quite moving. I’ve included it so you can read it in full, but the key is: ‘DO NOT LOSE THAT SMILE!’ A great reminder to us all.


I mentioned Sydney earlier, I found Max Brenner’s at a nearby mall. It had been a while since I’d had one of their tasty desserts. I deserved it after Muay Thai. I checked out the much-hyped Little India next. I didn’t get the hype though. Maybe it’s because I’d just been to India or because all of the shops were familiar to me. It just reminded me of Southall Broadway, so I left pretty quickly unimpressed.

From my observations I can admit, Singapore has the most stylish and fashionable people I’ve seen. They love to shop here. There are malls everywhere. The glitzy Orchard Road accommodates every brand from High Street to Haute Couture. But I only came to see what the fuss was about. I wasn’t interested in shopping. I had nowhere to put it for starters. The irony was that Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems was playing on my playlist as I came out of the station. There was a time in my life where I looked at these brands as aspirational items. However, I couldn’t care less to be honest. As I’ve grown older I’ve come to find that my character defines me more than the material aspects in my life. All the walking eventually took its toll and I headed back for an early night. I needed all of my energy for New Year’s Eve.


I couldn’t have kaya toast again, so I went searching for a cafe. I walked past a place which had a hole in the wall but the good music made me step back and walk in. The door was closed but the sign asked to ‘peek here’ through the peephole. I pushed the door open and found a really cool cafe/bar. The concept was unique roo. Robots painted across the wall and Moroccan-style tiled floors. They played everything from George Ezra to Justin Bieber, it was my kind of place. Free The Robot had only been open a month. The brunch was tasty and I got talking to the manager Fiona about the place. In the evening it becomes a ‘speakeasy’ style bar. She invited me to come by for their NYE party. But my main focus was getting the best view for the fireworks. I was well conditioned from waiting for a spot nearly the whole day in Sydney!


After having a good chat I head to the Botanical Gardens. It’s a really pretty place and a haven for all the Allan Titchmarsh’s out there. It was very exotic. It’s a great place to sit and collect your thoughts. There are benches everywhere. The heavens opened up and it kept raining sporadically. That didn’t bother me because it was the first drops I’d seen in a month. It was like taking a fully clothed hot shower outdoors.

I wondered across the Colonial District and stumbled across Raffles Hotel, the home of the Singapore Sling. The typical British pillars are a key feature and all of the buildings have been so well-maintained. There were also ‘SG50’ signs everywhere, they’ve just celebrated their Golden Jubilee. The art museum had some cool exhibitions on show too.


I then headed over to the Esplanade Bridge to scope out the best location for the fireworks. It was 4pm and the crowds had already gathered. I showered and returned at 6pm to secure my spot, I needed to be at the front with my height!

All of the keen photographers were lining up their tripods, it was going to be Pavarazzi vs Paparazzi. Marina Bay Sands looked terrific. There were concerts taking place at the side, so we were kept well entertained. But the rain kept coming and going. Thankfully I’d packed an umbrella and ended up sharing it with four Japanese girls. They were the most excited and happy people I think I’d ever met. Their English was basic. I said London, they said Tokyo. I said katsu curry, they said fish ‘n’ chips. They pointed to my beard and said “Beckham,” which made me laugh. I’m not sure what that meant, but it earned me free food and drinks. Cheers David! I also featured in countless selfies, I should be trending in Japan somewhere.


The excitement was building with shining lasers and light shows across the city. When it hit 11pm it was 2016 in Japan, so I was toasting the New Year with them and brushing up on my Japanese. By 11.30pm people were napping around me, clearly a few Tigers were too much for them. As the clock struck 12, there was a spectacular fireworks display across Marina Bay. I was very lucky with my view and grown men and women were screaming with delight around me. In fact, this was the happiest set of people at New Years I’d ever seen. It’s the first time I’d spent New Years alone too, but like most of my journeys it never felt that way. Sometimes there is a language barrier, but the universal language of kindness always shined through.

Leaving the bridge was quite a task, because the roads were blocked off. But I headed back to Free The Robot. There was a jovial atmosphere and party poppers still being popped. It was a very different New Years Eve, but one which I’ll always cherish.

The following morning I headed back to my new cafe hangout to grab brunch and the staff were understandably worse for wear. I checked out of my hotel and caught the MRT to Marina Bay Sands. I was treating myself for my final night. The reason being, the best view of the city is from their infinity pool. I needed to be ‘sky high’ on my final night. The 57th floor pool is also a hotbed for the selfie olympics. I only managed the one because I wasn’t prepared to run the risk like others in the water with my iPhone. I just took time to lean over the edge and reflect on how quickly the month had flown by. Singapore reminded me of a Far East Dubai, but less artificial. It had more history and culture. I’ll definitely be back.


In the past month I’ve learnt so much about the world, people and also about myself. Its hard to sum up right now sitting in the departure lounge. I’ll be thankfully putting the backpack down and switching my Havaianas for socks and shoes. It’s back to reality from Monday, but give me a week or so to gather my thoughts and I’ll share what I’ve learned on travels to draw some sort of conclusion. For now, I’d like to wish you all a happy new year and thank you for reading so far x

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