March 15 was Mary’s birthday, but that was no respite for us from exploring all we could of endlessly interesting Singapore. We took the subway to Little India this morning and walked down Serangoon Road among the kiosks, notably the flower shops selling garlands of fresh jasmine, roses and other flowers for prayer offerings.
The Indian community here dates to the import of convict laborers from India beginning in 1825, who were used to build many of the colonial buildings in Singapore. As we saw on day one, the population today is large & immigrants continue to arrive from India & Bangladesh.
We came to our second Hindu temple in Singapore, Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple (don’t ask us how to pronounce it). Built in the mid 19th century, it is dedicated to the goddess Kali.
We took off our shoes & went inside. The temple is filled with sculptures of Hindu divinities and, because it was a Hindu holy day, there were quite a few worshipers as well. A lot of bustle & a very colorful space.
We spent some time walking around & perusing the shops, particularly in the Little India Arcade. There was much of interest. Characteristic of all the older parts of Singapore is the shophouse, a 2 or 3 story building with an open store on the first floor and living quarters upstairs. Actually, we have seen this kind of building all over Southeast Asia, but in Singapore the architecture of the upper floors is much more interesting & diverse.
We walked over to Kampong Glam, the Arab neighborhood. Arab street is famous for its textile shops, with many silks & batiks at widely varying prices. Vendors are fairly aggressive, but no one was rude. Nearby is the Sultan Mosque, originally built in 1827 with financing by the East India Company as a result of the treaty between Raffles & Sultan Hussein Muhammed Shah. The current structure, with its fabulous golden dome, was built a century later. Sadly, we arrived just 10 minutes after it closed for two hours at mid-day, so we could not go inside.
Next to the mosque is the Istana Kampong Glam, which was the Shah’s official residence, built in 1840. The back of both structures are on Muscat Street, named for the capital of Oman (which we will be visiting later) because the Omanis helped finance the development of this area.
We walked to Chinatown, passing some interesting skyscrapers on the way.
In Chinatown we had lunch at the very Chinese sounding Wall Street Café (which did have Chinese proprietors) on Pagoda Street. In the 19th century this was lined with shophouses & itinerant vendors, along with opium dens and slave traders dealing in Chinese laborers. At one end is a set of sculptures evoking that period.
In Chinatown we visited two temples. First was the Sri Mariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore, completed in 1843. It is dedicated to Mariamman, a divinity with healing powers. The gopurum is populated by more than 70 Hindu deities & the wall around the temple grounds is topped with sculptures of sacred cows. During an annual festival devotees walk on hot coals here. Near it is the green Jamae Mosque, built in the early 1830’s. The minarets in its façade are not real, but look like part of a model of a mosque sitting over the entrance.
Finally, we visited the Thian Hock Keng Temple, completed in 1842, the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore. Seafarers came here to give thanks to Ma Zhu Po, protector of sojourners, for safe passage to Singapore. It is supported on bricks and wooden posts, with no nails used in the main structure.
We returned to the ship feeling rather tired, having walked almost 10 miles in very hot weather for the second day in a row. In the cruise terminal (a huge building with three floors of shops & restaurants) we searched & searched for a place to have a beer to celebrate Mary’s birthday, and finally ended up in a sports bar that seemed to be the only place serving alcohol. At dinner that night all the waiters sang an Indonesian birthday song to Mary & we were served a birthday cake (Mary’s birthday was in their records, Rick did not tell them!). We felt that we had seen & done quite a lot in our 2+ days in Singapore, but that there is a whole lot more left to see and do on a return trip in this unusual & diverse city.
We got up as early as we could on March 14 and after breakfast headed into town. This is no easy thing. We were all given our passports for this stop (usually the ship holds onto them). It was a long walk from the ship through indoor passages to the desks where we had to line up to have our passports & landing cards checked & scanned, then another line to go through a metal detector & have anything you are carrying scanned. Another ship had just docked, so this area was pretty jammed. After running that gauntlet we had to figure out how & where to board the subway. We spent some time in the wrong line (there are a lot of lines), but finally found the MRT ticket office. There we bought two 2-day passes & went off to find the entrance to the subway line we wanted, to take us to Chinatown. All in all, it was close to an hour between stepping off the ship & stepping on the subway.
Singapore offers a lot to a visitor, with several diverse ethnic neighborhoods, many gardens & amusements, museums, history and a wealth of shopping opportunities. But our reaction was that it was a lot like Disney World (we aren’t the first to notice this). It is very clean & neat & easy to get around with a very efficient subway system. It has several different self-contained attraction areas, which could as easily be called Little Indialand, Chinatownland, Arabland, Colonialland & Big Businessland. It has rides, three of which you saw in the first episode. Everything seems carefully planned and executed to make enjoyment of the city easy for the visitor. None of this is bad (we love Disney World), but the theme park feeling is a bit unsettling (at least to us), even though there is quite a lot of real life to be seen & experienced here.
Singapore is a small island nation with no natural resources. Everything is imported & taxed. Singapore was a small fishing village of about 1000 people until the arrival of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1819 to establish an British colony. You may remember him from an earlier episode when as governor of Java he set in motion the recovery of Borobudur temple. He concluded a treaty with the local chieftains & by 1824 Britain had obtained full control of the island. In 1822 Raffles decided that the growing ethnic groups in the city should be segregated into separate areas & he drew up demarcation lines that still pretty much mark the boundaries of the Chinese, the Muslims and the commercial district. Raffles died of a brain tumor in England four years later, but the island flourished as an important trading post half way between India & China. By 1860 the population reached 80,000 & by the turn of the century its status a trading hub was well established.
In 1942 Singapore fell to the Japanese. Its defenses, called “Fortress Singapore,” all faced the sea but the Japanese came by land from the Malay Peninsula in the north. The 3+ year occupation was harsh, many people killed, sent to prison camps or sent north to work as slave labor on the railroad the Japanese were building. After the war the British returned, but in 1963 Singapore became part of the independent Malaysia and two years later separated into an independent country.
Lee Kuan Yew was the political strong man of Singapore from independence until his death a couple of years ago. Under his rule Singapore developed into an economic powerhouse, but also a repressive society characterized by innumerable rules coupled with harsh punishments. The media have been tightly controlled and political opposition has not been tolerated (successful opposition politicians often found themselves in serious legal difficulties). Bringing drugs or even an unloaded gun into the city is punishable by death and there are signs everywhere telling you what is disallowed & warning that police cameras are in operation (not all of these restrictions are necessarily bad ideas).
We rode on the subway to the Chinatown stop & stopped in a small park above a street to reconnoiter. Nearby was the defunct Majestic Opera House & in the middle of the street below were Disney-looking artificial trees. We left the park & a few minutes later Rick noticed he didn’t have his camera! He ran back to the park & the camera was still sitting where he left it on a table, undisturbed by others in the park. In most cities it would have been long gone.
We walked down to the financial district, with its huge skyscrapers, to the River Walk. This is a landscaped path along the riverside on the opposite side from where our boat trip ended the night before. It has not only many lovely real flowers, mostly growing on trees or bushes, but also large sculptures of flowers. We had been told that this one city has 100 Starbucks outlets & at the river walk we spied number 100 itself.
We walked by the beautiful Fullerton Hotel seen in last night’s pictures, built in 1928 as the General Post Office. From here we could also see the new & huge Sands Hotel, owned by the same people who own the Sands in Las Vegas. It is really 3 buildings with a common rooftop that looks like a long boat. People who visited the top told us that the viewing area is now tightly roped off so that you can’t approach the swimming pool or the palms or take any interesting pictures.
We walked past the Cavanagh Bridge (which we went under last night), constructed in 1869 by Indian convict labor. Then we visited the Victoria Theater & Concert Hall. The theater was built in 1862 as Singapore’s town hall & the concert hall was added in 1905 for Victoria’s jubilee year. In front is an 1887 statue of Raffles that was moved here in 1819 on the 100th anniversary of his arrival in Singapore.
Nearby is the old Parliament House, built in 1827 & now converted into a contemporary art gallery. In front of it is a bronze elephant given to Singapore by the King of Siam (the father of the one depicted in The King And I) after he visited in 1871, the first foreign trip by a Thai king. Trying to find this sculpture we approached a guard behind a fence on the other side of the building. He said there was no elephant sculpture on the grounds & gratuitously asserted that we couldn’t enter the gate (we hadn’t asked to). Not far away is the old Supreme Court which, along with the old city hall, is now the National Art Gallery of Singapore.
We went off in search of the cathedral & promptly got lost. But even when lost there are interesting things to see in Singapore. We came upon the candy-striped Central Fire Station, built in 1908. Although it is still in operation it also includes a museum of fire fighting (which we didn’t see) & a sculpture of a fireman on the second floor. We also passed the very colorful MICA Building, which used to be a police station but now houses the Ministry of Communications and some art galleries. Finally we found St Andrew’s Cathedral, completed in 1862 with Indian convict labor.
What would a visit to Singapore be without a visit to the famous Raffles Hotel, birthplace of the Singapore Sling in 1915. It opened in 1887 & attracted many literary figures over the years. Somerset Maugham, who supposedly wrote many of his Asian stories in the gardens, said it “stood for all the fables of the exotic East.” The Long Bar where, as Amsterdam’s location guide put it, you can buy a Singapore Sling for approximately the price of a small house, was closed the day we were there.
We walked through CHIJMES across the street from the hotel. This is now a mall with shops & restaurants, but was originally the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (from which come the first 4 letters of its name). Founded in 1854, the convent operated a school and a women’s refuge.On its other side is the lovely former chapel of the convent, no longer a church but a recital, wedding & exhibition space. This brought us to the Central Library, a large & very modern building, but always one of our favored destinations.
By now it was getting late & we were getting tired. We walked a total of 10 miles this day, & it was in stifling heat. We had one more place we wanted to visit, the Chettiar Hindu Temple. This temple was built in 1984 to replace a 19th century one that had been financed by Indian money-lenders, called chettiars. But it was not close by, and our walk there took us past the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, two large domed buldings that the locals call the Durians because of their spiky shells. We also saw some nice flowers as we walked through Ft Canning park.
The Chettiar Temple is dedicated to Lord Murugan. Like many Hindu temples, it has a five tier entrance archway, called a gopuram, filled with colorful sculptures & reliefs. The front door was open when we got there, but no one was around and there was a sign saying not to go in. So we didn’t, but we did take a photo through the front door.
We returned to the subway and made our way back to the ship; the gauntlet of officials in the cruise terminal moved much faster than in the morning because there were fewer people in line. There was supposed to be a local folkloric show on the ship this night, but they apparently backed out at the last minute (HAL people were livid & we were disappointed). However, that allowed us to get to bed fairly early in anticipation of another full day tomorrow.
Our first day in Singapore was spent mostly at sea, since we weren’t scheduled to arrive until 6:00 on March 13. It was foggy & rainy all day; we could hardly see the many ships anchored off Singapore as we approached. We had a nighttime excursion booked beginning shortly after our arrival & we were becoming more & more convinced that it would be a disaster in the rain, since most of it would be outside. We even went up to the shore excursion desk to see if we could back out of the tour, but it was closed for the day.
So imagine our surprise when we trooped out of the ship to the tour bus to find that the rain had pretty much stopped & the fog had lifted, just in time! The night tour turned out to be great, & we were glad the shore excursion desk had been closed. (Please note that some of the pictures in this episode are a little blurry because they were all taken at night & many from a moving vehicle. But they are worth seeing anyway.)
Our bus dropped us off at Bugis Street, once a very rowdy neighborhood but now a crowded covered marketplace. Bugis (pronounced “boo-gis”) is the name of an ethnic group in Indonesia known for their seamanship. They built the schooners we saw in Jakarta. At one time there were fierce pirates among them who preyed on shipping in the area. From this comes the saying “the boogey man will get you,” used to scare small children into behaving.
First on our agenda was a ride through the area in a trishaw. This is a 3 wheel vehicle comprising a bicycle attached at the side of a 2 seat cart. There was a long line of these carrying the passengers on our excursion.
Our drive through the area passed the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, built in the 1870’s, which is identifiable from the Stars of David on the walls. Best was the drive through Little India, because it was Sunday and many thousands of young men (and a few women) were out & about, overflowing the sidewalks into the street. Quite a scene.
From here we went for a ride on the Singapore Flyer, a 540 foot tall ferris wheel, the tallest in the world. It has glass enclosed capsules that hold about 8 passengers each & it moves very slowly, completing one turn in about 30 minutes. It is lit up at night (as is most of this part of the city) & the colors are constantly changing. You can even arrange to have dinner served in your capsule! When it was first opened the builders were surprised that hardly anyone came to ride. It turned out that the wheel was turning the wrong way under the principles of feng shui, draining the area of good luck. Reversing the direction of rotation made it a success.
The views of the city from the Flyer were nothing short of spectacular. We were very thankful that the fog seemed completely gone & the night was very clear.
Our last outing of the night was a ride on a bumboat on the Singapore River. The bumboats are traditional cargo boats, with tires on the sides & eyes painted on the front, that brought goods up the river from the port to the “godowns” (warehouses) in the city. The river is now blocked as part of Singapore’s massive effort to eliminate the need to import fresh water from Malaysia, so the boats are now used just for tourist rides. It starts at Clarke Quay, which is now one of the hottest nightspots in town with a lot of restaurants & bars. There is a ride here similar to a bungy, but you sit in a little cage that holds 2 or 3 people that is suspended on a long cord from two towers, bouncing up & down & back & forth. We didn’t do that.
It was not a long boat ride, but pretty colorful with so many of the bridges & buildings lit up in various colors. Some of the places we would see in daytime later included the Fullerton Hotel, the Dunes Hotel, the Cavanagh Bridge & the Merlion, where the boat trip ended. The Merlion – half lion & half fish – is the symbol of Singapore, but it is not some ancient mythological creature. It was created by the Singapore tourist board. We saw a lot of signs & tee shirts calling Singapore the “lion city” & thought this was just a tourist oriented slogan based on the Merlion. But it turns out that the city’s name is thought to derive from the Sanskrit word “Singapura,” which means “lion city.” You just never know.
We drove back to the ship, happy that this excursion had turned out so much better than anticipated a few hours earlier, & went to bed after a quick meal so that we would be rested for our first full day in Singapore.
We were docked in Sihanoukville when we woke up on March 11. We were up early because our private tour guides wanted to beat the heat of the day so we were treated to a sunrise over the dock. During the trip from Phu My we had sailed near many small fishing boats.
Our exit from the ship was delayed some before the local officials gave us clearance. Our tour group walked out on the deck, but our tour leaders were nowhere to be seen. It turns out that most people are barred from entering the port, so we walked to the gate of the port about a quarter of a mile away & found our tour guides there.
During the late 1970’s Cambodia was ruled by the Khmer Rouge, a group that called itself Communist but appears in fact to have been pretty much insane. They emptied the cities of people and killed millions of them – men, women & children – for no apparent reason. After they were overthrown there was a baby boom, so that today the population is very young & we saw few older people.
Originally an unimportant out-of-the-way town called Kampong Som, Sihanoukville was mostly built in the 1950’s as Cambodia’s only deep water port. It is primarily a beach resort area, with miles of nice beaches. It is named for King Norodom Sihanouk, who became king in 1941, was removed in a coup in 1955, then brought back to rule from 1993 to 2004.
Sihanoukville has five Buddhist temples and our first visit was to one of them. Wat Krom (Lower Pagoda) is the largest & most important temple in the province. It was really a complex of several buildings with a large number of gilded statues, shrines & family crypts, in addition to the white temple building with its gilded roof.
Inside the temple walls & ceiling were covered with paintings, presumably of scenes from the Buddha’s life. We had to remove our shoes to enter the temple. There were a number of children hanging out at the temple & when we emerged a young girl had taken firm custody of Rick’s shoes. She insisted on putting his shoes back on, to his embarrassment. The shoes were too tight for her (they are slip-ons), so in the end Rick had to finish the job himself.
We drove out along a long & rocky unpaved road to reach K’Bal Chhay waterfall. This is reputedly a popular place for locals to visit & there were a number of buildings fitted with hammocks for them. The falls are said to be impressive during the wet season, but this was the dry season so it really wasn’t worth the long trip. There was a long walk from the car park to the falls that included scrambling over rocks, which was a little much for some of our tour group. One woman, who made the unfortunate choice to wear flip-flops, fell on the rocks & scraped her arm.
In Cambodia, as in Vietnam & Indonesia, there seemed to be small shrines with trays for offerings in front of most houses and other buildings. These seemed more elaborate than we had seen before, many with gilding or golden paint, & they were even here next to the waterfall & the hammock buildings.
We visited a pepper farm, where the spice that was once so valuable that it lured many explorers was growing in abundance on plants supported by bamboo (and sometimes brick) poles. It takes several years for a pepper plant to begin producing usable pepper & after a few years it has to be replaced. They told us that the peppers that turn red before harvesting are the best quality. After picking the pepper is dried in the sun for some days on large tarps.
This farm also grows durian, the really foul smelling fruit. Some say that if you can get past the smell the fruit is quite sweet tasting, but others say it is decidedly an acquired taste. We made no effort to acquire it.
We took a long drive to Ream National Park, then drove down another rocky unpaved road to visit a fishing village. The overwhelming impression was of poverty, but the people there were friendly, especially the children. I’m pretty sure they are used to visits from tourists, but it still felt a little strange to go traipsing through their village taking pictures.
There were some lush flowers in the fishing village.
We had a Cambodian lunch at a roadside spot, complete with hammocks for resting in the shade during the hottest part of the day. Nearby were signs advertising the two top Cambodian beers (we had an Angkor). The script here is quite beautiful, but completely indecipherable for a Westerner.
After lunch we had two more temples to visit. First was Wat Ream. We didn’t actually go into this temple, but there were a number of shrines & sculptures on the grounds. I should add that none of the temples we visited here are very old, all were built in the second half of the 20th century (I think), after the development of Sihanoukville’s port.
The last temple we visited was Wat Leu (the upper pagoda). It sits on top of the largest hill in the area & commands a panoramic view.
The primary attraction here was the troop of monkeys living here. They were not afraid of humans (who like to feed them) & several had babies hanging on to their undersides. A very interesting flower was growing on a vine (I think) on a tree. Interesting flora & fauna, who could ask for more?
Last and, yes, least was a visit to the downtown market called Psar Leu. It seemed like just a huge warehouse with lots of little kiosks where people were selling food (raw & prepared), jewelry & clothes. Nothing looked very interesting. It also had a number of beggars. We spent a long half hour there. Driving through town, it seemed very pedestrian with little in the way of style. I guess that’s because the town is so new & many of the people so poor. We saw again a thick tangle of electrical wires like in Vietnam, just asking for a nasty fire. Outside the market were “tuk-tuks,” motorbikes with small carriages that serve as the local taxis. After this we returned to the ship, a little early thankfully since it was hot and we had seen enough of this part of Cambodia, which would not be near the top of our list for a return visit.
We had a day at sea before reaching Phu My (pronounced like “Phu My once, shame on you. . . “) on March 9. During the sea day we went to the special Vietnamese dinner in the Pinnacle Grill. It was very good & this makes the 3rd day in a row we had Vietnamese food (which we would have again in Ho Chi Minh City).
Phu My is really just an industrial port. We were here to visit Ho Chi Minh City, since 1976 the official name of Saigon. Most people still call it Saigon; our guide said you have to use Ho Chi Minh City when you write it, but when speaking most people use Saigon. A thousand years ago this was a Khmer (the Cambodian ethnic group) fishing village called Prei Nokor but by the 18th century the area was part of the Vietnamese Nguyen empire. The Vietnamese called it Saigon. The French seized this area in 1861 and in 1862 it was declared the capital of French Cochinchina. After ejecting the Japanese from the area in 1945 the British handed it back to the French, and the long independence war against the French & Americans began. In 1975 the Americans evacuated & the city fell to the Vietnamese, who renamed it Ho Chi Minh City a year later.
After a long drive from Phu My we reached Saigon (as I will call it because it is shorter), crossing the Saigon river. The city now has a population of about 9 million & many very tall buildings, as you would expect in a city of that size.
Our first stop was at the Presidential Palace. This has long been called the Reunification Palace but we didn’t see any indication of this while we were there. This is where the Vietnamese tanks broke through the front gate to seize power from the old U.S. supported regime. In fact, long-time President Thieu had helicoptered out a day or two before & turned his office over to a general known as Big Minh. When the tanks arrived Minh announced “I have been waiting since this morning to transfer power to you,” and the general responded, “Your power is gone. You cannot give up what you do not have.” So ended the Vietnam-American war.
The Presidential Palace was completed in 1966. An older palace here was badly damaged by bombs when his own air force tried unsuccessfully to assassinate President Diem in 1962. Diem was successfully assassinated (with American support) in 1963 so he never got to live here. Inside they have preserved most of the ornate rooms used by the president.
We next visited Notre Dame Cathedral and the General Post Office, which are across the street from each other. The cathedral was built by the French in 1880. It is the largest church ever built in the French empire & when it was completed it was the tallest building in Saigon (not any more, by a long shot). Inside it is rather plain; most of its stained glass windows were destroyed in World War II & replaced with clear ones. In front is a statue of Mary, installed in 1959.
The General Post Office across the street was designed by Gustave Eiffel & completed in the 1880’s. It is a huge open space where postal activities are still busily carried on. In the back is a large picture of Ho Chi Minh and near the front are two huge maps, one showing the Saigon area in 1892.
Nearby is the old CIA headquarters, which our guide said was where the last American helicopters left Saigon in 1975, rather than the U.S. Embassy, as most sources say. Actually, there were a number of helicopter departure points around the city, so both of these could have been among the last. Not far away is a socialist realism style sculpture.
Lam Son Square is the site of the Municipal Theater, called the Opera House when it was built in 1899. It looks French, with fanciful stone carvings at the top and by the entrance. When it opened in 1959 the Caravelle hotel was the tallest building in the city at 10 stories. It was a central gathering place for diplomats & journalists during the war. Today the old Caravelle is attached to a much taller addition.
A couple of blocks away is the Rex Hotel. Built in the 1950’s, it did not begin operating as a hotel until after the war in the 1970’s. Its Rooftop Garden bar was the venue for the regular briefings by the U.S. military that came to be known as the “Five O’Clock Follies” because no one believed the extravagant Viet Cong body counts that were routinely announced here. We went up to the rooftop bar, fronted by the large crown that is the symbol of the hotel & is a local landmark when lit up at night. There was a great view here of the People’s Committee Building, which was built by the French in 1908 as the Hotel de Ville (city hall). In 1945 thousands of people gathered here to establish the Provisional Administrative Committee of South Vietnam. It is very French looking & there is a nice park in front with a lot of flowers & a statue of Ho Chi Minh.
We went to lunch at a classy restaurant called Nam Phan. We were seated on the top floor & there was no elevator, so this was not a great plan for the older folks with walking difficulties in our party. But everybody made it & it was quite a good lunch.
Our last stop was for a water puppet performance. People stand in the water behind a screen and use long sticks under the water to manipulate puppets in front of the screen. It was (way) less than thrilling. We found it hard to imagine that even little kids would be enthralled by this tedious business in the age of movies & video games.
We left Phu My after dark. It is an industrial port located up a river from the coast, but there are woods & mountains & fishing boats in the area which we watched as the sun went down & we left Vietnam.