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8 Jul 2023

Some quick thoughts on our trip to Singapore – We got back from Singapore early Wednesday morning after an overnight flight during which I got no real sleep. I wasn’t fit to do much of anything on Wednesday (I know that I did something and didn’t just spend the entire day in a fog, but for the life of me I can’t remember what it was), but on Thursday evening I started writing up some thoughts about the trip. I was out with some students last night, so here we are on Saturday and I am finally finishing up my “quick thoughts” on our trip.

“I think the fact that we managed to have an enjoyable trip despite being exhausted, hot, and sweaty for most of the time says a lot of good things about Singapore.”

One of the things I mentioned being concerned about before we left was the weather, as the forecasts showed rain every day. I am pleased to report that it only rained twice during our trip, and one of those times was just a few scattered drops that were actually kind of welcome. The second time was a genuine thunderstorm, but we spent most of that time on indoors activities; by the time we wanted to go back outside, the rain had long since stopped. In the end, rain had very little effect on our trip.

The heat and humidity was another story. We knew it was going to be hot and humid, but on our first full day we overdid things in our eagerness to see the city, and by the end of that day we were exhausted. After that we divided up our days, spending the morning out and about, returning to the hotel after lunch to swim in the hotel pool and relax, and then heading out again later in the afternoon. It was rarely ever cool, but avoiding the hottest part of the day—and trying to stay out of the sun as much as possible—helped. The bottom line is that if you’re going to visit Singapore you have to be ready for the heat and humidity, because it’s pretty much always like that—unlike Seoul, which has hot and humid summers but very cold winters, Singapore is hot and humid year round. Seoul does actually get hotter than Singapore during the summer (we heard later that it was hotter in Seoul while we were gone), but we also don’t spend our summer days walking around the city here.

Enough about the weather, though. You probably want to know what I thought of Singapore. I think if I had to sum the place up in one word, it would be “diversity.” There is a diversity in the cultures of the people who live there, which in turn leads to diversity in architecture, arts, etc. Probably the most obvious manifestation of that diversity, though, is the food. We tried as many different types of food as we could, although I will admit that I did default to congee (Chinese-style porridge) a couple of times when my digestive system wasn’t firing on all cylinders. But both times I had it it was really good—probably better than most of the juk (Korean porridge) I’ve had here, to be honest. We also had Singaporean-style toast for breakfast a couple of times, which is toast dipped in runny eggs. The basic concept is probably a British influence, but Singaporeans have put their own twist on it with kaya jam and slabs of butter (the latter being not great for my digestive system, unfortunately). Another British influence is tea culture, which we sampled a number of times during our trip, culminating with an afternoon tea at TWG on our last day. But most of the influences in the food culture are Malaysian, Indonesian, and Chinese, and we found it to be a happy marriage of flavors.

On the flip side of the culture coin, while Singapore is a very diverse place, I was surprised at how many Han Chinese there were. I expected them to make up a decent portion of the population, but it seemed like every other person we met was Han Chinese. Thankfully, HJ does have some skill in spoken Chinese and was able to put it to good use. My own spoken Chinese is virtually non-existent; I know a few words, but that’s about it. I do read some Chinese, but that statement comes with a big footnote—my reading skill is mostly in classical Chinese as it was used in pre-modern Korean literature, and there are significant differences between that and modern Chinese, both in the way that some characters are written and also the meaning of some characters. For example, the word for “careful” in Korean is josim (操心), but in Chinese it is xiăoxīn (小心)—which is pronounced sosim in Korean and means “timid” here. That might sound complicated to the uninitiated, but it is actually one of the easier differences to figure out, given context and the similarity of the words (not to mention the fact that I happened to have already known this difference). Anyway, my point is that my own Chinese skills were pretty much useless, and I let HJ do the communicating when we encountered Chinese speakers.

Singapore is slightly larger than Seoul proper, but we mainly stayed in the center of the city, venturing outside that area only once to visit Sentosa Island. This is an island famous for its resorts and leisure activities, but we spent our time there visiting Siloso Fort and learning more about Singapore’s history, particular the conquest and occupation by the Japanese during World War II. I was reminded once again that Korea was not the only nation to be victimized by Japan’s brutal campaigns.

The rest of the time, though, like I said, we stayed mainly in the city center, although we did visit a number of ethnic enclaves like Little India, Arab Street, and Chinatown. Of course, we spent a good deal of time around the bay area, near the impressive Marina Bay Sands hotel and the equally impressive Gardens by the Bay. It always takes a little while to orient yourself when visiting a new city, especially if that city is not built on a compass-aligned grid—which Singapore isn’t. I eventually got my bearings by orienting in relation to the Singapore River, which runs roughly west to east, and the bay at the east end, which is aligned roughly north-south. Everything we saw, outside of Sentosa Island, was technically within walking distance, although we did take the metro twice: once when we visited Chinatown, to avoid walking in the heat, and again during the thunderstorm to get to the Gardens by the Bay. We probably could have done that more often, to be honest, but it’s hard to get your bearings in a city if you only travel underground. And we do like walking, even if it was a little hot.

As I mentioned above, our hotel had a pool, which was a life-saver and definitely the best thing about the place. That and the fact that the hotel was located in the city center pretty much right next to a metro station. There were a number of downsides, though. The least of these, as far as I’m concerned, was the fact that the rooms were tiny. But we didn’t spend all that much time in our room, so it didn’t bother us. Far more important were the bed and pillow, both of which were very hard. I can deal with a hard bed if I have a comfortable pillow, but it felt like I was resting my head on a sack of flour. The soundproofing on the doors was also pretty much non-existent. We didn’t get too much noise from neighboring rooms, but we were constantly being woken up by inconsiderate people talking loudly in the hallway. I mean, come on. Have you never stayed in a hotel before or do you just not care about anyone but yourself? I remember one night when three people decided to stand in the hallway outside our door and carry on a conversation. It’s one thing to have people making noise as they walk through the hallway—still not ideal, but at least you know it’s going to end soon—but it’s quite another to have to listen to a continuous conversation. Eventually I went to our door and opened it to find the three people standing in the doorway of the room directly across from ours. One of the guys looked up and said, “Oh, do you want us to go inside?” I tried to hide my incredulity as I said, “If you could, thanks.” How dense do you have to be? Inconsiderate people are not the hotel’s fault, but it sure would have been nice had they invested in a little soundproofing. There were some other weird quirks as well, such as the bathroom not having a ventilation fan, but these were relatively minor inconveniences.

These might seem like petty things to rant on about, but getting a good night’s sleep is important when you’re traveling. Both of us ended up sleeping very poorly for the entire trip, and I think that affected how tired we were—and how long it has taken us to recover. I think the fact that we managed to have an enjoyable trip despite being exhausted, hot, and sweaty for most of the time says a lot of good things about Singapore.

I could see us going back at some point in the future, although if we did I think we would do things differently—not necessarily because I regret the way we did things this time, but because we would have different goals. We saw most of what I think we would want to see in the city center, so next time we’d probably make more use of the metro to see some of the outlying sights. We might also spend a night at a resort on Sentosa to relax a bit and not wear ourselves out. We’re not really resort people, but considering how hot it is there, having a big pool and other attractions might be nice for a day or so. Staying on Sentosa would also allow us to get to the beach early in the morning before it gets really hot. Who knows when such a trip might happen, though. There are a lot of other places to go, after all. This was a good trip, and that’s enough for now.

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