Sunday, August 28, 2016

Three days in Singapore

It is probably because we spent part of our evenings perched on the balcony of our hotel, perfectly located with views on the Marina Bay Sands hotel and the financial skyscrapers of Singapore, that I will remember Singapore as the city of lights. 

During the time spent in Singapore we enjoyed the city's relaxed atmosphere and the friendliness of the people. I especially liked the cleanliness of the city, the efficiency and the professionalism of the locals and the abundance of green spaces to relax.  

We spent three full days in Singapore and I put together a daily itinerary for couples to discover the city's highlights.

Day 1

The gardens of Singapore

Singapore has two famous green areas: the Botanical Garden and the Gardens by the Bay.

In the morning take the MRT to Singapore Botanical Garden (MRT stop: Botanic Gardens). The gardens are a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2015. Take your time to wander around the free entrance gardens to see the bamboo collection or the foliage garden. You will notice old locals practicing Tai Chi and Yoga, groups of nannies pushing strollers with expats' babies and kindergarten children chasing each other in the grass. 

As a last stop visit the Orchid Garden. Here you need to pay an entrance fee. You will spend less than one hour to see the many types of orchids skilfully displayed among green plants. The orchid is Singapore's national flower. That is why there are many unique arrangements of orchids in various places around the city-state, from the airport to shopping malls, and from the Botanical Garden to the Flower Dome in the Gardens by the Bay.

There is an excellent restaurant immediately after you exit the Orchid Garden called Halia. We had a tasty lunch of their signature dish Chilli Crab Spaghettini, a pasta dish with a chilli tomato crab sauce. We also sipped on some healthy ginger and honey juice.

For a couple of hours in the afternoon you may check out the many shopping malls on Orchard road as this boulevard is within walking distance from the Botanical Garden. 

In the evening visit the Gardens by the Bay. There are three main attractions: the Supertree Grove, the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. You do not need to arrive before six in the afternoon. The gardens are best to be seen late evening with the lights in the Supertree Grove transforming the trees in living sculptures. There are separate entrance fees for each of the above mentioned attractions. 

The Gardens by the Bay are very close to the Marina Bay Sands hotel. You might decide, if you are not very tired, to have an aperitif at one of their three bars located in the boat shaped structure at the top of the hotel. You will have beautiful views of the Singapore bay on one side of the building and the skyscrapers on the other side.  The highlight was the huge orange moon rising above the bay in the first hours of the evening.

Day 2

The Heritage of Singapore
Singapore, a British colonial settlement for more than a century, has taken care beautifully of many of its colonial buildings. Several of them are now museums like the National Gallery or the Asian Civilisations Museum.

This was my favourite part of our Singapore sightseeing. You need to prepare for a long but picturesque walk along some of the most significant buildings of the city during the British colonial time. Take a look at the map. You will start your walk from the Raffles hotel, admiring the exterior architecture and the impressive front facade of this iconic building which opened its doors in 1887. 

Cross the street heading to the Saint Andrew's Cathedral for a short visit inside. It is a rather small church nowadays painted in white but the architecture is unique. You will pass by in front of the National Gallery taking a closer look at the building which now occupies the former City Hall and  the former Supreme Court. Make a stop in front of the Parliament's House completed in 1827 which is now called the Arts House of the Old Parliament to pose with the huge Myna bird statues exhibited in front of the building. Today the place is a venue for arts festivals. 

Continue your walk to the Singapore river where a statue marks the place where Sir Thomas Raffles first landed in Singapore in 1819. He is considered the founder of modern Singapore. Take a look on the other side of this former harbour where you can see a row of old
waterfront houses.

A short walk along the river to the left will take you to the Asian Civilisations Museum, an interesting place to discover the culture of the many Asian ethnicities who settled in Singapore. You will need around two hours to visit this museum. Afterwards you can walk to (or admire from a distance) the clock tower of the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall. Cross the river on the Anderson bridge which was completed in 1910 with an interesting architecture bearing intricate metalwork. On the other side of the bridge lies the Fullerton Hotel once hosting the offices of the first Postal Office of colonial Singapore. Nowadays it is a five star luxury hotel. It is useful to know that from the hotel's entrance you can walk through a tunnel to easily reach the Merlion Park with its famous statue which is half-fish, half-lion. But today just cross the river on the Anderson bridge and once on the other side walk along the shore. 

There are plenty of restaurants and bars waiting for tourists. The atmosphere is vibrant in the evening. Continue walking to the Clarke Quay, another meeting point for the tourists and locals during the evenings. We did not find this area as nice as the cafes and restaurants close to the Anderson bridge but we had a great lunch here.

We remembered a recommendation for a burger restaurant at Clarke Quay and we decided to give it a try for our lunch. The place is called The Butchers Club Singapore and they serve pricey but delicious burgers. The secret is that the restaurant dry-ages each cut of Australian beef for different time periods. The meat melts in your mouth.

In the early afternoon we had two more sights on our list: the Armenian church with the beautiful colonial architecture of the parish house and the Peranakan Museum. This museum is located in an old colonial building from 1912 and shows the life of the Peranakan communities which are usually the descendents of Chinese migrants (also called Straits Chinese) who mixed with the local population (Malay, Indonesians, Indians, etc.). They were usually traders which adopted a more colonial way of life and were less loyal to the Chinese Emperor. Inside the museum you will learn about their culture, traditions, way of life and you will be impressed by their riches and beautiful handmade jewellery. 

The parish house at the Armenian Church in Singapore

The Peranakan Museum in Singapore
For the late afternoon I recommend to visit the National Gallery with its classic and modern art. You do not need more than one hour and a half for this visit.

End the evening with the sunset reflected in the Marina Bay Sands hotel from the rooftop bar of the National Gallery. Not many tourists know about this spot. If you wish to make sure you will get the best table make a reservation in advance. You can also eat there. Make sure you take a look down at the cricket field in front of the museum and at the beautiful colonial buildings of the Singapore Cricket Club and Singapore Recreation Club to the right and left.

Day 3

A melting pot of cultures

Singapore, like Malaysia, is a melting pot of cultures and you already learnt this yesterday when you visited the Peranakan Museum. To continue the cultural itinerary I propose two famous neighbourhoods: the Chinatown quarter and Little India. You can take the Hop On - Hop Off bus or the MRT to reach both sights. With the tourist bus you also have the possibility to check out the large boulevards and visit other interesting sights like the Arab Street or the Sultan Mosque.

We liked the Chinese quarter very much. The Chinese are the largest ethnic group in Singapore. The neighbourhood has a more laid back atmosphere than the noisy and busy Little India. In the Chinese quarter your first stop should be the Visitor Centre which is next to the Buddha Tooth Relic Monastery. They will provide you with a map so it will be easy for you to reach the main sights in this area. 

Laid-back atmosphere in the Chinatown, Singapore.

There are plenty of restaurants there but for lunch I recommend one in Amoy Street. This is a laid-back street close to the beautiful Thian Hock Keng Temple. Or you can try the Maxwell hawker center with over 100 stalls with local specialities.

In the afternoon, Little India is a worth a visit as well especially if you want to pick up a bargain or two, for instance silk or Indian cotton which is used for sari's.

Little India, Singapore
This is your last evening and you can choose between two attractions to end your Singapore holiday.
One is the Singapore flyer.  If it is a clear night you can choose to have a last view of the sparkling city from above. The ride takes around 40 minutes.

Or you can jump on one of the many boats departing regularly from the Marina Bay to watch the light show starting at around 8 p.m. It is an approximately 40 minutes trip which is very popular so be prepared to sit tight amongst tourists snapping photographs of the various buildings bathed in colourful lights. Note that on the Esplanade, close to the Theatres by the Bay, there are free live music performances almost every night. 

We mostly used the MRT transportation system of trains which spans the entire city. The MRT can be described in three words: easy, fast, affordable. It will take 30 to 40 minutes to arrive from the Changi airport to the Marina area. The taxis, all with meter, are not that pricy either in case you consider to take one after landing at the airport.
However we walked a lot as the distances are not that big. Walking is nice as the traffic is not stifling compared with other cities in Asia. In addition, most of the streets are large avenues and have braod sidewalks.

While hotels in Singapore are rather on the expensive side you can choose from the fancy hotels around Marina Bay to the hostels in Chinatown. If you are a couple and decide to splash out on an unforgettable hotel stay, I advise you to choose accommodation within walking distance to Marina Bay as you will be close to many of the city's highlights. There are two options. Either you have the amazing views of the Marina from one of the top floors of a skyscraper hotel or you are a resident for a few days in one of the sumptuous colonial hotels of the city like Raffles or Fullerton and get to soak in the colonial atmosphere of these heritage buildings.
We chose a hotel with a view and booked a room with views on the Marina Bay at the Fairmont hotel. We could not have hoped for more breathtaking views. The advantage here is that the hotel is situated directly in the Raffles City shopping mall with plenty of shops, a supermarket and the MRT station a 2 minute walk from the reception. 

There is also the Sentosa island, packed with tourists consisting mainly of families with children, with plenty of indoor and outdoor activities like the aquarium, the waterpark, the Universal Studios Singapore or the beach. As a couple we decided to experience Singapore more from its cultural site. I do not doubt that you can also have a lot of fun during an entire day on Sentosa!

Saturday, August 27, 2016

My interview with Myanmar writer Ma Thanegi

My interview with Myanmar writer Ma Thanegi which was printed in the August version of the InDepth magazine. You can also find it now online

I invite you to read more about the unique personality of the famous Myanmar writer who writes only in English. I already read two of her books and I highly recommend her interesting stories about the Myanmar people and culture but also about her time spent in jail as a political prisoner. 

This is my second interview with artists and writers from Myanmar.

"Derelict Beauty" article written for the literary journal Mekong Review

"Derelict Beauty" is my latest article written for the literary journal Mekong Review. It depicts life in downtown Yangon including a short book review of Yangon Echoes.

The magazine is available at the Myanmar Book Centre (No 55, Baho Road, Corner of Baho and Ahlone Road), Myanmar Book Centre (Merchant Road- branch, 561-567 MAC Tower, Merchant Street) Myanmar Book Centre (Kyone Kyi- branch 245-247, Anawrhatta Road). In addition the book is also on sale in the following hotels and museums Inya Lake hotel, ShangriLa hotel, National Museum, Yangon Heritage Trust Office.

Or you can buy an online copy of the magazine:

Monday, August 1, 2016

My interview with Myanmar photographer Minzayar Oo

I had the pleasure to interview talented Panos photographer Minzayar Oo for the July issue of InDepth magazine.

I invite you to read the full interview on the myanmore website here.

This is part of a series of interviews which I will conduct with Myanmar artists and personalities which will be printed online in the InDepth magazine and published online on the myanmore website.