Travel is often associated with trouble. You have to apply for visa, figure out how to move around the new country, struggle with communication and understanding the new reality. From the moment you arrive until the departure, your senses are heightened in readiness to help you deal with yet another confusion. Everywhere but in Singapore.
From the moment I landed at Singapore’s Changi airport everything become easy. The usual chaos surrounding arrival in a foreign country here gives way to simplified order. Before I knew it I had transferred from the plane to the passport control, which I had left even quicker. No queue, no visa required. Within a space of mere minutes I was free to explore this tiny island-country.
For 30 Singaporean dollars (approximately 13 GBP) I took the taxi from the airport to Amara hotel in the city centre. Twenty minutes later I was already checking in, hotel receptionist making no issue of my early arrival. Encouraged by how swiftly everything was going, I decided to try to see as much as possible during this short business trip.
Thanks to its petite size, Singapore is easy to explore on foot. After just a short walk from the hotel I was already wandering through the fragrant streets of Chinatown, where I decided to visit the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple.
I spent over an hour wandering through the Buddhist complex and museum, admiring impressive sculptures, breathtaking halls and learning about the life of Siddhārtha Gautama. Although I enjoyed all of the levels of the complex, my favourite was the Roof Garden. At the top floor of the building, surrounded by lush green trees and beautiful orchids, in a Ten Thousand Buddhas Pavillion stood the Vaironcana Buddha Prayer Wheel. Turning its bright red, gold and green cylindrical surface clockwise helps to focus the mind on mantra recitation and according to Buddhist beliefs supports gathering of the good karma and purifies negative energy. After your mind has been cleansed, you can make your way to the basement of the Temple to nourish your body with some affordable vegetarian dishes in the devotees’ canteen.
I must admit that the visit to the religious complex turned out to be far from what I had expected. I knew Singapore was a modern city with many traditional accents of its multicultural heritage, but I don’t think I was prepared for just how traditional and modern a place can be at the same time. Right next to the historic houses and commercial establishments taking you back in time shine the glass and metal surfaces of the city’s skyscrapers.
You can see the businessmen and women of the financial district lunching in the elegant and trendy restaurants serving European food just as much as sitting outside enjoying a bowl of traditional noodles.
I felt that despite its petite size, everyone will find their own space in Singapore.
Another striking feature of this city-state is its ever-present nature.
Thanks to its proximity to the equator, Singapore can boast tropical climate throughout the entire year. This, combined with the country’s ecological concerns, makes Singapore the greenest and most beautiful metropolis I have ever seen.
The lush greenery surrounding the financial district provides a feeling of calm and balance, supporting the sense of well-being and a healthy perspective to the usual rush of the working life. It is not uncommon to see whole buildings covered with plants or having roof top gardens. From the venue where I delivered client work I even saw a skyscraper where each balcony featured a small garden with palm trees. Technology and progress embracing nature – this is how every modern city should be.
Thanks to its small size and inexpensive public transport and taxis, within 15 minutes from the moment of leaving the office you can find yourself in a rain forest. The abundance of tropical shrubs in the Botanical Garden was exactly what I needed to relax after a full day at work. While my colleagues in London were entering crowded tube, I was breathing fresh air and enjoying a walk in nature, silence broken only with the soothing melodies of the bird songs. Now this is what the work-life balance should be.
Another example of what I loved about Singapore is its diversity. I first noticed that when I was enjoying the traditional breakfast and overheard a conversation between a blond German who was enjoying his meal in the presence of his Sikh friend when they run into a few East Asian men who were asking if they will be joining them for basketball later. This seemingly insignificant encounter prompted me to see just how typical the scene was. Everywhere I have gone, I had the impression of people from all walks of life and religion coexisting peacefully next to each other. Busses driving underneath the Christmas decorations adorning the streets displayed “Happy Deepavali” interchangeably with the destination of their travel. Nobody seemed surprised to see a mosque right next to a Hindu temple just meters away from Chinatown. In Singapore this diversity was completely normal and I couldn’t help but dream of a world where such religious and ethnic eclecticism is a norm.
Aside from Singapore’s openness to its multicultural society, this Asian country seems to be a perfect place for foreigners. Visitors and expatriates alike can easy communicate with everyone as Singaporeans tend to speak fluent English, Tamil, Malay and Mandarin. My UK credit card worked without everywhere without any problems (although I enoyed withdrawing cash from the cash machine more than card payment as the screen displayed an inspiring quote each time I waited for the money withdrawal) and I found moving around the island extremely easy. What I found unusual here though was the attitude I sensed towards me as a white tourist, so different to many places I have visited in the past. In many countries with strong expat communities, there is often a divide between the locals and the foreigners, the latter living in a bubble, removed from the local life. In Singapore I felt that all walks of life are more intertwined than in any other country I had seen. It might have been Singaporeans’ politeness, but whenever I have spoken to anyone who had been born there, they all seemed puzzled at my questions regarding the expat community and potential trouble their presence could be causing them. “It has always been like this. My parents saw foreigners coming to this country as did my grandparents. Singapore has always been what it is today, so we don’t have anything else to compare it to” assured me one of the local taxi drivers. The visit to the museum of Singapore’s history seemed to confirm that attitude. Due to its location, Singapore developed into a thriving international business hub centuries ago and the first written accounts of its existence suggest that it was already a melting pot of various cultures back then. It is thanks to its history then and minimal (in comparison to other Asian countries) imperialist influence, that Singaporeans appear to see themselves as equal to the foreigners, not better, not worse, simply equal. The pessimist in me is sure that some instances of racism or inequality must still be present here, despite its outwardly feel of complete tolerance, however the comparison to other countries makes me believe that even if not perfect, it is Singapore that we could learn a lesson or two on peaceful coexistence.
Thanks to its good weather, great outdoor spaces, short distances and various museums and attractions, Singapore appears to be a very family friendly place. From picnics in the nature, through interactive light installations designed for children to enjoy, to beach family festivals on the weekends, the country seems to have something not just for the single professionals and tourists, but also for families.
The general feeling of safety, unhurried effectiveness and general kindness made me feel like Singapore was exactly the place I needed to visit to remind me that a city like this can exist. Perhaps we don’t have to choose between family and career, technology and nature, future and past. Perhaps we can have it all. We just need to buy a one way ticket to Singapore.