Friends are here from the UK at the moment and are totally overawed at the magic that is Singapore - efficient airport bedecked in flowers, 5 star hotel at an affordable price, excellent food, safe water, public transport that runs on time, no chewing gum stuck to the streets and, of course, an endless array of shiny, ice-cool shopping malls.
It’s very, very wet at the moment but rain is what it does here given our proximity to the equator and even though us locals witter on about it being cold, it isn’t really. It’s still in the mid 20s centigrade during the day but the rain does mean that flip flops are the footwear of choice and an umbrella is a ‘must have’ fashion accessory.
Most visitors to the Merlion Isle have similar itineraries with safaris rating highly, the ‘shopping safari’ being the first one most people embark on - Orchard Road (clothes, shoes and handbags) provides fun for the girls and Funan and Sim Lim (computers, gadgets and widgets) offer endless entertainment for the boys. This will be followed by a visit to the Botanical Gardens and the stunning Orchid house and a taxi ride to Holland Village for ... more shopping. Trips to Little India and Chinatown seamlessly blend fascinating culture and a little more shopping of the bargaining variety. Kampong Glam provides an insight into the Muslim heritage of the island and, yes, that’s right how did you guess, the opportunity for a good rummage around the fabulous little shops that line its streets. The brave tourist may even venture out to Katong with its beautiful shop houses and find themselves immersed in the Peranakan history of the area, with the opportunity to eat themselves into oblivion on cheap, delicious food, sing karaoke and, yes of course, shop, especially for a bicycle. Other popular highlights include the light show on Sentosa and a visit to The Esplanade, that spiky building on the river we affectionately call ‘The Durian.’ And no trip to the island would be complete without experiencing the famous Night Safari at the Zoo.
I have to say that the latter is not really my kettle of fish. I did go there last year under duress but after the wilderness of Africa where I lived for 7 years it all seemed a bit tame and a little sad, however that is just my opinion. My friends went in the week and absolutely loved it, as do thousands of others. They loved the animals, loved the tram ride and loved, yes, the shopping. But little did they know they did not need to travel deep into the darkness on the other side of the island to go on safari to find animals.
At a certain time of the year lions roam free on our streets. They walk through our houses and come to our offices; they step through our schools and parade through the malls. They range far and wide - from Jurong to Changi, Woodlands to Marina South. There is no escaping them. They come to us all in a cacophony of drums and cymbals, collecting their dues. It is not our bodies they seek but oranges and Ang Pow. The Year of the Golden Pig arrived on February 18th and with it came the Lion Dancers.
I make a habit of escaping Singapore if I can over the Lunar New Year festivities. This year I was holed up in Bali, no red lanterns or pink cherry blossom in sight. I worked out on the plane coming back that from Diwali in October through to Songkran in April I will have witnessed no less than 6 New Years! But I digress.
Funan Centre, the day before yesterday. On a seemingly never-ending quest to buy widgets for my new MacBook. I was daydreaming as usual and blissfully unaware of what was going on around me. Ear-splitting sound and a lion dancing along the corridor soon brought me back to the present moment. The noise was unbelievable, reverberating through the atrium of the mall, bouncing off the walls and making my body vibrate. From shop to shop, food stall to food stall he went, bestowing good fortune and prosperity with every shake of his head. You tend to take things for granted when you experience them often, as is the case with me and Chinese New Year, but watching the faces of the tourists entranced by these lion dancers and feeling the power of the dance and its music reminded me just how lucky I am to live here.
As my day progressed my encounters with lions multiplied. On the street, in several more malls and a face-to-face meeting with a particularly vociferous one in the lobby of my apartment block.
People often wag their fingers at this island and say it is sterile and boring. Well, I invite them to look at it with a different pair of glasses. I have geckos in my flat, I regularly meet 4ft monitor lizards on the East Coast parkway when I am out cycling and I have heard many a tale of the snakes that sunbathe on suburban lawns. Open your eyes and you’ll see a myriad of brightly coloured birds, luminescent butterflies and spiders the size of your hand. Boring? I don’t think so! Add our annual visit from the lions and who needs to go to the zoo? And if you hang around Singporean shopping malls at the right time of year you get two safaris for the price of one. Sounds like a pretty good place to be to me!
First published 3 March 2007 Image © TJF Photographics 2007 All rights reserved