Andrew Barrow, Head librarian at the Ministry of Defence Military Technical College in Muscat, recommends Singapore
Greetings from the Republic of Singapore, the ‘City of Lions’, a tiny city-state sandwiched between Malaysia and Indonesia. Modern Singapore was founded in 1819 as an East India Company trading post and built up to become a fortress, protecting Britain’s South-east Asian empire. The republic has been fully independent since 1965 and, despite the misgivings of many Singaporeans at that time, it has prospered. Fly into Singapore today and you land at Changi Airport – vast, modern, efficient and invariably quiet. A 30-minute taxi ride along tree-lined motorways, or a trip on the wonderful Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) system, takes you straight into the heart of this vibrant, thriving metropolis. Evidence of its success as a transport and financial centre for South-east Asia can be seen all around you. It’s not as in-your-face as Dubai, but a more restrained wealth.
My Favourite Place: I have been visiting Singapore on and off since 1988 and, whenever I am there, I never miss an opportunity to visit Little India, Singapore’s predominantly Indian quarter, easily accessible by the MRT. Little India is one of the most vibrant and culturally authentic districts of Singapore, and I love it. Be warned though – don’t go if you are seeking peace and quiet. It’s very aromatic and noisy: a cacophony of car horns, bicycle bells and shouting residents. Go there to take in the sights, sounds and smells of old Singapore. Fortune-tellers, flower vendors, roasted nuts sellers and street-side newspaper suppliers are just some of the people who can be found plying their trades in the crowded lanes. Religious diversity and tolerance are evident everywhere; churches sit cheek-by-jowl with Buddhist temples, Sikh temples and mosques. The Masjid Abdul Gaffoor, which beautifully blends Islamic and Indian architecture, has a sundial above the entrance – believed to be the only one in the Islamic world. Its sunburst of 25 rays denotes the names of Islam’s 25 chosen Prophets.
Highlights: Who could overlook the food. Singapore’s melting-pot history and its location at the meeting point of so many cultures ensure that no food craving need go unsatisfied. Whatever your fancy, whether it’s European, Chinese, Indian, Korean, Japanese, Malaysian, Indonesian or Thai, you can find it here. Even my pining for a good old-fashioned ‘fish and chips’ was easily satisfied. But Singapore has food for the mind as well as for the body.
If you’re a culture vulture check out the huge number of museums, ranging from the ‘academic’ Asian Civilisations Museum to smaller ones. It also has a highly regarded symphony orchestra, which plays in its own concert hall down by Singapore Bay. Visitors with small children in tow will love the resort island of Sentosa or the East Coast Park. Don’t miss The Gardens by the Bay, a new botanic garden with two huge air-conditioned, domed greenhouses. There’s also the world-class Singapore Zoo and a separate Singapore Botanic Gardens. A must do? Enjoy a Singapore Sling in the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel. The recipe? I’m not telling you – you’ll just have to Google it.
Lowlights: Two. The first is the weather. Located only 70 miles north of the Equator, Singapore is cooler than Oman but much more humid, which makes being out and about a lot more tiring than Muscat. It also rains a lot; short, heavy rainstorms, which don’t last long but fill the generously sized storm drains very quickly. The other problem is the cost: Singapore is a very expensive city, and unless you live entirely off street food and stay in budget accommodation, you will find yourself hitting your credit card heavily or paying frequent visits to the ATMs.
Souvenirs: Souvenirs of all kinds can be found everywhere, but if you want to avoid the more obvious ‘tourist tat’, shop around Arab Street and Little India for scarves, jewellery and carvings.
Where to stay: Singapore has any number of decent hotels, and a good few budget ones too, a number of which are in Little India. A hotel to visit, if only to say that you’ve stayed there, is the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. This striking building, a vast, curved boat-like structure sitting on top three tall towers, offers fabulous views over the city and has a famous rooftop ‘infinity’ pool. It’s five-star so not cheap, but it’s certainly worth a one-night visit, if only to see Singapore lit up and displayed at your feet.