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Tourist in Singapore

Time flies, and my recent trip to Singapore to speak at FOSSASIA snuck up on me. I wasn’t able to make time to do research into local attractions and so I found myself there the day before the conference I was there to attend with only one thing on my agenda, the Night Safari. MJ told me about it years ago when he visited Singapore and how he thought I’d enjoy it, given my love for animals and zoos.

I flew Singapore Air, frequently ranked the best airline in the world, and for good reason. Even in coach, the service is top notch and the food is edible, sometimes even good. My itinerary took me through Seoul on the way out, which felt the long way of doing things but my layover was short and I had a contiguous flight number, so passengers were mostly just shuffled through security and loaded onto the next plane. I seem to have cashed in all my travel karma this trip and ended up with an entire center row to myself, which meant I could lie down and get some sleep during the flights even though I was in coach. Heavenly! I arrived in Singapore at the bright and early time of 2AM and caught a taxi to my hotel. Thankfully I was able to get some sleep there too so I was ready for my jet lag adjustment day on Wednesday.

In the morning I met up with a colleague who was also in town for the conference. With neither of us having plans, I dragged him along with me as we bought tickets for the Night Safari that evening, including transport from a tour company that included priority boarding inside the park once we arrived. And then on to a touristy hop on/hop off bus to give us an overview of the city.

On the tourist bus!

The first thing I’ll say about Singapore: It’s hot and humid. I’m not built for this kind of weather. As much as I enjoyed my adventures, it was a struggle each day to keep up with my “I went to school in Georgia, this is fine!” colleague and to stay hydrated.

Then there’s their love for greenery. As a city-state there is a prevalence of what they refer to as the “concrete jungle” but they also seem keen on striking a balance. Many buildings have green gardens, and even full trees, on various balconies and roofs of their tall buildings. Even throughout areas of the city you could find larger green spaces than I’m accustom to seeing, bigger trees that they’ve clearly made an effort to make sure could still thrive. It was nice to see in a city.

The tourist bus took us through the heart of downtown where we were staying, then down to Chinatown, where the where we saw the Sri Mariamman Temple (which is actually a Hindu temple). The financial and districts were next, and then we decided to leave the bus for a time as we got to the Gardens by the Bay. This was a huge complex. There were several outdoor gardens with various themes, which surround the main area that has a couple indoor complexes as well as the outdoor tree-like structures that loom large, I got some great pictures of them.

We decided to go into the Cloud Forest, seeing as we were in town to speak about our work on cloud software. I was worried it would be even hotter inside, but it was amusing to discover that it was actually cooler, quite the welcome break for me. The massive dome structure enclosed what I would compare to the rain forest dome inside the California Academy of Sciences building in San Francisco, but much bigger and with a strong focus on flora rather than fauna. You enter the building at ground level and take the elevator to the top to walk down several stories through exhibits showing plant life of all sorts. It made for some nice views of the whole complex, and outside too.

After the dome, it was back out in the heat. We walked through some of the outdoor gardens before hopping on the tourist bus again. We took it through the Indian neighborhood where we saw the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple and Arab section which included getting to see the beautiful Masjid Sultan (mosque), near where we had dinner later in the week at an Indian place that advertised being Halal.

By the time the bus got back to the stop near our hotel it was time for me to take a break before the Night Safari. We were being picked up for the safari at 6PM, which took us on a van to meet our bus that took us up to the part of the island where the Night Safari was. The tour guide gave an interesting take on history and the social benefits of living in Singapore on our journey up. It did make me reflect upon the fact that while there was traffic, the congestion was nothing like I’d expect for a city of Singapore’s size. I hadn’t yet experienced the public transit, but as I’d learn later in my trip it was quite good for the southern parts of the island.

The Night Safari! First impression: Tourist trap. But it got better. Once you make your way past the crowds, shops and food places, and beyond the goofy welcome show that has various animals doing tricks things get better. The adventure begins on a tram through the park. With the tour we didn’t have to wait in line, which when combined with the bus ride there, made it worth the extra fee for paying for the tour. The tram takes you through various habitats from around the world where nocturnal animals dwell. Big cats, various types of deer, wolves and hippos were among the star attractions. I was delighted to finally get to see some tahrs, which the last Ubuntu LTS release were named after.

After the tram tour I was feeling pretty tired, heat and jet lag hitting me hard. But I decided to go on a couple of the walking trails anyway. It was worth it. The walking trails are by far the best part of the park! More animals and getting to take the time as much time as you want to see the various animals. Exhaustion started hitting me when we completed half the trails, but I got to see fishing cats, otters, bats, a sleeping pangolin (another Ubuntu LTS animal!) and my favorite of the night, the binturong, otherwise known as a bear cat. I didn’t take any pictures of the animals, because night safari. By the end of our walking I was pretty tired and just wanted to get back to my bed, we forewent the tour bus back to the hotel and just got a taxi.

Thursday evening the first conference events kicked off with a hot pot dinner, but prior to that we had more time for touristing. During our city tour the day before I saw the Mint – Museum of Toys. Casting away thoughts of Toy Story 2’s plot line of being sold to a Japanese toy museum, I was delighted to visit an actual toy museum. Sadly, their floor on Space and Sci-Fi toys was closed, but the rest of the museum mostly made up for it. The open parts of the museum had 5 floors of toy displays spanning about one hundred years. Most of the toys were cartoon-related, with Popeye, super heroes, various popular Anime and Disney characters all making a respectable showing. Some of the toys packed into displays had surprisingly high appraisals attached to them, and there were notes here and there about their rarity. I had a lot of fun!

After toys, we decided to find lunch. It turns out that a number of places aren’t open for lunch, so we wandered around for a bit until around noon when we found ourselves in the Raffles Hotel courtyard in front of a menu that looked lovely for lunch. It was outdoors, so no escaping the heat, but the shade made things a bit more tolerable. It didn’t take long for us to eye the list of Slings on the cocktail menu and learn via a Google search that we were sitting where Singapore Slings were invented. How cool! Hydration took a back seat, I had to have a Singapore Sling were they were invented.

After lunch we continued our walk to make our way to the newly opened National Gallery. I had actually read about this one incidentally before arriving in Singapore, as it just opened in November and the opening was briefly covered in a travel magazine I read. This new gallery is housed in the historical former Supreme Court and City Hall buildings, and they didn’t do anything to hide this. Particularly in the Supreme Court building, it was very obvious that it was a courthouse, with much of what look like original benches throughout and rooms that still looked like court rooms with big wooden chairs and (jury?) boxes. In all, they were amazing buildings. The contents within made it that much better, these were some of the most impressive galleries I’ve ever had the pleasure of walking through. Art spanned centuries and styles of southern Asian talent, as well as art from colonials. I do admit enjoying the older, more realistic art rather than the modern and abstract, but there was something for everyone there. I’ll definitely go again the next time I’m in Singapore.

The National Gallery visit concluded my tourist adventures. That evening we met up with fellow FOSSASIA speakers at a hot pot restaurant not far from our hotel. It was my first time having hot pot, collecting raw meats, vegetables and fish from a buffet and dumping it in various boiling pots with seasonings was an experience I’m glad I had, but the weather got me there too. Sitting over a boiling pot in the evening heat and humidity certainly took its toll on me. Later in the week I had the opposite culinary adventure when I ended up at Swensen’s, an ice cream chain that started in San Francisco. I’d never been to the one in San Francisco, but apparently they’ve been a big hit in south Asia. It was fascinating to be in a San Francisco-themed restaurant and order a Golden Gate Bridge sundae while sitting halfway around the world from my city by the bay. Maybe I should visit the one in San Francisco now.

More photos from my tour around Singapore here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pleia2/albums/72157666098884052

Two days isn’t nearly enough in Singapore. Even though I don’t shop (and shopping is BIG there!) I only got a small taste of what the city had to offer.

Next stop was on to the conference at the Singapore Science Centre, which was quite the inspired venue selection for an open source conference, especially one that attracted a number of younger attendees, but that’s a story for another day.