I wanted somewhere exotic, that I hadn't been to before, somewhere I had trouble finding on a map – and somewhere safe: I'd be travelling on my own.
Someone suggested Singapore, the island just off the coast of Malaysia, and since it fit the bill on all accounts, I started packing. I was entering a rare rip in the domestic time-space continuum: I had time off work, my husband didn't and the kids were at their grandparents. No way was I puttering at home that week.
But when I landed – about 20 hours later – I discovered a thriving city that's as much Western as it is Asian. Singapore's multiethnic society reminded me a lot of the multicultural city of Toronto I'd just left. Was I a stranger in a not-so-strange land? Then I saw a man drinking coffee out of a plastic baggie, with a straw.
That discovery pierced through my jet lag, and led to a lively conversation: "Won't it spill? Isn't it too hot?" He found my questions as odd as I found his drink.
It wasn't something I'd expected to see in the modern city state. Since Singapore gained independence from Malaysia in 1965, growth and modernization has occurred at lightning speed for its five million souls. Concert halls, 57-storey hotels and massive landscape design projects by world-renowned architects keep popping up. ("Building cranes," deadpans my guide "are Singapore's national bird." Just like home, I thought.)
Designer shops and high-end restaurants that wouldn't be out of place in New York open all the time. And yet, it is still possible to turn a corner and find yourself in an older neighbourhood, home to one of Singapore's multiple ethnic groups: Malay, Chinese, Peranakan, Tamil and many more. Some say these neighbourhoods are the real Singapore, so I was keen to explore them.
It was in such a 'hood where I found Zul Sumuri – one of the bird men of Singapore – sipping his bagged caffeine.
I'd asked my guide where I could find these ornithological enthusiasts. I'd read about them in one of my kid's books but could find no mention in adult guidebooks. Which is how we ended up driving 20 minutes north of the downtown core to Ang Mo Kio. There are not a lot of tourists in this neighbourhood, but there are a lot of birds – hundreds of caged songbirds hanging from numbered hooks in elaborately carved wooden homes. The noise is deafening but the spectacle is unforgettable. Every Wednesday and Sunday morning, dozens of men bring their birds to this apartment block; some days they hold contests for the longest and loudest birdsong, or the prettiest cage (many are adorned with engraved ivory). "This is my hobby," says Sumuri, 40. He has two birds here today and six more at home. "It's just something men have always done."
The men here are mostly Chinese, as is about 80 per cent of the population. But as I wander over to the kopitiam (coffee shop) to order my own coffee (in a mug), I notice that many more ethnic groups live in the area. The Singapore government, I'm told, has firm rules about keeping the apartment blocks (called housing estates) from filling with families of the same ethnic group. Each building is home to the same number of ethnicities, proportionate to the country's population: Since 74.2 per cent of the population is Chinese, no more than 74.2 per cent of a building's apartments can be sold to Chinese families. The remaining vacancies are filled by Malays (13.4 per cent), Indians (9.2 per cent) and Eurasians, Peranakans and others (3.2 per cent). Everyone needs to get along to keep the economy rolling – and prosperity is Singapore's big trump card in Asia.
The United Nations of faces may feel a lot like home, but in Toronto, under the restraints of work-life routines, I've never walked into mosque or a Hindu or Buddhist temple. In Singapore, I am delighted to do all three.
In Kampung Glam, the heart of the Muslim community, I button up a long hooded robe over my shorts and T-shirt and wander through the Sultan Mosque. No one minds if I snap pictures and several elders are happy to answer my questions. Everyone here is welcoming, even at the wedding I seem to have crashed. Family members smile and nod, as I too take pictures of the happy couple.
Walking through Little India the next day, I notice stall after stall of flower vendors stringing elaborate garlands. Garry, my guide, explains they are for Hindus to take to the temple, just down the street. But first he wants me to try ginger tea from his favourite stall in the Tekka Market. I'm not sure why I agreed to drink steaming tea in humid 38 degree weather inside a food court with no air conditioning, but I'm glad I did. It was a bracing, unforgettable cuppa, and only $1.
The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple is, for me, as eye-opening as the ginger tea. Barefoot, I ring one of the bells on the door (to announce my entrance to the gods) and wander about on my own. I admire intricate carvings of deities, some swathed in fresh garlands, as priests, tourists and devotees pray quietly in the cool corners. At a different Hindu temple in a quieter neighbourhood, I noticed thought-provoking quotes on the walls ("Be like a flower, give happiness and fragrance to all"). But as I leave this place of worship in a busy tourist area, I see another sign: "Those who steal footwear will be handed over to police." These guys don't mess around.
In Chinatown, I can wear my shoes inside the Buddhist Tooth Relic Temple, but must cover my arms and shorts with the wraps provided. Entering, I can see I've hit a home run in my quest for the exotic. Brilliantly covered religious statues and ancestral tablets line the walls, and a service is under way. The rhythmic chanting envelops me and lulls other visitors to lower their cameras and just listen, entranced by the shimmering gold idolatry and rhythmic prayers. Eventually, I tear myself away and head to the upper floors to see Buddha's tooth. This is sacred ground, and photography is not allowed. The tooth is housed in relics of solid gold in a small stupa built on gold tile. All this is kept in a sealed chamber behind thick glass (a nearby monitor offers a close-up shot of the tooth).
Visitors are encouraged to sit on large cushions and meditate, or explore the small pagodas and rooftop orchid garden, where you can ask Buddha to change your fate with three spins of the nearly two-metre-high cylindrical prayer wheel. In a city where orchids grow like daisies, this garden is a stunner with many varieties in full bloom. It's a welcome respite from the hustle and never-ending humidity in the streets below.
I also can't leave this country without exploring Joo Chiat to learn more about the Peranakan culture. Peranakans are descendants of Chinese traders who migrated to Southeast Asia centuries ago and married local women. In the 19th century, many of these families were drawn to Singapore's busy ports.
Garry, who is a fourth-generation Peranakan, wants me try a traditional meal of laksa (rice noodles in a rich, curry soup with bean curd and cockles) and rojak (a salad of pineapple, cucumber, turnip and bean sprouts covered in a peanutty sauce). We find a streetside table at 328 Katong Laksa, which is great for people watching (just order a glass of iced sugar-cane juice to weather the oppressive humidity).
After, we wander down the street to Kim Choo, a shop, restaurant and café specializing in all things Peranakan (111 East Coast Road). The street-side café sells takeaway treats such as ondeh-ondeh (a coconut covered ball filled with palm sugar) and jars of green kaya (a sweet curd egg, caramelized coconut milk and pandan that's spread on toast). But we head up to the second floor so I can browse through the incredible array of batik clothing, beaded shoes and purses, and Swiss voile embroidered blouses (called kebaya) . Peranakan families often worked for Singapore's British colonizers, so "Peranakan style is all about the fusion of English and Chinese lifestyles," shop owner Raymond Wong says.
Much of the beadwork and embroidery feature entwined Chinese peonies and English roses, sometimes parrots. The craftsmanship is stunning. The handmade shoes start at $380, while kebayas start at $180. I do less damage to my credit card with a couple of darling fold-away batik fans, which help me survive the heat as we walk up to Koon Seng Road. Here the elaborate colours and design work beloved by the Peranakan people show up on restored shophouse homes. I take loads of pictures: There's nothing quite like them anywhere else in the city – and definitely not back in Toronto.
As I near the end of my week-long escape, I savour my favourite frozen dessert – palm-sugar drenched shaved-ice – and wonder if I'll ever find this in Toronto. Singapore has been a feast for the senses, but I'm just about full. Thankfully, all those "exotic" fruits I've been eating all week – durian, mangosteen, longan, rambutan – no longer seem so strange, and I know just what to look for when I get back home.
IF YOU GO
The fantastic service and free booze (even in economy) on Singapore Airlines may be just what you need to get you through an 18-plus hour flight, but you've got to get to New Yor k, Los Angeles or San Francisco first. The other option for Canadian flyers is to connect onto Singapore Airlines in Frankfurt.
This is a safe city to travel in at night, but respect the city's rules. And make sure you don't litter, it's a $500 fine. (On the super-clean subway, where you can't eat either, a flower fell out of my hair and my guide scooped it up before it even hit the ground.)
WHERE TO STAY
Shangri-La Hotel Singapore Lushly landscaped, the Shangri-La is true to its name in this busy city. The Garden Wing has had a recent luxe overhaul: the rooms are cushier, the TVs much bigger and the garden around which it's built is a true centrepiece. One lovely amenity includes a daily supply of local fruits to your room. Book a table one night at Shang Palace, one of the best fine-dining Cantonese restaurants in town. Rooms from $395. 22 Orange Grove Road, shangri-la.com/singapore
The Scarlet Walk into this 80-room boutique hotel in the chic Ann Siang Hill district and you'll think you've wandered into a Parisian boudoir. The doormen and desk clerks swan about in long black coats and the guests are definitely hip and young. But rooms at this great Chinatown location come without windows (just skylights) unless you book a deluxe one. Rooms from $320. 33 Erskine Road, 65-6511-3333; thescarlethotel.com
WHERE TO EAT
Pollen Newly opened in Singapore's Gardens By the Bay, Pollen offers superb Mediterranean-inspired fine-dining. It's an offshoot of Michelen-starred chef Jason Atherton's London restaurant, and signature dishes include scallop carpaccio ($26) and herb-roasted pork belly ($48). After dinner, relocate to the dessert bar to watch the pastry chefs at work. Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, 18 Marina Gardens Drive, 65-6604-9988; pollen.com.sg
Long Beach A long-time local favourite, this seafood restaurant is famous for its steaming bowl of Black Pepper Crab. At the Dempsey Road location, four long rows of tanks rise up one wall filled with fish and shellfish from all over the world. Order the crab dish, and lots of deep fried buns to mop up the loads of spicy sauce. Five locations. Longbeachseafood.com.sg
Wild Rocket Lawyer-turned-chef Willin Low takes Singapore's favourite flavours and ingredients and takes them upmarket. Dishes include soft-shell crab with squid ink and mantou. Tasting menu from $95, four course meals from $65. Found on the outskirts of Little India, Wild Rocket is connected to the high-concept hostel Hang Out (no grubby backpackers here) and a decent pub. 10A Upper Wilkie Road, Mount Emily, 65-633-99448; wildrocket.com.sg
Maxwell Food Centre Choose from dozens of stalls. The longest lineup is for chicken rice at Tian Tian ($3). But don't stop there. Wash it down with sugar-cane juice ($1.50) and a box of ondeh-ondeh (coconut balls with a palm-sugar filling) for $3. If it's busy, reserve your table by placing a tissue on your chair – seriously. South Bridge and Maxwell Roads
The writer travelled courtesy of the Singapore Tourism Board.
(Editor's note: The spelling of The Scarlet hotel has been corrected. Rooms with windows are available in the deluxe category, incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of the story.)