“What is that smell?” I asked my co-worker whiningly as we stared at the grotesque, thorn-covered alien entity before us that was emanating a scent I can only describe as sweaty socks charred in gasoline. We were passing by some food stalls in Singapore and we had come face to face with what would become my nemesis for the duration of our trip: a durian fruit. Okay, I’m not trying to hate on what is locally referred to as the “king of fruit” in Southeast Asia. I would consider myself an adventurous person when it comes to the cuisine of other countries. I’ve eaten sheep testicles in Mali (yes, you read that correctly!), horse meat in Mongolia, live fish in Korea, and guinea pig in Peru. But I had to draw the line somewhere, and durian, if you can believe it, is further past that line than even sheep genitalia. Yes, I know, it’s a good source of vitamin C, potassium, and blah blah blah it smells like rotting bugs!
After a year of working long hours at a Korean hagwon (cram school) in a small town, landing a university job in Seoul was a sweet upgrade. No more singing awkward and grammatically incorrect songs about woodland creatures. No more picking up ramen packages and chunks of fried squid off the floor. No more breaking up brawls between belligerent twelve-year-old boys. And the best part: 10 weeks of paid vacation, a drastic improvement from the 5 days I had received the year before. My first vacation at the university was a two-week long break in April, and I eagerly perused Lonely Planet books and travel sites for nearby Asian destinations in search of THE ONE. I eventually decided to visit Singapore and Malaysia with a co-worker, as neither of us had been to those countries, and both places conjured up images of modern dynamic cities, beautiful tropical beaches, and a delicious variety of food. Although we chose to spend the majority of our time in Malaysia, we still managed to squeeze in 3 days in Singapore. In our short time there, we tried to pack in as many activities as we could before crossing over. We visited quiet, old temples and walked through the crowded streets of Little India, Chinatown, the Muslim Quarter, and the old Colonial District. We learned about Singaporean history at the famous Asian Civilisations Museum and craned our necks up at the impossibly high hotels and office buildings. We went on a night safari at the world’s first safari park for nocturnal animals (although they weren’t so nocturnal when we were there, and most of our time was spent watching animals express irritation at being woken up). And we rode luges and sipped cocktails along the beaches of touristy Sentosa Island.
Before leaving for our trip, I made sure to do ample research. I had heard that the laws there were quite severe, and I did not want my first vacation from Seoul to end up like a Singaporean version of Brokedown Palace (for those of you who haven’t seen the movie, it involves Claire Danes freaking out a lot, and it might give you some ideas about what not to do when you travel to a foreign country that still has the death penalty). Anyways, here are some of the things I discovered you can be fined for in Singapore:
- Chewing gum in public
- Not flushing the toilet after use
- Spitting in public
Upon arrival, I was nervous about accidentally breaking one of these rules and having to fork out a hefty fine – not that I would consider myself to be a voracious public spitter or anything, but who doesn’t like a stick of Minty Sweet Twist Trident every now and again? However, the results of Singapore’s lengthy legislation on criminal offenses can’t be argued with. The streets are spotless and the country has one of the lowest crime rates, as well as one of the lowest incidences of violent crimes, in the world. So what if you have to drop a thousand dollars in fines or submit to a caning every once in awhile? A small price to pay for public cleanliness, racial and religious harmony, and economic prosperity, no?
But the country is not all shiny streets and glistening buildings. On our first night in town, I stopped in a 7-11 to pick up a drink, and I commented to my travel companion how clean even the floors of convenience stores were in Singapore. Just as I finished my remark, a couple of slick brown cockroaches scuttled across the store’s clean pink tiles. Later on, Brian and I were jonesin’ for some local eats, so we headed to a street with plenty of hawker stalls (ubiquitous street food stands). Although they are cheap and convenient, the fact that they remain open all night seems irreconcilable with a society intent on maintaining public hygiene. As we were walking through a sea of customers and food vendors, I noticed the waste from the stalls, the liquefied detritus of fried chicken, prawn soup, chili crab, and cooking oil, leaking into the roads and sewers. And scampering through the oozing sludge was a terrifying carnivorous rat the size of a small dog.
But other than the creepy urban wildlife, I can’t say that anything in Singapore was less than impressive. The place is an aspiring architect’s paradise – no 2 buildings look identical, and the theme of the city seems to be “big and shiny”, as demonstrated by the towering, metallic skyscrapers, the Victorian-style museums, and the modern, spiky Esplanade Theatres on the Bay. In relation to the latter building, the unique architectural design is meant to resemble two durian fruits. Now, why anyone would want to build something paying homage to such an unworthy recipient is beyond me. But the building itself is elegant and original, so despite its stinky source of inspiration, we still enjoyed getting lost in the meandering halls of the theatres.
The thing that really made the whole trip worth it, though, was the wide array of food options. Singapore’s population is incredibly diverse, and although most residents are either Malay, Tamil, or Chinese, there are also communities of Thais, Koreans, and Arabs who call Singapore home. And the best thing about all this diversity: a wonderfully rich local cuisine! Brian and I gorged ourselves on spicy curry that brought forth tears, light but filling laksa (noodles in coconut broth), char kway teow (Chinese stir-fry), and Hainan chicken rice. If you need just one reason to visit Singapore, go for the food!
The days passed by much too quickly, and soon we were boarding a bus that would take us across the border to Malaysia. Will I ever go back to Singapore? For sure. And maybe next time, I will work up my courage, plug my nose, and take a bite out of my malodorous enemy, the durian.
Here are more photos from my trip. Enjoy!