Vibrant Singapore a city of cultural diversity

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Despite its small size, the island city state of Singapore -- measuring just 272 square miles -- offers a wealth of opportunities and experiences for the discerning traveler.

High-fashion emporia along shopping thoroughfare Orchard Road stand cheek-by-jowl with old-fashioned retail plazas crammed with tiny shops offering everything from traditional medicines to jewelry. Hucksters try to entice passersby into shops filled with the latest photographic and telecommunications equipment; as in the rest of the world, everyone in Singapore is busy talking on their mobile phones.

The city's landscape is constantly changing. In the few years since I was last in Singapore, what's called the "foreshore," along Clarke and Boat quays, has been transformed from a jumble of bumboat rides and small restaurants into a bustling entertainment complex that's partly covered with imaginative, sail-like structures. And skyscrapers now tower over the whole affair.  

Singapore boasts not only a world-class range of restaurants but some of the world's most unusual ones, as well. In one eatery, for example, diners are seated in wheelchairs. I had dinner at the Metropole Herbal Restaurant, where meals come complete with diagnoses from a traditional doctor of Chinese medicine who will prescribe concoctions to cure any ailment.

Since the earliest days after the modern state of Singapore was founded by Britain's Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1819, the city's population has been made up of a mix of ethnicities and religious groups, including Chinese, European, Indian, Muslim and Malay. This multicultural heritage is reflected in Singapore's architecture, lifestyle and food.

Singapore on foot

Despite the modernization of much of the city in recent years, visitors can still find pockets, such as Emerald Hill, where life seems unchanged. Originally a nutmeg plantation, this enclave of houses -- a tiny area tucked away adjacent to the glitz and glamour of Orchard Road -- is home to many Peranakans, descendants of the Chinese who settled in the Malay archipelago from the 17th century.

A number of companies offer walking tours of these different community areas.  For example, Original Singapore Walks has two- to three-hour tours such as "Red Clogs Down the Five Foot Way," covering Chinatown; "A Taste of Empire," a Colonial District walk; and "Dhobis, Saris and a Spot of Curry," through the Little India area.

I joined the "Sultans of Spice" walk in the Arab Street Kampong Glam district, where the Muslim influence is still very strong.

Named after the gelam tree, from which medicinal oils were extracted, the district is full of narrow streets with evocative names such as Sultan Gate, Bali, Baghdad, Muscat and Kandahar.

Tiny shops sell everything from embroidered materials (visitors can watch this intricate work being done), natural oils and perfumes and basketry.

Area merchants also peddle all the accessories observant Muslims would need for a pilgrimage to Mecca. The nearby Sultan Mosque, built in 1928, is a fine example of Islamic architecture, with separate worship areas for men and women and an unusual dome that is ringed by a frieze comprised of the bottoms of glass bottles.

Another lively neighborhood is Chinatown, which sprang up with the influx of Chinese immigrants in the early days of the city. The Chinese Heritage Centre on Pagoda Street has fascinating material on the ethnic group's rich cultural history.

Before being sanitized, Bugis Street was famous for its brothels, but there is still plenty of activity around Chinatown. The "Secrets of the Red Lantern" night walk in Chinatown captures some of the atmosphere of the bygone days when Singapore, because of prostitution, opium and gambling, really was Sin City.

Singapore is packed with other attractions, as well, apart from the fantastic shopping and amazing food.

The Singapore Zoo is justly famous, its scenic, "open zoo" layout featuring a diverse collection of animals, from orangutans to polar bears to pygmy hippos to white tigers. Visitors can have breakfast with some animals, and the Night Safari, during which nocturnal wildlife is viewed, is not to be missed.

Tourists can learn about Singapore's urban history and geography, as well as the city's founder, at the Raffles Landing Site on the north bank of the Singapore River.

The 120-year-old Raffles Hotel Singapore, although now surrounded by other five-star hotels, is still the place to be seen. There, visitors can enjoy the afternoon tea buffet or indulge in a Singapore Sling cocktail at the hotel's Long Bar, where the drink was invented.

Island appeal

As most Singaporeans live in high-rise apartment blocks, they like to escape outdoors on weekends and on holidays. Popular destinations include Sentosa Island, a short distance off Singapore's south coast and reached by cable car, ferry or bridge. Locals relax on its beaches and at its resorts and spas, or take in attractions such as Underwater World, Butterfly Park & Insect Kingdom and the Dolphin Lagoon.

For visitors wanting to get a glimpse of simpler village life in the region, a trip to one of the smaller islands off the north coast, such as Pulau Ubin, is rewarding. 

Pulau Ubin is located beyond Changi, a name synonymous with Singapore's airport but also as the location of Changi Prison, infamous in World War II. A visit to the prison, now a museum, is a moving experience. The trials and hardships of the 50,000 soldiers and civilians imprisoned there were captured through letters, photographs, drawings and personal effects.

The Changi murals, drawn by English bombardier Stanley Warren, and a series of patchworks created by imprisoned women are especially vivid.

In the courtyard of the museum, the Changi Chapel, built in 1988 by prison inmates, adds a touch of hope for the future as the visitor reflects on the grim days during World War II. 

In the Malay language, Singapura, or Singapore, means "Lion City." In recent decades, the city has roared powerfully as both a trade center and a hot pot for travelers from all round the world.

For more information on Singapore, visit www.visitsingapore.com.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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