Day 11: To Hell & Back

After spending an evening largely reading about Singapore, I was incredibly eager to explore the country for myself. Later in the evening, I would have a friend from Japan flying in to join me for the next few days, so I constructed an unusually packed itinerary to try and hit a few of the highlights we might not get to together.*

First on my list was China Town, a bustling area incredibly popular with visitors. Rising out of the Exit A of the China Town MRT Station is quite spectacular as you are immediately thrown into the middle of a bustling pedestrian street, lined on both sides by traditional Chinese shophouses. Although the area is quite touristy, there are small pockets of local shops hidden among the souvenirs. I spotted a tucked away cafe and bolted inside, eager to try more local food.
The Internet informs me that one popular Singaporean breakfast is known as kaya toast, kaya referring to this sweet spread consisting of eggs, sugar, and coconut milk. It is often possible to order a breakfast set with slices of kaya toast sandwiches, two semi-boiled eggs, and tea or kopi. In this particular cafe, I was surrounded by English, Chinese, and Indian Singaporeans, all enjoying their kaya toast. The diversity of this city is truly fascinating.

In fact, in the very middle of Chinatown is Sri Mariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu Temple in Singapore. Removing my shoes, I entered gingerly, never having visited a Hindu Temple before. There was a really festive ceremony going on, and I stood to the side quietly observing when I noticed one of the participants waving me over. “Come, stand here and you can take pictures,” a kind elderly man gestured while explaining the anniversary ceremony taking place. “They have been married a long time and one of them just turned 60.” My own grandparents actually celebrated their 60th Wedding Anniversary last year, and I giggled at the thought of how my grandmother would react to having cold water poured over her as was happening to the wife in front of me now.

The elderly man who had invited me over started to quiz me about my travels. It turns out Bob was a retired Singaporean who used to meet up with travelers via Couchsurfing and offered to show me around a bit:If you want, I can take you to Haw Par Villa. It depends. What’s that? The Gates to Buddhist Hell. Well, how could I pass up that opportunity? I agreed, and Bob instructed me to go check out the other temple just down around the corner, and we could go when I returned.

The nearby Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum was built in 2002 to (quite obviously) host a supposed relic of the Buddha’s tooth. It is quite a striking building despite lacking the historic authenticity of most temples. There is also a very extensive exhibit detailing the life of the Buddha and the spread of his teachings that I highly recommend for the generally uninformed. Feeling as if I had a much better understanding of the origins of Buddhism, I returned to the Hindu Temple to greet my guide. “Alright Bob, let’s go to hell.”**

Haw Par Villa is without a doubt one of the strangest “theme parks” I have ever visited. In the 1930s, a wealthy family that made their money off of Tiger Balm decided to create this collection of statues depicting various traditional Chinese stories. The key highlight, of course, is an artificial cave that depicts the Ten Courts of Hell, which offer different punishments depending on your life’s grievances. For instance, in the third court of hell, drug addicts, tomb robbers, and instigators of social unrest are “tied to red hot copper pillar and grilled.” While right next to them, anyone who has disrespected their elders, shows ungratefulness, or escaped prison gets their heart cut-out. Lovely.*** However, there are several acres of statues from depicting anything from the trials of the monkey king to an inexplicable collection of koalas wearing baseball caps riding ostriches. I highly recommend adding it to your Singaporean itinerary, especially for parents with young children, who seemed to be the only other visitors there.**** It is certainly unforgettable.

Following that bizarre detour, Bob offered to take me to the hawker center in Little India, so I could try the “real” local cuisine. (Upon telling him that I had had kaya toast for breakfast, he disappointedly shook his head at my having eaten “Western food.” I thought about all of the locals pouring soy sauce onto their soft-boiled eggs. Ah yes, silly me coming all the way to Singapore for Western food…) Thus, we went and grabbed a massive thali plate featuring all sorts of pickled vegetables, curried chicken, and a small bowl of fish curry laid out on a banana leaf to go with our rice. Bob asked if I wanted a fork, but after taking a brief glance around, I insisted on using my hands. Eating curry and rice with only your hands is no small feat for the inexperienced. However, the meal was absolutely delicious and even came with entertainment; the entertainment being me miserably making a mess of myself to the great amusement to anyone in the near vicinity of course. Fortunately I did not notice a hell at Haw Par Villa for public indecency.

Having gone completely off my initial itinerary, I finally bid Bob farewell in order to at least visit the primary goal on my list: The National Museum of Singapore. Not having studied much about Singapore beforehand, I to familiarize myself with just exactly how this country came to be. The National Museum offered a solid display showcasing Singapore’s history, dating all the way back to the thirteenth century when Malay Kings ruled the Kingdom of Singapura. However, for the length of time it was colonized by the British, I found that display surprisingly brief and about equal in length to the amount of space dedicated to detailing the Japanese occupation. (Although in retrospect, I suppose the same could be said for many U.S. history textbooks that rush past our pre-Revolution days yet spend ages on WWII.)

Most of the exhibit dedicated to all of the efforts that went into forming Singapore, a nation that has been independent since 1965, following a brief shotgun marriage with Malaysia. (Thus, 2015 happens to be the nations 50th Anniversary, so there are quite a lot of celebrations and special exhibits in the works all throughout the island.) This included a special exhibit on Lee Kwan Yew, a former Prime Minister largely considered to be the father of modern Singapore who passed away last March. There were several moving depictions of Singapore standing for equality among all of its ethnic groups and bolstering its economic strength by welcoming in foreign business with open arms. Truly fascinating, but I was really taken by how much all of this seemed to center around Lee Kwan Yew as a sort of eulogy to his greatness (versus perhaps an objective presentation of facts.) Forever the contrarian, I made a mental note to add Singaporean history books to my reading list in order to better understand his party’s policies and their implementation. But overall, I highly recommend a stop at the museum for every foreign visitor to gain some substantial background into how Singapore clearly stands out from its neighbors.

Satisfied with feeling just a tad bit more knowledgeable, I spent the rest of my evening roaming around the nearby historical district before heading to the airport to welcome Kyoko, my friend from Tokyo who was serendipitously doing job training in Kuala Lumpur and visiting for the weekend. Although I did not necessarily stick to my itinerary, it was a definitively solid day to kickoff my weekend here. After all, how often does one get the opportunity to go to hell and back?

19 July 2015

*There are considerable pros and cons to traveling alone. I was genuinely looking forward to having some steady company, but I also know that with company comes compromise. For example, no matter how lovely my travel companion is, I do find that few people enjoy lingering in museums or pausing to take as many photos as I do. With that in mind, I purposefully came in a day early just to make sure I had a day completely indulging in what I wanted to do.
**A few of you are probably questioning my sanity at agreeing to accompanying a strange man to a strange place. Well, by virtue of the fact that I am living to blog the tale, you can see it turned out alright! To those traveling alone, as long as you exercise judgment in choosing your newfound companions, I would say things turn out OK more often than not. (For example, I do not normally expect dodgy personalities to frequent temples. And apologies if you are reading this Bob, but I stood a pretty good chance of running away if needed. Not that I ever thought I needed to do so!)
***Mom and Dad, you are the best parents anyone could ask for. Thank you both.
****I assume these family outings to Haw Par Villa serve primarily as lecture fieldtrips: “Now Sally, this is what it is like to trip on acid. And don’t forget the copper wires waiting for you in hell if you do. Now let’s go send your grandmother a postcard!”