Day 12: Animal Kingdom

Kyoko and I were determined to make the absolute most of our day, so we took a quick breakfast in China Town before heading to truly explore Little India. (Since my experience yesterday was only limited to the lunch debacle.) Apparently approximately 10% of Singapore’s population are of Indian descent, which after walking around the rather extensive neighborhood of Little India would strike you as a shockingly small number. Now I have admittedly never been to India, but walking around this neighborhood, I felt as if I had flown across the Bay of Bengal. On the second floor of the hawker center I dined at yesterday, there are endless numbers of shops selling saris in every shade imaginable, along with stores offering up fragrant spices, woven textiles, and colorful flowers. Of course, there are also surrounding streets filled with souvenir kitsch, where Kyoko and I both got drawn into getting our first ever (temporary) henna tattoos after the savvy business women called out to us in Japanese.*

Feeling like proper tourists, we then opted to head over to see the Jurong Bird Park, apparently one of the premier parks of its kind in Southeast Asia. Entrance fee is admittedly a bit pricey, but it is a lovely park to go see all of the various tropical birds that populate Southeast Asia. We spent a solid couple of hours walking by all of the various habitats, enjoying the colorful plumage of flamingos, parrots, and my newfound favorite, the rather ostentatious hornbill. Key highlights include going to the open-air enclosure that offers you the opportunity to interact with parrots and lorries. We spent a good while passive aggressively fighting for attention with young children, all of us eager to get a lorry to sit on our shoulders. Quite a productive way for two mature twenty-somethings to spend an afternoon.** There is also a worthwhile afternoon show put on my a charismatic host and featuring highly trained birds doing all sorts of aerial stunts. It truly is a lovely bird park.

We then rushed back to China Town in order to meet a local friend of mine from university (who incidentally graduated with an M.A. in East Asian Studies, my future course of study.) We did hawker centers properly this time by getting a variety of dishes including popiah, pie tee, satay, and char kway teow.*** Meanwhile, my friend Colin kindly answered all of my questions about Singapore (as well as assuage my panic about becoming a graduate student.) He had quite an interesting perspective, being one of the several government scholars that Singapore sends abroad every year. It is really quite a brilliant system from what little I understand of it: the government apparently sponsors promising high schoolers who get accepted into top universities worldwide (think Oxbridge, the Ivy League, etc.) These globally-educated scholars then return to Singapore and are placed in public service roles for a set number of years, with the potential (read: expectation) to continue on for a long, successful career in the government. Another of my Singaporean friends once cheekily referred to it as indentured servitude. However, I do think it is quite clever from a governmental standpoint, and I wonder just how other countries might fair should they choose to offer similar scholarships for their best and brightest.**** After having visited the National Museum and gained a basic overview, it was incredibly fascinating to converse with Colin and get a more detailed, personalized perspective on Singapore’s state of affairs. (Thank you very much Colin!)

Deciding to return to being proper tourists, Kyoko and I then caught a taxi to go see the immensely popular Night Safari. In addition to the bird park, Singapore also has an impressive zoo, and special animal encounters in the form of a river safari and a night safari. Despite what this post might indicate, I am normally not one for visiting zoos. However, the Night Safari really is spectacular. There are a handful of themed walking paths, including the opportunity for free-range encounters with Australian mammals. (After a tiring day of sightseeing, there is nothing quite like unexpectedly running into a wallaby in the dark. You awake from your exhausted stupor immediately.) But the key attraction is a tram that allows you to comfortably see various habitats as it travels around most of the park. Considering that several animals are largely nocturnal, they are much more interesting to observe at night. For instance, contrary to my normal experience with zoos, we saw lions actively prowling around their decently sized, open-air habitat instead of dozing sleepily in cramped quarters where children pressed their noses to the grimy glass located inches away. Really good, well-maintained fun.1

Childhood dreams of seeing The Lion King Live fulfilled, I was just about ready to call it a day. However, Kyoko keenly reminded me that I had so desperately wanted to observe Singapore’s nightlife, and as it was Saturday, tonight was our best chance to properly do so. I thought back to all of the local taxi drivers who enthusiastically recommended visiting Clarke Quay, a popular expat hangout.***** Thus, I was faced with the the all too frequent traveler’s dilemma of debating whether to sleep or sightsee. As a champion of spontaneous (read: rash) decisions, I would of course choose Clarke Quay.

Possible business motives aside, thank goodness for the taxi driver recommendations We crossed the bridge over the Singapore River, a popular meeting point. Passing by clusters of people of visibly various ethnicities, nationalities, and levels of inebriation, we entered a massive street full of bustling bars and nightclubs, the center of which was sheathed underneath a futuristic roof shining with neon lights. A massive crowd of dizzyingly diverse faces, supremely modern architecture, considerably pricey drinks, and not a broken beer bottle in sight at a historical dock with a distinctly British name. (It is pronounced Clarke “Key” not Kway.) I reflected on everything I had seen over the past few days while seeing it all meld together in this nightlife district.

While I still have so much more to learn about this country, this scene before me, this was a glimpse of quintessential Singapore.

20 June 2015

*After talking to them, they also learn key phrases in Chinese, Korean, French, and German. Clever. This, if anything else, is the one lesson to take away from traveling: the importance of learning other languages.
**Although be wary what you wish for. We managed to get a small flock of lorries around us on one of the suspended bridges, and the birds fight among themselves as well. There are few things in life more terrifying than a territorial lorry screeching seconds away from your ear, with the potential to clip you with their beak at any second. You have been warned.
***A variation of spring roll generally filled with seasoned vegetables/prawns, crispy cups with the same filling as popiah, chicken skewers, and stir-friend rice noodles, respectively. The latter of which I can never hope to pronounce properly, and thus ordered with a lot of embarrassed pointing.
****This is admittedly coming from my foreign and definitively biased viewpoint, and I do try to avoid making my blog too political. However, as someone who has attended a reputable university where comparatively few students join the U.S. Government/Military as well as someone who has spent a decent amount of time studying another highly developed Asian economy that vastly prefers its officials to have studied domestically, I am quite curious about the pros and cons of such a sponsorship system.
*****It just now occurred to me that smart taxi drivers would highly recommend checking out the nightlife since doing so results in the tourist generally stuck without a proper means of transport home except for a taxi charging at a special weekend rate. Cheeky.

Traveler Tip:
1: So much so that the Night Safari is wildly popular. When we first arrived, the line for the tram had a wait time of approximately two hours. Kyoko and I opted to do one of the walking paths and take in one of the shows first (which also had a substantial wait time.) By the time we were ready to ride the tram at around 22:00, the line had disappeared completely. Thus, I would advice that those visiting the Night Safari (especially on weekend nights) consider visiting later. Honestly, while some of the pathways are interesting, the tram is the main attraction and should not be missed