Predictably by now, we were both awake well before 5 am, and we charted new ground by hitting some of the local breakfast spots before they’d even opened for business. Eventually we gave up on that and just caught a cab, traveling twenty minutes or so to the Jurong Bird Park. The driver commented several times that we’d have done better to come out after 10 am when the traffic was lighter, but by city standards it really wasn’t that bad – everything moves along efficiently, with an apparent high degree of road etiquette. On all our cab rides, the radio has been tuned to local English language stations, which sound almost exactly as chirpy and banal as all over the world, with the same bland playlists (the station this morning even had the same name as one of the Toronto stations – Kiss92). The Singapore morning traffic seems to consist more of general displacement across the city than of a big funnel into downtown, as in many other places. Outside the core, it’s a constant series of massive high rises, some of them quite visually striking and very few seeming rundown, and industrial strength – everything we saw speaks to the place as a thriving powerhouse.
We arrived at the Bird Park ten minutes or so after it opened, and had breakfast at a restaurant just by the entrance. For most of our visit, we had the place to ourselves. It’s apparently the largest bird park in Asia, and a mostly pleasant place to walk around for a couple of hours, although if you’ve ever been to a zoo, much of it can likely be imagined fairly accurately without actually going there. Some birds obviously fare better than others – they have hundreds of flamingoes for instance, all hanging out in an enormous space. On the other hand, close enough by to hear the happy flamingoes squawking away all day, a solitary shoebill was left to stand in his much more limited environment, with just a single stork or something for company, looking absolutely miserable. The poor shoebill was actually my favourite of the attractions. Other areas include the inaptly named “Parrot Paradise,” which actually seems closer to some kind of Parrot Hell, marked by bone-curdling screeching and aggressive confrontations; and yet another stunning artificial indoor waterfall. Supposedly, at the summit of the waterfall you could study all kinds of exotic birds feasting on fresh fruit – but once we got there, we found only the dullest and mangiest looking bird in the whole place. They also have a big performing space with big posters announcing the stars of the show, such as Sassy the cockatoo, Mr and Mrs Horn the toucans, Alfred the parrot, and Brian Dennehy (I made one of those up). Anyway, we didn’t stay for that.
It was filling up considerably when we left. We found a cab sitting right outside (our traditional vacation luck is turned all the way up on this trip) and came back to the Raffles, from where we explored some other areas of the preserved colonial core. Right across from the hotel there’s a former convent which now holds a collection of restaurants and bars; a little up from there you can find an old post office and stamp museum – these parts of town remind us very much of Bermuda, although I think the past is even better preserved here, looking as if it were freshly painted just yesterday: the difference is, in Singapore they’re just little enclaves of the past, easily overlooked unless you go looking for them, whereas Bermuda still insists on them as central to its present (by all accounts, a faltering economic and cultural strategy). But as an aside, the travel guides don’t really convey how varied and pleasurable it is to walk in Singapore (the heat being the main impediment) – the longer we’re here, the more we’re appreciating its understated diversity. Our walk also took in the site of a historical fort, Fort Canning; the burial site of a former Malay king; and a modern sculpture garden – as with everything here, all perfectly tended, and seemingly under-appreciated.
We kept our afternoon sleep shorter than the last few days, to be sure we’d make it to the Singapore Art Museum a couple of hours before closing time. The building used to be a mission, although in this case the conversion is only partially successful – it feels like there are just a few galleries, separated by too many odd corridors and functional spaces. It certainly shows some active curating though – the main current exhibition was about ways of engaging and representing with current events in the Middle East, and other rooms seemed concerned with stimulating children or the uninitiated (for example, through a gallery where none of the works had titles, encouraging visitors to write and put up their own). Again though, everything was only in English, which might seem here like a different form of cultural elitism. The last part of the exhibition is in a separate building across the street, including several rooms made up as 360 degree fantasy spaces; even requiring 3-D glasses in one case. Anyway, when the clock hit closing time at 7 pm, the staff all poured out of there and plainly couldn’t say too rapid a goodbye to the last few remaining guests.
We walked around a bit more, skirting some of the same neighborhoods from this morning and then wandering down to the river, The skyline looked spectacular tonight, and there was a general air of contentment and well-being. We came across a restaurant, Indochine, with a vast patio and a perfect view of all this – it seems to belong to a high-end regional chain, but it was exactly what we were looking for (strangely enough, just by circumstance, we hadn’t eaten Chinese food on the trip yet). We walked back from there, spending the last few minutes on our veranda. If this isn’t the best hotel we’ve ever stayed in – and it probably is that – it’s certainly the one where the ambiance most shaped our sense of the visit: Singapore would be great enough if experienced from a comfortable modern room (and there seems to be no shortage of those – I’ve seldom seen such a concentration of enormous hotels) but with the Raffles as a base, your sense of history and modernity, of secret places and stories winding around the steel and glass, is gloriously amplified…