“Hey, do you want to go to Singapore tomorrow?” These are not words uttered by most of the US population, but when the tiny island known for its incredibly strict laws and spotless streets is just a few hour drive away, why not celebrate Hari Raya with a long weekend on the equator?
With our passports still with the local government, awaiting diplomatic visas, and my bum still smarting from my spill down the stairs, we planned a quiet weekend in the city, figuring this would be the perfect chance to get some driving practice in and learn the ins and outs of the road system, which seems to abhor straight lines more than anything else. But then, late last week, the same day our passports came back from the foreign affairs office, we got word that some great friends from Chengdu were going to be in Singapore for the weekend. Calendars clear (other than my planned outing to the butterfly farm and maybe catching a movie, both of which can happen any weekend of the year), we decided to book bus tickets, find a cheap hotel (okay, nothing is cheap in Singapore, but at least an affordable hotel) and head south to spend some time with fantastic Chengdu-ren.
Finding bus tickets wasn’t as easy as I had hoped because with the long weekend, all the well-known bus companies were totally booked. (This was Friday evening and we were looking for a first-thing-in-the-morning bus on Saturday.) Finally, I found one that seemed doable and bought tickets as Thad reserved the hotel. In the end, his find was better than mine. While mine got us across the border and back, it did make way too many stops, including one for repairs on the bus. (I’m not entirely sure what the deal was, but there were a lot of lug nuts being screwed and replaced and possibly a tire or two, although since I never left the confines of the air conditioned bus, I can’t verify the latter part of the statement.) On the other hand, Thad’s hotel find was top notch. Not only were we in the hotel right next door to our friends, but our place had a fantastic outdoor pool and restaurant area that made for a lovely evening of drinks and catching up on night.
As always seems to happen when we travel, we stumbled onto some great adventures. On Saturday, after getting in and taking quick showers to ease the smell of sticky travel, we headed down to the bay to see the famous merlion, one of my favorite things in Singapore. Standing on the pier, we could see across the water to a stadium filled with spectators and some kind of massive show taking place. Scanning further, we realized there was a dock floating in the harbor that looked primed for a serious fireworks display. Being early evening, only an hour or two before sunset, we decided to pull up a cement stair, do some people watching and wait to see what became of the celebration that was going on across the way. As we chatted, talking about friends and travels over the last few months, it didn’t take long to realize there was a serious party taking place. We’d seen some signs advertising Singapore’s 49th national celebration, so we figured we must have lucked out and come upon the official event. This belief was quickly backed up as we watched a trio of military helicopters flying overhead, carrying an absolutely gigantic national flag, followed by an air force jet flyover and the booming of cannons from watercraft across the bay. But, my favorite part of the festivities occurred just as the sun was going down. Suddenly, the roar of boat engines overwhelmed the crowd as we watch an armada of navy gun boats race past us, shooting and gunning down a drug smuggling watercraft trying to sneak its way across the bay. (The scenario was obviously just a show, but man-oh-man did it send a strong message about how Singapore feels when it comes to illegal drugs!) The evening ended with a beautiful fireworks display, heightened by their reflections in the enormous Sands hotel mirrored glass walls.
Getting in a cab to head back towards the hotel and in search of some decently priced food (no, I do not want to pay $26 for a hamburger!), Thad asked the cab driver about the celebration. Quickly, the cabbie explained that the national day wasn’t until the first week of August, but what we had seen was a full-scale run through to make sure everything went according to plan.
Are you kidding me?
The “dress rehearsal” was an entire show in and of itself. From across the bay, it looked like the stadium was holding Olympic-level opening ceremonies, there were helicopters and jets and navy gunners, not to mention a full fireworks display.
Singapore, I am impressed with your dedication!
We rounded out the weekend with free entry to the Asian Museum (another lucky stumble) and a day of wandering on Sentosa Island, including a visit to the aquarium where I was reminded just how tiny the personal space bubbles of mainland Chinese are. (One old woman- it is always the old ladies) stood so close to me that we were actually touching from shoulder (hers, since it was a good eight inches shorter than my own) to hip to calves. This would be understandable in a smooshed and crammed subway car, but harder to abide by when we are standing in a massive viewing room where there is enough room for everyone to do jumping jacks without touching their neighbor.
Last minute it may have been, but the chance to catch up with good friends was a wonderful surprise and well worth the long waits at the border crossings. (I was surprised that it was the Singaporean border that was the unorganized and painful crossing, as they seem to be so on top of everything else!) And, now that we have our passports back, we are looking forward to many more long weekends of travel over the next two years.