Tingling with excitement, eyes eagerly darting around drinking in the familiar sights, we made our way through the airconditioned architectural beauty that is Singapore airport. If some of the world's best duty free shopping not enough for you, then why not take a stroll around its landscaped roof gardens, or perhaps a dip in the pool? The airport leaves the traveller with sky-high expectations for this tiny city, expectations which will not be disappointed. I spent a few years living here as a ten-year-old child, and returned for a holiday when I was 18, so I knew what to expect.
However, having a consolidated impression of the terra firma you've just alighted on doesn't innoculate you against culture shock, and having spent three weeks backpacking around some of the poorest countries in the world, arriving in Singapore felt like skipping forward in time by five centuries. One of the biggest (if not the singlemost) change to acclimatise to is the shift in the financial balance of power. No longer were we walking dollar bills, to be coaxed and coerced by anyone who could speak a word of English into relinquishing the pocket-change that could buy a days worth of food. Rather than fending off people eager to lighten our wallets, it was positively difficult to find a way to get rid of our hard-earned: taxi queues were endless and it took us an age to find a hostel that wasn't fully booked. Having successfully won the battle of securing a service, the prices demanded are enough to make you weep after nearly a month of living like a king for a few dollars. Even a bunk in a shared hostel room was threatening to set us back by £60. I kid you not. We just about managed to scrape a basic hotel room for the same price, but it was hard work!
Unsurprisingly, western prices will buy you western standards, and in the east this seems to extend even further. Singapore is famous for being a militantly clean urban utopia, where simply spitting your gum onto the pavement can land you with a $100 dollar fine. Sparkling streets come at a price, and government intervention into the private lives of residents is only beginning to loosen what has historically been an iron grip, but the reward for this is a city of well groomed, respectable citizens from around the globe. Although the population is predominantly Chinese, with a liberal spattering of Malays and other Asian races, expats are common. This generates an atmosphere of tolerance where no one raises and eyebrow or turns a head at the colour of your skin - a welcome relief after being a minor spectacle in some of the more remote regions we'd been to.
So, three days here, plan of attack: find taxi ('why aren't there scores of people waiting for us?!'); find accommodation ('HOW much?!'); find food. Not a problem in Singapore - one of my first observations was that the people here are all a little, well, podgy in comparison to most east Asians, and the reason is that the cuisine is simply sublime. For a taste of authentic nosh, you can't do better than to head to a hawker centre. Imagine a giant food court and you'll be along the right lines. Nestled near to our China Town hotel is one such place that I have clear memories of from my childhood: a place called La PaSa. With ironwork dating from Victorian times, this is the oldest hawker centre in Singapore, and the 'make your own' noodles I had were delicious - and thankfully not in line with the rest of the country's prices!
Our afternoon was spent taking in the sights of China town, including a very impressive Hindu mosque, a Buddhist temple encasing hundreds of (creepy) chanting monks and supporting a three meter high prayer wheel, as well as a market selling your usual tourist tat. In the evening we decided to see the wilder side of Singapore, and headed up to the night Safari on the north of the island (accessed by a $30 taxi ride each way... it still hurts now!!). This place is a well-oiled attraction, and after heading through the gates you're greeted by tribal fire dancers, shortly followed by an auditorium show of various trained creatures of the night. (Of a somewhat different nature to the creatures of the night prowling the streets of Thailand!) My favourite was the jumping ocelot. I wanted to bring one back as a pet, but decided that it would fight with my fluffy little Jack Russell. And win. And I had no desire to clean up all that fluff, so the fortunate ocelot stayed in Singapore.