Surprising Singapore – The Lion City

From its exotic name to its tropical splendour, Singapore is a city of many colours and contrasts, cultures and cuisines. Just one degree north of the Equator, it has all the elements for a truly unique holiday.

Until Sir Stamford Raffles, Singapore’s founder, claimed it for the British East India Company in 1819, it was just a swamp, a thick jungle island populated by a handful of fishermen. Today it is a vibrant modern city-state of 3 million people, the Asian centre for trade, transport, banking, communications and tourism.

Before I had ever visited it, I was fascinated by Singapore from the writings of Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling and Noel Coward. It fired my imagination as a place I longed to see; a melting pot of diverse civilizations and cultures. For centuries before Raffles’ arrival, there was the ongoing passage of Chinese junks, Arabdhows and Indian vessels as it sits on the busy sea routes between East and West. In the 14th century it was called "Temasek" meaning "Sea Town". It was re-named "Singa Pura" or "Lion City" after a visiting Sumatran Prince saw a strange animal he mistook for a lion (legend has it that it was probably a tiger – he was no zoologist!) By 1911, the population had grown to 250,000 people of 48 races, from China’s southern provinces, Indonesia, Malaya and India and you can hear 54 languages spoken. It was Britain’s key defence in the Far East until it fell to the Japanese in World War II. It has been independent since 1959 and a republic since 1965.

It is a tiny island of less than 640 sq. kms. But it boasts the world’s busiest port and its airport has been voted the world’s best. Unbelievably, there are 130 banks on the island. 7 million tourists visit each year.

For me, the highlight is Raffles Hotel (not that I have ever stayed there at $1,000 a night). It is spectacular with a colonnade of fountains and palm trees. The shopping arcade has 70 de-luxe shops; a museum of Raffles’ memorabilia and a theater with multimedia shows of the hotel’s past glories. I did indulge in a Gin Sling at the famous Long Bar, immortalized in so many of Maugham’s writings – he is still one of my all-time favourite authors.

You can literally "shop till you drop", especially in Orchard Road. Singapore is a duty-free port where tourists snap up jade and semi-precious gems; tapestries and carpets from India and Arabia; walkmans from Japan; Asian antiques; computers from Taiwan; "haute couture" from Paris and Rome; cosmetics, watches; leather goods; electronics; silks and cameras. Sometimes a dress or suit can be tailored for you during the 1-2 day stopover between flights. Each district – Chinatown, the city center, Orchard Road and Little India – is unique and fascinating.

A few years ago I had a strange adventure there. I was wandering through a back-street bazaar in Chinatown and came across a fortune-teller with hundreds of envelopes in front of him and a parrot on his shoulder. I was hurrying back to Israel from Australia as my daughter was expecting a baby later in the month. I gave the fortune-teller money, he whispered something to the bird which flew over the envelopes. It picked up one in its beak and brought it to me. Inside was a message in Chinese and English: "A baby boy has been born in your family." When I landed two days later at Ben-Gurion, my son-in-law met me with the news that I had a grandson – two weeks early!

Singapore is a wonderful and surprising mix of old and new. The magic of the past lingers in the back streets and bazaars; the present in the astonishing number of skyscrapers and luxury hotels. On this small island you will find water slides, an active volcano, succulent and diverse foods; golf amid ravines and geysers; a walk among dragons; Asian dances; exotic orchids and butterfles; and an exciting night life thast never stops. A visit is a memorable experience that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
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Title: Surprising Singapore – The Lion City
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