Getting Lego-ized with Janis Joplin in Singapore

It has become a bit of a joke – and a hobby – for me to tell people I meet while travelling that I will visit them in their hometown. This time, it was easy. I met three Singaporeans (a real one and two expats) in Ijen, Indonesia. Because of my intended itinerary, flying to Singapore or Kuala Lumpur both made sense, so off I went to the Lion City.

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Coming from Java, I was looking forward to spending a few days in modern and wealthy Singapore, but I wasn’t expecting to see anything radically different from the last time I was there, in 2004. I couldn’t me more mistaken. Every single structure in this picture is new! The Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino was completed in 2010 at a cost of US$6.4 billion. This picture I took in drizzling rain with my damaged lens does not convey the size of this 2561 room, 1.3 million square feet structure. The boat shaped promenade on top of the three towers holds an infinity pool three times longer than a standard Olympic pool. Check out this Dailymail article for some impressive photos.

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It took me a while to get my bearings around town and when I look at this picture of Singapore I took in 2004, I understand why.

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This is a photo of the same area, but seen from the other side, further down (or up?) the river. Back then, I never would have taken this shot, because there was nothing to see in this part of town and few tourists would have ventured there, except by getting lost.

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Behind the massive hotel now stand these “super trees”, which somehow produce electricity, shade the botanical gardens below and through a system of ducts, cool the garden’s conservatories. I didn’t visit, but the structures certainly light up the night sky in a unique way. Locals compare them to the trees in the movie Avatar. The blue horizontal light goes along a suspended pathway which allows you to walk in the gardens, high above the trees. The super trees themselves are 25 to 50 meters tall.

Of course, Singapore also comes with a sticker shock. I only bought one drink during my stay, a pint of beer. S$11 (CAN/US $9), during happy hour! It’s about S$14 normally. By comparison, I had a breakfast of sorts with my new Singaporean friends the week before in an Indonesian cafe frequented by tourists and sulphur miners alike. Between the 4 of us, we had 12 pieces of fried banana, a tea and 6 cups of coffee. The bill was $4.20, or about the cost of one cup of coffee in Singapore. Of course, this is nothing compared to the sticker shock you’ll feel if you want to buy a car. The Singaporean Government avoids catastrophic traffic congestion by making it very onerous to buy a car. There are massive import tariffs on all vehicles, and car registrations (in the form of 10 year ownership permits), are sold at auction. This year, the price at auction is about $65,000 – and you still don’t have a car, just a paper! Including all the costs, a basic car in Singapore costs a little more than the median price of a house in the United States.

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You can tell from this picture of the shopping centre attached to the Marina Bay Sands that this is not your typical asian market where you come to buy cheap knock-off sunglasses. I suppose this is as you should expect in the country with the World’s highest percentage of the population who are US dollar millionaires, excluding their principal residence.

In fact, Singapore is so contrasting compared to its neighbours, sometimes you have to remember you are in South East Asia. From the potable tap water, the clean streets, the incredibly expensive real estate, the fact that it rains all the time, the multicultural population, but with an ethnic Chinese majority, you… wait. In a nutshell, it’s Vancouver!

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Of course, being a long term traveller, I have no intention of spending $300 a night to sleep, so when I heard Singapore had opened its first capsule hotel, I jumped at the chance to try the concept. Unfortunately, I will have to try again, probably in Tokyo, where I believe they were invented. While the little space was reasonably comfortable, the lack of internal ventilation and of a proper door (more like a curtain), made it noisy and hot, even in an air-conditioned building. It felt more like a dorm room than a capsule hotel. Nothing horrible, but while I don’t like to splurge on accommodation, I don’t do dorms. At least the price was, as expected, ridiculously cheap for Singapore.

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While being a nice tourist in Singapore is expensive, being a bad one is very expensive. Chewing gum on the train coming from the airport? $400 fine! If you get the $4,000 fine for bringing a jerry can of fuel in the subway, you’ll curse even more, but hopefully it will help you on the long road to realizing you’re a complete idiot.

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There is no lack of threatening signs and warnings, but some are meant to convince. Now, never in my life have I had a suicidal thought. But, I am quite certain that had I planned to jump on the rail tracks, this sign reading “Value Life. Act Responsibly” would not make me change my mind!

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However, if I had planned to import narcotics into Singapore, this sign might cause me to reconsider! Truth be told, this is not surprising at all in the region. In Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei,  you get the same warning on your immigration card and it is mandatory for airlines to mention it on the PA system before landing. I guess it gives you a last chance to change your mind!

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Singapore has a great public transportation infrastructure and plentiful, relatively cheap taxis. However, if you get caught in a storm walking downtown, you will never get a taxi, because everybody else wants one. Since I was meeting someone at the museum and had no means to call her, I couldn’t do what most locals did and hide under a bridge for 25 minutes while all the water on the planet fell on us. So I went for it. The rain jacket I had the foresight to bring worked well, but my pants and shoes were just as soaked as if I had waddled waist deep in a river. Right after we took this shot, there was a small puddle around my feet. Clearly, I couldn’t walk around the museum like this so I went into the large handicapped washroom stall and wrung my socks and pants! I must have extracted a litre of water from them.

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The visit was to a Lego art exhibit at the ArtScience Museum, which is part of the big hotel casino complex I mentioned earlier. It is the white building, shaped like a broken lotus flower. The travelling exhibit is that of New-York based artist Nathan Sawaya. Basically, he’s a corporate lawyer who decided to dedicate his life to making sculptures out of Lego blocks. You be the judge. I for one found many of the pieces quite interesting, and certainly very original.

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The portrait series is very impressive. With only about 100×100 plastic “pixels”, he makes very recognizable faces, like this one of Janis Joplin.

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A funny app also lets you Lego-ize a picture of yourself. Here is my new friend Eva, taking a picture of her Lego face!

And that was Singapore in 2 days.

#Singapore

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