The Singapore Experience

My family went to Singapore for the summer. Indulging in the food and buying some pens were my main agenda. After “exploring the edges of harmony” (to quote Edwin Thumboo), here are my thoughts.

-It really is more fulfilling if you research about the place you are going to before going there.

– Davao’s International Airport is bigger than you think. But it has to be bigger!

– If you are a government employee, get documentary permission from your employing office before you travel. Better yet, don’t bother putting down on your immigration form that you’re a government employee.

– My government is scary.

– There is no difference in timezones between the Philippines and Singapore.

– But official timezones do not necessarily correspond with natural timezones: in Singapore, it’s still bright outside at 7pm (7pm in the afternoon?)

7pm at downtown Singapore

7pm at downtown Singapore

– Changi International Airport is so good that it cheered me up from my (red-tape strangled) bad mood. They have Orchid gardens inside!

– When you ride a taxi from the airport, you’re not yet downtown. That “downtown” you see? That’s still the airport. In the airport, it’s airport as far as you can see.

– But more on the airport when you go back. In the meantime, absorb the fact that you’re sitting on the left front seat of the taxi, and that between you and the driver is technology you haven’t even seen in rich people’s cars back in the Philippines.

– Singapore… is surprisingly green for a metropolis. Trees trees trees. lined with flowers after flowers after flowers.

Greenery seen from the taxi window

Greenery seen from the taxi window

– Singapore… also surprisingly has  a lot of historical buildings. Our hotel at Foch road was near the Lavender shophouses: multi-storied buildings with gorgeous facades of plastered baroque flourishings (Chinese baroque they call it) over centuries old. Across the street along Jalan Besar are more shophouses of even more ornate designs. The first stories are commercial establishments, so parts of Singapore have a distinct historical-commercial feel about them.

The Lavender Shophouses

The Lavender Shophouses. The nearby historical plaque says it was built by a Chinese tycoon on rubber money.

– Bandung: the first thing I try in Singapore. Rose syrup with milk on ice. It’s more intense than it sounds – it is after all made with rose concentrate. But it’s addictive in this almost treacherous way. If Singapore will have a taste for me, it’s Bandung.

Bandung: for me, Singapore in a mug

Bandung: for me, Singapore in a mug

– Do not underestimate the spiciness levels of Indian cuisine. Even simple Roti Prata with curry will make you blush.

– Curry isn’t just yellow: there’s red and green curry too.

– Okay some money talk: a Singaporean dollar is roughly 35 Philippine Pesos. Philippines Peso bills are better designed though.

– Stuff in Singapore has relatively the same price as in the Philippines, but in Singapore you have to buy bigger because nobody sells a stick of cigarette at the corner.

– Oh and be forewarned. Singapore is known as “the fine city” because of its hefty fines. You can be jailed for bringing cigarettes, and while you can bring in chewing gum, you can’t sell the stuff. Vandalism, urinating in public, and all your petty crimes are also a big no-no. Look up Michael P. Fay for reference.

– My first breakfast in Singapore: Frog Porridge. Yes, not exactly advisable, but it was remarkably cliched: tasted just like chicken (porridge). On the side, some sambal, cross between chili paste and bagoong.

Ribbit

Ribbit

– Singaporean taxi drivers are the only drivers I know who can rival Davao’s. They love chatting, are very informative, and have this distinct cynical humor that always gets you. They also can’t cheat you because it will lose them money if they do. Perhaps they outdo Davao’s taxi drivers in that they’re very cultured and well groomed. And don’t feel bad if your taxi driver doesn’t talk too much: he probably just doesn’t know English too well.

– Oh and it’s “cab” there. Other English differences you ought to know: it’s “take away” not “take out,” and be specific and use “toilet” instead of the euphemistic “comfort room” and whatnot. “Give him die” means what it sounds like. Also, “also can” is a common construction.

Lavender Food Center. We often had breakfast here. Eat lunch also can.

Lavender Food Center. We often had breakfast here. Eat lunch also can.

– More on cabs: in spite of the nice drivers, the rates are confusing and they hurt the budget. Separate charges for specific streets in specific times, additional rates for express ways, and 50% additional charge by midnight. But you will be impressed with the technology. And the model of the cars! Don’t be surprised to see a Chev or a Mercedes used as a taxi. But naturally, rates for such cars are higher.

Ride bus also can

Ride bus also can

– More on language: nothing spells confluence like Singapore. There are Chinese, Malays, and Indians, but you’d be surprised to hear Indians with a Chinese accent, Chinese people saying Malay words, and Malays reading Tamil. Their English reflects that, and if communication is not a life and death situation, it’s fascinating.

– And more on language: the people there can curse so originally it hurts. “Suck your father,” or “go f*ck a spider.”

A Mani Wheel near our hotel. The devotee is spinning it is a form of prayer - written on it in Tibetan are the sacred Buddhist words "ohm mani padme hum."

A Mani Wheel near our hotel. The devotee is spinning it is a form of prayer – written on it in Tibetan are the sacred Buddhist words “ohm mani padme hum.”

– The unofficial exclave of the Philippines in Singapore is Lucky Plaza along Orchard road. The place even has Filipino banks and a Jollibee outlet. The salesladies have learned a few Tagalog phrases to entertain Pinoy customers.

We should take Filipino beggars on a field trip to Orchard so they can get a clue from this guy. Nobody listens to that crappy harmonica playing blind guy.

Paganini, friends. We should take Filipino beggars on a field trip to Orchard so they can get a clue from this guy. Nobody listens to that crappy harmonica playing blind guy.

At Orchard Road, a shopping district. As the stomach betrays, my priorities are elsewhere

At Orchard Road, a shopping district. As the bulging stomach betrays, I have other priorities

My priorities: red bean flavoured ice cream sandwiched between thin wafers. This is their street food along Orchard

My priorities: red bean flavoured ice cream sandwiched between thin wafers. This is their street food along Orchard

– Tiong Bahru Bakeshop sells ridiculously delicious stuff. Their kouign amann is so good they give away free samples confident that people will buy it.

My priorities, at Tiong Bahru Bakery, Orchard. Clockwise: Earl Grey Lavender Tea, some free strawberry and apricot jam, berries tart with strawberries, raspberries, black currants and blueberries, and the heavenly kouign amann.

My priorities, at Tiong Bahru Bakery, Orchard. Clockwise: Earl Grey Lavender Tea, some free strawberry and apricot jam, berries tart with strawberries, raspberries, black currants and blueberries, and the heavenly kouign amann.

– Books Kinokuniya is heaven with books instead of clouds. Almost the entire third floor of Ngee Ann City occupies it – an entire mall’s floor for a bookshop! And the books there will make any book lover drool.

– The Esplanade is sign of how Singapore markets its street food to tourists. Hawker Food Stalls they’re called, selling Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and a natural fusion of cuisines of them all. Chinese savory, Indian spices, Malay subtlety – Singaporean cuisine is easily the best in the world.

The Popiah and Carrot Cake stall at Lavender. Their Carrot Cake is famous!

The Popiah and Carrot Cake stall at Lavender. Their Carrot Cake is famous!

This one is an Indian stall at Lavender. Hawker stalls can be very diverse

This one is an Indian stall at Lavender. Hawker stalls can be very diverse

– But back to Esplanade. Which is not to say that the place is all about food. Marina Bay Sands, the Merlion, the Fullerton Hotel, the Theater by the Bay: the view by Marina Bay is gorgeous!

Marina Bay Sands seen from the Esplanade. With had Kaya toast by the Bay!

Marina Bay Sands seen from the Esplanade. With had Kaya toast by the Bay!

– Hot musicians from Singapore: the Sa Trio. They play modern music with guzheng, chinese flute, the didgeridoo, and drums. My kind of music!

– Kaya toast is a delicious respite to subtlety from Singaporean cuisine’s intensity. Kaya – jam made from coconut, eggs, and flavoured with pandan – is spread on toast with butter. Best with Teh Tarik (pulled tea, milk tea they pour from a height to make it frothy) or Yuanyang (coffee-milk tea cocktail).

Kaya toast

Kaya toast

– I won’t go through the nuances of Kopi-O, Kopi, and Kopi – C anymore, just look it up. I always go for Teh-C if not Teh Tarik!

– Chili crabs are good, but Cereal prawns are so underrated. Prawns deep-fried in a breading of cereals – crispy heaven.

Our food at Jumbo Seafood Eastcoast. Clockwise from top: Chili Crabs, Cereal Prawns, pork ribs. Buns at the foreground, sambal at the corner of the prawns.

Our food at Jumbo Seafood East Coast. Clockwise from top: Chili Crabs, Cereal Prawns, pork ribs. Buns at the foreground, sambal at the corner of the prawns.

Cereal Prawns: best frying idea ever

Cereal Prawns: best frying idea ever

My dessert at Jumbo: Yam paste with gingko nuts in coconut milk. Tasted like a light binignit.

My dessert at Jumbo: Yam paste with gingko nuts in coconut milk. Tasted like a light binignit.

I wanted to try these - bamboo clams - but they were not yet available for sale.

I wanted to try these – bamboo clams – but they were not yet available for sale.

Cover up the stomach!

Cover the stomach!

We walked around East Coast Lagoon

We walked around East Coast Lagoon

– Singaporeans should give themselves more credit in terms of promoting arts: the old parliament building was converted into an Arthouse. ( In the Philippines, they converted the Coconut Palace to a nuno sa punso, complete with bad spirits.)

Parliament buff that I am this is ironically the closest I've gotten to an actual legislature.

Parliament buff that I am this is ironically the closest I’ve gotten to an actual legislature. It’s Manila’s fault for being far away.

The New Parliament Building

The New Parliament Building

In front of Chulalongkorn's Elephant

In front of Chulalongkorn’s Elephant

At the steps of the Arthouse entrance

At the steps of the Arthouse entrance

A poem on display at the Arthouse. It's a unique artistic situation: a poem paying homage to the venue's former purpose. The poem is owned by its poet, and I claim no copyrights for it.

A poem on display at the Arthouse. It’s a unique artistic situation: a poem paying homage to the venue’s former purpose. The poem is owned by its poet, and I claim no copyrights for it.

– You can feel how small The Little Red Dot is in the debating chamber of the old Parliament house. For a national legislature, it felt intimate.

The debating chamber

The debating chamber

Lee Kuan Yew's seat

Lee Kuan Yew’s old seat

His nameplate upclose

His nameplate up-close

The seats had  translators, though I wonder how it worked

The seats had translators, though I wonder how they worked

– There was an exhibit of works by visual artist Nikos Kipraios. His works depict fish in graphic mutilation, all allegorical of human oppression. The sharp irony of this social commentary in a former legislative building was palpable.

Urban jadedness!

Urban jadedness, or cultural envy?

One of the iconic spires of the Cathedral of St. Andrew.

One of the iconic spires of the Cathedral of St. Andrew

The old Supreme Court Building

The old Supreme Court Building

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Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the idiot who came up with the crazy idea that was Singapore. Behind him is the result of his madness.

The Fullerton Hotel

The Fullerton Hotel

The cab driver said this was a factory they converted into an entertainment center, but they left the chimney for old time's sake

The cab driver said this was a factory they converted into an entertainment center, but they left the chimney for old time’s sake. Charming!

The Sultan Mosque. I never got to go in though

The Sultan Mosque. I never got to go in though

– More historical buildings: the old Parliament, the old Supreme court building, the old City Hall, St Andrew’s, the Raffles landing site, the elephant given by Chulalongkorn, the Victoria Museum, the nearby Fullerton Hotel, Chinatown. For Singapore the past is a lingering spirit waiting to be revived,  for the Philippines it is a haunting ghoul that blights like miasma.

-I don’t know why, but the large number of Filipinos in Singapore was rather unpleasant. Hearing Tagalog being spoken ahead of you or behind you hit a nerve for some reason.

– The Supreme Court and Treasury buildings look like malls!

– They sell betel nut commercially in department stores.

– The most charming part about the Merlion is its tail. Look at how it curls in!

"Rough beast, you are neither idol nor ideal. Your heart is hollow, cold, and open for admission" - but that tail is adorable!

“Rough beast, you are neither idol nor ideal.
Your heart is hollow, cold, and open
for admission” – but that tail is just adorable!

Bugis street skyline

Bugis street skyline

– Nope, no more drag queens in Bugis Street. But I don’t mind.

– Because by God Singapore is full of eye candy. Gorgeous, hot, cute, lovely, you’d run out of adjectives to describe the people. The Chinese with their flawlessness and cuteness, the Indians with their sensuality, the Malays with their rugged polish, and no shortage of tourists of Caucasian beauty.

– In Bugis Street, there are more pretty salesladies than there are things to buy. There are a lot of things to buy in Bugis Street.

– It’s more fun to haggle for prices in Hong Kong, but Singaporean sellers are much friendlier. Maybe that’s the reason: it’s more fun to get a discount from a grumpy old vendor, and you feel bad if you don’t let the cute seller-girl make some profit out of you.

Hay, beautiful people

Hay, beautiful people

– It’s not a good idea to buy “I Love SG” shirts. People will just think you went to Surigao.

– Laksa. Thick noodles in a rich soup of coconut milk and sambal with slivers of fresh fish and oysters, deep fried tofu, topped with more sambal. Rich, spicy, savory, greasy goodness. This description is not to clarify it for you, it’s to torture you. And myself.

Laksa. Not pictured: my bleeding heart at the sight of this picture

Laksa. Divine, to die for Laksa. Not pictured: my bleeding heart at the sight of this picture

– As the hawker food guide book of the title goes, there is no carrot in “carrot cake.” But who needs carrots when you have stuff this good instead.

Nope, sorry Bugs, no carrots here

Nope, sorry Bugs, no carrots here

My teacher did not teach me to use the abacus this way

My teacher did not teach me to use the abacus this way. But just look at that sambal!

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Lunch at Lavender Food Center. Clockwise from top: two rice meals, turtle soup, otak-otak (fishcake in banana leaves), rojak, carrot cake, stirfried abacus seed at center.

Turtle soup. Chewy, herby, and refreshing!

Turtle soup. Chewy, herby, and refreshing!

Chee Cheong Fun with Yam Cake

Chee Cheong Fun with Yam Cake

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Rojak: fruits with dried fishcake in a sauce of sambal, peanut paste, and topped with breadcrumbs

– No there’s no Abacus plant from where they get the Abacus seed. It’s balls of Yam flour stirfried to become your dreams.

– Turtle soup, unkindly exotic as it sounds, tastes very familiar: balbacua! But I hate it with coriander.

– Otak-otak tastes like spicy sardines.

– You can’t go wrong with Chee Cheong Fun. But the stuff’s better in Hong Kong though. I don’t know, maybe it’s just first love syndrome?

– Rojak is the metaphor for Singaporean culture. An intense mixture of unlikely ingredients to form a dish that’s difficult to grasp because it’s too unique.

– Eew, Durian.

– I knew old people didn’t retire in Singapore, but that one cab driver was exemplary. A 30 year old Filipina girlfriend at 70!? There is hope in Singapore!

– I knew I was too old for Hong Kong Disneyland, but now I’m also too old for Universal Studios and for Sentosa’s Songs of the Sea. I am officially old.

Though "pacifier" still sounds kinda kickass

Though “pacifier” still sounds kinda kickass

– Nobody though is too old for the Transformers ride. In fact, some may be too young for it. And nobody is too old for Eddie Murphy’s humour either.

– I will never be old enough for  a roller coaster ride though. Never!

– Popiah, with its radish filling, is a slightly less-awesome version of Lumpia.

Lumpia: You're nothing but a second rate, trying hard, radish-rap!

Lumpia to Popiah: You’re nothing but a second rate, trying hard, radish-rap!

– I have no plans of smoking. But if I’m ever going to suggest anything for you to hithit, it’s Soup Tulang: Lamb Marrow in rich red curry sauce. I smiled when I sucked the marrow out of the bone. I smiled.

Sky-high smile.

Jah rule!

– Yup, Bandung tastes best with curry.

– It’s a faux pas to eat at a familiar food chain when you’re in another country, but not when the other country’s versions have something unique. McDonald’s Green Curry Burger was good, but wasn’t as spicy as it claimed. Yuzu Fizz and the Peach Mango Sundae good though. The Himalayan Tea Sundae wasn’t Himalayan Tea-ish enough.

The not so spicy Green Cury Burger, with Yuzu Fizz. Their curry sauce tastes nothing like curry

The not so spicy Green Curry Burger, with Yuzu Fizz. Their curry sauce tastes nothing like curry

Toast Box is a franchise version of a traditional Singaporean coffee shop, the kopitiam. Yes, that is a large tower of butter you will be seeing, it’s for the Kaya toast.

– The Malay equivalent of the Silog is Nasi Lemak. But rather than sangag, the rice is cooked with coconut milk. Oh and sambal, intense sambal.

I dont know any silog that comes on a banana leaf!

I don’t know any silog that comes on a banana leaf!

-I have no idea why the pool at Vivo City’s rooftop is murky.

-I really think Filipinos speak better English than Singaporeans.

"dependent"

“dependent”

– On my second time in Books Kinokuniya, a Japanese Hairstylist approached me and asked if I could model for her. I’m still flattered today.

I was like this inside (taken at Sentosa)

I was like this inside
(photo taken at Sentosa by the way)

– It’s hard to describe Chendol: it’s sweet and slippery but it doesn’t really have much of a taste.

Chendol sundae at the Wendy's at orchard. Chendol's the green stuff

Chendol sundae at the Wendy’s at orchard. Chendol’s the green stuff

– Okay, at the corner of Foch Road and Beatty lane is a place that sells Pork Organ Soup. Try that stuff. And go drown yourself in broth, there’s unlimited refill.

This place

This place

Or try the pig's feet braised in chinese vinegar

Or try the pig’s feet braised in chinese vinegar

– Do not order Fishhead curry alone. Bring a whole baranggay with you. And don’t order it if it’s not snowing, or you’re not in an airconditioned room. it’s not”hot-as-Indian” red for nothing.

– If you’re in any Hotel 81 (but specifically in the Elegance branch), count on Lim Kim Heng for tips. Best front desk I’ve known so far.

The iconic roofs of Lavender Food Court

The iconic roofs of Lavender Food Court. Shame they’re going to tear it down

– Singaporean hospitality is unassuming. The people might look like they’re grumpy, but behind the deadpan faces are bursts of cheerfulness and even mischief. They don’t say “okay” when you make a request, they say “no problem!”

– Hor Fun is like really long Chee Cheong Fun. And Mee Siam is spicy, sour, tasty Sotanghon with lots of broth.

Hor Fun

Hor Fun

Mee Siam

Mee Siam

– And back to Changi Airport! Airports? 3 vast terminals! And to travel between them you ride  free skytrains with gorgeous views!

Living wall inside Changi International Airport's Terminal 3

Living wall inside Changi International Airport’s Terminal 3

The airport's control tour. Photo taken from the skytrain between terminals

The airport’s control tour. Photo taken from the skytrain between terminals

View down the airport from the skytrain

View down the airport from the skytrain. Garden City: are you sure about calling yourself that, Samal?

Departure Lobby at Changi. I don't know why the Philippine airport authorities haven't killed themselves out of self loathing yet if they've been here.

Departure Lobby at Changi. If they’ve been herem I don’t know why the Philippine airport authorities haven’t killed themselves out of self loathing yet.

They have many gardens inside the airport. This one is the orchid garden

They have many gardens inside the airport. This one is the orchid garden

The gardens even have water features

The gardens even have water features

– You can get in the airport even if you don’t have a flight. And with good reason: even more than Hong Kong, Changi’s “arrival and departure areas” are practically malls that just happen to have check in counters for flights. And incredibly, the stuff in the airport is cheaper than outside.

– The bathrooms in Singapore by the way are clean, but some may be smelly. They’re cleanliness-conscious there though: in Changi airport their elevators have automatic hand sanitizer dispensers.

– Bak Kut Teh and Hainanese Chicken Rice are overrated. Acceptable but not worth the attention.

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The Justin Biebers of Singaporean cuisine

– Kueh, Singaporean rice-based sweets, are like more colourful and more imaginative forms of kakanin. The most eye catching is the lapis sagu, but the most delicious is getuk-getuk, cassava paste with coconut cream on top. Bengawan Solo sells Kueh in a fashionable way.

Kueh Salat: coconut rice with pandan pste

Kueh Salat: coconut rice with pandan pste

Lapis Sagu: putting "sapin-sapin" to shame

Lapis Sagu: putting “sapin-sapin” to shame

If anybody knows what this stuff is called (I could not understand the vendor's accent), please tell me. It's coconut pandan flavoured, and there's also a pink version. I need to know!

If anybody knows what this stuff is called (I could not understand the vendor’s accent), please tell me. It’s a coconut pandan flavoured bread like sweet, slightly chewy, and there’s also a pink version. I need to know!

– I did not expect the flight from Singapore back to the Philippines to be painful.

– Except for the weight and the memories, no, you don’t gain when you travel. When you go to a place, you inevitably leave a part of you in it. And when you go home you feel that somehow, you came back with something missing. I think I left a piece of me in Singapore.


My Mother

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESThis is my mother. She is my favourite mother. I call her ‘mama’ normally, ‘mommy’ when I’m feeling hilas, ‘Maaaa!’ when I’m looking for my socks.

As is evident, she stopped aging some ten years ago. I had classmates in Elementary who had a crush on her. When I was younger they thought she was my older sister. When I was in High School they thought I was her husband.

I don’t write about her much. She is after all like air to me, you need her so much that she becomes part of your reality, and you end up taking how important she is for granted.

But since it’s Mother’s day, I might as well show here how interesting a subject matter she is (I don’t think there’s Air Day, is there?)

Unlike air, my mother is very photogenic. I avoid taking a picture with her because I’d look like a houseboy.

My mother also has a tattoo of a dragonfly on her back

My mother also has a tattoo of a dragonfly on her back, which is to say she is officially badass

Don’t let the looks fool you though, because she’s also the most meticulous housekeeper I know.  Her fastidiousness sometimes borders in OCD. Not content with the output of a washing machine, she does our laundry by hand. When she was pregnant with me she scrubbed the floor with a coconut husk. Not even hotel housekeeping can match our house.

She is also a great cook, heir to many Tagalog recipes which she fuses with local Cebuano, Ilocano, and Ilonggo influences – I can proudly say that I grew up with melting pot cuisine. Her cheesecake was once legendary in Kidapawan. I suspect she would hold both the world record for sourest sinigang and the most number of kalamansi used per serving of noodles.  In any case, she is guilty of overfeeding me.

Because I am overfed, that bag's position is deliberate.

Because I am overfed, that bag’s position is deliberate.

My mother also has a potent wit: I’d call her the Dorothy Parker of Kidapawan, if the people in Kidapawan knew who Dorothy Parker was. If you jokingly call her ‘gaga’ the response you’ll invariably get is ‘since birth.’ What little humour I have I got from her – most of the good things about me, really, are from her.

Along with my bulging stomach, she is also mostly to blame for my bookishness. When I was a little larva, she would pilfer money from my father and save enough to secretly buy me several encyclopedia sets.

She happens to be the most vocal opponent of Davao’s No Smoking ordinances I know. Usually a Duterte sympathizer, she opposes the strict smoking policies on grounds of tourism.

My mother, promoting tourism.

My mother, promoting tourism.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about this woman, and the most important thing she has taught me in life (except for reading and writing of course) is her insistence on trying without regrets and going for what you want. Needless to say, such a life motto will result in a colourful life story, and she certainly has one. But that’s for another writing project!

I told you I'd look like a houseboy

I told you I’d look like a houseboy

This is my mother, and I am objectively lucky to have her.