Another day for a bit of a plodge. I set off after lunchtime today, so missing the strongest sun, and walked for about 30 minutes down to the Chinatown area, just south of the river. The first thing that struck me was that it wasn’t very… well… Chinese.
Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the likes of Stowell Street in Newcastle, but I was expecting a load of Chinese architecture based on bamboo with bright reds and greens. But, no. Most of the buildings are plain old concrete, and the only real concession to the stereotype is a series of red lanterns suspended over two of the busier market streets.
The one place of interest that I spotted was the Sri Mariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore. It’s quite small, but free to walk around ($3 for a photo permit, though) so I had a quick stroll. Even if you don’t pay for a permit, you get a nice colour glossy brochure about the building. The decorations are typically Asian in their brightness and colouring and it was a pleasant stopoff for a few minutes. I just missed the fire-walking ceremony they perform every year, which is a bit of a shame.
I confess I caved and bought a McD’s chicken burger for lunch. This was mainly because it was only $2, and virtually every food place I went past had the menu in Chinese only. At least I knew what I was getting in McD’s – something almost, but not quite, entirely unlike chicken.
Walking back north, I decided to take a quick stroll over to Clarke Quay, one of the main nightspots. Unsurprisingly, it was rather quiet as I breezed through in the mid-afternoon. I have stood outside the world’s largest Ministry of Sound (woo), but doubt I will ever go in. I’ve been to exactly one MoS and that was to see a metal band during the birthday celebrations for a sci-fi comic. Yes, I am that sad.
Reversing direction, I made my way back to the hostel and almost walked past the Civil Defense Heritage Centre. The words “free admission” caught my eye and I spent a very enjoyable hour walking around, looking at bright red fire engines and messing around in hazmat suits being sprayed with water. Essentially, Singapore doesn’t have a fire brigade or an ambulance service. The two (plus other rescue services, such as those aimed at earthquake victim recovery) are all rolled into the Civil Defense Force. The name sounds all Thunderbirds, but it’s a great idea for somewhere as small as Singapore ensuring good communications and relations between the departments. Certainly a recommended “museum”.
I arrived back at the hostel to see a couple of my roomies sat around waiting for a free guided tour which should have started half an hour earlier. I thought I’d tag along, so waited for Karen – one of the staff – to turn up, which she duly did at 5pm. Rather than the Little India tour advertised, she said that the Bugis one was better (more to see) and who were we to argue? She’s the local!
Our first stop was the Masjid Abdul Gafoor, a couple of doors away. This is a lovely green and white mosque built in 1907 and and gazetted as a National Monument in 1979. It’s quite a small place, but very well maintained. As I was wearing shorts, I had to get a covering for my legs (after I’d washed them with soap and water) before I could walk into the temple proper. This is the first mosque I’ve ever been inside and it’s a lot less gaudy and ostentatious than most of the Buddhist temples I saw in Thailand. There is no altar, no collections of statues or anything. Just a wall facing towards Mecca toward which all the worshippers face. Nice and simple.
After this, we doubled back to an Indian tea shop which is pretty much right next to the hostel. Karen, our guide, treated us to a tea each. There are several types, and the hot ones are cooled by being poured rather impressively from one container to the other more or less over the shoulder of the proprietor! I opted for a warm, milky cup and it was lovely. With condensed milk, it ended up with the consistency of a tea-shake. Karen’s cold tea with lemon and ginger also tasted lovely – I’ll have that next time, I think.
On to Bugis next to see another two temples: The Sri Krishnan temple where what looked like some kind of family service was being performed; and the GOddess of Mercy Temple where we had a free fortune telling. Anyone who’s been round Asia will probably have seen this being done in many of the temples.
Inside, you get a large tub filled with sticks, each of which is numbered. Along with this, you need two “lips” – ours were red rubber ones. You kneel on the carpet in front of the altar and think about what you want to know – what question you have to ask. Shake the cylinder until one, and only one, stick drops out. Any more, and you pop them back in and start again. Once you have a single forlorn stick lying there, you toss the lips on the ground. You must get one face up and one face down (yin and yang). If after three throws you don’t get an unmatched pair of lips then it’s not the right time to be asking that question.
Assuming you’ve managed all this, you take the single stick up to he counter and in return you get a little docket relating to that number. There’s some information on the back, and this is expanded in a guidebook that’s available to one side. All dead simple!
One again with shoes on, we stopped to rub our hands all over a big jolly Buddha statue for good fortune, and grabbed an ice cream from a salesman on the street. 80c for a huge chunk between two wafer slices. Yummy!
Karen then took us to the Bugis street market where I’ve been a few times already. There’s a little stall inside that sells pancakes with some wonderful fillings. I had one with chocolate in it ($1) which was fantastic. The pancake is literally wafer thin so you can almost convince yourself it’s small enough not to count as unhealthy food.