Bone Voyage:

Text and photos by Robert W. Bone

Hive-like buildings at lower right is the recently opened entertainment complex called Esplanade Theatres on the Bay.In this well-regulated society, killer litter has apparently been eliminated. Singapore now lives up to its reputation as maintaining the neatest, cleanest, safest, and most law-abiding country in Southeast Asia. There are strictly enforced laws against speeding, littering, jaywalking, and chewing gum.

This last rule seems to be known more around the world than other restrictions on personal freedom.

“Please tell people that it’s not true that if you’re caught with chewing gum, you’ll be subject to a caning,” one proud Singaporean tourism official told me with a smile.

 Indeed, there is a law against selling gum, or importing it in commercial quantities, although the enforcement is more lenient than it was when it was enacted back in 1992.

During the 1990s, I had a plan to move myself and my wife, Sara, from to Singapore for a few years. The idea was to have a headquarters where I was not afraid to drink the water, eat the food, breathe the air and walk the streets at night. I wanted to come “home” to Singapore in between various forays to explore and write about some of the more challenging parts of Asia.

Those plans did not come to pass, but it is still fun to come back to visit a place where the past is respected while modernity is equally embraced. Add to that an attractive, clean city which includes many green and growing acres winding within its walls.

The waterfront fountain is in the shape of a Merlion, a fictitious animal that is the symbol of Singapore, the Lion City. With a population of about 4.5 million on a 250-square-mile island, thus vertical nation/city seems to be perpetually under construction. It welcomes about 8 million visitors a year, partly because its health standards are among the world’s highest and its crime rate is one of the lowest.

Many Americans and others visit Singapore as port calls from cruise ships, including Holland America, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Princess, and Seabourn. Its two cruise terminals are among the most attractive on the Seven Seas. Particularly fortunate are those who begin or end their cruise in Singapore, which allows for a longer visit than just one daytime shore excursion.

Singapore’s amusement park atmosphere seems to occur right in the middle of the city. One of its newer attractions is the world's largest Ferris wheel, whose massive form seems to dominate the waterfront.

The Singapore Flyer, opened in March, will be the world’s largest Ferris Wheel. Each of the 28 air-conditioned cars can hold 35 people.Dubbed the "Singapore Flyer," it is designed to carry merrymakers 540 feet into the air. Each of its 28 cylindrical air-conditioned cabins can hold as many as 35 people per round trip. And yes, it is higher, wider and handsomer than the ones in London and China.

There are other ways to get up in the air in Singapore, though. These include a relatively sedate revolving tower, a tethered helium-filled balloon (the world's largest, of course) and even a bungee-cord affair that shoots thrill-seeking customers sky-high in a fraction of a second.

When the G-Max Reverse Bungy was given a permit to operate a few years ago, Singapore's prime minister said, "If we are to encourage a derring-do society, we must allow some risk-taking and a little excitement."

The courtyard of today’s Raffles Hotel, Singapore. Flowers are red ginger.If those things are not tame enough, several tall buildings offer panoramic vistas of the city. My wife and I enjoyed a special Chinese New Year's lunch in the Hai-Tien-Lo (perhaps pronounced "high-then-low") restaurant at the top of the Pan Pacific Hotel. There was not enough altitude to produce a nosebleed, but it was fine for a breathtaking harbor view. (For many years the nearby Stamford was the tallest hotel in the world, at 73 stories, but it is now outclassed by a taller one in Dubai.)

Along with Hong Kong, Singapore was developed into an important Asian port by the British during the 19th century. Singapore has been independent since 1965, but unlike some other former colonies, it embraces its British heritage as much as it does all other ethnic groups, including Chinese, Indian and Malay. Chinese form the population majority at around 75 percent. But the language common to all is English.

Chinatown, a neighborhood in Singapore. The additional lights here are part of the Chinese New Year celebration.Considerable reverence is given to Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore. Two prominent statues of the man, known familiarly as the "white Raffles" (marble) and the "black Raffles" (bronze) are near the point on the Singapore River where he set foot in a simple Malay village back in 1819.

Raffles is also the name of Singapore's most famous hotel. After it’s latest expansion and renovation, it displays every cute piece of nineteenth century frou-frou anyone could think of. This Raffles seems to looks more Victorian today than it did when it opened in 1887.

One valid Raffles claim to fame is the Singapore sling, and you can suck up this pink gin drink right here where it was invented in the 1920s, long after Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling bellied up to the bar.

Several excellent restaurants serve Asian specialties. But a favorite occupation is exploring the outdoor “hawker stalls,” offering delicious (and safe!) satays, curries and other spicy goodies.

British Singapore was conquered and occupied by the Japanese during World War II, and evidence of that period has been saved on adjoining Sentosa Island at Fort Siloso. Among the exhibits are two wax-figure representations of (a) the formal surrender of the British defenders to the conquerors, and (b) the subsequent official capitulation of the Japanese at the end of the war.

Many buildings representing the past have been preserved, even if their purpose has drastically changed. Examples: The massive British-built post office is now a luxury hotel. And a once-sacred Chinese temple has been changed into a restaurant on Clarke Quay, a popular day-and-night dining and strolling area along the banks of the Singapore River.

Singapore also has maintained many small low-rise buildings from past periods. Besides the colorful, former warehouses along Clarke Quay, there are small "shop houses" and other individual businesses in Chinatown and Little India, many of them whose owner-families live in the rooms upstairs.

Our most memorable recent experience was at a Singapore Zoo attraction called the "Night Safari."

Under the principle that many exotic animals are only active during the nighttime, the Night Safari provides a method to visit them after dark. Most areas are lit only with a few very low-watt bulbs, not much brighter than moonlight.

Many animals are observed in much more close-up conditions than would be possible in daylight. Flash photography is prohibited, so safari-goers must rely solely on their memories of apparent close encounters with the leopards, bats, binturongs, flying squirrels, civets, otters, jackals, water buffalo, antelope, lions and many other creatures.

On our next trip, after we have a go-round on the new Singapore Flyer, we are resolved to again visit the delightful creatures of the Night Safari.

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Columnist Robert W. Bone, the author of several guidebooks, has traveled on more than 50 cruises and visited nearly 100 countries. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and maintains web sites at http://robertbone.com and at http://travelpieces.com.

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