New Seven Wonders - Cities

Recently, I've been obsessed with bucket lists and whether or not I agree with the findings of votes (or committees) who decide what goes on these rolls of honour. When I was looking at The Seven Wonders of the World, the 'New Seven Wonders - Cities' list caught my attention. The Swiss Foundation managed vote suggested: Durban, South Africa, Vigan (Philippines), Havana (Cuba), Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia), Beirut (Lebanon), Doha (Qatar), La Paz (Bolivia).

This is a weird and eclectic collection. Maybe it's designed to be alternative. They're all interesting cities. Well, nearly all. Durban I just don't get. Nice beaches, theme parks and a lot of crime. Though it has been renovated, since I was there, in 2003. Give me Cape Town any time. Vigan's a gorgeous colonial city, but there are plenty of those, especially in Latin America. I'm not sure it stands out.

Havana has colonial architecture and more modern communist era buildings. And that mid last century vibe. La Paz: witch's market, colonial architecture and that wonderful gondola transport system. Beirut: 'The 'Paris of the East', a mix of religious buildings, pavement cafes and a pretty corniche. But lots of renovation, still ongoing, to repair war damage. Doha - ultra modern, with a tiny old souq and falconry area. I'll take Abu Dhabi instead. (Dubai is too large and artificial.) Kuala Lumpur, again a mix of colonial and modern. But, it's not my favourite Asian city.

What criteria do you use to choose a favourite (or Bucket List) city? I suppose for me its a mixture of beauty - aesthetic appeal, general vibe, interesting things to do and see (galleries, unusual buildings, monuments, sculptures, living history and lovely things to eat.

Here's my list. There's no way I can stick to just seven, so I've come up with a cunning plan. I'm going to incorporate the latest fashion for dupes, or duplicates (usually at lower cost). The idea annoys me instantly, of course, Not least as it's a silly word which implies you've fallen for some con trick. No place has a duplicate. But some are more similar than others...

Beautiful Cities - Venice

Let's start with beauty. It might be a cliche, but it has to be Venice. It wasn't love at first time. The first visit was classically crowded and smelly. But the second time I went, in the Time of Covid, Venice was bereft of tourists. I actually got to see what the city looked like. It was utterly gorgeous, sublime, despite the ghoulish Don't Look Now images, which intrude, as I wander the canals. There's absolutely no duplicate for Venice, but there's always Florence (or Bologna, or Milan, or the cities of Sicily. Not to mention Rome.

Feasts of European Architecture - Vienna (Budapest and Prague)

Staying with European cities which are historically and architecturally interesting. All of the European capitals (and many other cities, such as Munich) warrant a visit. but three cities on rivers stand out here, the first two, on the Danube. It's hard to beat Vienna, the capital of Austria, if you like somewhere stylish to wander around. Baroque buildings, palaces, museums and gardens to admire, The Prater Park (Harry Lime on the wheel) and a plethora of coffee shops. And nip up the Danube, in a boat, to Bratislava, a pocket city that's a mini Vienna, just over the border, in Slovakia. Two for the price of one.

Further east on the Danube, Budapest, capital of Hungary, makes for a great stay, with the old and new cities, again plenty of interesting architecture, (Disneyesque crenellations), vibrant edgy quarters and lovely food.

Prague, capital of Czechia, is closer to Bratislava (for some time they were in the same country) but it's on the Vltava River. The waterway divides the city, as it does in Budapest and again it's a veritable feast of architecture, right through to modern day and The Dancing House, castles, museums and eateries.

Colonial Cities - Cartagena, (St Louis, Granada, Antigua, Willemstad)

Further afield, but still with architecture, it's generally the Spanish colonial cities, which delight the eye. Cartagena in Colombia, has to take the crown. But sadly it's on the cruise circuit and the streets are too often too crowded to properly enjoy. Otherwise, head to Latin America. Granada, in Nicaragua is gorgeous (thrown in Leon too), Antigua in Guatemala (not the island) is another strong contender (go during Easter week for the celebrations and carpets of flowers). I've already mentioned Havana and Vigan.

French colonial atmosphere - try the Caribbean or Vietnam. But it's strong in Africa, perhaps most notable in Saint Louis, in Senegal, the old capital of French West Africa. It's a satisfying contrast, to the bush and rainforest, with its shabby chic and overflowing markets. My other pick is Willemstad, in Curacao, for its (almost toy town) clusters of bright pastel painted Dutch colonial houses.

All of these cities are on the UNESCO World Heritage list, except for Granada, which has been hovering on the tentative list, since 2003

Culturally Enchanting Cities - Samarkand (Esfahan, Varanasi, Fez)

Cities which draw you into their culture through their beauty and ambience are perhaps my favourite. I've chosen Samarkand, in Uzbekistan. The Registan ensemble of Islamic buildings is an absolute must see. It's also home to other glorious mosques and complexes, as well as ancient Samarkand. (Don't miss Bukhara and Khiva while you're there.)

Esfahan, in Iran, offers a very different Islamic experience, with its souks, palaces, squares and amazing domes. Fez, in Morocco, has one of the most authentic and winding souks in the Arab world, though the sour smell (some would say stink), in the world renowned tanneries may prevent you from staying in that section overlong.

For an unforgettable spiritual experience, then it's Varanasi. Like much of India, it's uncomfortably crowded, dirty and overwhelming at times. But take a boat trip on the Ganges, watch the hugely spiritual cremation ceremonies on the ghats, take in the astonishing light, at dawn or dusk, and listen to the inspiring music.

Cities With Beautiful Settings - Cape Town, (Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Vancouver, San Francisco, Tel Aviv)

CIties voted to have the most beautiful setting almost inevitably have natural harbours. Cape Town, South Africa, Sydney, Australia, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Vancouver, Canada, and San Francisco, U.S.A, all qualify here. And they all regularly feature on best city lists and best places in the world to live.

Except for maybe Cape Town, as South Africa still has a reputation for crime and violence. But I'm still going to make it my number one. The beaches are gorgeous, the food and architecture are great, there's a huge amount to see in the vicinity, from wildlife to wine estates, the view of the Twelve Apostles backdrop is stunning and Table Mountain is iconic, from above, or below.

I'm also going to sneak in Tel Aviv-Yafo. It may not have the same mountain scenery, and only a small harbour, but The Big Orange, in Israel, has a long string of lovely beaches, the old city at Yafo (Jaffa) and plenty of cafes, museums and an extraordinary amount of Bauhaus architecture, in The White City area, to explore.

Mega Cities - New York (Chicago, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Singapore)

And then there are the mega cities, the ones which offer history, diversity and an endless list of sights and experiences and one visit just won't do. New York often tops best city in the world lists for good reason. We get to interact with all those landmarks we've seen on TV. And there are some great panoramas and fabulous restaurants. Though I've never rated the shopping.

Chicago is another close contender, with its 1930s vibe. Further south, Buenos Aires is another city you can walk for days, taking in the barrios from up market Palermo to La Boca, home of the tango.

Istanbul is mostly in Europe (it's the largest city of that continent), but it spills over the Bosphorus into Asia, making it unique and exciting. And Singapore, the city state, which continually reinvents itself: China Town, Little India, The Bay Gardens. It's one huge theme park. I'm not sure if I like it, but there's plenty to do.

The City That Has it All - London

So many contenders. Ghent, in Belgium, some of the Dutch cities. I really wanted to include Lisbon (and Porto). You may have noticed that I've missed out Paris. It's undoubtedly a lovely city, in parts, but its also very one dimensional and urban in other areas. Romantic? I'm not sure. And I've never had a good meal there. I think it's had very good PR.

But one city has to get the final mention and that's London. The place of my birth frequently tops polls for best city in the world, and with reason. It's historic, once the largest city on earth, vibrant, hugely diverse, both in terms of population and architecture and city areas. The food is great (if expensive) and you never run out of new things to see and do. And, apologies, that makes eight.

What would your Cities of the World Bucket List be?

Where Does the Name Singapore Originate?

  • Singapore was named Singapura, which translates as Lion City in Sanskrit, by a Sumatran Prince after he thought he saw a lion on the island.

Is Singapore a Country?

  • Singapore is one of only three surviving city-states in the world (the others are the Vatican and Monaco)
  • Singapore is made up of the main island and 63 other  islands, which are mostly unoccupied and used for military or industrial purposes.

Is Singapore Expensive?

  •  Singapore is the most expensive country in Southeast Asia

Facts and Factoids

  • Singapore lies one degree north of the Equator
  • Chewing gum is banned in Singapore, except for those with a medical prescription.
  •  The Great Singapore Duck Race is held every year in order to raise money for charity. In 2002 it broke a world record with more than 123,000 toy ducks racing on the Singapore River.
  • Singapore has the world’s tallest indoor waterfall (35 meters high) and the largest fountain in the world (The Fountain of Wealth at Suntec City, which cost  about US$6 million to build).

Singapore - Background and a Brief History

  • Singapore's history dates back at least a millennium. It was once a maritime empire known as Temasek which was then subsumed into and several successive sea based empires. Singapore as we know it, dates back to 1819 when Thomas Stamford Raffles established the island as a British Empire trading post. Singapore gained self-governance in 1959, joined the the new federation of Malaysia, alongside Malaya, North Borneo, and Sarawak, in 1963 and was expelled in 1965 for ideological differences. with leader, Lee Kuan Yew.
  • Despite its lack of natural resources Singapore developed rapidly as a major trading, aviation, financial, and maritime shipping hub, Along with Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan, it was known as The Four Asian Tigers for its exceptionally high growth rates. It consequently has very high standards of living.
  • The country is a multi-party democracy with free elections, The People's Action Party (PAP) has governed the country continuously since 1959.

What to See in Singapore?

  • There are many hotels at differing rates. I would choose one with great views across the bay or close to Clarke Quay for river views and easy central access.
  • You might want to get an MRT rail pass. It goes to most places very easily. You can even use this from the airport if you want to.
  • See Singapore the Theme Park, for my last walking tour. I would divide the central city into three main walking areas:
  1. Bay Gardens and colonial area to the south and around the bay. There’s a lot to do and see here, especially in the Bay Gardens area. You can walk right round the bay in a circle anticlockwise, going past the Merlion and ending at the Padang if you wanted to. There are also galleries/museums here. You could probably walk all of this and there are lots of places to sit and rest/eat on the way
  2. Clarke and Boat Quays (very touristy – riverside bars and restaurants) to the north of centre and China Town to the west. Chinatown is also very touristy too now but very interesting and lots of hawker- food stalls and little shops. There are several nice temples in this area, Hindu, Buddhist and Tao. You can also get boat/harbour cruises up the river either from the Bay area or further up at the quays. Again lots of places to sit.
  3. Raffles Hotel is iconic (though queues for the bar can get very long and it was all being renovated when I was there) and Little India to the east. Bus or MRT both go here very easily.
  • Further out, to add on to the above if you want - the zoo - which is in peaceful tropical grounds and/or the Botanic Gardens. These are both to the north in the same direction. Nothing is very far away in Singapore - though the traffic can be bad. This is the third most densely populated country in the world.
  • There’s also Orchard Road and numerous other malls for shopping - though it's definitely not cheap any more.
  • Final suggestion, Sentosa Island to the south west - Universal Studios, other theme parks and beaches, though the new Bay Gardens area seems to have superseded much of this in terms of interest.

Singapore Revisited

I've flown in from Perth. An eight mile walk in steaming Singapore, revisiting old haunts. At least that’s what I set out to do, but Singapore has changed considerably over 20 years. I've been here several times before whilst working in Manila and on my first whistle stop tour, a very long time ago a side trip from Malaysia with friend Barbara. We altered our tickets at the last minute.

Clarke Quay

Clarke Quay, the old warehouse area, along the Singapore River, is very close to my hotel, so I'm starting there. It had already been over restored, on my last visit. (See Singapore 2000 - Expat Living ). It's mostly modern glass and steel restaurants, suspended over the water now. And it's strangely quiet. Perhaps it's too early.

China Town

As usual it's grey and humid (I'm not sure I've ever seen the sun here), but Chinatown has become a bustling tourist centre, bright signs and a bustling, formal food court. Admittedly, it was previously quiet and not entirely exciting. But there was colour and we did see dragon dancing in the street. It's almost over - vibrant. To me it no longer feels authentic. But that's because I have my memories. To be fair, it very much reflects developments in mainland China, where what to me seems tacky and garish is beloved. It's vibrant and the typical Chinese smells, of fried food, stewed duck, waft through the air, adding atmosphere.

The Temple of the Sacred Buddha Tooth Relic

Chinatown is also home to a brand new temple. The Sacred Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. It's a busy and complex mandala style building, which includes a museum and a theatre. Most importantly, it houses the left canine tooth of Buddha, which was recovered from his funeral pyre in Kushinagar, The Buddha Tooth Relic is contained in a giant stupa ( 3,500 kilograms and 320 kilograms of gold. Only monks are allowed into the relic chamber, but visitors can supposedly see the tooth relic from the public viewing area. If you peer hard.

Telok Ayer - Street Of Religious Harmony 1

One of the charms of Singapore is in discovering the unexpected. Temples of all religions appear, wedged in-between shops and apartment buildings. There are several more in China Town, such as the Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple. But Singapore even has two streets known as streets of Religious Harmony. The first of these, to the south of China Town, is Telok Ayer Street. Here I view, in succession, Al-Abrar Mosque, Nagore Dargah Indian Muslim Heritage Centre (formerly the Nagore Dargah shrine), Thian Hock Keng Tao Temple and the Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church. 

Bay Gardens and Singapore Harbour

And the whole of the Bay Area,  to the south, has been remodelled. There’s a very glitzy shopping area, and some new  museums (one inside a giant lotus). The new Bay Gardens  are visible  for miles, Kew meets Star Trek, with huge Stonehenge shaped  futuristic apartment blocks, towering  illuminated sculptures and glass exhibition domes set amongst the tropical greenery. It's very easy to navigate if you're up for hiking. There are walkways, escalators, lifts and linking bridges, creating a circular route. On the east side,  a monstrous spiky silver sphere, housing a theatre. We have the armadillo, they have a hedgehog.

On my first visit we took a harbour trip on a boat. Since then, the famous merlion fountain has been moved and placed at the end of a new foot bridge, leading towards the Fullerton Hotel, on the edge of the Colonial District. It's housed in the former General Post Office building and dates back to 1928. The whole area is teeming with camera-wielding tourists; there's plenty to photograph.

Singapore is now one huge theme park. (William Gibson once described it as Disneyland with the death penalty.) I can’t decide if I like it or not. Part of it works, a sci-fi panorama, with  the backdrop of the skyscrapers and the business district. But it's over-cooked at times, 'older' buildings too pristine. There are sprinklings of decidedly tacky plastic looking  objects in  the new lakes.

Singapore Colonial District

The knot of historic buildings around the central playing field, the Padang is surrounded by all the high-rise. There's St Andrew's Cathedral, the Old Parliament House, the Victoria Theatre & Concert Hall, the Old Supreme Court and City Hall. Some of the civic buildings have been converted into stately new galleries and museums. The rectangle of worn grass that is the famous Padang  itself is fenced off and teeming with men in overalls. They're getting everything ready for the impending Grand Prix.

Kampong Gelam

I've been following a vaguely anti clockwise circular route. round the centre of Singapore. Carrying on, north east up Beach Road I pass the most famous building of the colonial era, Raffles Hotel (see Singapore 2000 - Expat Living . Further on, is Kampong Gelam, the Muslim Quarter, centred on busy Arab Street and trendy Haji Lane. ‘Kampong’ means "compound" in Malay, whilst 'gelam' refers to the long-leaved paperbark tree, commonly found in the area. It's used for boat-making, medicine and even as a seasoning for food. Here, again, nineteenth-century shophouses have evolved into textile stores stores and Malaysian cafes. The golden dome of the Sultan Mosque is the landmark I'm looking out for. It dates back to 1824.

Waterloo Street - Street Of Religious Harmony 2

If I strike north west now I shall reach Little India, yet another vibrant district. But that's a bridge too far today. (See Singapore 2000 - Expat Living instead). So, from the Sultan Mosque, mosque, south west now, down Victoria Steet and then right, to Waterloo Street. It's one of Singapore’s oldest streets. In the mid-nineteenth century it was named Church Street, but there was another one of these, leading to confusion. So, in 1858, the Municipal Council decided to call it after the 1815 battle instead.

Boasting four places of worship along its 550 metre length, Waterloo Street is Singapore's second Street Of Religious Harmony. The most famous is the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple. It's one of Singapore’s oldest Buddhist temples (1884), dedicated to the Goddess of Mercy.

The other three significant buildings are all even older. The Hindu Sri Krishnan Temple began as a small shrine under a banyan tree in 1870. The Church of Saints Peter & Paul also dates back to 1870. And the Maghain Aboth Synagogue (1878) is one of only two synagogues in Singapore. It's name means 'Shield of our Fathers'.

Return to Raffles, or Not

I’m exhausted after trudging around in the humidity, so I decide to adjourn to Raffles Hotel for a sentimental drink. Most of the arches around the square of the building are papered over - I’m not sure if it's being renovated. Raffles City Mall has sprung up opposite - of course. And there’s a very, very long queue winding up the stairs to the Long Bar. I think it's home time.

South East Asia 2 - A Singapore Weekend from Manila

Thursday - An Unpromising Arrival in Singapore

A semi working weekend in Singapore. An evening  Singapore Airlines flight – very nice free champagne and the best landing ever.  I am very pleased with myself until I check my belongings in the arrivals hall in Changi Airport and find both my purse and Filofax missing. That takes a while to sort.

Then a taxi into the city.  My hotel is lovely and I can’t get over the cleanliness and order after Manila. There are lane markings and everyone overtakes on the outside.  The Chinese staff in my hotel though are not nearly as welcoming as the Filipinos.  The hotel is on the Singapore River and has about 40 floors - fabulous views.

Friday - Raffles Hotel

Work today and then the biggest treat - being taken out to dinner at colonial and newly renovated Raffles Hotel.. Raffles is iconic, the must go to place for a drink in Singapore. It's named after Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who founded Singapore. I'm surprised to learn it actually began life as a private beach house in the 1830s. Then it became the Emerson Hotel. The Armenian Sarkies brothers took over the lease, renamed it Raffles and opened with ten rooms in 1887. The rest is, literally, history. It's even been the title of a film. Staying here is well beyond my means, it's an all suite establishment.

It's nearly ten years since I was here last, for a 24 Hour Visit, and it's looking pristine, almost new. I don't think it has as much character. but the palm filled courtyards are still there First, the obligatory sickly sweet Singapore Sling in the Long Bar, with its rattan fans and the traditional peanut shells all over the floor. Next, a buffet meal in the Tiffin Room, which specializes in a variety of lightly spiced dishes. You can eat as much as you want.  It's very good and very opulent.

Saturday - Singapore Shopping

I'm due to meet a friend of a friend, Claudia, outside Scott’s Shopping Centre, just off the Orchard Road (its no longer there).  My taxi driver informs me that this is the most expensive shopping in Singapore and the tenth most expensive in the world and that I should go to Chinatown instead.  No doubt he has a brother with a shop there.  Claudia is delightful – a very mature 22. 

She takes me through all the malls down world renowned Orchard Road. It runs the whole gamut - department stores to teeny boutiques. Emerald Hill for more traditional shops. It's not as cheap as I had hoped. In fact, in parts it's definitely high end (starting with Scotts) - Louis Vuitton, Patek Philippe, Saint Laurent, and Tiffany & Co. There’s also Singapore’s oldest departmental store, TANGS. a fascinating browse.

I stock up on salad cream, Branston pickle, shampoo, shaving foam, shortbread and CDs unobtainable in Manila (some items have been ordered by colleagues). Then on the bus to Holland Village and a complex of little Asian shops full of furniture and embroidered clothes.  The latter are irresistible and I buy a waistcoat and a dress.

Claudia has a barbecue to go to and I can hardly carry anything else, so back to the hotel and then a walking tour of nearby Chinatown, full of enticing little shops.  A tailor tries to sell me a beautiful Shantung suit – only £450, handmade to fit.  I buy a blue elephant sarong for £3 instead.

Saturday Evening - The Swiss Club and Anywhere

I have been invited to have dinner with Claudia’s parents at the Swiss Club out in the jungle edge of Singapore Island.  Claudia’s father is Swiss, her mother Indian.  These people I do not know welcome me and buy me dinner though I have to resist the local special – pork knuckle with sauerkraut.  A beautiful chalet setting under the palms with an ancient billiard table.  Five minutes after arriving an Indian called Rajat invites me to go to a nightclub with him.

Last time I was in Singapore I went to a nightclub to discover the navy was in town. It was fun. This time, the club is called Anywhere – stuck on the top floor corner of a mall, but packed with expats.  It is run by the band themselves, called Tanya, playing good rock music (old stuff of course). The lead singer is a cross dresser with very long false eyelashes.  I have a great time dancing and trying to be sociable with the two other Swiss who are with us, but the music is too loud to talk.  Rajat turns out to be a brilliant cliché. Married, but his wife does not understand him - they lead separate lives.  Can he come in for coffee?  Just coffee – we don’t have to do anything else.  How quaint.

Sunday - Clarke Quay and Boat Quay

There is just time to wander along the Singapore River and around more shops and restaurants on humming Clarke Quay and Boat Quay. During the colonial era, in the nineteenth century, Boat Quay was the commercial centre of Singapore, the loading and unloading point where barges would transport goods upstream to warehouses at Clarke Quay. Here, at Boat Quay, the river is said to beshaped like the belly of a carp, which augurs wealth and prosperity. so everyone wanted to build their shop here and the area became crowded. At Clarke Quay tourist 'bumboats' jostled for space. The area became so busy and polluted that the government decided to relocate its cargo services to Pasir Panjang.

What to do with the existing quays? The area was cleaned up, buildings restored and many new buildings appeared, 'in the style of the old historical buildings. Clarke Quay Festival Village was officially opened on 10 December 1993. The shop-houses on boat quay were reconstructed and opened as new businesses.

Then, Claudia arrives to take me back to the airport and Manila again.

South East Asia 14 - A Weekend with Donna

I met Donna, with her nephew, in Nepal, after I had my appendix out. Now I've flown out from Manila. I'm on my way to tour East Indonesia. and she's kindly invited me to stay at her flat en route.

Little India

We visit Little India, now renovated, since I was here on my 24 hour visit, with its beautifully painted, but too perfect, rows of houses, the food-market and the temples. The Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, in the heart of Little India, on the Serangoon Road, is dedicated to Kali, a protector goddess and destroyer of evil. Mustafa's Centre is a 24 hour shopping mall that claims to sell everything.

Like most suburbs of this type Little India is not just inhabited by Indians. There are plenty of Chinese shops and visitors for example. And the Sakya Muni Temple, with it's 15 metre high Buddha. But it's the area of the city where the Indian heritage is conserved.

I've read that this area (known as Tekka in Singapore) once had a racecourse, cattle herders and brick kilns. (In the mid nineteenth century.) Then cattle trading took root, run mostly by Indian migrant workers (and convicts) and the culture became more Indian. There are correspondingly more Indian cafes and restaurants: roti, pulled tea (lots of showmanship involved here), spices. Soem of the streets are named after past residents: Dunlop Street, for an European family, Belilios Lane, (for a cattle importer)and Campbell Lane for British soldier, Sir Colin Campbell. Its a vibrant and colourful place, so its no surprise that it's home to Singapore's artists too. Most of the street hawkers though, have been relocated to Boat Quay..

We visit the American Bazaar three times. We eat ice cream sandwiches (yummy) in the street, then cakes at the Shangri La and dinner at the retro American Club.

Singapore Zoo

I buy my first digital camera from the spivs on the Orchard Road. It's hard work bartering and I'm not sure I got a bargain. Then, out to Singapore Zoo to try out my new purchase on the snakes and orang utans. There's a primate show on and the poor apes are being forced to eat breakfast with members of the public.

I don't do very well money-wise in Singapore. A hundred dollars has disappeared from my purse, this time. I think it might have been Donna's Filipino maid who took it. But I can't tackle her. She's run off with Donna's husband. And I'm off to Bali.

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