Living in Bangkok for over 20 years, I have been to Singapore more than ten times. But never on a sightseeing trip. I mean, I’ve never been there for the sake of taking a photo with Merlion. It was either a visa run or watching our kids’ sports tournament, which happened to be in Singapore. Visiting Singapore was never the primary purpose for a trip, but being in Singapore was always a treat. For example, a visa trip. Popular destinations are Vientiane in Laos and Penang in Malaysia because of the cost. My husband usually suggested these destinations half-heartedly, knowing my answer would be reluctant: But then, what do I do whilst waiting for the visa to be issued? How do I go around? Is it safe to walk around alone? I would go there if I have to, but I have to be mentally prepared. But going to Singapore eliminates this anxiety. I know there will be English signs everywhere and the people speak English or Singlish. The Thai Embassy is conveniently located at the middle of Orchard Road. I can easily spend a few hours in Takashimaya which is one block away (I am Japanese and Takashimaya is an old Japanese department store) and I feel very safe walking alone even at night. If I need to go for a visa run, Singapore is therefore my first preference. Another reason I have visited Singapore several times is to watch my kids’ sports tournaments.
My children (and their father) love playing sports and have joined various tournaments in the region over the last few years: Hanoi, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Seoul, Taipei and of course Singapore, which hosts the tournaments most frequently. My spoilt son once said “Singapore again. I wish I could go somewhere I haven’t been.” These “sports-watching” trips usually follow a routine of shuttling between the airport, hotel and tournament venue. This schedule doesn’t give us much opportunity to explore the city. The timetable depends on how the team progresses and we cannot plan ahead to do any sightseeing. Sometimes we get a half day off, but the tournament venue is not always conveniently located near a tourist spot and we often end up lounging at the hotel poolside.
We eat out but not necessarily at a must-go restaurant in the guidebook. We usually eat at a nearby restaurant which looks hygienic enough (once the whole team was food-poisoned!) simply for convenience. If you ask me “How was Manila?”, my memory is a blur. I remember the airport was very hot and crowded (I almost fainted), which is not a very comprehensive observation of the city. But I cannot share with you a colourful attractive travel guide when the city stands simply as a host of a tournament.
So I don’t expect to enjoy the city much as a traveller whilst I am on a sports-watching trip. But when the tournament is held in Singapore, I feel lucky and look forward to the trip in addition to watching the games. It is not because I want to go to the Marina Bay Sands or Universal Studios. It is more because I feel very comfortable being in an organised functional system: Ease of travel, efficiency of services, and safety of the city. Singapore is one of a few developed countries in the region and there is “order” in every aspect of this country. I am almost certain “things work” as planned.
This is a blessing after living in Thailand for a while. In Thailand, you only hope things work, and get impressed “if” they do. You never know until it happens. This uncertainty is more or less common in developing countries. Whether Hanoi, Manila or Jakarta, you always carry a sense of apprehension while you are there: Once in Manila, the bus taking us to the airport stalled on the slope to the entrance. The driver tried to start the engine several times and every time the bus rolled backwards a bit. We had to get out and carry our luggage, heavy with bats, helmets and catchers’ gear, to the airport. But we felt fortunate and thankful it had happened when we were almost there. The probability of this kind of thing happens in Singapore is, I believe, close to zero.
I went to Singapore last week to watch our son’s basketball tournament. My husband thinks Singapore is “too clean”, hence boring. Yet when the air quality index was signalling red in Bangkok, the smell of disinfectant at Changi Airport was welcoming. It was refreshing to see the blue sky and green trees in the city. I had not seen their original colours for some time. I think toddlers in Bangkok would paint the sky yellowish-grey these days. When my husband tried to catch a ride by “Grab” at the airport, I had almost screamed “No!” because my memory of “Grab Thailand” flashed: waiting for a ride for more than half an hour while the App originally said 10 minutes, watching a car going further away on App’s map (God knows why), trying to explain where I am with my broken Thai and finally giving up. But then, I realised we were in Singapore, I could trust the system. Indeed, the car came swiftly and we were at a hotel on Orchard Road within 30 minutes. No problem.
The next morning whilst eating breakfast at the hotel’s cafeteria, I felt as if I was in Tokyo. The blue-glass building I was looking out of the window was very clean and shining in the morning sun. The view was nothing particularly unique to Singapore or Tokyo. But its modern-ness and cleanliness reflects two countries where “things work” as planned. I felt at home and it was very pleasant to start a day with an easy, calm feeling. As a matter of fact, things worked as planned, smoothly and efficiently, for the next three days of tournament. The internet was fast. The Grab taxi came within the App’s estimated time, and we arrived at the venue in time. Traffic was nothing compared to the stand-still jams in Bangkok. The game started on time and finished as per schedule. Everything worked out as expected, except our team lost the game. Losing is always hard to take, especially when we have had a close game. Useless “we could have…” thoughts come and go, and we spend the pocket of time idly, trying to tame our thoughts.
However, when it happens in Singapore, I have to admit, I get mixed feelings: Sad to lose, but happy to have spare time. Singapore is a small country with efficient systems. Given some unexpected free time, we can plan to do something special and it should work. On the way back to the hotel, we were talking about eating “Chilli Crab” in the backseat of the Grab. The driver politely asked “Would you like to eat Chilli Crab? I recommend the Little Red House. It is very close to your hotel. We would not eat Chilli Crab anywhere else. I recommend making a reservation though.” In normal circumstances, I listen to the words of people in the service industry with some caution. But this was Singapore and things were working well so I accepted his words obediently. As you expect, the restaurant was only a 7-minute ride from our hotel. The place was packed and we couldn’t have been accommodated unless we had made a reservation online, which was of course registered. (In Thailand, online reservations work sometimes, but not always.)
The Chilli Crab, a signature Singaporean dish was heavenly, as delicious as PooPat-Pong-Garee, Thai’s crab curry, if not better. Eating crab is a lot of work: cracking the shell, poking and pulling tiny pieces of meat with sticky fingers coated with sweet chilli sauce didn’t make it easy, but it was well worth the effort. We were disappointed in our team’s loss (we were expecting to go to the championship game!) but the Chilli Crab made it up for us. This kind of last-minute-decision-works-out-well makes the trip delightful and I give a credit to Singapore’s efficient system. Don’t get me wrong. I love Thailand. “Amazing Thailand” does not stop me being amazed even after twenty-plus-years of residency. I think you can call this full-of-surprises life “exciting” or at least “interesting” for better or worse. It may be boring, as my husband says, when things work as you have planned all the time. And probably that is the reason that I have never visited Singapore for the sake of visiting Singapore: You know you get what you expect. That is not exotic. However, being an expat in Thailand, you live with constant uncertainty. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s tiring. Singapore gives you a short break from the chaos. Yes, I look forward to my next visa-trip or sports-watching trip to be in Singapore again.