Monday, 21 March 2011

12. Spotless Singapore

Singapore airlines B777 Business Class

Callum McCulloch

Singapore River at night

Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa Resort

Siloso Beach

Wave House

ButterflyPark

Ever-developing Singapore


MRT at night

In-room breakfast

There’s a slight kerfuffle in reception at the Sofitel Saigon. A man from the Quang Minh laundry has arrived with my package but the concierge says he wants 600,000 Vietnamese Dong. That’s around twenty quid for three days worth of smalls and t shirts! But the zeros have slipped a little and it turns out that he wants only a tenth of that.
After a splendid breakfast in the Club Lounge, where I really do feel a valued guest, the wonderful hostess tells me that my car is waiting.
Vincent, mon grand ami francais, has kindly arranged for one of the hotel’s limousines to transfer me to the airport. As the bell-boy loads my luggage into the car, he asks me if I have remembered my iPod and charger from my room, which he noticed as he took my bags. I have already retrieved it, but I very much appreciate the thought.
Airport check-in is easy and quick. There’s a slightly bizarre choice of things to do in the absence of a Singapore Airlines designated lounge. I am allowed to choose only one from things like a 20-minute massage, a noodle meal and entrance to the Rose CIP lounge. I opt for the latter, mainly on the grounds that I am not often these days regarded as a ‘Commercially Important Person’.
The Singapore Airlines’ B777 is pretty quiet. I choose a Singapore Sling from the extensive cocktail menu just to show solidarity. But it’s sickly and red and not especially to my taste. But the box is ticked.
The flight is a little over two hours but the in-flight service feels rushed, with the beautifully dressed hostesses trying to clear my tray away before I have finished.
The spotlessness of Singapore is apparent immediately after landing at Changi. There doesn’t seem to be anything out of place. Even the air-side vehicles and plethora of other airfield detritus are neatly aligned. It’s all very impressive.
I get through the formalities in unbelievably quick time and I am looking for my Shangri-La welcome board within 15 minutes of landing.
I first came to Singapore as a midshipman in the Royal Navy in 1972 and was last here in 2002. The changes in just the last 9 years are extraordinary, never mind since I first explored Sembawang as a 19 year old.
The driver is very chatty as we go on the direct expressway between the airport and the Sentosa Island resort. There is hardly a boring building in sight. Architects have excelled here in designing buildings that are attractive, innovative and inspiring.
The limo has been stopped for less than a second when I am greeted by two smiling ladies, who whisk me into a lift at the Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa resort (http://www.shangri-la.com/en/property/singapore/rasasentosaresort) and to my room before I have properly taken in my surroundings.
The view from my room over the South China Sea is stunning. I don’t think I have ever seen so much shipping at anchor.
I have not even started to unpack when there’s a ring at my door and my old chum from primary school in Scotland, Callum, arrives. He’s under escort, which is quite sweet and tells me later that he wasn’t even allowed to know my room number!
Callum, who is married to a Singaporean woman, is actually working on a new maritime attraction as part of Sentosa World and I am thrilled that someone with local knowledge is able to give me a real insight to the island.
After a glass or two of excellent Cabernet Merlot for me and Chablis for him, kindly supplied by the hotel in my welcome package, we take the beach tram and the monorail to Harbour Front station to catch the MRT.
Singapore’s metro is among the best I have seen anywhere in the world. It is driverless, spotlessly clean, fast, frequent and efficient. Callum helps me buy an ‘EZ link’ card, which I will use on Tuesday for some serious exploration of the transit system.
We get off at Raffles Place, centre of the central business district with amazing skyscrapers and stop briefly at the Singapore River. Our destination, suggested by Callum’s wife, Hui, is the Lau Pa Sat market. I love it.
Set in an old fish market built in 1894, it is made from cast-iron columns fabricated in Glasgow. As we sit there, I think how extraordinary it is that the two of us, brought up just outside Scotland’s famous industrial city, are able to dine under such a beautifully designed canopy.
People arrive from several of the nearby food stalls, among the scores in the market, urging us to choose their wares. We opt for a splendid stuffed-paratha like Indian starter with some Indonesian mixed satay, washed down by a jug of Tiger Beer. It´s absolutely splendid.
In the morning, I venture to the vast Silver Shell Café for breakfast. It’s beautifully designed, with a great choice of things to eat. But I just hate buffet breakfasts. I loathe the jostling at the toaster, kids screaming and racing about and the lack of interaction with the few staff on duty. I find the experience of buffets, not just here, stressful and impersonal. Surely I am not alone?
I am surprised to learn that there is no alternative, except in-room dining, something I find extraordinary in a resort of this size and quality.
Ching, from the hotel’s communications department, kindly shows me round. The hotel has only been open for a couple of months after a multimillion pound refurbishment, which took eleven months. Workmen and engineers are still on-site doing tweaks. I bump into a very casually dressed French general manager, Ben Bousnina, clipboard in hand, and, later, the newly-appointed hotel manager in a similar guise.
One of the outstanding matters is fan blades for the rooms, which have to be re-engineered.
What they have done during the shut-down is certainly impressive. The resort has two enormous banqueting and conference suites, among the biggest in Singapore. With its beachfront location, I can certainly see the vision as well as the commercial potential.
We visit a selection of rooms, which include some huge balconies and outdoor living spaces which are, I am told, ‘the biggest in Singapore’.
There is so much space that the hotel feels deserted, but I am told is about half full.
We adjourn to the nearby Siloso Beach for lunch at the Trapizza restaurant. It’s badly run down. The gents’ loos are an absolute disgrace, with dirty and cracked tiles, a blocked urinal and an open drain, with its protective cover unattached.
Ching, sensibly, opts for plan B and we enjoy an excellent Nasi Goreng in the now delightfully empty Silver Shell café. Bizarrely, with every other seat in the vast food factory available to them, an elderly English couple plonk themselves at the next door table.
Aaron Yeo from the Sentosa Leisure Group, (www.sentosa.com.sg) who has organised my stay, in the absence of the Tourist Board who have ‘run out of budget’, takes me and a locally based journalist, Mallika Naguran, on a splendid tour of some of Sentosa’s myriad of attractions.
I am impressed with the artificial surf machines at the Wave House, with one young lady doing seemingly impossible tricks on a surfboard under a curtain of water. The last time I saw one of the machines was on the back of Royal Caribbean’s latest cruise liners.
I let Aaron and Mal brave the zip wire in the MegaZip adventure park while I take pictures of them descending from the treetops to the beach. I have time to have a brief chat with Englishman Drew Graham in between him interviewing for a new marketing assistant. Aaron and I are eminently well qualified for the position, but Drew is well aware he can’t afford us!
On the way back down with a completely mad buggy driver who makes Jensen Button look slow, I chat with Nicky, another expatriate Brit member of the team.
I enjoy the trip on the Skyline ski-lift and, especially, the luge ride back down. In the Butterfly Park, Mal takes a photo of one of the beautiful creatures on my hat. We take in an excellent simulated log flume ride in Cineblast, with great 3D effects, slightly spoiled by a dreadfully amateurish pre-show. In Desperados, we try to shoot bandits from atop our mechanical horses, but Mal and I are no match for sharpshooting Aaron.
There´s a lot more to do, but we’ve run out of time. Sentosa, with more rides under construction, offers much and I am very impressed with the progress they are making with a resort which goes back to 1972, the year of my first visit to Singapore.
My chum Callum pitches up and we enjoy a swim in an almost deserted pool before catching the hotel bus to Harbour Front and the MRT to Little India.
At the Khulfi Bar in Upper Dickson Road, he enjoys a lassi and me a splendid Khulfi. The setting is most impressive although neither of us is impressed with the owner’s attempt to get a tip with some unnecessary dollar coins being presented in my change.
We walk past the Bugis area, transformed from the seediness of my formative years, to Little Arabia where we have a really excellent meal in our third continent of the evening.
I’ve very much enjoyed this evening. Callum’s local knowledge has shown me that there is still a low-rise side to the otherwise clinically perfect high-rise Singapore which, we concur, is unlike anywhere else in Asia.

For a digest of my best photographs of the trip so far, go to


The photos  of my current destination are at