Singapore was my first stop on my first trip to Asia. I had included it in my itinerary in order to visit friends from New York who had moved to Singapore several years before. It turned out to be an excellent introduction to the continent and I began to think of it as a sort of "Asia Lite."
Singapore has much of the exotic multi-culturalism of Asia – with Chinese, Malay, Indian, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu influences – but few of the problems. The streets are clean and safe, English is widely spoken, you don't have to worry about the food or water, locals will not pester you for money or employment as an impromptu "tour guide" and it is compact and easy to get around. All this orderliness comes as a result of the same political party being in power since independence in 1965 and the passage of many strict "quality of life" laws, the most famous of which, perhaps, is Singapore's blanket ban on the import of chewing gum (instituted in 1992 when wads of chewed gum left on subway doors prevented them from closing and disrupted train service). Accordingly, many seasoned travelers may find Singapore a bit sterile.
Singapore is a small, independent "city state" consisting of one main island and fifty smaller islands that sit just off the southern tip of the Malay peninsula. The main island is connected to Malaysia in the north by a causeway that spans the narrow Johor Strait. In the south, Singapore is separated from nearby Indonesia by the Singapore Strait, an important shipping channel that connects the Indian Ocean with the South China Sea. As a result of its strategic location, political stability since independence in 1965 and high economic growth, Singapore has become Southeast Asia's most important seaport, financial center and manufacturing hub.
In the 1820s Singapore came under British influence, first as a holding of the British East India Company and later as a British colony. Great Britain developed Singapore as a major port and laid the foundations of the modern city. Singapore was occupied by the Japanese from 1942 to 1945, but was returned to Britain after the war. In 1959, Singapore became a self-governing member of the Commonwealth. The country was united with Malaysia for several years in the early 1960s, but in 1965 separated to become an independent nation.
The main island of Singapore is only about 30 miles long and 14 miles wide. Packed into this small area is a population estimated to exceed 4.3 million people. Despite its small and densely-populated area, however, Singapore has managed to maintain some open space for parks and natural habitat.
The urban center of Singapore is filled with tall, modern skyscrapers. There are, however, many traditional neighborhoods, including a Chinatown, little India, former colonial neighborhoods and a distinctive style of architecture known as "shophouses," where shops once lined the streets and their proprietors lived upstairs. Singapore also boasts an area of lively restaurants and clubs along the river at Clark Quay. Finally, a visit to Raffles Hotel, a grand holdover from British colonial days, is highly recommended.
The photos above offer a glimpse of the main parts of the urban center of Singapore, as well as some of the outlying parks. Below is a slide show that will run in a separate pop-up window devoted to several of the Buddhist and Hindu temples in Singapore.
Temples of Singapore: Singapore is home to all of the world's major religions. Most of the population is Chinese and Buddhism is the predominant religion. There are, however, significant Indian, Malay and other populations that look to Hinduism, Islam or Christianity. Included here are photos of the sprawling Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Buddhist monastery, built between 1980 and 1994 on the site of the older monastery. Also included is the Buddhist Temple of 1000 Lights and an elaborately decorated Hindu temple, both in the heart of the urban center of Singapore. (16 Photos) [Preview This Slide Show]