Monday, January 25, 2010

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Getting about in Singapore

One of the things that I have come to appreciate in Singapore is the transportation system, and the ease of getting about.  Well, mostly.  As a product of suburban culture in the U.S. it is most natural for me to hop in the car, drive to my target destination, do my business and then drive home, without giving much thought to the process.  Owning and driving a car seems like a requirement for living in Boise, Idaho, but not so much in a large city such as Singapore.  We don't have one here-  we rely on public transportation.  There have been a few times when a car would have prevailed with convenience, but packing 6.5 M people onto a small island has compelled the Singaporean government to discourage them, and as a result they are very expensive here.  (That is not to say they are scarce, however)
With a little prior planning, a little more walking, and some patience,  I have found the transportation system to be great for getting around Singapore.  As we have not yet ventured off of the island, we will be renting a car to do so, and I will report on that exercise when the time comes.  (We have learned that the few rental agencies are closed on Sundays, making a weekend rental difficult)
BBRs  (Bad Bus Rides)
Elaine has taken  preference to using the bus system, which is extensive, and is also least expensive.   I'm more inclined to get about on the MRT (subway), having had at least three unpleasant experiences with the buses.  I apparently have terrible bus kharma.  The first was returning from the downtown area late on a Friday night--  we were packed like sardines (many people standing) into the bus for most of the journey.  As in most cities, downtown on a Friday night is a popular destination, and the transit systems are bulging with people during the peak hours.  We rode the bus for quite a while, and then failed to recognize and exit at our stop when it came along.  The result was an additional 20 minute tour of the neighborhood.  We were the last passengers off of the bus.
The second BBR was during Christmas season, when I arranged to meet Elaine downtown after work.  She left her office and took the bus, I left the apartment and took the MRT.  The prescribed time of travel was 15 or 20 minutes for each of us.  I arrived on time at our place of rendezvous, but Elaine's transit there took another hour, due to the heavy street traffic.
Our most recent BBR experience was this past weekend.  We decided to view an Egyptian exhibit at the National Museum, which is located downtown.  (I should note that "downtown" is no more than three miles from our house.)  We determined the necessary bus route-- one bus, 12 stops, no transfers, arriving at our local stop in about 12 minutes.  Estimated travel time-- about 25 minutes.  Perfect!  We successfully boarded the bus and began our journey.  Unfortunately, we failed to take a couple of considerations into account.  (1)  It was a Sunday, and the bus was crowded-- no seats for a while.  (2)  Most critical, the bus route went through China Town-- with the weekend starting the kick-off of the Chinese New Year's celebration.  This is a big holiday in Singapore, bigger than Christmas, and there were several events occurring in China Town.  Our bus trip took 1.5 hours, with 45 minutes alone required to travel two blocks.  This delay was created by one anarchic intersection where drivers blatently ignored the signal lights, causing a grid-lock.
So as you don't get the wrong impression, the bus system here is excellent--  Elaine uses it daily to get to and from work, with regular and predictable success.   She enjoys the views from the bus, rather than the darkness of the subway tunnels and stations.  I've had my best success using it with short transits.  We have both become wiser in recognizing the importance of the day and time of day when planning its use.
MRT Subway
I prefer riding the subway.  It is slightly more expensive than the bus, but the trains are frequent, and they have their own exclusive path of travel.  Also, they are not subject to drivers ignoring traffic signals to cause a grid-lock.  (At least I hope not).  There is an MRT station within a 10 to 15 minute walk from our apartment.  In many cases, a station is only a short walk from wherever you wish to go. The MRT also goes directly to the airport.  A subway trip to the airport from our apartment is less than S$2.00 each and takes a little over an hour, whereas a taxi ride can be as much as S$26 for a 30 minute journey.  However, if you want to take the train, you are constrained to travel light-- few bags.
Sometimes the MRT cars are sardine cans, just as the buses can be at peak hours, but they are always moving.  Because of its limited route and sometimes the need to transfer lines it can take considerable time to travel by MRT rather than by bus or taxi, but as we have learned, timing is everthing with the choice of transportation.
Shopping Shuttles
In addition to the regular bus system, many of the shopping malls and attractions (e.g. The Singapore Flyer) not in immediate proximity to an MRT station will have shuttle buses.  These run on regular if infrequent schedules, providing a free transport from to and from the MRT.  On weekends or during the Christmas shopping season these have been packed full.
Taxis are numerous, and the drivers are polite.  We have run into only one or two drivers who could not speak English, but we managed successfully.  Prices are predictable and reasonable, but still an expensive mode of transporation.  There is a different base charge depending if you hail the cab, or schedule it by phone, and an additional surcharge during peak hours.
I am amused by some of the driving practices I have seen employed by a few taxi drivers, apparently in an effort to reduce fuel use.  This includes quickly shifting to the highest gear possible, "lugging"  the engine to its lowest possible RPMs without stalling (the engine making a pathetic sound), or shifting into neutral (with an automatic transmission) at each stop light or traffic slow down.
Tech Tools for Travel
There are a few tools available that make regular use of the public tranportation system easier:

  • EZ Link:  EZ Link is a magnetic debit card that can be purchased and used with the bus and MRT.  You simply scan the card at the gate entry of the MRT or at the door of the bus, and then scan it exiting the station or the door of the bus.  Works great!  When your funds on the card get low, a machine is available at the subway stations and other locales to "top up" your card with additional funds.

  • Go There:  This web site is a great tool for planning a journey.  Enter the starting location, and your desired destination, and the tool will calculate the best route, approximate travel time, and cost  by car, taxi, bus, or MRT.  Or combination bus/MRT.  Directions are provided, with number of bus stops, walking distance, and/or the required MRT station street exit to take.  (

  • IRIS:  Since the buses all have radio links, this web site allows you to estimate when the next bus on a route will arrive at a particular bus stop.  This helps you to plan minimal waiting time at the bus stop in the heat or rain.   (

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sentosa Island

Wednesday 4 December:   Mount Imbiah, Sentosa Island

While Elaine attended work, Anne, Wendell, and I made a visit to Sentosa Island.  This is a very curious place, and the monorail train that accesses the island is literally a 10 minute walk from our apartment.  You can also reach the island by car (a short bridge, with a toll) or by a gondola, although currently that is not operable-- it is under renovation and will reopen sometime this coming May.

The bridge connecting the main island to Sentosa Island.  Ten minutes from the apartment.
The island has had many uses-- it contained a pineapple plantation in the 1800s, and then became a military post for the British.  During the Japanese occupation it was used as a prison camp.  It was retained as a military post until 1967 when the Singapore government decommissioned it, and began development, primarily as a resort and recreation destination.  It is a very small island (fourth largest of the Singapore islands), and it is only a stone throw from the main island of Singapore, as you can see from the picture.
In the old Malay days the island went by a different name-- Pulau Blakang Mati , which literally translated, means "Island of Death From Behind".  It was sometimes called the "Island of the Death".  However, it was renamed in more recent times to Sentosa, meaning "Place of Peace and Tranquility", obviously an idea promoted by someone employed in the marketing department.  "Place of Peace and Tranquility" has a lot more cachet for a resort area than "Island of Death".
I didn't know what to expect, but upon arrival, it had a similar feel to arriving at Disneyland.  There is a lot of concrete, clean walkways, and the plant life is immaculately manicured.  There are many small shop and cafes to purchase refreshments, or souvenirs.  Furthermore, our access to the island was via the monorail train, so the parallels to Disneyland are evident.

The Sentosa Island monorail leaving Siloso Beach station, as viewed from Imbiah station  (they are not far apart).
There are several resorts (with two golf courses) on the island, and a very large resort/casino under construction (including a Universal Studios theme park). The island currently has several amusement attractions-- a zip-line tour, a butterfly zoo, a theater, an aquarium, and beaches.  There is also a large tower ride (The Tiger Sky Tower, as in Tiger beer) that brings you and 78 of your friends up for a panoramic view of the island and Singapore.  Upon disembarking from the monorail train that brings you to the island, you are met by a large concrete statue of the Merlion-- the fictitious animal mascot of Singapore.  There is a viewing platform from the mouth of the Merlion, that provides an overview of Singapore (access for a fee).

The Merlion at Sentosa

The Merlion fountain walk
There are escalators to bring visitors to the top of the small hill on the island, Imbiah.  You may also tour the island on Segway people movers, or hike on the "nature" trails.  The trails are short (it's a small island), and are suspicously unnatural in a few locations.    There are one or two small water falls, with the names painted in white letters on the "rocks" (concrete?).  (I'm not sure what happens to the water falls if the power fails) There are a few concrete picnic stations and lighting along the way, and portions of the path are on elevated piers with railing.  In any case it is is a pleasant walk that traverses through a natural umbrella of tropical foliage and forest.

Any guess what this area is called?

Anne & Wendell at one of the picnic stations on the Imbiah nature walk
With our visit occurring on a weekday with school in session, there were many young students on field trips present.  One class group was broken into several teams-- blue team, red team, green etc with appropriately colored tee shirts.  A timed competition was underway between the teams to locate items on a list along the nature walk--  a scavenger hunt of sorts.  Apparently Sentosa is a destination for this type of school event.

Sunday 17 January:  Siloso Beach
We returned from our Christmas visit to Boise yesterday, and are still feeling the effects of jet lag.  Elaine and I thought a short Sunday expedition would be a good transition (in the sunlight), as she returns to work Monday morning.   A visit to Sentosa (Elaine's first) was decided, and we proceeded down the hill (15 minute walk) to take the short monorail ride out to the island.
On our ride out here, the construction on the casino/resort has obviously made much progress, although still not complete.  There has been some controversy in the news here about the project--  the resort has plans to hire upwards of 10,000 workers and was supposed to open this past August.  Promises of employment have been made to many people, only to have their employment (and salaries) held in limbo by the delayed completion and opening of the resort.  Those that have left their current employment have been left in the financial lurch.
On this visit, we decided to go down to the beach area.  There are three beaches-- Palawan Beach, Siloso Beach, and Tanjong Beach, with Siloso the largest of the three (apparently-- we only visited Siloso).  We took the beach walk to take in the sights of Siloso.  It is perhaps similar to a Southern California beach (on a much smaller scale), with a few life guards, and restaurants and small shops along the beach.   The beach is small, and has clean white sand, with no surf to speak of--  the beach is artificial, constructed from imported sand.  A small lagoon shelters the swimming area, and there are sea kayaks available for hire.    I also saw some beach volleyball in play, so that might be fun sometime.  There is also a small beach hotel resort in this area.

Siloso Beach swim area
The only negative aspect of the beach, in my opinion was the proximity of many container ships anchored offshore, as Sentosa is quite close to one of the harbor ports for Singapore. My bias comes from considering container ships an unusual visual fixture for a beach.  However, the ships are mostly visually screened by a offshore island (forming the lagoon area), and there are cabanas and chaise lounges for rent.  A day in the chaise would make for a pleasant afternoon, assuming a mild breeze was present to mitigate the tropical heat  (in my opinion).  Singapore Slings might also be a nice touch.

The view of Siloso beach from the Imbiah monorail station.  An indoor (simulated) sky diving ride is under construction in the area with the blue tarps.  As you can see, Singapore has an active maritime port, with this area Keppel Harbor, being only one of several ports in Singapore.
One of the particularly "cool" activities available at the beach  (I plan to try this sometime) is the Wave House--  a powerfully jetted pool that simulates surfing or wakeboarding.  You get on the board at the bottom of the pool, and carefully advance to a standing position to ride the jet current.  Should you biff, (which is likely--  most people we watched did so almost immediately) the jet current washes you to the top of the pool.  Looks like fun.

Wave machine at Siloso Beach

Another activity available is a trapeze (thankfully with a net).  Perhaps I'll pass on that one.

The trapeze at Siloso Beach
Elaine and I shared a pizza and drinks at the beachfront cafe before walking back to the monorail station and heading home.

Update:  January 20:  A Much Awaited Opening
Today the Resort World Sentosa had its "soft opening"-- a phased opening of the Sentosa Island development project.  The project is part of a government strategy to ease Singapore's economic dependence on the manufacturing sector, and develop a tourism economy element.  The government eased the way for the casino development by legalizing casino gambling in 2005, and providing licenses to two planned resorts for Singapore.
Four hotels, with 1350 rooms opened for business at the island resort, with an additional 500 rooms available next year.  Future phases of the project will include a casino, a marine life park, a maritime museum, and a Universal Studios theme park.  And don't forget the retail shopping, that will open soon too.
The island resort development is a S$4.4 B investment.  According to the news release, the hotel already has strong bookings, primarily from local Singaporeans, for the Chinese New Year holiday.  It is anticipated that when all phases are on line, 6 of 10 tourists will be foreign, with over 25% coming from China.
A second enormous casino/resort project is under construction in the downtown area, with an ~ S$6 B investment.

Construction of the downtown (Las Vegas Sands Resorts, Inc) casino/hotel development. The project has been delayed because of engineering problems with the filled land.
(View from the Singapore Flyer)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Back to the Lion City

Return from Homeland Idaho
After a four week visit to homeland Idaho, we have returned to the tropics and the Lion City.  Although it may have seemed like an eternity for our house hosts (And they were gone some 15 days of our visit.  Thanks Keith and Candy for putting us up!) the four weeks we were there went by remarkably quickly.  Of course we did not get to see and visit with everyone we would have liked to have while there.  However our purpose in returning was to visit Ron (See Global Warming?? ), and help Barbara as she copes with Ron's condition.  Our apology to those of you we missed and were unable to connect with while in town.  Ron is doing as well as can be expected-- actually putting on a little weight in recent days.  We were so thankful to be able to make this trip and visit for the extended length of time.  We owe HP management our gratitude for making it happen.  As the family deals with Ron's illness, we must remind ourselves to think of and celebrate Ron's life, personality, and past accomplishments, and not dwell on the sadness of the inevitable outcome.  Returning to Singapore was difficult knowing that time is limited.
Difficult times can sometimes bring good events--  Susan made the journey from McMurdo Station, Antarctica for a short ten day trip (four of these days spent traveling over 10,000 miles each way) to visit her grandfather.  She has returned to the Harsh Continent, and will be at McMurdo for the duration of its coming winter, ending in October.  Elaine's brothers Robert and John had shorter travel, from Bend, Oregon and Long Beach, California, respectively, but no less significant.  We have not seen either for two years.

Ron with some of the family visitors

Home Cooking
Another benefit of bringing the family together is the chance for an epic home cooked meal.   We actually had several of these during our visit, with Barbara and Elaine demonstrating their ample cooking skills.  We also had a group project dinner one night of pelmeny, the Russian tradition in my family.  This project requires everyone to participate in their construction.  "No ticket, no wash".  Christmas season is never the same without a pelmeny meal.
One of the perks of having a professional chef in the family are the "volunteer" meals.  These are meals where we "volunteer" Nate to cook them.  He is always good spirited about it, and complies willingly.  Here's a pork chop dinner that Nate pulled together one evening for us visitors.

Boise State Rules!
One of the side benefits of being in town over the December/January holidays was being able to watch the plethora of college football bowl games.  Although viewing college football is  possible  in Singapore via cable TV, it is not available to us.  As season ticket holders, and Elaine an alumnus, of course we were excited to see Boise State play in the 2010 Fiesta Bowl, and take on TCU.  We were not disappointed--  it was a hard fought game, with BSU victorious (again) through daring and smart, well executed play.  A crowd pleasing performance.
With a Vandal alum in the family we also were excited to see University of Idaho come out on top in the Humanitarian Bowl.  An incredibly exciting game, with the Vandals reversing their losing status in the last seconds of the game to win.  It was nice to see the Vandals enjoy a winning season this year.
Perhaps I am biased but I thought these were two of the best bowl games of the many bowl games.  (Too many).  BSU still can't find respect-- it was ranked number four among the college teams in the final polls, yet was one of only two undefeated teams in the season.  Politics and big money schools still run the show.
If you are wondering, UC Davis had (another) "building" year this year, but is hopeful to play 1A next year.  Oh yes,  have I ever mentioned that the UC Davis football program has been the source for many of the current great coaches?  Coach "Pete" Peterson (BSU), Patterson (TCU), and Dan Hawkins (Colorado, formerly BSU) all have links back to UCD.  I did mention it?  Go Aggies! 

Idaho State House
The Idaho State  Capitol, first completed in 1913, has been closed for renovation and expansion for the past two years. On January 9 it reopened (on budget, and one day ahead of schedule!), with two new subterranean office wings and a fresh (restored) look. The state house was open for tours, and we stopped in to check it out. Here are a few pictures.

Idaho's refurbished capital.  The changes are not readily apparent from the outside.

The dome, viewed from the basement

Idaho senate chambers from the gallery

State seal on the basement floor

Holiday Lights
One of the sights in Boise to take in during the holiday is a house located on Quail Ridge.  The owner is an electrical contractor, who is apparently a little crazy.  Each year he decorates nearly every square foot of his property--  front, back, the roof, and even the driveway with thousands of lights and Christmas kitche.  Among the many decor are animated elves, reindeer, and soft Christmas music coming from the driveway.  A large lighted angel is displayed on the hill behind the house, and is visible from across the valley.  A long string of autos parade up the hill and past the house each evening during the season to view the spectacle.  (In past years, a helicopter tour viewed the display and other lights in the city, until irate neighbors put a stop to it.)  The power bill for this extravaganza must be enormous.
This year the neighbors have apparently given up presenting resistance to the nusance , and are joining the frivolity--  in a simple manner.  Here's the light display on the house directly next door:

I like this man's thinking-- although it still requires ladders and going on the roof.  Bad things happen on ladders.

A small portion of the crazy holiday light display (a section of the front yard)

Breakfast At Tiffany's
OK, not Tiffany's, but Facacia's, a favorite spot of ours near our house.  We met the Valasek clan for a nice breakfast.

The food's all gone-- it must be time for lunch

Mr "V"
L.C. The Cat
A family member that was not able to make the move to Singapore is our cat Elsie (L.C.).  We thought that the trauma of the travel and the lengthy quarantine period necessary for her emigration to Singapore (not to mention any issues finding landlords agreeable to pets) would be more than we wanted to subject her with.  Thankfully our friend Amelia volunteered to provide housing for L.C. during our expatriation, where she has resided since early October, sharing the residence with Amelia's cat Albert.  Poor Albert.
Although L.C. has adapted well to her new residence, she apparently suffers some type of PTSD from our rejection.  Although normally a friendly, social feline, on two visits she has gotten a good sniff (first visit me, the second visit Elaine) of us and gone into hiding.  Either she  prefers her current housing arrangement more than with us (and is afraid of leaving), or we have damaged her psyche with the uprooting.  Will we be forgiven?  Stability in the home is apparently important for everyone.

LC dealing with PTSD