Singapore has a constant presence in my life even if I haven’t stepped foot in it for more than a decade. Even if I live in Cebu now, I used to work remotely with startups based out of the Lion City. When I did video calls with my former bosses, I could see tall skyscrapers behind their windows. I once had round trip tickets to go there but had to cancel. At that time, I had a Singaporean dollar salary.
My first trip to Singapore was when I was 14 years old. My brother and I were part of the Philippine Junior Golf, so we flew there to play a golf tournament. I remember Tanah Merah Garden course’s lake on the par 5 last hole. I even cried my eyes out at the ladies locker after a bad game. But what I remember most what that my Dad got lost at the Night Safari. After we found him, we went to a mall basement in Orchard Road to eat bulgogi. I haven’t been back to Singapore since. Why would I? I’ve already checked it off my bucket list.
A Sweet Invite
One day, I received an invitation to write about Resorts World Sentosa, a 49-hectare integrated entertainment and dining complex off the coast of Singapore. “First class all the way,” my veteran journalist mother-in-law forewarned me. When I arrived at Changi Airport on a rainy Monday morning, my complimentary BMW transport was already waiting. Everything’s been laid out but I don’t plan or pay.
I had express passes to the resort’s SEA Aquarium, Maritime Museum, and Universal Studios Singapore. Every morning, I took sunrise photos overlooking the coast from my massive balcony at the Equarius Hotel. At night, I indulged in multiple courses of Italian cuisine and Japanese teppanyaki. To top it all off, I got a chance to hug and kiss a dolphin. Press trips are a much more luxe experience than the normal way I travel.
Some people sneer at touristy and expensive theme parks, using the term “manufactured fun” to describe it. My experience in each one of them was genuine fun, reminding me of fond memories when my siblings were still young. Nothing beats a place engineered to bring together quality amenities, convenience, and a touch of luxury. I have no complaints about manufactured fun.
Despite the superstar treatment, the best part of touring the resort are the pockets of silence. One staffer told me about normal life in Singapore. Kids can choose to learn either Tamil or Mandarin in school, that on-site employees eat for free at a cool cafeteria, and that certain neighborhoods in the city’s outskirts are up for expansion to decongest the center. It was a treat to revel in the comfort of quiet conversation.
Sightseeing: National Gallery and Gardens By The Bay
After the press trip, I extended my trip to Singapore one more day to explore on my own. It would have been a perfect day of shopping for discounted Charles and Keith bags in IMM in East Jurong except that I was carrying my 20-lbs worth of stuff on my back. I promised myself that this was the very last time I’ll carry all my luggage in a backpack. I was already hunched and depressed by the time I found coin lockers just outside the building by the taxi stand.
My next destination on this solo outing is the home of the largest collection of Southeast Asian art, the National Gallery. I go to museums not just for the art but for the magnificent architecture. The National Gallery, in the heart of the Civic Center, is the largest museum in Singapore. It occupies two national monuments, the Supreme Court and City Hall. I took lots of pictures at the upper link bridge that connects the two junctions.
Out of all the artwork, I loved the realistic portrait of Lee Boon Nga, painted by Chua Mia Tee in 1957. The female subject looked it could have been any of my classmates in high school, reminding me of young Filipina beauty. This oil painting is part of DBS Singapore Gallery’s inaugural exhibition called “Siapa Nama Kamu?” (literally, “What is your name?”) that covers Singapore’s art history from the 19th century to the present.
Next up was the futuristic nature park, Gardens By The Bay, whose thrilling beauty was only eclipsed by my misadventures getting there. There were two conservatories inside the Gardens: Flower Dome, the world’s largest glass greenhouse; and Cloud Forest, known for having picturesque vegetation, rare flowers, and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall. My research suggested that I choose the more unconventional Cloud Forest for its architecture.
Google Maps got me lost. The app told me to get off at the Marina Bay South Pier Station, which was empty except for boats, naturally. I asked a local guy standing behind a grey counter where the Gardens was. He said in broken English, “Too far. This is bike path. Go back to the MRT and go down South Bay.” Thinking that he was probably exaggerating, I proceeded to walk anyway.
After a few kilometers, I saw highways on my left and bushes to my right. But I knew I was going on the right path because I could see the tips of supertree grove, the recognizable maroon and green top of the Gardens, peeking behind trees. While walking alone, I took a quick stop to take a picture. I planned to post it with a caption: “Gardens by the bay naging gubat” (Gardens by the bay turned forest)
Was Cloud Forest worth the trouble and the $28 Sing dollar entrance? Yes. It was so pretty, I had to go back twice. By early evening, the place was illuminated by magical yellow and white light that made the blooms pop. For something that is indoors, it smelled like mild, freshly cut grass. I buttoned up my black sweater all the way to my neck, hoping for more warmth.
Standing beside orchids, pitcher plants and ferns supposedly from the Tropical Montane region, I snapped what turned out to be the favorite photo of myself from the entire trip. I would have loved watching the award-winning light and sound show Garden Rhapsody, but I had friends waiting for me at dinner. I pulled my phone out of my pocket only to see that it had died.
Singapore is an easy place to navigate without a phone, internet, tour guide or map. Every few meters or so, there are clear signs pointing to landmarks, “MRT”, or “Taxi”. Since I didn’t have a phone, I simply walked up to the information booth at Marina Bay Sands to ask the concierge to google my next destination. In good sense, I memorized my next destination, Scissors Cut Curry Rice in Jalan Basar, before my phone conked out. The concierge, an agreeable Indian man, took a picture of his computer screen using my digital camera, which I then used as my map.
After 2 metro stops, I reached my destination with no problem. I gave out an inaudible, thin laughter after seeing my friends’ faces. I made it! Within moments, we were digging in piping hot plates of chicken and pork curry rice. I told my friends that I couldn’t believe we’re all in Singapore, but what I was really thinking was I can’t believe I found them after my misadventures.
The People Of Singapore
This trip in Singapore represented the past, future, and present for me. The same friends who ate chicken curry rice with me were the same ones I worked with in my first ever job in Cebu. They were my wedding entourage and my dining companions for game nights, birthdays and holiday celebrations in the last few years.
[READ: I’m Married! Our Wedding]
More recently, I’ve been writing feature stories for Mabuhay Magazine. Ever since I read this world-class publication on my first Philippine Airlines flight to the US at age 13, I’ve been a fan. This trip to Singapore gave me a chance to meet the magazine’s editor, James. He toured me around the Ink Global office, where busy teams worked on pieces for several other in-flight magazines in Asia. He showed me the draft of the newest issue with my bio as a writer to 7-page feature on Cebuano music. Reading that magazine and seeing my photo in it is realizing my wildest fancy for the longest time.
The surprises in Singapore continue. On one of my long taxi rides, the elderly taxi driver offered me something unusual. “Have you eaten lunch, Miss?” He asks while pointing to his tablet on the dashboard. The time was 1:13 PM. With my self-defense instincts kicking in, I said no. I made an excuse that my bags are too heavy and I have to check-in. He said that he ’d be happy to invite me to the hawker stall a few meters away.
When I look back at that offer, I wonder what if I had agreed. More than 10 years ago on my last trip here, I was a just a teenager who played golf, ate bulgogi and spent an hour in the Night Safari. For a while, I worked with Singaporeans remotely. Now, I’m here as a journalist on assignment. In the future, I hope to come back more than just as a writer destitute for ideas. I hope that Singapore’s spirit and people continue to bless me.
About the Author
Crystal Neri is a freelance writer who has worked across media platforms in places as diverse as US, Singapore, and Australia. She lives in Cebu City where she covers travel and entrepreneurship at crystalneri.com. Say Hi to her (@nericrystal) on Twitter and Instagram. Subscribe to her newsletter: