My sister Molly recently moved to Singapore from Sydney, and for me it proved a great excuse for a trip. So I took off January for a sisterly visit, to explore a region I had never traveled: Southeast Asia. The non-stop flight out of Newark Airport lasted 18 hours – and when I landed it was two days later.
On the equator, the island nation of Singapore, with its tropical rainforest climate, is continually hot and humid and enjoys sunrises and sunsets at 7:00 every day. The orderly country afforded me the chance to visit two big museums in one afternoon. And the shopping is beyond abundant. And because of the heat, everything is in a mall: shops, fine restaurants, nail salons, grocery stores, doctors’ offices, condos, museums . . . everything. It’s sort of bizarre. You never have to leave the air conditioned hallways. Everyone speaks English, the currency is in Singapore dollars and there is a Starbucks on every corner. So far, it didn’t seem to have much of an Eastern vibe. But I hadn’t sampled the food yet.
Singapore is famed for its food, and I was lucky to sample a lot of it. Food stalls stand in an endless array (many in the malls, of course), inexpensive and for the adventurous of palette– as you are never quite sure what you are getting. Black pepper crab is a national favorite, and nothing like our Chesapeake Bay crustaceans. One spicy crab will feed a family of five. And it is delicious.
Strangely, all the big-name American chefs have restaurants here. We dined at Wolfgang Puck’s super-expensive steakhouse, Cut, which was a surprising treat.
Green space covers half of this tiny country, which has a botanic garden with 66,000 orchids and an amazing tree-top walk over a forest. It also has the second largest casino gambling market in the world. I loved that there weren’t a lot of sightseeing must-dos, which allowed me to explore the city at my own pace and interest.
Then, our serious adventures began. Molly and I spent a week in precarious paradise: the Maldives, southwest of the tip of India and Sri Lanka. Fortunately, we left before the recent government upheaval, but the country was truly breathtaking.
It is hard to describe the magnificence of these islands in the Indian Ocean. It felt like Disneyland come true. The water was the clearest of blues, the sand pearl white and fine as baby powder. The territory of the Maldives, of which there are 200 inhabited islands (90 of which are individual private resorts), is ninety-nine percent ocean, and we hopped from island to island by boat or plane.
Upon landing at the capital city of Male, we took a seaplane to the Anantara Kihavah Resort Island. It is one of the larger resorts in the Maldives, and yet it only takes about 15 minutes to walk the perimeter. Our villa was stunning and opulent, right on the beach with two outdoor showers, a bathtub that would seat six (if we were so inclined) and our own swimming pool. The staff came from all over the world.
We did a lot of snorkeling on the reef about 100 yards from our door. The fish were otherworldly. We went to the spa – each treatment room is perched above the ocean with a glass floor so that you can watch the fish swim by while you are getting a massage. We ate and drank and ate some more. One of the five restaurants at the resort is like a reverse aquarium. It is a glass room fully submerged in the lagoon. While you are eating your fish, you can see his cousin swimming on by. I was completely rejuvenated by the time we left, wishing only that we could have stayed another week.
Next up, we flew to Thailand to celebrate Chinese New Year. Our first stop was Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second largest city, located in the north, between Laos and Burma. The weather was a little cooler than Singapore and the Maldives and extremely pleasant by contrast. We had only four days here but made the most of them, as we rode elephants and ox carts and sailed the Ping River on a bamboo raft. We did some power shopping at the Night Market, a huge area of the old city where the streets are closed off on Sunday night for thousands of vendors to set up stalls, selling everything from silk scarves and jewelry to fried fish heads. We experienced everything from gorgeous temples to restaurants in rice paddies. The Thai people are the world’s most hospitable hosts.
From there, I headed (sans sister) to Koh Samui, where I attended a four-day yoga retreat on the beach. While the water wasn’t as blue and the sand not as white as Maldives, I muddled through. I practiced at least three hours of yoga a day in a gazebo overlooking the Gulf of Thailand, had three massages, read a couple of books and ate the most healthful, delicious food.
For a final hurrah in Singapore, I rejoined Molly before boarding that 18-hour flight back home. While sad to leave, I know I’ll return. As they say in Singapore, “Onward.”