Out of this world: The disorientating delights of Singapore

Singapore cityscape. (Shutterstock)
Updated 17 October 2018
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Out of this world: The disorientating delights of Singapore

  • Singapore feels like a vision of the future
  • A dreamlike sense of utopia accompanies the city

AMMAN: More than anywhere else I’ve visited, Singapore feels like a vision of the future. Sure, there are cities with taller skyscrapers, faster trains and a more fervent embrace of LED lights, but there’s something about the uniform modernity, efficiency — and, yes, cleanliness — of the southernmost Asian Tiger that seems like a very particular glimpse of an imagined sci-fi world. There is certainly nowhere else on earth you can stroll through a simulated cloud forest, in the world’s largest greenhouse, and be back at the roulette table, or sleeping in a five-star hotel, within minutes.
All this is possible within Singapore’s ultra-modern waterside core, which radiates outwards from the skyline-hugging, S$8 billion, Marina Bay Sands resort — an imposing row of three skyscrapers linked by the 340-meter SkyPark. Such brazen disregard for the rules of nature have led to inevitable comparisons with the Gulf’s vertiginous post-globalized metropolizes (which are not always unfounded — the Sands bears more than a passing resemblance to Abu Dhabi’s The Gate Towers).


In front sits the ultra-modern, and excellent, ArtScience Museum, its curved outcrops shaped to resemble a lotus flower (or an open hand). Behind you’ll find the beguiling Gardens by the Bay, a 100-hectare stretch of exotic vegetation that has no business in a tropical climate, punctuated by giant dancing steel “supertrees” serving a nightly lightshow. The real freakery takes place inside two huge ticketed greenhouses, the technicolor splendor of the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest, which eerily simulates climbing a mountain. If feels, of course, nothing like a real forest — but an imagined reconstruction by post-apocalyptic survivors.
But Singapore’s architectural and horticultural conjuring is only part of the story. A sense of post-national futurism feels stamped in the spiritual DNA of the place. Singapore has four official languages — but non-native English is the most widely understood, with 80 percent fluency. In this imagined future, a global tongue overcomes all tribalism.
Singapore’s fabled orderliness really is a thing. After a few hours in the country, spotting a discarded cigarette butt feels like proof of a minor insurrection. It’s notable that one selling point of the famed Long Bar at Raffles Hotel — established in 1887 and named after the Brit who founded the city — is being allowed, nay encouraged, to throw peanut shells on the floor, in some arcane colonial ritual. Fun has never felt quite so organized.
Leisure takes place where and when its supposed to, such as on Sentosa — a former POW camp brutally used by the Japanese in World War Two, now a resort island that’s home to 14 hotels, two golf courses, Universal Studios Singapore and the city’s second casino. A five-square-kilometer super-real whirl of primary colors, it’s hard to imagine a more artificial environment outside of Disneyland.


This dreamlike sense of utopia accompanies one across the city. Most unnerving is a visit to the much-hyped Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street — traditional neighborhoods which have been brazenly gentrified into sanitized tourist attractions. Strolling through the former, I look up at rows of brightly colored banners waving from every window of an apartment building. What looked like a vibrant display of individuality unraveled when I realized every banner was of a uniform size and placement.
But this could teach the Gulf’s rapidly modernizing cities a valuable trick: Rather than decimating low-income neighborhoods, often home to colorful communities — give them a clever name and market them as cultural destinations. Who wouldn’t want to visit Mini Manila or Little Lagos, after all?


Delightful Delhi: a heady mix of culture, cuisine and shopping

Delightful Delhi:a heady mix of culture, cuisine and shopping. (Shutterstock)
Updated 17 January 2019
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Delightful Delhi: a heady mix of culture, cuisine and shopping

  • New Delhi is where India’s rich, complex history collides with its post-modern ambitions
  • The best way to discover this great city is through its food, temples and shopping streets

DUBAI: Mirza Ghalib once poetically quoted his own soul as saying: “The world is the body and Delhi is its heart.”

Lofty as the claim is, there are probably few better ways to describe this chaotic, colorful city, where India’s rich, complex history collides with its post-modern ambitions, where the country’s power players live minutes from abject poverty, where many different cultures, cuisines and faiths seamlessly coexist. For such extreme contrasts to find a rhythmic harmony, heart needs to be a big part of the equation.

While there are guidebooks aplenty to show you around the many historical sights, the incredible architecture, and the museums and art of Delhi, the best way to discover the heart (and soul) of this great city is through its food, temples and shopping streets.

Delhi’s finest food can arguably be found at Indian Accent. Regularly ranked as India’s best restaurant in various awards, this upscale eatery is one of the pioneers of modern Indian dining, offering an inventive take on traditional Indian flavors, and combining them with European-style finesse. There are many others doing similar things in India now, but under the stewardship of celebrated executive chef Manish Mehrotra, Indian Accent continues to maintain its podium finish status.

The contemporary, intimate venue oozes understated sophistication — with not a hint of Indian kitsch in sight — providing the perfect setting for the seasonal menus. An amuse-bouche could include delicate carrot shorba (soup), aloo tikki (potato croquettes) and mini dhoklas (steamed fermented rice cakes), while a must-try dish is the restaurant’s refined take on that quintessential street food phuchka (‘potato spheres’ stuffed with spicy mashed potato and doused in flavored waters — served here as shooters in five different flavors). Best to place your trust in the chefs however, and try the degustation menu (which should include their signature dessert, daulat ki chaat, an Old Delhi classic of chilled mousse-like cream; but if it doesn’t, ask for it).

Elsewhere, Lavash by Saby — a classic example of Delhi’s multi-faceted dining scene — specializes in the delicious micro-cuisine of Bengal Armenians. This trendy venue is located in the chic precinct of Mehrauli.

Delhi is home some of India’s largest Hindu temples and mosques, but the non-denominational Bah’ai Lotus House is my top recommendation for those seeking some spirituality. Acclaimed for its unique lotus design — not dissimilar to the Sydney Opera House — the white marble temple is worth visiting as much for its award-winning architecture as for the tranquility that suffuses its atmosphere. Bah’ai temples welcome everyone, without discrimination, and this is a true oasis, offering a welcome respite from the city’s hustle and bustle.

For more wonderful architecture, visit the “spiritual-cultural campus” of Akshardham. It’s a relatively modern structure among the thousands of ancient temples across India, but what it may lack in historic value, it more than makes up for in the beauty of its buildings and their surroundings. The impressive architecture incorporates a variety of traditional styles, and Akshardham provides a diversity of attractions for visitors, from exhibitions to its stunning gardens.

If you’re looking for retail — rather than spiritual — therapy, Delhi runs the gamut of options, from designer boutiques to street-side stalls. To shop like a local, head to Mehar Chand Market, the city’s latest retail district. A (relatively) recently gentrified precinct, this neighborhood market has replaced its groceries and tailoring shops with chic stores, all with a distinct skew toward the indie and artisanal. Amidst the quirky street art, the stylishly updated heritage shophouses are now home to handspun garments in Ekmatra, unique homeware in Nicobar, eclectic designs in The Shop, plus boutiques by a new brigade of Indian designers including Masaba. The enclave is also emerging as a dining hub, with venues such as Altitude Café (a healthy eatery offering locally-inspired gourmet goodies) punctuating the stores.

Also popular among Delhi’s trendsetters is Hauz Khas Village — a historic complex in which the medieval-era buildings now house an achingly hip selection of designer boutiques, galleries and cafés.

Even if you’ve only got a few days to spare, a trip to this thriving city should satisfy any visitor, regardless of their aims. Delhi really does have something for everyone, and fully justifies Ghalib’s lofty claims on its behalf.