Malaysia/Singapore Part 7: Bumboats and hotpants

Monsieur and I left the bowling ball bullfrog behind on Clarke Quay as we jumped on a bumboat (a.k.a. junk) to take us up the Singapore River. It was late afternoon grey as our almost empty boat set off from the jetty. Up the green river we went, under the pedestrian Riverwalk bridge and adjacent North Bridge Road, heavy with traffic, then on past a bustling Boat Quay already busy with diners at its myriad eateries.

The stunning Fullerton Hotel, rival to Raffles, impressed in full Palladian splendour at its prime position on the river as we motored on by. We doubled back near Merlion Park where a 70 tonne mythical animal (head of lion, body of fish) stands guarding the river. (This beast is called a ‘merlion’, hence the park’s name.) Close by, the skyscrapers of the business district loomed large above us, the neon signs of the world’s biggest banks recognisable against the now darkening sky, but it was difficult to take photos as the boat churned and chugged on the busy river. Every image blurred.

En route back to our starting point, we passed the Raffles Landing Site, with an impressive statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles (July 6 1781 – July 5 1826), himself, looking down on us, specks on the water. He was the acknowledged father of Singapore as we know it, but outside of this island nation is probably best known for the hotel of his name. A little further along we saw the colonial style of Old Parliament House next to the stark modern equivalent before returning to Clarke Quay and its Friday night revellers.

We alighted at the same platform where we’d left the bowling ball bullfrog and I was hoping to see him again, but I guess it was his Friday night, too, so he’d no doubt gone for a Bud – weis – errrrrrrrrrr.

As we walked along Clarke Quay, we noticed the many different styles of restaurant luring people out for a treat. There was the eponymous select-your-dinner-from-the-tank type of eatery, next to ethno-cool, with traditional Chinese dining rooms standing, lanterns waving, in between. Perched riverside were the off-shoot bars of some of the hipper restaurants, smart square umbrellas raised lest rain should threaten a steamy night of cocktails by the water. One such place heaved with be-suited boys from the C.B.D., attracted, no doubt, by the waitresses – slim Chinese beauties sporting bright orange hot pants. Monsieur’s jaw hit the floor but I refrained from hitting him. Just.

We wandered across the pedestrian Riverwalk Bridge before jumping around in the unpredictable traffic, of which there was much, as we crossed North Bridge Road to reach Boat Quay. This would be a great place for Jackie Chan (or similar) to practise his flying side kicks and avoidance leaps with the Singapore cabs. It’s crazy! Eventually we made it, breathless but alive (amazingly) with appetites. Following a trail of tantalising cooking aromas we found Boat Quay soon enough, a total change from Clarke Quay. The two are like chalk and cheese (or should I say ‘rice and noodles’?) The former is tourist trap central, replete with laminated point-and-order menu boards and eateries battling over patronage; the latter is confident cool with maitre d’s who’d never dream of hustling you in off the street. Reservations are the way forward on that side of the river.

On Boat Quay we had to fight our way along the path separating the restaurants from their outdoor seating areas. Had I had a sword, I would have swashbuckled. It was so crowded with touts and meandering tour groups that the grabbing hands and immovable clusters of people who thought nothing of stepping into your personal space deserved a clunk on the head with my mighty (imaginary) sword.

“Free bottle of wine! Free bottle of wine with dinner!” implored one tenacious tout, waving a menu at my nose. “You eat here, I give you free bottle!” We marched on but the tout remained unfazed. “TWO free bottles, I give you TWO free…” Pushing ourselves clear of the mania, Monsieur and I recovered by sitting awhile on a piece of clear embankment at the end of the food strip. We breathed deeply, watching the comings and goings on the Singapore River before retreating to Clarke Quay.

In the end we dined at a restaurant called Indochine, a stunning glass-fronted restaurant and bar which has been built into the sensitively restored Empress Place Building, now housing the Asian Civilisations Museum just by Raffles Landing. Had it not been so rainy, we might have sat on the waterfront terrace, but the outdoor tables were damp and deserted, so inside we went.

Our fellow patrons formed a microcosm of cosmopolitan Singapore: mixed couples enjoying quiet têtes à têtes, boozy bankers watching football on plasma screens above the bar, large groups of business associates from the four corners of the globe relaxing after a conference, and keen foodie tourists like ourselves. It was all so vibrant. The waitstaff were also noteworthy as they managed a perfect level of attentiveness without being intrusive. As we filled up on fresh spring rolls and (more) soft-shelled crab, I marvelled at the stunning Buddhist art hanging on a rear wall, and pondered how great the equilibrium was in this place. There was old and new, young and old, modern and traditional, all existing quite happily together.

As we finished eating, I felt one of those waves of uncontrollable emotion, that we females of the species are so prone to get. At least this time it was based in positivity; this trip was making me feel very, very lucky for all sorts of reasons. As my eyes filled involuntarily, Monsieur stared at me with furrowed brow. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Nothing,” I replied, “We’re just so lucky to be here,” I smiled at him as a tear plopped down my cheek. Monsieur looked back at me with that face that says ‘Women. How do you ever expect us to understand you when you do weird things like cry because you’re happy?’

Back at the hotel we were keen to celebrate our last night in Singapore with a drink at the Blu Bar on the 24th floor. The bar’s name comes from the bar itself, an island in the centre of the room, backlit with cool azure blue. As we teetered on stools at a window table, an energetic barman added percussion to the eighties music as he shook cocktails to the beat. Most of the patrons around us were businessmen, ties loosened or absent, easily beguiled into ‘just one more’ by the waitress, a stunning girl who’d been poured into her black cheongsam. A slit rose up one of her thighs, just short of being indecent, but you couldn’t question her work ethic. She flitted from table to bar and back to table, quietly reproaching anyone who pushed the boundaries of flirting as she repeatedly cleared and served whilst ensuring that no one was left unattended.

Monsieur and I sipped on Long Island Iced Teas as we chatted about adventures achieved and adventures yet to come, looking out at the vista of the dark Botanical Gardens and the lights of a distant port. The Power of Love by Frankie Goes To Hollywood (cue brown paper bag) played, instantly transported me to 1985 – I’d stopped biting my nails and knew every song on The American Top Forty. Isn’t it strange how music can do that?

Back in our room, lights off, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, but I could hear Monsieur across the huge bed. “Darling, he said, perhaps everything’s good now because you deserve it.”

That night, I was Conway in Shangri La.

To read the previous instalment, click here.

To read the next instalment, click here.

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