Dubai vs. Singapore

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Exactly 365 days since the day I boarded a plane in Changi Airport, I got on another flight to the Singapore of the Middle East: Dubai. It was so similar only there were less Asians (not much less though) and more Arabs (not much more though). They even sell Tiger Balm in pharmacies and serve Tiger Beer at bars.

Architecture
There are a lot of impressive structures in the city especially considering the factors that architects need to take into account when working on a project (sandstorms, intense heat, building on sand foundations). According to an episode of Strip the City, the Burj al Arab’s exterior takes 2 weeks to clean after a sandstorm and an entire coral reef was relocated to the Palms by being transported underwater while connected to a barge. Burj Khalifa is insane to see. However, I can’t help but feel like a lot of the architecture are like hybrids from other known monuments around the world. Dubai’s DIFC looks like our ESCWA building in downtown or a less impressive knock-off of Rem Koolhaas’ CCTV building in China. There are rumors that The Address, the hotel of the Dubai Mall, is building 2 more towers that will then have it resemble the Marina Bay Sands of Singapore but, then again, the Singapore flyer is a copy of the London Eye. Oddly enough, there already seems to be a cousin of the MBS in Abu Dhabi.

Greenery
SG is definitely greener. In all fairness, Dubai is supposed to be a desert so just the mere fact that it’s a constructed city that has more public parks than Beirut is already a step forward. The Greens, appropriately named, has a lake and greenery all around successfully creating the illusion that you’re not in the middle of Nevada. Dubai is a lot like Las Vegas in the sense that it’s a haven in what should be a barren land except it’s on a coast and there’s no gambling or strippers. Safa Park has a weekly farmer’s market every Friday and the Novotel Hotel has a green wall on its building’s facade. SG has the Botanical Gardens, Gardens by the Bay, and a forest between every parking space. Dubai has the Miracle Garden and other parks. Beirut has…AUB.

Weather in February
Unlike the tropically wet & humid days spent in SG, Dubai’s weather was dry & breezy. Not exactly beach weather but you can still suntan without heatstroke. This is short-lived though; Dubai suffers from desert heat starting around the end of April until mid-September. Mall culture is a big thing in both cities since weather keeps residents indoors as they try to avoid rain or sweat. Yum.

Being like the West
Although I had culture shock upon arriving in SG, I was told that it was the most Westernized city of Asia. Dubai, despite being an Arab city, was filled with so many expats from different nations that I never spoke Arabic while there. Like SG, Dubai tries very hard to emulate all things West except you can’t buy alcohol freely or kiss your boyfriend in public. There’s a Tony Roma’s though.

Metro Efficiency
I was thrilled to hear that Dubai had a metro but I never got to use it. Why? Turns out that the metro is made up of two lines that run through the city and the stops are too spread out. Unless one is walking distance from where you live, it is not very practical in terms of getting from point A to point B. The city is quite condensed but since it’s not pedestrian friendly (mostly because of the weather), it doesn’t make much sense to take the metro if you’re just going to end up in a cab to get to your actual destination.

Cab Drivers
Since speeding limits are pretty high on Sheikh Zayed Road, the main highway into the city, cab drivers like to go Dom Toretto when they get the chance. At some point, one cab driver sped through an intersection and said “many accidents here haha.” HOW IS THAT FUNNY? Never say the words, “I’m so tired” upon getting in because they’ll take longer routes to jack up the meter while you’re too tired to notice. Even if you spent 8 hours in Dubai Mall, pay attention. It’s a small city so it’s not that hard to learn the roads. If it takes more than 20 minutes, you’re being robbed. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED. Drivers in SG have also been inspired by GTA and Need For Speed.

While lost looking for a restaurant in DIFC, a former American resident of Singapore said, “Yup, it’s going to be just like it in 10 years.” I’ll give it 5.

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10 Architectural Wonders in Singapore

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1. Marina Bay Sands Hotel

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Possibly the biggest and most well-known chunk of the Singapore skyline, the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and Casino is made up of 3 towers with a giant boat-like structure joining them at the top (57th floor). On said floor, there’s an infinity pool overlooking the entire central district, a restaurant/chocolate bar, and the popular club, Ku De Ta. The ground level connects directly to the metro system and has it’s own shopping mall complete with gondola pond, skating rink, and food court. It’s the most expensive standalone casino property valued at $8 billion. It was designed by Israeli/Canadian architect, Moshe Safdie who says it’s design was inspired by card decks.

2. Helix Bridge

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Due to the fact that this bridge brings together science and design in one structure, it is one of my favorites. The helical bridge leads straight to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and the Artscience Museum (how appropriate). Designed by Australian and Singaporean architects and engineers, it was opened in 2010. Although I didn’t get to see it up close when lit at night, I’ve read that it’s lit in alternating colors to represent the nitrogenous bases of the DNA double helix. Don’t you love the level of geek?

3. Esplanade

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This center for theatre and the arts is located by the Bay and you can’t miss it because of one simple architectural detail: it looks like a huge durian. Now why anyone would want to design a building to look like the most vile smelling fruit on the planet is beyond me but it’s probably because the spiky organic grenade appearance is funky when applied to a gigantic 3D space. The building opened its doors in 2002, has triangular panels applied to its exterior, and is lit up at night – and no, it doesn’t smell.

4. Artscience Museum

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Also designed by Moshe Safdie, the museum’s shape is a blossoming lotus flower. It has 21 gallery spaces and usually hosts exhibitions that are shown at museums around the world. This February, they had the “Art of the Brick” exhibition for NY-based Lebanese artist, Nathan Sawaya. He builds sculptures using Lego pieces. There was also a photography exhibition that had a disposable camera under glass as if it were something sacred from the past. It seemed ridiculous but that didn’t stop me from feeling older than Maggie Smith.

5. Louis Vuitton by the Bay

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The LV Island Maison is a glass pavilion that sits on the water surface right outside the MBS hotel. The store has a nautical theme and resembles the Avalon, a club not too far down the strip that has a similar geometric glass box shape. It was a collaborative design by Moshe Safdie (again) and Peter Marino. The glass panels are fit with UV-resistant membranes so that the luxury goods inside are not affected. My picture doesn’t do it justice so watch this to see/learn more.

6. Ion Shopping Center

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Being one of many underground shopping malls located on Orchard Road, Ion was the first I went to – and the only one I kept going back to. It’s curvaceous glass exterior makes it seem quite other-worldly. Even the MRT station entrance (the bubble between the two red columns in the photo) looks like a teleportation system from Kubrick’s Space Odyssey. The first few floors, which are above ground, are high-end luxury retail shops. Those below are the more pocket-friendly. It’s sort of like the Titanic, the lower you go, the cheaper it is.

7. Colonial Buildings & HBDs

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A lot of the non-skyscraper architecture of SG dates back to the colonial period; there are lines of shophouses (imagine those townhouses on a typical San Francisco street) and black & white bungalows. According to Wiki, “In Singapore, they were built from the 19th century until World War II. The style incorporated elements of UK’s Arts and Crafts and Art Deco movements as well as the need of wealthy expatriate families for airy and spacious family homes. Black-and-Whites were built by wealthy families, the leading commercial firms and above all, the Public Works Department and the British Armed Forces.”

These old-style residences are usually up against the backdrop of towering HBDs (Housing and Development Board), which are complexes that are a form of low-cost state-built public housing. The most colorful HBDs I saw were found in the area between Bugis & Arab Street – they reminded me of the pink and yellow houses of Ashrafieh.

8. The Gardens by the Bay

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The two domes

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Inside the Flower Dome

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The Falls – inside The Cloud

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The mountain inside The Cloud

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Taking a walk through the Supertrees

Recently opened in 2012, the 350 billion dollar project “Gardens by the Bay” is made up of two large domes, various gardens, and the Skyway. The two biodomes, The Flower Dome and The Cloud, house various species of flora within a temperature controlled environment. The Flower Dome has species from different parts of the planet divided based on geography/climate. The Cloud focuses on endangered flora that grow at higher altitudes – now at risk because of global warming. The Skyway is comprised of large tree canopies (also known as Supertrees) that are fitted with solar panels, hanging gardens, and rainwater catches. There’s a walkway that joins two of the trees so that you can walk across the 22-meter structures and take panoramic pictures of the gardens and the rest of the SG skyline.

9. Star Vista

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The Star Vista is another shopping/food plaza that also houses a large auditorium for shows. Located right outside the Buona Vista MRT exchange, it is one of the only shopping centers in SG without air conditioning. “The 15-storey mixed-development building keeps cool by optimising wind flow and air movement through open-air walkways and a 33m-high grand foyer that is not closed up so air can flow in. The shops, however, are air-conditioned.”  (source) The $976 million project was brought to life by American architect, Andrew Bromberg of Aedes architectural firm.

10. Red Dot Traffic Building

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Pretty Red Mailboxes

What used to be a traffic police headquarters is now home to restaurants and the Red Dot Design Museum. It’s located on Maxwell Road, walking distance from the Maxwell Hawker Centre so you can have a plate of chicken rice after you’re done sifting through the winners of the Red Dot Design awards (entrance to the museum is S$8, S$4 for students). When at the food stall, make sure to get all the little tubs of sauces and be generous with the combination that you prefer. When it’s boiled chicken, we all know the truth: it’s all about the sauce.

Disclaimer: These are just a FEW of the many architectural wonders of SG. 

Between Singapore & Beirut

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DIFFERENCES

1.) Dress code

Although shopping is a daily activity in the life of a Singaporean resident, the dress code remains very chilled and casual. Unlike London, Paris, and Beirut, Singapore did not strike me as a place where people were very concerned with their daily attire. It’s more like the States in that it is perfectly okay to go to the supermarket in your pajama bottoms, wife-beater, and flip flops – and that’s without it being your “look” like the ensemble was intentionally chosen. It may be difficult due to the weather.

To make this clearer, in Beirut, you have around 5 basic levels of attire based on where you’re going that increase in snazziness gradually: Home/Teta, Work/Hamra/Uruguay St, Gemmayzeh, Clubbing, and Wedding. When in SG, I did not go higher than Level 2.

2.) Rules

There are so many rules and laws in SG that I was missing the chaotic corruption of Beirut (I got over it). Gum to SG is what pot is to Amsterdam in that you can have it but you can’t import it. Most travel to Amsterdam because you can order hash like it’s a non-hash hashbrown – or is it? Not exactly the same thing with gum in SG. You are not going to travel to SG just to chew gum because a.) it’s gum b.) unlike Amsterdam’s pot, it is not sold in stores and c.) people will give you disgusted looks while you blow bubbles and chew like a camel. What can I say, I’m graceful.

Besides gum, the people are also pretty strict on each other. There are websites where people tattle on each other for doing god-awful things like murals…which were commissioned by their own government. Fail.

3.) Alcohol

Unless you stick to local beer and whatever you managed to bring in from the duty free, booze in SG will cost you. Don’t worry, there’s Ladies Nights and affordable supermarket wine. In Beirut, you can have a good bunch of drinks for under $50, enjoy happy hours galore, or just go to Ahla A’lam and drink alcohol straight up out of plastic turkish coffee cups – if you survive, you’ll have a hangover for 48 hours.

4.) Public Transportation

SG has a subway system. And public buses. And cabs. And merlions that take you to school when it’s raining. Okay, that one’s not true but I wouldn’t be surprised if that happened by next year since they’re development projects come to life so quickly. I love any city that has a functioning subway – and every time I remember that Beirut doesn’t have one, I cry. On the inside. Of my car.

5.) Greenery

SG is actually a long lost jungle that happens to have roads and a metro. It’s not even a joke. You can be sitting having a club sandwich at a cafe in the middle of a rainforest except it’s not the Rainforest Cafe, you’re just in the middle of the Asian Amazon. Some of the most visited attractions are tributes to plantlife and flowers like the Gardens by the Bay and the Singapore Botanic Gardens. On the other hand, the greenest area in Beirut would be the AUB campus or the ABC parking lot at 9 am. Yes, I mean the parking sensors.

SIMILARITIES

1.) Rooftop Bars

Perhaps because the central district has such a great view, SG rooftop bars are popular but not practical. Unpredictable rain doesn’t help outdoor terraces but the drizzle doesn’t stop anyone from taking it all in anyway. Without mentioning music preferences and ambiance, the better weather and cheaper alcohol may put Beirut ahead of SG in this category.

2.) Religious Melting Pot

Pagodas and Hindu temples are the equivalent to Beirut’s collection of churches and mosques. Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam – there’s a whole mix of sects too. Sound familiar? Yay, three cheers for coexistence!

3.) Actual Melting Pot

Food tourism is a big similarity. In SG, you have the choice to eat from all kinds of Asian cuisine: Thai, Indonesian, Chinese, Malay, Japanese, Indian – there’s even a large selection of Western chains including California Pizza Kitchen and The Cut by Wolfgang Puck. If you’re not too adventurous, you can have the Teppanyaki Chicken Sandwich from McDonald’s – just a small dose of Asian on top of a chicken burger you’re used to. Beirut has the same array of food to choose from with a complete set of Mediterranean deliciousness. No CPK or Puck here yet, but we do have Gaucho and Le Relais de l’Entrecote. Even Asian is taking over in a not-just-sushi-way; however, I still would prefer a whole bowl of tabbouli over a wok of stir-fry. Represent.

4.) Compared to Dubai

Much like Beirut, Singapore has been compared to the city of Dubai except that their comparison is more accurate. Singapore went from an infertile island with no natural resources into a “highly developed Asian megalopolis”; a lot like the city that rose from the sands in the Emirates. A colleague of mine once said that if you visit Dubai, the skyline looks as if someone copied the outline of Singapore and pasted it in the Arab world. Regardless of how true that is, both have been artificially constructed to some extent – how much? I can’t say for I have yet to go to Dubai.

5.) Size Doesn’t Matter

Singapore and Beirut are both ridiculously tiny but that just goes to show that kilometers are just numbers; it’s how you use them that makes all the difference.

10 Fun Facts about Singy/S’pore/SG

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Singapore, in my mind, can be summed up in 3 words: green, clean, and Asian- although I was told repeatedly that Singapore was the most westernized Asian destination. Still, as an Arab who had never been anywhere past the Middle East when it came to Asia, Singapore was very different than any other city I had experienced as a tourist.
1.) You can drink from the tap and perhaps my stomach is tough but I survived it – and if you do order a drink, ask for lime juice. Instead of being a sour mix of green like you’d expect, it’s a light tangy refreshment. One place in Chinatown called G7, known for its bullfrog porridge, had particularly sweet orange-colored lime juice. Alcohol is very expensive so stock up on a few bottles from the duty free upon arrival – but beware, there are restrictions as to how much alcohol you can buy upon entry. Specific combinations are as follows: 1 pack of beer, 1 wine bottle, 1 bottle of spirits or 2 bottles of wine and 1 pack of beer or only 2 packs of beer. Drug trafficking will get you the death penalty so keep it clean.

2.) Rain boots are futile. It’s the first time I ever walked through puddles in sandals, complained about the heat in the middle of a thunderstorm, and felt fluffier than a freshly permed chia pet – all during the month of February. Being so close to the equator means that Singapore is tropical year-round, and wet all the time. And that’s what she said.

3.) Cab drivers, who are also called “uncle”, don’t know their way around the city-state, which is only 274 square miles, and insist that you tell them how to get to where you’re going. God help you if you don’t know where that is…which is the case for most tourists on the planet. They are not the best drivers – there were some close calls with a few BUSES. Their music fluctuates and is in any language: one lady driver was cruising to a melody that sounded like the Chinese Wizard of Oz soundtrack whereas my driver to the airport, Mr. Boo, was grooving to Spice Girls. And drivers sit in the right seat – it’s all quite British except that you’re in Asia. You don’t need cabs – the metro and the buses are enough to get around if you’re not out too late. Bring something to read though because some transits can be long rides. Unlike London where passengers were all buried in books or newspapers, Singy locals are all glued to their devices probably due to there being cellular reception underground.

4.) Like most things that would be antiestablishment and/or illegal in Singy, street art is virtually nonexistent. The street art that does exist isn’t real street art since its commissioned by the government. The biggest form of creative public intervention seen were some stickers and one phrase on a wall on Arab street.

5.) Most malls are underground. Connected through the metro and having the luxury brand names on the ground level, malls run deep in the earth and are also interconnected with each other. Consumerism is a huge part of Singapore – seeing that the average resident has a high salary, they have plenty to spare on goods and the schizophrenic weather keeps them indoors long enough that there’s only one place to go on a rainy day: the mall. There are mini malls in between metro stations and a giant maze of shopping centers on Orchard Road. I think I saw 4 Louis Vuittons in a stretch of 1 mile.

6.) Street markets and food centers (hawker centers) are something we are missing out on – offering cheap goods, clothing, and food. The street markets in every country must have the same source supplier given that I have items I’ve bought from the UK and France that popped up in Singapore’s Chinatown and Bugis. Sure, they’re probably bad quality (but who cares at S$10/piece) and the chicken rice may give you salmonella poisoning but what’s travel without a little adventure and germs? If it makes you feel better, Anthony Bourdain visited a few but, then again, that guy eats everything. Regardless, food stalls are graded in cleanliness and have a big range of dishes from all around the region. I preferred murtabak which I was told was Malaysian but upon a quick search, it seems it’s Arab – no wonder I liked it. Just pour chili sauce on whatever you’re eating and it’ll taste good, no joke. Besides the spice, get some honey banana fritters for dessert.

7.) Tiger Beer, Tiger Balm, and the Merlion – 3 things that I associate with Singapore now: the first two are born in the country. Tiger beer, started in 1932, is light and doesn’t give you that beer-belly feeling. Fans of Almaza may not think it’s “real beer”; I liked it but I also like margaritas and Baileys. Just saying, I’m not much of a hardcore drinker. The Merlion is a signature of Singapore  because “Singapore” means “Lion’s City” in Sanskrit and the mythical creature was used to symbolize the city by combining it’s name with it’s past: a small fishing village. It’s now Singapore’s mascot around the world thanks to the statue that sits at the Marina Bay.

8.) Mustafa Center – located in Little India, it’s pretty much a shopping center that could be a small city. This place has merchandise, a pharmacy, a fresh produce grocery, a giant money exchange, and a restaurant on the roof. It has everything from “Sexfuel” pills to London souvenirs. Yeah, I don’t know why either.

9.) When giving you change and your receipt, they use both hands and you are expected to receive it with both hands as well.

10.) You’re not allowed to eat or drink on the metro or the bus but there are plenty of restaurants and 7/11s in between stations to grab quick bites. Bread Talk for some pork floss? Prawn balls, curry pockets, or maybe just some French fries from McDonald’s with chili sauce? If you’re not a big fan of Asian cuisine, there’s a bunch of Western spots and a Starbucks every 10 paces. Or just pop in to any Indian joint and fill up on garlic naan while waiting for tandoori chicken (practically like a farooj). Or have some dosai with masala potatoes dipped in an array of sauces. Or hazelnut crumb brownies from Awfully Chocolate. Really, food’s not an issue – you’ll find something.

But whatever you do, stay away from the durians.

Tiger Balm Disneyland

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Haw Par Villa, or as I came to think of it “Moussa’s Castle for Crazies”, is an abandoned theme park located in Singapore. Locals call it “Chinese Disneyland” and foreign residents call it “Creepyland” for this place is the exact dilapidated nightmare you would imagine when thinking up a spooky ride based on Chinese folklore with brightly painted figurines.

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Formerly known as the “Gardens of Tiger Balm”, Haw Par Villa is named after the Burmese brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par. They were manufacturers of the famous Tiger Balm – or as us Arabs know it: “Abu Feis.” Their graves are also in the middle of the park in giant phallic beige stone structures.

Side note: Tiger balm is some pretty magical stuff- it smells like Vicks Vaporub and is great for mosquito bites, which is handy because Singaporean mosquitoes are silent non-buzzing sneaky mofos that can give you Dengue fever.

Although Moussa’s Castle’s history is somewhat more dreamy and romantic, Haw Par Villa revolves around legends and Confucianism beliefs. The one section that is the most – let’s go with “captivating”- is the part of the park that is dedicated to the Ten Courts of Hell.

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Here, you walk through a garden displaying a killer rodent battle where rabid rabbits and rats attack and maim each other. Upon passing through the entrance that is decorated with mini severed heads and two guardians, you see the 10 different courts that a person must go through where they will be judged and punished for their crimes.

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Plaques describe various crimes with corresponding punishments – those of which are shown visually with colorful statues within the cave-like structure. You know, just in case you have a weak imagination and wouldn’t know what it’s like to grind up your siblings under large stones because they didn’t obey you during your lifetimes. All crimes and punishments seem to be a way of discouraging visitors from being “bad” people. That wouldn’t justify bringing 5 year olds to such a park in my opinion but, then again, my little sister loves movies about dismemberment and the undead so what do I know about kids these days.

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I read that many of the statues had been updated technologically so that they’d move, blink, and growl; however, upon my visit, they were completely stationary- at least, while I was looking at them. Due to the rainy weather, it was empty, making it all the more creepy, but the park generally seems to be a forgotten landmark.

And it is because of this that it’s definitely a place to go see: it’s weird, one-of-a-kind, and photogenic. Plus, entrance is free.

SMRT station: Haw Par Villa (Circle Line- Yellow)