HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, May 7, 2012

Taxicab Confessions: Singapore edition

I'm not going to give a full report on my weekend trip to Singapore because I covered a lot about the place in my posts after my first two trips there, but there are a few things worth mentioning. I went with my roommate Allison to act as moral support while she participated in a sprint triathlon - 750m swim, 20km cycle, 5km run.

As always I'm including some food pictures. This was my first meal, which we grabbed after putting my bike (which Allison was using) back together after it was boxed for the flight.
nasi lemak and prata
 On Saturday afternoon there was a regatta taking place at Marina Bay. We also finally saw the Hunger Games - definitely an entertaining movie, but not as good as the book.

free music on the bay
 We stayed in Gaylang, the same neighborhood I stayed in during my last trip. This area is famous for being Singapore's red-light district (although the only time I saw any prostitutes was at 9:30am on Sunday morning), in addition to having some of the best cheap restaurants on the island, many of which are open 24 hours. On Saturday night we chowed down on some dim sum.

The following morning we went back for more at the crack of dawn, before the triathlon, as tables full of stylishly dressed club-goers finished off their night with a 6am meal before stumbling into a taxi.

Getting to the triathlon proved to be quite an adventure, and was my first experience with Singaporean taxi drivers. They are a cheeky bunch. We flagged one down outside of our hotel, and he blocked a section of the driveway to let us in, though there was still plenty of room for other vehicles. It took a minute to figure out how to fit the bike in, and as we were doing that a minivan pulled up with a very cranky Chinese man at the wheel. He began shouting at us:
"You can't stop here! There are regulations!"
Allison - "Sir, there is plenty of space for you to pull in."

We wondered who had pissed in his corn flakes, but the bike was in so we hopped into the cab, ready to go. The taxi driver got in, and then proceeded to get right back out to argue with the van driver, who had pulled in and parked near the hotel's front door. Allison did not want to miss the start of her race, so she began pleading: "Sir, please get back in the taxi. I'm in a big hurry. Sir...sir...please get in the car. Gentlemen! Life is short! Smile!" Our driver got back in, but then we noticed that the curmudgeonly van guy was writing down the cab's number. "Oh great," I thought "he's gonna get back out and argue some more." Instead, the taxi driver sighed and pulled away while lamenting that "I have a bad taxi number. Many complaints. I have to go to the office and waste so much time." At that point I felt bad, but he seemed to be OK.

For some reason the triathlon organizers hadn't given clear directions on how to get to the course, the website simply said "Changi Beach", which is a huge stretch of land. We ended up at a point where the road was closed for the bicycle leg of the race, so we got out there and figured we could walk the rest of the way. As the taxi drove off a policeman walked up and said the registration area was 5km away. Crap. We jumped in another cab that was about to leave and told him what the problem was. His response was, "Oh! You need to get there in a hurry!" He then gunned it and tore through the streets, cursing a man who's car had broken down in our lane, and calling someone trying to cross the street that he nearly plowed into a "crazy guy". Needless to say, we made it in plenty of time.

It was a beautiful morning, but the equatorial sun was violently strong, even at 8am. Standing outside of the shade for more than a few minutes was extremely uncomfortable. I was glad I wasn't taking part. Despite the heat Allison did well, nearly meeting her goal of finishing in 90 minutes. I was glad that she did my cheap, bare-bones bike proud, especially considering some of the disgustingly awesome-looking racing bikes most of the people had at their disposal.
some sort of mammoth piece of machinery
Allison's heat entering the water
Allison finishing the swim and heading towards the bike transition
the course was directly beneath one of the approaches to Changi airport
beasting the cycle leg
I found this sign funny. It's odd going to Singapore from Saigon, where everything is a giant free-for-all and you can do almost anything.
family finish
bike porn
Like I said, the airport was close.
The third of four interesting taxi experiences came as we tried to leave the triathlon area. It had taken place in the middle of nowhere, behind the airport, and the few taxis we saw had already been hired or called ahead of time. I got on my bike and cycled down the road to see if I could find anymore, to no avail. We asked one taxi driver if he could call another from his company, but he said that would cost S$10 (8 USD) plus the fare. WTF? After waiting for an hour, with a massive thunderstorm brewing in the distance, we asked the information desk for help and they called a cab. I couldn't help but think that, if this had been Saigon, there would've been 400 cabbies kicking each other in the face to pick up foreigners, even if it was way outside of the city. The lack of interest in sending more taxis out was weird, especially since there were a lot of other people waiting. Anyways our cab finally showed up and the driver giggled at the amount of people standing around, in need of a ride. I mentioned that I had heard someone offer a cab that had already been booked S$50 for a lift and he chuckled: "Ah, if you are on call you must wait for that person. You can't take anyone else." My, how honorable. Once again I thought of taxi drivers in Vietnam - if you offered one 50 bucks he would kick out his own mother.
we went all American in Raffles City after the race
I think it's been over two or three years since I last ate McDonalds
near the river
shish kebab in Kampong Glam (Little Arabia)
Before boxing my bike back up (an exercise in frustration that nearly made me throw a wrench through a flat-screen TV) I decided to take it for a spin around the downtown area. While there are no dedicated bicycle lanes in Singapore, it felt great to be able to ride over smooth roads where people were aware of cyclists being around them. Although, weirdly, all of the other bike riders were on the sidewalk, which led me to believe I was doing something wrong, but none of the cops I passed did anything. Anyway, no one honked at me, I was able to use the bus lane a lot, and the smooth traffic meant I could belt along at high speed without having to worry about someone cutting me off or running me over. Although getting used to driving on the opposite (British) side of the road took a minute. Sadly I forgot my camera (d'oh!), because I ended up in a cool area called the Marina Barrage that offered some great viewpoints. Maybe next time.
Mutton murtabak, last meal before heading to the airport. I left Singapore completely stuffed on my first trips, so why break with tradition?
Normally I would take the subway to the airport, but since we had the bulky bike box to deal with we decided to hail another taxi. What a great idea that turned out to be. I was looking at a newer-model cab when I put my arm up, but a guy in an older, boxy taxi pulled up. We got in and he said, in heavily accented English, "I saw you put your arm up, but when I stopped you did nothing. I was confused." I had hesitated, since I wasn't sure if his older car would be big enough. It was. "Those new cars are too small. Mine is much better, but in four or five years there won't be any more of them because the engines are bad for carbon."

He continued his monologue on cars for a bit and at some point ended up mentioning Nicolas Sarkozy. He then talked about how he had learned his English from passengers. On his first day as a cabbie he didn't know a word of it. He drove for 10 hours and made the equivalent of S$3.80 an hour, "the same as a McDonald's worker." He realized he would have to learn some English to get more fares, and the next day he was able to use 'Hello!' and 'How are you doing?' He began asking passengers how to say things and simply listening.

He then found out we were from America and said:
"Ah, George Bush, he was no good. He had crazy thinking. He spent so much money! So much! Obama, he's still OK. The one before Bush, he made the economy good. There was a lot of money, but Bush spent a lot of it. What was his name..." We said 'Clinton'. "Yes! Clinton! He was very handsome."

As we clipped along the East Coast Parkway at 80km/h I asked him how the economy was in Singapore: "Yes, it's OK. If you want to know how Singapore's economy is you ask the taxi drivers, if people have less extra spending money they stop taking taxis and use the buses and subway. They will know first. If the world economy is bad there will be fewer tourists, and the taxi drivers will know this first."

He then boasted that he could say 'Hello' and 'How are you?' in 22 languages. We must have looked dubious because he said, "What, you don't believe me?" I asked him if he knew any Vietnamese:
"Yes! 'Cam on' - thank you. 'Khoe khong' - how are you?" He then rattled off such phrases in Hindi, Arabic ("Dubai"), Urdu ("Pakistan"), Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Khmer, Thai, Burmese, Malay, something from Sri Lanka, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Laotian. I was amazed. He said his father was a Hokkien Chinese, but personally he was born and raised in Singapore and has never been to China, although his wife is Burmese-Chinese and he has visited Myanmar four or five times.

He told us that we should learn Mandarin since we're young and tried to teach us a few phrases, though I've already forgotten them. He wondered if there was a big TV in the box, and was surprised to discover that it was a bike. I was actually somewhat disappointed when we got to the airport since this man was so utterly fascinating. I tipped him well and we were on our way back to Saigon.

As our taxi back to the house dove into the roiling chaos of this city's streets I was once again struck by how dramatically different Singapore is - it is the textbook definition of order and cleanliness, where Western courtesies and politeness are common, and nothing is out of place. The fact that none of that exists in Saigon is one of the city's charms, but it sure is nice to get away from it every once in a while.

P.S. Best t-shirt slogans seen while in Singapore:
1) Nobody is perfect. I am nobody.
2) Blink if you want me.
3) This is the definition of perfection.
All three were worn by pudgy Indian men.


  1. Thank you! I've been trying to remember the name of murtabak ever since I went to Singapore. We ordered a stupid amount and the waiter said, "No, that's too much, get a smaller one." Another 'this would never happen in Saigon' moment.

    1. Haha, nice to hear that he was looking out for you.

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