Singapore | August 2018

Quick things to know:
1. It’s hot. Wear tons of sunscreen, light clothes and bring a fan and water bottle.
2. Majority of people are bilingual, including English.
3. You can get around by walking, the Grab app, or very easy MRT trains.
4. Aside from restaurants, eat as much as you can in the hawker centers. Cheap and fast and delicious.

Traveling for almost 14 hours, and I find my last leg aboard an ANA Star Wars plane. I’m exhausted, ready to get to my hotel…and yet I squeezed out the last bits of excitement over seeing a stuffed Yoda greeting me and listening to C3PO explaining how to put on a seatbelt. I was on my way to Singapore… the start of a week long exploration, solo... and I was on a Star Wars plane.

Feeling the hot and humid air through the sliding doors at Changi airport reminded me of Manila. Seeing people who looked like me gave me warmth…but past that, everything was new. Singapore was new. New landscapes, new food. I was ready to walk out of that airport ready to experience this mighty island. But, that didn’t happen. It was past midnight and the cab ride was anti-climactic. I rode down an empty highway under the orange glow of the lights, zooming past silhouettes of trees. The only colors I saw were black and orange. But then we pulled into the hotel. Getting greeted by a traditionally dressed guard and walking into the decadence that was the Shangri-La Hotel lobby I suddenly felt like royalty (also, “Crazy Rich Asians” was about to be released so that definitely played a role). In those few minutes of checking in, I had forgotten it was so late, and I hadn’t slept in a real bed in nearly 24 hours. The lobby was fragrant, and I still think about it, and I crave it. It’s smelled like a rare, light, floral, infused rainforest.

My room was botanical and wooden and peaceful. I couldn’t go to sleep just yet (going on hour 25 now), so I walked onto my balcony and listened to the water flowing in the empty pool and feel the warm breeze from the palm trees. I was now half way across the world, across from my friends and family, across any problems. I was here. In Singapore.

I woke up, opened the balcony door and walked out to see flowers and palm trees. Damn, was it hot. Was it hotter than Manila? Maybe. Any hot, is hot. My first 2 days were spent for the shoot. At one point we were at a top floor suite’s balcony. This view was met with surrounding towers, and in between were patches of green. The hotel itself was endlessly captivating. I’ve been finding myself more into photographing shapes, lines and light rather than people, so walking around The Shang seeking every angle was a joy.
Click on the thumbnails to expand.

After shooting the hotel, we out into town. One of the coolest stops was Rumah Kim Choo to learn about Peranakan history. Inside and upstairs were old photographs, fabrics and decorations. And then we met Edmond. For about an hour, he told us stories of Peranakan history alongside the food sampling. The pride he had telling its rich and intertwined culture was contagious - I could listen to him speak for days. He presented us with 3 dishes. My favorite being the Kueh Lapis (a 9 layer cake) because of what it represented. The layers were different natural colors, the light ones representing the good and the darker ones, the bad parts of your life. Not only do you need every layer to make this cake, but also to have a well balanced life (or as he put it, the rainbow of your life). A little cheesy yes, but I bought into it. From there we were off to other Singapore landmarks like The Botanic Gardens and Merlion Park. And that’s a wrap. I parted ways with my team and made my way to the Yotel, then Penang for a few days, and then back to Singapore.

This was my first true solo trip. Traveling alone I know all too well, but going somewhere I’ve never been with no familiar face in sight was new. My best friend is google maps. I don’t like strict itineraries, the only times I want to mark are reservations or museum exhibits. Everything else goes by the map. I like to walk, observe, take photos and eat. There was a Parts Unknown episode on Singapore which I obviously watched and took copious notes on where he ate before coming. I made my way to 545 Whampoa Prawn Noodles, in the Tekka Food Centre. I ordered the dish, sat down and ate. In between bites I reflected on being in the same spot Anthony Bourdain ate. When I read of his death, I didn’t expect it to affect me so much. The way he described every city was a love letter with an edge. His curiosity was infectious, and while he lived a life that any one with the love for travel envied, we never knew what he was really going through inside. Maybe because of him, or being thousands of miles away from home, or just the way my life was going, or (quite possibly) the heat, I had a renewed sense to keep traveling and documenting. I also felt a new shift in me. Something a little more calm, more still. Stepping back for a second to really soak this in. Take more time to see how light hits, the smells that I’m smelling. How it is to live here.

I grew up traveling back and forth from Manila, Philippines to Mundelein, Illinois. I don’t know what life is like without a passport. I’ve been blessed to have a mom and a grandmother who loved to travel and have been lucky to have the means. My favorite place in Disney World was the World Showcase in Epcot. I now work in travel. I’ve come to realize this part of my identity and am slowly figuring out how far I can go. Right now all I have is to keep traveling, keep taking photos, and sharing those and my thoughts… and my google maps. If just one person says “Your stories make me want to go,” then I’m happy. As Anthony Bourdain reignited my curiosity, I want to do the same for others.

For my remaining days in Singapore I explored Haji Lane. A cute narrow strip filled with shops, cafes, bars and restaurants. Joo Chiat Road to walk along the most colorful houses in Singapore. Haw Par Villa, which has its dedicated section below. Ate ice cream from Birds of Paradise twice. Their cones are infused with thyme, and I recommend Midnight Giunjuda and Lychee. Found a FRIENDS themed cafe which was a total dream come true. They even had a copy of Little Women in Monica’s freezer!

The only tourist thing I did was the Gardens by the Bay. It was my last night in Singapore. When I got there… I wanted to turn around and run. Up until then, my trip wasn’t filled with crowds of people. And I didn’t realize it until this moment. I was squished walking in between groups, I had to walk the same pace as everyone else. I was miserable (also hot). Eventually I found a spot on some stairs to just stand and stare at the structures. And then the music came in… I came just in time for a light show at the gardens. Classical music blared through the speakers and lights blinking in tune. For those 15 minutes I forgot about the crowds and just looked up. I felt grateful for my trip, for this moment and newly turning 30. So many past trips in these types of moments I wished I had a partner standing next to me, and for the first time I didn’t think about that. This was all me.

Haw Par Villa
If you’re like me and love mythology and quirky, go here. Haw Par Villa is a cultural park and home to over 1000 statues and 150 dioramas depicting Chinese folklore. I wanted to go early to beat the crowds… turns out I didn’t have to. It was a holiday, and I was one of maybe 10 other visitors. It was also the absolute hottest day to walk around a park. Having the park to myself felt equal parts thrilling and eerie. I loved not having to make my way around a crowd, but because there were so many statues and because the detail on them was so fine, it felt like I was being watched. There were moments where my imagination (or the heat) would take over and I was half expecting the statues to come to life and start talking to me. Walking around, it’s pretty overwhelming. There’s so much to look at in each diorama. There’s a scene within a scene. Stare at any face long enough and you can read their thoughts. As a photographer, it’s a dream place to shoot. There are hundreds of crops for every scene, and the park itself with its colors and textures.

There were parts of this park that were deemed “dark and not suitable for kids,” but I couldn’t find it. I walked through an indoor exhibit and found a small courtyard with yes, the dark stuff. I was greeted by two bloody heads on a rock. Then I walked and saw the entrance to what was called, “The Ten Gates of Hell.” The entrance was bright, the doors were open but all I saw was black. I got my shit together and walked in. Chinese mythology does not fuck around. Every “court” holds different crimes and punishments, each one getting worse. For example... if you’re ungrateful or you disrespect your elders, you get your heart cut out. If you curse, have fun getting thrown into a tree of knives. If you refuse to pay rent, you get pounded by a stone mallet. …yeah, metal as fuck.

Monica PedrajaComment