Malay Peninsula 3: Singapore Temples

Here in Korea, the insanity of the first month of school is winding to a close, the root canal adventure goes on with no end in sight, and the first cherry blossoms have burst forth, promising at least two weekends of magical pink snow beauty and wonder. In the mean time, here’s the story of my second day in Singapore exploring the famous temples in Chinatown.


20170118_104531After an incredibly full first day in Singapore, I had a much lighter day of temple viewing planned before I hopped on the bus to Kuala Lumpur in the afternoon. It’s never hard to wake up in a dorm hostel, since everyone else is waking up, too. After packing up and enjoying another cup of teh tarik, I headed out to catch the sights. The night before, I’d run across a giant rooster in the street (in anticipation of the impending lunar new year holiday), so I did a quick rerouting to pass back by in the light of day. Chinatown was already putting on a decorative show two weeks before the holiday; I can only imagine how crazy it was on the actual holiday weekend. 20170118_104832In addition to the stunning decorations, I passed by a street artist sitting in the shade of an overpass and working on the beginning of a painting of the festivities. He was kind enough to let me take a photo and we wished each other a happy new year in parting.

I found the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in the middle of a sprawling street market. One major advantage to backpacking is the space restrictions prevent you from picking up souvenirs. Otherwise, I might have been in danger (I love the red paper cut art!). After locating the temple, I ducked into a little food court and wrangled some dumplings and fresh lime juice for breakfast. I seriously dig the Singaporian food court concept, using a larger space to allow a multitude of different cultural food shops to share a common dining area. We have them in malls in the US, but they are usually terrible food and not a wide variety (plus embedded in a shopping mall, ew). In Korea there are dozens of tiny restaurants with very small seating areas, so you can get variety, but if one place is more popular, seating is limited. None of the food courts in Singapore were top notch restaurants, but they were all several steps above corporate fast food. Just in case anyone is looking for a new business model.

The Love of Money…

20170118_113909After breakfast, I headed into the temple. I generally don’t wear short shorts, and while I go wear sleeveless in heat sometimes, since my plan for the day was temples, I was dressed appropriately. However, for the tourists who weren’t, a staff of firm but polite people arranged for them to wear long skirts or shoulder wraps from a shared bin. Once past the main entrance, I walked into a smaller room where two monks were performing a blessing on a couple donating to the temple in a red envelope (traditional for money gifting at the new year). As I watched, I realized people around me were taking photos and video and I was surprised. I looked around for any signs about cameras, but there were none. It seemed that the temple allowed visitors to take pictures. It felt very strange taking pictures in a temple, and in the end I could only take a few before my sense of unease overcame me.

20170118_114516The main hall on the ground floor was an ode to opulence. I’m used to Buddhist temples being ornate. Wood and stone carvings with intricate detail are common (though never boring). Paintings or works in colorful semi-precious stones, and even the occasional gold paint or gilt covering to add some shine. The point is, that I’m used to temples being about effort and time and skill, rather than about blatant displays of wealth. In fact, a common art form is the sand mandala, which is made over weeks or months of painstaking hand work, then wiped out to represent the impermanence of reality. I don’t have an issue with beauty in a temple, I go to temples in part because they are beautiful, but something about this temple and it’s over the top gold, it’s donation jars every few feet, and it’s designated VIP seating for supplicants just did not sit well with me.

20170118_115923I found the elevator and went all the way to the roof to see the orchid garden. That at least was in keeping with temple life as I think of it. Although orchids are rare in the world, they are common in Singapore and the difficulty of their cultivation reflects the work that monks and nuns put in as part of their practice. Below the gardens, the top floor contained the relic for which the temple is named, a fragment of the Buddha’s tooth. It was also the only room in the building where shoes and cameras were prohibited. There were dedicated meditation mats along the windows where a few people were sitting in silent contemplation, and there was another large gold display.

I don’t actually believe in holy relics. I did not come to the temple to be close to a piece of the body of the Buddha. Aside from the fact that it’s extremely unlikely that this bone was really from the human being known as Siddhartha Gautama, if one embraces the ideals of Buddhism, one would know that the body is not the person, and even beyond that, the idea of separate person-hood or individual ego identity is an illusion. I almost understand Christians who seek holy relics because they are thought to be touched by the divine, but I scratch my head at Buddhists who think that enlightenment may somehow be transmitted through dead tissue.

A sign next to the relic boasted that the shrine housing it was made of solid gold (not merely gold plated) and went on to say that offering gold to the Buddha (meaning of course the temple) was a high honor and was greatly encouraged. I nearly gagged.

20170118_114221I’ve seen American “mega-churches” that have gold plated elevators and preachers with 5 cars and 3 houses and a minimum annual income requirement for membership. These also disgust me and I often wondered how any Christian could justify that kind of obvious money-grubbing and wealth favoring within their doctrine. This was the first time I’d ever seen a Buddhist “mega-temple”, and it was awful. It made me feel ashamed to be associated with the faith. It made me want to run around to tourists and exclaim “that’s not what Buddhism is about!”. It made me want to drag out some scripture and ask the people praying there if they’d even read it. And for just a moment, it made me think about Terry Pratchett’s Yen Buddhists, whose main theological argument is that:

excess money and valuables are a drain on one’s spiritual welfare and an active impediment on achieving dharma and oneness with the universe. Therefore, the monks make the world the selfless offer that they will undertake, at the risk of their own union with the godhood, to take away this impediment to other people achieving consciousness and the opening of the Third Eye. They accept the spiritual tarnish that comes with being one of the richest religious sects on the Disc so that you don’t have to.

Sadly, I don’t think that the Buddha Tooth Relic temple had such altruistic motives in collecting wealth.

20170118_120625I headed down to the third floor to see the museum, which was a worthwhile collection. It was a nice museum of Buddhist art and man-made relics that included a sort of “intro to the Buddha” story on signs around the displays. Like the rooftop garden, it felt far more authentic and enjoyable. The relics were primarily stone, clay, bronze or wooden and had clearly been the result of effort and craftsmanship. Although the extraordinary focus on Guan Yin and the Maitreya was a little overwhelming, it did point to the fact that the temple’s own branch of Buddhism was a salvific form that relies on Bodhisattvas and future Buddha’s to save the world, rather than on the practice of self cultivation for individual enlightenment.

20170118_122525.jpgThe second floor had a nice place to rest, which I desperately needed. Adjusting to the heat and extra walking was taking a toll. It was such a great contrast to my energy level in New Zealand where the weather was cool. Just minimum exertion in a hot humid climate seems to drain me like a marathon! After a rest and a look through the last floor of displays, I made my way back to the ground floor, once more shaking my head at the ostentation, this time walking past the VIP seats they were filled with supplicants who had paid I’m not sure what to get past the velvet ropes. All in all, I’m still glad I went to see it, because I learned something about the corrupting properties of money. All temples ask for donations to help feed the monastic population, pay the basic bills, and to provide services to the community. Money is, in this world, unavoidable. However, when a house of faith relies on wealth or doles out blessings for cash or claims that the donation of great wealth is a higher holy act than living a good life, that’s corruption.

Count your deities, count your blessings…

20170118_132532.jpgAfter the Buddhist temple, I took the short walk two streets over to see the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore: Sri Mariamman. This humble wooden structure was not a display of wealth, but was still anything but plain. Wooden carvings covered every inch of the outer facade and were brightly painted besides. Anyone was welcome to enter, leaving their shoes behind on racks on the sidewalk. There were saris for anyone who felt inadequately dressed, and while we were free to wander around the grounds barefoot, the main areas of worship were cordoned off, not for a fee, but for the faithful. I am not a Hindu, so I contented myself with observing from behind the lines. The interior of the temple is a large courtyard with smaller buildings, each one dedicated to a different divinity. There are over 330 million gods in the umbrella of Hindu faith, and while only a couple dozen are among the most popular, it can 20170118_132153.jpgbe hard for a layperson to know which altar is for who. I found 10 names of deities for this temple on it’s Wikipedia page. There might be more. In addition to the colorful decor and variety of spots to worship, there appeared to be a large hall at the back used for everything from yoga classes to wedding ceremonies.

On my way out and back to grab my bag from the hostel, I passed by one more religious building, a famous mosque. It struck me then that within only a 20170118_132927.jpgcouple city blocks, I had passed 3 major religious buildings, and I knew from the map that a Christian church was not far off. Curious, I looked around the map for a synagogue and found one a little over 3km away, and it was neighbored with another church, Hindu temple, and Buddhist temple. It seemed that it wasn’t hard to find a spot in Singapore where at least 4 out of the 5 major world religions shared a small space and yet no one was getting blown up, shot or even harassed on the street! While I’m sure that Singapore’s strict legal code has something to do with the lack of violence, I like to think that pluralism in the culture helps everyone to get along. People of other faiths or cultures seem less scary when they are our neighbors and not “those others”.


Please check out the rest of the photos in the Facebook albums: Around Singapore and Singapore Temples, and stay tuned for the next installment where I leave the clean and ordered city-state of Singapore and experience a mighty dose of culture shock in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). As always, I hope you enjoyed, and thanks for reading!

Malay Peninsula 2: Singapore Night Safari

March Madness does not just apply to basketball anymore. I missed it last year in part because I had the horrible avian death flu and in part because I was totally new to Korea and insulated from the madness. However, I’m getting it double this year, since I’m no longer the (complete) outsider. March is the start of the new school year, when every single bit of bureaucracy must be done while you’re trying to get to know new students and new co-workers! I used to have an hour or two of “me time” in the afternoons after all the work was done, but recently, it’s been a non-stop Alice in Wonderland style caucus race. So forgive me – the blog has fallen behind. Here’s the second installment of January’s adventure that made me rethink zoos forever.


Bad Tourist, Bad!

The day at the Gardens by the Bay kept me walking for the better part of 7 hours, more than half of that in the sunny, humid outdoors. I suppose I could have hustled over to see more of the heritage gardens, but since my night was going to be full of 5 more hours of walking around outside, I decided to hold still for a while and sip some more of the unique coffee.

While I was sitting in a nearly empty (indoor and AC’d) food court, I watched an abomination of tourism. In stark contrast to the fun, kind folks I’d been meeting all day, this man walked up to the coffee shop and demanded to know if they had a flat white or skinny latte. They did not, since it was a traditional Malaysian style coffee shop. The man then went on to berate the poor employees along the lines of how can they be a “coffee shop” if they don’t even serve a flat white or skinny latte. He was rude, angry, and belligerent to the staff, and seemed to have zero interest in finding out what the cafe did have (awkward since they totally serve coffee with milk, they just don’t call it “flat white”). I can understand the desire for something familiar when travelling. I personally think it’s important to try new things, but I know that if you’ve had new things out your ears for days, there is value in the familiar. But there is just no reason ever to get mad at a shop in another country for not being like a shop in yours. And yes, I did talk to the staff afterward and told them I thought that guy was being a jerk and that visitors should be more willing to try the local way. Don’t be that guy.

Taxi Driver History Lessons

I left the SuperTree grove around 6:15 and took a taxi on the long trek across the city. Although I hear the public transit system is spectacular, the distance I had to travel would have still taken about 90 min, so I opted for taxi instead. I ended up having a great chat with the taxi driver who was a Singapore native and rather older gentleman, so he was able to talk with me about some of the changes that had occurred in the city over the last couple decades. The biggest one seemed to be the land reclamation. Every bit of land I’d been on during the day was actually reclaimed from the ocean and the road that now lay inland called “beach road” was so named because it literally used to be a beach!

singapore

I also discovered that Singapore has no minimum wage, although while he was complaining about the low wages that fast food level employees made, he did let slip a number that was rather higher than the US minimum wage. It makes me wonder about the economics of a situation that, without government enforcement, and with access to cheap immigrant labor, the average low end employee is still making more than the US burger flipper. I am willing to bet it’s related to the small size of the nation, and the fact that it is nearly all city.

And lastly, I discovered that there is a severely classist system for immigrant workers, with no wage regulation and heavy taxes. Inexperienced foreign workers from say… Bangladesh or the Philippines can end up taking home as little as 18-20$ a day. It’s not as bad as the situation in Dubai as far as exploiting foreign labor goes, but I have to say I was a little disappointed that Singapore, a model for environmentalism and safety, did not have sufficient laws in place to protect workers.

We drove through more animal conservation lands, and the driver pointed out to me a land-bridge that had been built to help animals move safely from one side of the highway to the other, as well as the area abutting the zoo where the wild sanctuary animals and captive zoo animals would occasionally encounter one another through the fence.

Zoo Shows

20170117_190355As I got out of the taxi, I walked past a peacock that had either escaped, or was deliberately placed at the entrance for effect. The bird seemed unperturbed by the traffic. Even though I was a little early, the courtyard was packed full of tour groups and I had trouble pushing my way through to an info counter just to find out where to go. I stood in a long line as we all had our tickets scanned and everyone streamed into the Night Safari like the opening bell at Disney.

The Singapore zoo has, as far as I can tell, four separate parks. The main zoo, a rivers of the world event, a bird event, and the Night Safari. At first, I thought it was simply a night time version of the main zoo, but later I realized that it is a separate park that simply doesn’t open until 7pm. It is entirely filled with nocturnal creatures and kept at a low light level so the animals are not much disturbed. It’s designed to be as open and natural as possible, allowing the visitors and animals to get as close as is safe, and is filled with hundreds of creatures that are almost always asleep during regular zoo hours.

20170117_194026I had missed the first fire show at the opening, but since it happened every hour until 9pm, I wasn’t too worried. I headed instead for the animal show at the advice of one of the zoo staff. This was just as well because the lines for the tram were insane. Being a lone traveler is sometimes advantageous, like when trying to find a seat in a crowded theater. I wedged myself in between two families in a fairly good spot and sat down to watch what I fervently hoped would not be an exploitative performing animal show. I was not disappointed. The “show” was largely animals being brought forward while the main announcer talked about the species being shown. There was humor and a few animal tricks, but these involved a large cat leaping, a raccoon going through a “garbage can”, and an otter doing some recycling (which may be one of the cutest things I’ve ever seen). The last one led into a great discussion of what happens when urbanization encroaches on 20170117_195114animals habitat and on what we as humans can do to help better preserve the environment. I know some people might think it’s a little preachy, but I was personally gratified to see the zoo using it’s platform of animal entertainment to help educate visitors on conservation and preservation.

After the animal show, I headed back out to the main plaza to t20170117_2005001.jpgake in the fire show. Although the zoo website makes it seem as though this is some kind of traditional tribal fire dance, in reality it is a modern dance with a totally made up tribal sounding name. It was still fun and pretty, just not particularly traditional or historically accurate.

Walking with the Animals

Next, I decided to do a walking path or two. There are several walking path sections in the safari and each one highlights a different environment of animal. I started out on the “Fishing Cat Trail”, the primary attraction of which was a fishing cat that uses it’s claws to hook fish out of the river for dinner. The main area of the plaza is loud and bright with shops and restaurants and the waiting line for the tram, but once you get out of the main area and onto the walking paths, the zoo becomes dark, quiet and peaceful. Quite often, I was the only person on the path, or was only sharing it with a couple other people. From time to time, larger noisier groups would pass through and glance at the brush, then seeing no animals would complain loudly and move on. I just waited for them to go.

20170117_205648

Not the fishing cat. Just a cool leopard with better than average lighting.

The animals aren’t “on display”. The environments are designed to be natural while still giving the humans a good view. Plus, it’s dark, cause well, night safari. While I was shocked at the number of people who simply couldn’t get the idea, it didn’t take long to realize that all it took to have a good experience was a little patience. The animals would often retreat from large noisy crowds and only return to their normal nighttime activity after things had calmed down. I stood next to the fishing cat stream for several minutes trying to spot the cat, and finally my patience was rewarded as a medium sized feline came out from behind some trees and began to stalk fish in the small stream next to the path. I don’t know how long I stayed and watched. It was amazing. There was hardly any distance between myself and the fishing cat and yet his environment was so natural, he was comfortably hunting his dinner.

20170117_203716

Still not the fishing cat. Pelicans enjoying a night swim.

The vast majority of the displays were like that, close and open and natural making you feel like you’d just wandered into their home rather than like you were viewing a caged animal. The most dangerous animals were separated by a larger gap, and the tiniest animals were in display boxes (although we still couldn’t always find them). I didn’t get to see every animal. Most were completely hidden when I walked up and only came out after a few minutes. A few were on grand display, like the pelicans and otters. At one point, while crossing a bridge over a small stream, I looked down and spotted an enormous crocodile. He could easily have blocked the stream if he’d lain sideways across it. It was a bit terrifying to be so close with nothing between us, even though the bridge was well above his reach and the sides of the stream were too steep for him to climb. Many animals were hidden, but could be found with some searching like a hidden picture puzzle. And a few I never saw at all.

20170117_223035.jpg

I’m not sure I believe that flamingos are nocturnal, but they are pretty at night.

After walking about half the trails, I decided to catch the tram ride. The tram goes on a different route from the walking trails and afforded me a chance to sit down and relax for a little while. I think my favorite part of the tram ride was the rhinos, but it was an overall pleasant experience with light narration and continued reminders about environmental conservation and poaching. At one point the narratress asked us to make a pledge never to buy rhino horn products again, which isn’t usually an issue for Americans, but there are a lot of Chinese and other Asian tourists who come to Singapore who might need the reminder. Side bonus, since I’d waited a couple hours, the tram crowd thinned out and I got a bench to myself, which meant I could move to the left or right and get the best view of the animals.

20170117_220357

We could hear the lions everywhere, but only got to view them from the tram.

 

After the tram circuit, I finished up the walking trails, passing through a free flying bat house(!) and a sort of wallaby ranch. The bat house was easily my favorite thing in the zoo. I’ve only ever seen zoo bats behind glass and here these were flying around my head! The big fruit bats hung lazily from branches that had been strategically placed close to the path and hung with fruit to entice them, while the smaller bats zipped in an out of the trees. One flew so close past my ear, I felt the breeze from his wing as I heard the leathery flapping and sonic skittering. In the flying squirrel walk through, I didn’t get to see any fly, but I did play a fun game of hide and seek with a little tree dweller who was clearly curious about me too. And in the wallaby enclosure, the little hoppers were free to roam around the ground, including onto the path if they felt like it. None did, but even when I knelt down to their level to get a closer look, no one ran away either.

The last place I got to explore was a cave environment with all the little dark cave dwellers on display in a sort of Pirates of the Caribbean-esque themed man-made cave environment. Plenty of spiders and other creepy crawlies, including some black light glowing scorpions.

20170117_230243

I have not mentioned even a 10th of the animals I got to see and hear. The lions were roaring throughout the night and could be heard from nearly anywhere in the park. The hardest part about the Night Safari is the low lighting. I have good night vision, but a lot of guests were struggling to see the animals, and I was a little bit sad that I had no way to take pictures of these experiences. The Night Safari is not just another zoo, it’s the closest encounter you’re likely to have with any of these animals that isn’t directly exploitative the way that zoos in China and Thailand are. The Night Safari won’t force animals to do tricks or pose with guests. And it’s the only night zoo that specializes in showing off nocturnal animals at their natural time of day. It’s clean, well organized, clearly focused on the animal welfare both within and without the zoo grounds and has dozens of totally unique animal encounters. If you find yourself in Singapore with an evening open, I highly recommend spending the full 5 hours there.

Dinner in Chinatown

It was minutes before closing time when i made my way back to the main plaza. I had no hope of catching the bus back to Chinatown and ended up summoning an Uber, which I then shared with another visiting couple who had been trying to get their hotel concierge to get an Uber to pick them up with very limited success. We had a pleasant conversation on the drive and I found myself back in Chinatown after midnight and famished. The night safari had restaurants, but I didn’t have time to sit down and eat and still see everything. My hostel had cup noodles for sale, but I needed something more substantial after my long day of sightseeing.

I took off toward some bright lights and soon found a tiny Chinese restaurant open late. After a few minutes of hopelessly perusing a picture menu, I asked about my all time favorite Chinese dish 西红柿炒鸡蛋 (fried egg and tomato) and got a surprised yes. This may be because I asked in Chinese, but was more likely because my favorite Chinese food is a common ‘peasant’ dish that is not usually on the menu in western restaurants (though it had been on the menu here). Hanging out in Singapore’s Chinatown felt like being in a very clean version of China without the ubiquitous Chinese litter and smog. Most Chinatowns are a sort of fusion of the immigrant and local culture, but Singapore itself is a blend of Malay and Chinese cultures, so I guess it stands to reason that the extra Chinese part would be very authentic.


Stay tuned for installment 3 where I go back to Chinatown in the daytime to check out the famous temples! Sadly, the Night Safari is not conducive to photography so there’s no album accompanying this post, but feel free to check out the Facebook, Twitter or Instagram for more daily tidbits of life between posts. Thanks for reading! 🙂