Exploring Singapore using the five senses. First installment -Smell

I’ve been in Singapore for over a year now and for a city state that has earned the moniker “Asia Lite” this small island has served only to whet my appetite for greater immersion in this fascinating part of the world.

For many expats and tourists Singapore is a cosy, albeit expensive haven from the often confusing and sometimes intimidating urban chaos that can be found elsewhere in Asia. Stick to the tried and true air-conditioned ang moh (originally Caucasian , now  catch all for foreigners) haunts of Orchard Road or Singapore’s polo and yacht clubs and your experience of this fascinating country will be comfortable and relatively stress free.

Singapore Yacht Club on a good day. If you own a yacht it's almost always a good day.

Singapore Yacht Club on a good day. If you own a yacht it’s almost always a good day.

Aside from the undoubted charms of the abovementioned attractions there are also world class tourist destinations such as the Singapore Zoo, the bird park and new aquarium.

Now before we descend into the realms of the glossy tourist literature (or latest app) I’d like to make a confession; in my mind the above is all very well, but it’s a sort of infant formula approach to getting to know a city. Bland, flavourless and about as exciting as blended baby food. If you like that sort of thing then you’ll love the free brochures that you can pick up by the dozen in the hotel foyer. Go to it, more power to you, don’t forget the sunscreen, the mosquito repellent and your coupons for the free beverage of your choice.

Seriously - don't forget the mosquito repellent.

Seriously – don’t forget the mosquito repellent.

If you want to get under the skin of the city then get to where the locals spend their time. In Singapore that means food courts and hawkers markets, as well as the dining establishment that can be found along every street in Singapore.

Many visitors to Singapore have waxed lyrical about the food in the country, words and phrases such as “fusion”, “authentic” and “good lord, what’s that?” have been uttered by visitors for decades and written about in blogs, travel magazines and coffee table books.

My chosen way of experiencing Singapore has been more of a full body immersion into the sights, sounds, tastes and above all smells of this fascinating bubbling cauldron of cultures. My exploration of the island has been made more interesting by a dodgy GPS system on my phone and the fact that I really believe that it’s possibly the safest place to explore outside of a padded cell wallpapered with marshmallow.

As an aside, try mentioning the safety of the island to longtime residents and five will get you ten that the response will be “ah, but low crime doesn’t mean no crime…” Oh Really. My response is to ask for a definition of criminal activity, and the most hair raising story I’ve heard so far is someone who’s ornamental Giraffe was nicked from their (unsecured, unfenced, ungated and unguarded) front porch*. This is a refreshing change from the pant soiling experience of living in one of the most violent cities on the planet, which shall remain nameless (Johannesburg).

Taking the road less travelled in Singapore is therefore not only safe, but has the potential to excite the senses in ways that are invigorating, unexpected and refreshing. I use the word refreshing in the loosest possible sense due to the fact that some of the most eye opening and nostril flaring experiences in Singapore are entirely olfactory.

For those who have grown up with robust regional tastes and smells, Singapore is mild in comparison to some of the less groomed towns and cities that are part of South East Asia. Hop on a plane and within an hour and a half you can experience some of the most eye watering nasal assaults this side of a Congolese open air abattoir (not recommended for vegetarians, small children, asthmatics or those with delicate sensibilities). The streets of Penang for instance, which are just around the corner mileage wise, are a whole world away from Singapore hygiene wise.

This is made very clear when you pass a neighbourhood market in Penang old town. This can be a whole body assault on the senses. For those shoppers who cherish the opportunity to stock up on goods that are plastic wrapped and bear no more than a passing resemblance to their ambulatory owners and origins, the experience is not one easily forgotten.

Wet markets (fresh fruit and vegetables  fish, meat in various states of disassembly) in Singapore are by and large clean and hygienic. The freshness of the products, at least in the early mornings means that the disturbing smells are almost nonexistent. Fresh fish doesn’t really smell that fishy and you’re going to struggle to find fresher than the catch of the day at one of Singapore’s wet markets.

Tiong Bahru market - a fantastic, friendly and above all fragrant destination.

Tiong Bahru market – a fantastic, friendly and above all fragrant destination.

That said there are two smells which are ubiquitous to wet markets, Durian and Jackfruit. The smell of these two fruits almost completely defy description, but think along the lines of fried onion, sewage, burnt rubber and a curious way-past-the-sell-by-date cream odour. Once smelled, never forgotten. However ,it’s a quirk of the human psyche that even these smells tend to decrease in awfulness with continued exposure. Either you just get acclimatized to the smell or perhaps your olfactory bulb simply throws up its metaphorical hands and goes to sulk somewhere behind your cerebellum, muttering to itself.

It's a trap.

It’s a trap.

Smells are processed in the Piriform Cortex (a simplification, it’s more complicated than that) and are amongst the most powerful external triggers of memory. Who hasn’t smelled freshly mown grass, or baked goods piping hot from the oven and immediately been transported back to their childhood? Although using this logic a back yard barbecue must be loads of fun for the families of firefighters across the globe, but perhaps my understanding of cerebral chemistry is somewhat wanting.

For those who choose to explore, the hidden gems of Singapore or are led astray by their Smartphones, smell can be a sense that leads to wonderful and unexpected discoveries. Take Singapore’s ubiquitous Housing Development Board apartments where 82% of the population resides. Each of these superb monuments to social and urban planning usually features shops, dining establishments and rest and recreation areas situated within the HBD grounds. What will get you to deviate into an area not recognized as part of the usual tourist trail is firstly the smell, then the sound, then the overwhelming impression of a cheerful and vibrant community. A sort of mini city among the supporting columns of the building above.

Famous HDB

What evocative smells and sounds they are.  Coconut milk, fried peanut, coriander, curry leaves, garlic, fish sauce, chilli, caramalised onion, lemon grass, lime, ginger and other less easily identified  herbs and spices in this culinary United Nations of fry, boil and bake in concert to reach a nasal symphony that tugs at some primeval appetite buried deep in the consciousness.

For me this is the essence of the Singapore experience, eating the results of this spicy, herbal collaboration serves only as a confirmation of the olfactory promise.

The Housing Development Board apartment blocks are a manifestation of how seriously the Singapore government takes its commitment to the multi-cultural diversity. Each apartment is a microcosm of the society that makes up the tapestry of Singapore life, inhabitants carefully selected during the housing application process to allow the HDB’s to represent a cross section of Singapore society.

HBD apartment buildings are therefore rich hunting grounds for those who want to be led to the trough of new experiences by their noses.

There are other experiences in Singapore that would simply not be the same without a sense of smell.

Let me preface what I’m about to say with the comment that Singapore is sparkling clean and has a people centric attitude that should be the envy of other cities around the globe. Authorities in the city have made a concerted effort to provide a stimulating and healthy environment. From the walks along the many canals where quiet nooks await moments of contemplation, to spiral bridges that glow gently in the setting sun and explode into colour as the night falls Singapore is a sparkling gem.

That said you cannot shoehorn 5.3 million people into a 700 square kilometers space (in comparison New York is around 1500 square kilometers) that has a high water table, stratospheric humidity and rains for much of the year without some strains on even the most well planned infrastructure.

So you have a climatic recipe for micro moments of wiffiness that will make your nose hairs droop. Let’s not beat around the effluvium laden bush here, it’s sewage. In amongst the glittering Fortune 500 high rise downtown district you often stumble across what can only be described as small pockets of eye watering stench.

Given the organizational abilities of Singapore’s emergency response teams you fully expect these to be roped off within minutes and be handed lavender scented tissues to mitigate the problem, but alas this is not usually the case. On the upside this island nation has some of the best air-conditioning you can imagine, and retail outlets aren’t exactly thin on the ground, so escape into the nearest mall is hardly an effort.

In the interest of fairness and balance I should mention that the flowers of Singapore transform any journey into a kaleidoscope of scented delight. Orchids and blossoms are everywhere and the urge to place your face up close and breathe in deeply is often too strong to resist. Children are often startled at the site of a ruck sacked foreigner frozen immobile in front of a blooming roadside shrub, eyes closed in ecstasy at the waves of sweet fragrance.

Ylang Ylang

Ylang Ylang

Singapore has changed beyond all recognition in the last decades. David Attenborough once remarked “getting to places like Singapore was a hell of a sweat. But when you got there it was the back of beyond. It was just a series of small tin sheds.” The city has today transformed itself into a wonder of central planning and foresight, thanks to an enlightened and visionary attitude by its former Prime Minister Mr. Lee Kuan Yew.

Prior to the intervention of Mr. Lee and his band of Singaporean fellow travellers, the island was a very different place. The Singapore River for instance was the beating heart of the city, as well as its pulsating lower colon. Raw sewage and disease were the order of the day. Walk along the carefully manicured quayside today and the impression you get is of a waterway in robust health, not sparkling by any means (this is the tropics) but clean enough. As a London cabbie once remarked to me of the newly revitalised Thames “clean enough to drink – you’d die, but you could drink it”.

Swimming was not high on the recreational agenda.

Swimming was not high on the recreational agenda.

So aside from the odd jungle miasma from patches of Singapore’s remaining secondary jungle and the odour of diesel oil wafting in from the Singapore Straits, the city today is very different to the rough and ready trading port that it once was. Some would say that it’s poorer and more aseptic. But there are still olfactory remnants that hark back to yesterday. You just have to close your eyes. Breath deep and imagine. I prefer it that way, exploring sans Cholera with interrupted GPS signal and a tiny, often ignored but insistent voice that urges me to turn left in 20 metres.

*(at least firsthand from expats, sadly violence towards low wage foreign born workers does happen)