It is without doubt, the strangest-looking vehicle I’ve ever boarded. It looks like a boat, and yet, this contraption has enormous wheels. To get in, you need to climb a flight of retractable steel steps, just as you’d board an aeroplane. The frontage is painted in the shape of a smiling duck, complete with an upturned orange-red beak and exaggerated eyelashes. A red awning serves as a partial roof and splashed across it is the chirpy imperative, “Ride the wacky duck!”
It is a typical summer afternoon in balmy, tropical Singapore. Ever since our honeymoon here in ’99, my husband and I have taken to vacationing in the island nation every year. In the Indian imagination, Singapore is just a shopping destination. The two of us, however, have always managed to find something new to explore. On one such holiday, weighed down by shopping bags and two kids (then 13 and 3 years old) in tow, we signed up for a DUCK Tour that offers a crash course in Singapore’s built history. The DUCK & HiPPO Company has been offering these land-water rides since 2002.
We start at the entrance of Tower 5 at the sprawling Suntec City Mall, where a cheery guide herds the group together to watch a safety video. He is dressed casually in jeans and a black T-shirt, but somehow gives me the impression that he’s readying for a safari while simultaneously hosting a dinner party. The ten-minute safety video explains the basics of riding the craft, which leaves the children most excited: Mid-way through the journey, the bus promises to transform into a boat. We’re given life vests to wear and I’m glad for it—after seeing the vehicle, I can’t help but be sceptical. Could it even float?
I learn later that the boat on wheels is a reclaimed amphibious (land and water) Vietnamese war craft, an actual relic from World War II. Refurbished, it now has long bench seats with backrests. The moment we settle in comfortably, I hear a duck quack loudly beside me and nearly jump out of my skin. Our guide is brandishing bright yellow whistles shaped like little beaks which make quacking noises. We can buy these, he says, as my three-year-old’s eyes light up. I resign myself to hearing duck calls in my dreams.
As the engines roar to life, I look forward to viewing Singapore’s famous skyscrapers and historic buildings. The tour will take us downtown, into the heart of the business district where its most impressive superstructures are. Our guide informs us that Singapore’s architecture is a mix of colonial buildings and modern skyscrapers. There are 4,300 completed high-rises, the majority of which are located in the Downtown Core area. While designing skyscrapers, architects had to ascertain that these would be a good fit for a tropical climate. The sleek, clean lines of modernistic buildings were retained, while surrounded by lush landscaping. Some buildings employ metal and wooden window blinds where possible, to avoid trapping heat.
As we leave Suntec City, our guide points out the Fountain of Wealth at the main atrium of the mall. It’s a Singapore landmark and certainly impossible to miss. The five uneven glass towers of the mall rise like fingers around a simply enormous circular fountain, which I’m told is a powerful feng shui symbol. It consists of a bronze ring supported by four slanted columns, but instead of flowing outwards, the water converges into the ring in neat precise lines. At night, flashing lights ignite these dancing jets. In 1998, the fountain (the venue for many laser shows) was declared the largest in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records, a title it no longer holds.
Before long we are at another record-setting attraction; the breathtakingly beautiful Singapore Flyer appears to our left. It looks like a giant ferris wheel from a fair, except that it’s made of gleaming chrome, glass, and steel. The Flyer, which became a cherished part of the nation’s skyline in 2008, works exactly like the London Eye, but it’s much bigger. In fact, it is the largest observation wheel in Asia with its highest point at 165 metres from the ground—roughly the height of a 42-storey building. Each glass viewing pod is the size of a small bus (28 sq metres) and these rotate slowly over the horizon, offering you ample opportunities to take selfies. I am in awe of its precision engineering: It was designed by the late Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa—responsible for creating Tokyo’s famous Nakagin Capsule Tower that could belong in a sci-fi novel, and Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur Airport—in conjunction with Singapore’s DP Architects. The Flyer is a typical example of Singapore’s neo-tropical architecture. The pods are wind resistant, so riders don’t feel any turbulence when they rotate. The 28 pods accommodate 28 people each: The number is another feng shui symbol of wealth, and Singaporeans often refer to it as the “Wheel of Fortune”.
A few minutes after we pass the flyer, our guide prepares us for take-off. “Hold on tight and get ready for a very special experience,” he grins as the bus picks up speed. The kids squeal as the vehicle suddenly leaps into the air. A few seconds later, the captain/driver lands it smoothly in the calm waters of the stunning Singapore River. The wheels disappear inwards, and our vehicle is now transformed into a boat. My earlier doubts allayed, I enjoy the picturesque sight of other vessels docked along the river.
As we float into the Marina Bay, I find it difficult to believe that just a few decades ago, this was a swampy coastline with treacherous marshland on either side. Today, the vibrant waterfront has an array of the most sophisticated skyscrapers and sleek commercial complexes, built on reclaimed land. One of the first buildings to catch my eye is the Singapore icon, the Marina Bay Sands hotel. Built by Las Vegas Sands, an American resort-operating company, it is reported to be one of the most expensive buildings in the world. At first pass, the structure looks like a huge shuttle train has landed on top of three enormous towers. I learn later that the shuttle train on top is actually the Skypark, which houses the infinity pool, that offers a glittering bird’s-eye view of the Singapore skyline. My fear of heights makes me feel giddy at the mere thought of swimming between these high-rises! The building’s architect, Moshe Safdie (who also designed the Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Israel), is said to have been inspired by a deck of cards when designing the three hotel towers, each of which rise to a height of 55 storeys and 194 metres. The towers house restaurants, an ice rink, a hotel and a popular casino, which, while open to foreign guests free of charge, levies an entrance fee of $100/₹4,830 a day for Singaporeans. I sympathise with our guide, who is grumbling about this rule.
The lotus-shaped ArtScience Museum, which both kids and adults enjoy, really catches my eye. The gleaming glass orb with petal arms, some of which appear as though they’ve been sliced off, is also a part of the Marina Bay Sands hotel. Our guide points out that this is yet another example of Singapore’s neo-tropical sustainable architecture. Each of the petals has natural lighting, filtered through a skylight at the tip. Rainwater, recycled for use in the museum’s restrooms, is channelled down the building’s centre and into a pond at its lowest level. The museum has several permanent displays, and routinely hosts touring exhibitions that have included Andy Warhol and Annie Leibovitz retrospectives.
Behind the Marina Bay Sands is another popular attraction, Gardens by the Bay, recognisable from afar by the distinctive Supertree Grove, large structures that act as vertical gardens. Rare floral species take up residence at the park complex that consists of conservatories, a “cloud forest”, and a “flower dome”. Here you can view the extraordinarily stout, woody cycad plants that date back millions of years; the double coconut palm, which bears the largest seeds in the world that weigh around 15 kg; and the ornamental cannonball tree with exotically perfumed flowers (but a fruit that smells like faeces when exposed to air). The flower domes rest inside two spectacular arched greenhouses that remind me of enormous eggshells, fit together like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
To our left is the magnificent Esplanade—Theatres on the Bay, which resembles the famed Opera House in Sydney. To the imaginative, it looks like a huge durian—a tropical fruit that is supposed to taste heavenly if you manage to get past its terrible stench, a local favourite—studded with glittering silver spikes. The Esplanade is the nation’s busiest cultural centre, featuring world-class shows and performing arts, including appearances by international pop and rock stars Elton John and the Rolling Stones. It also hosts Kalaa Utsavam—Indian Festival of Arts, every year around Diwali.
Straight ahead of us is a sight that has come to symbolise Singapore. Flanked by sensational skyscrapers is a statue of a breathtakingly beautiful white Merlion, a mythical creature that is part lion, part fish. I’m told that it was constructed in 1972 to commemorate Singapore’s history as a little fishing village. Legend has it that when the Malaysian prince Sang Nila Utama first set foot in Singapore around A.D. 11, he sighted a lion and named the island “Singapura” (“singa” in Malay means lion and “pura” means city). Weighing a whopping 70 tonnes, the statue is made of cement covered with delicate white porcelain. A clear stream of water pours steadily out of the big cat’s parted jaws. The 2,500-sq-ft area behind it is called Merlion Park, which has a splendid view of the bay.
The most noteworthy structure on this stretch is the luxury five-star Fullerton Hotel, just behind the Merlion Park. Look out for a white building with elegant neoclassical columns, high-ceiling verandas, and exquisite Shanghai plaster panels. When Singapore was still a British colony, this was a statuesque General Post Office. Even now, it retains much of its old-world charm. The Fullerton Bay Hotel is another sleek property on the waterfront. As the boat turns here, I see the three Floating Event Pods that the hotel is renowned for. These floating restaurants and boardrooms on the water mimic trading boats docked on the waterfront. One of these is the historic Clifford Pier, with its high archway and art deco architecture. Once the landing point for Singapore’s earliest immigrants, it’s now an upscale restaurant.
The DUCK Tour retraces its steps at this point, affording us another perspective of the historic waterfront sights as it climbs back onto land. As we ride into the city, we pass the colourful and cheery Asian Civilisations Museum, dedicated to the material history of the various ethnicities that now make up Singapore. We also catch a glimpse of Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall that has a gleaming white clock tower. Up next is the glittering circular dome of the Supreme Court covered in translucent marble: The new court is a real departure from the stately colonial edifices that surround it.
We are soon back where we started as the bus comes to a halt at Suntec City Mall. This quick tour has been a lesson in Singapore’s built heritage, the island-nation’s thriving spirit, and the industriousness of its people. But most importantly, it is another reminder of how its ethnic diversity has shaped it into one of the most cosmopolitan nations in the world.
Appeared in the November 2014 issue as “Singapore Swing”.
The DUCK Tour begins and ends at Suntec City Mall every day. There are hourly departures between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. The tour lasts an hour, and passes are priced at SGD 33/₹1,592 for adults, SGD 23/₹1,110 for children between 3 and 12, and SGD 2/₹96 for toddlers below 2. It is best to book in advance as seats fill up fast (+65-6338 6877; www.ducktours.com.sg).