Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath


So, I was in Singapore last week. On the way back from India, I stopped in the city/country/island for four nights. It’s one of the options for a layover when I fly east-to-west to Bangalore, so instead of spending an hour there, I figured out how to book a gap between flights, and Americans don’t need a visa for tourism. Airfare cost the same either way, so I booked a hotel on my dime (Amex’s, actually – more on that later) and made a quick vacation of it.

The flight from Bangalore took about five hours, leaving just before noon on a Saturday. India security was the usual, had to take every single thing out of my bag and was asked “what is this” about each and every cord and charger and plug. I forgot I had a Leatherman in my laptop bag, and even though it was a TSA-compliant one with no blades, I may as well have been carrying an M-249 and four hundred rounds of belt-fed ammunition. So there went sixty bucks.

Flight wasn’t bad. The only notable thing was I was watching Interstellar for the 167th time and I was at the giant scene at the end of Act 2 where the space station is crashing into the atmosphere and they have to emergency dock with it and push it back up to orbit, and I wasn’t paying attention to our descent into Singapore at all, and their ship collided with the station exactly when our wheels hit the tarmac, which was a bit freaky.

In Singapore, customs was 100% automated. I did not talk to a single human. I applied for the entry card online two days before, promised that I didn’t have a fever and knew drug use was punishable by death, and when I got there, I scanned my passport, scanned my thumb, looked at the camera, done. Bags were there fast, money exchange took five seconds, taxi was quick, and there I was.

This hotel experience was absolutely hilarious. This was at the Conrad Centennial, which is a towering five-start hotel in the marina bay. I had a trifecta: booked on Amex in one of their “curio collection” featured properties, paid with an Amex platinum, have gold status at Hilton, and used points for the whole thing. When they found my name on the bag, before I even got to the front desk, the hotel manager was there to welcome me. Amex already gave me a $200 credit for the curio thing, but Hilton gave me a $100/day room credit, plus I had free breakfast, and access to an executive lounge with free food. The main issue at the front desk was they couldn’t figure out the conflicting amenities, and it appeared I had six free breakfasts per day.

The room was absolutely insane. They upgraded me to a giant suite with a dining area, couches along the full-length bay windows overlooking the marina, a bathroom bigger than my apartment in college, the whole nine yards. I immediately ordered a pomme frites and ate steak until I collapsed.

* * *

Singapore looks like a futuristic Star Wars city, like Bespin: towering hotels and offices, tons of retail, food everywhere, perfectly manicured parks, a perfect transit system. On the first morning, after loading up on breakfast, I went for a walk to get the lay of the land, and the Marina area felt very weird. It looked incredible, but felt very sparse and desolate when you’re in it. I’ve noticed the same phenomenon in some big Midwestern cities like in the inner loop of Chicago or the center of Indianapolis. Nice postcard, but you walk around after 5:00 and there are big chunks of areas with a lot of nothing, and that big mall that you thought was a block away is like a mile and a half in the distance. So I should have made a plan and didn’t.

That walk: big mistake. 88 degrees, humidity was 88%. I could barely propel myself; it felt like I was walking in 2x gravity. I found one of those bikes you unlock with an app, and five minutes later, got it rolling. Biking was not bad, although it was a heavy junk bike with only one speed and a seat that was slightly too short. There’s a trail along the river that has lots of shade and excellent views. Rode about five miles, then went to this mall across the street to get a drink. There was a 7-Eleven in the mall and I got a Coke Zero from an old woman who was yammering away and I didn’t understand a word she was saying. She obviously knew I was a tourist, because she paid me back my change in like 47 coins.

It felt eerily quiet, nobody out. Maybe it’s because it was Sunday morning, or maybe I was in some weird commercial district where nobody lives, like when you visit “Chicago” and your job dumps you in a Marriott in Schaumberg and the nearest anything is a Shoney’s two miles away you can’t actually walk to.

* * *

It was too bad I’m completely off this mall shit, because I quickly found out the entire country is basically a gigantic mall. There were four supermalls within a block of my hotel, and probably at least a dozen of them within a kilometer. Seriously, the place next to the mall I first went to is about the size of Mall of America, and the other three were bigger than the biggest mall in California. Singaporeans love their air conditioning, and all of these things are connected to each other through catwalks and tunnels. You can spend your entire life indoors like it’s an old Asimov novel.

I went to the biggest mall for lunch, because everyone would not shut up about these Hawker stalls of food. I walked into the food area and just about had an aneurysm, First of all, the mall was probably 20% more crowded than the most hectic mall I’d ever been to in the midwest during Peak Mall on like a Christmas Eve. There were wall to wall people in this massive three-story structure that’s actually just the first three floors of five towers, each 45 stories tall with all office space and a convention center in them. I looked it up and the mall has 186 restaurants. I don’t think I saw a single vacant store. It was absolutely overwhelming, just wall to wall people speaking Chinese or Malay, eating chicken feet and fish with heads on them and whatever else. I was so far out of my comfort zone, I took one look and thought, “I need to find a fucking Pizza Hut.” 

Wandered that mall and it was just truly bizarre and amazing. It was full of teenagers cosplaying in Magna or Anime stuff, wearing boots and uniforms and face paint and everything else. There were several arenas, open spaces with domed ceilings. One had a full-on flea market, old ladies buying bolts of cloth and household goods. Another had an e-sports competition, someone rattling on like a Chinese auctioneer, their play-by-play of a PUBG match echoing through this giant auditorium. I was pushing my way through crowds, and… there was a Toys R Us.  Not a knockoff, not a reboot, but an actual honest-to-fuck TRU that looks like it’s from 2004 or so. 

I stumbled into a McDonald’s, famished, and got a fries, a drink, and two of the bizarro burgers only available in SG. One was the Samurai Beef, which was basically a quarter-pounder but drenched in teriyaki sauce. The other was the Ninja chicken, which was a decent fried chicken patty, but covered in nanban sauce, with white cabbage coleslaw, cucumbers, and on a black charcoal bun. Fries are fries, and every MCD gets those the same. The beef burger was disgusting, too much sauce on it. The chicken sandwich would have been decent with 80% of the sauce removed. They have a cup lid that has a weird plastic spout that you can drink from without a straw which is genius and saves a lot of plastic, but would be considered woke communism in the US and would get someone killed.

Back at the hotel, I booked a massage at the spa. It was pretty decent, nothing too weird about it, except the woman was slapping me a bunch and that was different. The spa was on the same level as the pool, and there was also a wedding going on, with lots of people dressed up in super-high-end dress clothes.

I went to the executive lounge on the top floor with my laptop, thinking I’d get some work done, but it was too crowded, and the food was eh. I drank a bunch of Coke Zero, but it was too busy to write, and I needed to get my dinner plans in order.

* * *

Dinner Sunday night – got a reservation at this place at the Four Seasons, which is about three clicks west of my hotel. Took a taxi there and the cabbies are all insane in Singapore. Slam the gas, slam the brakes, slam the gas, slam the brakes, never stay in the same lane for more than 500 milliseconds, etc.

The place was called One Ninety restaurant. It’s normally a modern Asian brasserie, but an Argentinian place called Brasero Atlántico was doing a three-month takeover. Got there 30m early and I went walking around. There was a very weird liminal space – a long series of hallways connecting between the hotel and another property, and I think it was like a temporary art gallery. I sat down in a chair and messed around on my phone for 15 minutes, and absolutely nobody walked by. It was like thousands of square feet of empty space in the busiest city within a thousand miles, and there was just absolutely nothing there. So bizarre.

At the restaurant and there’s this Argentinian guy chatting with the waitress and he says hi and shakes my hand, and I’m like, “OK, whatever.” I sit down and two googles later I realize the guy is one of the top ten bartenders in the world, and this popup is a clone of one of the top five restaurants in the world. I don’t drink, but felt I had to get a drink. I got this thing that was absinthe, mandarin napoleon liqueur, and wheat beer. I then ordered a t-bone steak and it was like half a cow, just a ridiculous amount of meat. I also had fries, salad, empanadas, and too much bread. I barely made it back to the hotel and crashed out.

* * *

Monday, I woke up and had no idea where I was. After too much breakfast, I went for a long walk, then got on the MRT train to head for Chinatown. The Singapore train system makes the Disney monorail look like the bombed-out New York subway in the 70s. I was able to pay with my watch without getting a card or account or app or anything. Ridiculously clean, everyone super polite and behaved, and eating and drinking is strictly prohibited. You could perform surgery on the floor of the subway station there. It was amazing, I did not see a single cop during my stay, but I’m sure if anything went down, a hundred of them would show up. I think they are hiding in Disneyland tunnels backstage.

Chinatown – another giant mall, and this one had large mazes of semi-outdoor market stalls on each side. I ducked into one and it was sensory overload, vendors selling shirts and food and fruits and watches and everything else, and crowds of people walking the narrow alleys. Lots of temples in the area too, Hindu and Buddhist, people lighting incense and bowing. It was such an extreme juxtaposition, seeing these fifty-story chrome and glass towers filled with banks running tax havens, next to temples that looked a thousand years old, next to Vegas-style themed shopping centers, next to Asian markets.

I ended up at a Korean beef noodle place which was in a crowded mall but had a Michelin star. Got a stir fry and a bottle of soju, then remembered that drinking soju is like 3x the alcohol of beer and basically tastes like a 50/50 mix of Grape Nehi and lighter fluid. I had good stir fry but that soju got on top of me fast, and I wandered around the mall drunk, wondering what the hell was going on, because everything looked the same and there were strange stores, durian and snails for sale, places that could tell your fortune, reflexology and acupuncture places, and far too much anime stuff. Got back on the train, back to the other mall, and it was pouring rain, a wall of absolute monsoon deluge, like the inch-per-hour kind of torrent. I couldn’t figure out how to get across the street (there are usually tunnels or bridges, like Minnesota) so I just sprinted and got soaked.

Back at the hotel, I needed to write. I booked a room in the business center so I could get something done and stop eating crap out of the mini bar and doom-scrolling in bed. They only had once space and I ended up in a giant conference room with seven other chairs facing me. A bit weird, but it was a decent way to get some writing done. (Yes, I’m writing again.)

Monday dinner: there was this row of Japanese places I saw the other day but could not triangulate exactly where it was, so I ended up at this Bavarian restaurant. Tried ordering in German (“Entshuldigung! Wo ist die speisekart!”) and of course the waitress only spoke Malay and broken English and freaked out. I got a decent currywurst and pretzel and sat outside, because it was super-refrigerated inside and they were pumping in loud music (and not like Oktoberfest sing-a-long polka; I’m talking like Huey Lewis or some garbage.) The temp was cooling down, and it was actually nice on the patio.

After dinner, I got my new Sigma 30mm f/1.4 prime lens and took a stroll around the neighborhood for some night shooting. I love taking pictures at night, but never get a chance to. So that was fun, and having the new prime lens was great for shooting the buildings at night.

* * *

Tuesday: I massively overslept but was still tired, and I was going to walk to the giant gardens just south of the hotel, but after two minutes outside, I changed my mind and hopped a train, picked a color and a direction, and just wandered for maybe an hour. The train system has all these arterial lines that go from the city center to the extremities, but also has this orange line that runs in a big circle maybe five clicks out, so you can easily shift lines or avoid dumb routes where you have to go all the way downtown and then all the way back out in another line.

I eventually ended up at another mall, which is on Orchard sort of near that Four Seasons, on a big drag where there are maybe a dozen malls, all interconnected. It is a total Blade Runner city, a mix of gigantic supermalls where you can go to a Lord and Taylor or a Rolex superstore, but then between those are these Asian malls with tiny stalls filled with people selling bamboo plants or housewares or melons. I was just walking for hours in marvel, thinking, “What the fuck is all of this? How did I even get here?” 

I ended up having lunch at Shakey’s Pizza. It’s a huge touchstone in Elkhart. There was one just south of Concord Mall and a lot of kids at my school worked there. They had pizza buffet, mojo potatoes, etc. I last went to one in 2008 in LA, when there were maybe a dozen left in the US, all in California. It was pretty garbage back then, so I didn’t know how it would be in Singapore. This was in a food court with a bunch of stalls, and not like a full sit-down restaurant. Pizza was airport-grade eh. The mojos tastes the same but they were little discs of potato, not like a wedge. It was worth a laugh to go there, but not exactly revelatory.

Back at the hotel, got the board room again, and then couldn’t figure out dinner. I finally decided to go to Marina Bay Sands, which is a massive convention center/mall/hotel/casino just a bit south of my hotel. MBS is three 55-story towers with a gigantic cantilevered platform at the top, made to look like a surfboard, with the longest infinity pool in the world on it. There’s also a million-square-foot mall with canals and giant arched ceilings, a giant spherical Apple Store that sits on the water, theaters, museums, hotels, and one of the largest casinos in the world.

Getting into the casino was like getting into Area 51. I had to bring a passport, my travel visa, fill out all this paperwork – their loyalty program actually asks you how much you make and what your net worth is. The casino was giant, but I didn’t find it terribly great. I’m not much of a gambler, and wasn’t into the table games, so I tried a few slot machines. They all seemed pretty tuned down, with almost no bonus play and none of the crazy kinetics of American slots. I burned through about a hundred bucks (Singapore) and gave up.

Last meal: I went to one of the Hawker-type food courts and ordered a Chinese fried pork chop and some steamed dumplings. The place was crowded and I lucked into an empty table. The second I had my last bite in my mouth, someone swooped in and asked if they could have my spot.

* * *

On Wednesday, I had to leave at about six in the morning, so no time for breakfast or anything else. I got to the airport with plenty of time and wandered around a bit. The airport has this butterfly garden, which is pretty cool. It’s a two-story thing with a waterfall and lots of plants, and there are butterflies flying all around inside. I caught a 9:30am flight straight back to SFO, which landed 16 hours later at… 9:30am. I didn’t sleep and powered through the rest of the day, so I could black out right after dinner and then get to work at my regular time on Thursday.

* * *

I don’t think I had enough time to get a feel for any of Singapore other than the area around Marina Bay. Honestly, after about ten days out of the country, I was getting severely depressed from the food situation and just from wandering around alone, unable to speak to anyone in English, and everyone I knew online was asleep when I was awake. This always happens, and I’m never fully prepared for it. I’m always interested in seeing other countries, experiencing the differences, getting a feel for what it’s like there. But the loneliness of being there by myself gets crippling at a certain point, and I never know what to do.

I was reading the book The Art of Noticing recently, and I forget who said this, but their tip on what to do when you’re trying to take in a moment is to look up. Look around, but then look up and look around, then look up even further. I was walking on Orchard in the middle of this Vegas-like strip of mega-malls, listening to this ambient soundtrack I normally listen to when meditating, and looking up, looking at the glass towers and the wires and lights and trees. I thought about how weird it was to be out on a Tuesday afternoon in the sweltering heat, with all these people around me. And I thought about how I’d explain this to the 1992 me who had never been more than a few hundred miles from home, how I was in this strange land ten thousand miles away. And I thought about how grateful I was that I had a job and a life that allowed me to do this. And I wasn’t looking forward to the early wake-up call the next day or the long flight back. But I was thankful for the entire strange experience, and that burned that moment of standing in front of the Takashimaya Shopping Centre into my head forever.


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