Monday, May 19, 2008

Travel Memoirs: Singapore

Upon setting foot on the Changi airport at Singapore a different world unfolds itself ahead of your eyes or more accurately your whole being. The tropical humidity which reaches an all-time high during the monsoon season is catching your breath as you exit the air-conditioned cabin, waving to the obligingly polite air-hostesses with the vividly colorful attire. And the colonial ivory linens ~shades of Ivory-Merchant worth gentleman’s attire~, which you had meticulously ironed for the journey thinking they were the appropriate look, become crumbled and stick to your body in nanoseconds. It’s probably the second shock, if you count that you are instructed before you get off the plane to sign a form indicating that you are aware the penalty for carrying narcotic substances into the country is death. Nothing really prepares you for the climatic and climactic experience to be savored in such a visit.

Singapore, situated at the south end of the Malayan peninsula and really a cluster of islands, is a feast for the eyes as much as for the nose. Like the etymology of its name, and despite its small size, this highly urbanized landscape commands the respect and awe one would reserve upon gazing a lion smack in the eyes. The air is a heavy alloy: laden with moisture from the Sungei Pandan River, laced with driftwood and mysterious rainforest flora, bringing wafts of exotic fruits, the smell of functional products from the ultra-clean public places and the local spices used by coolies on the tongkangs. One is hard pressed to envision the Malayan princes sailing the river in eras past that I had glimpsed in old colonial gravures, when gazing from the top of Bukit Timah Hill; so much have the skyscrapers changed the scenery.

I remember taking Guerlain’s classic Vetiver with me on this trip; its cool, earthy and herbal character spiked with coriander, nutmeg and capsicum complimenting the heat, it resisted the somewhat yeasty air of the city which might turn another fragrance for the sour. Cities have their own scents and some leave an indelible mark on one’s memory. Singapore emits the aroma of freshly baked bread that has been leavened with sourdough starter. The citrusy blast of Vetiver first thing in the morning was akin to putting one’s face in front of an open fridge door with the eager anticipation of finding an unusual snack of green tentacles and savory taste. And usually just that kind of treat did expect us among the many little curiosities hidden inside. The fragrance also managed to keep some semblance of decorum to our glimmering with sweat-beads forehead as we ventured on extended excursions on the nearby islands, the most impressive of which is Sentosa.

Despite its ominous old Malay name of Blakang Mati, which translates as island of the dead, Sentosa is bursting with life in all shapes and forms. Crossing the Harbor Front via air cable cars one is greeted with a vista of the plushest tropical greenery and the most exquisite blossoms. Indeed the brightness of the shade of green is comparable only to the wettest spots of Britain and New Zealand.

There, in the Mandai Garden and in the Botanical Gardens the sight of myriads of colorful orchids interspersed with small lakes holds you in stasis, their scintillating aroma wafting in the moist breeze. A special Orchidarium is devoted to this most erotic-looking bloom with waxy petals. Immersing your nose amidst the stems defies any conceivable expectation. Astonishingly, different kinds of orchids smell of a variety of things. From classic softly vanillic pollen-powdery varieties to the slightly chocolaty Neostylis ‘Sweet Fragrance’, the Cymbidium Ensifolium with its jasmine aroma laced with a twist of lemon and the Maxillaria Tenufolia which possesses a tinge of coconut. That last one allied to complimentary saffron is contributing to the heart accord of Givenchy’s floriental Ange ou Démon, a composition that while not my favorite by any means, highlights the nature of that particular blossom quite well. In fact it was not until I came across the Givenchy fragrance and tested it repeatedly that I realized it reminded me of the tropical odor emanating from an orchid seen long ago yet never identified by name in my mind; until then, that is. But there are also the more displeasing, yet fascinatingly interesting orchid varieties which lure flies instead of bees, such as one which emits the pong of rotten meat and some still which have a peculiar fishy, iodine-like odor.
An evening spent amidst the surprisingly tall orchids, the Tempusu trees and the ginger perennials, (since the Gardens don’t close their doors until midnight) is very close to olfactory intoxication.

To be continued...

Pic via Wikipedia


  1. Anonymous12:51

    Oh helg, your writing is literally transporting me there... what a fascinating world it must be amongst the orchid-jungle!

  2. Thank you dear N for saying so. Indeed the orchids are a sight to behold and a fragrant paradise.

  3. What a beautiful piece of fragrant travel writing, I admit I love reading this sort of stuff in the summer (which it is here now in all ways except name). Vetiver what a perfect pick, the only time I went to a tropical locale was, Hawaii, I wore Origins Ginger there, and it was perfect. Still I remember the humidity well, the ginger was a nice bite through it.

  4. Jen,

    thank you for your most kind words regarding the writing. I am happy summer has come for you as it has come for me too.
    And Ginger Essence indeed is perfect in heat with its citrusy tang! It's very refreshing, great choice for Hawaii (must be fab)

  5. Wow, Helg, I am completely swooning! What a terrific bit of writing!

  6. Petals from MUA09:07

    I don't believe you came to Singapore and did not tell me about it. Would have been great to have taken you perfume shopping.

  7. Thank you Risa: high praise indeed coming from you! :-)

  8. Oh dear T, that was a while ago. I wouldn't do such a thing now! It would have been grand if we could go perfume shopping together (is the selection in Tangs and the Chanel boutique any good these days?)


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