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Conveniently linked by a kilometre-long causeway to the southern tip of Malaysia, the tiny city-state of
(just 580 square kilometres) makes a gentle gateway for many first-time travellers to Asia, providing Western standards of comfort and hygiene alongside traditional Chinese, Malay and Indian enclaves. Its downtown areas are dense with towering skyscrapers and gleaming shopping malls, yet the island retains an abundance of nature reserves and lush, tropical greenery.
Singapore is a wealthy nation compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, with an average per capita income of over US$15,000. At the core of this success story is an unwritten bargain between Singapore's paternalistic
and acquiescent population, which stipulates the loss of a certain amount of personal freedom, in return for levels of affluence and comfort that would have seemed unimaginable thirty years ago. Outsiders often bridle at this, and it's true that some of the
can seem extreme: neglecting to flush a public toilet, jaywalking, chewing gum and eating on the subway all carry sizeable fines. Yet the upshot is that Singapore is a clean, safe place to visit, its amenities are second to none and its public places are smoke-free and hygienic.
Of more relevance to the millions of visitors Singapore receives each year is the fact that improvements in living conditions have been shadowed by a steady loss of the state's
, as historic buildings and streets are bulldozed to make way for shopping centres. Singapore undoubtedly lacks the personality of some southeast Asian cities, but its reputation for being sterile and sanitized is unfair. Much of the country's fascination springs from its
: of the 3.87 million inhabitants, 77 percent are Chinese (a figure reflected in the predominance of Chinese shops, restaurants and temples across the island), 14 percent are Malay, and 7 percent are Indian, the remainder being from other ethnic groups.
The entire state is compact enough to be explored exhaustively in just a few days. Forming the core of downtown Singapore is the
, around whose public buildings and lofty cathedral the island's British residents used to promenade. Each surrounding enclave has its own distinct flavour, from the aromatic spice stores of
to the tumbledown backstreets of
, where it's still possible to find calligraphers and fortune tellers, or the
, whose cluttered stores sell fine cloths and silks.
Beyond the city, you'll find
Bukit Timah Nature Reserve
, the splendid
Singapore Zoological Gardens
, complete with night safari tours, and the oriental Disneyworld attractions of
Haw Par Villas
. Offshore, you'll find
, the island amusement arcade which is linked to the south coast by a short causeway (and cable car), and
, off the east coast, where the inhabitants continue to live a traditional
Singapore is just 136km north of the equator, which means that you should be prepared for a hot and sticky time whenever you go;
hover around 30A°C throughout the year. November, December and January are usually the coolest and the wettest months, but rain can fall all year round. July usually records the lowest annual rainfall.
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