So much to do, you might miss the plane

By Liz Sinclair
Sunday, December 13, 2009

I stared at the travel agent in horror. "Let me get this straight," I said. 'I have a 12-hour layover in Singapore? How am I going to spend 12 hours in an airport? That's my idea of hell on Earth."

The agent smiled and patted my arm. "Don't worry," she said reassuringly. "It's Changi Airport. We call it Club Changi. You'll have plenty to do. You'll see."

How right she was. In the end, I actually ran out of time exploring Singapore's Club Changi, "the World's Best Airport," as it bills itself on its Web site. And that's not just hot air: Changi has won hundreds of Best Airport awards from a variety of organizations since it opened in 1981. The story of my day might tell you why.

First I spent an hour relaxing by the outdoor pool. (Yes, there's a pool, complete with changing rooms and a gym; according to Time magazine, it's the "best-kept secret in Asia.") I worked on my tan as I watched planes arriving from and departing to destinations all over the world. Also using the pool was a couple: He was from Canada, she was from New Zealand, and they were on their way to Auckland from Los Angeles. "This is an amazing airport," said the woman. "There's so much to do here."

After the pool, I wandered up to the roof to have a look at the Sunflower Garden. It was elegant, well laid out, full of beautiful sunny yellow flowers and nicotine-starved transit passengers having a cigarette. Then I went to inquire about the free Singapore city tours hosted by Singapore Airlines and the Singapore Tourism Board. At the booth, they put my name on a list and told me I could leave my hand luggage in the bag room. Changi has a staffed checkroom -- a feature missing from most airports these days -- where you can deposit your overpacked carry-ons and free up your hands to tote shopping bags.

I stopped in at the Terminal 2 pharmacy. It carried the entire range of Tiger Balm products (I had no idea they made a joint rub) and the largest variety of Chinese and herbal teas I've seen anywhere. I stocked up on Salonpas pain-relief patches for the many bruises I get practicing martial arts.

Returning to the tour booth, I joined a group of about 20 others; our passports were taken, and we were whisked through immigration by our guide and shepherded onto two waiting buses. As we rode into the heart of Singapore, our guide gave us a brief history of the city. She gestured out the window as we passed a crew of prisoners in orange uniforms, wearing white gloves, who were polishing the leaves on trees beside the highway. "In Singapore, we neaten up our city so it doesn't look messy or crowded when visitors come," she said. I started to laugh, but she frowned at me. "This is why we arrange our gardens, our apartment buildings, neatly, so the city doesn't look messy. It's no different from rearranging the furniture and cleaning when guests come to your house, so your house won't look messy or crowded."

We got off at the old historic waterfront district and were quickly and efficiently herded onto several restored antique wooden river barges with long prows and curved tiller handles. The boats were outfitted with modern engines, and the boatmen took us chugging up a winding river to the mouth, where a large statue of a Merlion, a creature with the body of a fish and the head of a lion, spouted water. Our guide explained that the old waterfront, once the home of Chinese merchants who lived above their shops, has been restored. People now flock to the area for its restaurants and cafes. "In Singapore," said our guide, "we like to keep a contrast of old and new; we keep the old to teach our children about the past."

A bronze statue of diving boys stood on the riverbank. A huge green open space nearby would be developed for residential use by 2015, our guide informed us; the development had been planned 40 years ago. In Singapore, she repeated, people always think about the past and the future together.

A brief stop for tea, a return bus journey, another whirlwind passage through immigration, and I was back in Club Changi. Now I had less than eight hours until my connecting flight.

I wandered up to one of the two free movie theaters to watch a film, but curiously, there were no schedules posted. I went back downstairs to one of the information terminals dotted liberally around the airport, where, it turned out, they kept the movie schedules. I compared notes with a Scottish couple who had run into the same predicament. "It's a bit of a glaring oversight," the man said, "considering how great everything else is here at Changi."

Since no movie I wanted to see was going to be playing anytime soon, I went and sat by a koi pool for a while. What is it about fish swimming languidly through water that makes you sit and watch them for ages? (In my case, for about an hour.)

Next, I watched a program about polar bears on a Discovery Channel-only television by the entrance to the Cactus Garden. Later, I wandered into the garden and discovered an open-air bar in the center. A man in a black cowboy hat bought me a drink and chatted me up. His name was Jaz and he was from Brisbane, Australia. He saw my notebook and asked if I was a songwriter. He was funny, and I laughed at his jokes. He told me I had a great smile. Sadly, because I was headed back to the States for a few months, we'd be exactly halfway around the world from each other.

Once again on my own, I caught up on my e-mail on one of the free Internet terminals you can find all over the airport. After a leisurely lunch of quiche and a cappuccino at the Coffee Bean, I took in a sculpture exhibit. Being troubled by a recurring cough, I went for a free consultation at the medical clinic, lured by the $20 shopping voucher giveaway announced over the airport loudspeakers on a regular basis. It turned out I just had a cold, not SARS or the H1N1 flu. Good thing: If the doctor suspects that you have something more than a lingering winter cough, he will alert the Civil Aviation Authority, and you won't be allowed to continue your journey until you've gone to a hospital in Singapore and been examined and tested, all at your own expense. You'll also miss your connecting flight.

Then I went shopping again and spent my $20 voucher.

I watched the Chef in a Box for a while. He was making dragon's hair candies in his little glass cubicle, spinning melted sugar into threads with hands that moved in a blur, surrounded by a crowd of photo-snapping Japanese tourists.

In the end, I didn't have enough time to watch a feature film, get a massage or take a nap in one of the snug armchairs with vibrating alarm clocks in the darkened Rest Room. In fact, I'll have to arrange another layover at Changi to catch "Inspiration Hour," a series of free motivational seminars with such intriguing titles as "The Inner Pilot: Finding Your Balance in Turbulent Times." Or to take free ballroom dance lessons, accompanied by a live band.

And if anyone had told me that after 12 hours in an airport I'd be running to catch my flight because I almost missed the last boarding call, I never would have believed them.

Sinclair is a freelance writer based in Bali, Indonesia.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company