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Conveniently linked by a kilometre-long causeway to the southern tip of Malaysia, the tiny city-state of Singapore (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 government 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 regulations 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 heritage , 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 multicultural population : 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 Colonial District , 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 Little India to the tumbledown backstreets of Chinatown , where it's still possible to find calligraphers and fortune tellers, or the Arab Quarter , 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 Sentosa , the island amusement arcade which is linked to the south coast by a short causeway (and cable car), and Pulau Ubin , off the east coast, where the inhabitants continue to live a traditional kampung (village) life. Singapore is just 136km north of the equator, which means that you should be prepared for a hot and sticky time whenever you go; temperatures hover around 30°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. The City The diamond-shaped island of Singapore is 42km from east to west at its widest points, and 23km from north to south. The downtown city areas huddle at the southern tip of the diamond, radiating out from the mouth of the Singapore River . Two northeast-southwest roads form a dual spine to the central area, both of them traversing the river. One starts out as North Bridge Road , crosses the river and becomes South Bridge Road ; the other begins as Victoria Street , becomes Hill Street and skirts Chinatown as New Bridge Road . At the very heart of the city, on the north bank, the Colonial District is home to a cluster of buildings that recall the days of early British rule - Parliament House, the cathedral, the Supreme Court, the Cricket Club and, most famously, Raffles Hotel. Moving west, the fringes of Fort Canning Park has several attractions, including Singapore's National Museum. From here, it's a five-minute stroll to the eastern end of Orchard Road , the main shopping area in the city. North from Fort Canning Park you soon enter Little India , whose main drag - Serangoon Road - is around fifteen minutes' walk from Raffles Hotel. Ten minutes southeast from Little India, Singapore's traditional Arab Quarter squats at the intersection of North Bridge Road and Arab Street. South, across the river, the monolithic towers of the Financial District cast long shadows over Chinatown , whose row of shop- houses stretches for around one kilometre, as far as Cantonment Road. Singapore's World Trade Centre is a fifteen-minute walk southwest of the outskirts of Chinatown, and from there cable cars run across to Sentosa . The rest of the island is crossed by expressways, of which the main ones are the east-west Pan Island Expressway and the East Coast Parkway/Ayer Rajah Expressway , both of which run from Changi to Jurong, and the Bukit Timah Expressway , which branches off north from the Pan Island Expressway at Bukit Timah new town, running north to Woodlands. At Woodlands, a causeway links Singapore with Malaysia. OTHER POPULAR DESTINATIONS IN ASIA AND THE MIDDLE EAST
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