Still, even she could not entirely subvert the sense of wonder at the armor plating on the greater one-horned rhino, the unexpected dignity of a bearded pig and the sensual terror of a Gir lion. As we passed in close proximity to flocks of cranes, herds of water buffalo and packs of jackals, I marveled at the invisible trenches, electronic fences and other barriers that created an illusion of freedom for the animals and titillating danger for humans.
The next day, I headed over to Lau Pa Sat, a cavernous, cast-iron former train station transformed into a congenial hawker center overlooking a marina. Here, at a table set up on the street just outside the main entrance, I devoured a heaping plate of satays--chicken wings and strips of beef and lamb impaled on sticks, marinated in a secret concoction of herbs, grilled over charcoal and served with a spicy peanut sauce.
Then I was faced with a quandary. This was my last evening in Singapore. There was only room for one more dish. I wandered the stalls, leering at the fried oyster omelets, the black pepper crab meat over glass noodles, the Penang laksa noodles in a sour and spicy fish broth. In the end, I chose what many consider Singapore's national dish, Hokkien mee: fried noodles with shrimp, chopped squid, garlic, lemon juice and a pungent fish paste. Draped limply over a chair in a postprandial daze, I briefly considered a small portion of kaya, an egg-and-custard jam dessert. But whom was I kidding? I no longer had the stamina of ribald youth.
The highlight of my final day was a visit to the Rasa Sentosa Resort on the island of Sentosa, just over the causeway from downtown Singapore. It is a popular family destination for Singaporeans who don't mind lolling on a beach in full view of one of the world's largest commercial fleets. But I was there because my plane was leaving late in the evening and I much preferred spending $100 on a three-hour spa treatment at Sentosa than paying twice that for an extra day at my luxury hotel.
Besides, nothing better prepares a passenger for a 20-plus-hour flight than a long bout of muscle pampering. A young woman named Yvonne got me started with a body polish, scrubbing away my outermost skin layer with a grainy lotion. Next came the Swedish body massage and, finally, a seaweed body wrap that left me feeling like a California roll. I slept for an hour to the recorded sounds of surf and New Age music.
And then Yvonne sent me away with a few words of wisdom: "Better not eat for a few more hours."
I would heed such advice when heading to any other airport in the world. But this was Singapore. The food court in the departure terminal offered dishes I had neglected back in town: squid fried with Chinese parsley and drunken prawns marinated in rice wine and garlic. I almost felt sorry for the business and first-class passengers closeted with canapes in the luxury lounge.
GUIDEBOOK: Singapore Fling
Telephone numbers and prices: The area code for Singapore is 65, followed by the local number. All prices are approximate and computed at a rate of 1.80 Singapore dollars to one U.S. dollar. Room rates are for a double for one night. Meal prices are for two, food only. Getting there: There are no nonstop flights from Los Angeles International Airport to Singapore, but United and Singapore airlines have direct flights (one stop, no change of plane); Northwest, Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, JAL, Korean, Malaysia and Thai have connecting flights.
Where to stay: The Oriental, 5 Raffles Ave., Marina Square, 338-0066, fax 339-9537, toll-free reservations (800) 526-6566, www.mandarinoriental.com. In a city of many luxury hotels, this one ranks near the top, with 524 spacious, comfortable rooms and suites. Rates: $227 to $288, though steep discounts are often available.
Berjaya Duxton Hotel, 83 Duxton Road, 227-7678, fax 227-1232, www.singaporehotels.ws/accomodation/hotel/duxton/. This cozy 48-room hotel is located next to Chinatown and amid traditional shophouses, and has a fine French restaurant, L'Aigle d'Or. Rates: $105 to $125. Hotel Bencoolen, 47 Bencoolen St., 336-0822, fax 336-2250, www.hotelbencoolen.com. A clean 74-room hotel that's an equidistant walk from Little India and the Western boutiques of Orchard Road. Rates: $55 to $68.
Where to eat: The hawker centers and food courts--indoor conglomerations of street food stands--offer a variety of delectable Asian dishes at $2 to $6. Chinatown Complex, at 335 Smith St.; Lavender Food Square, at the corner of Lavender Street and Jalan Besar; Lau Pa Sat, Raffles Quay and Robinson Road.
Restaurants: Sabar Menanti, 52 Kandahar St., 293-0284, specializes in Malay cuisine; $12. Seow Choon Hua, Sultan Gate 33/35, 298-2720, is famed for its Foo Chow fish ball; $10. What to see and do: The Night Safari at the zoo, about a 20-minute taxi ride north of downtown, offers one of the best "open zoo" experiences. 80 Mandai Lake Road, 269-3411, www.zoo.com.sg. Nightly from 7:30 to midnight. Tram ride, $11.
The Botanic Gardens, at the junction of Cluny and Nassim Roads, has one of the world's finest collection of tropical plants. 471-7361; www.sbg.org.
sg. Open daily from 5 a.m. to midnight. Free, although admission to the National Orchid Garden is $1.10.
The Aspara Spa at Shangri-La's Rasa Sentosa Resort, 101 Silosa Road, Sentosa Island, 270-2933, fax 339-2884, www.theaspara.com. A two- to three-hour session of body pampering is available for $100.
For more information: Singapore Tourism Board, 4929 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 510, Los Angeles, 90010; (323) 677-0808, fax (323) 677-0801, www.visitsingapore.com.
Jonathan Kandell last wrote for the travel issue about France's Finistere.