OYOP: Singapore in the Rain.
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Singapore was a natural geographic stopover on our travel path from Indonesia to Thailand. Even so, it felt more like a far-off detour. To stopover in Singapore is to take a giant leap off the beaten backpacker track and into a sophisticated, clean, efficient modern city. And I don’t meant for Southeast Asia. I mean you could live in America and move to Singapore and still enjoy your definition of personal comforts from the other side of the world. All throughout the city, there is air conditioning, hot showers, flushable toilets, drinkable water, and more! Of course, these are all items that we have considered as so basic growing up in America that most of us don’t even think twice about them. But they are luxuries and should be appreciated as such. They are rare to the majority of people in the world. Even Singapore is surrounded by countries filled with millions of people living without these things for their entire lives. Yet, it has managed to become a country with all of the modernity of a major US or European city, and it has attracted businesses and transplants from all over the world.
Singapore is a small country but just one big city, an international business hub full of futuristic skyscrapers and efficient transportation. It is also wonderfully culturally diverse. In different parts of its history, it has had influences from the Dutch, English, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and more. This is evident in the architecture, the food, and the residents. For me, it was near impossible to tell who was a local, an expat, or a tourist, unless of course they were dressed in zip off cargo pants or carrying around daypacks with mesh side pockets bursting with sunscreen, water, and hand sanitizer. I am, of course, describing what James and I look like and why we could never blend in as anything but backpackers regardless of where we are in the world.
We’d been told that Singapore would be a shock to our wallets especially after getting used to prices in other Southeast Asian countries. The guidebook described taxi prices as cheap “if you’re used to Sydney and London prices.” So you mean expensive? We decided to be proactive on cutting costs and booked only hotel rooms for our 4-day stay in Singapore, using hotel points to eliminate all accommodation costs, in general the biggest category of expenses on our trip.
Aside from accommodation costs, Singapore can still be a very expensive place to visit. The city is full of gourmet restaurants, luxury rooftop bars with skyline views, and a plethora of attractions with hefty admission costs like the Universal Studios and SEA Aquarium on Sentosa Island or the massive Singapore Zoo and its Night Safari attraction. These are what most people come to see in Singapore according to the “things to do” suggestions I read all over the Internet. Which was confusing and disappointing since you could easily spend an entire week inside the gates of these attractions and never actually see Singapore at all, all while spending hundreds of dollars and coming away with nothing but memories of packaged tourist experiences and no cultural knowledge. I know my mom is reading this thinking “aww, you didn’t even want to go to Universal Studios?!” But my answer is no, I just wanted to see Singapore!
We actually managed to spend very little money in Singapore, and we did this still filling our days seeing many parts of the city and eating lots of delicious food.
I loved how surprisingly easy and cheap it was to get around Singapore. We could take the metro almost anywhere, and even when we stayed in the Eastern part of the city that is under served by the metro system, it was just as easy to hop on the public bus. Voila, no expensive taxis needed.
Once we arrived at a destination, there were then sidewalks, crosswalks, and skywalks to accommodate pedestrians. This is worth mentioning because many countries we’ve visited don’t make pedestrians or their safety a priority. In Singapore, however, exploring the city on foot and getting a feel for different neighborhoods was both enjoyable and safe.
We started our exploration on foot in Singapore on the Southern Ridges walk. This is a series of walkways, bridges, and canopies throughout a section of the city designed specifically for pedestrians. We walked through city parks, on high walkways with skyline views, and in various neighborhoods. I was surprised that there were so few other people enjoying this path with its creative architectural feats like the Henderson Waves, a bridge that looks like ocean waves in the sky and the highest walkway in the city. We got caught in the rain and spent about an hour underneath cover nearby the bridge with all 10 or so other people walking the Southern Ridges that day.
We also extensively explored the Chinatown and Little India areas of the city. In Chinatown, we went into our first Taoist Temple. Entering the Tao temple was a shock to the senses. There were brightly painted walls and colorful statues of various animals, smells of incense and fresh fruit, sounds of people praying out loud in front of the animal statues, music playing, AND a puppet show going on, all in one small space. Admittedly, I know nothing about Taoism, but I definitely left more confused about it than anything.
Little India was a delight. I have always heard about the “sights, sounds and smells” of India, which I look forward to one day experiencing, but I was thrilled to get a small dose of it in Little India. Indian women stroll the streets in brightly multi-colored robes with intricate designs and wearing gold jewelry. Music from local restaurants and shops blares in the streets. And the smells of the curry are enough to put you in a trance. You might suddenly realize your fingers are covered in curry from digging into piles of rice and you wonder when you walked into this restaurant and how you possibly ordered all this food when you cannot read the Indian menu at all.
The Food Centers
When we first arrived in the city, we stopped off at the metro station nearest our hotel and popped right out into an open-air food court with dozens of stalls selling Thai food, Indian food, coconut milk shakes, and much more. All for a few dollars or less. Lucky, I thought, that we happened upon some cheap eats in an expensive city. But it wasn’t luck. These food courts, called Hawker Centers, are all over the city. It’s similar to the idea of street food or food trucks, but it is instead an area with dozens of food stalls all lined up in one place. It is food heaven. I had an impossibly difficult time choosing and inevitably spent twice as much time browsing as actually sitting down with my meal.
In Singapore, we tried laksa, a spicy coconut milk based noodle soup served with shrimp that would be perfect if it weren’t so pungently fishy with its anchovy base. We tried Thai and Indian curries, noodle stir fry dishes, anything with coconut, spicy ramen and dumpling soups. I’m not even sure if any of it was Singaporean food, or if that exists with the country being such a mix of various other cultures, but it was all an invigorating tasting experience, and there is certainly something for everyone.
For a city which has public transportation filled with businessmen and women on their cell phones rushing from appointment to appointment, with presumably little free time outside of the office, the city sure is filled with a lot of greenery.
Singapore was once a marshy island filled with tigers. It’s certainly come a long way from that point today, and there are no tigers left in Singapore. But there is still some jungle and wildlife at the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. The reserve is currently only open to the public on the weekends, and it’s a bit outside of the city center, but it’s free to enter. It has a few hiking trails, many long-tailed macaque monkeys, and some visitors getting their weekend exercise. With the help of a local, we even got to see a few flying lemurs up close in the trees. There were no views of the city at the summit, but the wildlife watching was a nice change from the bustling city streets.
We also spent about a half day in the Botanical Gardens. I actually wish we could have spent a whole day in these gardens, but I underestimated the sheer magnitude and beauty of this attraction and wrongly thought we may only want to spend an hour or two there. The Botanical Gardens are lovely, and we didn’t even see all of it. It is just endless park and green space, with a magnitude of paths with plants, trees, and flowers. Most of it is free to visit, but we did pay the Singapore $5 (US $3.75) each to get into the National Orchid Garden. This in itself was worth the trip to the area. I didn’t know so many species or colors (green, yellow, orange, pink, lavender, and more!) of orchids existed or that they could be bred to make so many new colors and patterns. I bet garden enthusiasts come all the way to Singapore just to see the orchid garden. If they don’t, they really should.
Then, of course there is the Supertree Grove in the Gardens of the Bay. If you’ve seen one photo of Singapore, it is probably of the SuperTrees, immense futuristic man-made tree structures that are covered in vertical gardens. Some of them are even economically sustainable and harvest solar energy. They are also free to visit, and they sit alongside the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, another creative, architecturally unique sight in Singapore. These two sights are bound to stick out in your mind in visiting the city, because they so prominently display how the city attracts modern and creative forces in continuing to thrive as a unique international hub.