All I remember learning about Singapore in school was that it’s illegal to chew gum there… reason enough for an adolescent to scratch it off their list of “Places I want to visit.” I’ve since learned more about Singapore, of course, and it is a fascinating country to visit, not to mention incredibly safe. Still, it has some of the strictest laws in the world — anyone carrying 17 ounces of marijuana, for example, is considered a drug-trafficker, punishable by hanging. That strictness is also present in the day-to-day activities — like the gyms’ lack of flexibility to offer a day pass (3 month minimum contracts only), and the signs on the street warning of a bicycle theft in the neighborhood on a particular date. The severe laws coupled with the high prices, it’s not surprising that Singapore is not a mecca for backpackers. Tony Wheeler, the creator of Lonely Planet, wrote back in 1973 that “it’s a groovy place once you’ve got in”. I’d say that’s still pretty true!
Arriving in Singapore
After 2 months in Thailand and Cambodia, Singpore is a bit of a culture shock. As soon as you walk through customs at Chaingi Airport, your eyes are filled with the glowing lights of technology – large screen flat panels with ads, comfort lounges with computers and free wifi, even the bathrooms have a touch screen for you to rate your satisfaction upon exiting!!
Leaving the airport, there was a formal line for the taxis. And there was one guy whose sole job (so it seemed) was to ensure the line was being properly used! (As if going from tuk-tuks to luxury cars with air-conditioning and meters wasn’t enough of a change already.) As the driver took me to my friend’s apartment, I couldn’t help but notice the immaculate cleanliness of the shoulders of the road. Phnom Pehn, Cambodia, was blanketed with litter, and here there was not a water bottle or candy wrapper to be seen.
Two friends from back in San Francisco, Leticia and her husband, Hughes, were my gracious hosts. They’ve lived in Singapore over 3 years now and have two beautiful little girls. Their apartment was like a resort to me coming from cold showers and mosquito-filled guesthouses. I got to take full advantage of home-cooked meals, a laundry machine and a swimming pool ☺. (Ah, the little things…)
Leticia showed me how to get around Singapore, which I have to say, is super easy. They have one of the nicest metro systems I’ve ever seen. No, scratch that, it’s the nicest I’ve ever seen! You’d have to try very hard to get lost. There is a sign for literally everything, regular announcements on the loudspeaker (that are actually audible), and well-staffed information desks at all the stops. Plus everyone speaks English (and about 3 or 4 other languages).
I spent two days just wandering around the metro from Chinatown to Little India, to Marina Bay and everywhere else that peaked my curiosity. Singapore is an immaculate and beautiful city. There are well-tended parks and gardens here and there. Clean, public spaces for dinning and lounging. In many ways, I was reminded of Sydney, Australia (perhaps because the unique architecture of Marina Bay Sands over the water echoed of the famous Opera House in Sydney). But also just the overall new, posh and tidy look of the endless shopping centers and commercial buildings.
Eating in Singapore
Singapore is a little culinary heaven, and the diversity of its inhabitants is well reflected in the cuisine. But in my opinion you should skip the western food options and go for Malaysian, Indian or Chinese food. It’s outstanding here and you can find it for every budget. Little India has some of the best Dosa I’ve ever tasted (and I use to eat Dosa a lot when I worked at TIE back in Santa Clara!!) Also, don’t miss Chinatown and the endless rows of food stands. One of my favorite things to try there was fresh pressed sugarcane juice with lemon. There is also a great little Chinese market at the Eunos stop of the MRT (metro). Super cheap and delicious buns and noodles at the stands, plus a fresh produce market. Perfect if you’re on a budget!
Shopping in Singapore
The going joke in Singapore is that “shopping is the only national sport”. Admittedly, after spending 5 days there I have to believe it. There was a mall on every block it seemed. Many malls had their own theme — an IT mall, a Chinese mall, an art mall, even one mall that was called “A LifeStyle Mall”… I’m not the sure what the heck that means, but I was so tired from all the other malls I didn’t go in! Warning: If you have a shopping addiction, going to Singapore is NOT a good idea… Malls are unavoidable. They even line the metro pathways with shops! Truly, though, if you can’t find what you want in Singapore, odds are you can’t find it anywhere.
Going out in Singapore
I only went out one night in Singapore, but it was a good night, nonetheless! Leticia suggested I check out Clark Quay, were there are many bars and restaurants (notably frequented by expats). So I dug out the fanciest outfit I had in my backpack – which was barely up to standard for the urban glamour of Singapore – and went to a little bar called “Chupitos.” (Chupitos is the cheapest bar in all of Clark Quay, I’m told.) There I met two really fun Singaporean guys (Sathish and Siva) and had some laughs over a variety of sweet and strong shots (2 for 12 SD ~ $10). Try the tequila shot with cinnamon and orange if you go :).
From Chupitos we headed over to China One, a favorite spot of my new local friends. Aside from the outrageous prices (6 SD for bottled water and no option to order tap!), it was a really fun bar. They had live music, a dance floor and lots of space for lounging, playing pool and mingling. I met an adorable, friendly guy named August Sky Angel (whose friends call him Charlie!), and enjoyed several hours of laughs and flirtation. I even tried a “Singapore Slammer,” the sugary equivalent of a long-island ice tea. If you go out in Singapore, I highly recommend both of these places. (You’ll just have to find your own Sky Angel ;).)
Honestly, Singapore was the closest thing to San Francisco I’ve found in Southeast Asia. The
wealth, the shopping malls, the businessmen and women crowding together for happy hour after work… It was a sight to see, and I adored spending time with my friends and their children, but I truly missed Thailand. I missed the messiness of it. The overlap of people and nature. Bargaining at the markets. Not caring if my clothes matched or if I was wearing makeup. Conversations about things unrelated to careers… Sitting on a train now on my way to Chiang Mai I have to say, I’m really happy to be headed home :).
One thought on “Strictly Singapore”
Have enjoyed following your exploits in South East Asia. We have stopped in Singapore several times on our way to India and have always found it too antiseptic. Do try to visit HongKong; a good mixture of the best of Singapore and Thailand.