A stopover in Singapore’s Katong district at a bargain basement price.
I admit it; I’m mean with money. That’s reasonable these days, in light of the recent global and personal financial meltdown. So faced with an unavoidable stopover in Singapore en route to a modestly paid job, I was determined to do it on a shoestring.
I made one rule, though – if luxury was out of the question, my stay had to be comfortable, interesting and fun. That turned out to be surprisingly easy to achieve.
Tip One: Don’t take a taxi from Changi Airport.
Singapore cabs are relatively affordable, but for a scrooge like me, the SMRT (I read that as ‘SMART’) metro system wins hands down. ‘Next train 2 minutes’, said the sign as I arrived.
The ticket machine was a little daunting, but as I fumbled for coins, a kind Singaporean lady behind me pressed the buttons, fed in my $5 note, and out popped my ticket, with change! I could dive onto the train just as its closing doors threatened to separate me from my backpack, and watched the sign change to ‘Next train 4 minutes’. The trip to Paya Lebar station took just 20 minutes. No cab would have been faster.
Cost: $2.60 for a single ticket, $1 of which is refundable when the card is returned.
Tip Two: Walk from station to hotel.
Singapore is not known as a walker’s paradise – it’s too hot, too humid and there’s too much traffic. Not to mention the torrential downpour that began as we pulled into Paya Lebar. No problem for this canny traveller, I thought, pulling out the plastic poncho I’d thoughtfully stuffed into my backpack. Unfortunately I discovered I’d brought the child’s model, a souvenir of a family visit to Taronga Zoo. It looked like a baby’s bib on me, and the tiger picture on the front amused the locals.
So I scurried through the deluge to a shopping centre, and searched for the cheapest available brolly. ‘Don’t buy the first one you see’, I thought. A mere hour later, I found the perfect specimen; big, blue and on special at Fair Price Supermarket. Delighted with my shrewd purchase, I strode bravely back into the elements, to find that the rain had stopped, as tropical downpours sometimes do.
Cost: $9.90 for unused umbrella.
Tip Three: Stay in simple hotel.
I had no time for a gym or a business centre. I wasn’t in the market for Gucci or Sony, so there was no need to stay near Singapore’s famous shopping drag, Orchard Road. Prices for hotels in that area seem to have escalated massively over the last few years.
Instead I booked a place in Joo Chiat Road. It’s in Katong, the old Malay area in the east of the town, which now has a dubious reputation as Singapore’s red light district. There were plenty of cheap backpacker options, but a double with en suite was my bottom limit. We tightwads like a little privacy. Hotel 81 Joo Chiat was indeed basic, but comfortable, and there was no red light out the front.
Cost: Standard double room, $79.
Tip Four: Explore Katong.
I’d wisely downloaded a free walking map of the area from http://www.ura.gov.sg/rediscover before I left home, though thanks to my inadequate tiger poncho it had become a tad soggy in my pocket.
Katong was indeed interesting, safe, and most important, it really felt like Asia. A hundred years ago, this was mostly plantations and rice paddies, and even though Singapore’s sprawl has now engulfed it, some 700 old buildings have been preserved. The little shop houses along Joo Chiat Road were very photogenic, with their brightly painted facades and ornate wooden lacework under the eaves.
The ersatz Malay Village was a well-meaning attempt to recreate Malay culture in Singapore, but it was run-down and all but deserted. Its main attraction seemed to be a used car sale advertised for the following weekend.
A more authentic Malay experience was just a hop, skip and a dodge of a taxi across the road at the Geylang Serai Market. Chillies and exotic vegetables were piled high on stalls, food and drinks were on sale, women wore headscarfs, and everywhere was the rich smell of the mystic east. It was quite unlike the modern, generic Singapore I’d seen before.
There were mosques, churches and the Sri Senpaga Vinayagar, the second oldest Hindu Temple in Singapore, and a “Heritage Site” since 2003. Anything with rows of elephant-headed Ganesh statues looks good to me. All in all it was an enjoyable walk, with no hassling hawkers, and if this is really the red light district, then it’s so discreet as to be invisible.
Tip Five: Eat a great dinner.
Joo Chiat was very well supplied with eating options, and a meal of Singapore’s famed chilli crabs or lemon chicken could be had for a fraction of their cost in a city restaurant. Your stingy correspondent wanted to do even better than that, so I went for the ‘famous Katong laksa’ – an excellent spicy coconut noodle soup, and a generous meal in itself.
Tip Six: Evening entertainment.
Where else in the world could you watch ‘Survivor Fiji’ in the air-conditioned comfort of a cosy hotel room? Hooray for Singaporean TV!
Early next morning I stopped off for breakfast at Geylang Serai Market, where local workers were tucking into unidentifiable dishes. I took the advice of a friendly Malay diner who, judging from his girth, clearly knew a thing or two about food. Egg roti with curry sauce is not my usual morning fare, but it certainly did the job, and look at the price!
Then it was back on the train to Changi Airport – there’s plenty of food out there, but I had a plane to catch. A quick ciabatta sandwich for $14? It seemed an outrageous rip-off after the value to which I’d become accustomed, so I waited till I was on the plane and could eat the meal I’d already paid for.
I sifted through my wallet and found I had 76 dollars left. Enough to do it all again, if I’m a bit more frugal next time.
PS. For sale: Umbrella. Blue. Excellent condition. One careful owner. All offers over $10 considered.
First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney