I must have passed through Singapore more than any other city, occasionally stopping over for a day or two. So it was nice to be paid a modest fee for writing a short alternative guide to the place.
When I first began travelling, Singapore was not a favoured destination.
If the rumours of the 1970s were correct, Singaporean officials, obsessed with cleanliness and conformity, would give you a compulsory haircut on arrival, confiscate your chewing gum, cane you for littering and kill you for any drug offence.
Things have changed considerably, though you’d be crazy to think of dealing, carrying or using illicit drugs here. Singapore keeps quiet about the exact stats, but is believed to have one of the highest rates of capital punishment in the world, and too many foreigners have fallen foul of its zero tolerance policies. Chewing gum is still not available above the counter.
Singapore likes to be well organised, and needs to be – it’s the second most densely populated nation on the planet. (Want to hazard a guess at number one? Answer below.*) Native Singaporeans are a cultural mix of Chinese, Malay and Indians, and 42% of the population are expats. People are businesslike and polite, rather than friendly. English is one of four official languages, though ‘Singlish’ is more widely spoken and the accent takes some getting used to. The streets are safe, taxi drivers are honest and if you are going to be ripped off in a hotel or shop, at least the price will be advertised in advance.
Changi Airport is one of Asia’s busiest hubs , and although Singapore may not be the place you’ll want to spend a relaxing month’s vacation, there’s plenty in the town to fill a short stopover.
To get around, the MRT metro system is extremely clean, efficient, cheap and easy. If you want to see something above ground, there are buses, including a free city bus for those flashing Singapore Airlines boarding cards.
There used to be two things to do in Singapore – drink a gin sling at Raffles, then go shopping for electronics. These simple pleasures are still available, but there are other attractions too. Fashion shopping for instance, and um…oh, eating of course, and fabulous tropical gardens.
For a whiff of the Exotic East, but with clean toilets, no hassling hawkers and efficient transport, Singapore is the place. This is Asia Lite, fully air-conditioned.
Best of the Beaten Track
Orchard Rd is the main shopping drag, lined with massive department stores. Prices are not necessarily cheaper than in other parts of the world, but the range is hard to beat.
A short boat trip on the river from Clarke Quay gives you a chance to take an ‘old and new’ photo of traditional shophouses lining the banks, dwarfed by the modern skyscrapers behind them.
The Jewel Cable Car Ride will take you across the harbour to the resort island of Sentosa, with its Underwater World, Universal Studios, Megazip Adventure Park, Sentosa Cineblast… Sounds a bit touristy? You bet it is!
Singapore is hot and humid any time of year, so an escape to the wonderful Botanic Gardens is always an option. The orchid and ginger gardens are standouts.
The 5 billion dollar development Marina Bay Sands is brand new but already making a splash with its casino, huge hotel, shopping mall, theatres and restaurants. Well worth a look, even if staying there is out of the question.
Hipster’s guideTo feel like you really are in Asia, where not everything is modern and sanitised, take a walk around Little India. You’ll find cheap versions of anything at all in The Mustafa’s Centre.
Katong is the Malay part of town, and also by reputation the centre of prostitution on Geylang Rd. But Joo Chiat Rd is interesting, with some of Singapore’s cheaper accommodation. The Singapore Zoo, Night Safari and (my favourite) Jurong Bird Park sound like they’re only of interest if you’re under ten, but they’re much better than that. If the keepers’ demonstrations are a bit cheesy – ‘Gee whizz, this funny bird is almost human!’ – they’re brilliantly designed parks where the wildlife is very close to visitors.
The dark days of the Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II are remembered at the Changi Museum, near the site of the notorious prison camp where thousands of British and allied POWs were interned, then sent to work and die on the infamous Thai-Burma Railway. The museum can’t shy away from the horrors of the time, but it concentrates on courage and reconciliation and visiting it is a positive, uplifting experience.
Experience and events
The Singapore Arts Festival, held each year in May/June, brings local and international arts to the extraordinary Esplanade building, nicknamed ‘The Durian’.
Singaporeans are not big consumers of organised arts, but it all breaks loose at Chinese New Year, with a huge street parade and fireworks display.
Formula One roars into Singapore in late September.
Accommodation in Singapore is nowhere near as cheap as in other parts of Asia, but you’d be hard pressed to find a bedbug or a fleapit.
If you don’t care where you lay your head as long as it’s clean, the Hotel 81 chain offers very basic rooms at basic prices.
The boutique Wanderlust Hotel offers a mid-range price for witty cutting edge interior design in a converted school house in Little India.
Raffles Hotel is as famous as any five star establishment in the world. Maugham, Kipling, Michener, Conrad, Noel Coward and John Wayne have their own suites. If you’re paying for your own accommodation, stay somewhere cheaper and just go to Raffles for high tea or a gin sling.
Singapore’s food is legendary, and even if you prefer street market to up-market, you are unlikely to need a stomach pump. That hygiene fixation has its advantages.
Street food is to die for in the hawkers’ markets. Try the Old Airport Rd Hawker Centre, Kallang for chilli crabs or Chomp Chomp Food Centre in Serangoon Rd for pepper crabs. Maxwell Food Court is the place for Singapore lemon chicken or laksa.
In Little India, Ananda Bhavan, is the oldest Indian vegetarian restaurant in town. Make sure you drink a mango lassi too.
According to the Tatler ratings, Singapore’s number one restaurant is Santi’s in Marina Bay Sands. hotel complex. It was set up by legendary Catalan chef Santi Santamaria who sadly died there recently, while giving visitors a tour.
On Friday nights at BLU bar in the Shangri-La Hotel, drinks are discounted according to the height of your stiletto heels- really. This privilege is offered to ladies footing the bill (sorry).
Clarke Quay is the place most ex-pats and visitors head for a night out, and the Pump Room has a popular and long-established house band.
Singapore is an Asian hub, with no shortage of flights in and out of town. Singapore Airlines is a world leader, connecting the city to Europe, the US and Australia.
What’s happening? http://www.whatshappening.sg/events/
For food: http://www.hungrygowhere.com/singapore/
For hawker food: http://www.makansutra.com/index.php
A version of this guide first appeared on urbantravelblog.com