My guide to Singapore, the perfect city for your first visit to Asia

Aneta and me ended 2019 with a trip to Singapore. This is a short overview of our trip, but it can also be read as a guide to Singapore. If you are planning a visit there, feel free to use our trip as inspiration.

This was the first trip for the two of us without our daughter since our road trip in the Alps back in the summer of 2017, which made me look forward to the trip even more than I usually do. Don’t get me wrong, I love our family trips, and Emili is a well-behaved little traveler, but after thirteen family trips since 2017, I was very excited about having the monopoly on my wife’s company. The trip was short – we had only four full days in Singapore, but it was enough time to get a general impression of the city. And an overwhelmingly positive impression it turned out to be.

Singapore has been on our “to travel” list for some time and the stars finally aligned to make it happen in 2019. I had some frequent flyer points that would expire at the end of the year, and needed to be put to good use before this happened. But more importantly, our friend who grew up in Singapore would also be there, and I consider experiencing a foreign city in the company of a local as a great privilege.

Due to a lack of time I did not make detailed preparations (which I normally do before a trip), other than reading a bit about the city. As usual, a lack of knowledge paves the way for prejudice, and mine was the following: the city is very clean, the rules are followed, chewing gum is a big no-no. When it comes to expectations, I was looking forward to good food and generally having a good time. My previous exposure to Asia is limited – I had only visited Dubai, Chennai, Hong Kong, Macau and Tokyo prior to this trip. During the visit to Singapore I kept comparing it to these cities.

The city

The architecture is predominantly modern, testifying to the fast development that Singapore had in the second part of the twentieth century. There is a business district with high skyscrapers and in this aspect Singapore is similar to the likes of Hong Kong and Tokyo. But there is also distinct traditional architecture which I did not see in either Hong Kong or Tokyo (I am not talking about temples, but commercial and residential buildings). In this sense Singapore is more similar to Macau. Singapore’s traditional architecture comes in the form of so called heritage houses. They add considerably to the city’s charm and I was thrilled to see them preserved and renovated in large numbers and in multiple areas throughout the city. Even our hotel was located in a heritage house. Granted, this also made us aware that there is a negative side to these traditional buildings – the layout, plumbing and electricity are not always on par with contemporary needs.

Popular culture has it that Singapore is not only clean, but extremely clean. For us it felt clean, but it was not something that warranted constant recognition – we did not stop and react to how clean everything was, which we clearly remember doing a lot in Dubai. Furthermore, I felt that the cleanness in the hawker centers and the markets was questionable. Our friend, who is equally picky about hygiene as myself, tried to reassure me that I was wrong, but my impression stuck nevertheless.

With our limited time, we cherry picked some of the more famous neighborhoods to visit. Chinatown and Little India are both charmingly chaotic and quite a contrast to the calm and polished Central Business District. Clarke Quay, despite being overly touristic, definitely has an interesting vibe – during the night it is packed and loud, while during the day it is laid back and a nice setting for a stroll next to the Singapore River.

However, I did not feel that these neighborhoods satisfied my craving of peeking into the life of the locals, so I asked our friend to recommend a residential area outside of touristic itineraries. This is what led us to visiting Toa Payoh where we spent some time in the local market, the library and the grocery store. We also chilled in the nice green area between the massive residential skyscrapers. We were surprised by the tranquility as the sheer size of the buildings made us think that the whole area would be much busier. I guess that the hot and humid weather kept the people confined to their air conditioned apartments.

The sights

Singapore has too many tourist sights to see in you only have four days, and especially if you want to spend some time off the beaten tourist path (like we did in Toa Payoh). Our exposure to the typical tourist sights was therefore limited, we focused on Gardens by the Bay and Sentosa island. At Gardens by the Bay we visited the Flower Dome and the Cloud Forest. Think botanical garden under a big dome and with AC – this is the former. The latter is also an air conditioned dome, but more vertically oriented – you take an elevator up a big hill and then make your way down around and inside the hill. If you only have time for one, I recommend the Cloud Forest because it is more exotic than the Flower Dome. We also chilled at the Supertree Observatory enjoying the 360 degree view. It was a new attraction that had opened just a few days prior to our visit.

Sentosa is all about leisure – there is a big resort with a casino, an amusement park and an aquarium, there are museums, beaches, two cable-car lines, a fort and other attractions (which give Sentosa a similar vibe to Odaiba island in Tokyo). We focused on the beach and the sea. The beach was not crowded (unlike the public transport to and from the island), we got our own spot in the shade under a few palm trees. There was even a beach bar where we rented beach towels, which was expensive but very convenient. The sea was warm and we had several very relaxing hours of swimming and chilling. The countless freight ships queuing to dock at the massive harbor messed up the view but did not ruin the tranquil experience.

I guess that Marina Bay Sands Hotel is the most famous sight in the city, because a lot of people asked me if we stayed there when I told them about our visit to Singapore. No, we didn’t, we did not feel that it was worth the very high price. In general the hotels in Singapore are expensive, and this one was even worse. On the other hand, that infinity pool at the roof sure did look inviting. Well, maybe during a future visit. We wanted to check out the observation deck, but the queue was too long and we were too tired so we skipped it.

Marina Bay Sands Hotel
Marina Bay Sands Hotel

As big fans of Las Vegas (not as a mecca of gambling, but as a generally fascinating place from a social and psychological perspective), we visited both of Singapore’s casinos – the one at The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands and the one at the resort at Sentosa. Foreigners can enter for free (make sure to have your passport with you), unlike the locals who have to pay a hefty entry fee. In my opinion, both casinos are worth a visit to soak up the atmosphere and for people watching. Also for the free drinks (only non-alcoholic), which in the former casino were served by a robot! Gambling I don’t care about, so I cannot comment on that aspect. I usually only spend a couple of dollars on the slots. From my both “gambling” occasions in Las Vegas I went out with a plus, but I was not equally lucky in Singapore. For obvious reasons I did not take any photos inside the casinos, so you will have to take my word that they are grand.

The food

Singapore is food, food is Singapore, this is a fact!

The most Singaporean when it comes to food are the numerous hawker centres. For me they were at first a bit intimidating, with their crowds, the noise and the numerous options which always gave me choice anxiety. The fact that I perceived the sanitary conditions as questionable did not help either. But I learned to appreciate them after a couple of visits. And they are quintessentially Singaporean, so no trip to Singapore is complete without trying out a few of them. They offer excellent value for money as you can get good quality meals for very low prices. They vary from traditional (like the Chinatown Complex Food Centre or Maxwell Food Centre) to more modern and polished ones (like Lau Pa Sat Food Court in the Central Business District).

A good rule of thumb is to pick the stalls that have a queue in front of them. But sometimes the queues can get absurdly long and then local tips come in handy – like the tip I got from our friend at Maxwell Food Centre about two cousins that owned a very popular stall together, then got into a disagreement which resulted with them now having separate stalls with equally good food, but only one of the stalls keeping the ridiculous queue. So I could choose the other one and save an hour of waiting time.

Another place where you need a queuing strategy is Hawker Chan at Chinatown Complex Food Centre. This is the world’s cheapest restaurant with a Michelin star. We came there about an hour before they opened. While one of us was saving a spot in the queue, the rest were trying different small bites at stalls that open earlier. By the time the Hawker Chan opened, the queue had already grown to more than an hour of waiting time. A couple of days later Aneta and me looked by Hawker Chan once more, this time around noon, and thought that the queue was not that bad. But there was a caveat, there were only two chickens left hanging in the window, meaning that most probably not everybody in the queue would be served.

So how was the food at Hawker Chan? Good and cheap. Michelin star worthy? I am not sure, I don’t see why this particular stall was chosen among hundreds similar ones. But trying the world’s cheapest Michelin star meal was a cool experience.

Continuing on the Michelin topic, we tried another restaurant with a Michelin star, this time a classic restaurant (i.e. not a hawker stall) called The Song of India. Unfortunately, neither there did we think that the restaurant deserved its star, but the dent left in the wallet was much bigger this time. Ouch! This confirmed my theory that originated during our visit to Hong Kong – the criteria to be awarded a Michelin star is not consistent across different countries. My friend Erik, who has a much bigger fine dining experience than mine, says that the Michelin guide should be given a pass in Asia, and that one should instead focus on street food. Which might be true, but I can only take so much sensory overload that comes with a visit to a hawker centre. And in Michelin guide’s defense we did have a wonderful meal The Blue Ginger restaurant, which is awarded a Bib Gourmand – Michelin’s distinction for a high quality meal at a relatively low price.

The countless shopping malls come with their own huge variety of restaurants. I am usually skeptic to eating in a shopping mall, mostly because of a lack of atmosphere, but even here some gems can be found. One such was Ramen Nagi at the Suntec City shopping mall. I loved how you could tweak every component of your ramen. Even Aneta, who is nowhere as near a ramen enthusiast as myself, found the meal very satisfying.

When it comes to famous food from this part of the world, one of the most notorious is durian, a fruit known for its strong unpleasant smell (which is why there are signs in buses and trains warning you that it is forbidden to carry durian). We were not brave enough to try the fruit itself, but we did try durian ice cream. The taste was a mix of melon and onions. Not very good, but not as bad as its reputation either.

In Singapore you can eat at any budget, from very cheap to outrageous. But in general, taking all aspects of life into account, I consider it an expensive city.

When it comes to drinks, roof top bars are popular in Singapore. We only visited one (it would have been two if our flight had not been delayed) – LeVeL33 – which had very expensive drinks but the view was worth the price.

Haji Lane (which reminded me of Golden Gai and Omoide Yokocho in Tokyo) is a cozy narrow street packed with interesting bars. There we met our friend’s cousin and his wife at a place called Bar Stories. I love their concept – they have no drink menu, instead you tell the staff what kind of flavors you like and they make a cocktail based on your description. The drinks (yes, I tried all six that our company ordered) were of high quality and very close to what each of us desired. A big thanks to our new acquaintances for choosing the place, buying the drinks and answering our countless questions about life in Singapore!

Clarke Quay is another popular area for drinks, but most places there are rather unexciting and touristy. Still, the atmosphere beside the Singapore River is worth it. We had the world’s most expensive mineral water (9 Singapore dollars!) at Little Saigon, but it sure was refreshing in the humid weather. And their Vietnamese coffee was great.

The shopping malls

Similarly to what I said about the food holds also here – Singapore is shopping, shopping is Singapore.

I am always happy when finding high quality clothes for a good price, but my general impression was that the malls in Singapore were pricey. An exception to this was Mustafa Centre but together with the good deals you also get a similar sensory overload as in a hawker centre.

Our visits to Singaporean malls were more about observing the locals than for shopping. I was at first amazed by the sheer number of shopping malls and the people’s excessive love for shopping, but I realized that Croatia, which has a population comparable to the one of Singapore, has a larger number of shopping malls. It is just that Singapore is tiny in surface in comparison, meaning that the malls are freakishly close to each other. All in all, not my cup of tea.

The weather

The day temperature during our visit was slightly above 30 degrees Celsius, accompanied by high humidity. During the cloudy periods of the day this was tolerable, but whenever the sun found its way through the clouds, it would become quite uncomfortable. I cannot imagine how it feels to have this kind of weather throughout the whole year. Not only because it is not pleasant, but because it is monotonous. I like the four distinct seasons that we have both in Sweden and Croatia.

A peculiarity worth noting is that Christmas decorations feel quite out of place in the warm weather. I remember feeling the same in Dubai.

History and politics

History is one of my favorite aspects of Singapore. I did not have much knowledge about it prior to the trip, but I learned about it both by interrogating our friend and from visiting the National Museum of Singapore. What I find fascinating is how well the different nations and religions function together. I dislike when people make flocks based on arbitrary social constructs (which nation and religion are). I prefer grouping with people that have the same dreams and aspirations as me, not necessarily the same passport. But I digress. The dominating nationalities in Singapore are Chinese, Malay and Indian. The city is cosmopolitan and international, and English is one of the four most commonly used languages (together with Mandarin, Malay and Tamil). This makes Singapore more pleasant and manageable than nationally and linguistically homogeneous Tokyo.

From roughly the 1820s to the 1940s Singapore was a British colony. During World War II it was occupied by Japan, which I guess was quickly forgiven as there is a tangible present day fascination with Japan. Similar to what Croatians have with Germany. I digress again. After the war, Singapore was back under British rule but with high aspiration for autonomy, which it was ultimately given. In 1963 it merged with Malaysia, but that marriage was short lived, because in 1965 Singapore was – for the lack of a better word – kicked out of Malaysia. The best explanation I was able to come across was that homogeneous Malaysia did not have the same belief in a multi-nation, multi-religion society. I guess the full picture is more complex than that. I just wonder if Malaysia regrets the decision today. This makes Singapore the only country in the world that gained independence despite the wish of the majority of its people. In the National Museum they were playing a video clip of the Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew giving an interview for the press shortly after becoming independent, and he looked genuinely shook and confused, and worried about the future of this new country. One sentence that he said still resonates with me (not a direct quote but a reproduction from my memory): “Now we Singaporeans, and I say Singaporeans because I cannot call myself Malaysian anymore, will have to build a future on our own, with the limited potential that we have.”  This brings me to another aspect of Singaporean history that I find fascinating – they managed to build one of the most prosperous societies in the world and develop a substantial economy with no natural resources other than their strategic geographic position. So it turned out well for them after all, despite the original concerns.

Singapore Central Business District
Singapore Central Business District, a testimony to the impressive economic development

Not everything I learned about Singaporean history and politics was positive, though. Singapore has its own view of democracy which, if I am allowed to be sarcastic, works as long as you do not criticize the government. The government has the right to limit civil rights and political opposition. The most influential positions in politics and business are held by friends and family of the late prime minister. There are very strict laws against drugs, with the punishment often being death (under the sinister name “mandatory death penalty”). And contrary to popular belief, using chewing gum is not illegal, it is selling it that is against the law. I did not have the need to test this in practice by bringing into the country a stash of chewing gum for personal use.

The way of life

Of course, during these four days I could not get anything close to a complete picture of how the locals live, but our friend says that life in Singapore is stressful and rushed. Competitiveness is present from a young age. As a tourist I could not see that and my impression was that the city was quite chill. I can even see myself living there for a year or two sometime in the future.

When asking what Singaporeans usually do in their free time, my friend replied with: “Eat and hang out in shopping malls”.

Summary

I originally planned to keep this guide much shorter, but it spontaneously grew, which says a lot about Singapore. It is a fascinating place that offers a lot to its visitors and residents alike. It has aspects of Dubai, Chennai, Hong Kong, Macau, Tokyo, Las Vegas… It is at the same time very international and distinctly Asian. If you are a Westerner that has not visited Asia before, in my opinion Singapore is the perfect introductory destination. English is widely spoken, the rules are obeyed, traffic is for the most part quite tame, all of which will make you feel at home. But visit the hawker centers, the markets, Chinatown, Little India and you will be immersed into the sights, smells and sounds of traditional Asia. If it gets too intense on the senses, just go back a more international part of the city. You can fine tune your exposure to the fascinating Asian culture according to your preferences. Having all of this in mind, Singapore is much “softer” on its visitors than Chennai, Hong Kong or Tokyo. Similarly “soft” as Dubai, but much more authentic.

I would argue that Singapore is the most Scandinavian city I have visited in Asia. And as I already stated, I can see myself living there for a year or two.

 

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