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Singapore

City of Many Faces

Published: 23rd January, 2019

Intro

For such a small country Singapore punches well above its weight. Famous as a hub of business and a paragon of the modern city, and seemingly never content with just being ordinary, it even has three different nicknames.

The Little Red Dot is a playful reference to its size on the world map.

The City in a Garden, the name of the government's sustainable future initiative, also makes much sense. Being so close to the equator Singapore has a fairly unchangeable climate, basically hot and humid, and despite being a fairly vertical city it is effectively carved out of the jungle. Large chunks of the island are set aside as parks or wetlands, and seemingly all the taxis are hybrid petrol-electric. Many of the newest buildings have floors every so often that are just gardens or, like the Park Royal, integrate gardens into the design of the building itself. For such a densely populated city, Singapore is very green, and yes it is also very clean. There are people who pick up the litter (put your litter in a bin - if you don't do it the fine will ruin your trip) but this in itself has led to accusations that people don't clean up after themselves anymore as there is always someone to do it for them.

The final name, The Lion City, the most romantic of Singapore's nicknames, is the hardest to explain. It is doubtful that lions ever existed in Singapore, and the city is now more famously know for its merlions: half mermaid, half lion creatures, but more on that later.

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In Singapore there are gardens everywhere, even in the middle of the baggage carousels at Changi airport

Ever since Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in 1819 the former colonial trading post has been prized for its strategic importance, but it was not until after 1965 when the nation of Singapore was born, and under the careful guidance of the late Lee Kuan Yew, that the city really became the power we now recognize. It is not a hard stretch to imagine that Raffles would be very proud of the city he founded, but perhaps he would be surprised by the diversity of its roughly 6 million people. English may still be a common language, but Singaporeans are today predominately Malay, Chinese, and Indian.

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Statue of Sir Stamford Raffles at what is believed to be the historic Raffles Landing Site

Transport

We landed in Changi Airport at around 5pm on a Saturday afternoon. Changi is an incredible airport. Modern, stylish and easy to navigate. You could spend a day here swimming in the pool, looking at butterflies, and tracking down the many art installations, however we were keen to get to our hotel. We were going to be in Singapore for two weeks and had planned on using public transport a fair bit. This was partly because taxis are ridiculously expensive in Australia, so we assume that they are in the rest of the world too, and partly because it is how most people in Singapore get around. Owning a car is very expensive in Singapore - a $30,000 car in Australia will be closer to $100,000 in Singapore - and public transport in Singapore is not just cheap, it is really good. So we figured that we'd just get our EZ-Link cards and jump on the train to Bugis Station, within easy walking distance to our hotel. The train was great, like many in Asia it was clean and nicely air-conditioned, and even though we had to go two stops from the airport and then jump onto the actual train to the city (the East-West line) all signs and announcements were in English so it was fairly straightforward. Later, we learned that we could have just walked directly from Bugis Station into the hotel via subways and air-conditioned malls, but we weren't familiar with the layout, the signs were confusing, the malls were very busy and we were kind of just swept up and out onto the street. Well Google Maps told us the hotel wasn't far, so off we went. And to be fair, it was probably not much more than 500 metres, but we had just got off a long flight, the air was thick with heat and humidity and we weren't quite sure where we were going, so when we finally reached the hotel we literally collapsed in the foyer. Thankfully the hotel staff were very understanding and after several bottles of cold water we checked in and made our way up to the room. After recovering a little more we headed down to the Lobby Lounge and enjoyed our first Singapore Sling. The barman apparently also worked at Raffles Hotel, so we figured it was fairly authentic. It was definitely good. At the end of our stay we caught a taxi back to the airport. From Bugis Junction to the airport the fare cost us around 20 SGD. We paid the eqivalent of 40 SGD, to get from Melbourne to the airport - a similar distance - on a bus! We had another great trip in a taxi from Jurong Bird Park back to hotel and it cost us about the same, so if you are from Australia, don't be afraid of the taxis!

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Opened in 1971, Jurong Bird Park is Asia’s largest bird park. It has around 3,500 birds and 20% of its 400 species are threatened in the wild

Pretty much all of the transport network in Singapore is managed by the SMRT, including buses, trains and taxis, so whatever you choose literally just depends on where you are, where you need to get to and how much time you have. Just stock up on your EZ-Link card, which you can also use to buy goods and services at various places and you can't go wrong. We didn't travel by bus, but all indications were that it is also effective and cheap. The MRT will generally take you everywhere you need to go, it is ridiculously cheap and the air-conditioned stations are a nice change from the tropical heat. They also don't have drivers: the trains are automated but also punctual. A couple of times we heard a voiceover apologising for a delay in leaving a station as the train ahead hadn't left its station, but the delay was never more than 30 seconds anyway.

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The MRT is a great way to beat the heat, and it is cheap

Food

The food in Singapore is amazing. With such a diverse population, it is a melting pot for all the great Asian cuisines. Although famously even Hawker Stalls have Michelin Stars in Singapore you don't really need to worry about it because so much of the food is excellent. The Hawker Stalls in particular do offer some of the best value (less than 10 SGP and often less than 5 SGP) for some of the best food you can eat, and you get to mingle with the locals. More touristy (but still good) places like Lau Pa Sat may cost more - 4 or 5 times more! Maxwells Food Centre is at the southern end of Chinatown and is well worth the visit, but don't ignore Old Airport Rd or Tiong Bahru. What you are looking for in this type of "street" food is the rating (based on cleanliness and amenities), which is usually displayed at the front of the stall. It takes the form of a colored sticker with an A, B, C or D. I'd probably avoid a C or D (or a stall without a rating), but we ate at As and Bs without any problem. Anywhere with a queue is probably amazing - all the places we ate at with long queues were, frankly, incredible, but Singaporeans are also known for FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and so there may be other places that are just as good without the crazy queues. Also, stalls open at different times, so check the opening hours if you are determined to try a particular stall.

The rating system apparently does extend into the shops you will see dotted along the streets as well, and one of our favourite places was Teh Tarik & Prata Time on North Bridge Rd behind Bugis Junction. It is currently only rating 2.9 on Google and it might be a little hit-and-miss, but it is proper Indian food. If you haven't tried it - you should.

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Lau Pa Sat is expensive and maybe a bit touristy, but a great experience nonetheless

Lau Pa Sat is a food court, but after 7pm part of Boon Tat Street is closed off, tables and chairs are brought out and satay is barbequed over drums of hot coals. Sitting in the middle of a Singapore street on a hot night surrounded by high-rises, eating great food and drinking cold beer is something everyone should try at least once in their life - it is more expensive than a hawker stall but the experience is well worth it.

There are places like Clarke Quay in cities all over the world: lots of tourists and a kind of inoffensive atmosphere that caters for all nationalities and all ages. You can find some of the cheapest beer in the city here (usually sold in buckets during the ubiquitous 'happy hour'), so if you just want to have some fun and don't care about a true local experience then go for it. I'm sure there are some good places to eat here, but I don't travel to Asia for, say, Italian or Spanish food. Head across to Boat Quay - kind of similar but better atmosphere - or Chinatown if you don't want to stray too far from the city. Boat Quay does get busy as the sun goes down though, so get in early if you want a seat near the water.

Some of our favourites (in no particular order):

  • Lor Mee at 178, Tiong Bahru
  • Hainanese chicken rice at Tian Tian, Maxwell's
  • Hainanese chicken rice at Hainanese Boneless Chicken Rice, Golden Mile
  • Kaya Toast - anywhere
  • Teh Tarik - anywhere
  • BBQ Stingray at Marina Bay Seafood, Satay by the Bay
  • Pepper Crab at Marina Bay Seafood, Satay by the Bay
  • Prata at Teh Tarik & Prata Time, Bugis Junction
  • Goose and Duck Rice at Heng Gi, Tekka Centre
  • Mutton Biryani at Allauddin's Briyani, Tekka Centre
  • Satay at Stall 7-8, Satay Street, Lau Pa Sat
  • Satay at City Satay, Satay by the Bay
  • Laksa - anywhere
  • Nasi Lemak - anywhere
  • The fresh pineapple juice and sweet corn juice at Changi Village Hawker Centre
  • Soursop - everywhere. Even from a can it is delicious
  • Any of the juices from Lau Pa Sat Toasted Bread, Bugis Street Market
  • Things to do

    There is so much to do in Singapore. We had two weeks and didn't do everything on our list. If you don't have much time, it is worthwhile planning your trip, but there is also something to be said for just wandering. We hired bikes for a week from Hello, Bicycle! on Middle Road and rode around much of Singapore. It gave us a different view of the city from the tourist brochures. There are many tracks as part of the PCN (Public Connector Network) although you are often sharing with pedestrians, but even on the roads amongst traffic we felt pretty safe. We also walked, a lot, even though I'd fallen off my bicycle a week previously and banged up my hip pretty badly. On our first day we got lost wandering around Fort Canning Park. It was Sunday and there were people everywhere. We thought this was normal until we found out that most of the people in the parks were domestic maids. Many of the maids come from Myanmar or the Philippines, and like in Hong Kong, use their day off to catch up friends of their various nationalities.

    The following day we walked from Bugis Junction, up Orchard Road to the Botanic Garden. It was pretty warm, as is usual in Singapore, but we struggled to find a cold drink in the numerous malls and food courts. It seems as though the choices here are limited to places like McDonalds or Starbucks. Bars, if you can find them, are expensive. Orchard Road is a shopping hub, and there are a number of large malls to visit if that's your thing. We wandered through a few of them but for me, shopping malls are not much different wherever you go in the world. Singapore was once known to be a good place to shop for a bargain, but those are much harder to find now. There is some spectacular architecture though and some interesting sculptures. Keep an eye out

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    The Merlion at the Singapore Tourist Centre. It can be found in the carpark at the back

    We were looking for the Merlion at the Tourist Centre. There are actually two, but the official one is in the carpark at the back. There is an excellent article on the history of the Merlion (Mer = Sea + Lion) by Philip Hayward at Science Direct, but the mythical, half-lion, half-fish is now well recognized as a symbol of Singapore. There are 7 official merlions in Singapore, but the one at the Tourist Centre is a bit out of the way and doesn't see as many vistors as the others. Keep an eye out for the Istana, the home of the President, near Singapura Plaza. We saw a mini changing-of-the-guard which was amazing. Of course security here is tight and the grounds are not always open to the public.

    I do recommend the Botanic Garden. We did this on the same day as Orchard Road and that was probably too much. The Botanic Garden is so big you could spend an entire day here. There are open spaces, small forests, waterfalls, lakes with fish, numerous birds and other wildlife, including swans and Clouded Monitors and of course the Orchid Garden. There is a fee ($5 adults) for the Orchid Garden but there are so many beautiful plants on display it is worth it. The Orchid Garden also pioneers many new hybrids, so your fee goes some way to help.

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    A Clouded Monitor (left) searches for a warm spot in the sun

    Jurong Bird Park was also incredible, despite the miserable weather the day we were there. It is apparently the largest Bird Park in Asia and you can get a multi-park deal with the Zoo. The multi-park deal is also good for the River and Night Safaris, which are basically part of the zoo, whereas Jurong Bird Park is separate. It is a pretty good deal, but due to time constraints we sacrificed the zoo in preference to the Bird Park.

    I don't recommend Sentosa. If you have a young family stay home or save for Disneyland. Everything is expensive, overpriced, or there is probably something similar near to where you live. Having said that, walk through the jungle or catch the cable car to Fort Siloso. There are remnants of Singapore's role as a British outpost, but there has also been significant replanting/redevlopment on Sentosa, and it is quite interesting to come across signs saying that effectively, all the surrounding jungle is artificial. It is a long walk out to Fort Siloso, and we were running out of daylight, so we caught the cable car up to Mount Faber. It is a great way to view Sentosa, Mount Faber and indeed Singapore. There is another merlion on top of Mout Faber too as well as some spectacular views. Keep going until you get to Henderson Waves, which is well, a wavy bridge. It is pretty high so not for the faint-hearted, but is another amazing piece of Singaporean architecture.

    Things to do (in no particular order):

  • Shop or walk up Orchard Road
  • There are so many malls, and fantastic modern architecture mixed in with the historic... there is something for everyone.

  • Fort Siloso / cable car
  • Skip the queues for Movie World, the luge and other entertainments and walk through the jungle to Fort Siloso. Catch the cable car back for some great views and continue up to Mount Faber to see the Merlion and Henderson Waves.

  • Singapore Botanic Garden (and Orchid Garden)
  • You could spend a day here. Allow at least half a day particularly if you want to see the Orchid Garden (and you should).

  • Jurong Bird Park
  • The largest Bird Park in Asia. A bit out of the way but if you can't be bothered taking a train and bus, just get a taxi.

  • Bars
  • Alcohol is expensive in Singapore and so are the bars. You might get lucky and get a happy hour (Clarke Quay) but go to Raffles Hotel Long Bar for the history and to see how they got rid of the fake Singapore Sling but can still cater for large groups. The Altitude Bar has the best view in town, atop Singapore and Raffles One. There is generally a cover charge but they do also have a happy hour. The Lantern Bar at One Fullerton is right on Marina Bay and has incredible views of Marina Bay Sands. It is popular though, so unless you have reserved a table head down to the Fullerton Pavilion, right across from Marina Bay Sands for the light show.

  • Hawker Centres
  • There are so many - and they are so good. Definitely try Maxwell's, Chinatown Food Centre, the Tekka Centre and Tiong Bahru. If you can go a bit further get to Old Airport Road, the Golden Mile and Chomp Chomp for some of the best (and cheapest) food you will ever eat.

  • Chinatown
  • Apart fom eating at Chinatown Food Centre, Maxwell's and Chinatown Food Street, don't forget to pay a vist to the Buddha Tooth Relic and Sri Mariamman Temples. There are also some great shops here and then head out to New Bridge Road for some Bakkwa.

  • Little India
  • The Tekka Centre has various stuff like clothes but also has a fantastic Food Court. There are other great shops and mini-markets in the area. There are also temples, bars, restaurants and cheapish booze shops. Get down to the Mustafa Centre where you can buy pretty much anything.

  • Kampong Glam
  • Haji Lane, Masjid Sultan, the Malay Heritage Centre and so many fabulous shops, bars and restaurants. Kampong Glam is one of the best areas in town.

  • Ride a bike
  • Singapore is hot, but there are paths everywhere (the PCN or Public Connector Network). Avoiding pedestrians is a bigger headache than being run over by cars, but it is a great way to get around and see parts of the city you might otherwise miss.

  • See the Merlions
  • There are seven: 1+2) Merlion Park overlooking Marina Bay Sands; 3) Sentosa Gateway; 4) Mount Faber; 5) Singapore Tourism Court; 6+7) Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1

  • Gardens by the Bay
  • It's close to the city so gets very crowded but it is still worth visiting. Great by day, at night check out the light show: Garden Rhapsody in the Supertree Grove. The Flower Dome and Cloud Forest could be tourist traps but have something for everyone. Don't forget Satay by the Bay and Marina Barrage: on a good day this is one of the best views in town.

  • Marina Bay Sands
  • It's a casino. The building is magnificent but do yourself a favour and see it from the Fullerton Hotel or Altitude atop Raffles One.

    Prices

    Singapore is an extraordinary city. It is modern, efficient, densely populated and very clean. However as it imports, well, everything, some things are expensive:

    Electronics are not particularly cheap, but there are some bargains to be had at some places like Sim Lim Square. Our experience here was not that they were trying to rip you off - remember, haggle! - but that a lot of the cheaper stuff is cheap for a reason.

    Food and transport are cheap... and good. Except cars. $30,000 cars in Australia cost $100,000 here.

    Alcohol is hideously expensive. A $16 bottle of NZ wine went for $110 at our hotel. $8 bottles of Australian wine were going for $42 in 7-11. Some spirits are a bit cheaper but if you are looking to buy booze head to Cold Storage in Bugis Junction or Bottles and Bottles in Suntec City. Still pricey but you can find some stuff at very reasonable prices.

    Hotels are pretty standard, except as mentioned, alcoholic drinks.

    Go to the Singapore 2018 gallery for more images...