In mid-May, I needed to renew my Thailand visa again, which requires me to leave the country. So this time I decided to go to a place that I’ve wanted to go to for a long time: Singapore. As luck would have it, my friends Bill and Andy in Seattle have a business partner, Ken, in Singapore so they connected me with Ken before I went there. He gave me some great info on things to do and places to stay in the city before I went there, and offered to meet up with me when I was there to show me around. It was just a short, 4-day trip but that was enough time to see quite a bit of Singapore and overall have a great time.
The Fast Facts
First a little background for those of you that aren’t familiar with Singapore (I certainly wasn’t before I went there). It’s a group of islands off the southern tip of Malaysia, just 85 miles north of the equator. Given that location, if you think it might be a little hot and steamy there, you’d be absolutely correct! It’s a city-state, so Singapore is not only the name of the country, but the city as well. It was founded in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles as a trading post of the East India Trading Company. It was under British control until getting its independence in 1959. Today, it’s a very modern city with a big focus on banking and finance. Singapore has the interesting claim to fame of having the largest number of millionaires per capita than any other country in the world. And as you’ve likely heard, Singapore is a very, very clean and orderly city…more on that later.
Whirlwind Tour of the City
I met up with Ken on my first day there and we started the city tour. As we were in the subway station waiting for our train, I was quickly introduced to one of the “rules” of Singapore. I was taking a drink of water from my water bottle, and Ken stopped me and said it’s ok to carry the water with me, but no drinking it in the station or on the trains, as the police will quickly fine you if they see you drinking or eating anything. I guess I can understand not drinking soda, coffee, etc. since it makes a sticky mess if spilled, but water?? Oh well, not wanting to cause an international incident, I put the lid back on my water and waited until we were out of the station to quench my thirst.
We walked for a while along the Singapore River, which cuts thru the center of the city, with lots of shops, restaurants and bars along the banks. We then went down to the marina/harbor area to see the Esplanade Theatre, which is kind of like Singapore’s version of the Sydney Opera House. It’s a beautiful building, made up of two half-dome-like structures that are covered with glass, and the glass is covered with pointed, triangle-folded shiny silver metal. It’s a little hard to explain, but the metal keeps the direct sunlight from shining it (though it gets plenty of indirect light), and from a distance the buildings look very much like Durian fruit (a tropical fruit here that has its own unique story that I won’t go into here), although they’re also referred to as the “copulating aardvarks”, since they also resemble that. Architects get to have so much fun…
From here, we also could get a stunning ground-level view of the Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino. It is an amazing structure of three 58-story buildings, with a “sky park” connecting them at the top in the shape of a boat. I had seen lots of pictures of these buildings in the past, and had watched some engineering shows on the Discovery channel about the construction of them, but seeing them up close was pretty spectacular for me.
We then went to the Arab part of town. As the description suggests, it’s an area of town where the population is primary Arab. We walked along several streets with tons of small family shops, most of which were selling textiles, fabrics, and assorted clothing-related stuff. While I wasn’t really into the “shopping” aspect, I did love the architecture of the old buildings, narrow roads and covered sidewalks.
Our next stop was to the National Library of Singapore. When he told me he wanted to bring me to the library, I’ll be honest and say that I really wasn’t very excited. I’m not a big “book” person, and I don’t think I’ve even set foot in a library since probably 9th grade. But since he was being such a great tour guide, and I didn’t want to be a finicky guest, I said I’d love to see the library. It turns out, it’s a pretty damn spectacular building! It’s 16 stories, very modern architecture, and lots of “green” construction components. We went to one of the upper floors and walked thru the aisles of books. It’s difficult to explain why it was so cool, but the ceiling was probably 30 to 40 feet high, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows on the sides looking out to amazing views of the city. Ken said that he often goes there just to work on his laptop, and it’s a much better vibe and setting than a typical coffee shop or other place. I took out my camera and was going to try to snap a quick picture of the room, but literally within a half-second of the camera coming out of my pocket, a security guard came running out of nowhere and sternly shook her hand at me indicating in no uncertain terms that pictures were not allowed in the building. I narrowly avoided my second international incident!
Rounding out our city tour, we ended the afternoon with a walk past the famous Raffles Hotel. It’s a beautiful colonial-style hotel, built in 1887 and meticulously maintained to look like it was brand new. The typical tourist thing is to go to the bar in the hotel and order a “Singapore Sling”, a cocktail made famous by the hotel. I opted not to do that, partially since I was woefully under-dressed for the hotel’s dress code (shorts, flip-flops and tank top are apparently frowned upon there…).
On Ken’s advice, I had booked a room at a small boutique hotel in the Chinatown area of the city. While it was probably the smallest hotel room I’ve ever been in – stretching my arms out to my sides, I could nearly touch both walls of the room – it was in a restored old Chinese building and the neighborhood was spectacular. Wandering the neighborhood was similar to other cities’ Chinatowns like San Francisco or Seattle, but seemed more “authentic”, particularly from the architecture of the 2- and 3-story concrete shop houses side by side along the narrow roads.
After a fantastic dinner at a little Korean mom-and-pop restaurant I stumbled on, I met up with Ken later that evening to do some more exploring. He took me to the Little India neighborhood, which again as the name would suggest is primarily where the Indian population is located. We went to a reasonably well-known shopping center there called Mustafa Centre. It’s a single 6- or 8-story building, and it’s claim to fame is that it’s open 24 hours a day and sells just about anything you could imagine. It literally is like if you were to stack 6 or 8 Walmarts on top of each other. Clothing, jewelry, watches, toiletries, electronics, games, cooking utensils and appliances, dishes, shoes, cleaning supplies, etc. – it’s all there. We arrived there a little after midnight on Thursday night, and it was jam-packed with shoppers. Unlike Walmart, the shelves are stacked almost to the ceiling with stuff, and the aisles are tiny, packed with stuff on both sides. Apparently the place has gotten fined frequently for fire code violations, which made complete sense given that I couldn’t see any of the fire exit signs anywhere due to them being hidden behind stacks of stuff on the shelves.
The next day, I ventured out on my own and spent most of the day at the marina/harbor area. I started the day by heading down to the Marina Bay Sands hotel/casino. For $20 you can take an elevator up to the rooftop Sky Park, which for me was well worth the price. Once on the roof park, you have an amazing view of the city skyline, the harbor, and surrounding city areas. Further down the roof is the swimming pool and beach club for the hotel. You can’t get up close to it unless you’re staying at the hotel, but it definitely looks like the view from the infinity-edge pool is almost worth the cost of staying there. Ok, maybe not… the cheapest room I could find online there was $404, so I opted not to stay there.
Across the road from the Sands hotel is the Art/Science Museum. The building itself is a pretty spectacular piece of architectural artwork. It’s designed to look like a lotus flower, and it has ten “fingers” arching upwards. I’m not much of a museum person, but I wanted to see the inside so I bought a ticket for the exhibit. The exhibit was on the life and work of Andy Warhol. I’m also not much of an Andy Warhol fan, but as it turns out, it was a pretty interesting exhibit and I really enjoyed it. So kudos to me for following thru on two things I wasn’t super excited about, and ended up being a fun experience!
On my last full day in Singapore, I started out by visiting one of the largest malls (maybe the largest, I’m not sure) in Singapore. It was interesting to see, although frankly nothing very spectacular or different from other malls. However, it’s close to a small island off of Singapore called Sentosa. The entire island of Sentosa is an amusement/theme park, with resort hotels. You can get to the island on either a monorail from the mall I was at, or from a cable gondola a short distance away, or walking across a long concrete bridge. I chose the monorail option. There’s a Universal Studios there, as well as some waterpark things for kids and a few other attractions, although nothing on the scale of Disney theme parks. There is a decent beach area there, so I spent some time hanging there. I’m glad I went to see Sentosa island, but it was the first time since I’ve been over here that I really felt like the experience was really lacking due to me being by myself. In hindsight it kind of makes sense… going to a theme park by yourself, whether it’s Disney or Sentosa or anywhere else, is probably not going to be quite as fun as going with a group of friends. Duh.
The Expensive and Clean City
I’ve heard from dozens of people that I’ve met on my various trips here about how expensive Singapore is. I never really knew what that meant until I got there. It really is a very, very expensive place to live or visit. When looking for hotels, it was pretty clear that for a reasonable 3-star hotel that I’d pay maybe $40 to $80 per night for in Thailand would cost upwards of $175 to over $200 in Singapore. I was lucky to get a last-minute online deal for the hotel I stayed at and paid less than $100 per night, but their normal published rates are over $200. Food and drinks are equally expensive. I ate most of the time at small, family-run restaurants in and around Chinatown. In Thailand, I probably wouldn’t pay more than $5 to $8 for the food and a beer. In Singapore, the food was consistently between $10 and $15, while the beer was $8 to $10. I ate at a Subway one day in one of the malls, and for a simple footlong sandwich I paid $10. Going out to the bars a couple nights, drinks – whether you order beer or a cocktail – are consistently $10 to $15, and that’s at just neighborhood bars. Double that price if you want to go to a more fancy/upscale bar or club (I chose not to). If nothing else, the prices made me appreciate even more how cheap the cost of living is in Thailand! J
Singapore is probably most known for its cleanliness. I never really knew how to comprehend what that meant until I spent some time there. It is remarkable that you don’t see any kind of cigarette butts, litter or garbage anywhere on the sidewalks, in the streets, in the bushes along the road…nowhere. I also couldn’t figure out why the sidewalks looked so exceptionally clean. Finally I realized the answer when I was in a 7-11 store. They don’t sell gum in Singapore, because buying, selling, chewing or bringing gum into Singapore is illegal. So there are no decades-old splotches of gum on the sidewalks that seem to just kind of blend in with every other sidewalk I’ve seen in my life. And for full disclosure, not knowing about the gum ban, I did bring gum with me and even chewed it a couple times. I am a rebel law-breaker!