After Myanmar, our next major stop was going to be Bali. But, when looking into flights from Yangon to Bali, we noticed that the cheapest options went through Singapore. We had heard that this was an interesting place to visit, so we broke up our flights from Yangon to Bali in Singapore and gave ourselves three days to explore this modern city-state.
Where We Stayed
Singapore in general is quite a bit more expensive than Myanmar, so finding a place that seemed to have a reasonable price was a bit of a challenge. There were some dorms available, but they weren’t cheap and we decided we wanted our own room. We ended up finding the Chang Ziang Hotel on booking.com and getting their cheapest room. We certainly got what we paid for – the room was tiny, but it was conveniently located near an MRT (Singapore’s public transit train) stop and plenty of cheap restaurants. The neighborhood was a bit grittier than one thinks of when picturing Singapore, but we never had any issues with safety.
What We Did
Singapore posed a planning challenge similar to that of our visit to Dublin: it offers many interesting things to do, but many of them are expensive, and we only had a few days. So we ended up picking a few big ticket items and then finding cheap or free activities to fill the rest of the days. We actually intended on doing more than we ended up doing, but the heat and humidity made us a bit lazy and we stretched out some activities longer than planned.
Indie Singapore’s Riverfront Free Walking Tour – We were excited to see that there was a free walking tour in Singapore so this was one of our top priorities. Wei, the local tour guide, leads a different tour on different days of the week, so since we were in town on a Thursday we ended up on the downtown tour. This actually worked really well for us since it gave a good overview of both colonial and modern Singapore.
Wei walked us through the history of Singapore, which was all new to us. In 1819, Sir Thomas Raffles of Britain convinced his superiors that a small settlement at the end of the Malaysian Peninsula would be a good place for a new British colony. The new colony of Singapore turned out to be wildly successful, and attracted quite the mix of immigrants: Europeans, Chinese, Indian and Malaysian were the main groups. During World War II, the Japanese occupied Singapore, which was a dark time in the history of the area. After the war, the British took back over, but 10 years later Singapore decided to break free, first as a part of Malaysia and then as its own country. Today the nation is thriving, doing big business as a commercial hub in the region. The culture is an interesting mix: the four official languages are English, Malay, Mandarin (Chinese) and Tamil (an Indian dialect), and the food is also a nice mixture of the different regional influences.
On the tour, Wei led us past many of the sites that played a role in the colonial era, from the riverfront that was a hotbed of activity to the old Parliament, a still functioning Anglican church, and the field where the Japanese rounded up the Europeans before marching them off to a prison camp during the occupation. We also got to see the sights of modern downtown Singapore, including the large bank skyscrapers, the Esplanade Theaters and the iconic Marina Bay Sands luxury hotel. We also took a nice food break in the middle where he led us to try some of the local specialties (more on that later). We really enjoyed the tour and would highly recommend it.
The National Museum – After our walking tour, we wanted to learn even more about the history of Singapore. We were disappointed to discover that the main exhibits at this museum were under renovation, but ultimately it turned out that the temporary exhibit on the history of Singapore was actually very good. It walked us through the history as described above in a nice chronological fashion, with good displays. We also though that it did the best job of setting the mood of the different periods that we had seen since our visit to the Schindler Factory Museum in Krakow.
Walk Through Little India – When the British planned the city, they designated different neighborhoods for the different ethnic groups. These neighborhoods had survived into modern times and are a fascinating way to get a feel for the cultures of the different groups. Walking through Little India, we saw numerous shops selling traditional Indian items like bangles and saris while blaring out Bollywood music onto the sidewalks. We stopped in a Hindu temple and were fascinated to observe some sort of ritual going on that involved offerings to one of the shrines and a two-piece instrumental accompaniment. We finished off our tour through the neighborhood by getting some delicacies at a small sweet shop.
The Sights Around the Marina Bay – We had heard that everyone who comes to Singapore has to take their picture with the famous “merlion” statue – an invented creation that is half fish and half lion. We then walked around the bay as the sun set, passing many people working out and many others filling the trendy bars that line the waterfront. Our destination was the front of the Marina Bay complex, where there is a nightly light show. We were wondering how it would work, since the seating faced the water, and there was no screen… where would the lights be displayed? As it turns out, the lights are displayed on a “screen” made of a thin spray of water shot up vertically from the bay. The show included moving pictures displayed on this screen as well as lasers, mist and fire cannons. A nice free way to end an evening!
Singapore Botanic Gardens – These large gardens are considered one of the highlights of Singapore, and even more impressive, are free! Therefore, we ended up spending almost a whole afternoon exploring the different sections of the garden, including a foliage walk, an evolution of plant life section (which we somehow ended up doing backwards… depressing how flowering plants turned into ferns), a “Healing Garden” highlighting the medicinal uses of many different plants, a rainforest, a ginger garden and finally the iconic swan lake. We were a little disappointed that many of the plants were not in bloom, but it still made for a pleasant respite from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Walk Through Chinatown – This is another one of Singapore’s enclaves set up for members of one of the primary ethnic groups. Given its close location to downtown, it has also become a pretty popular neighhborhood these days. When we visited, there were red decorations all over the place in preparation for the upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations. There were also a ton of stalls in the pedestrian-only alleyways selling all sorts of trinkets.
Night Safari – This was our most expensive activity in Singapore but also our favorite! They have set up a special zoo that you only visit after the sun sets. All of the exhibits are designed with the nighttime visitor in mind, with soft floodlights and illuminated signs. We walked the different paths and got great glimpses of different animals. Some of the highlights were fishing cats, hyenas (flashback time), leopards (meaning that we finally can say we have seen the “Big Five”), Asian lions, tigers, and an enclosure where we could get quite close to wallabies. Also included in our admission ticket was a tram ride that first went past some of the same exhibits we saw on foot, but then went into a tram-only section meant to represent the Asian rainforest, so we got to see animals like tapirs, wild cattle and different types of deer. In some parts of this section the animals could roam free and got very close to the tram! The only downside of the visit was that we felt rushed in the end because we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss the last train back into town (the Night Safari is far on the outskirts). So if you plan on going, we’d recommend getting there as soon as it opens for the evening!
Where We Ate
Since Singapore is such a mix of different cultures, the food is also quite a mixture of the foods from those same cultures. We found a few lists of iconic dishes and made sure to try as many as we could!
The food in Singapore was surprisingly affordable, especially if you went to one of the “hawker stalls.” These are kind of a cross between a food court and street food – they would be in a building like a restaurant, but there would be many different counters offering different types of food. We ate at these as often as we could.
Our first meal was at an Indian Muslim stall near the Chang Ziang. Eric got a biriyani (Indian rice) with a piece of fried chicken on top, and Della got char kway teow, a dish with fried flat noodles that she likes because it reminds her of her favorite Thai dish, pad see eew (we had this dish at one of our favorite Asian places back in Denver, Jaya).
While on our free walking tour, during the break we went to a local coffeestand and tried the special Singapore dish called kaya toast, which was pieces of toast served with a coconut jam called kaya, some sugar and large pats of butter. We took our guide’s suggestion and ate it dipped in sauce which we made from swirling soft-boiled eggs with soy sauce. It was interesting, but a little too sweet and buttery for our tastes.
We also at a a branch of Kopitiam, a food court chain in Singapore. Here Della visited one stall and got a Chinese-esque nodle soup with dumplings.Eric got a laksa, which is a coconut-base curry soup with noodles and some things that looked like stale bread but may have been bean curd puffs. It was spicy but good.
The day that we explored Chinatown, we found one street that had many hawker stalls set up in an open-air courtyard. Here Della decided to get the laksa soup, while Eric tried another local favorite: Hainanese chicken rice, which is a simple dish with tender steamed chicken served over rice with chicken broth on the side. For dessert, we decided to get large concoction we had seen other people get: a large chunk of shaved ice topped with durian (a controversial fruit due to its somewhat pungent odor) ice cream. There were also pieces of jelly and red beans at the bottom. Definitely an interesting flavor combination!
We did have one meal where we didn’t really explore unique local food. While walking though a mall near the Esplanade, we spotted a salad place and decided that after so many fried noodle and rice dishes that something simple might be good! Eric did make a slight concession to local food by getting the salad that had fake crab and a chili-based dressing (chili crab is a local specialty). The fresh greens were good, but it turned out to be our most expensive meal in Singapore!
Visiting Singapore was a little bit like a visit to a location in the US: everything was clean and orderly, and it was easy to get around and figure out things to do. We were a little nervous about the high costs of visiting, but we were actually able to find a good number of affordable things to do. We were also fascinated to learn more about the small island nation’s history and its mix of cultures – and sample the resulting mix of cuisines! We feel like we only scratched the surface, so we’d definitely like to visit again if given the chance!