I’ll be honest…I didn’t think we were going to like Singapore very much. Among budget travelers, the island-city-state has a bit of a reputation for being sterile, soul-less, and too expensive compared to it’s grittier, less wealthy neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia. After spending some time there, however, we’d have to mostly disagree with those opinions.
There has been a ton of development around Singapore’s city core in order to transform the “Garden City” into the “City in a Garden”. Essentially this is an official plan to make the city more green, literally – with parks and greenspace, and figuratively – with environmentally advanced architectural design, utilizing rainwater catchment and cooling systems, solar energy, etc.. One of the centerpieces of this plan is Gardens by the Bay, with it’s award winning conservatories and dramatic Supertree Grove. The Supertrees consist of massive tree-like structures with hanging ferns, epiphytes, bromeliads, and flowers cascading down their sides. The Supertree Grove is a very public greenspace – open, free and surrounded by gardens and endless walkways.
Singapore proved to be a great place to walk and get around on your own. The inner harbour is situated so you can walk a large loop taking in Singapore’s downtown skyline, the space-age Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the Helix Bridge and many other architectural sights. The public transportation system was one of the best I’ve experienced…anywhere. Clean (no food, drinks, or gum allowed!), efficient (didn’t have to wait more then ten minutes for the bus or train the entire 5 days we were there) super easy to use (top up your transit card and use anywhere) and equitable (fare was based on actual distance traveled). After being in a few Indonesian cities over the last month where walking anywhere was hazardous, it was refreshing to be in a urban area that you could move around independently in.
There was also great public art all over the city. Kate and I walked by this crazy animal sculpture (with giraffe legs, rhino body and head, with sea urchins stacked on top of it) for 3 days before finally looking down at the info plate to realize it was a Salvador Dali sculpture…not exactly what we were expecting. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel also houses an impressive collection of (mostly pop) art that you can check out for free (they encourage it!).
One of our best experiences in the city was the Singapore Botanic Gardens. This large (free) park is home to a huge array of tropical plants and is a great place to retreat from the concrete and steel of the city. It is also home to the National Orchid Garden (not free) which we also were pleasantly surprised with. The garden hosted the widest array of orchids I have seen in one place – both cultivated and native – as well as many other fascinating plants (and lizards – see below). We spent half the day roaming around SBG before hopping on a train to Little India for lunch.
Video below: A meter-long monitor lizard roaming the Singapore Botanic Gardens
Singapore is a very multi-cultural city. The country has four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. These languages represent Singapore’s colonial past(English) as well as most of it’s current inhabitants – Chinese, Malaysians, and Indians. These demographics spill over into an eclectic mix of religions as well as some awesome food.
The city has tons of hawkers centers, where dozens to hundreds of food carts operate on a daily basis. Kate and I sampled many of these but our favorites were the ones in Little India and Chinatown, which also happened to be the most colorful parts of the city. The food at the hawkers centers was cheap, delicious and as authentic as it gets (thanks for all the suggestions Laura!). We are not going to China or India on our trip so we were pretty excited to get the culinary experience of being in those places.
Sterile: – ok, maybe a bit, but it was really nice to be in a clean place that was not covered in plastic rubbish (like much of Southeast Asia).
Soul-less: definitely not – just take one bite of fresh noodles or masala from a hawkers cart and it will fill your soul. Sometimes, though, it felt like other parts of the city were one big interconnected shopping mall (but a wonderful, cool, air conditioned shopping mall…..with ice cream).
Too expensive: other than lodging, Singapore was pretty cheap – this all depends on what you do while you are there, though. Public transportation and walking – cheap, eating from hawkers centers – cheap, checking out public art, parks and gardens – totally free.
Overall, we had a really good time in Singapore and would recommend to anyone traveling long-term around Southeast Asia. After being in mostly rural Indonesia for the past month, it felt like we had stepped into a futuristic land. We even stayed an extra day (to get a few more tasty meals in) before heading north to Malaysia.