My last destination in South East Asia ended up being so different from every other country for many reasons. I mean, there were the classic SEA moments – the bus stopping at the Malaysian border and us not being told anything, just guessing we had to get off and get our passports stamped and get back on the other side, and the same happening at the Singapore border and this time me being chased by the bus driver into border security as apparently I needed to take all baggage with me to be scanned. However I had been warned to expect the whole thing to take 5 hours, yet I was dropped off at some random bus stop in Singapore before 2pm.
Anyway, everything after this was pretty easy and worlds away from the rest of my experiences in Asia. I asked a local how to get to my address and they pointed me in the direction of the MRT station (the Singapore underground system), which I found easily and quickly. Inside Nicoll Highway the attendant was really helpful in advising of the different ticket options (I paid $12 for a top-up card where you lose a fiver but get to keep the card). The MRT was modern, efficient and air-conned (I don’t think I’ve been on an underground system since China, though, have only been on buses for the last 3 months, that I almost forgot how to operate in one). The roads were wide, the buildings high and the streets super clean. You could tell that English was their main language, that Singapore had only been in existence for 50 odd years and that it would be more expensive than the rest of Asia pretty quickly.
Also, I wasn’t really going to be living like a backpacker. Fortunate enough to be staying with friends (big shout out to Emma and Steve!) who currently live in Singapore, after being on the MRT for about 35 minutes (changing to the downtown line at Promenade and getting off at King Albert Park), I walked 10 minutes to their condo and into a double bedroom all to myself with my very own bathroom. And for FOUR days. I actually completely unpacked my backpack for the first time in 4 months and aired out the bag (no wonder nothing stays smelling clean for very long) and even put some bits away in a wardrobe. IN A WARDROBE. Absolutely wonderful to be able to settle for a few days and have a bit of luxury (although being offered the use of a hairdryer felt like one step too far) but also dangerous – I soon was swanning around like a regular tourist and felt slightly separate to those I passed with massive backpacks on the MTR (I don’t even know where the backpackers would stay) and I had to almost remind myself that I was still a traveller and not to get too comfortable with this lavish lifestyle. But for the next 4 days…
After my excitable half hour of setting up my room, Steve and I headed out to meet Emma at Marina Bay Sands so we could eat at Din Thai Fung; a Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant chain that serves a wonderful range of dumplings, noodles, rice, soup, meat and fish dishes. We ordered a few dishes to share and the dumplings (or dim sum) were amazing. We then wandered outside to the bayfront for views across the water before walking to Gardens By the Bay; a nature park with 4 different gardens, a walking bridge high up and “supertrees” which light up as part of an evening “Garden Rhapsody” in time to music.
Afterwards Emma and Steve took me to Level 33 Craft Brewery Restaurant at the Marina Bay Financial Centre. On the 33rd floor (who would have guessed) the terrace bar offers great views of Marina Bay Sands itself (which the view from Marina Bay Sands obviously wouldn’t do!) as well as the surrounding lit-up buildings dotting the skyline. It was a gorgeous view and a really chilled-out bar, although the waiter, Aldo (I always remember a name) turned his nose down at the cocktail I ordered (as its a brewery, I went for a cocktail with beer in it and it was actually really good, but set me back $30 SGD, which is about 15 quid) and didn’t seem to want to take our photo when we asked. But, hey, it all adds to the experience, right?!
Keen to explore the city (or country – it’s one of only 3 city states) and get my bearings, I spent the following day hopping on and off the MRT to check out the different districts and the different things they had on offer. Being on the downtown line I started by getting off at the Botanic Gardens stop to wander around the gardens for an hour before the weather got too hot – you could spend some time here, especially with a group of people if you settled for a picnic – and there are various little gardens within the gardens. It was a good stroll and a nice start to my day.
I then got the MRT to Bugis (which is one of many MRT stations within a shopping mall in Singapore) to walk to Arab Street and Haji Lane, which is lined with independent boutiques and middle-eastern cafes as well as numerous buildings and walls being adorned with artwork graffiti. I really enjoyed wandering around the little lanes and stumbling across little shops and cafes with charm and character – it’s easy to see why young people spend their time here and I even went back on my second-to-last day to sit with a drink and write as I watched the many different types of people come and go.
Really hungry by this point I next made my way to Chinatown on the MRT, striding past the multitude of market stalls as you exit the MRT to reach Chinatown Food Complex (a typical Hawker centre, which is basically cheap street food stalls and where are the locals go to for their meals rather than cook themselves). Located down Smith Street, I was a lady on a mission to find Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle (I have no idea how the head chef came up with that one, it’s so abstract), which Emma suggested I go to as, in 2016, it became one of the first two street food locations (and there are over 6,000 such stalls in Singapore) in the world to be awarded a star in the Michelin guide. Their infamous dish is the Soya Sauce Chicken with Rice at $2 (you can have park instead of chicken, and noodle instead of rice – both of which increase the price by a maximum of $1. After weaving through the food stalls I located HK and joined the queue – well, what I thought was the end of the queue but was in fact a gap to let other people be able to get through the walkway, whereas the queue continued, weaving around 2 separate corners. I was surprised and had a moment of “oh no, should I bother” but I’d already seen the menu and made my choice, plus I estimated it would take no more than 40 minutes and I really wanted to try Michelin-rated food for £1 so I made a decision. Or what almost felt like a life commitment. It felt like we barely moved – with most orders being placed by individuals but clearly for groups or entire offices as it literally took forever – and, an hour and a half later, I finally had my dish in my hand. And a minute and a half later it was gone. Honestly I was so so hungry (and tired, and dishevelled, and demotivated – there were many points at which I wanted to give up and just eat elsewhere but I had come this far and, although my patience is shit I can be pretty stubborn and determined when I want) that I just had to eat. The chicken was ridiculously tender and tasty – I could definitely see why it was doing so well, and the chef was such a machine (!) – but the rice was just rice so, although the meat super tasty, it wasn’t the best meal I have had.
After a relaxed evening at the condo with Emma and Steve (where I got to make a salad; a home-made, fresh SALAD. Madness.) where I picked their brains about things to do and the best way to utilise my time, I decided that the following day I would head over to East Coast Park and hire a bicycle. I was quite leisurely in getting myself up – enjoying the space and freedom to move around the place as I pleased – that it was gone 11 by the time I left and, knowing I had to get to the East and I was currently on the West, I did something very un-backpackery (don’t question it, defo a word) and sacked off the MRT in favour of takin a taxi straight there. Hear me out; yes the MRT is super cheap (I think I spent a total of 20 dollars – including my 5 dollar fee – getting myself around over 4 days, which is basically a tenner) however I would have had to get over to the other side at the end of the green line and still then had to get a taxi to the park anyway as it isn’t serviced by the MRT or a bus (and it’s MASSIVE), taking me over an hour, so I made a decision, hailed a taxi (which I also haven’t done since China, when I was with a group of people) and paid 16 dollars to get there in about 20/30 minutes.
Dropped off about a third of the way down I went straight to the bike station and selected a “ladies bike” for $10; you can get mountain bikes for $6 but this fancy thing came with a wicker basket, plus it reminded me more of my Pendleton from home and I was feeling wistful and nostalgic (I’m trying to justify the cost, OK.) Anyway, it’s actually $10 for the first hour but as it was a weekday you get the second hour for free, and I also put down $50 deposit – they actually asked for my driving licence but I wasn’t about to give that away without protest. I then spent the next hour and a half cycling through the park along the coast in the direction of the airport with the sun on my back, pulling over for views or to watch kids playing football in the sand (only for a couple of minutes – before it starts to look creepy) and then cycling back again. It was refreshing to just be outdoors, taking my time and being active in any way other than through lugging my heavy, uncomfortable backpack through the city.
I then stopped by Old Town White Coffee (quite an average chain but that’s all you can really find in the park, and this was at least relatively cheap) to grab a bite to eat, opting for the local dish of Asam Laksa – almost a noodle soup with fish – and an iced coffee for around $10 before jumping into a taxi to Marina Bay Sands. Now this is where it gets a bit shady – the metre came to $6 but he tried to charge me $8, claiming there was some sort of $2 government tax I had to pay. Fortunately I’d taken a taxi that morning and wasn’t about to just hand over more money – as soon as I questioned it he was all “ok, ok, I pay it for you”. Sure you will, mate. ANYWAY. Just be warned.
I walked through the shopping centre and out to the front before taking myself on a walk round the bayfront, up and over the Helix bridge, along towards the Esplanade and through that shopping centre (see what I mean – shit loads of them) to the front, and then across another bridge to reach The Merlion. Now, I have been educated on what the relevance of the Merlion is, but I just find it one of the more bizarre and less appealing of statues I have seen – it somehow manages to look pointless, sexual and out of place all at once (and they even mod it from its original spot!) I don’t mean to cause offence to anyone or any culture, but I really think Singapore would still be pretty cool without it…
I then paid $25 (reeeaaaaally not living like a backpacker…) to hop on the 40 minute river boat cruise from outside the Fullerton Hotel, circling round the bay and out under the bridges towards Clarke Quay before looping back to where we started. Sat outside at the back it was lovely to just relax and take in the surroundings with the sun beating down on me, listening to the history of the landmarks around me (although I kept switching in and out, getting lost in my own thoughts and the noises around me).
I managed to stumble across a bus stop as I was searching for a nearby MRT and, after studying the system map, successfully jumped on a bus that took me to outside Emma and Steve’s for a ridiculously cheap price (you can use your MRT card on buses, too), had a shower and changed into some not-sweaty-from-the-bike-ride clothes and headed back out on the MRT to the City Hall stop. After walking through the shopping centre (yup, another one) I arrived at the Raffles complex and took the stairs up to Long Bar; the place of the original Singapore Slings. I met Emma and Steve and, I’m pleased to say, enjoyed the best Singapore Sling I have ever had, which is handy considering it’s the original and considering it set me back $34. Thank god I like Gin. After getting an obligatory picture with the cardboard cut-out of the Sling guy out front, we jumped on the MRT to Chinatown.
Once again we had a purpose – heading straight for Smith Street (but along from the food complex) we went into Noodle Man; somewhere Emma and Steve have been before and raved about, you can watch the chef make your noodles from scratch and even have a photo with him doing it; having absolutely no sense of personal embarrassment I unashamedly stood around watching him work, waiting for the opportunity to jump in a pic with him. Oh and the food was also really good, although surprisingly the noodle dish we picked wasn’t my fave and instead I gorged on the prawn and dumpling dishes, which were so so delicious.
On my final full day in Singapore I first took the MRT to Haw Par Villa, a “theme park” containing statues and scenes from Chinese mythology. Built by the developers of Tiger Balm it was originally called Tiger Balm Gardens and was a venue for teaching traditional Chinese values – the most popular is section is the Ten Courts of Hell, which features gruesome depictions of Hell in Chinese mythology. It was interesting and slightly crazy, but not really my kind of thing. I left after about 40 minutes.
I then walked about 20 minutes to the nearest entrance into Kent Ridge Park as I planned to join/start the Southern Ridges walk, which is a trail leading through the parks leading down to Mount Faber, connected by various bridges looming over and above the wide, busy streets below. I walked through Kent Ridge Park, Hort Park, over Henderson Waves and into Faber Park, finishing my walk at Faber Peak with views of the water below and Sentosa island (plus the cable car connecting Mount Faber with Sentosa). It was quite a sweaty walk (I wonder if I can even do anything sweat-less anymore) but so peaceful and beautiful; a perfect respite from the city and a decent 1.5 hour walk (but maybe a leisurely 2 hour walk; I had a bit of a pace on me, but apparently you can’t overtake your thoughts no matter how hard you try!)
After Faber Peak I walked back down towards Harbour Point and stopped via Vivo City (ANOTHER shopping centre) for a bite to it. Toast Box is a popular chain in Singapore serving thick toast with various toppings, the most classics being Kaya – a buttery jam, almost as if combining butter and jam into one to save time. Liking to try a local favourite I opted for one slice of this with an iced Kopi C (coffee with condensed milk – a totally gluttonous lunch!) To be honest, it was just a really good slice of toast (probably would have been more satisfying at breakfast), but I enjoyed it and it wasn’t too bad for $4 in total.
This is when I then headed back to the Bugis stop to make my second visit to Haji Lane, visiting Masjid Sultan just before it closed at 4pm and adorning a fancy robe to cover up my flesh, before stopping at a bar to sit outside with a mango shake, scribble thoughts and notes on a napkin and watch passers-by.
For my final evening in Singapore I took the MRT to Telok Ayer – a bit like their financial district, so filled with city workers heading home – to meet Steve for “date night” (Emma had pre-arranged dinner plans). We walked the short distance to Telok Ayer Hawker Market and went through to the back to Satay Street where we ordered 30 sticks of the met tender, best-seasoned meat (10 chicken, 10 mutton, 10 beef) with pots of satay sauce. I’m normally a sauce girl and ask for more pots before I have started, knowing from the outset that one won’t be sufficient, but it was so tasty and so moorish that I didn’t need much of the satay sauce, if at all at times. Steve also popped inside the Hawker Market to pick up a classic Nasi Goreng and a Fried Black Carrot Cake (a dish of rice that had been steamed and boiled in so much water that it becomes jellyfish, fried with egg – I actually quite enjoyed it) to share and a couple of Heinekens. Really pleased with our choices and the amount we ordered, we devoured our food whilst filling the other in on our different days.
We then took the MRT back to Bugis to meet up with Emma and while waiting we got into a praise-filled discussion about the MRT characters and the train harmony they promote. For giving up your seat to those more in need they have Stand Up Stacey, for letting those off the train before you board they have Give Way Glenda (one I feel quite passionate about and made a point of doing, whilst tutting, as some locals squeezed on before others had got off, but it was a point that was completely missed by them and only resulted in me missing out on a seat – sometimes I hate principles), they have Bag Down Benny and Move In Martin (reminding me of snowy commutes into London – “Can everyone move down, please?!”) and, for those blaring out their music for others to hear, Hush Hush Hannah. Much to my delight (and he bewildered amusement of everyone else on the platform) I discovered I had all the accessories required to recreate this last character – thanks, Steve, for being with me and thus allowing for photographic evidence (I’m sure you will want to thank him, too, for this beauty).
Oh, and if I wasn’t fond of he MRT enough, at every stop the woman on the loud speaker says “Berhati-hati”, which means ‘cautious’ and is in reference to stepping off the train onto the platform but it sounds like she is saying “be-happy happy”, and happy I was!
Before my flight to Sydney the following afternoon, I spent my morning trying to figure out what the hell I was actually going to do once I arrived, having not thought or planned that far in advance. I eventually booked a flight straight from Sydney (well, 4 hours later) to Ayers Rock for my Outback experience. Despite Singapore easing me into the physical transition from Asian to Western cultures, it still felt really weird to be leaving Asia after more than 4 months there so I was hoping this “real Australia” located in the middle of nowhere would provide the emotional transition (and healing!)