While Singapore is often treated as a gateway stop to the rest of South East Asia, one can’t go wrong with spending a few days in this most Cosmopolitan of cities. While it’ll never have the history and architectural charm of a Paris or Rome, there’s enough here to keep anyone occupied and happy for a few nights.
Singapore, once part of Malaysia, is a country that was formed only recently. It is inhabited by large numbers of Chinese migrants escaping communism during WWII, local Malay, and Indians. When the country gained independence, all three ethnic groups remained along with their food, language, and culture. While the country’s official language is English due in part to British occupation, Malay, Tamil, and various dialects of Chinese are still the norm when communicating between locals.
Singapore is an immaculately clean and organized city, not unlike that of Japan’s big cities. I envisioned a city where scores of cops were patrolling the streets, wildly enforcing their hyper-strict laws that bans chewing gum. Well I can safely say, I saw no chewing gum being sold anywhere but I also didn’t see any cops. Something about the society created here just results in zero crime and some of the best safety records in the world.
Changi International Airport
For those that don’t know, Singapore’s Changi International Airport has been rated the world’s best airport multiple years running. For good reason. VERY good reason. I decided to transit through Singapore for a few nights to visit some friends before heading off to Cambodia. What an amazing decision it was. Let’s just put this out there now and get it out of the way. Changi Airport is f*cking incredible. It’s stocked full of modern day amenities that I never attributed as being possible for an airport.
Aside from the usual high quality food, cafes, and immaculately clean facilities you’d expect from top notch airports, there’s numerous indoor and outdoor gardens, a free movie theatre, free xbox entertainment centers, private TVs with couches, and an outdoor pool! Having a layover in Singapore is not something to dread but something to look forward to thanks to Changi airport.
Sleeping at Changi Airport
My flight arrived at 2am, far too late in the night to wake up my friend who I was staying at. Damn. What the hell was I to do? No need to worry here, because I’m at the BEST airport in the world! After some quick research, here were the insane amount of options I had:
- Airport Hotel for 50 SGD
- Sleep in the free movie theatre
- Sleep in the prayer rooms
- Sleep in the terminal on a free fully reclined massage chair
- Sleep on couches near the cafes
Upon arrival, I walked around the terminals to weigh my options. People were passed out everywhere in the terminal. Unlike most airports with rows of plastic seats, most of Changi has individual leather chairs.
The movie theatre was indeed free, and dark, but the sound from the movies was too loud for me. I saw numerous people passed out in here however. The prayer rooms were quiet and peaceful but a bit too bright for my liking. Numerous people were passed out in these rooms, and I’m confident none of them had any intention of praying at any point in the night. There were about 10 massage chairs open but all were taken. These would be my top choices for sure. Eventually, after walking around for a half hour, I settled on sleeping on a sectional couch in one of the cafes. Yes, I slept on a couch in an airport. Only in Singapore!
Eventually, I was awoken by airport police brandishing machine guns. I guess they check everyone’s itinerary at night and I was promptly escorted to immigration since my flight out of Singapore was not for 2 days. Thankfully, it was already 5:30am by this time and I was ready to go. Moral of the story? I REALLY wish America would get some airports like this, or even something half as good because our airports are all garbage. Oh, did I also mention all the discount airlines that fly out of Changi to the rest of Asia for incredibly cheap prices?
Getting to the city
Like all modern cities, Singapore is equipped with an extensive subway system, the MRT. From the airport, it is an easy ride on the MRT to get to downtown Singapore. From the airport to Marina Bay is a 45min ride on the MRT and $2-3 SGD. Signs are clearly marked for the subway so even the most novice of travelers can’t get lost in this airport.
For how prosperous and expensive Singapore is as a city, cabs are a great bargain. Cabs to downtown Singapore are $20 SGD (~$15 USD) and are much faster than the train. Uber is also widely used in Singapore and I found it to be even cheaper than the regular cabs.
I am a die hard public transportation user so I started off my time taking the MRT but eventually realized how affordable cabs were so I ended up taking cabs for most of my time here. Plus Singapore is scorching hot so one can only walk around for so long before yearning for sweet sweet AC.
Singapore has AMAZING food. In fact, any visit to Singapore is not complete without a visit to the numerous old school “hawker” markets this city is famous for. These hawker centers house many small mom and pop restaurants that have been around for generations cooking up the best of their culture’s cuisine. Each stall is no bigger than your average bathroom but goodness do they produce some amazing food. Singapore is predominately Chinese but Malay and Southern Indians are also prevalent. Whatever issues Singapore might have on race, and I’m sure there is some, all is forgiven/forgotten when it comes time to eat. These hawker centers exhibit the best in each culture’s cuisines and all options are available. In one meal, I’d eat Hokkien (southern Chinese) Char Kway, then proceeded to have Indian dosas, and ending with Malay style beef skewers.
It’s down and dirty, local, no frills food. These hawker centers aren’t going to win awards on decoration or ambiance but who cares when the food is so good and cheap? You’re here to eat, and eat good food at that. Depending on the stall and the age of the people working, most will understand enough English to get through the ordering process, but that’s about it. Grab your food, find a seat, eat, repeat, ENJOY.
These hawker markets are first come, first serve, no reservations, and no pretensions. As the golden rule, if a stall has a long line, there’s a good chance it’s going to be good so it’s not unwise just to eat at every stall that has long lines.
I spent all five meals I had in Singapore at different hawker stalls.
There are expensive and fancy restaurants in Singapore as well but I had no interest in that this time around. I was enjoying my street food too much, and paying way too little to consider dining at an upscale restaurant. By too little, I mean each dish was $2-4 SGD ($1.50-3 USD).
I wish NYC’s food scene had something like this. In recent years, due to astronomical rents, we’ve been plagued with a mostly a monotonous nouveau/fancy Italian/French/American fusion mix that’s prohibitively expensive and largely unsatisfying. It’s incredible to me that a city as expensive and modern as Singapore is able to maintain these traditional eateries with prices so cheap.
The popular dishes
By no means am I an expert on Singapore’s hawker stands. I did eat my heart out for two days but I could easily spend two months eating at these places and still not be sick of the food. The following are just a small sampling of what you can expect to find at a hawker market.
Which hawker centers to go?
This hawker centre is located in one of the oldest residential areas in Singapore, where houses date back to the 1930s. My recommendations here include the char kway teow(fried flat rice noodles with sweet soya sauce), usually cooked with lap cheong (Chinese sausage), sliced fish cakes, cockles, bean sprouts, and some pork lard. Tiong Bahru Pau is adim sum stall that has been around for more than 30 years, making daily steamed buns of various stuffings — char siew meat, chicken, red bean, lotus seed paste, prawn, and egg. Other dishes to try include duck and roast pork rice, fried hokkien mee (noodles), oyster omelettes, braised duck, and fish balls (dry or as soup). Alternately, there are several Western options such as beef steak and fish and chips.
Lau Pa Sat
The name Lau Pa Sat is derived from the Chinese word lau, which means “old,” and pa sat, which is the Malay word for “market” (old market). This food centre is perhaps the most famous amongst all the food centres in Singapore as it was built in the 1890s and is located right in the heart of the commercial district. It’s probably the most touristy of the hawker markets I visited but even so, the food is still no frills and solid. It’s also the most diverse of the markets, having everything from your normal Singy food, to Vietnamese pho, to turkish kebabs, and even Italian food. It also has the outdoor BBQ satay market.
Old Airport Road Center
My personal favorite, this hawker center is located near the airport so for those that have little time to spare on a layover, take a cab to this place and enjoy. The place is huge and home to more than a hundred stalls. I took a cab to this place on the way to the airport and he dropped me at a hawker center with only about 15 different stalls. This is the wrong place, walk down the street another 50 meters and you will see the big one. Make sure to try Dong Ji fried Kway Teow (stall #01-138), and next to it is amazing char siew pork.
Chinatown Complex food center
The Chinatown hawker centre is located in the heart of the Chinese enclave. This is the largest of them all with some 226 food stalls, catering mainly — no surprise — Chinese cuisine. If you go, you cannot miss bedok chwee kueh, or water rice cakes, which are so delicious you’ll want to eat them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner! Another mouthwatering favourite is laksa (curry rice noodles with lots of coconut milk), which will definitely spice up your appetite for the day.
Maxwell Road Hawker Centre
Just a stone’s throw away is the famous Maxwell Hawker Centre, which is popular with locals and foreigners alike. The Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice stall is making waves around the world, with many celebrity chefs giving their endorsements and making public appearances there. Advertisements aside, my personal favourite is the roasted and barbecue pork rice, which is the best I have eaten so far. For just $3.50 SGD (about $2.80 USD), you get a generous serving of meat that is crispy on the outside, and succulent and juicy on the inside, all topped with a thick, aromatic gravy to complete the dish.
Singapore is not known for its tourist attractions. Well, at least I hadn’t heard of many before coming here. However, there is plenty to see and keep one busy for at least a few days.
While I never visited the zoo having traveled through so much of Africa and seeing so many animals up close, everyone I spoke with absolutely raved about this zoo. After seeing how amazing the airport is, I have zero doubts that this zoo exhibits the same ridiculous, over the top qualities that Changi airport has. It’s consistently rated the top zoo in the world and is home to 3600 different animals scattered over 70 acres.
Gardens by the Bay
Perhaps the only thing I knew about before visiting Singapore was the Garden by the Bay. Funny enough, I only knew about it after watching the movie “Hitman”. Is this Singapore’s top sight? I’d say it’s certainly at my top. The Gardens by the bay was an ambitious project by the government to transform this area into its own forest ecosystem. When you enter, you’re immediately greeted with these huge trees wrapped in a layer of lights.
The two main attractions are the Cloud Forest and the Flower Garden. While walking outside around the Gardens is free, these two greenhouses are not. Admission for both exhibits was $35 SGD (~$25 USD). The Cloud Forest is absolutely incredible. As I walked in, I could immediately feel the A/C of the greenhouse cooling me down after walking through the unforgiving Singapore heat. You’re greeted with a giant man made waterfall 35m high. Visitors enter into this “mountain” if you will, and take a lift to the peak of the structure, also known as the Lost World. It is completely man made which was mind blowing considering they seriously had streams, trees, and plants that dwarfed anything I’d seen before. After taking an elevator to the top of the falls, I slowly made my way down via a spiral walkway to enjoy the views.
The Flower Garden was less impressive than the cloud forest in my opinion but still a unique sight. It’s a huge indoor garden home to hundreds of species of plants from all over the world. It’s organized by region so one region will be all trees/plants from Africa, another will be the Mediterranean, South America, etc. The place is so big, it houses the African baobabs indoor! It does not however, house the coolest baobab of them all, the Madagascar giant baobabs 🙂
Marina Bay Sands Hotel
Yes a hotel is one of the big attractions within Singapore and is walking distance from the Gardens by the Bay making it an easy next destination. The hotel itself is an impressive piece of architecture with three sloping highrises, connected by a huge surf-board like rooftop. This rooftop is well worth the visit for the best views of Singapore. It is also famous for the world’s largest infinity pool with arguably the most epic views of any pool in existence. Once upon a time, they allowed the gawking tourist to pay for access to this pool (and 100 selfies) but nowadays, ONLY guests of the hotel may access the pool. It’s not a cheap hotel, but if I came back, I’d consider shelling out the dough for a 1 night stay just to use this pool!
Aside from the pool, there is a swanky rooftop bar with unobstructed views of the Singapore skyline. Being so close to the financial district, the rooftop bar attracts a mix of businessmen and tourists. I came at night just to soak in the views and take some pictures because the drinks will set you back $25-30SGD each.
For the best pictures, I recommend the skybridge connecting the Gardens by the Bay and the Marina Bay Sands:
For the big shoppers, this hotel is home to Singapore’s trendiest and fanciest shopping mall, stocked full of all the name brands one can think of. Louis Vuitton even has its own store on the water!
Other things to do
- Sentosa Island
- Eat in Little India
- Take a ride on the Singapore flyer (huge ferris wheel)
- Keep eating…