Simultaneously a city and a country, Singapore is so compact that I felt we got a good overview of it in just four days. And what an amazing place! Humid as a jungle, and stacked with gleaming, oddly shaped buildings straight out of a science-fiction movie. A mecca of safe, spotless streets and conservative law-abiding citizens, where as little as dropping a sweet wrapper can land you in jail.
To a Briton such as myself, it feels exotic yet familiar. Despite Singapore’s colonial past, which brought it the English language among other Western influences, visiting this fascinating country was still a major culture shock for me. I felt extremely fortunate to have Singaporean friends to show me how to ‘live like a local’.
Singapore has a far greater variety of sights than your average city. From skyscrapers to temples, and from gardens to beaches, I guarantee there’s something here that will amaze you.
Gardens by the Bay
The first place my friends took us, with good reason, was Gardens by the Bay: a 101-hectare park on the waterside, filled with tropical plants, topiary elephants, landscaped lakes and fantastical sculptures.
It contains two futuristic-looking greenhouses, each housing a different climate-controlled botanic garden. One of these is the Flower Dome: a cool-dry environment that, when we visited, was hosting a bizarre combination of cacti and Christmas decorations, including giant teddies in clothes.
The other is the Cloud Forest: a cool-moist environment housing a spectacular multi-story tower, covered in foliage and, incredibly, fronted by waterfalls. You take a lift to the top of this tower, then gradually descend again through changing layers of plants, arranged to reflect the altitudes at which they’d naturally grow. At the bottom there’s an apocalyptic movie to watch about the threat of climate change.
Our next destination, to our great excitement, was the very top of the incredible 55-storied, three-towered building we’d been craning our necks to admire all morning.
The unmistakable Marina Bay Sands complex features the world’s largest atrium casino, a 2,561-room five-star hotel and a designer shopping mall among other extravagances, but we took a lift straight up to the rooftop bar. The cocktails were eye-wateringly expensive, but the panoramic view over Singapore’s unique reclaimed coastline and port was worth every penny. And did I mention that the terrace features an almost-unbelievable infinity pool, which happens to be the longest elevated swimming pool in the world?
That night we took a cruise through the city and were dazzled by its sea of shining skyscrapers, their sparkling lights multiplied to infinity in the water’s mirrored surface. We were also introduced to the Merlion, Singapore’s ubiquitous half-lion, half-fish mascot, and shown the pit stops used in the Grand Prix.
The next day we went to Singapore Zoo, which is hands-down the most immersive zoo I’ve ever been to. Visitors are able to feed several of the animals, including giraffes and elephants, and to walk among uncaged lemurs, bats, lizards and adorable mouse deers. Orangutans shimmy along ropes suspended above the park, while lions are separated from visitors by little more than a ditch. There are educational presentations and feeding sessions for nearly every animal, as well as stage shows designed to show off the animals’ skills. In what was a world-first for me, even the zoo’s fast food was great – far from the expected bland burger and chips, we enjoyed delicious Southeast Asian dishes that we’d never even heard of before. Nevertheless, the highlight of my day was definitely feeding apples to a beautiful Asian elephant!
We finished our zoo-day in the legendary Raffles Hotel, drinking what else but Singapore Slings. The colonial-era bar has retained many unique features from the past, including a network of ceiling-mounted fans, continuously moving to and fro, and a tradition of discarding peanut shells on the tiled floor. This makes it appear uniquely unkempt for an expensive bar in a £600+ per night hotel!
Our third day took us to Sentosa: an entire island dedicated to fun. It can be reached via a road bridge, but we took the far more thrilling option of the cable car, boarded at Mount Faber. This is perhaps the only cable car in the world to make a stop halfway at a skyscraper, which it goes right through the middle of.
Sentosa features a cluster of theme parks that includes Universal Studios Singapore, miles of artificial white-sand beaches and too many other fun attractions to list. We simply went for a walk and a swim at Siloso Beach, enjoyed some cocktails and calamari at a beach bar, and then got our adrenaline pumping on the Luge! The high-flying ski-lift chairs felt a little scary, but racing my friends down the track was great fun. Until a sudden, very heavy rainstorm arrived, resulting in a race down in which I was both drenched and temporarily blinded. This was terrifying in the moment, but made for some hilarious photos!
In our final day, we toured the city’s various cultural districts. Like many cities, Singapore has a China Town. Unlike many cities, it also has an equally distinct Little India and Arab Street. I was stunned by how singular the populations seemed in each of these areas, which could easily be walked between. China Town was hung with pretty lanterns and filled with Chinese signs. Little India rang with Hindi sales pitches, the air fragrant with curry spices. Arab Street was dominated by a giant mosque and almost every woman wore a hijab.
Little India was my favourite: I was enraptured by the intricate, many-layered statues atop the Hindu temples, and delighted by one particular multi-coloured house. But I also loved the hipster hangouts surrounding Arab Street, full of trendy cafes and awesome graffiti.
I don’t consider myself a fussy eater – I eat most things – but Singaporean cuisine was a shock to both my mind and my stomach!
My first introduction to Singaporean food came shortly after stepping off the plane, when my friends took us to a hawker market for breakfast. This was a bustling network of market stalls in a concrete enclave, the air thick with fragrant steam and Chinese babble. Stall holders were busily preparing all sorts of weird and wonderful dishes, for which even the English-language names were confusing. The few items I managed to identify correctly were animal organs being served as fast food – everything from pig’s brains to chicken feet! The variety took me aback, and I was happy to let my friends pick for us!
They came back with a feast of unfamiliar but thankfully unthreatening dishes, including tasty turnip fritters (called white carrot cakes!) and toast spread with a thick, mildly coconutty paste served with runny egg to dip it in. We had tea that was very sweet, due to the milk in it being condensed. It was a breakfast both eye-opening and delicious. We couldn’t believe it when we learnt that this feast for four had come to less than £3.
Another day, we got dinner at a street food market in China Town. There were a few more familiar dishes here, but still many unusual combinations and delicacies.
At the opposite end of the price spectrum was No Signboard, a posh Chinese seafood restaurant at the Esplanade: a building for arts and culture nicknamed “the durian” for its resemblance to the round, spiky fruit. We sat inside the formal dining room around a large round table with a glass Lazy Susan in the middle. Again, my friends ordered for all of us, but in this case I wasn’t so sure it was a good thing… my friends ordered entirely seafood, most of which I deemed ‘unusual’!
They made one concession to me: not ordering the shark fin soup. Instead, we got chilli crab (very spicy and probably the closest thing to Singapore’s national dish), as well as scallops, shrimp, squid, octopus and – most daunting of all – sea cucumber. Far from being a vegetable this was actually a sea slug, presented in excruciatingly jelly-like slices. Thankfully there were unlimited refills of green tea with which to wash it all down, and it was certainly an eye-opening experience!
The more casual restaurants we went to were more to my taste. One of these was Boon Tong Kee, a chain that specialises in Hainanese Chicken Rice: meltingly tender boiled chicken, served with rice and soy, chilli and garlic dipping sauces. This has to be one of my favourite Singaporean dishes. We ate it with vegetables and deep-fried tofu, which to my delight was a hundred times tastier than non-fried tofu!
The most special meal of our trip was undoubtedly that we ate with my friends’ family at her house. It got off to a confusing start – I didn’t know what to think when I sat down to a table filled with bowls of raw beef, raw seafood and uncooked dumplings, circled around a large pot of boiling broth. But then my friends showed us how to drop the things we wanted to eat in the pot and then scoop them out again when they were cooked. It made for such a really fun and sociable meal, where the food was super-fresh and delicious. Complemented by chilled white wine and great conversation, it was a really memorable experience. Maybe it’s time we brought steamboat to the UK!
As sad as I was to leave my friends and this amazing country behind, four days in Singapore exhausted me. The humidity and unfamiliar food had gotten to me – particularly following a month of similar heat in Australia – and I was yearning after a cold wind and a shepherd’s pie! Many hours, two airplane curries and a stop-over in Mumbai later (we were flying with Indian airline Jet Airways) we stepped off the plane in London and savoured the cold November air. But I’m already counting the days until I go back to Singapore again.