Singapore found itself on my very short list of final destinations to visit before my inevitable call home. Other top playmakers were Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo, but in the end Singapore won out. Hong Kong was (is) going through the initial parts of their 2019 protests and both Seoul and Tokyo were too expensive for the short time I had remaining in the Pacific. Singapore is pretty much Asia Lite compared to everything I’ve experienced and made a great re-introduction back into western civilization. This nation is really the gateway to the orient.
A whoosh sound overcame my daydreaming as the plastic divider in front of me parted ways letting me know it was my turn at the customs counter. The agent asked the usual roundabout questions about where I’ve been and what my business was in Singapore. I answered in repetitive monotone as unenthusiastic as ever, I don’t think he quite appreciated that. A quick stare down between my photo and my facial scan later my weathered passport was stamped, the seventh seal of my trip.
Changi International airport is BIG and quite easy to get lost in when you can be so overwhelmed after disembarking. Happy to report with their great signage I made it out alive. Hell, I even booked a ticket for their shuttle bus system which I absolutely endorse as the best way to leave the airport. Forget hailing a Grab (with roots in Singapore) and just speak to the kiosks on how to get a ticket. I found this to be the fastest and cheapest way to my lodgings at Happy Snails Hostel.
Just as soon as I’d checked in I made a dash for my day pack and made way for the door. With 48 hours in the city there certainly was no time to waste! My biggest concern was getting around on the cheap, let’s say scooter rentals weren’t as readily available here. Singapore’s size clocks in at 277 sq. miles (719 sq. km) making it three times smaller than Middlesex County (where I live in MA) at 847 sq. miles (2,193 sq. km)! Not entirely HUGE by any standard, but walking around was not in the cards. A quick fix is hopping on the MRT where fares range from S$0.83 to S$1.95 or buses from S$0.73 to S$1.66. Don’t forget to grab a Singapore Tourist Pass to avoid having insufficient funds!
A couple of reasons to visit Chinatown aside from all souvenir stalls lining the street is to fill the belly then walk it off sightseeing! As usual I am famished after anytime spent in the air so I hit the stop button on the bus and found myself in front of the Maxwell Food Center (hawker center.) My belly had one meal in mind: Hainanese chicken rice from Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice. True, there are better chicken and rice joints in the area, but for me this was the place to get it from, plus long lines don’t lie on quality.
Pacing myself I went with the medium rice plate with boiled chicken, not one to overdo it the first time around. My number was called and to my surprise this no fuss no muss plate smelled far better than it looked, but I bet it tasted just as great! The lightly sauced boiled chicken sat with cucumber accoutrements and a small dish of hot sauce, simple yet effective, and delicious! The rice, cooked in the chicken’s broth, smelled heavenly but tasted even better in one’s mouth. Memories came flooding back with each bite, as with all good food.
I took a few mouthfuls without looking down, just noticing the happenings of the hawker center and its patrons, taking in the fact that I am here stuffing my face. I even amazed myself at how quickly I ran through that meal. That plate never stood a chance.
From here it’s a quick stroll to get into Chinatown proper where you can visit a few of the nearby temples. For starters don’t miss the elaborate Buddha Tooth Relic Temple that is literally outside of the hawker center. Derived from Tang-dynasty styling it houses religious relics with ornate rooms and a tranquil rooftop garden. A skip away lies Sri Mariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in the city, features a tower densely ornamented with deities. Reminds me very much of the one I saw in Kuala Lumpur. If you’re feeling something a bit more classic in design with dragon sculptures head by Thian Hock Keng Temple.
Don’t miss the many art murals that line the alleys all around Chinatown. Much like Georgetown on Penang Island this made for some fun in between meals. Without a guided map like I had last time it proved a bit difficult to find all the murals! Even if you don’t manage to find them you can certainly find a bracelet, magnet or shot glass at the Chinatown Street Markets. Don’t forget all I have taught you in haggling!
Not long after my last meal my body was telling me to replenish before I departed Chinatown, but to be honest I planned my next stop accordingly! I headed to the first hawker stand to be awarded a Michelin Star because why the heck not? Liao Fan Hawker Chan now ran quite the operation over most of SE Asia and heck even retains their original stand location!
On quick order was their soya sauce chicken and rice with a side of oyster sauced vegetables to quell my appetite. With a shout from the gents behind the counter I picked up my tray and headed towards to condiment bar and loaded her up with pickled jalapeños, the only way. With my mouth salivating at just the smell of it I took a moment to close my eyes and relish everything I was about to consume.
It was certainly a delicious meal, one that I could come back to eat time and time again, but it left something to be desired from a Michelin Star joint. Nah, I am overthinking it. This is good, cheap food that just happened to get a rating from an oversized man made of tires. Come here, get something, load up on hots and be happy, because my belly and I were!
Head to Merlion Park
With a now satiated appetite I decided to walk it off and headed towards Merlion Park. If you watched Crazy Rich Asians, which by this point I assumed you have, it’s the park scene where the two protagonist met to talk about the future of their relationship. All I remember about that scene was the giant lion statue that spewed water from its mouth. You can take a subway or a bus here but since it was so close and the night was very nice a walk was on order.
I highly suggest taking the Esplanade Bridge route to arrive at the park. The view is quite a stunning, the walk on this bridge over to the park, was worth the detour entirely. Singapore’s skyline at night is lit up like the 4th of July! All the buildings emanated every vibrant color of the imagination, you can lose yourself and strain your neck by just looking up.
During the day Merlion Park is the place to come and relax, but at night it especially comes alive because of the light show that is about to be put on. The Spectra Light Show as it is known is free for all every night of the week with shows starting at 8PM and 9:30PM with an extra showing at 11PM on Friday and Saturday nights. Unbeknownst to me at the time, but you can sense my excitement when things started happening at the park with views towards Marina Bay Sands.
Of course the show itself is across the bay from where I was standing, but it made for a nice viewing of the luxury hotel off in the distance. If you’re feeling fancy then grab a ticket for one of the many boat tours that goes around the bay. My seat wasn’t entirely bad from where I was watching it from, but for the best view you should be at the Event Plaza in front of the Shoppe.
Stuff Your Face with Chili Crabs
Arguably one of Singapore’s more famous dishes, chili crabs is one of those must eats if you’re here! On this occasion I took myself over to Makansutra Gluttons Bay to stuff my face once more. All along my trip I’ve been eating specialty crab from Cambodia, Thailand, and Indonesia, but I saved the best for last, mainly for the sheer size of the serving!
I chose a stand with the longest line as one normally should, long lines equates to the people knowing what they are doing c’mon people! After shelling out S$50 I took my pager and found a seat among the sea of patrons, it was shaping up to be a wonderful evening with the weather in full cooperation. Not ten minutes later my buzzer was causing a raucous, letting me know my meal was ready to be picked up. Let me just say one cafeteria tray was just about BIG enough to transport my chili crab safely to my table. Use both hands!
…one cafeteria tray was just about BIG enough to transport my chili crab…
The plate was flooded with sauce that drowned every piece of the crab shell to apron, its head perched atop the rest of the fixing. I was salivating at just the aroma was inhaling at present. Wasting no time I dug straight in, making quick work of the claws and legs. I used their exo-remnants as a vessel, dipping each bite into the sauce then straight into my mouth. Every morsel was plump and juicy just like they advertised. I was in complete food nirvana, things could have been burning down around me but I didn’t care.
Now came time for the last act, the all delicious head! A lot of people don’t like crab heads, preferring the claws and legs, but I assure you those people are not my friends. Using the head as a bowl I scraped all the insides towards the middle and took a spoonful of the sauce and tossed in it for good measure. What resulted with heaven for my taste buds. All around me you could only hear my slurping. Rich, creamy and flavor packed I was rejoicing in my decision to eat here. Hell, I even licked my fingers clean though they did provide moist toilettes.
Properly full like the glutton I am and cleaned up I headed for the bus that would eventually take me back to my lodgings. My first 24 hours in the city was coming to a close and I was more than ready to rest my weathered and full body.
Do Your Own Walking Tour
Start day two off right with a visit to Mrs. Pho for a quick bowl of noodles and an avocado shake to cool off with. I thoroughly enjoy aimlessly walking around a new city and Singapore is no exception. One thing I love about this city nation is their incorporation of nature into the city’s designs. You can walk for blocks and see skyscrapers all wrapped with vegetation. Consider this is your daily reminder that humans can cohabitate, even in large city settings, with nature. What’s great about their initiative is that more and more countries are taking cues from their design approach. Singapore is also one of the cleanest nations in the world!
Spend Time at Gardens by the Bay
What’s a visit to Singapore without heading over to spend some time among the super trees of Garden by the Bay?! Initially announced in 2005 by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong the plan was to transform its “Garden City” into a “City in the a Garden.” Sprawling over 110 hectares in the Marina Bay district the urban nature park has three sections: Bay Central, East and South Garden. All of their work was to realize one goal: raising the quality of life by enhancing greenery and flora in the city. Fast forward to my visit and I will happily agree they did a fantastic job!
I happily split my time between the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest (which I highly recommend this). Both of these attractions are a great way to spend time reacquainting yourself with nature. Not only are the structures beautiful but they are super educational. I lost track of time just meandering around while watching people take in the sights but especially the smells, oh what a wonderful smell! Do note that the Cloud Forest does close down for maintenance so make sure you check your dates before going. Also, check their misting time (a definite MUST if you’re here) so you don’t miss out on that either!
Some attractions have an admission fee (above) there are plenty of other things to do around the park outside that’s free. You can explore the:
- Bay East Garden,
- Heritage Gardens,
- Dragonfly & Kingfisher Lakes,
- The Canyon and more
Make sure you spend time in the Supertree Grove that has become an iconic part of the Singaporean skyline. You can even walk among the tall trees courtesy of the OCBC Skyway (sadly I did not on my visit!) or come enjoy the lights at night when they’re lit up!
Catch a Sunset and the Spectra Light Show
After spending time in the gardens I took a quick stroll through Marina Bay Sands hotel to the famed Shoppe pavilion. You can get front row seats to a spectacular sunset followed by the Spectra Light Show from here! I spent some time to set up a time-lapse of the upcoming show, having a slight taste of it from the night before I was ready to view it in full force.
Slowly people were neatly packing themselves onto the Event Plaza, all vying for optimal vantages while handful of souvenir sellers made their rounds. Everything from light sabers, big balloon hats to glow in the dark cartoon glasses, they were ready to make a sell while people hunkered down.
Powering through the wait the light show began promptly at 8pm once the sun had settled below the horizon. Dancing fountain jets, colorful visual projections, advanced lasers, and lava and mist effects, it had it all! A four part story set to an orchestral soundtrack was the perfect way to end an evening, plus it was outdoors and free! It was pretty hard to get people to sit down in front, so choose your seats wisely.
Shack Up at Marina Bay Sands
While in Rome is the saying, right? This means you should spend a night at the famous Marina Bay Sands hotel! With rates not that entirely outrageous for a luxury hotel it actually is affordable to spend a night or two here versus big cities like New York, London or Tokyo. Not only will you have some incredible sights of the city, depending on your room’s location, but you also get to enjoy their rooftop! Infinity pool not your thing? They also have restaurants, bars, cafes and lounges, as well as event space, a casino and a museum. A famous structure of Singapore’s skyline it would be a shame not to spend SOME time here so treat yoself!
Catch the Fireworks
No, really, make sure you catch the fireworks show that happens every Saturday in the bay during the summer months! The show runs every Saturday during the summer all the way until the last showing on the holiday National Day of Singapore. One of the more mind blowing shows I have seen, but I actually ran into it by total surprise, making it a lasting memory. Get a good vantage point if you can, but any seat around the bay makes for a great viewing. Grab a beer, sit back and enjoy the show!
That’s a wrap folks! Singapore was the final destination on my whirlwind trip of SE Asia. My first, but certainly by no means my last. Even until now I am trying to find words, the right words, to describe everything I felt on this trip. From making new lifelong friends, to seeing old ones halfway around the world. Chasing waterfalls, to hiking active volcanoes. The weeks of island hopping just trying to find the perfect one like Goldilocks, the food poisoning in less than ideal conditions with rolling electrical blackouts. The lessons taught to others, the lessons others taught me, long night beachside talks to those early morning walks home to the hostel. Being bright eyed and anxious during my first week to weathered, hardened and experienced by the time I checked into my last flight.
This trip was something I needed to for myself in order to be a better version of me. I learned a lot, but I felt so much more than I can ever explain. You just have to get out there and do it for yourself, even just the once.