If you ever want to experience culture shock, without travelling particularly far, fly from Singapore to Jakarta. At a first impression, the two cities seem to be complete opposites. Everything clinical and hyper-organised about Singapore was suddenly whipped away from beneath our feet. The comfortable, air conditioned, polite world we’d just come from now felt like another planet.
After we managed to figure out which cramped bus was headed for the city centre, faffed around for a while at the train station-come-bus-interchange, sweated our way to the bus stop nearest our hostel, our haven was finally in sight. There was just one more challenge to face: crossing the road. Honestly, I think you should get some kind of recognition (perhaps a certificate?) for every road you manage to successfully navigate in Jakarta: the roads are CHAOS.
Ryan and I, two polite and nervous Brits, stared across at our would-be home for the next two nights. The Wonderloft hostel is painted bright yellow and looks incredibly inviting after you’ve trekked across the busy city with a backpack. But for a minute there, I didn’t think we’d actually manage to get to the front door. Anyway, this crossing the road saga probably isn’t the insightful and informative travel info you tuned in for… Although you’ll be happy to know we made it in the end. I never quite mastered the art of confidently walking into traffic, one authoritative hand outstretched in a ‘stop’ motion, but Ryan took it in his stride (perhaps the traffic stopping power went to his head?)
Other than the road crossing drama, our few days in Jakarta went pretty smoothly. It is a big city and could be given much more time for a thorough exploration, but with the short time we had, we mainly stayed around the old town area. Fatahillah Square turned out to be a great place to start. Flanked by museums on all sides you have an instant selection of arts and culture to choose from. I somehow got my way and managed to drag Ryan to the Wayang puppet museum (instead of the Museum of Fine Arts and Ceramics or the Jakarta History Museum) which was rich in Indonesian culture, but super creepy.
The puppets were all intricately decorated and the craftsmanship behind each style was amazing. Each piece was initially made as part of a Wayang performance, in which the puppets would be used to tell traditional folk stories. As impressive as the puppets were, and as much as we appreciated the artwork, wandering through those dimly lit rooms full of menacing looking characters without any other humans in sight proved enough to give anyone the creeps. Getting back into the scorching daylight and managing (quite skilfully) to avoid what was shaping up to be a perfect slasher film premise came as a relief.
As we’d already seen in Singapore, Jakarta’s colonial history was difficult to avoid. We ate at cafe Batavia which had a balcony overlooking the old town square and the whole vibe of the place, from the architecture to the framed black and white pictures of British royals, was heavily colonial. It seemed strange in relation to the rest of the bustling city.
Jakarta is a shockingly ‘real’ city, compared with the metropolitan dreamland that is Singapore. It definitely grounded us back in reality. The hectic life there was so interesting to be a part of, even in the brief whirlwind of a couple of days. Creepy puppets and death defying road crossings may not be the regular tourist itinerary, but I enjoyed Indonesia’s fast-paced capital nonetheless!
One of the things you’d be blind not to notice while wandering the streets of Singapore is the crazy mix of cultures; East meets west; big business meets small village-like streets; Chinatown meets Little India. The city is the O.G melting pot- belonging to no one and therefore everyone.
The transport system is fantastic in the city, so during our time there we took to metro everywhere. This meant that every time we wandered back up from the air-conditioned underground we were hit in the face with the sudden humidity and a completely new cultural backdrop to wherever we were last.
Chinatown is a fantastic example of this- if you’re there definitely check it out. The town sprawls out in every direction, centred around the spectacularly ornate Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. The architectural style of the traditional shop fronts spans hundreds of years and this gives you an instant insight into the history of the Chinese community in Singapore. Be sure to check out this area as the sun goes down; the hanging lanterns that flood the streets into a warm light every evening give Chinatown a wonderful glow. The markets and the food here (more on that later) are worth the trip alone.
Little India and Arab Street showcase yet more cultural diversity. The brightly coloured houses and street art that brings Little India to life make wandering these streets a cultural experience in itself. The diverse places of worship, often side by side, seem to compete with their bright decoration but stand in harmony otherwise. For food, art, and architecture from all over the world, within walking distance, definitely choose Singapore.
2. The Foodie
Singapore serves up a crazy array of snacks. From the traditional dishes to the millennial oddities you’re pretty much guaranteed to try something that you’ve never sampled anywhere else.
The best place to start is at one of Singapore’s many Hawkers. The Hawker centres are collections of small food vendors and cafes based around a large seating area. The idea is that you sample a little bit from a few places and make your own mix-and match banquet. We went to the Newton Hawker and tried some great dishes accompanied by soursop juice- super refreshing!
Chilli crab is the top traditional dish- we saw it served all over the city. A full crab served up with a hot sauce, I wouldn’t even know where to start with that dish. Ryan and I are both vegetarians, however, and although we were tempted by Singapore’s wide array of seafood specialities, we had to look a bit further for veggie grub.
Chinatown came to our rescue. Amongst the collection of authentic street food trucks which pepper the narrow streets, there was a vegan stall (‘Hello Baby’) which served delicious alternatives to the classic dishes. We tried the vegan chilli crab which was made up from pulled mushrooms and the ionic chilli sauce.
Perhaps my favourite food venture in Singapore was, admittedly, a little less traditional. Two words: Selfie coffee. It literally is just that, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Tucked away down one of the tiny lanes near Arab Street, lit up by eclectic street art, we found Selfie Coffee. When you order, you take your selfie and wait as it is seemingly magically transferred on to the top of your latte. Super heavy on the cream front and an odd experience all round, but I would definitely snap up (ey…) this rare opportunity to drink your own face.
3. The History Buff
There are many things that give Singapore a uniqueness today, but its singularity throughout history is also really fascinating. As I’ve mentioned, you can see ongoing overlapping of cultures as you walk around the city and the reason for this lies in Singapore’s dynamic history.
As we discovered at the National History Museum, there is little known of the ‘original’ residents of Singapore. Located at the tip of the Malay peninsula, the city has always been a vital point for trade in Southeast Asia. After this trade route was monopolised by the Dutch (up until 1819), the British made their mark. Endeavours such as the East India company relied on Singapore’s strategic position and it was, therefore, a strong part of the British colony.
Even before these colonial days, Singapore was primarily used as a trade port. This led to Chinese merchants settling in particular areas and a specific cultural history known as ‘Peranakan’ has evolved from there. There is a Peranakan museum for anyone who wants to get a bit more niche after getting an overall insight at the National History museum.
If you’re interested in this aspect of Singaporean history, it is also worth taking a stroll down Telok Ayer Street. Tucked away right next to the business district this street seems to take you back in time. It was where the first Chinese merchants settled, and it has retained its charm and character ever since. It is also a great place to stop for a coffee and marvel at the mad cultural diversity of the whole district.
4. The Eco Warrior
We’ve seen planet Earth II, so we all know that Singapore is making a HUGE push to become a greener city. From a mass clean of the rivers (which started in 1977 under the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew) to Gardens by the Bay, Singapore has gradually been encouraging wildlife to return to the city and doing its part to build a more sustainable future.
Within the crazy complex which is Gardens by the Bay, the Supertree Grove is the real show stopper. You’ll have seen these before; insane towering structures reaching up to 50 metres tall, flowers and greenery crawling up their sides, illuminated by mesmerising pink and purple lights. The trees and their surrounding greenery have become a haven for insects and birds that may otherwise not prosper in the city environment.
If we needed any proof of the insect activity in the Supertree Grove we certainly got it. As dusk fell and the scent of the flowers grew more pungent the insects met with their nemesis: SO MANY BATS. The bats were not afraid of humans either, weaving and winding their ways through the crowd (some less successfully than others, one poor girl took a bat straight to the face), trying to catch as many insects as possible. It was pretty crazy to see natures food chain in action on such a concentrated scale. I can appreciate this phenomenon now, but of course at the time I was shitting myself.
At the other side of Gardens by the Bay you can explore the Flower Dome and the Cloud Dome. Within these fascinating structures (massive greenhouses in the shape of, well, domes) you’ll catch glimpses of plants that you’d struggle to come across anywhere else in the world. Housing many endangered botanical species, they play such an important part for conservation, a massively important cause.
5. The Art Critic
The final character you will find yourself slipping into while roaming this vibrant city is the art critic. With so many places to view so many kinds of art, Singapore is any art lovers dream.
The art venues around the city are arguably as enticing as the art itself. The National Gallery is located in what used to be Singapore’s court house and is surrounded by impressive stately buildings.
You can find a great trove of modern art within the Gillman barracks complex, with each small building showcasing a different artist. I personally loved this set up, jumping from place to place rather than spending all day traipsing around one huge building.
For something a little different, check out the ArtScience Museum. When we went there was a ‘When Science Meets Art’ exhibition on which served up some incredible interactive visuals. Again, the building itself is fascinating; located at Marina Bay Sands you can take in a breath-taking view of the cityscape after playing around with the glowing digital waterfalls that the Science Museum exhibits.
So whatever kind of traveller you are, whatever tickles your fancy, Singapore is pretty much guaranteed to take your breath away. With so much to learn, see, taste and try, I’m sure that you’ll become obsessed with this diverse city!
Utopian is the first impression I had of Singapore, or at least one version of utopia (which is probably reserved for the rich and famous). The city is unlike anywhere I’ve ever been. Jungle like parks and hike trails break up the towering metropolis. I think it is this juxtaposition between nature and man-made dominance that makes this place feel so unique. Every snap we take on the camera looks peculiar and collage-like, as if someone has just plastered a cut-out forest in front of some avant-garde skyscrapers- weird. Despite its strangeness, it is quite spectacular, clean and clinical yet still rich in life and culture (when you know where to look).
Gillman Barracks was today’s gem. After a short search in the sweltering heat, we stumbled across the first of many small buildings (former army barracks), all of which housed a small showcase of modern art. There was something brilliantly “middle finger up to the man” about the very concept of these liberal art pieces being celebrated in an ex-military complex. We learnt a lot about the history of conceptual art in Singapore, which was heavily criticised for its liberalism, leading to many artists’ incarceration during the 1990s.
The photography festival that is currently taking place was another highlight. Nguan’s pastel depictions of the Singaporean everyday made me all the more excited to go and explore each obscure city corner for myself.
After the barracks, we began to wander up the forest trail, up to Henderson Waves and mount Faber. When I talk about how the city interacts with nature, THIS is what I mean. The elevated paths lift you to tree level and if it wasn’t for the disconcerting glimpses of tower blocks between the leaves you might believe you really are in a jungle. The trail was manageable and paid off with the stunning cityscape views, but I would be hesitant to attempt it in the humid midday heat; an evening stroll taking in the sunset and finishing looking over the twinkling lights of the harbour suited us perfectly.
Ok, even I’m surprised I’ve got this far without talking about one of Singapore’s most iconic attractions:Gardens by the Bay. We visited these insane gardens on our first full day here. Weighed down with the confusion of jet-lag and not yet adjusted to the intense heat (apparently actually drinking water helps this…pro tip) we followed the path of escalators through a fancy mall (The Shoppes) with anticipation at an all-time high. Ryan described the journey into the gardens as “what it would probably be like to enter Jurassic Park” and that’s about as accurately as I could describe it.
When we finally saw them, we realised that not even David Attenborough in planet Earth 2 had done these towering beauties justice. I can easily say that the Supertree Grove is unlike anything I have ever seen before; absolutely mental. After a walk around the flower dome and the cloud dome (I challenge anyone not to be enticed by that title), we took to the treetops to experience the Skywalk. Seeing the colossal man-made trees up close was incredible, and the view of the city was second to none. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any weirder we found ourselves relaxing on the grass and watching the epic light show. On the night we went the theme was “a night at the musicals”. Honestly, if “seeing 22 meter high supertrees light up majestically in tune to The Phantom of the Opera“ isn’t already on your bucket list then it should be.
We both watched the show in awe. Completely cheesy and simply ridiculous, we still fell for the theatrics and we fell hard. Both Ryan and I watched in stoic silence, afterwards humbly confessing that we MAY OR MAY NOT have shed a single tear at the crescendo of “I dreamed a dream”. Neither of us have even watched Les Mis… Those trees had got us good.
Stay tuned for more Singapore travel tips coming your way soon…