Wherever I go, I want to make sure I’ve got a book to accompany me. Seeing the world from the novel come to life around you as you explore a new city is such a perfect way to travel; and as an English literature graduate, my natural way to learn. Admittedly, I wanted to start this trip with something pretty light. Something I could easily get into during the THIRTEEN HOUR flight. Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan certainly did the job.
At times this book was deeply satirical (I hope) and at times completely ridiculous. The characters were pretty standard, fairly 2-dimensional yet humorous, with gossip and the social stratosphere always at the forefront of their minds. As I read, I found myself far more invested in the descriptions of the city- the food, the local haunts, the different districts- than in the interweaving plot lines.
Don’t get me wrong, the stories were enjoyable. At the centre of the narrative there was a Romeo and Juliet-esk melodrama. A VERY rich young man falls in love with a (wait for it) SLIGHTLY LESS rich woman. I know, shock horror. I imagine you’re on the edge of your seat waiting to hear how that one will unfold, but I’m afraid you’ll have to go out and buy the book yourself.
I think that if I hadn’t been using this book half as a travel guide (ok fine, most of the places weren’t exactly in my backpackers’ budget but they did mention the occasional Hawker centre…) then I might have grown tired of the laborious lists. Ok Kevin, you know Singapore very well, we get it. For my purposes though, this narrative style worked perfectly. All this name dropping of specific streets, districts and eateries heightened my anticipation to find them all in real life. This detail was also great for giving a poor tourist like me little imaginary glimpses into the interiors of the super flashy buildings that I could merely gaze at from the outside. Reading about rich kids Nick and Rachel flirting over Singapore Slings, toes dipped in the infinity pool on the rooftop garden of Sands Skypark, was BASICALLY as good as the real thing, right?! Probably…
Some of the description in the novel really did pin-down the metropolis though. When new-girl-on-the-block Rachel first catches sight of the city the view that greets her will be familiar for anyone who’s visited:
“The view she could glimpse from the plain did not resemble some romantic terrain swathed in midst- rather, it was a dense metropolis of skyscrapers glittering in the evening sky, and from six thousand feet Rachel could already feel the pulsating energy that was one of the world’s financial powerhouses”
This was spot on. You can feel the power of Singapore as soon as you catch a glimpse of that crazy cityscape. It is certainly no surprise that it has become a playground for the rich.
For now however, I’m going to have to accept that this crazy rich lifestyle will remain the stuff of novels. Time to bring by backpacking head down from the clouds and pick up my next book!
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…
After saving up for the past year (working an actual job, oh my) I’m off on adventures again, and plan to share all the best bits! I’ll probably also share the strangest bits, tastiest bits, most picturesque bits and, should they happen, the most challenging bits.
At the beginning of October, my boyfriend Ryan and I flew from London to Singapore, on an insanely cheap flight by the way- check out Norwegian air if you’re on a budget. 13 hours later we stepped out into the super fancy Changi airport (I’ve never been so hyped for smooth airport security and plant-based interior design), and then into the CRAZY HUMID city streets.
Before we arrived at our lovely Air BnB, in the Choa Chu Kang area, I had already seen the biggest wasp in existence (chronic fear of buzzy things over here) and had serious fears that the humidity would be the end of me, badly chosen skinny jeans and all.
But we got there and- spoiler alert- I did not die. So, we begin another adventure… watch this space for twists, turns, oversharing and lots of chatting on about food.
Oh also, I’ve made it my mission to incorporate a reading diary/book review section to the blog. I’m going to try and read a book about each place I’m in, or a book by an author from each country. So expect a bit of a mishmash of travel stories, local tips and book reviews- these are a few of my favourite things!