Before this trip, I knew very little about Singapore. Just whatever I’d heard referenced on the news growing up, like the teenager who was caned after committing vandalism (and by “the news” I of course mean the first minute of Weird Al Yankovic’s “Headline News“). Bangkok and Singapore seemed like the two big, major cities that we were visiting, so they must be basically the same, right? And since I surmised from The Hangover Part II that Bangkok was going to be less than desirable (it was); then by that logic, Singapore wouldn’t be anything special, would it?
For those of you who’ve been, you know how wrong and absurd that intro was (though I suppose anything that references both Weird Al Yankovic and an ill-advised movie sequel in its opening is bound to fall under that category regardless). We were here for just three nights, largely because simply booking a hotel here gave me a glimpse into how expensive this city was going to be. We could have spent twice as long here and still felt short-changed. Singapore was incredible. It’s beautiful, clean, modern, and impeccably designed. I kept thinking that this is what major American cities should strive to become more like.
Walking around, looking up at all the tall buildings, each skyscraper was different from the one next to it. Everything looked new and unique, and they all had room to breathe. You could still see the sky. Yet, waiting at each intersection for the crosswalk signal, everyone took advantage of standing back a few steps to bask in the shade of awnings and lobby terraces (definitely intentionally designed that way). Most importantly, walking these blocks of massive buildings and malls and food stalls, it never felt crowded.
Our hotel was a short walk from Haji Lane, a hip and colorful street of boutique shops and cafés in the heart of Singapore’s Arab Quarter. For the SF-based, Haji Lane is what the Mission District strived to be, but missed the mark. One main thin strip of a street decorated with colorful shophouses, one after the next with a completely different aesthetic and offering. Tattoo parlours next to trinket shops, contemporary art spaces adjacent to pop culture nicknacks, barber shops on top of welcoming bars. And the vaunted street art isn’t hidden down a derelict side alley either (looking at you, Clarion Alley). It genuinely felt like an art community got together and finally did it right, except Haji Lane’s been Singapore’s hip OG neighborhood for quite some time, and it’s location adjacent to the heart of the Arab Quarter is no coincidence, either.
Google “Marina Bay Sands” and you’ll either recognize this as the [recent and unofficial] international symbol of Singapore, or as the location from that scene in Crazy Rich Asians. We spent our first night and much of the second day around Marina Bay. It’s beautiful, and there’s a lot going on. That first evening, we took the elevator up to the Sands SkyPark observation deck to take in the sweeping views of the city: Skylines, water, beautiful buildings and recognizable landmarks.
Even if you don’t have the money for it, you can still spend hours in and around the Marina Bay Sands (the building that looks like either a ship or a sandwich sitting on top of three skyscrapers). Walking through the hotel lobby, you can easily get misdirected towards the casino (not unintentional), or if you’re lucky you’ll find yourself wandering through their mall. Now, when I say mall, what I really mean is: the swankiest and most beautifully designed building that houses tons and tons of high-end shopping. Every expensive name brand has a storefront here, and look down over the bannister from the second or third level and you’ll see gondola rides in the waterway underneath.
We stopped at a boardwalk café to enjoy a couple libations and views of the bay as day turned to night. Rest is often required, alcohol is sometimes desired. And of course there was a massive water show, complete with lights and an operatic musical accompaniment, that would be the envy of the Bellagio. After that, on our walk to grab dinner at a hawker centre, we passed through a full-on pop-up carnival. We rode the big rollercoaster and admired all the other rides and games from afar. So basically what I’m trying to say is: Singapore is Disney World (Hi, Aunt ilene!).
The next day, our sightseeing would bring us back to the same area; a development which I was totally on board with. First up (after brunch, of course) we headed toward the Gardens by the Bay, a nature park built as part of the government’s initiative to turn Singapore, long known as “the garden city,” into a “city in a garden.” [So, basically, when they built the Marina Bay Sands hotel, they spent a ton of money on the surrounding area and basically created a little city within the city, complete with museums, greenery and other tourist attractions. I’m completely okay with this.]
To even access the Gardens, one must enter through the hotel. First is a view over the grounds from an elevated platform, then you deescalate and choose your own adventure! We took a tram over to the Garden
Gnomes Domes, to check out the Cloud Forest, per Isabel’s research. Walking in, I’m ashamed that my first thought was, “Oh, this looks like we’re in the movie Bio-Dome.” It was really beautiful! When you first enter this gigantic greenhouse, you’re immediately welcomed by a cool mist and a view of this massive waterfall, forcing you to take notice of the sheer size of this rain forest conservatory.
Then we ventured back out in the heat to scope out the Supertree Grove. An $8 elevator ride up to the Skyway, an elevated bridge, brings you closer to the summit of these 160-foot tall ‘supertrees.’ You may recognize this from Crazy Rich Asians, as well, or at least you would if we went at night, where it lights up like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. Back during the planning stages of our travels, this stood out to me as my main image of Singapore. Kinda like going to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, just with a lot less history behind it. I was impressed – it did not disappoint. Very cool – but also very hot. After this, we needed to find an indoor activity, and luckily there was a museum nearby that Isabel wanted to check out.
The ArtScience Museum’s star exhibit, Future World: Where Art Meets Science, provided us with way too much fun. Designed by teamLab, a renowned Japanese interdisciplinary art collective, it invites you to embark on a “journey of discovery,” as you interact with nature, town, sanctuary, park and space. Utilizing a bit of sensory distortion at times, this was both an Instagrammer’s paradise and a kid’s favorite play park. We had a ton of fun going through the different exhibits, exclaiming about the work being done here. We had the most fun in the “town” space. You design and color in buildings, vehicles, animals, people and spaceships using crayons on a piece of paper. After scanning your work in this machine, your design enters the digital world on screen and interacts with everyone else’s!
All that tourism and edutainment really worked up an appetite. Just inside the exit of the Marina Bay shopping mall was a massive restaurant boasting three things: craft burgers, draught beers, and “Crazy Shakes.” We had our eyes on the latter and after seeing the size of these monsters, opted to split one between the two of us. Good call. When you order the Cookie Shake, what you get is: a giant vanilla ice cream shake, serve in a glass with a vanilla icing frosted rim that is coated in cookie crumbs, smothered in whipped cream, covered in chocolate syrup, with a giant chipwich cookie ice-cream sandwich stuck on its side, and heaps of chocolate chips strewn about. You may think that one decadent dessert doesn’t deserve its own paragraph in a travel blog about an entire island city-state, but you’d be wrong.
Our last two nights in Singapore ended in Chinatown on Food Street. After spending bigger bucks during the day, it was refreshing to return to the hawker stalls and food carts that characterized so much of our time in Southeast Asia. Also the reason why we returned here a second time is because our food was that good the first go around. When you look up unique food to try in Singapore, you will come across fried carrot cake. It’s not what you think. Although initially disappointed to learn that this was neither cake nor did it actually include carrots, this delicious treat comes in two flavors: black (sweet) or white (salty). I opted for the sweet, naturally. Stir-fried cubes of radish and rice flour, served with egg, cooked in a wok with sweet dark soya sauce. It was so good! I’d love to try my hand at this once we’re back Stateside.
Another dish we sampled was called char kway tweow and it’s a national favorite in Singapore and Malaysia. It has a reputation for being unhealthy because it’s high in fat, but originally it was created to feed day laborers. These workers needed a dish that was cheap but that would also provide them energy. This was Isabel’s favorite dish in Singapore.
When Isabel and I reflected during our subway ride to the airport, I found that I was more impressed by Singapore than any other stop on our trip. It really left me bowled over – as I did not know what to expect. Isabel pointed out time and again how everything is so perfectly designed, even down to the little things: the signage directing you in the MRT stations, the three-pronged handrails on their subway cars, strategically placed walking maps on the streets, and consistently shaded intersections. It’s also impeccably clean, and quiet, too – a society of citizens on their best behavior. For a city with hardly any trash cans visible, there is No. Trash. Anywhere. Which directs your focus towards all the modern beauty – nothing here appears to be rundown or outdated. Nothing.
I keep repeating that Singapore was so beautiful, clean and modern (it seriously felt like we were walking inside a futuristic Pixar film) but it’s because these aspects seem to work in conjunction to highlight and accentuate each other. There’s only so much you can gleam as a tourist over three days, and I’m sure there’s another side to this place that did not reveal itself to me on this sneak peak, but pound for pound this was my favorite Southeast Asian city. I cannot wait for the opportunity to return again someday.