Originally published at http://www.exploration-online.com
Singapore’s skyline, dominated by shiny, towering bank-buildings casts a shadow over the ramshackle colonial history at the heart of the city. It is, more often than not, seen as a clean and clinical metropolis worthy of little more than a stopover for those travelling onwards to Australia, New Zealand or embarking on a South East Asian adventure. We planned to use Singapore as a jet-lag buffer between the UK and Malaysia. However, after binning the guidebook and spending four days skulking in the shadows of the skyline we felt we had scratched away at the pristine surface of this city and not ever got close to its core.
Getting into town from the airport is easy – the metro will take you right to the city centre. There are some really good hostels near Chinatown. Five Stones Hostel and 5 Foot Way Inn are both good choices with quiet rooms and helpful staff. They are both within walking distance of some of the best dinner options the city has to offer. In Chinatown itself, steam billows from the dim sum cafés and hot wok noodle stands lining the narrow streets. For a taste of traditional South East Asia throw yourself in to a hawker centre. These indoor centres might not be on the open streets, but dirt-cheap dishes, crowds of locals and Malay, Chinese and Indian spices make it feel authentic enough. If street food isn’t your thing, a short walk takes you to the Colonial riverside where wooden bumboats potter down the water during the day and the swanky restaurants and bars overlooking the water come alive at night. A word of warning though –the dirt cheap beer prices of SE Asia don’t extend as far as Singapore and beer is expensive across the city.
Be sure to pop in to the Long Bar at Raffles Hotel at least once during your time in Singapore for a Singapore Sling – creative lubricant for literary heroes such as Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad. Perhaps you’ll pen your own magnum opus sipping a cocktail, perched in a wicker chair in the grounds of this iconic hotel.
Days can be spent pawing through technology malls that feel as though you’ve stepped into a Science Fiction film and anyone into serious shopping (or serious window shopping) could spend days drifting in and out of opulent malls filled with every designer shop under the sun on Orchard Road. Trawl through the riot of colour that is Little India for spices and silks. The painted wooden shutters and colonial-style buildings feel a world away from the towering metropolis beyond. For a break from all the chaos, duck into a tranquil Hindu temple where everything is calm.
If you don’t want to part with your Singapore dollars on a big shopping spree then head to East Coast Park where you can rent a bicycle or just go for a walk. The path through this coastal park is lined with palm trees and wide open sands stretch to the eerily green South China Sea. On the horizon you can watch the silent drift of oil tankers while locals go for their daily jog along the shore.
For wildlife lovers, the Jurong Bird Park has hundreds of colourful tropical birds squawking and cawing away to visitors and the underwater tunnel at the Sentosa Aquarium lets you feel like a Scuba diver without getting wet. The country’s humid climate makes it the perfect spot for all kinds of colourful butterflies which you can see in abundance at Sentosa’s Butterfly Park. Singapore’s main guidebook attraction is the night safari at Singapore Zoo. Arriving at the world’s largest zoo at dusk, you are just in time for the nocturnal animals to waken. The main concourse with its gift shops and zoo themed fast food joint is usually teeming with people and the little trams that take you round the main loop are often full to bursting. However, as soon as you wander off down one of the many jungle-lined paths you soon lose the crowds. The wide-eyed fishing cats are mesmerising to watch and cute little deer-mice totter through most enclosures.
If you’re spending any length of time in Singapore an umbrella is essential. The city suffers from year-round tropical thunderstorms that bring sheets of fat rain every evening. If you don’t have an umbrella you’ll be soaked to the bone in seconds and in the humidity wearing a waterproof coat is a lot like wearing a sauna. Also, be sure to read up on the Singapore customs and laws before you arrive as it is a notoriously strict nation.
Four days in Singapore flew by. We had planned to use it as a first stop purely to recover from jetlag before beginning our real adventure in Malaysia, but Singapore was part of the adventure from the moment we stepped off the plane. Even though it looks pristine and modern on the surface, you can find the roots of the city if you’re willing to dig deep enough.