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Travel: Singapore

Off to the city

Now judge me if you will, but there were always two flights out of KIX (Kansai Airport) that excited me – the 0030 departure to Bangkok (daily), and the 2330 to Singapore (not every day, but it goes on the ever-important Friday night). Flights that I can catch without having to leave school early. Excellent. The catch – not exactly cheap. The Bangkok flight is with Thai Airways, and Singapore is Singapore Airlines.

However, there are occasional bubbles of not completely extortionate fees, and when Singapore popped up for just over 5万円 I jumped on it like it was free cheese. No worrying about overweight hand luggage leaving you with extra fees, or wanting to kill yourself because you’re so cramped in with other people. Sometimes NOT flying budget is really rather lovely (and on our salaries, I think most of us can probably afford it sometimes). The other good thing about Singapore Airlines is that there’s also an overnight flight back, leaving Singapore at 0125. In terms of actual time spent on the ground in Singapore – it wins. Singapore Airlines’ reputation as being one of the best airlines in the world is not misplaced. As the flight leaves so late, they don’t provide an evening meal service so you can get straight to sleep, but they also carry snacks if you do want something. That’s forward thinking.

They also have Singapore Slings. And wine. And beer. You can start your holiday with a right little party there on the plane (just quietly – don’t want to disturb others).

Arriving before dawn…

So what to do upon arrival? Well, it’s an overnight flight that arrives before the crack of dawn. “God help me!” you may cry, but it actually works out pretty well. If there’s one thing in Singapore that you ‘have’ to see as a tourist, it’s the Merlion.Why? Because it’s expected, but it’s really not that interesting. The arriving before dawn is the important thing to note here – the Merlion Park faces east; sunrise ahoy! And whatever you may think of the Merlion itself, the view from the park of the Marina Bay Sands and sundry associated architecture as the sun comes up is spectacular. The Merlion doesn’t start shooting water until after the sun’s up either, so you can see it begin to spout too. Getting to the Merlion Park/central Singapore is a breeze on the MRT, so even if you have luggage with you it’s not really a problem (though a rucksack will obviously be easier than a suitcase)

Just hope it’s not raining…

After the sun is up, it’s really still too early to do much except wander around a bit, which you probably don’t want to do with a bag, so head to your hostel/hotel. It’s almost certain that you won’t be able to check in, but most places will let you leave your bag and come back later. I’ve been to Singapore a few times, and last time stayed at the River City Inn (http://www.rivercityinn.com/) where they even let me have a shower when I came and dropped my bag. Very nice of them.

The Garden City

First port of call post-freshen up and bag dumping, perhaps grab something to eat? A very ubiquitous breakfast/snack is kaya (coconut ‘jam’) toast and coffee. It’s not the healthiest thing on the planet, but pretty tasty, and as with a lot of the food in Singapore, cheap. You can get traditional kaya toast and coffee for not very much from Ya Kun Kaya. As a chain, they’re not difficult to find. The lemon roasted melon tea (with additional tapioca pearls) from Gong Cha (another chain) is a refreshing option if you’re not hungry yet. They have a lot of other options too, but I fantasize about that tea even now…

Doing things leisurely at this time in the morning really is the aim of the game. The Singapore Botanical Gardens (http://www.sbg.org.sg/) open at 5am and are a must as far as I’m concerned. For meandering around, enjoying the warmth (better earlier in the day before it gets too hot and the afternoon rain hits) and appreciating a HUGE area of green in the centre of a city, you can’t beat it. Add to this the fact that it’s free in a city that’s not exactly known for being cheap, and it’s a sure winner. It’s probably the best botanical garden/park that I’ve been to. There’s a huge variety of plants and different areas to explore (including the poison garden, which is by tour only, and otherwise locked – makes sense!). Within the garden there’s also a world-renowned orchid garden. Whilst you do have to pay to get in here, the beautiful flower displays and sheer range of what you can see are well worth it. I could have easily spent the entire day taking photos of the various offerings from every angle under the sun.

Still on the plant front, the recently opened (July 2012) Gardens by the Bay (http://www.gardensbythebay.com.sg/ ) are also a sight to behold and I don’t doubt will soon be an integral part of most Singapore trips. One of the great things about the Gardens by the Bay are the giant greenhouses. You have to pay to get in, and it isn’t that cheap, but they have two things going for them over and above the botanical gardens; you’re inside if the rainstorms are being a bit more inconvenient than you might like, and they’re temperature-controlled if the heat’s slowly but surely killing you. The lit up ‘Supertree Grove’ is a stunning way to end the day here.

I personally love visiting cities in the main so that I can just wander around them and see what there is to see, and Singapore’s a great place for that. As a huge melting pot of cultures and businesses there’s a massive range of things that you can just stumble across. The old colonial districts sit right next to towering banking institutions which in turn make way for colourful terraced house fronts. And everywhere you look there’s new building going on. Anyone even faintly interested in architecture would have a field day in Singapore. For a city with so many people crammed into such a small place, the fact that there are so many relatively wide roads and TREES everywhere is fantastic. It’s something I really miss in Japanese cities – trees on the streets. Singapore more than earns its ‘Garden City’ moniker. Go and see the Pinnacle@Duxton development if you don’t believe me. A residential complex with garden bridges linking different buildings together way up in the sky. Then you also have the Chinese and Indian influences with traditional, intricate temples popping up in the middle of otherwise innocuous neighbourhoods. It’s just a fun place to go hither and thither.

Dining dilemmas

And as you walk and build up an appetite (and a sweat – carry water with you), you encounter my favourite thing and biggest problem with Singapore; the food. As with any trip, you only have so much time to sample the local cuisine, fall in love with it and lament the fact that you soon won’t be able to get it anymore. Singapore makes this more difficult because EVERYTHING is available, and if you go to the hawker centres (like a mall food court, with lots of different stalls selling food and drink; communal seating shared by all) it can be exceedingly cheap too. For example, at the Little India hawker centre I got masala dosa for something like SGD3 (about 230 yen). I spent the next day and a half dreaming about getting another one. Why is this a problem? Because you also have Malay, Chinese, Indonesian, Vietnamese, the list goes on, to sample. One of the nicest hawker centres, both in terms of the building and quality of the food, is Lau Pa Sat, in the financial district. I could have just eaten there for the entire trip and been more than satisfied. The Maxwell Food Centre near Chinatown is also housed in a glorious old building and serves wonders.

But it wasn’t only cheap fair that went down my gullet. Being British and therefore slightly giddy with misplaced colonial aspirations, I thought it would be jolly good fun to have High Tea at Raffles. Good choice. You dress up smart-ish (no flip flops, shorts for guys, etc.) and go for tea. There’s a buffet of proper food (since it’s a high tea, not afternoon tea) including some curry things (as it would have been in the days of yore), salad and whatnot, but there are also delicious desserts, fruit and cakes. And tea of course. It wasn’t quite as posh as taking afternoon tea in London (oh Claridges, you were a wonder of cream and confection) but silly and decadent to the perfect degree nonetheless.

Rain, rain, go away

Not having an umbrella the day we went for tea was not such a good idea though. I’ve mentioned the rain a few times, and it is something you have to bear in mind. Singapore’s very much in the tropics, and it will rain pretty much every day, though with any luck, only for a short while each afternoon. Our timing on getting to Raffles was about 10 minutes off being perfect in this respect. The heavens opened just before we had to cross the road from the safety of a shopping centre to the hotel. We got completely soaked crossing a road that was perhaps 20 meters across. When it rains, it RAINS. Have an umbrella or good waterproof coat with you at all times – the rain pounces.

And when the sun sets again…

It was also raining when visiting the Night Safari (http://www.nightsafari.com.sg/index.html). Another of Singapore’s ‘not-exactly-cheap’ attractions, it is something that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend. The majority of people head to the Night Safari and jump on the tram safari that takes you around the complex, accompanied by a guide who provides a commentary on the various animals you see. The commentary was okay, but annoying at times, in an overly exaggerated ‘does this person secretly hate their job’ kind of way. Seeing the animals, however, was great fun. Better though, was the decision to do some of the walking trails after the tram tour (and the rain had stopped). Wandering through the giant flying squirrel enclosure with them soaring overhead was quite an experience.

Continuing with the ‘must do’ Singapore activities, we come to Singapore chilli crab. Now I’d wanted to try this dish for a while and I’m not going to lie, I was disappointed. It was expensive, and whilst good, messy to eat and not quite as good as I’d been hoping. I think this might have been to do with the location of the restaurant we went to. The location was fantastic, down on Boat Quay with lovely views across to the colonial district; financial buildings towering over everything, but it was most definitely a touristy area and a bit of a trap. I think it was perhaps such a failure because of a lack of prior research. Ask people where you’re staying and see what they say. I believe there’s a particular area that’s meant to be good, though a little harder to reach as it’s a bit outside of the city centre. I also hear the black pepper crab is better than the chilli. I will have to consider this if in the area again.

In and around Boat Quay, and more particularly Clarke Quay, is, in general, quite an expensive place to venture, but I don’t doubt you could have one hell of a party. There are various deals to be had so you don’t actually have to pay the eye-watering prices they’re asking for drinks. These deals seemed, as you would expect, to be more prevalent on weekdays. In the centre of the complex (which is covered and felt slightly like a theme park. It was odd) there was a place producing its own beer, and there’s apparently another one on the other side of the river. Not bad if you want a bit of variety from Tiger. The airline themed place was also pretty tasty and produced a rather delicious raspberry daiquiri that I would happily consume in the future.

A very good thing about the Quay is its proximity to Chinatown, which also happens to be one of the main areas for cheaper accommodation in Singapore (the other main one being Little India). I say cheaper because even a bed in a 20-bed dorm room isn’t cheap. I’ve stayed in two hostels in Singapore, the previously mentioned River City Inn in Chinatown, and Checkers Inn in Little India. Both were fantastic; impeccably clean, well designed and I would be happy to stay at either again. I would possibly err towards the Chinatown one, especially on a first visit, as it’s a little closer to the centre of town and you can reach more places without the need to jump on a train. (Though being closer to the masala dosa…that’s a hard choice).

And of course the shopping

Since Singapore is on the hot and steamy side, mornings spent wandering followed by afternoons hiding in the shade and/or air-conditioning might seem like a plan. This is incredibly easy to do if you are a shopper. Head to Orchard Road and you will find a plethora of shops to keep anyone happy. I’m not the biggest fan of shopping, but even I could see that most tastes would be catered for. Still, the prices seemed to be on a par with those in Japan (at least in the shops I frequent), so you wouldn’t necessarily be making any savings.  Personally, I tend to head to supermarkets when I’m away. Picking up cooking/marinating/stewing sauces from the local cuisine(s) to experiment with back in Japan is another way to make the holiday last that bit longer. Supermarkets are also a great place to pick up more authentic, and cheaper, omiyage.

I’ve also heard great things about the Asian Civilisations Museum, which was unfortunately closed the only time I was free.

Getting around

Travel around Singapore in general is very, very easy, but if you arrive early in the morning, make sure you have some smaller Singapore dollars on you. The ticket machines on the MRT don’t take large notes, and there might not be anyone around at the station to change anything up. I was caught by this recently, but if you head up to the departures area at the airport to find an early morning coffee, you’ll be sorted. Oh, and remember there’s no eating or drinking on the MRT system, including at stations, so don’t ask for a take-away coffee/other change providing beverage. Alternatively, get some money changed before leaving Japan, specifying that you need some small denominations.

So the MRT; dead easy and cheap (SGD2.20/170yen from the airport into town). Buses are also a great and easy way to see different parts of the city. Buses come in two varieties, those with and without air-con. There’s a price difference, so it’s up to you, but perhaps err towards those with, and if not, sit downstairs where it’s cooler. Everything is signposted in English (along with Chinese, Malay and occasionally Tamil; the same is true of the MRT). Google maps and directions worked wonders for getting public transport directions too, and since most (if not all) hostels have free wireless, it’s not a problem to figure out how much a trip will cost/how long it will take.


There are other (cheaper) ways to get to Singapore too! Jetstar also flies there direct (the departure times aren’t as good in my opinion, but they can be a LOT cheaper) so that’s a definite option. Another thing to consider is Singapore’s proximity to Kuala Lumpur and Malaysia in general. Malaysia costs a lot less than Singapore, so if you’re looking to spend a reasonable time away, consider having a few days in Singapore, but spend the majority of your time over the border. This is actually what I did a while ago, taking the overnight train to Kuala Lumpur. This might not be a practical option for taller people as the beds are on the short side, but night buses also operate. A cheap Air Asia flight back to Singapore linked up nicely with the evening flight to Osaka. Needing to spend time at Singapore’s Changi Airport is not the worst thing in the world if you decide to do this. It’s probably the best airport I have ever been to for people who get bored easily. There are outside areas, a butterfly garden, free cinema and more. The duty free shops are all extortionate, but that’s not unusual so not really a minus.

In conclusion

It’s further than Korea for a weekend trip, but worth it if you’re looking for somewhere a bit warmer for a spring trip.

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One Comment

  1. Awesome article. I am definitely going here for my next holidays I was undecided as to where to go but this article has helped me make up my mind. I love using the internet to find my next holiday there is so much information and the opinions of others who have gone there before help me decide if it is worth going or not. Thanks for your great article I?ll let you know how my holiday went.

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