Often referred to as an introduction to Asia or Asia 101, the city/country/island of Singapore is a true melting pot of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Western influences – amongst many others – presenting the first-time visitor a chance to sample the culture and cuisine of each. Add to that the fact that English is the primary language, the city is incredibly easy to navigate, crime rates are extremely low, and the city is clean to the point of almost being sterile, and you can see why I chose Singapore as my first destination to easy myself back into the hectic world of budget traveling after a relaxing and luxurious interlude back home for the holidays. Well that, and the fact that the city is one of the “foodiest” places on the planet (which will have to wait until my next post, unfortunately).
I should also note that many do bemoan Singapore for being too clean, too sanitized, and without much of the heart and soul that characterize many of the other Asian cities — a place where packaged tours abound and the only things to do here are shop and eat. Admittedly, there is a “theme-park” type of feel to certain areas of the city, but so long as you don’t linger amidst the kitschy confines of Sentosa Island or Merlion Park, you’ll find that the city, while seemingly ultra-modern and developed on the surface, still has maintained some semblances of how things used to be, an undercurrent of history and tradition.
Singapore is really a city composed of a whole host of various neighborhoods, each usually with its own unique ethnic population and distinct characteristics. A great place to start is the busy and bustling streets of Chinatown (coincidentally, where I’ve made my home base). Additionally, the area is all the more lively at the moment, given that the Chinese New Year is fast approaching.
After having spent some time in Chinatown, a great neighborhood to experience another of the primary influences of Singapore is that of Little India. It doesn’t have the flash and polish of Chinatown, but it more than makes up for it with a smokey, spicy atmosphere and the hectic nature of shops, vendors, visitors, and locals all spilling out of the narrow lanes and alley into the busy streets.
One of my favorite neighborhoods, and what feels a bit more like a suburb, is that of the Katong district, famous for its terrace houses and colorful facades. Less frequented by tourists and taking a small step towards less commercialized side of the tracks, it seems more of a representation of what life would actually be like living in Singapore (instead of being trapped in the concrete jungle of high rises and modern architecture clustered near the city’s center). Plus, beyond the many street-side food vendors and trendy cafes, it is supposedly the best place in the city to enjoy one of my favorite dishes here, the spicy noodle soup known as Laksa.
Next, onwards and upwards! One of the most distinct landmarks of the Singapore skyline is the relatively new and ultra-posh Marina Bay Sands Hotel. Three massive towers support a rooftop structure similar in shape to a ship’s hull or a surfboard, where one can take in some of the best views of the skyline back over the Marina Bay.
And if the views from the Skypark weren’t enough, another option available is to take a ride on the popular Cable Car, which links Sentosa Island (an additional island to the south) with Mt. Faber (a peak on the main island).
Closer to the center of the city, there are a variety of other neighborhoods and sites to see, such as the Colonial District, the Quays, Orchard Road, the Central Business District (CBD), or Kampong Glam — again, each with its own unique feel. Here is a quick sampling of a few of these areas, as well:
If you should grow a bit weary of the constant din of the city, the perfect escape is to immerse yourself back in nature at The Botanical Gardens, which are just past the main shopping plazas near Orchard Road. Here, you can take a leisurely stroll along the many peaceful walking paths, all the while recharging your own internal batteries before diving right back into the modernism of the city:
And finally, no visit to Singapore would be complete without a stop to see the cities famous cheeky mascot, the Merlion! (note: heavy sarcasm). Part lion, part mermaid, it is a complete fabrication of the cities tourism board and may go down in history as being the least intimidating mythical creature ever invented. But you know, even though things like this are kitschy and silly, it is exactly because they are kitschy and silly that they are still fun to visit:
There are those nay-sayers who’ll tell you there isn’t anything to do in Singapore, but given the busy week I’ve had so far (see above) and the long list of places I still have to visit on the island (see below), I’d say that their beliefs are slightly misplaced. Going forward, I’ve got a whole post dedicated to nothing but the glorious eating culture here in Singapore (be sure to have some food handy, as I guarantee you’ll be hungry after reading it), and my itinerary still includes visits to Changi Village, the island of Pulau Ubin, the night-time festivities along Geylang Road, some hiking around the MacRitchie Resevoir and Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, a plethora of culinary delights still to try, and hopefully a stroll along the Southern Ridges if I can squeeze it in. Until then, Cheers from Singapore!