Hey faithful readers (if you’re still here)! Long time, no see.
I kind of gave up on blogging in 2020 during our first lockdown here in Australia. It was a smart move that saved a lot of lives but it also stifled my urge to travel and was a pretty depressing after two years. I’m also a full-time journalist and I began to feel a bit fatigued from spending every waking moment churning out articles from my bedroom desk like a gremlin.
But didn’t you hear? Travel’s back, baby. So without further ado, let’s get back into writing about the things that make life great. Here’s my write-up of the week I spent in Singapore in August 2022.
Singapore had never been super high on my to-visit list. But when Australia’s borders reopened and international flights resumed, my only options to visit quickly and cheaply were major Asian cities or New Zealand. Having been to almost all of the available destinations, I decided to finally hit up Singapore as it was one few I had yet to visit.
That turned out to be a great decision.
Food has always been one of the reasons I travel, and Singaporeans are among the world’s biggest foodies. The city’s iconic hawker centres — old school Asian food courts — are home to incredible Chinese Singaporean, Malay, and Indian food for just a few dollars per meal.
Some hawker stalls have even earned Michelin Stars, but I went to one such establishment and it was actually pretty disappointing. I found it best to just wander into random hawker centres and order whatever looks best. Or to just ask locals what they recommend. Between these two strategies, almost every meal was amazing. Among them was chicken rice, Singapore’s unofficial national dish, which is essentially a dependably excellent rendition of Hainanese chicken.
Outside of the daily hawker fare that I gorged on, there are a few other must-try dishes when in Singapore: namely laksa and Singapore crab. Both are great, although I did have to fork out around $90 to eat a crab by myself. At that price, once is enough. The perils of solo travel when everyone at the hostel is a fussy eater…
Which brings me to the booze.
My dad kept drilling into me that Singapore has an amazing nightlight scene because drugs are so strictly prohibited. That turned out to be a slight exaggeration, but I still had fun.
As a beer-loving Aussie, I of course had to make a pilgrimage to the Tiger brewery right on the edge of the island near Malaysia. That was much to the disdain of almost every local I chatted to. I guess it’s like how Americans and Brits drink Foster’s and act like it’s a quintessential Aussie drink. Anyway, the brewery tour was interesting, but it was also a bit awkward since I turned out to be the only person who had signed up for the tour. At the end you get to try a bunch of drinks and the tour guide, who was the same age as me, just watched me awkwardly. Ah well.
A classier beer option is to go to the world’s highest microbrewery: LeVeL33. I rocked up on a weekday afternoon (in total violation of the dress code) and I was able to snag a seat on the terrace overlooking Marina Bay during the sunset. The view was spectacular, and my beer tasting flight was pretty damn good too. Note: a booking is still recommended, I just got lucky.
For me, this was another iconic aspect of Singapore. There are very few places where you can so easily have a good time at the top of skyscrapers. Of course, no discussion of Singapore’s luxurious upwards urbanism would be complete without a mention of Marina Bay Sands.
This hotel comprises three towers that are connected by the world’s largest and highest infinity pool, kind of like a cricket pitch. It was completed in 2010 and has quickly become a landmark in its own right.
I had fantasised about swimming in this pool and felt crushed when I landed in Singapore and learned that it was open for guests only. With some rooms costing thousands of dollars per night, this was way out of reach.
Or so I thought.
One morning during my during my visit, I was wondering around Gardens by the Bay. It’s that botanical garden with the purple viewing platforms that look like metal trees. I found it a bit underwhelming to be honest.
Anyway, while I was there, I bumped into another Aussie from my hostel. He hadn’t actually planned to stay in Singapore (long story) and somehow had no idea what Marina Bay Sands was. So I told him about the pool.
“Do you reckon we can sneak in?” he asked.
“We can try,” I said.
So we — two sweaty tourists in shorts and thongs — wandered into the lobby of one of the world’s most famous yet exclusive hotels. The place was dripping with money. Architecture aside, every single guest was dressed like a current-season mannequin from a Versace or Louis Vuitton window display.
We hovered around the elevators and jumped in with other guests, hoping to reach the top floor which you needed a keycard to access. Alas, after several attempts, we could only get as high as the middle floors. It was a cool perspective to few the building’s gigantic atrium from, but it wasn’t what we came for. At this point we must’ve looked like loitering thieves on the security cameras, so we decided to call it quits.
But on our way out, the other Aussie tourist went up to a family and asked where the lift to the pool was. The family was only happy help. “You’re at the wrong lift, come this way,” they said. And without us even having to ask, they swiped their keycard, pressed the button for the top floor and walked off. Jackpot.
When we got out at the top floor, we faced another dilemma. On the left was a red velvet rope with a concierge blocking access to the pool. On the right was the same thing but with a fancy restaurant. Faced with barries left and right, we bolted straight ahead to a small smoking area tucked behind a hedge.
We hid in the smoking area thinking this would be as far as we got. There was one other person there, a young Chinese guy who actually was smoking. We tried to make awkward small talk with him but realised he didn’t speak much English. Ah well, we thought. But then, this Chinese guy, who we assumed couldn’t understand what we were saying, pointed to his phone and explained through gestures that guests apparently need to reserve a timeslot to access the pool. Then, without us even saying anything yet, he beckoned for us to follow him back to the pool concierge. He said something to her in Mandarin, and she said something back in Mandarin. Then, she opened the red velvet rope for me and the other Aussie, while the Chinese guy walked away and went back down the elevator. We had no idea what just happened, but made sure to thank the guy profusely (in English, sadly) and shake his hand as he walked out.
We were finally in. Assuming we’d get caught eventually, we jumped in the water and had a great time swimming and admiring Singapore’s concrete jungle from above. Afterwards, we got out of the pool and sat on banana chairs. That’s when two staff at the pool looked over and made a beeline straight towards us. I was expecting to get politely kicked out, so my jaw dropped when they came over and handed us two ice creams. This must be how the other half (or the top 0.1% more accurately) live.
A more underrated aspect of Marina Bay Sands is that, from the back, you also get an amazing view of Singapore’s famous shipping industry. Most guests seemed too busy enjoying their cocktails to care, but being the massive nerd I am, I couldn’t help but stare in awe at the endless ships anchored in the Singapore Strait — one of the most important maritime thoroughfares in the world.
During my stay I found surprisingly little opportunity to learn about this globally important industry that makes Singapore tick. However, the National Museum of Singapore provided a great (albeit partisan) introduction through its immersive, multimedia exhibits.
The island of Singapore was home to muddy fishing villages for centuries until the British invaded. One of the colonisers who would administer the territory, Stamford Raffles (more on him later), saw an opportunity to establish a free port in 1819 that was perfectly located at a chokepoint for much of the world’s shipping routes.
In the years that followed Raffles’ decision, Singapore witnessed many of the interesting cultural phenomenons that typically emerge at shipping hubs including secret workers’ societies, opium dens, and the mixing of faiths.
I can never endorse colonialism but this decision was a clever idea that did contribute to Singapore thriving later on in the 20th century.
In 1963, the newly-indepedent states of Singapore, Malaya and Borneo federated to become Malaysia. That wouldn’t last long for Singapore. Malay leaders were pushing to establish what would become the so-called social contract — a set of laws that preference ethnic Malays over the peninsula’s large ethnic Chinese and Indian populations.
Singapore was more cosmopolitan (read: more Chinese) than other cities in the region, and so independence leader Lee Kuan Yew instead pushed for all ethnic groups to be treated equally.
The Malay leaders wouldn’t have this and so expelled Singapore from the federation. Thus in 1965 Singapore was proclaimed as an independent country, against its will but led by a pragmatic and well-educated technocrat who had a newfound assertiveness for his country to thrive without needing the land and resources of the hinterland that it had just been severed from.
Lee Kuan Yew, known locally by the initials LKY, embraced multiculturalism by enshrining Malay, Chinese, Tamil and English as the country’s four official languages. He embarked on a program of long-term planning by promoting free trade, industrialisation and, most importantly, the shipping industry. He also quashed his political opponents and stifled press freedom.
This apparent dichotomy led to LKY being dubbed one of the world’s few “benevolent dictators.” He would remain in power from 1959 until 1990. His legacy has been called “Disneyland with the death penalty.”
LKY was a complicated man but I couldn’t help admire what he had accomplished while I was at the National Museum of Singapore. He’s also a great orator and the video clips the museum exhibited — not least the televised address a visibly shaken LKY gave when Singapore had been expelled from Malaysia — were inspiring to watch.
Singapore’s other major museum is the Asian Civilisations Museum. Without sounding rude, the island itself don’t have much by way of ancient monuments of artifacts, but this museum has cleverly leaned into Singapore’s place as a crossroads of Asian cultures to highlight societies and religions from all over the continent.
There are sections about Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, tracing how each religion spread across the continent and exhibiting beautiful sacred items from these eras. It was a great opportunity to dabble in some amateur comparative religion studies.
However, the highlight is definitely the Tang Shipwreck. Artifacts from this 1100-year-old shipwreck were discovered well-preserved in the mud of the seafloor in 1998 and were donated to the museum by the estate of a local billionaire. Any shipwreck is enough to spark the curiosity of one’s inner child, and this find in particular was masterfully displayed by the curators.
Back around 830 AD, Persia would export blue cobalt pigment to China, where it was in vogue. Meanwhile, China’s world-leading ceramics industry would export bowls and plates back to the Middle East with special designs created just for that Middle Eastern market. It blew my mind to see these goods from Guangzhou that were destined for Persia from more than a millennium ago. The world was very much connected before modern colonialism, and it’s beautiful how different cultures and societies exchanged their skills and wares in ways that helped their respective cultures blossom.
The museum itself is housed in a grand colonial building on the Singapore River, overlooking not only the historical shophouses of Boat Quay but also the gigantic, modern skyscrapers behind them. The bronze busts of Ho Chi Minh, Jawaharlal Nehru and Deng Xiaoping outside the museum were also a nice, non-aligned touch in my opinion.
Aside from these museums, Singapore’s CBD did feel, like all business districts do, a bit sterile and corporate at times. Although many travellers will write off the entire country for this reason, there’s much more to Singapore than 20th-century office skyscrapers.
I stayed in Katong, a trendy low-rise neighbourhood that was/is a centre for the island’s Peranakan Chinese community. Here, the colourful Peranakan houses share streets with vintage record shops, trendy cafes, seedy karaoke bars and, of course, hawker centres.
To me, Katong was very much the ‘cool’ part of Singapore and it seems as if it’s totally overlooked by all those seasoned-but-pretentious travellers who claim the island has no organic culture or good vibes. Sure, aside from the Peranakan houses, there are no major landmarks in the area, but the vibes are immaculate and easily rival the trendy districts of any other major global city.
Katong also butts up against the East Coast Park, one of many developments during the LKY era aimed at improving the quality of life for citizens of a rapidly-industrialising island that had relatively little free space to use.
The park itself is nice, but the real reason I loved it was for the view of the anchored ships and, beyond them, Indonesia’s Riau Archipelago. I wouldn’t recommend going in the water, though.
Now… remember that dead British dude Raffles? I mentioned him as the father of Singapore’s famous free port, which powered the country’s breakneck development under the careful stewardship of LKY.
Well his legacy also lives on in the Raffles Hotel, a colonial building in the heart of the city that is the birthplace of the Singapore Sling cocktail. Apparently it was invented by a bartender for elegant women of the era who wanted to daydrink. Since women apparently couldn’t be seen drinking anything that looked like real booze, a brightly-coloured fruity concoction was needed.
I swang by this timewarp of a bar on my final afternoon before heading to the airport. It was packed with Western tourists and the drinks were expensive. And yet, it’s still a fun experience if you embrace the kitschiness of it all. Everyone’s just sipping their Singapore Slings, cracking peanuts all over the goddamn floor, and admiring the weird mechanical contraptions on the ceiling that are supposed to be fanning us with cool air. I don’t even know how to elaborate on this. Hopefully the pictures can get my point across.
And with that, I departed Singapore with my spirits lifted after two-and-a-half years of pandemic misery.
I still have so many more entries to write from pre-pandemic trips in Iran and Europe and West Africa. And I also spent two weeks in Thailand recently. Let’s see if I can get back into this habit.
Missed you all. It’s good to be back ❤