After 13 hours of movie-watching, boredom-eating and dozing on an aeroplane, we were relieved to exit Changi International Airport so we could begin our 4-day adventure in Singapore.
The humidity struck us first. The 28-degree heat was suffocating and we were thankful to clamber into an air-conditioned taxi. During the journey to our hotel, we noticed the trees, plants and lawns lining the roads were pruned to perfection; public places were immaculate; and super cars such as Ferraris and Aston Martins whizzed past. This set the tone for the next few days: Singapore was clean, efficient and flashy.
Driving through Orchard Road – the main shopping street in the city, a bit like London’s Oxford Street fused with Knightsbridge, but 10 times larger – we were flanked by mall after swanky mall. Stores for big-name brands including Gucci, Prada and Chanel cropped up every two seconds, as did restaurants offering a variety of cuisines. It was a shopper’s paradise, and you got a real sense of wealth and modernity in this small city island.
There was tranquility on the streets. Ladies shielded themselves from the heat of the sun with umbrellas. Pavements were clean, and – as you’d expect – chewing gum-free as the city banned the sale of chewing gum a few years back. Taxis were everywhere (and they all accepted card payments – win!).
Arriving at our hotel and tucking into the breakfast buffet, I was amused to discover sushi, dim sum, noodles and rice dishes at such an early hour. It was something I’d have to get used to, and be tucking into soon enough. I devoured the exotic fruits on offer, including mangosteen, rambutan and longan, before we stuck our middle fingers up at jet lag and set off for a day of exploration.
We headed first to the malls along Orchard Road. We walked from the hotel – although locals we bumped into to ask for directions advised getting a cab or the bus. It was a wise suggestion, the heat was unrelenting and we arrived at the first mall wet with sweat. We learned our lesson, we’d be taking cabs from now on. The Westfield malls we have in London have got nothing on the malls in Singapore. We made it through one mall, which, in Singapore terms, you’d consider ‘small’, before resigning for lunch at one of the many eateries.
Later that day, on our quest to visit one of the many hawker centres in Singapore – which are basically open-air, lively food courts, with stalls serving food that reflects the cultural diversity of the country – we hailed a cab to the Newton Food Centre. Hawker centres are famed for their cheap, authentic food, and apparently locals eat dinner there every night because it’s better value for money than cooking at home.
It’s a basic sort of experience: you pick a table (they’re a bit like picnic tables), select food from a stall (it’s harder than it sounds; there are so many stalls and the majority serve similar food, so it can be difficult to pick) and tell them your table number. It’s served to your table with in plastic plates and cutlery, and you pay the bill at the end.
What we later discovered from a local taxi driver is that the price of the food is adjusted so it’s much lower for locals, and inflated for tourists – and we were left with a hefty bill after ordering crab, prawns, sting ray, and various other dishes. A sign by the stall priced seafood per kilo rather than giving a set price – and we ended up paying way more than we would for a proper sit-down meal in a restaurant, with proper napkins. Tip: clarify prices with the stall owner before you order. And try to barter with them, it might get you a little discount.
We had booked a tea appreciation ceremony and tasting class with a dim sum lunch at Yixing Xuan Teahouse next to Chinatown after a recommendation from a friend, so that was our first stop. We were joined by a few other tourists and a couple of Singaporeans. The Chinese owner, Vincent, and his daughter Charlene, both had an infectious passion for tea. They shared facts, myths and tips for preparation, and provided various tea tastings too. It was a random, but highly enjoyable experience, followed by an authentic dim sum lunch, which was simple but very tasty. We had some vegetarians in our group and the tea house catered perfectly for them as well.
Full from that lovely lunch, we took a short stroll through nearby Chinatown. Towering above us was the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. We weren’t appropriately dressed to enter (legs, shoulders and arms must be covered) but there were items available for us to cover up with. Apparently every level in the temple has something worth seeing, from the orchid garden on the top tier to the free museum on the third tier, but we didn’t make it up. We scoured the market that runs through the heart of Chinatown next, which sells everything from Chinese tea pots and jewellery to magnets and t-shirts, and picked up a few kitsch bits and bobs and souvenirs on the way.
Next we jumped on the train to Marina Bay as we’d been eager to check out the iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel, and the rooftop view it offered. The underground system, known as the MRT, was easy to navigate, and, as you’d expect, very clean and efficient. In comparison to the chaos you’d find on the London Underground, in Singapore, locals wait for all passengers to get off the train, and make a orderly queue to board. The priority seats for pregnant women, the elderly and parents with little children were humorously depicted (see pictures, below). It was also funny to see notices that banned the local, smelly fruit durian on the trains.
When we arrived at Marina Bay station, we found ourselves in the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, one of the largest malls in Singapore. It was luxurious, super-modern, and to top it all off, there was a mini canal running through the centre, on which you could take a gondola ride to the other side. I was awestruck. Just outside the mall we spotted the Helix Bridge, before making our way to the entrance of the mammoth Marina Bay Sands hotel.
We took the lift up to the top, having chosen to go up to the Ku De Ta bar for drinks, rather than spend the same to visit the observation deck. The impressive rooftop infinity pool was located beside the bar, which was a bonus, (although only hotel residents can use it or access the area around it) but the outside deck offered an extensive view over the Singapore skyline and its shores, the pool as well as Gardens by the Bay, which was our next stop.
Gardens by the Bay is a vibrant horticultural oasis of lush greenery and floral displays. We’d timed our visit to coincide with the free light and sound show, which takes place right after dark. Many people lie down on the ground to watch the show, and I think it’s a wise thing to do to really take it in. We paid to visit the Flower Dome, Cloud Forest and other attractions in the Bay before it took place, too. We weren’t overly impressed by Gardens by the Bay, and thought the Singapore Botanic Gardens were much more worthy of a visit.
Sticking with the theme of heights, that night we went up to the highest rooftop bar in Singapore, 1-Altitude, to enjoy cocktails and a mesmerising view of the city. The bar has a strict dress code, and you have to pay a flat-fee to enter, but this includes a free drink, and it really is worth it for the 360-degree view of Singapore by night. There’s a relaxed vibe up top, and cocktails are surprisingly tasty. A must-do.
We put on our nicest clothes and hopped in a taxi to the palace-like Raffles Hotel, one of Singapore’s most famous hotels – and the birthplace of the legendary Singapore Sling (it was invented by one of the hotel’s bartenders a long, long time ago). Raffles, which has been around since 1887, was once a place where the upper class British colonials would stay, and many famous names have inhabited its many rooms, including British poet Rudyard Kipling and actor Charlie Chaplin.
The grand, elegant hotel really does make you stop in your tracks, and its colonial, old fashioned appearance – reminiscent of the city’s history –takes you back in time. We took a walk around some of its terracotta-tiled courtyards, and admired the classic detail in its architecture, before slipping into the Long Bar to relax with a Singapore Sling – it’s like going to Manhattan and having a Manhattan cocktail, it’s got to be done!
The bar has an earthy decor, with rows of wicker fans lining its ceilings, and creating a breeze thanks to an ingenious contraption. I was a bit confused as to why monkey nut shells crunched under my feet as I entered the bar, but it seems that it is tradition to eat monkey nuts and throw the broken shell right onto the floor where you sit. Odd, considering how strict Singapore is generally with littering.
We were all set for a relaxing afternoon of tea and cake, but there had been a mix up with our afternoon tea booking at Raffles – tip: call them to book as the online booking system doesn’t clarify what you’re booking in for – so we wasted a couple of hours under the lovely air conditioning at Raffles City Shopping Centre before returning for our tea in the hotel’s Tiffin Room.
There was a harpist elegantly strumming tunes, and the high ceiling-ed room was impressive and tranquil. It was a lovely setting and scones, pastries, cakes and finger sandwiches were served in tiered stands. There was also a dim sum buffet with extra cake that you could help yourself to. The service was impeccable – the waiters kindly brought us out a special cake as there was a birthday in the group – but the food, on the whole, was not amazing. The afternoon tea came to around £35 per person. A bit of a tourist trap, but nice to do.
That night we made our way to the Arab quarter, and the sweet smell of shisha instantly filled our nostrils. A local we had spoken to earlier in the day recommended visiting from 7pm onwards, as this is when it comes alive. He wasn’t lying – people spilled out onto the pavements from shisha bars and restaurants on the streets surrounding the Sultan Mosque.
We took a walk around the quarter, stumbling on Haji Lane, a narrow, colourful street filled with quirky, independent fashion boutiques, cafes and restaurants. It had a hipster vibe, and graffitti-strewn walls – it reminded me of London’s Camden Town. With unique homeware and clothing, it was really different to the standard stuff we’d found on Orchard Road. Throughout the Arab quarter there were also a lot of Persian-style carpets for sale, traditional fabrics and clothing, as well as leather goods.
For dinner we could choose from Middle Eastern, Malaysian and Turkish restaurants, and we opted for a Turkish meal at Alaturka on Bussorah Road. Seated outdoors in the humid air, we munched on everything from kebabs, humous and freshly cooked naan to mezze, salads and falafel.
As it was officially our last night in Singapore, we were determined to make the most of the evening, and so we ventured to the area of Ann Siang Hill and Club Street on the fringe of Chinatown where there are lots of bars and drinking holes clustered together. The area is really lively come sun down, and filled with merry post-work drinkers. We started off at The Screening Room’s rooftop bar, La Terraza, which is cosy, dimly lit and has a romantic ambience, before wandering to Toca Me Bar across the road. Come 2am, all the bars began to close and taxis filtered in to the main street that had been pedestrian-free until this hour, to ferry us all on our way. The efficiency of this system was splendid.
We had a few hours before we were to depart for Singapore airport, so we made a quick dash back to Haji Lane to perhaps do a bit of shopping. As it was before 11am only a few shops on this street were open. We then visited one of the most ‘fragrant’, colourful and untidy places in Singapore – Little India. The smell of incense wafted in to the taxi as we pulled up, and the cab driver warned us that if we wanted to take a taxi home we’d have to go a little way away from Little India as many taxi drivers weren’t keen on coming down these streets. The main things to do in Little India include eating, shopping or visiting the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple.
We were impressed by the Mustafa Centre, a 24-hour mall-like store that basically sells everything you could ever wish for, from electronic gadgets to jewellery and Indian sarees. Every single wall in this multiple-floor store was stacked high with products, piled high and untidy. A sight to see.
We collected our bags from the hotel and headed off to Changi International airport, where we stopped off at the butterfly garden inside terminal 3 before fluttering off onto the plane.
Thank you for having us Singapore.