Singapore often gets a bad rap amongst the global jet set (and even locals) as being a rather dull city, newly built without any history or grit and low on entertainment and nightlife potential. Having previously traveled here several times on business, I had my own biased views of Singapore: land of giant, gleaming shopping malls blasting frigid air to combat the oppressive equatorial heat; perfectly manicured super-highways and towering apartment complexes, many in the same architectural style block after block; and hordes of dutiful office workers filing into the CBD’s skyscrapers dressed in suit and tie (and high heels) and working nearly around the clock. So, when we suddenly had a few days to spare in our itinerary, Martin, who’d never been, was curious to check out the "Lion City," and I thought, why not try and find out what lies beyond the legendary shopping and luxury hotels of famous Orchard Road.
After months of traveling in Southeast Asia, touching down at Singapore’s Changi Airport was almost like returning to the United States (actually, it was much smoother, cleaner and easier than landing at New York’s JFK). After myriad motorbikes honking and zooming by us on the streets of Vietnam, the uncertainty of being understood in emerging Myanmar, or cramped, bumpy bus rides across the dirt roads and winding hills of Laos and Cambodia, we nearly kissed the ground upon our arrival. We were so glad to be in a “real” city with access to whatever we needed (or wanted) and full of English speakers and efficient transportation (Uber!) that we almost felt like we were cheating on our yearlong backpacking journey.
We decided to stay in decidedly hip and low-key Tiong Bahru, one of Singapore’s first housing projects from the mid-century that has recently come into fashion with Singapore’s stylish locals and young expat families. With low-rise, whitewashed buildings providing ample views of blue sky and sun, this is not the Singapore tourists have come to know but a charming neighborhood with an eponymous bakery, several cafes and pubs, quirky design stores and bookshops, and yoga studios aplenty.
But before we could do anything, we had to eat, and of my many memories with colleagues in Singapore, I knew Martin had to try the legendary Hainanese Chicken Rice at Chatterbox on Orchard Road (yes, we went to the shopping zone first). As delicious as I remembered, we spent the rest of the afternoon walking in and out of the area's many malls, picking up a few necessities to replace worn out or depleted items. As evening approached and the soaring temperatures started to fall, we made our way to Singapore’s well-designed and lush Botanic Gardens. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the gardens are more than 150 years old and its research facilities played an important role in the rise of Singapore, not to mention the city’s meticulous landscaping. With its winding pathways, tranquil lakes, and rolling tree-covered hills, we quickly forgot that we were in a city of more than six million. We ended our first day alongside many Singaporeans ending their workweeks at Newton Food Centre, where still stuffed from our chicken rice lunch, we sampled a few local dishes, such as pork and chicken satay, oyster omelet, and black carrot cake, made of shredded daikon, eggs, preserved radish, and in this darker variation, molasses.
We started our next morning at Whisk Café, a small bakery in Tiong Bahru, before heading to Gardens by the Bay, a super-modern take on the Botanic Gardens and part of the not so old Marina Bay Sands complex. On an overcast day that straddled between harsh humidity and light drizzle, we still managed to walk through the impressive and photogenic park before making our way across the Helix Bridge and by some of Singapore’s famous colonial landmarks. The impressive architecture of St. Andrew’s Cathedral, the National Gallery, and the Supreme Court buildings add a historic feel to this contemporary city, and as we walked by the iconic Raffles Hotel, which is undergoing an important restoration, we couldn’t help but feel transported to the time of the city-state’s founding as we took in the vintage photographs that lined the construction wall and depicted the hotel’s rich history.
From the colonial heart of the city, we walked to bustling pedestrian-only Haji Lane, lined with bars and restaurants, vintage clothing shops, and street art, and we couldn’t help but snack on a few treats from a new “oats-only” bakery here. From Haji, we strolled up Arab Street, the center of Singapore’s Muslim community and equally busy on a Saturday with vendors selling carpets, lighting, traditional dress and of course, food. After all the walking, we still trudged onward across the few blocks to colorful Little India and the Tekka Centre Food Court for tasty masala dosas, before heading back (via car this time) for coffees at Tiong Bahru Bakery and a rest at our hotel.
That evening, we headed for dinner at Chopsuey Café in the happening Dempsey area, where we were delightfully joined by my former colleague and friend Fay-Linn. It had been so long since Martin and I had had someone with whom to dine besides ourselves that at first we were a little shell-shocked and shy but after mouth-watering dishes of Westernized Chinese food, we were not only stuffed but also full of conversation. With the buzz of reconnecting with an old friend, we jumped in Fay’s convertible and sped through the warm night air and empty streets of Singapore, which takes on a vibrant, electric feel after dark. After eyeing a few more sights along the waterfront Quays, Martin and I realized we were out later than we’d been in many months, and as we made our way back to our hotel, we nearly feel asleep as the warm air rushed through our hair and the bright lights of Singapore whizzed by.
The next day being a Sunday and given our previous “late” night out, we took the liberty to sleep in a bit before grabbing breakfast at adorable Plain Vanilla Bakery, which also gave us the chance to box up a few cakes to take over to Fay’s for afternoon tea. We met her and Chris, another former colleague, for lunch again in Dempsey, this time for banana leaf rice, curry chicken and fishhead soup at Samy’s Curry. Stuffed with a hearty Indian lunch, we had to try Singapore’s best chendol, a dessert of shaved ice, coconut milk, palm sugar, red beans and bright green rice noodles that we’d first enjoyed in the foodie haven of Penang, Malaysia. As full as we were, the chendol soothed our swollen bellies and readied us for a lazy afternoon catching up at Fay’s beautiful apartment.
As our short time in Singapore came to a close, we were grateful several times over: me for the opportunity to give this layered city a closer look, Martin for the chance to visit a new country, and both us for the break from the trials and travails of traveling in foreign lands. We felt revived and inspired after this visit, and we especially have to thank Fay and Chris for making us feel right at home in enchanting Singapore.