The Saturday City: Singapore

Singapore arab areaSingapore wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be. Given its image as a hyper-clean, hyper-lawful place, I expected a very regimented, orderly, clean, and police-heavy city. I found none of that.

In fact, in three days wandering the city, I never once saw anything that looked like a police officer or even a security guard. Maybe it is the fear of reprisal that keeps people in line. Laws in Singapore are harsh- very harsh, which is probably why there is no need to keep a large police presence on the street.

Despite not living up to my police state expectations, the city was a lot of fun. Singapore is often described as a three-day city, as most people hit the few main sites and think there isn’t anything else to see. While the city didn’t scream exciting, crazy, or action-packed to me, one could easily spend a week in Singapore and still find a lot to do.

Singapore can be walked in a solid day or a leisurely two. There’s a good mix of colonial-style buildings, low-rise houses, and high-rise modern office towers. The wide streets, clean air, and large buildings make for a very nice walk. You can walk from Little Arabia to Chinatown in about 45 minutes, and that stretch pretty much encompasses most of the central area of the city. If you want to get adventurous, you could walk out into the suburbs, but there’s no real reason to.

Singapore arab area

Singapore gets very hot but, luckily, there is a whole underground network of air conditioned malls and “streets” that connect the downtown area. You can stay cool, do a bit of shopping, do some eating, and just meander until you’re ready to hit the mean streets again.

Besides being known for strict rules, Singapore is also known for its food. Little India and Chinatown are two of the most famous foodie parts of the city. You’ll find great dim sum, noodles, beef, and other Chinese delicacies in Chinatown. Over in Little India, you’ll find a little slice of Asia. From what I’ve been told, it’s the closest you can get to India without actually being there. Try the places on the main street where everyone eats with their hands. It’s an enjoyable experience. Just make sure you know whether it is OK to eat with your hands. Otherwise, the proprietors will start to give you dirty looks if you dig in with your fingers instead of the silverware they provide. Not that I speak from experience or anything. For your final meal, head to what I dub “Little Arabia.”  A section of town near the mosque that is filled with great Malay and Arab food. If you are looking for more high-end food, there are tons of restaurants all over the city. The city is a gastronomical dream.

Singapore arab area

The big attraction in Singapore is the zoo. The Singapore Zoo is famous for its breadth, as well as its natural habitats and good animal treatment. The Zoo is a bit outside the city center and takes about an hour to get to by public transport. But it is worth it. There are lions and tigers and bears from around the world, as well as elephants, zebras, monkeys, and much more. The animals aren’t kept behind bars, but are separated from visitors by large gulleys, making it a better environment for everyone. This, however, doesn’t keep the monkeys in one place, and you can see them swinging all over the zoo. This makes for a much more natural experience and allows you to really get up close to the animals. There’s also an excellent night safari, where you can see some of the creatures of the night – like annoying tourists who don’t listen and use their flash cameras. Both adventures will hit the wallet hard (expect a day, with food, to cost about 60 Singapore dollars), but, if you only do one thing in Singapore, this should be it.

Singapore arab area

For those wanting some “excitement,” Sentosa Island just south of the mainland (connected via the train) is a good place to see an underwater aquarium, party on the beach, live in luxury, and hang out with dolphins. I didn’t make it there for lack of time, but all the big clubs are located there, a few big hotels, a beach, and some parks. Every December they also host one of the biggest parties in Southeast Asia – ZoukOut. It’s an all night beach rave. Clearly, you can have some fun in Singapore.

  1. I love singapore..been there four times and once even spent a week on work..I was actually canning stories on singapore and we had loads of fun..even if it was such hard work :)

  2. By the way, just saw yr question on my blog…yes, its customary to eat with the hands and most of us still eat in the same fashion in our homes, while spoons and forks are used in restaurants or formal dinners or parties. .But I would still prefer eating dry items like rotis and chapathis (Indian breads ) with my hand..

  3. Pity we couldn’t meet up when you were here. Let me know when you make a stop here in Singapore again!

    Then we can head to Sentosa, or even the clubs. :)

  4. I think the street food is amongst the best in the world – Newton Circus, Boat & Clark Quays, Little India, East Coast and many more. The chilli crab is to die for. I never liked Sentosa when I went there – something too artifical about it. Their bird park is pretty good too, somewhere out towards the zoo I think.

  5. I adored Singapore. Part of that, I think, was that I was living and working in Beijing at the time, and it was -25°C, and Singapore was +25°C, and it was glorious.

    Singapore is also a Western enough city that I had the excitement of French cheese and bookstores and films in proper cinemas that I didn’t have in Beijing. I had the most wonderful evening picnicking on top of Mount Faber, having ridden the cablecar up there.

    And, interestingly, I found that the gay nightlife in Singapore was pretty good, despite the fact that actual gay sex is illegal in Singapore.

  6. Hey Matt, I don’t suppose you managed to cover the Night Safari, did you? I put it off for quite some time before giving it a visit before heading towards London. It was surprisingly refreshing. According to a pal who works there, lots of effort has been put into making it less restrictive for the animals thus improving the overall experience.

    And oh… I love Arab Street. Nothing beats a nice cool evening out there with pals over a cup of teh tarik (froth tea with condensed milk). Hmmm….

    Ironically, S’pore is chasing the pink dollar despite making homosexuality illegal (as you have pointed out). However, there is some effort by the gay community to legalize their status of late.

    C K

  7. Lots has changed in 2 years. Sentosa is no longer a quiet beach, it now has a huge theme park and casino and million dollar homes. The nightlife is better with lots of amazing “lifestyle” hubs popping up in former heritage enclaves. The Zoo and Night Safari keep getting better and a day trip off to the islands (like Palau Ubin) or a walk in the Mangroves along Sungei Buloh are amazing bits of nature in a highly populated city. Come back and visit again!

  8. I’ve travelled many times to Singapore for work over the past 8 years and would recommend it for a couple of days as a stop over destination for the leisure traveller. As Matt suggests; clean, orderly, friendly, safe, and (surprisingly) not what you may expect. In addition to Matt’s latest update, there is a good summary and write up in the Qantas inflight magazine from September 2010:

  9. I spent a week in Singapore and certainly enjoyed myself. I’d say it’s a better place to live than travel too though. Everything passes through Singapore, so it’s a great place to catch gig’s in the Esplanade, party in the F1 paddock or watch a immersive 3D film in the OmnIMAX. I did all of those within my week there, and still missed some bits Singapore offers like Sentosa island.

    Night Safari is world class, only tip I’d give is if you want to take photo’s of the animals at night, don’t go on the golf cart thing that takes you around it. Although it’s slow it means all your photo’s come out blurred – d’oh.

  10. Still my favorite destination. I had the chance to visit it 2 times and would love to visit again! Couldn’t get enough of Singapore’s sprawling colorful life… breathtaking. Plenty of great places to discover.

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