July 17-20, 2016
Arriving in Singapore
Tired from an early morning and two flights (Lombok to Jakarta and Jakarta to Singapore), we didn't take advantage of exploring Singapore's airport as much as we probably should have. Singapore's Changi Airport has been ranked as the best airport in the world for the last four years.
Getting to the city was super convenient, the MRT subway line runs directly from the airport. What was not as convenient however, was having to wait to eat my snack until getting off at our stop. Eating on the subway will land you a $500 fine- drinking, smoking and durians are also not permitted on the subway. A few of the other quirky rules governing Singaporeans include penalties for not flushing the toilet, smoking in public, chewing/selling gum and walking around your house naked. One particularly troubling law is that against homosexuality, though it's generally not enforced.
Stepping off of the subway, we noticed two things immediately: Singapore was impeccably clean and uber expensive. Fortunately we found a way to be savvy and stayed two nights with Maarten, a kind Belgian guy living and working in Singapore. Prior to moving to Singapore he worked in Hong Kong and India. We met him at his fantastic apartment complex complete with gym and swimming pools (yes pool(s), 3 to be exact).
Maarten was the perfect tour guide and acquainted us with Singapore. He took us for dinner in China town, the oldest area of the city, then showed us around Marina Bay. The Marina Bay area is built on reclaimed land in an effort to expand the city. We concluded our evening with dessert and live music in an elective graffiti-ed alley.
We look forward to hosting couch surfers when we get back to the states so we can return the favor.
Despite its small size, Singapore is home to many diverse ethnic communities. The primary groups being Chinese, Malay, Indians and expats. Chinese are the largest group making up almost 75% of the country's population.
On our second day in the city we explored two of these pockets of ethnic communities- Little India and the Arab Quarter. Little India was moderately reminiscent of India- though incredibly subdued. It's what India would be like it if was quiet, unpolluted and empty. Shops sold Indian products, foods, and pastries all at set Singapore prices. (We did managed to negotiate for a phone case though and knocked a few dollars off of the price, ha!) We fed our nostalgia for Indian food and ordered some chana masala and tandori roti for lunch. Spicy and delicious! What surprised us the most about Little India was how quiet it was. A handful of shops were closed and there were not many pedestrians about. Perhaps this is because it was in the middle of the day during the work week. But we have noticed many other areas of the city to be quiet as well. Despite the country's population of almost 6 million, in country only 4 times the size of Washington DC, many areas felt empty.
The Arab Quarter of town sold rich colorful textiles, yummy food and the occasional Turkish pastry, my favorite! We walked down "Arab Street" which terminates at the ornate Masjid Sultan Mosque.
From Arab Street it was a quick walk to the Bugis area of town. There we found some trendy and over-the-top shops selling items like selfie coffee, where you essentially drink your own face from the foam atop your coffee. Superfluous or quirky and cool?
Staying in China Town
The hostel we booked through booking.com could not have been in a better location. Maple Lodge was located in the heart of China Town just steps away from subway. In China town we marveled at the food. Oh the food; our favorite part of travel. Everywhere we looked new and exciting treats enticed us, beckoning us to try them.
If you look past the shops selling junk, souvenirs and trinkets, you can find countless cheap outdoor eats, especially clustered around the subway stations. All types of stuffed buns, bubble tea's, soups, coffees, noodles, rice- you can find it all and more!
In China Town we discovered two interesting products: edible birds nests and Bak kwa (or bakkwa). We had seen birds nest around town included in soups and drinks but did not think that it was actually real bird's nest, but it is! These nests are made from the spit of the small swiftlet birds. Some researched revealed that edible bird's nest are a delicacy in Chinese cuisine and said to have many health benefits.
"Edible bird's nests are bird nests created by swiftlets using solidified saliva, which are harvested for human consumption. They are particularly prized in Chinese culture due to their rarity, and supposedly high nutritional value and exquisite flavor. Edible bird's nests are among the most expensive animal products consumed by humans, with an average nest retailing for about $2,500 (US) per kilogram in Asia. The type or grading of bird's nest depends on the type of bird as well as the diet of the bird. It differs in color from white to dark brown. The Chinese believe that it promotes good health, especially for the skin. The nests have been used in Chinese cooking for over 400 years." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edible_bird%27s_nest
Bak kwa is hard to miss on the streets of China Town. Just about every third store sells this product with open doors and trays of free samples encouraging you to buy it. It is usually made from shredded pork and taste like jerky but better! It's served in round or square pieces and coated in a sweet sugary syrup reminiscent of maple syrup. Best part? Free samples. Everywhere. It was good, so good in fact we couldn't allow our selves to buy it for fear that we would never stop eating it. That stuff is dangerously delicious.
Now I can't talk about the foods of China Town without mentioning the smells. Whole Durian's and multitudes of Durian products are for sale on almost every street. You can smell it well before you approach it. It receives varied reactions for it's intense smell; some are disgusted by the strong smell, which I think smells faintly of onions, others describe it as sweaty gym socks or sewage. It's sold raw, cooked in pastries, in juices, in pancakes, as a chip, or as an ice-cream flavor-almost everything imaginable. The strong smells has resulted in several bans regulating where the fruit can be eaten. Nonetheless there are many devotees to this creamy yellow fruit inside a spiky green skin.
Who Says Singapore Has To Be Expensive?
Sure there's Orchard Street, Singapore's noted fashion and shopping street graced with countless malls. But there are also delightful hawker centers where you can score seriously cheap eats. Hawker centers are groups of food stalls in open air buildings with communal seating areas. They sell fast informal food at great prices- meals anywhere from $4-15 USD. The menu consists of photos plastered all over the front of the stall. To order, just point to what you want. These hawkers centers are we had most of our meals while in Singapore.
I also managed to find a new pair of glasses, complete with lenses, for only $55 USD at New China Optician's. The waves in Goa stole a pair of my glasses while we were in India. These cheap new glasses were ready in only 20-minutes- talk about efficiency.
We found Singapore to be a modern though generic city, splashed with multi-cultural influences. For us, it lacked character and charm. Certain cities posses an intangible energy and here we found that to be lacking. The culture seems very work-oriented and work-forward...we didn't see a lot of 'fun' happening (granted 4 days in a city only barely let's you scratch the surface of it's culture.)
Physically the city is visually pleasing, clean and well-maintained with just as much green space as commercial space, earning it the name, Garden City. The city is well connected through it's efficient metro line. It's an easy introduction to South East Asia as it's clean, easy to get around, has a very low crime rate and a lot of English (spoken and written). English is spoken almost everywhere. Overhearing conversations in English on the street is always a shock. English is actually one of the four official languages of Singapore along with Malay, Tamil and Mandarin.
Singapore is not a back-packer friendly city because of it's high prices. We found four-days in Singapore to be ample amount of time to see all of the sights we wanted to see, in fact 2-3 days would have been sufficient. Also, bring an umbrella- storms pop up quickly in the tropical climate, but usually pass just as quickly as the arise.