Compared to other big cities in South East Asia, Singapore is far from budget friendly. We didn’t find the 30p beers of Hanoi or the 60p pad thai of Bangkok, but we did find a city where, straight away, we could imagine ourselves moving in. We’d picked out exactly where we’d live, shop, eat and party – but the key to this fantasy was that we would be Singaporean 9-5ers, rather than penniless backpackers.
Maybe it was the combination of a familiar big city feel and the hugely diverse population that made it feel completely possible to drop our bags and see Singapore as an expat rather than a backpacker. Working away on the blog and reading the papers in a cafe over Sunday brunch, we hoped we could have passed as locals. Wandering around in flip flops at 11am on Monday, we had to concede it was less likely. Some things felt very familiar, like getting around by Uber and the underground, or seeing M&S, Cath Kidson and The Body Shop alongside each other in a mall. But there was always a clue that we were far from home; the quadra-lingual signs (Malay, Cantonese, English, and Tamil), an overcast grey sky meaning 80% humidity rather than cold drizzle, or the mix of gleaming skyscrapers, Hindu and Buddhist temples, and pastel-coloured colonial buildings dotted around the city.
We spent 8 days in Singapore, so managed to explore lots of different neighbourhoods in our new home-from-home in Asia.
LITTLE INDIA AND KAMPONG GLAM
We began with a few nights in a capsule hostel in Little India, but very gratefully upgraded, once Rebecca’s parents arrived, to stay in the Airbnb they’d rented in Dhoby Ghaut. Two words sum up why we chose Little India: dhal makhani. This was one of our absolute favourite things to eat during our two months in India so we followed our noses to a hostel surrounded by authentic Indian food options. Little India is also one of the few areas of Singapore with budget hostel rooms (or in our case capsule pods), which, given the prices of hotel rooms elsewhere, helped make our decision. Sticking with local flavour, the free breakfast was dhal roti which was a great reminder of Indian breakfasts.
Walking around Little India’s colourful streets, the smells of spices, incense, and the bright marigold garlands and saris gave us flashbacks to Big India. Though in true Singaporean style, everything was immaculately clean and orderly which made it feel more like a movie-set version of India; authentic in the details, but overall somehow restrained and managed. Walking back to our hostel one evening we found the road blocked off by police, and groups of men sitting along the pavement, talking, sharing food and playing cards. It turned out that the Indian migrant workers living across the city are all given Sunday as their day off and get together in Little India, so the authorities close the road to give everybody space.
The Tekka Centre was our favourite discovery in Little India. Street stalls are illegal in Singapore and have been tidied into various hawker centres around the city, and, though a sanitised Singaporean slant on Asian night markets and street food, are still a lot of fun and a really affordable way to eat out. The Tekka Centre not only delivered delicious dhal makhani, but also butter chicken, fresh naans, chicken tikka, plus hundreds of biryani variations that we were too stuffed to try.
Just 15 minutes’ walk away is the equally colourful, historically Muslim district of Kampong Glam, and one of our favourite streets in Singapore: Haji Lane. By day people come to admire the big murals, visit the impressive Sultan Mosque, and browse the boutique shops.
At night the narrow lane is completely packed with people spilling out of the bars, listening to the djs and live musicians that set up in the doorways. Though considering Singaporean prices, the “bar” doing the most business here was the Seven11’s beer fridge!
Though we didn’t spend as much time here as in Little India, this seemed to be the other backpacker friendly area, with several hostels, and cheap Chinese meals at the local hawker centre. We spent one evening here zipping around the streets on a tri-shaw tour. We sped around underneath strings of glowing lanterns – some traditional, some monkey-shaped for Chinese New Year, past Chinese medicine shops and past the impressive temple built to house the Buddha’s tooth relic. Fun, but definitely put us squarely back in the backpacking tourist category.
Marina Bay is the iconic image of the Singapore skyline, so it was a must-do evening – if not the cheapest evening. Preparing for budget annihilation, it actually turned out to be a good balance between saving, spending and splurging. Saving money involved checking out the famous merlion statue, one of the nightly free performances at Esplanade and the free ‘sound and light’ laser show projected from Marina Bay Sands hotel. Watching the lights from the Esplanade side of the bay, we were pretty underwhelmed but then realised the lasers were more of an add-on to the videos projected onto big fountains of water seen from the other side.
From our (disad-)vantage point we were at least close to Gluttons Bay hawker centre. This is one of the cheapest places to eat at the bay so was understandably packed, but once we’d scouted a table and battled the queues we had a feast of Thai curries, Singaporean satay, mee goreng and local dish chicken rice (both the chicken and the rice boiled in a garlic and ginger broth).
After the saving and the spending it was splurge time. In Marina Bay this means one thing: rooftop bars. We started on the roof of the amazingly eccentric Marina Bay Sands building with views down to the container ships and Gardens By The Bay on one side, and the hotel’s infinity pool and city centre skyline on the other. Drinks aren’t cheap, but for the setting and the views they are definitely worth it.
Across the bay we could see one of the tallest buildings in Singapore, One Raffles Place. On top is 1-Altitude, the highest outdoor bar in the world. There was no question; despite the (ouch) S$30 cover charge, this was happening. Hearing “it’s ladies’ night!” is normally the cue to turn and leave, but going to 1-Altitude on a Wednesday turned out to be a great move. The S$30 cover charge only applies to men and includes one free drink. Once up on the 63rd floor terrace, the lucky ladies can order drinks for just S$10 – which is about as cheap a cocktail as we found anywhere else in the city. But ‘anywhere else in the city’ couldn’t claim the same panoramic views or natural AC that we had sipping drinks in the breeze, looking down on other skyscrapers.
To balance out all the credit card-bashing in Singapore’s urban jungle, we gave our wallet a break to explore Singapore’s free-entry green spaces.
From the treetop canopy walkway in MacRitchie nature reserve, all signs of a big city had disappeared. We could just see the reservoir in the distance, and creeping monitor lizards, skittish flying squirrels and inquisitive macaques amongst the trees.
Closer to the city centre, the Botanic Gardens is the largest tropical botanic garden in the world. It was way too big to try and see everything; the National Orchid Garden was cut based on the entry fee, the temperature-controlled greenhouse was cut based on it housing ‘exotic’ European flowers, and the north eastern section near the tube station was cut based on it’s online reputation as the ‘least interesting’ part. This left us with a sunny afternoon stroll in a loop from the Tanglin Gate entrance around the swan lake, sundial garden, ginger garden, and bonsai garden, and then back via the rainforest path.
Back in the city centre, Fort Canning Park and Gardens by the Bay were good options for free, yet well-connected, afternoon activities. Thanks to a huge downpour, our time at Gardens by the Bay was shorter than we’d planned. We mainly scuttled from shelter to shelter rather than being able to enjoy wandering around the themed gardens and the view from the Marina Barrage out to sea. But the iconic Supertrees were just as impressive against a grey sky, and, with Marina Bay Sands towering through the mist in the background, made for some artsy abstract photos. If – (when!) – we come back, our plan will be a sunny afternoon exploring properly with a picnic out on the barrage.
Fort Canning Park, the hill between Dhoby Ghaut and Clarke Quay, is where the original city lighthouse was located. Looking out from the spot where it once stood we had a good view of Marina Bay Sands but, given the wall of skyscrapers between us and the sea, it was strange to imagine this once being the highest point in the city. An interesting remnant of Singapore’s wartime history are the network of narrow walkways used by soldiers escaping the Japanese invasion during WWII.
CLARKE QUAY AND BOAT QUAY
Clarke Quay and Boat Quay seemed to be a combination of expensive and touristy so we didn’t spend long here. Clarke Quay, with its Disney-esque version of colourful colonial shophouses, seemed to be the place for early evening drinks in chain bars. Further along the water, Boat Quay – the original spot of Chinese merchant warehouses – seemed to be the place for lunch in chain restaurants.
This may sound like we’re unimpressed by this area but it did deliver two plusses: chilli crab at Jumbo Seafood and the Asian Civilisations Museum.
At the Asian Civilisations Museum, at 11am every day, there is a free guided tour of the highlights. Coming to Singapore after a loop around south east Asia it was nice to see various familiar Buddha styles and examples of lintel carvings exactly like the ones we’d explored at the Angkor temples – and have the museum guide add more background information. Having only spent a few days in Beijing and Shanghai we were far less familiar with Chinese culture so found this section of the museum the most interesting. We now know that bats are auspicious symbols in Chinese culture; some Emperors’ robes would be embroidered with hundreds of tiny bat motifs. We also know that it can be common for a 1 month old baby’s head to be shaved and the hair kept to make them a keepsake calligraphy brush.
As first-timers in Singapore, we had to try chilli crab. Once we’d put the tourist hat on again, there was nothing for it but to go for the full ensemble and add the branded Jumbo Seafood bib.
The crab was delicious (if pricey), but Rebecca’s conclusion from her first attempt at whole crab is clear: if you expend more calories dismantling the food than those contained in the food, it’s not worth it. The Malabar crab in Bangalore wins that one.
After checking off chilli crab, there was one other pricey-but-worth-it-once Singaporean institution we wanted to try; a Singapore Sling at the Long Bar in Raffles Hotel. The cocktail was invented by Ngiam Tong Boon in 1915 as a cunning fruit-punch disguise for his female customers – etiquette at the time meant women couldn’t otherwise drink alcohol in public. If you ignore the smartphones and designer shopping bags at each table, Long Bar is like stepping back in time; wicker chairs, dark wood and tiled floors lit by green study lamps with mechanical palm leaf fans swaying gently back and forth overhead. What’s harder to ignore is the carpet of peanut shells around each table, but this is part of the authentic colonial vibe – where littering will get you in serious trouble anywhere else in Singapore, here it is and always has been encouraged.
Our Slings slung, we’d planned to spend the evening walking around the Colonial district but another deluge dampened those plans and we had to make a (barefoot! – — Singapore is not the friend of suede shoes..) dash across the street and choose from the restaurants in the mall opposite. Whilst this wouldn’t be a great prospect at home, finding good food in Asian mega-malls has been a reliable option from Tokyo to Bangkok, and proved the same in Singapore. After Raffles we had some great tapas in Raffles City mall and another evening we had a delicious dim sum feast at Din Tai Fung in Suntec City mall over a long overdue catch up with Gianluca, Nico and Jen. Cocktails with them at Loof in the Colonial district was another great find; colonial building – check, rooftop bar – check, view of Raffles Hotel and Marina Bay Sands – check.
Exploring Duxton Hill, Dempsey Hill and Tiong Bahru, we took off the tourist hat and tried an expat hat on for size. One evening in Dempsey Hill was far too brief, and to be honest should probably have been a brunch instead of a dinner. As much as we could tell in the dark, the shops and restaurants each seem to have been given a numbered plot on the tree-covered hill. Everything was spaced apart, nothing was over two stories and the road seemed to just loop around the hill so there was very little traffic – perfect for a relaxed Sunday brunch. We tried PS Cafe’s bacon and cheese fries and gigantic marshmallow brownie to fuel us for a planning session for our Philippines trip before heading to the airport.
Tiong Bahru was the perfect spot for a lazy morning of Singapore planning when we first arrived, along with the Sunday papers and a spot of blogging. We’d planned to hop between Tiong Bahru bakery, The Orange Thimble, Whisk, and Drip, but as Whisk and Drip were both closed for CNY we spent all morning enjoying the cakes, coffee and tap water (a big deal after 5 months of it being undrinkable!) at the other two – which happened to be right next door to each other.
We originally went to Duxton Hill for the HDV Pinnacle building, but left Googling apartment rental prices. We’d read on other travel blogs that the Sky Bridge on the HDV apartment block is one of the most affordable skyline views; for just S$5 non-residents can go up to the 50th floor outdoor terrace. We were expecting a small observation deck so were surprised to find a wide wooden walkway snaking between and around the outside of the towers complete with sun loungers, benches and even bouldering platforms!
Wandering around the quiet tree-lined streets afterwards, admiring street art, inviting restaurants and the beautiful buildings secured Duxton Hill’s position as home in our fantasy Singapore life.