Having never been to Asia before, I honestly had no idea what I’d be walking into when planning our travels.
Our previous few months in Mexico got us comfortable getting around in Spanish and personally I was a bit nervous about being in a place where I didn’t know any of the local language. Unsure of how I would feel in a completely different culture to anything I’ve experienced before, Singapore was planned as ‘soft’ introduction for us; having experienced it now first hand, I would say that Singapore feels different to anything else I’ve seen before, or after.
I didn’t really know anything about Singapore before visiting, and a brief glance in to the history makes for astonishing reading. It is renowned for transitioning from a third world country to a first world country in one generation, and various sources have deemed it the ‘Switzerland of Asia’ – due to its neutrality on international and regional issues. As well as this, it also topped the list in the Law and Order Index. Research firm Gallup says 94% of adults here feel safe walking alone at night, compared with the global average of 68%. The list goes on, but what should you expect if you are arriving for the first time in this city of 63 islands?
Food in Singapore:
I’m going to start with one of my favourite aspects of Singapore, which is the food (obviously)! The variety of cultures within Singapore brings along with it an abundance of foods that I have no idea how to pronounce or what they include. Food and drink can be expensive, but if you take the time to do some research and a little exploring, then you can cut your food bill considerably.
Hawker centres filled with small food stalls are legion in the city and we went to one of the most famous, the Maxwell Centre in Chinatown, to try out the renowned chicken rice stall Tian Tian. The stall has been in business for over 30 years, and was even awarded a Bib Gourmand in the inaugural Michelin Guide Singapore in 2016. Celebrities such as Anthony Bourdain have visited and raved about the chicken rice here, and the result is often long queues as people flock to see what the fuss is all about.
We got lucky, and only had to wait behind one other person before managing to order our food which cost S$3.50 (just under £2) for one medium sized portion of, you guessed it, chicken and rice. It might sound (and look) simple but it was cooked to perfection and tasted incredible. Don’t ignore the other stalls in the centre though as there are a plethora of asian food options available. If you want to visit, be aware that the stores start closing around 5-6pm, as they mainly cater to the local workers instead of the late evening tourists.
As you’d expect, there are some flavours and foods that we just don’t get back in the UK. I must admit that ‘salted egg yolk’ gelato and chilli-crab cookies just don’t quite appeal to me when jet lagged and tired, so for snacks I stuck with what was familiar. If you’re wanting to experience other local delicacies and dishes, there is no shortage of new and exciting foods available to those who’ve never experienced much Asian foods, such as myself.
As evidenced by the number of languages spoken within this tiny landscape, Singapore has an extremely rich and diverse culture, with numerous influences from the west and the east. Singapore was inspiring to us in many ways, and one of these was that it really focused on promoting the education of ‘what makes different’, and learning to be tolerant of other beliefs and ideas.
One interesting caveat to this is that the locals can sometimes come across as a little bit ‘cold’. I’m unsure whether this was more noticeable having recently come from a country with a warm, embracing culture such as Mexico, but customer service can seem very abrupt.
Countless times I would be waiting to speak to a staff member and they would be playing on their phone, look up without a smile, answer the question, and then immediately go back to their phone. Sometimes they wouldn’t even have taken their eyes off the screen! I was a bit taken aback at first as most workers in the UK aren’t even allowed to keep their phone in their pocket. It’s not them being rude (as far as I know), it’s just one of those cultural differences that you don’t think about until you arrive.
If you’re able to read this blog post then you’ll have no problems in the ‘lion-city’ of Singapore. The interesting thing for us was that at times we almost forgot we were out of England, as all the announcements are in British English and they drive on the left too. Obviously, as a previous colony of Britain this shouldn’t be a surprise, but it feels very comfortable when every single sign is in English primarily.
Fun fact: Singapore has FOUR recognised languages – English, Chinese, Malay (also spoken in Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia), and Tamil (also spoken in India and Sri Lanka). In 2009, there were over 20 languages identified as being spoken in Singapore! There is also a version of English, known as Singlish. As you might guess from the name, this is predominantly English with a Singapore twist to it; speakers of Singlish will usually end their sentence with a distinctive exclamation, and the three most common are ah, lah, ley and what – this can admittedly cause a little bit of confusion when listening to it spoken.
Getting Around in Singapore:
The MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) underground train in Singapore is a delight to ride, and makes it so easy to get around the city. If you’re planning on doing a few trips on the MRT, it’s worth buying an EZ travel card from a 7-11 or similar style store, as it reduces the cost of transport by half, compared to single tickets. There are also tourist day passes available but since we were staying for four days it worked out cheapest to get the travel card.
The city is well covered by the MRT and there are further expansions planned for routes that will join up a couple of lines to make it even easier once they merge, but you can get everywhere with ease. There’s a line that connects the city to the airport too, although we didn’t use this when we arrived. After a 13 hour budget flight from London with Norwegian Air, we could barely even speak when we landed, much less navigate an unfamiliar city and so opted for a taxi to take us straight to our hostel (S$30 or roughly £17). On the way back we did use the MRT and with the travel card it only cost us S$2.50 to get from China Town to the world renowned Changi airport.
As of 2018, Grab bought out Uber in Asia, but it works the same. Just download the app before you arrive and you’re good to go. The MRT really is the best and cheapest way to get around though, and the routes are easy to navigate.
Accommodation in Singapore:
Where should you stay in Singapore? Or maybe this section should be called where not to stay! Let’s get one thing clear, Singapore is expensive. Like, you really don’t get much for your money and as budget travellers, this makes things a bit of an adventure. For the first time since we started our travels, we weren’t happy with where we were staying. Ouch.
On a bit of a whim, Anthea had booked us into the trendy looking Hotel Galaxy Pods in China Town. With it’s great location and decent reviews, at £85 a night for a plastic double ‘pod’ we were already way over our preferred accommodation budget.
What we hadn’t factored in was just how rubbish we’d be feeling after the long flight and the jet lag, and how much living in a tiny box with no privacy and a shared bathroom would challenge us. We’d paid for the previous night so we could check in at 8am after our early flight arrival. Once we’d slept for a few hours and tried the tiny shower/loo cubicles in the shared bathroom (what is it with Asian showers being over the toilets?) I decided that we couldn’t stay here for the entire four days and we booked into a hotel down the road, with a proper bed and our own bathroom.
Luxury! Or at least it felt like it until the bar opposite the hotel started playing loud music. Every night. Until 2am. Luckily because of our jet lag we were wide awake till 5am anyway, so the music didn’t bother us that much. Other than that the Butternut Tree Hotel was lovely and we enjoyed staying there.
There are numerous accommodation options in Singapore at various budget levels. We definitely can recommend staying in Chinatown due to it’s proximity to many of the main attractions.
We use Booking.com when searching for hotels. You can save 10% using our link 🙂
What to See in Singapore:
We can’t exactly give too much info on what you should and shouldn’t miss, as we really struggled with our jet lag and so didn’t get to do everything that we had planned.
We did spend a day exploring the incredible Gardens by the Bay, including the Cloud Forest which holds the world’s largest indoor waterfall, at 35 metres. Take the time to visit the area, and you can get a great view of the coastal area, including the Gardens, from the top of the Marina Bay Sands hotel. There is an observation deck you can pay to go in, but instead spend a couple of extra dollars to visit the rooftop restaurant, buy a cocktail, then admire the view and you can even watch the light show that happens at 19:45 and 20:45.
There’s plenty to see in China Town too, as I already mentioned, with food stands and shops which come alive at night and the impressive ‘Buddha Tooth Temple.’
Head over to Little India and check out the Mustafa Mall which stays open 24 hours and is jam packed with merchandise and food, or the Arab section with it’s Mosque and adjoining streets packs with boutiques and street art. Perfect for Insta lovers!
If there’s one religion that reigns supreme in Singapore it’s shopping. Malls are everywhere and the air conditioning offers a welcome respite from the oppressive humidity outside.
There are plenty of other things to keep you busy in this fantastic city, including a night safari, botanical gardens and Universal Studios. You can see more of what Singapore has to offer at Singapore-guide.com
Although we were only in Singapore for four days, and admittedly not at 100% for those days, the city made a big impression on us and we are looking forward to revisiting it again with a bit more energy!