James had visited Singapore many years ago with his family, but it was a first time for Caro, and we were both intrigued by the modern, sparkly clean and efficient city which feels so at odds with a majority of the surrounding countries. We also love Singapore airport, trees grow directly out of the terminal floor, what’s not to love?
The glow was taken off Singapore just a teeny tiny bit by the surprisingly archaic ticketing system on the underground. If you don’t buy a tourist travel card (you need to take about 8 journeys a day to make it value for money) and don’t plan to stay in Singapore for a long time (which would justify buying a EZ-Link card) you HAVE to pay for each individual journey separately, with small change. Cards are not accepted and there are no change machines in stations, at least not the ones we visited. Relatively few people step off an international flight with small denominations in their pocket. Like us, they pull money out of an ATM which comes in no smaller that SD10 notes and are then faced with a ticket machine that won’t accept anything larger than a SD5 note. Having lugged our stuff down to the station, James had to scamper back up to the terminal and buy something so that we had change for the tickets. For the next two days “have you got enough change?” became a constant refrain. Granted, once you got used to it you just learned to have change on you and it is hardly the largest hurdle we have crossed but it does jar somewhat with otherwise sleek and efficient Singapore.
Ok enough about tickets, everything else about the MRT is a clean, efficient, air conditioned delight and we were whizzed into the centre of town towards our hostel. We were staying in our first pod hotel. For the uninitiated; pod hotels consist of lots of boxes stacked on top of one another that are just large enough to fit a thin single or double mattress, they are soundproof (sort of) have their own lights, power sockets, tvs, fans etc.
We were in the top pod and can confirm that there is no elegant way of getting in or out, a graceless scrabble was about the best that we could manage. It’s no surprise that accommodation in Singapore is not cheap and on that basis Atlas station, at £33 per night, was good value. James was in charge of our Singapore itinerary and with a couple of hours left in the afternoon we hopped on the MRT and made for the town centre for a mini walking tour. We got off at Raffles Place and strolled along the waterfront towards Merlion Park.
As per usual we were hungry and the options in this part of town were limited to actual restaurants or western fast food. We opted for pizza by the slice and tried not to explode when we saw the cost. For the equivalent of a house deposit you expect a pretty good slice of pizza and this was little better than cardboard, we sat on the steps chewing extensively and admiring the rather strange Merlion statue.
If there is one thing to be said to Singapore’s waterfront it’s that it offers a multitude of unusual architecture. We crossed the Jubilee bridge and made our way along the waterfront promenade heading towards Gardens by the Bay. This walk takes in the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the Helix Bridge and the lotus shaped ArtScience Museum.
We had, entirely by accident, organised to be in Singapore for National Day so preparations were ongoing for the parade and events the following day. We took a quick detour to admire the ArtScience Museum up close, in particular the lovely lily ponds the surround it.
Our next stop was the Gardens by the Bay, you can look around the exterior gardens for free but we decided to pay to go into the two conservatories: the Cloud Forest and the Flower Dome. Both are impressive but the Cloud Forest is the true gem here and was a highlight of our brief stint in Singapore, perhaps the highlight. The Cloud Forest came first and we stepped into the cool damp air that simulates the natural environment of a range of over 1000 metres within a space of 35 metres. What this means is that at its base the dome simulates the environment at 1000 metres above sea level and at its top, just 35 metres up, it simulates the that at over 2000 metres above seal leve. The plants in the dome are notoriously delicate and will not survive even the tiniest change in their surroundings, the abundance of ferns and orchids are a beautiful testament to the ingenious design of the dome.
It was extremely busy whilst we were there and you do still need to deal with the odd case of ignorance; we watched one teenager swiping away at the wall of plants with his parents making no effort to stop him causing damage. Headphones and some music might be a nice idea so you can tune out the noise.
An award winning orchid display was on show at the time of our visit and this was a particular treat.
The collection of teeny tiny orchids, complete with magnifying glasses to admire them, is a very cool feature of the bottom floor of the complex. There are some not entirely natural treats hidden around too; carved wooden creatures, giant rafflesia constructed of Lego and small glass spheres housing their own mini bio-domes.
We toured the Flower Dome next and this is much more like your traditional botanical garden with areas dedicated to different geographies all housed in the largest greenhouse in the world. The changing floral display at the time, Orchid Extravanganza, was an absolute riot of blooms of all colours, rickshaws and model shop houses.
To Caro’s absolute delight the succulent garden area was completed with statues of Alice in Wonderland characters for no apparent reason other than whimsy.
Not wishing to be late for the big show, we left the Flower Dome and walked the short distance to the Supertree Grove which is one of those places that looks as cool in reality as it does in pictures.
The enormous trees manage to look both Jurassic and futuristic at the same time and despite the huge amount of manmade material required to make them, they look incredibly natural. Also, they’re purple. We had already decided not to climb up on to the walkway and we can’t say for sure but we think that this is probably the right decision, the scale can be best appreciated from the ground. It was pretty crowded under the supertrees because in about 15 minutes the light show was going to start. The shows are held at 8pm and 9pm every night and attract a big crowd. Every ledge and bench was already taken so we plonked ourselves down right on the path and were soon joined by others, young and old, tourist and local all sat patiently gazing up at the trees with childlike anticipation. The music and light show is very simple with the trees glowing and flashing to the accompaniment of songs but it is a simple pleasure and a must do if you have the opportunity.
It had been a long day and we wanted an easy dinner and pod. With this in mind we made for the hawker stall at the Tekka Centre, it was on our route to the hotel, featured in Lonely Planet and was MRT adjacent. When we first walked in we were a little bit thrown, we had been surrounded by tourists all day and for the first time we were the only white people there. Being surrounded by locals nearly always means that you are in for a good meal. We chose our stall half at random and half because the man running it called out to us in perfect English. The stall was called Delhi Lahori and the curry and naan bread were out-of-this- world fantastic and so cheap.
Okay so we lied earlier, the Cloud Forest was outstanding but this curry was the highlight of our trip to Singapore. Of course, we went back for more the next night.
The next day was Singapore National Day and the city was full of people sporting red clothing. We went first to Fort Canning Park which, at the top of the hill, is a good spot to escape the heat of the city and a popular spot for crazy people who like to run. Also in the park are Raffles House and Fort Canning Lighthouse where you can learn a huge amount about lighthouses.
Sherpa Dragon then led us on a walk of Singapore’s key sights taking in the Supreme Court, St Andrew’s Cathedral, the National Gallery Singapore and the soaring Civilian War Memorial or “Chopstick” monument dedicated to the civilian victims of Japanese occupation.
The famous Raffles Hotel was undergoing extensive renovation and we only saw one corner that wasn’t covered in scaffolding. The famous Long Bar was also off limits and we didn’t feel like a Singapore Sling in the pop up bar that the hotel has set up would be quite the same. We did see another of the fun Gillie and Marc sculptures that we had seen on the beachfront at St. Kilda.
It was exceptionally warm and as we crossed Elgin Bridge the call of the restauranteurs to sit in the shade with a beer was incredibly tempting. We resisted and continued our walk along Boat Quay where the squat shophouses sit juxtaposed with towering skyscrapers
A short walk away was the Yueh Hai Ching temple where people seek divine favour in matters of love. We have seen a fair few temples so far and don’t tend to go out of our way to see them unless they are exemplary but this one drew us as it sat obstinately traditional in the middle of the concrete and money. The recently completed restoration work earned the temple UNESCO recognition with a Cultural Heritage Conservation Award of Merit in 2015 and a ten-minute detour is worth the effort, although the “sacred” turtle in a plastic box is upsetting.
It was time for food and we hit Chinatown in search of lunch. Unsurprisingly, Singapore’s Chinatown is the cleanest and most well organised that we have come across so far. The ordinarily ramshackle stalls are contained to uniform lines of sheds, although the stallholders still exhibit the typical Chinatown sales technique of shouting.
As we approached the Chinatown Complex Market we saw a large group of mostly men huddled over or standing around small tables each carrying a chessboard or other games that we did not recognise. The competitors, usually with a cigarette dangling from fingers or lips, were completely focussed on the game and there was a general calm as onlookers spoke only in low tones. It looked as though hours and hours would be passed in this manner.
The games occurred in little bubbles and all around the usual activity of people walking in and out of the market, eating lunch and chatting. We love a good market and stuck our heads in briefly before finding food. The Chinatown Complex is much like any other you will find, although being entirely enclosed it is darker and less airy. If you venture to the back of the market you will find some alternative produce such as, revoltingly, live frogs and, incredibly sadly, live turtles.
Whilst this was disturbing to see it takes a lot to make us lose our appetites and we made our way to the Maxwell Centre hawker centre. Our hawker experience to date had been one of extremely rapid service and yummy food but on this occasion we both stood in queues for 15 minutes and didn’t move an inch. Clearly the most popular options were also the ones that took the longest to prepare. We went in search of less popular stalls and in doing so lucked out with some of the most delicious dumplings we have ever eaten. Special Shanghai Tim-Sum is the name of the stall if you ever find yourself there.
Revived by lunch and diet coke we debated calling it a day and going back to the hotel but quickly agreed that we really should make the most of the short time that we had by venturing into one of Singapore’s many well reviewed museums. We decided on the National Museum of Singapore as we felt that this would give us more information about Singapore specifically. As we mentioned, it was Singapore National Day and unbeknownst to us, this meant that entrance to the museum was free, which was a real bonus and a lovely idea as it meant the place was full of red-clad families enjoying the holiday.
We stopped to enjoy the free concert that was being held in the foyer before entering the In the Forest exhibit in the Glass Rotunda.
The exhibit was super trippy. The cylindrical tower is in complete darkness with screens wrapped around the edge. As you descend in a spiral, neon 3D representations of scenes of nature move around the walls, deer and other animals pick their way towards you through the forest and at the end you can lie on the floor as flowers and leaves appear to drift down around you. To be fair it’s not for everyone, Caro was mesmerised, James not so much.
The following exhibit, which we think is a permanent feature on the ground floor, is a comprehensive and extensive history of Singapore from 1299 to present. There is a simply enormous amount of information on offer in the Singapore History Gallery, the pre-1819 era is a bit thin on the ground, as you would expect, but the displays from then on out are exceptionally detailed and we both emerged an hour and a half later with our heads spinning a little bit. That evening we returned to the Tekka centre for another fabulous curry before calling it a night before clambering into our pod again.
The following morning James insisted that we walk to the station and take the MRT rather than taking a taxi to the airport because “we’re supposed to be backpacking” so we braved the 20-minute walk in the muggy heat. It was rush hour and with nightmare of the London Underground at rush hour in mind we had given ourselves plenty of time to get there. We needn’t have worried, here’s what the MRT looks like at rush hour:
Singapore is awesome.