My nine days in Singapore is almost coming to a close! I’m holed up in the back of the hostel cafe (Working Title) with a Dirty Ice Matcha Tea and keeping out of the sun, so I figured I’d spend a little time ‘splaining my time here.
First, a history lesson!
Singapore is a cluster of 63 islands located 1 degree north of the equator off the southern tip of the Malay peninsula, which means that it sits under a blanket of humidity and fairly stable weather and enjoys plentiful rain year round.
Modern Singapore was founded by the butt-chinned British statesman Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles as a trading post of the East India Trading Company. It became independent from the UK in 1963 when it merged with several neighbouring countries to form Malaysia, but was expelled 2 years later due to ‘ideological differences’. 2015 marks its 50th anniversary!
It has been ranked the “easiest place to do business” by the World Bank for nine consecutive years and is the only Asian country with a AAA credit rating from all major credit rating agencies. S’pore also ranks high on key measures of national social progress and is well known for its stable, pragmatic governance*. It has 5.5 million residents, primarily made up of Chinese, Malays, Indians, and Eurasians.
The national symbol is the lion, as the English name Singapore is derived from the Malay word Singapura (lion + city). However, lions have never lived in the city and the original name was likely derived from a Malaysian tiger sighting. themoreyouknow.jpg
one flag out of a street of them, vague communist vibes
Lots of people say “don’t chew gum, don’t litter, you WILL go to jail”. I hate the sound of all mouth noises with a burning, fiery passion, so the prospect of seeing this swift justice carried out in person got me a little excited. I never saw anything other than police herding people-cats in the street though, so I don’t know about this claim. I will say that the streets here are very clean.
In that vein, trial by jury was outlawed in the 70’s, with rulings handled entirely by appointed judges. Singapore still has several forms of corporal punishment including caning. It has mandatory death penalty for murder and some aggravated drug trafficking/gun offences. This conflicts with the generally accepted first-world ideology of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, and Singapore possibly has the highest rate of execution in the world relative to population. However, it has also been consistently ranked one of the least corrupt countries in the world*.
It also has the world’s largest population of millionaires, which makes sense seeing as everything is incredibly expensive. But the government has also put in place extensive homeless programs, providing monthly stipends, free medical care and free school fees, so acute poverty is rare*. I did not see anyone living or begging on the streets while here, which is a first for any place I have visited. They also have one of the lowest unemployment rates among developed countries, not exceeding 4% in the last decade.
Buddhism is the most widely practiced religion, and it has thriving arts and culture scenes based on the predominant heritage influences of each sector.
So there! History lesson done. Hope you learned a little! Below is a short guide on doing Singapore on the cheap, based on my brief experiences here. There is a LOT I didn’t get around to doing, and a lot that I’m sure is missing. If whoever happens upon this wants to add on to the list in the comments feel free!
Doing Singapore On the Cheap*
*or, some things I wish I knew ahead of time
- You can get a 1/2/3 day bus pass from the airport. This is by far the cheapest way to get around town, and comes out to less than $7/day for unlimited rides. I didn’t do this option because 1. I learned about it too late and 2. the bus typically takes 1 hr + to get to the places I wanted to go, and for $7-10 SGD I could catch an Uber and get anywhere in less then 20 minutes. It is WAY too hot to walk during the day, at least for my winter-chilled Sydney self. I tried, and I failed, and I retreated back into the darkness. The Uber drivers were extremely friendly and more than happy to talk about off the beaten path local places to check out, and know their way around much better than the drivers in Sydney. One even offered to take me to Mt Fraser for the best city views my first night in!
- Stay at different hostels if you want to get a feel for different parts of the city. I stayed in Kampong Glam outside the Sultan Mosque for a quiet atmosphere, Clarke Quay to experience the sights (and mosquitoes!) along the river, and at an awesome hostel in the trendy Haji Lane/Arab St part of town with lots of boutique shops and modern bars/restaurants nestled between heritage architecture. Some hostels were great, some not so great. Do your research on Hostelworld or The Google to see what amenities matter most to you. Each was less than 25 SGD a day, which left me with more cash to spend on activities!
- On the topic of different hostels, some of the main things I’ve started to look for are: cold a/c; it is CRAZY hot and humid and at night you’re going to be miserable unless your room has a/c. Some hostels put a cap on their a/c or only let you use it at certain times, so get a feel for what your body needs. Free lockers; I had my laptop and headphones with me on this trip, and while I usually don’t mind leaving my stuff out because I like to believe in the inherent goodness of people, having a locker while I was gone all day took a slight load off my mind. Some hostels charged $2 for a locker rental. That’s not a lot, but it’s the cost of an iced Milos so choose wisely! Discounted tour tickets; many places offer steeply discounted tickets to attractions around the city and have city guides to make sure you get the most out of your stay. If you don’t stay in a place that offers these, you can usually get the same discount by buying online and have the tickets in your email. As a forgetful introvert, this was my favourite choice. Cold showers; there is absolutely nothing as nice as having a freezing cold shower after wandering around being a warm, sticky mess all day. Bonus if they have free soap! A lot of bathrooms here are combination shower/toilet set ups, which means that your toilet seat is wet 100% of the time and also.. maybe clean? 100% of the time. That’s the way I tried to look at it, anyway.. 4. Free breakfast; usually toast, jam/butter and fruit (give me all the dragonfruit!). Some also have cereal and milk. I didn’t see too many full kitchens like there are in other cities. Having this option helps cut down on costs for breakfast and, if you time it right, lunch as well (endless pb&js). Most days I only needed to pay for dinner. Although this is a good approximation of how I feel at hostels, even though I’m only 26.. Who’re all these 18 year olds ‘on holiday?!’
- Lots of places have happy hours where you can pick up a regularly $15 single pint as buy-one-get-one free. There’s a great craft beer movement going on in Singapore but they’re too expensive to enjoy if they’re not on special, at least for me! I really liked The 1925 Microbrewery– across the street from the Sleepy Kiwi near Little India it has an awesome interior and brews their own beer in the tanks behind the bar. They have specials every night of the week and pretty good cheap eats. Try the truffle fries! sQue along Clarke Quay has awesome staff, cheap specials and BOGO beers almost all day long. I went there twice for afternoon beers since I was staying nearby and the second time they gave me a friendly “welcome back” and asked if I wanted the same Singha pints I’d had the previous day (I did). Vasco Latina Bar and Cantina around Chinatown took a sobering $111 of my money after four cocktails and a small plate of lamb empanadas, but the bar has a great ambiance and the bartender made my caipirinhas extra, extra spicy with their homemade chili extract. Worth it for the tingly lips! But no, it wasn’t really. The hostel I spent the most amount of time in is inside of a cafe called (Working Title) off Arab street and gives a 20% discount to people staying at the hostel. Daily ice cream sandwiches and chai lattes were definitely a thing. The shops here are colorful and cheap, and you’ll find a lot of cute stray cats to make friends with along your early morning walks.
- Take out lots of cash, most places accept only cash or Singapore’s NETS payment system. The main one near where I was staying is Raffles Hospital, which is visible from most parts of the city.
Play by Play
By far the cheapest option to fly to S’pore from most countries here is Scoot Air. Scoot doesn’t have check in kiosks, so after waiting an hour and a half to get my boarding pass I was finally on my way. The weight limit on the bags is 7 kg or 15 lbs, and I was *exactly* on limit, which pleased my OCD something fierce.
The seats were a little cramped for an 8 hour flight and I had the aisle so I didn’t get a chance to take my usual in-flight nap, but I read the majority of Brave New World and tried to keep myself from overplaying the songs on my Google playlist. I also watched the kid in front of me take 100 utterly identical selfies and shots of every angle of his Coke, food, seat, and in-flight paperwork, which was both fascinating and nerve-wracking. Why? Why do you want those? Are you gonna look at them later? Is someone else gonna look at them later? I had many questions and would never receive answers.
After a flight that I thought would never end, I snatched up my lil bag from under the seat and breezed through customs. Hooray for never checking bags! This is my main goal in life. I spent some time wandering around looking for a SIM card counter, got one along with a $12 bus pass to get into the city, and in true Kim fashion promptly left my wallet on the counter, which I didn’t notice until I was already on the train. Luckily I was able to train hop at the next stop back to the airport and they had kept it safe for me. Buuut that’s why I keep four different credit cards in different places and have two drivers licenses! I try to Kim proof my life as much as possible. As I used to say, c’est la vie.
Scoot’s colorful landing lights. Ooh- ahh.
I didn’t get in to my first hostel, Sleepy Kiwi, until 10 pm, but was immediately struck by the gorgeous mosque at the head of the quiet street. It is Masjid Sultan! The Sultan Mosque! One of the most important mosques in Singapore. Unfortunately it was closed for upgrading during my stay, but I was awe struck every time I walked by and used it as the pivot to find my way home over the next few days.
Much beautiful, very architecture.
That night I sat outside in my PJs and read a bit, smelling the sweet hookah drifting over from the Turkish restaurant next door. Since S’pore is 2 hours behind Sydney I found myself staying up late and waking up around 4-5 am most mornings. The first morning made a cat friend as I sat outside and listened to the mosque’s first call to prayer. All of the cats here have these short, mutilated looking half tails. I don’t know what’s up, but 90% of the cats had their ratchet stray game on point. But they were also all ear-clipped for being spayed/neutered, which is pretty awesome. Good on you, Singapore.
Since I’d declined to bring socks, shampoo, a toothbrush, or anything of necessity in my exactly 7 kg bag, convenience be damned, I went to the Bugis Junction shopping centre to find some essentials and then wandered around the city for a while. Went to Little India and stopped for lunch, got some fantastic veggie korma served on banana leaves.
I stumbled upon a cat cafe later that afternoon as it started to rain. Singapore has two- one that is pay by the hour and one that is $15 flat rate and you can stay as long as you want. The latter is located up the stairs from a Burger King, which I found questionable but did not actually question. The cats here were very sleepy and quietly irritable until night fell and the keepers brought out tiny little motorized toys. They put them in cardboard boxes and the cats went wild. One cat climbed in my lap. One cat was a dead ringer for Business Cat. One cat bit me a bunch for good measure. Every cat had weird stumpy half tail syndrome.
Business cat in the fur!
I walked back to the hostel and took a shower, decided to check out the Turkish restaurant next door. Had some excellent beef and lamb shawarma and finished reading Brave New World. Can’t remember it being that bad when I was in school, but it kinda sucked. I think I’m up to 17 books this year though, which roundly trumps my new years goal of a book a month.
I woke up early to hear the 5:30 call to prayer and hung out with my cat friend. Nobody else was on the streets and the lonely, wavering prayer call gave me goosebumps for a full minute.
Soon after dawn they served breakfast, and I got to try dragonfruit for the first time! I could eat that every day.
After breakfast I packed up and headed to my new hostel, Green Kiwi on Lavender Street. It was run by the same people as Sleepy Kiwi, but was across town, and was supposed to have a pretty great rooftop patio area. It wasn’t too bad, but the front entryway where everyone kept their shoes was incredibly musty, so coming home to that all day got old real fast. I did sleep out on the patio for a few hours that night and got bit up by mosquitoes- I’m glad I took the repellent from the free stuff shelf at the last hostel cause it came in use frequently during the week.
I dropped my stuff off in the room and hopped on an Uber to the Singapore Zoo. Stayed there all day and had a blast. My phone took a bunch of potato quality pictures, none of which are good enough to post here. Except this badass drawing of a snake. I want this as a neck tattoo.
The night safari was awesome. Saw a really funny night creatures show and took a 40 minute tram ride through a separate park of the zoo, seeing a lot of animals and habitats that weren’t on the day side. By the end I’d been at the zoo for over 10 hours, so I went back to the hostel and hit up yelp for a good nearby bar. Found The 1925 Microbrewery right across the street and got to try several local beers, which were all excellent. It was BOGO cocktail night but I have no idea how to order cocktails unless they’re on a menu(is a Long Island Iced Tea a cocktail??) soooo I stuck to my pints.
Woke up, had more toast and jam, and read in bed until noon check out since the new hostel didn’t have check in until 2 pm. Eventually took an Uber over to River City Inn and was able to leave my stuff at the front desk. Decided to walk around the new area until I found sQue bar. Two for one $15 Singhas and a ‘belly and cheese’ sandwich + salad for $8. I had a chat with a server about gypsy tattoos. I was very warm.
Maybe it was the dehydration, maybe it was the wacky metric system pours, but two beers had me a little too turnt. What has happened to me?
They dropped this egg and I could not stop laughing. 🙁
At 2, I went back to the hostel to check in, crawled onto the rickety new top bunk and tried to sleep it off. Very poor a/c circulation and a single hot, fuzzy (?!?) blanket made that a near impossibility.
Eventually I got up and caught another Uber down to the Singapore Flyer, the giant ferris wheel that shows off the city. After some deliberation I got the package with the $26 Singapore Sling, which is supposed to be the city’s famous cocktail. Pro tip: definitely not worth it, although hanging in the softly lit Moet & Chandon carriage with only one other person and not 10 screaming heathen children like the other cabins we could see ahead of us was probably worth the additional cost.
The sights did not disappoint- whole ride took about half an hour and showed the city in full 360 degree glory.
After the Flyer I walked down to the Gardens by the Bay to watch the night show and was able to skype with Nathan for a bit, which was awesome. I also passed the Marina Bay Resort, which looks like a big ole silver hot dog bullet in the sky but apparently has an infinity pool.
Caught an Uber back to River City and found a little Latin cantina right next door to the hostel. Accidentally had $111 worth of drinks (four), after which I was still 111% sober, and made my way back to the maddeningly hot room up four flights of stairs. The guy next to my bunk was snoring loudly, lips fluttering a staccato beat. Unamused, I took a shower and tried to sleep with my headphones on, but just couldn’t get to sleep. It was the cheapest hostel I stayed at though, so I’ll chalk that up to a win.
Checked out but left my bags, took an Uber back to the Gardens by the Bay. Wandered around all morning and visited the Cloud Forest and Flower Dome, which ended up beyond BEYOND my favourite thing. In fact, I went back to Clarke Quay to eat lunch and charge my phone and then went back to visit the Flower Dome a second time. Cacti and succulent heaven. I also got to Skype with Nathan again! It was blisteringly hot and I got a wicked tan.
Gardens by the Bay
This exhibit was made of Legos 😀
This represents maybe 1 1,000th of the pictures I took there.
When I got back to River City I grabbed my bags and caught an Uber across town to my final hostel of the week, Shophouse. Hailed as ‘the social hostel’, it had all of my favourite requirements and was also in my favourite part of town, so I’d booked it for the last three nights. The room was a big 12 person dorm with beautiful windows and exposed brick walls. It was walled in on all sides by Persian rug shops and upstairs from a cafe called (Working Title) that had a cute outdoor courtyard and served some pretty awesome food all day. They even had an extensive gourmet ice cream sandwich menu.
Home sweet home.
I spent the first night wandering around taking pictures and got drinks in a cafe around the corner that looked like the Singapore equivalent of my favourite Austin haunt, Rio Rita. That night I stayed up until 3 reading in the beautiful upstairs patio area with the industrial fans on full blast. It was heaven.
When I woke up I had to switch rooms, up to the forth floor. It didn’t have windows and smelled like an old foot, but I was the only one assigned to it so far. I packed my stuff away, turned the fan up to 5 to hopefully help with the smell, and went on another early morning walk. I love collecting colour shots and found some really great buildings along the way.
At one point I saw some water and food laid out by a shop and thought to myself, “I wish this cat friend was nearby!” and when I looked up there he was, like a mangled, rotten dream come true. This was probably the grossest animal I’ve ever touched but he was sweet as a peach.
That afternoon I took an Uber down to the Jurong Bird Park, which was pretty stellar. They had a cool breeding/research center and lots of species native to the area. Someone even left a full container of lorry food juice behind and I got to have some of them climb on me.
EXCUSE ME A WHAT
In the evening I walked across town the the Singapore Nights Festival, which was honouring the 50th anniversary. I have a GoPro that I use pretty much as a Tool of Constant Regret since I always forget to bring it. This would have made an awesome series of videos, especially since I accidentally deleted most of them off of my phone. A parade of human horses and roller skating paper mache pig people, dancing illuminated wedding dresses, opera singing and sky dancing in the trees, an igloo light show projected on the facade of the state museum, vendors and cheap beer, music, flamenco dancers, and my favourite event- a ‘Proletariat Poetry Society’ that offered pay-what-you-want poems based on any word you provide.
You waited in a queue to give your word and reason for the word to the crisp white uniformed Overseer at the front desk, and then waited to be let into the dark, freezing room with the red clad ‘Servile Poets’ clamouring away over the poems. Monotone propaganda played over the loudspeakers along with marching tunes provided by a DJ on the top floor, and microphones hovered over the keys to magnify the sound of their typing to an clattering roar. When one finished they would hold it up in an envelope to be whisked away by the staff and immediately start on another. My poem was numbered 0725, which I’m hoping is not the actual number of poems that person had to write that night.
I asked them to write it based on Texas and the Overseer asked if that was where I was from- she has an Aunt from Houston! She asked if I missed it and I said yes, which she added into the reason box. Thirty minutes later I had a custom poem in hand, which I saved to read until I was sitting on the university steps listening to a band cover Mr. Brightside.
I left around midnight and navigated my way through a bunch of construction to snap this picture of their awesome capitol theatre, which was playing free Singaporean films the week before I got there. Back at the hostel I went up to my favorite couch in the lounge and turned the fan all the way up and continued to research some of the app/website ideas I’d brainstormed earlier in the day. Eventually a group of girls came up and started working through a cluster of maps and writing post cards. As the hours stretched on they all filtered out except one, who stayed behind writing postcards. She asked if she could turn the fan down and then sat next to me, said that she’d been there for two days and asked what I had been up to. It turns out that she’s a student in Hong Kong with one year to go, graduating in hospitality. We ended up talking about different cultures, compared our cities, discussed places we’ve traveled and want to travel, what she wants to do when she graduates, and then flipped through pictures of placed we’d been. I told her about the first call to prayer that was so beautiful and she decided to wrap up her postcards in her room and then go down to the mosque at 5:30. I slept for a few hours and then snuck off to the room to sleep for a few more when people started filing in for breakfast.
Spent my last full day at the S.E.A. Aquarium at Sentosa Island, and that night hanging out at the hostel. The Aquarium is supposedly the largest in the world. They have a great huge tank set up in the middle and I spent a long time sitting on the floor watching the manta rays and hammerheads go by.
SO THIS IS AWKWARD but I didn’t actually write anything for day seven or eight and don’t remember what I did at all, so I’m skipping ahead to what I remember of me leaving.. on Day Nine!
I checked out around ten am and packed my stuff into the staff closet, then went wandering around the city one last time. I spent time sitting with all the cat friends I’d met that week and tried not to melt away before my 2 am flight. The rest of the day I spent working on app ideas, talking to hostel people and scrounging up the last of my S’pore cash so that I could spend it before leaving.
I packed up my bags at 10 and wandered to the Iranian lamp/rug shop that I’d been eyeing lustrously every day. The shop owner was outside and asked if I was leaving and I said I was headed out to the airport, and we started talking about how I’d liked Singapore. I’d rattled off some of my favourite things and some of the facts I was surprised at learning while there, to which he vehemently shook his head and said that was not the real Singapore. He told me about his family and life back home in Iran- in a 300 year old house that was owned by his grandparent’s grandparents- and his immigration to Singapore.
He told me of the governmental corruption and millionaire bureaucracy in place, and pointed out the skyscrapers across the city being erected by Indian workers under the common worldwide scheme of taking away their passports/visas under coercion and fear threat of constant work for almost no pay. The condos are then sold to the new Asian immigrants for a price tag that drives up the value of neighbouring land, so that almost no one can live in the city unless they are already rich.
He told me about the poor and homeless that are well concealed away from the population near the monasteries so that the city can maintain an “image”, and how cruel the new elite was to those not in their upper echelon. He described Singapore as “a lady that looks beautiful from far away, but when you get closer you see how truly ugly she is”. When I asked why he stayed, why he didn’t go back to Iran, he shrugged and pointed at the business behind him, saying, “this is my home now, this is my business. I am thriving here, even though I don’t agree with many things in the city”.
I was grateful to get an idea of a different side of Singapore from a local that the museums and literature do not portray. We talked for probably 40 minutes before he patted down the rugs in front of him and asked what I was looking for, and he then helped me pick out some gifts for my family that would fit in my tiny pack.
It was a choice between a 20 minute Uber or use up the rest of my MRT card on an hour and a half bus ride to the city, so I took the Uber in the interest of time. Going through the check in this time was a breeze, and I tried to take a nap on the floor of the airport outside of the terminal as I waited the 2 hours to boarding.
This time around the plane ride was brutal, as I was exhausted and had an aisle seat. I kept stealing jealous looks at the beanie clad, bearded bro with the coveted window seat as he slept like a wee little baby, and at one point almost slept in the bathroom with my cheek pressed against the cool flecked plastic, but eventually I somehow made it home. Nathan was waiting for me at the bus station with a pint of milk (<3) and we walked back to the apartment together, where I promptly crashed and slept for most of the afternoon.
So that’s my week and a half in Singapore! Would I go there again? Probably not, if only because it is so unbearably hot and humid. I thought I knew humidity growing up in Houston, but I was wrong. I was able to do almost everything on my list, even things I came up with on the fly, and it’s a little too far to go back without very good reason. If I’m going to one of the most expensive countries in the world it’s going to not be so sweat inducing.
BONUS PICTURE of Nathan via Skype. Beaut.