I’m not what you’d necessarily call a ‘festive person’. This year I found a Christmas tree bauble that had the word ‘meh’ on it and I thought it was the funniest thing I’d seen. Don’t get me wrong, I do actually love the holiday and the opportunity to get together with family, blearily exchange gifts, stuff ourselves silly on too much food, but let’s face it: when you’re in your twenties (ahem) and the youngest family member is almost in their twenties it tends to lack the magic that only small, hyperactive and easily lead children can bring. Needless to say, the most fun thing a person my age can do at Christmas is avoid it all together and go on a holiday!!!
Singapore used to be referred to as ‘Singabore’. Sure, it’s not necessarily the most carefree and wild place you’ll go to; it’s a veritable pussycat compared to Bangkok’s more outrageous pace of life, but Singapore is nowhere near as dull and controlled as it used to be. From the massive monoliths of Orchard Road to the floating Louis Vuitton on the banks of Marina Bay, Singapore sits perfectly on the edge of old world charm and new world technology. Some highlights of our five days in SG included:
Chinatown. Our base for 5 nights, Chinatown doesn’t stop. EVER. Full of hawker stalls, jade shops and tacky souvenir stands, Chinatown also harbours some of the best back street restaurants and rooftop bars in the city. Be sure to check out the Korean district on Tanjong Pagar Road and the trendy bars and restaurants at Ang Siang Hill (including The Screening Room cinema and bar and Breeze at Scarlet Hotel). Shots Cafe at Ang Siang Hill single-handedly converted me from a soy flat white drinker to straight espresso shots; I’m still trying to find a cafe in the land of coffee known as Australia that even comes close in quality.
Little India and the Arab Quarter. During the day the tiled streets are home to silk, sari and traditional rug merchants, but at night the tables come out and the air is filled with the scent of shisha (hookah pipes with fruit flavoured tobacco). Singapore’s largest and arguably most beautiful mosque takes pride of place in the centre of the streets: the gold dome can be seen from any lane at any angle. A dingy little lane with only a wall of street art hides Singapore’s hippest and most trendy stores. Haji Lane only opens from 11am but it is a treasure-trove of Etsy inspired accessories and locally designed fashion. If you’re looking for your fixie bike, come and find it here!
Orchard Road and Singapore Botanic Gardens. In what will be forever known as the area Ross had a complete consumer meltdown, Orchard Road is a mecca to shopaholics. Everything in the area is designed to get you in, and prevent you from getting out: even the subway paths winding below invariably lead to mile upon mile of shopping centre, with no discernible exit and only the promise of Sale! Sale! Sale! keeping your spirits up. Once you’ve recovered from seeing four Dior stores in the space of 2km (did I mention Singapore has the highest amount of millionaires per capita in the world?), ignore the shopping and head towards the Botanic Gardens. Along the way you’ll notice the number of ex-pats increase: Orchard Road is also the home of foreign embassies. The gardens are a gorgeous haven in an otherwise bustling city, with the National Orchid Garden and an area specifically dedicated to ginger plants (I had no idea Birds of Paradise were ginger plants!). You’ll find turtles and coy living somewhat harmoniously in the lake, and if you’re lucky (and quiet) you might come across one of the parks larger residents, the Water Monitor.
The Colonial District and Marina Bay. With one of the most iconic modern buildings (and I don’t mean Raffles) it’s hard not to head to Marina Bay. What is essentially a giant boat plonked on top of three high rises holds the Marina Bay Sands hotel, casino and shopping centre, complete with an indoor canal and boats to row you to your store of choice. Before you head there though, you must go past Clarke Quay and the original shophouses that line the riverfront; most have been converted into touristy restaurants, but they’re pretty to look at from a distance! In what was the biggest shock, you’ll also notice that Singapore riverfront looks pretty much exactly like… Brisbane riverfront! It’s uncanny: I think they’ve been swapping notes. Around the river you’ll find culture central: the museums, galleries and cathedral are all designed to resemble famous iconic buildings in London (St Paul’s Cathedral for example), and possibly the cutest parliamentary building, the Old Parliament House is now a memorial to Thai cultural relations. Keep going around and you’ll see the honeycomb-like convention centre that glows at night, and the space-age ArtScience Museum, built to resemble what looks like a big plastic flower. Of course you also can’t miss a visit to Singapore’s mascot, the mythical Merlion.
Pulau Ubin and Changi Village. After the great ‘Ross hates consumerism/get me away from shopping’ incident the day before, nature and conservation were on the menu. Being one of the most densely populated countries in the world, you could be forgiven for thinking that greenery and wildlife on Singapore were either a thing of the past or part of an exhibition. Not true! More than half the country is green and smack bang in the middle of the Straits of Johor is a tiny little island called Pulau Ubin. From the city, an MRT to east Singapore (and apparently the best food in town comes from here) and then bus to Changi Village will put you on the coast of the main island. From here we caught a bumboat over to Pulau Ubin, which has a small fishing village and not much else! We rented bikes and rode our way around; from the west wetlands and swamps where Malaysia is visible and you’ll share the path with wild boars, to the east where the now defunct quarries are filled with deep blue water and tempting to swim in (don’t bother: you’ll be fined). The island has been working on the conservation of the rare Oriental Hornbill; a large bird that resembles a toucan with a bumpy beak. We didn’t expect to see any, but without a doubt the highlight of my entire 5 days in Singapore was sitting and watching a crazy hornbill have some lunch and sing to itself until my neck went numb staring upwards! Totally unbelievable. Back in Changi Village, we were treated to the loveliest and most attentive service at a hawker centre since we’d arrived.
Without a doubt, Singapore is a great way to see an example of true ‘east meets west’ culture; with Chinese, English, Tamil and Malay jointly recognised as the official languages and cultures of Singapore. Skip the tourist hotspots of Sentosa Island and Raffle Hotel and jump on a MRT to experience something different and unique. Whatever you do though, make sure you leave your ideologies about food at home and just jump straight in and try whatever they’re offering: Singapore has an incredibly proud (and somewhat arrogant) attitude about food, and they like to cook it, eat it and enjoy it with friends as much as possible! Eating was recently voted the favourite hobby of Singaporeans in a national survey! Make sure you check out these:
The Smith St Hawker Centre and Maxwell Rd Hawker Centre in Chinatown for cheap, fresh traditional Chinese meals. Ignore the decor and dive in; it’s cleaner and fresher than most food you’ll find in western food courts! Try the Char Kway Teow (cockles and flat noodles with egg) or the Chilli Crab.
The Hong Kong Kitchen on South Bridge Road has delights such as pig stomach soup and frog stew. If you’re not ready to be so adventurous, grab some fresh prawn balls and coffee chicken with a Tiger beer.
Restaurants in and around Chinatown are often western themed; don’t be too surprised if your ‘spaghetti’ turns out to be flat noodles with a vegetable sauce!
Hit the bars in and around the bay for beautiful views of Singapore at night. We went on a bit of a hunt for rooftop bars and found a few more than the ones already mentioned. 1– Altitude at One Raffles Place is a must simply for the fact it’s the highest in the city; Ku De Ta sits atop the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and offers 360 degrees of the straits and the city (and the world’s highest infinity pool); The Club Hotel on Ang Siang Road has a jazz bar every Thursday night and a dessert cafe downstairs; but without a doubt, the best is Prelude at the Boathouse on Fullerton Bay. It’s only 6 storeys high, but it offers unobstructed views of the bay in a beautiful Art Deco setting.