Below, I will give my best to offer you a unique experience and probably just a glimpse of “what is on in Singapore”.
I should mention from the beginning that Singapore has numerous set-piece visitor attractions.
From its loudly acclaimed Zoo to the nut-strewn ﬂoors and premixed Singapore Slings at Raﬄes’ Long Bar, but the one that really catches my imagination is Gardens by the Bay.
It is partly due to the sheer ambition of the project – 100 hectares of reclaimed harbor that’s been morphed into a fertile land of plenty, complete with vast temperature-controlled bio domes, waterfalls and groves of 50-meter-high “Supertrees”.
The whole thing has been designed to self-sustain by, as far as possible, generating its own green energy. It is a remarkable development, and an interesting concept too.
On the one hand it points back to the island’s past as a tropical wilderness, and on the other is a pretty bold statement of eco-design and 21st century technology.
As I walk around, it all comes across as very Singaporean – I cannot imagine it being pulled off in quite the same way in many other parts of Asia.
The bio domes draw the crowds, but for me the most thought-provoking parts of the complex turn out to be the outdoor heritage gardens.
There are four themed areas, dedicated in turn to plants of Indian, Chinese and Malay origin with, ﬁnally, colonial species such as rubber trees and coffee bushes.
The idea is that they represent the four main groups of the country’s migrant society. And – when you look from the plants to the towering urban backdrop and back again – it is cause to reﬂect on just what a big and extraordinary thing Singapore has evolved into over the last 200 years.
One other detail seems relevant too. Close to the heritage gardens is a landscaped lake and as I walk around its edge, I spot terrapins under the water and dragonﬂies skimming the surface.
Curious as to how they have reached an artiﬁcial lake, I ask a member of staff. “Oh, we brought them here,” she says, cheerily. “They’re to discourage mosquitoes.” It seems very Singaporean.
The Cloud Forest in Gardens by the Bay complements Singapore’s natural environment. The Bukit Timah Nature Reserve contains more tree species than the entire North American continent, while the city state is also the world’s largest exporter of ornamental ﬁsh.
On my last night in Singapore, I head deep into the city and catch an elevator 61 ﬂoors up to 1-Altitude, billed as the planet’s highest outdoor rooftop bar.
The view catches the breath. All the lights and buildings of the city are laid below, from the red-brick ediﬁces of the colonial era to the shiny façade of the banking towers.
Dance music is throbbing in my ears – the busy bar epitomizes the glossy-magazine face of modern Singapore, with its snappily-dressed young socialites and on-trend drinks list. There’s a good time being had.
It is an atmospheric place to be, and I am torn between people watching and looking out at the view. The latter wins. I stare out at the river, wondering how far down the noise from the speakers travels, when a series of dark shapes ﬂit by in the sky.
They are very near. Initially, I think I have imagined them, then they appear again, diving back on themselves. Bats. We are at a height of more than 280 meters, with the Central Business District directly below us, and the sky around the tower is alive with bats. It is apt, really.
Even all the way up here, Singapore keeps the little surprises coming.
Singapore has been called “the new haven for the super-rich”, and there is plenty of evidence of this on Orchard Road, where you can barely move for malls dispensing designer heels and “lifestyle goods.”
Orchard Road was lined with spice and fruit orchards until the mid-1800s but now blooms with high-end shops, shopping malls and department stores. The 2.2-kilometer, one-way street is the heart of Singapore’s retail and entertainment district.
In the slick, airy shopping complex at the foot of Marina Bay Sands, I wander past Gucci and Philippe Patek boutiques, pausing occasionally so I can recoil in shock at the price tags.
Singapore has one of the highest GDPs on the planet.
Somewhat reassuringly, however, at the swish ION Orchard mega-mall I ﬁnd the busiest shop by far is the everything-for-S$2 store in the basement, where locals and ex-pats are ﬁlling up baskets with dinner trays, doilies and cheap dog collars.
Singapore and shopping have long been packaged together as a tourism draw by the travel industry, but if you are after character rather than catwalk labels then the most absorbing retail outlets are found well away from the big malls.
World Savage on Bussorah Street is one such, a wild-eyed emporium of vintage goods that opens “at random times, but invariably after 4pm”.
Or the hidden-away Books Actually on Yong Siak Street, with its slow-slow ethos and wooden cabinets full of Pez dispensers and old poetry volumes.
Kookier still, this is about the clothing store Hide and Seek. Why the name? “We shift location every couple of years, so that customers have to seek us out”. This was Jun, the creatively-hairstyled male assistant tells me, while trying to pique my interest in a new range of sneakers. “We’re for people who are bored of the malls.”
Sometimes, great slurping beats ﬁne dining. Food, like shopping, is always held up as a great passion of the people of Singapore.
Healthy “skunk” Durian fruit
“It’s deﬁnitely not a myth,” says young food writer Charleen Natalie Neo, whose Gninethree blog takes the reader on a mazy journey through the island’s bakeries and hidden mealtime ﬁnds.
The blog’s name comes from Genesis 9:3 (“Every living thing that moves will be yours to eat, no less than the foliage of the plants. I give you everything.”), which seems a fairly apt call to arms for a nation with a serious chow-down obsession.
“Eating and enjoying good food is what identiﬁes us as Singaporean. The most popular dishes all have a mix of Peranakan, Chinese, Malay and Indian inﬂuences, so food is probably the clearest reﬂection of our multiculturalism.”
And if she had to choose one place to eat? One last dish? She would head directly to the roadside Maxwell Food Centre, she says, and join the line at the Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice stall. “It always has a queue, regardless of the time of day.”
Celebrity chefs now ﬂit around Singapore’s dining scene like so many delicate butterﬂies, and the island oﬃcially has four restaurants in the world’s top 100, which is pretty impressive for the second smallest country in Asia.
But again, where food is concerned, the earthiest rewards for the average visitor tend to appear well away from the pricey upmarket joints.
The Maxwell Food Centre, in common with many of the island’s hawker spots, draws in endless waves of diners to sit at basic communal tables, crack open cold drinks and indulge in affordable, cooked-to-order dishes.
Barbecued stingray stalls stand next to those selling Indian roti or chili-basted satay kebabs. Stir-fried noodle strips are dished up opposite places serving pork rib soup or Sumatran beef rendang.
Choosing what to order can actually become quite challenging.
One evening I eat at a smart waterfront restaurant overlooking Boat Quay and the Singapore River.
The view is great – a gently ﬂowing waterway, a few traditional shophouses, a soaring cliff of Blade Runner skyscrapers – and the atmosphere is soothing, but the food and the service are average.
The next lunchtime, for a fraction of the price, I treat myself to a series of wildly moreish dishes at a hawker center near the heart of town.
Surrounded by dozens of people snapping apart disposable chopsticks and doing exactly the same; a communal slurping and gobbling ﬁlls the air.
I know which meal I enjoy more. Reﬁnement be damned.
Don’t have too many this time. Just book a trip here.
I don’t remember exactly where I’ve read it, but I would like to share this with you:
“I meet a lot of people when I travel. Sometimes I even encounter myself.”
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