Swinging Through Singapore
It's all about finding and savoring the balance
between the very new and the...less new
On the outside, Singapore can easily be seen as a city of polarities. There's a rich and humble history here that's often overshadowed by its reputation as a young country born in the modern world. The ethnic majority is Chinese but the national language is English. It's a important Asian capitol with string ties to international trade and commerce. Wealthy bankers and young expats sip beers and cocktails after work next to Muslim women in hijab. What makes Singapore such an incredible place is not only diversity but how these people live together and interact with one another. They live in the same buildings, they marry each other, they share their cuisine, they work together, they eat together. In a place where many citizens identity strongly with secondary ethnicities and different religions, it's the acknowledgement and appreciation that this country wouldn't be the same without such a melting pot that makes one strongly Singaporean.
Here's what we did, saw, and ate during our visit.
This is an easy one- use the metro! The metro services almost the entire country, the stations are large and clean, the trains come frequently and on time, and each trip is only around $1. Other than that, most neighborhoods are condensed enough and close in proximity enough to do quite a bit of walking.
What To Do
There's just enough to do in Singapore to keep you busy, but it's manageable enough to do a variety of activities in a relatively short amount of time.
The National Museum is a great free activity to pass an afternoon or escape the heat or rain. The main exhibit is a huge, comprehensive history of Singapore that stretched back to thirteenth century artifacts from the first human settlements to British colonization, Japanese occupation during WW2, a brief merge with Malaysia, and finally independence and their modern infrastructure boom.
If you break out of the downtown financial center and hotel bubble, Singapore has a ton of cool neighborhoods to explore. Holland Village is a trendy spot centered almost entirely around places to eat. Dain and I brunched on eggs Benedict and coffees from Hatched, but there are tons of cafes to choose from. Orchard Road has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a literal orchard and is now lined with about twenty giant, modern malls. It's a shopping street to put almost any city's to shame and the number of stores is astounding.
As with any place in Asia, Singapore is not without its hawker markets. I wanted to check out Tiong Bahru and unfortunately less than half of the shops were open because it was Chinese New Year. I sampled two dishes unique to the market, the original peanut pancake (think of a spongy folded pancake stuffed with peanuts and sugar) and Chinese carrot cake (an omelette with carrot, turnip, rice cake, and hot sauce). Both were delicious and unique but not enough to bring me back.
In a tiny, dark alley right off of Arab street sits Haji Lane, arguably the shining hipster jewel of Singapore. You'll find juice shops, live music, small clothiers and backpack stores, and a smattering of bars and restaurants. The food and drinks here are on the pricey side but it's well worth it to sit for a bit, people-watch, and soak in the fun and youthful atmosphere. Top picks are Singapura Club for tea and nosh and Blu Jazz for live music and drinks.
We were going to check out the botanical gardens, a UNESCO world heritage site, but Gardens by the Bay were recommended to us as a distinctive park that's more than just another pretty patch of flowers. The towering foliage-covered metal flower structures eclipsing the rest of the garden seem so Singapore- they're so exaggeratedly large that they overshadow the actual plants in the same way that the 100-story skyscrapers overshadow the rest of the skyline. You can spend a lot of time here walking the paths but it's almost more attraction than park; you come for the flower dome or to walk the thin bridges between the flower structures in the sky more than actually seeing the park.
Imposing over the gardens like a giant wave about to crash over you stands the proud Marina Bay Sands hotel. It consists of three towers supporting a massive surfboard-shaped top that boasts incredible views of the whole country of Singapore, the busting harbor, Malaysia to the north, neighboring islands off the coast, and Indonesia to the south. Pro tip: don't pay the $23 to go up to the SkyDeck on the 56th floor. Instead, pay the $20 to get up to the restaurant Ce La Vi on the 57th floor. Not only are you higher and in a private space with an even better view, your $20 can be applied towards drinks and food! Granted, that voucher won't get you far, but it's a way better deal and much more relaxing. I sipped a Veuve Cliquot rosemary spritzer and took in the completely stunning view. I'm convinced most of Singapore is meant to be seen from above- it is a city of skyscrapers, after all.
It was a little after eleven at night when we came to Little India. Most of the city seemed to be asleep until we turned the corner to find every shop on the street lit up and bustling with people. There are so many small shops and markets, mainly inexpensive phone and electronic shops, but the mecca here is clearly Mustafa's. This 24-hour, 5-story indoor market takes up an entire city block but is still packed to the gills with every kind of ware you can imagine (think pits of nail polish among racks of clothes, rows of shampoo and Oreos, and counters full of iPads and cameras) to the point where it's hard to move about the place.
Singapore is home to many ethnic groups, the most populous being Chinese, Malay, and South Indian, and the food available around Singapore reflects this historic melding of cultures and cuisines. There are plenty of fancier restaurants to visit but they're really expensive because Singapore has to import all their food, the real estate is somewhat expensive, and wages nationally are fairly high. We ate mainly at local joints that just so happened to be less expensive but really delivered on flavor.
A couple we met out one night told us about a long-standing rivalry between two of the most popular Indian-Muslim restaurants that had been around since 1908: Zam Zam versus Victory. They're both right next to each other and at first glace almost indistinguishable. They're both 2-story rather plain restaurants with nearly identical menus and equally packed. After sampling some delicious curries, biryani with spicy fish, and murtabak (fried naan stuffed with ground meat), a well-balanced debate on which was best ultimately determined Zam Zam the all-around winner. Highly recommend trying for yourself!
Kampong Glam Cafe is a must if you're in the Arab district. The cafe offers ample outdoor seating in the middle of the bustling walking street surrounding the golden Sultan Mosque. Kampong Glam is the name of the broader historic area where Arabic immigrants settled, and the area still is packed with carpet and fabric stores, halal restaurants, and intricate Muslim art. I ordered the Gado Gado, tofu in peanut curry with bean sprouts, and Dain ate the Nasi Lemak, a dish with rice, chicken, egg, and fried fish. A delicious introduction into Indonesian cuisine.
I eat a lot of Indian food, mainly Punjabi, but there is so much more than palak paneer and tandoori chicken to discover (and eat). On Dunlop street, we stopped into Khan Restaurant because it had the largest line and we were not disappointed. The table next to us was eating some delicious-looking bread that we ordered as well called prata, which is like fried naan. It's served with any kind of curry the restaurant wants to serve and it's a dippable, delectable, shareable dish that you won't want to share. You can also use prata to eat your main dish, whether it's the chicken masala Dain ordered or the array of veggie curries and daals I ordered.