“Singapore? That’s not really Asia, you know.”
You hear that a lot from other travellers when they hear you’re going to the city-state known for being one of the richest, most developed nations in Asia. Of course, it’s absurd to say such a thing. Singapore is “not really” Asia like New York is “not really” America. Yes, there’s more to the continent than just one big city, but Singapore represents an important part of modern Asia; it’s one of the economic tigers that drives that part of the world. I’m not sure one can have a sense of modern Asia without spending at least some time in one of its biggest cities.
Physically, Singapore is tiny. It’s one big island, and about 60 smaller islets, that occupy only 276 square miles. This entire nation is smaller than Charlotte, North Carolina, or Lexington, Kentucky, and is less than half the size of London. Despite that, it’s full to brimming with people, technology, and…shopping. Shopping is to Singapore what wine is to Paris: the reason for living. Singapore is addicted to shopping.
Singapore is also an interesting cultural melting pot. A city-state of immigrants, it is a mix of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and British cultures, among others. As you might guess, this results in some fantastic food opportunities, which we were looking forward to sampling as soon as we could.
First, however, we would have to deal with a bit of culture shock. Going from the primeval delights of the Crusoe Island camping resort/modern day Garden of Eden to the hypermodern efficiency of Singapore in less than 48 hours was nearly overwhelming, but we managed. We used the excellent subway system to get to our hostel—at $85 a night for what was, essentially, an elongated closet with shared bathrooms (and hallways) which were constantly clogged with teenagers blow-drying and flat-ironing their hair, there was definitely some sticker shock. But it seemed to be a bargain for Singapore.
Once we settled in, we proceeded to do as the Singaporeans do—shop and eat! Well, it would mostly be window shopping, as neither our bags nor our budget could handle much actual acquisition. Aaron spent some quality time ogling fancy watches, the variety and cost of which he hadn’t seen since his time in Switzerland. Orion was most enamored of a compact, but remarkably well-stocked shop that carried all things Tintin.
In contrast to our fantasy shopping, the eating would be for real. After hearing so much about Singapore’s exotic street food, I was determined to make the most of our short time in this epicurean city-state.
Singapore being the hygienic and well-organized place that it is, street food isn’t actually sold on the street. The best places to try the local goodies are in outdoor (but covered) pavilions that host dozens of different stands, or in food courts of the malls that serve as Singapore’s public gathering places and primary sources of entertainment. This surprised me at first, because when I hear “mall food court”, I do not immediately picture delicious food. My visions are more along the lines of greasy, limp pizza and ‘Chinese’ food that consists largely of fried bits of mystery meat drowning in gloppy day-glo sauce.
Well, if there was ever a place to rehabilitate my image of a food court—Singapore was it! The food was truly excellent, ranging from savory noodles with spicy beef brisket to toothsome dim sum dumplings to silkily tender and delicate Hainanese chicken rice.
In the midst of the gluttony, we managed to sneak in a bit of culture with a visit to the Buddha’s tooth temple. Despite the nagging feeling that there might be something incongruous about a glitzy, high rise Buddhist temple, we all enjoyed the dizzying array of golden Buddhas, as well as the lovely roof garden.
On our second day in town Aaron wasn’t feeling well (who’d have guessed that the first major GI distress of Southeast Asia would occur in the bastion of cleanliness that is Singapore?!?), so Orion and I had a day to ourselves. We decided to take the monorail to Sentosa Island—an entertainment complex on a man-made island that includes a Universal Studios amusement park, a waterpark and an array of Western eateries, including Chili’s, a Cajun restaurant, and the biggest candy store I’ve ever seen. Our destination was the (slightly) less frenetic aquarium, which claims to be “the worlds largest oceanarium.” I’m still not really sure what that means, but it was pretty impressive. I loved the jellyfish (completely entrancing, like living lava lamps), but my favorite exhibit, by far, was a 4.8 million gallon giant Open Ocean tank (the largest in the world), filled with sharks and rays. And not just any rays. Manta rays—the giant, 20+ feet wide behemoths. They were so beautiful and majestic that even the intense piped in classical music seemed about right. I could have stayed there for hours watching the regal creatures soar through schools of smaller rays and fish. Eventually, Orion had to drag me away.
The following morning, we were to meet up with my mom (Toots) and sister (Olivia), who were flying from the States to meet us for a night in Singapore and then a few days in Penang, Malaysia. After another smooth ride on the subway, we picked up the giant rolling bag we’d left at the airport (the bag contained our Vietnamese clothing purchases, and we were hoping our visitors would courier it home for us). We then proceeded to the airport hotel to meet up with our family who had arrived late the night before.
It was so good to see my mom and Olivia and we were all looking forward to enjoying our Christmas treat from my mom—a night in the spectacular Marina Bay Sands hotel!
I think we made the most of our time in the lap of luxury—the suite we shared was fabulous and we luxuriated in the fluffy towels, robes, and fragrant toiletries. We spent a lot of time enjoying the dizzying views from the rooftop infinity pool and taking full advantage of the extravagant buffets.
There was just one thing that the Marina Bay Sands couldn’t provide—a toy store. My mom and Orion had a long-standing plan for him to select a Christmas gift (ideally a packable one) during our sojourn in Singapore. So, we set off for a Toys-R-Us that O and I had spotted en route to the aquarium. It was a successful outing that concluded with O joyfully clutching a genuine golden Lego dragon. Unlike the Lego knockoffs we’d acquired on the streets of Hanoi, this one had the correct number of feet!
Aaron didn’t join us for the toy store trip, instead saying he “wanted to just walk around a bit.” When we returned, he had a sort-of dazed and satisfied look…I soon found out that he had discovered an outpost of New York chef Daniel Boulud’s restaurant empire in the shopping mall attached to our hotel, and had indulged in a DB Burger, which he’d remembered reading about somewhere as being “the most decadent burger ever created” and which he announced was “the amazingest hamburger of all time.” As it was stuffed with wine-braised short ribs, foie gras, and black truffle, it’s probably not in much danger of being knocked from that position soon.
After some more poolside lounging (and a quick cardiac catheterization for Aaron to scrape out the after-effects of his lunch), we capped off a lovely day with a journey to the Singapore Zoo for their night safari—the giant bats were particularly impressive. Later that night, Aaron and I took advantage of the in-room childcare (i.e. my mom) and went out for a scenic drink at 1-Altitude, the world’s highest open rooftop bar, where we marveled at the Singapore skyline and the cost of the drinks.
The next day, we set off for neighboring Malaysia. Mom had found us another lovely resort—this one on Batu Ferringhi (“Foreigner’s Rock”) beach outside Penang.
Due to a general need for a break and a relapse in Aaron’s GI distress, we took it easy for the next few days, spending most of our time lounging by the lovely pool or wandering down the beach for dinner.
We did summon the energy for one trip into the historic city of Penang, which was absolutely charming. The floating fishing village was atmospheric and perfect for a casual stroll. The clan houses (family temples) were also lovely. Our city visit was capped off by a delicious lunch at an Indian restaurant that had been recommended by our cab driver—the renowned clay pot biryani was complex, subtle, fragrant, and absolutely delicious!
We all really enjoyed our time in Singapore and Malaysia. It was such a treat to have some quality time with my mom and Olivia in the midst of our peripatetic year and I think we all appreciated a relaxing, swimming pool-filled break from our fast-paced travels.
By the end, we were restored, rejuvenated, and ready to take on Thailand!