Your Country Through My Eyes: Singapore
Singapore might just have the best food in all of Asia. There are several Asian countries that I would put near the top of my list of favorite places to eat anywhere in the world, but Singapore stands out in my mind because of the famous hawker food. In Japan, you might seek out a city’s best miso ramen restaurant; in Thailand, you might try a region’s signature curry; but in Singapore, hawker food centres have it all under one roof.
Many other travelers had warned me about how expensive Singapore would be. Sure, if you want to dine out on high end international food, and drink craft cocktails, at the popular restaurants and bars, you will definitely rack up a pricey tab. However, if you want to eat at the local hawker food stalls, you can easily get away with lunch for under $10 CND. Alcohol is one of the more expensive luxuries in Singapore. Drinking out will cost you $10-$20 per drink, but local shops do sell a variety of beer, wine, and spirits for prices that are comparable to many Western countries. Some of the main tourist attractions can be costly, but there are still several interesting places to visit, such as the Singapore Botanical Gardens, that do not require an entrance fee. Overall, I didn’t feel intimidated by the cost of Singapore, as there were plenty of things to do on the cheap. The city’s main light rail system is slightly on the expensive side, but is well designed and extremely comfortable. Most of the main tourist areas in Singapore are easily walkable, but the train is a nice cop out for when it gets too hot and humid.
The Inncrowd Backpackers Hostel
The Inncrowd Backpackers hostel is a budget traveler option near the downtown area. It’s located in Little India, which is an interesting and fun neighbourhood to explore in itself. The hostel is nicely equipped, as you would expect from Singapore’s high quality of living. However, the best part of the hostel is a 3 time per week scooter tour that they run at night. The tour is a great way to get your bearings of the city, as well as meet people staying at the hostel. I jumped on the tour 2 hours after checking in, and spent the night out with a bunch of other travelers, riding around like hooligans on push scooters (think Razor scooters from the 2000's). The highlights of the scooter tour were the free Supertree light show behind the Marina Bay Sands, and the free water fountain show at the front. The hostel staff knows the best viewpoints for both shows, and take you to them perfectly on time. It was an unexpected gem of a freebie that I hadn’t experienced before during my travels.
Marina Bay Sands
I found myself drawn to the Marina Bay area at some point each day. The Marina Bay Sands Hotel is the focal point of the bay, but is joined by an circular enclave of luxury hotels, restaurants, the Singapore Eye, the Singapore Convention & Exhibition Centre, the floating football pitch, and one of Singapore’s signature merilion statues (fish with a lion’s head). It was a beautiful area to walk around during the day, and equally enjoyable to explore at night.
The Marina Bay Sands literally looks like a massive spaceship balancing on three giant towers. At the base, there is an enormous shopping centre, museum, expo centre, and casino. At the rear, is the Gardens By The Bay, which is a unique lush plant space, with a field of quirky mechanical “Supertrees”. The whole area reminded me of the movie Avatar. The rooftop of the Marina Bay Sands hosts two bars, a night club, a viewing platform, and the famous infinity pool. The pool was only open to hotel guests, which was a bummer. Drinks at the bars were overpriced, but roughly the same as the admission price to the viewing platform. Naturally, we decided that if we were going to pay for the view, we mines well enjoy a beer, since the bar didn’t require an entrance fee. The view was admittedly gorgeous, but probably not worth the money. Still, it was one of those tourist attractions that I had to visit, being in Singapore for the first time.
Hawker Food Centres
There are a ton of great hawker food centres throughout different neighbourhoods of Singapore, and everyone you meet probably has his own personal preference of which one, which stall, and which dish is the best. I’ll bet that the Singaporeans reading this right now have their own long list of cherished favorites, some of which I’ve never even heard of. I have a friend whose originally from Singapore, and she hooked me up with a list of some of her recommendations. I made it a mission to work my way through the list, and it became a fun, worthwhile way of spending my time in Singapore. My personal favorites were the Maxwell Food Centre near Chinatown, and the Old Airport Road Food Centre northeast of the downtown area.
I’m a pretty lousy foodie when it comes down to it. I don’t blog about food adventures, I often prefer cheap dirty spoon joints to high end restaurants, and I rarely Instagram my meals unless I’m trying to impress a girl with how well I can grill a steak. However, I’ll try my best to at least paint a half decent picture of the hawker food centre experience. On my first full day in Singapore, I spent the late morning exploring Chinatown, before seeking out the Maxwell Food Centre. When I arrived, I saw a row of small food stalls facing the street, housed in an open-air metal frame and roof structure, with ceiling fangs providing the only heat relief. I was a bit disappointed at the small number of stalls, but quickly realized that this was just the entrance way to the building. I entered into a large, one-story, rectangular space surrounded by at least 30 different food stalls. I would later discover several food markets with multiple floors, housing even more stalls. I was gleefully overwhelmed with the visible steam, vibrant smells, and bustling people that filled the space. People where rushing around in every direction; line ups were rapidly forming at the popular stalls; lunch patrons were circling the round cement tables for an open seat; and there were more than a couple of tourists, like myself, licking their lips at the wealth of food options that surrounded us.
I took a couple of minutes to walk a circle, and check out the different stalls. There were stalls selling everything from roast meat, to laksa, hokkien mee, char kway teow, wanton mee, carrot cake (which doesn’t have carrots and isn’t a cake), in addition to what seemed like a hundred other types of soups, meats, noodles, rice, snacks, deserts, and fruit drinks. I decided to join what seemed like a line up of local business people on lunch breaks, in front of a classic roast meat food stall. While in line, I eyed up a nearby wanton mee stall, and concluded that I was hungry enough for a double lunch. I carried two plates, one with an assortment of roast duck, char siu, and chashu on a bed of rice, and the other, a bowl of rice noodle soup with deep fried wontons.
By time I had finished those two magical dishes, I felt like I was back “home” in South East Asia. Simple, salty, savory, mildly dirty, Asian food heaven. The two dishes were Singaporean, but the flavors nodded to influences from China, while other dishes I would later try would invoke tastes of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Taiwan. As I spent more time in Singapore, I got to sample a more of the country’s famous dishes, but each meal followed the same blueprint, starting with wide eyes, and ending with a full stomach.
Singapore Botanical Gardens
To ensure that I didn’t spend all of my time in Singapore eating, I did seek out a few tourist attractions. I really enjoyed spending an afternoon at the Singapore Botanical Gardens. It was unspectacular, in terms of specific beautiful plant types, but had a great flow for a relaxing walk in the park. It was hot and humid when I visited Singapore, and I was dripping in sweat within minutes of entering the Gardens. Without question, my biggest complaint about my visit to Singapore was the amount of times I felt sweaty and gross. If you were to ask how long you would need to live in Singapore to be considered a local, I would argue that you’ll never be a local until you get to the point where you aren’t sweating within 5 minutes of stepping outside.
A group of us took a day trip to nearby Sentosa Island,which is a manageable train ride from downtown Singapore. Sentosa hosts a Universal Studios, as well as other large scale entertainment complexes, dining areas, and beach resorts. I felt a little out of place, as Sentosa gave off the feel of a luxury family vacation spot, and I was wearing one of only five tank tops I owned at the time. Still, Sentosa is a lovely island, and made for a nice break from downtown.
I only spent one full week in Singapore, so I don’t have an in depth account of the country. However, Singapore is without a doubt, one of the cleanest, nicest, cities I’ve ever visited. The streets are spotless and I didn’t see a single thing that would even remotely be perceived as crime. I could imagine myself living in Singapore if I had an opportunity to work there, but likely later on in my life. It has a more mature feel than other international expat cities, such as Hong Kong, and I’m still an immature, adventure-seeking kid. However, when it comes to food, my mouth still waters with the thought of Singaporean hawker food.