Before I booked my flight I really knew nothing about Singapore. I didn’t plan to go there at all. I just happened to be able to get a better deal on my flight if I flew into Singapore then to Thailand. Flying one way from Cincinnati to Singapore cost only 40,000 United miles and around $10 in taxes. That’s a heck of a deal.
So in preparation, naturally I watched Crazy Rich Asians. Even though it’s a fictional romcom it at least showed me something about Singapore. For the most part, I didn’t see any of the ultra rich or exclusive locations shown in the movie. I was doing the solo semi-crazy yet cheap way to see Singapore.
Taking the Lion City Bike Tour taught me much more about Singapore than Crazy Rich Asians. Bike tours are my favorite way to tour a city, because we cover a lot of ground and learn a lot along the way. Holden was the guide of 5 of us, a recently retired couple from England, a fellow solo traveller from NY named Annie, and a young man from Sydney Australia who’s only here for a day before leaving for Shanghai for work tomorrow.
Holden is a former police officer who is now a tour guide because he loves telling people about the country. He took us on a ~12 mile 4 hour ride through the urban core of the city. We started with the Marina Bay area including F1 track, Singapore Flyer, Marina Bay, and Merlion statue, then proceeded to the La Pau Sat hawker station, Chinatown, Little India, Bugis (Indonesian), and Kampong Gelam (Malaysian).
In some areas, like Little India and Chinatown, I’m surprised we made it through without someone wrecking their bike or getting lost. People were everywhere! I couldn’t even take a photo because it was so chaotic. Taking the tour on a Sunday meant everyone was out and about. Everywhere we went he would encourage us to use our bells very little. When we got to Little India, he changed his tune telling us to “use your bell A LOT!” No one really obeyed the street markings or right of way, so everyone appeared to cede to the boldest or loudest.
Holden showed us many of the country’s government housing. 80% of Singaporeans live in government housing, though it isn’t at all like in the US. These are 2 bed/2 bath condos in high rises with good living conditions. A citizen can buy housing for between 250-300k SGD which is about 200k USD. A lease runs for 99 years, because they may want to tear down and build new to modernize or improve. Buyers must own for 5 years. After that, they can choose to sell. People who are lucky in the housing lottery (get a new build) sometimes sell their place for $1 million. No one has a dryer. They hang their clothes out to dry from their multilevel housing complexes. The housing complexes are repainted every 10 years to keep them looking nice. They integrate people of different ethnicities in the same buildings to keep from creating ethnic cliques.
Holden treated us to iced tea which was black tea, condensed milk, and sugar. He also bought us ice cream sandwiches late in the trip. The ice cream came in the shape of a Philadelphia cream cheese bar and it was sandwiched between a pink and green marbled piece of bread. It tasted better than it sounds. And it was great to have a little relief from the heat.
Although I was there in winter, there was little reprieve from the heat. Most days hovered around 29 – 31C (84 – 88F), although mornings felt much cooler until the sun came out. The coldest day ever recorded in Singapore is only 67F at that dates all the way back to 1934!
Most of my meals came from hawker stations (which felt about 10 degrees hotter). Hawker stations are basically street food stalls that are collected inside a building. Cash only. Bring your own napkins. The food is authentic and delicious. A great way to experience Singapore from more of a native perspective.
One of my favorite routines became grabbing a fresh squeezed orange juice from the machines at each train station. At the train station nearest my hotel, I would tap my credit card and $1.50 later I had a cup of delicious OJ. I also think about how a collection of machines could be a decent side hustle if you can source the oranges cheap and consistent enough…
For being a highly urban hybrid of both a city and a country, greenery abounds in Singapore. I loved how they integrated greenery into the architecture of their many impressive skyscrapers. Holden told us there’s a law requiring developers to integrate all greenery of what is removed when a new construction builds. I love the creative results that ensued.
My favorite of these is the CapitaSpring skyscraper. It’s a 51 story office building that boasts a rooftop with both edible and non-edible plants, and an open air section on floors 17-20. I can’t find the words to do it justice, so I’ve shared two videos below that paint the picture.
There’s more standard greenery around rivers, the bay, and in quaint upscale downtown features. It can be easy to forget you’re in the city.
Singapore has a wide variety of ethnicities that make up their population. Evidence of this is that Chinatown, Little India, Bugis (Indonesian), and Kampong Gelam (Malaysian) neighborhoods are all adjacent to one another. Walking a few blocks in either direction and there were strikingly different temples and tastefully different cuisine.
The country originally divided people by ethnicity to help with language incompatibility. However, it became problematic and fraught with racism. During World War II, Singapore was bombed by Japan for two weeks. During those two weeks everyone took shelter in various religious temples, no matter their background. This is because the Japanese did not bomb temples. During that time it unified the Asian community and now Singapore is known as one of the most homogenous countries in the world.
According to Holden, Singapore also has a history of slave labor. It is not unlike the history of coal miners in the US. They were paid about a dollar a day but paid in clay shingles which were only accepted at certain places. They could essentially never make enough money to go back to their home countries. As a result, many of them became addicted to opium, and many died. It’s for this reason that drugs are severely punished in this country.
As we rode through most neighborhoods, Holden told us to go lightly on the bell. As we were preparing to enter Little India, he gave us the usual set of instructions, but ended this one with “and use your bell A LOT.” I’m not sure if there were more people, or if they just disregarded rules such as who has the right of way, but it was the most challenging to pass by bike.
It’s fairly well known that Singapore is an expensive country. It routinely ranks in the top five most expensive countries in the world. For citizens, it can be significantly cheaper though, due to public housing and cheap yet efficient public transportation. I rode the train everywhere I went, usually four times a day, and it only amounted to about $3/day. I also saw a Rolls Royce and two Bentleys. I saw places to buy clothing for less than $4 per piece, and I saw four different Rolex stores.
Eating at a restaurant in the central business district vs eating at a hawker station can be multiple times more expensive. I had breakfast in the CBD, netting a bill around $26 for poached eggs, avocado and a chai latte. Compare that to the hawker stations where my total bill was around $6 for a solid lunch. I also opted to stay outside of the main downtown area primarily due to cost, opting instead for a place along the train station for easy transportation. Annie from my bike tour told me her hotel was at least twice the cost of mine.
Sometimes it’s worth it to pay more for something! But since I’m traveling for 2.5 months, I figure I should watch my costs wherever possible. And splurge and littler things, like a machine-served fresh squeezed OJ each day.
Onward to Pai
Although I was delightfully surprised by how advanced and efficient Singapore is, I also relished the opportunity to break out of the city. Now that I am summarizing Singapore in Pai, Thailand, I am in a much more relaxed and laid back environment, which is precisely what I needed. Here’s a preview of what Pai is like:
Lastly, I am not writing anymore posts like this. I’m going back to the diary format where I just list what happened that day and my thoughts. This took far too much time! See you in Pai!