Singapore is immaculate. On the journey from the airport — generally the least inspiring part of any trip — it feels as if someone has run ahead of me, straightening every blade of grass, trimming every tree and sweeping every path. Enormous mahogany trees arch across the road in perfect symmetry, fan-shaped traveller’s palms bow in the breeze, elevated walkways are wrapped in creeping fig vines and lamp-posts draped in bougainvillea. There’s definitely a touch of the film set about it all — a real-life Wisteria Lane. And after five months living in Phuket — where pavements are superfluous and streets are strung not with brightly-coloured flora but with webs of electricity wires that crackle when it rains — it’s a joy to behold.
Twenty minutes later — “everywhere is 20 minutes away in Singapore,” my driver cheerfully tells me in pitch-perfect English — and I’m in the CBD (Central Business District), where wide, spotlessly clean streets lead to improbably perfect heritage buildings, and mirrored skyscrapers flash against sunny skies. Everyone is unfailingly courteous and everything, from the extensive subway system to the automated public lavatories, works perfectly. Every time. Without fail. Why anyone would dismiss this level of urban harmony as boring — a lazy label so often tossed in Singapore’s direction — is beyond me.
Especially as it turns out that underneath its pristine exterior, Singapore isn’t half as straight-laced and buttoned up as it first appears. Peel away the polish and pretty flowers and you’ll find some of Asia’s hippest new enclaves. Take Tiong Bahru, an off-the-radar 1930s housing estate where floppy-fringed hipsters sip kopi (coffee) and write poetry in cool-cat cafes. Or Kampong Glam, where artists and indie designers have set up camp alongside the jazz bars and hookah lounges on Haji Lane. Not to mention the underground cocktail scene that’s going on behind velvet curtains on Hongkong Street and Ann Siang Road.
To get amongst the city, I grab my shopping bags. After a quick stop for coffee and air conditioning, I decide the huge fluorescent-lit malls on Orchard Road — with the exception of Far East Plaza, with its cool Japanese and Korean design stores — are not the places for me. I much prefer the neon-hued Bugis Street, a three-storey indoor/outdoor maze of tiny stores, steamy snack bars and nail salons. Crowds of canny shoppers are out in force day and night, ducking between rails of bargain fashion buys — diaphanous T-shirt for £4? I’ll take two, please — making off with chunky watches, bartering over K-Pop-style suits (the sharp, shiny type popularised by Korean pop stars like Psy) and stocking up on belts, bangles, rhinestone phone covers and cheap souvenirs.
Also in the anti-mall camp and just a short walk away, behind the incense sellers, sweet-smelling perfumeries and material merchants of Arab Street is Haji Lane, a cluster of pastel-painted shophouses that have been transformed into hipster retail spaces. Sup sells hoodies, flannels and sweatshirts, with the top draw being a line by local graffiti artist The Killer Gerbil. Statement bicycles with bright white tyres and rattan shopping baskets dangle from the ceiling in Tokyobike, while the awkwardly-named Spoilmarket brims with faux-retro bits and pieces, from peacock-shaped sewing scissors to Bakelite telephones with Chinese numbers on their dials.
More excess baggage-busting bargains can be found in Chinatown; beneath bright red lanterns, stalls overflow with silk pyjamas, embroidered slippers, ornamental Buddhas, porcelain lamps, shiny lacquerware and chic Chinese ceramics. A few more stops along the MRT train line, Holland Village is yet another good bet for homewares and handicrafts; pop into Lim’s Arts and Living, meanwhile, for hand-painted cabinets, wood carvings and even wardrobes, all of which can be packed and shipped worldwide for a small(ish) fee.
What Singapore lacks in natural wonders, it makes up for with a phenomenal amount of things to see and do — many of them free — a huge bonus in what can feel like an eye-wateringly expensive city at times.
At the top of most visitors’ lists are the city’s historic ethnic enclaves: Little India, with its Sesame Street palette of red, blue and Big Bird-yellow shophouses; bright and breezy Arab Street, which fans out around the giant golden domes of the Sultan Mosque, and Chinatown — the most atmospheric of them all — where the scent of cured pork drifts around lanterns and over stalls selling grinning, waving Lucky Cat money boxes. Also here is the excellent (and completely gratis) Chinatown Heritage Centre, showcasing the history of Singapore’s indefatigable Chinese immigrant community.
For an alternative and altogether weirder slice of Chinese history, head south to Haw Par Villa, a demented, Disney-meets-Dante theme park. Built in 1937 by the wealthy owners of the company that makes Tiger Balm, this free, out-of-town attraction is a collection of hillside gardens, filled with over a thousand colourful statues and dioramas of half-lady, half-lobster monsters and knife-wielding pig-men. Tiny people are being tortured in the Ten Courts of Hell, where sentences range from being ‘ground by a large stone’ for disrespecting your siblings to being ‘tied to a red hot copper pillar and grilled’ for drug addiction. What could be more fun? Essentially, the Chinese legends and folktales depicted — and their morality — are no stranger than, say, Greek legends but the full technicolour gore and exotic nature of it all makes it a Singapore must-see.
Theme parks of a more conventional nature can be found south of the city on the island resort of Sentosa — once known as the ‘Island of Death from Behind’ (in Malay). Having realised this slogan was unlikely to shift many hotel rooms, this sunny Florida-like jungle island, complete with beaches and camp hotels, was given a far more friendly moniker, Sentosa, meaning ‘peace and tranquillity’. Its many activities and attractions range from zip-wires to water parks, Segways to roller coasters, and luges to hot dog lunches. There’s also a butterfly park, aquarium and a seemingly endless array of nature walks and animal attractions, as well as Singapore’s only movie theme park, Universal Studios Singapore.
It would be impossible to discuss where to stay in Singapore without mentioning Raffles Singapore, so entwined is its history with that of modern Singapore. Opened by the Sarkies Brothers in 1887, and named after the city’s founding father, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, it’s hosted everyone from Rudyard Kipling to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Inside, to quote Joseph Conrad, it’s ‘as airy as a birdcage’ — all colonnaded balconies, soaring Livingstonia palms and elegant colonial bedrooms. Service is peerless and even though a stay here is an extravagance, you’re unlikely to leave feeling short-changed.
If you do have to worry about the pennies, though, head for the suburbs. The cylindrical Wangz Hotel, in trendy Tiong Bahru, is a surprise out-of-town hit. Rooms — cunningly designed to make the most of the limited space — offer views of the leafy, art deco neighbourhood, packed with utterly delicious cheap eats. If you fancy popping to Chinatown, a free regular shuttle bus will whisk you here in under 10 minutes.
Accommodation options in Sentosa include the new W Singapore – Sentosa Cove hotel. With private yacht berths, an omnipresent dance soundtrack, friendly staff, bars and a giant lagoon-like pool, dotted with fluorescent beach balls, it’s a round-the-clock blast.
For a more sophisticated island escape, head to Capella Singapore. This romantic hillside retreat is made up of two genteel former Victorian army barracks wrapped in a slinky Lord Foster-designed structure. Rooms are chic, cavernous spaces and the spa is beautiful. Look out for cockatoos canoodling in the jungle canopy as you glide across the three-tiered swimming pool overlooking the South China Sea.
Singaporeans have got food on the brain — if you’re ever stuck for small talk, just mention the magic words ‘chicken and rice’. This simple dish of fluffy white rice topped with tender steamed chicken, chunks of cucumber and zingy chilli and garlic and dark soy dipping sauces, is as close to a national dish as you can get here, appearing everywhere from hawker centres to food courts and five-star hotels.
“There’s always a big debate about where to find the best chicken and rice in Singapore”, local lass Pamela Heo tells me with unbridled enthusiasm as we hover through the 15th floor of the Harbourfront Tower Two in a cable car. Her favourite is served at Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, in the Maxwell Food Centre. “But go early,” Pamela adds. “Sometimes you have to wait for two hours.” Schlepping across town and hanging around for an eternity isn’t something Singaporeans mind doing when it comes to that must-have meal. And this fervour isn’t restricted to their humble Hainanese favourite, either; in the mornings, office workers swarm around branches of Ya Kun Kaya Toast for kaya toast (a toastie containing a jam made of eggs, coconut milk, sugar and often pandan), washed down with milky tea. In the Balestier district, people queue outside Founder Bah Kut Teh Restaurant in the hope of hunkering over a bowl of prime pork ribs in peppery soup; while an hour’s wait for silky pan-fried carrot cake and dim sum at Tim Ho Wan is considered good going.
There are plenty of coveted restaurants at the fine dining end of the market, too. Book in advance and wear your best threads for dinner at Bacchanalia. In the kitchen of this in-crowd favourite, housed on the ground floor of a century-old Masonic Lodge, are a trio of chefs who once plied their trade at Heston Blumenthal’s famed Berkshire restaurant The Fat Duck.
As mild as a milkshake, as fruity as a Singapore Sling or as excessive as a jeroboam of Dom Pérignon — Singapore after dark can be whatever you want it to be. For some light evening entertainment, make for Supertree Grove, at Gardens by the Bay park. At 7:45 and 8:45 every night, the waterfront becomes all Avatar, as a thicket of 165ft-tall botanic sculptures radiate out all the solar energy they’ve absorbed during the day in a wondrous sound and light show. Watch it from the ground or the cool-but-wobbly skywalk.
If you prefer your nightlife with a bit more swizzle, seek out Singapore’s happening cocktail bars. The hard to find — and even harder to leave — 28 HongKong Street has dark wooden booths, ludicrously attractive staff and tipples with names like ‘Whore’s Bath’ (vodka, manuka honey, umeshu, Poire William, Hawaiian lava salt and pickled ginger, in case you’re wondering). Bar Stories, Tippling Club and the Japanese-leaning Horse’s Mouth are also worth seeking out.
Got your dancing shoes on? Swing by nightclub power-players Attica, Zouk and Ku De Ta. And if those dancing shoes are made by Ferragamo, hot foot it to Pangaea, where rock stars, models and Formula One drivers like to party and the minimum spend to book a table is SIN$1,500 (£725).
The city is easy to do on foot, and public transport is excellent. A one-, two- or three-day Singapore Tourist Pass, from SIN$20 (£9.58), gives unlimited bus/train travel and includes a refundable SIN$10 (£4.79) deposit and SIN$10 credit (cash left on the card at the end of your stay is returned with the deposit). thesingaporetouristpass.com.sg
When to go
The climate is humid year-round (hovering around 30C). Even in the wettest months (November-January) it rarely rains all day.
Need to know
Currency: Singaporean dollar (SIN$). £1 = SIN$2.08.
International dial code: 00 65.
Time difference: GMT +8.
Gardens by the Bay. gardensbythebay.com.sg
28 HongKong Street. 28hks.com
Bar Stories. barstories.com.sg
Tippling Club. tipplingclub.com
Horse’s Mouth. horsesmouthbar.com
Ku De Ta. kudeta.com/singapore
How to do it
Travelbag has a seven nights at Traders Hotel from £1,129, room only, including flights from Heathrow via Colombo with Sri Lankan Airlines. travelbag.co.uk
Published in the April 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)