Before touching down on the runway, my knowledge of Singapore could be summed up in just two words: it’s clean. Singapore has a well-known reputation as a small, tidy country where gum chewing could land you in jail and littering could result in caning; in fact, extreme punishments for what might seem like minor infractions can be applied to foreigners just as they can to locals. A lot of the rules are incredibly simple and, in fact, common sense, but the devil is often in the details, which meant we felt compelled to second-guess almost everything we did as we transitioned from the dirt and crowds of Yogyakarta to Singapore’s pristine streets.
You can feel the emphasis on order and respect as soon as you set foot into Changi International Airport’s terminal: it’s bright and clean, and signs clearly direct you onward to other gates or to immigration if you’ve reached your final destination. We were the only people at immigration, and processing our passports was perhaps the most efficient experience we’ve had- even without the crowds. Our luggage arrived just as we got to the carousel, we found a (working) ATM right after clearing customs, and we were in a taxi and heading toward our hotel within moments. Unlike so many other cities we have visited, our driver was quiet, there was no music, and his cell phone was out of sight (if he had one at all). So far, the expectations were right on point.
With just two days to explore Singapore, we had a packed schedule from the moment we dropped our luggage off in our hotel room. Just like in Kuala Lumpur, we started with a food tour we found on Urban Adventures.
Singapore Food Tour
Our visit to KL taught us a great way to get to know a city is through it’s food, so we joined a tour that started in the Chinatown hawker center for a late lunch and introduction to cheap eats in Singapore.
Hawker centers are pretty incredible as far as cultural experiences go, especially for travelers from outside of Asia. Similar to food courts that you might find in malls, hawkers centers are notable for their food stalls- but instead of five or ten choices, they can have hundreds of options. Making your decision even more complex is that most stalls specialize in a single dish- so if you want to try a few different dishes, you’ll need to make a few different stops before sitting down with your meal. Because we were visiting with the tour, we were seated at a table to get to know each other while our guide selected items to try and delivered them to us, which also eliminated another problem the locals face: finding and holding a table while you embark on a culinary scavenger hunt to complete your meal!
Our first taste of Singaporean hawker food included poh piah (a soft spring roll), chwee kueh (a water rice cake), and chicken rice, which is so famous it’s practically the national dish. Poh piah was my favorite, at least in part because we had a chance to watch as it was made. There’s a real artistry to making the wrapper, which is similar to a thin pancake and involves precise timing as the dough is formed with one hand and the pancake is cooked and flipped with the other hand at the same time. I had been incredibly excited to try chicken rice, and I was surprised to find it was the most disappointing of the dishes we sampled. The rice was delicious; it’s made with a chicken stock cooked specifically for the rice and retains a ton of the flavor. The chicken, though, was more oily skin than meat, and the bottom of each piece had bones and tendons that couldn’t be eaten (by me, anyway). It may have been the stall we tried, or it may be that I’m just not used to eating that part of the bird, but either way it wasn’t for me. One important observation I made, though, was the sauces served with each dish absolutely enhanced the flavors and the quality. Each plate came with one or two sauces designed to compliment the food. It reminded me a little bit of wine tasting, where a wine can be nice on its own but is really enhanced when paired with the right bite. Chicken rice, by most standards a bland dish, is much better when drenched with its accompanying sauce. Despite not loving the food quite as much as I did in KL, I left the table both full and knowledgeable about what dishes might satisfy me more during a future visit. Nothing like a nice lunch with a side of education!
The hawker center is more than just food stalls: it also sits on top of a sizable wet market where locals can purchase groceries, and we spent some time wandering through to get a sense of local life. We saw plenty of things that we’ve seen all over the world, and we also saw things that were a bit more local- like a huge tank of live frogs and a black chicken, also known as a Silkie. As we headed toward the exit, our casual tour quickly departed into bizarre foods territory when our guide purchased the infamous century egg for us to sample.
Century eggs are known by a few names: hundred year-old eggs, thousand year-old eggs, and millennium eggs are the most common (or pídàn in Mandarin). They are preserved in a mixture of clay, ash, and rice for a few weeks or a few months before they are eaten. The reason they have earned such, um, descriptive nicknames is because after time passes both the egg white and the yolk turn black. Sound appetizing yet? We found ourselves staring down one of these eggs as our guide encouraged us to try just one bite. “It’s just a bit alkaline,” he said, smiling. “It tastes like a normal egg.” None of this helped me; I don’t like eggs when they are yellow, let alone black, and alkaline sounded like I might be preparing to ingest a battery, but with a deep breath and a commitment not to revisit my meal from earlier in the afternoon, I popped one piece into my mouth, closed my eyes, and chewed. It tasted like egg salad left out on a warm day, almost as if it was flavored with mayonnaise gone bad. Not an experience I plan to revisit any time soon, but it’s also not at the top of the list of weird things I have eaten during my travels. Adam was even less of a fan. He described it as a hard boiled rotten egg that was dropped into a sweat-soaked gym sock and left to marinate in gasoline for a week. Also, the aftertaste was incredibly strong. We chased it down with one of my emergency Mentos and called it a success.
Our tour continued with a brief stop at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple not far from the Chinatown hawker center, which as the name suggests was built to house a tooth believed to belong to the Buddha. It’s new to Singapore, built in 2005, but it’s impressively designed (and air conditioned) and was a peaceful stop on our way to the Singapore City Gallery, which was my favorite part of the day.
The City Gallery walks visitors through Singapore’s transformation over the last 50 years, from the creation of land to expand the island to how Singapore’s neighborhoods have changed over time. There were some great interactive elements that really enhanced the experience; we felt like we learned a lot about life in the city from our time at the City Gallery.
Our tour wrapped up with one final stop, this time at the Maxwell Hawker Center, where we sampled twice cooked pork and carrot cake- not the dessert with the cream cheese icing, but rather a fried dish made from parsnips. At this stop, with the tour drawing to its conclusion, we had a chance to talk with our guide about life in Singapore. He quickly addressed its reputation: minor offenses like chewing gum or jaywalking aren’t going to get you arrested after all (“The police here have better things to do than chase down tourists,” our guide chuckled). His description of daily life, with an emphasis on family and hard work, gave me a whole new respect for Singapore.
Gardens by the Bay
Feeling weary after a long day of flying, walking, and eating, we spent our one full evening at the Gardens by the Bay. The gardens were a short distance from our hotel, so we took our time walking along the bay which included crossing over the famed Helix Bridge and enjoying the beautiful scenery along the marina.
Opened just about a decade ago, the gardens are part of Singapore’s strategy to improve the city by introducing more of nature into its landscape. The Gardens by the Bay are extensive- you could easily spend hour upon hour exploring the many gardens and displays. It was late, we were tired, and so we found ourselves there for just one attraction: the supertrees.
The supertrees are exactly what they sound like: they are huge, tree-like structures that loom over the gardens. We visited after dark primarily to see the light show that takes place in the Supertree Grove. Three times each night the trees come alive with a light show set to music. Because our visit coincided with the holiday season, we were treated to a light show set to Christmas music! I think the supertree show would be fun to watch any night, but there was something special about standing outside on a hot, humid night listening to Christmas music while the lights danced above our heads.
We stayed for a while to soak in the experience, but exhaustion (and a touch of dehydration) cut our evening short as we made our way back to our hotel to rest up for our final day in Asia.
Raffles: Home of the Singapore Sling
An early highlight of our second day in Singapore was visiting the famous Raffles Hotel, a 15-minute walk from both our hotel and Bugis Street, where we spent a few hours shopping, drinking fresh fruit juices, and dodging crowds. Raffles is perhaps most famous for creating and introducing the world to the Singapore Sling, a delightfully sweet, pink drink that remains a very popular order.
We stopped by the hotel’s Long Bar in the early afternoon and were pleasantly surprised that we only had to wait a few minutes for a table; within ten minutes we were toasting to a great trip with our very own Singapore Slings and a big bag of complimentary peanuts. Even the peanuts are an important part of Singapore’s history; as the story goes, dropping peanut shells on the bar’s floor while you eat is totally fine, as it is the only place in Singapore where littering is legal.
We both loved the Long Bar- and although I felt it would have been irresponsible to order anything but a Singapore Sling, I would have loved to have time for a return trip to try another drink or two from the menu.
Hydrated (well, refreshed at least), we made our way back toward the marina to spend our final hours of sunlight at Merlion Park.
The merlion is Singapore’s national mascot. You’ll see its likeness all over the place; every souvenir shop sells them. Basically, it is the head of a lion on the body of a fish. The fish body represents Singapore’s beginnings as a fishing village when it was called Temasek, which means “sea town” in Javanese. The lion head represents Singapore’s original name Singapura, which means “lion city”.
The merlion is a fairly majestic-looking creature, and the park where the big merlion fountain spits water into the bay is a great place to relax, take pictures, and begin to decompress after a great week of travel- which is exactly what we did. The park, and the walk from the park to our hotel, boasted some incredible city views as well.
As the sun started to set, we found ourselves loading our luggage into yet another taxi, this time heading toward a plane that would take us home.
A Quick Note About Changi
We arrived at Changi International Airport with about four hours to spare before our flight. Usually, we’re not much for sitting around airports, and I try to time our arrival as close to our departure as possible. However, after eight days of walking through Asia- averaging more than 10 miles a day!- and especially after walking through hot, humid Singapore, we both were in desperate need of a shower before embarking on 18 hours of flying. We found very affordable, clean shower facilities in Terminal 3. I can’t begin to share how much better our travel experience was thanks to finding a place to shower and freshen up before the flight. Changi is often listed as one of the best airports in the world, and it absolutely soared to the top of my list after I felt clean and refreshed.
And that wasn’t all.
After checking our luggage and clearing immigration, I couldn’t believe how sore my legs were- the week of walking and the humidity really took its toll on my body during this trip. Like finding water in the desert, we were both amazed to find free- free!– leg massagers in the airport. We spent a very relaxing 15 minutes enjoying a surprisingly strong massage while we waited to board our flight.
I can’t forget to mention Adam’s favorite attraction: in honor of the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens movie, Changi was home to a few big promotional items. We saw life-size X-Wings, TIE Fighters, and Stormtroopers while we waited to check in for our flight.
Showers? Leg massages? Star Wars? If you’re going to spend time in an airport on this planet, make it Changi!
Where We Stayed
Our home sweet home for our final leg of the journey was the Pan Pacific Singapore. With a great location not far from the Gardens by the Bay, we were very impressed by the quality of the service and the rooms. We had booked a standard room in advance of our trip, but when we arrived our room wasn’t ready so we upgraded to a room that was available- for under $50 we got a huge room with terrific views of the city and a luxurious bathroom. We enjoyed snacks and one last drink at the bar in the lobby before leaving for the airport, and the food was very good.
Aside from taxis to and from the airport, we relied on the subway to get around. Clean, efficient, and most importantly air conditioned, public transportation is an inexpensive and reliable way to see Singapore. Sadly, there are signs everywhere warning people against taking photos while on the train, but one sign made me smile while our first ride whisked us to Chinatown. Like so many trains we have been on around the world, the sign warned against smoking, eating, drinking, or carrying flammable goods- and it also requested passengers not carry durians, a popular fruit that smells a bit like sewage. Sometimes it’s the little things that remind you just how far from home you are- and how much there still is to see.
We spent a lot of time over the course of a few months planning for this trip, and it was worth every second. We’ve also had some time to think about the details and a few questions we were asked when we came home: how did we plan the itinerary, how much did we spend, and what would we do differently if we could take this trip again? Stay tuned for a new post on all of those items and more in the next few weeks!
* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we booked a tour with Urban Adventures, and this post includes our candid review of our experience. We selected Urban Adventures based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review.