My final piece of advice on Singapore is simply to give yourself half a day to go walk around the waterfront promenade of Marina Bay. Combined with the Gardens by the Bay, you’re looking at hours of architectural entertainment without spending a dime.

The 3.5 km waterfront walkway led me through the Esplanade concert hall (including free outdoor concert), a floating stadium, the Helix Bridge, the vegas-like Marina Bay Sands complex, the older waterfront hotels, and to a dramatic conclusion face-to-face with a Merlion. I was also lucky enough to time my visit to coincide with the i Light Marina Bay festival which meant I was encountering light-based installation art every hundred meters or so.

Bring good walking shoes because this area provides abundant sights for aimless wanderers like myself.


Singapore’s Marina Bay


Singapore ranks in as the third densest country in the world. The 712 km² island is home to around 5.5 million people. I braced myself for thick crowds and skyscraper labyrinths, but was instead greeted with spacious boulevards and pleasant gardens. Sure they’re not the lush nature preserves we have in Canada, but at least their landscape architects have made an effort to create pockets of organic beauty to save its citizens from the ever-expanding pavement plague.

The most famous garden in Singapore, Gardens by the Bay, is more Star Wars than National Geographic. The Avatar-esque trees act as the centrepiece to a vast development built on 101 hectares of reclaimed land. Most of the park is free but you have to pay admission to its futuristic greenhouse conservatories, the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest.

Plenty of foliage seperates its out-of-this-world attractions and the place isn’t nearly as synthetic as pictures would have you believe. I fondly remember getting lost wandering through the fragrant grounds as I waited for sunset, stumbling upon enlightening exhibitions about tropical fruits or giant floating naked babies. The big payoff was experiencing the transition from day to night and watching the “Supertress Grove” come alive with an impressive light show.

If sci-fi isn’t your thing or you’re looking for a more traditional walk in the park, take the metro over to Singapore Botanic Garden. Singapore’s tourist circuit can be expensive so the free admission is as uplifting as its colourful blooms.

The timing of my visit was unfortunate as it hadn’t rained in over a month and many the greens were closer to browns, but a long stroll through the gardens did wonders for my recovery after I had been coerced the night before into joining some hostel-mates into a night out that eventually wrapped up leaving the famous Zouk nightclub at 4am because, in my infinite backpacker wisdom (aka cheapness), I rationalized that paying the door charge was about the same as the cab ride home if I ditched my companions. They say travel is as much learning about yourself as it is about the world and I can confidently say that in the world of Patrick, serene parks > sweaty nightclubs blaring bad house to roomfuls of trashy outfits and over-gelled haircuts. But instead of leaving you with that sad image, here are some sights from the Botanic Gardens.


Singapore’s Gardens


Singapore’s wealth is generated by a cerebral economy. Banking, IT, biotech, and the refining of imported raw goods make up the brunt of this tiny city-state’s not so tiny GDP. With a society obsessed with creating efficiencies and optimizations, it’s no surprise that Singapore harbours a fertile design community. You’ll see plenty of innovations simply walking around Singapore, but to get a concentrated dose of delightful design, head to the Red Dot Design Museum.

It was one of my only “must-dos” in Singapore and if you’re a designer as well, I highly recommend making the pilgrimage. It’s a small space and some may be disappointed considering the price tag, but you can easily sink a couple of hours in here if you take your time to enjoy the digital catalogues and admire the works on display. If you’re on the fence, at least go check out what might have been my favourite gift shop in the world. They also offer a Singapore design map with locations and descriptions of the museum’s favourite designy places, like the cute book stores, vintage toy shops, or the Singapore City Gallery down the street.

Singapore is a small island. I’ve been told you can drive across it in about 45 minutes at night with no traffic. It has limited fresh water and very few natural resources. Combine this with a tightly packed 5+ million people demanding a world-class city/country and you’ve got one hell of a design challenge. Thankfully Singapore seems to have it all figured out in their “master plan” which you can learn about at the Singapore City Gallery, an absolute must for anyone interested in urban design.

Oh, and the best part about combining these two design showcases is that they’re both down the street from the Maxwell Food Centre, a prime example of flavour design and home of the famous Tian Tian Chicken Rice.


The Design of Singapore


No matter which neighbourhood you’re in, the allegations of Singapore feeling like a nanny state are well deserved. Upon landing, the stewardess gave us the local time, weather, and a cheery reminder that carrying any drugs into Singapore would lead to a mandatory death penalty.

It’s the only airport where I had to go through security getting off the plane. Sure I can understand trying to limit the influx of illicit substances, but some of their rules are just plain silly. Is that chewing gum? Call the police! That’s right, gum is illegal in Singapore. I once caught an expat chewing gum and called him a badass. He explained that he was allowed to bring back a small amount from another country for “personal use,” but if he handed me a piece it would be a state offence. Consider yourself warned.

But don’t worry about having to know all the rules before travelling to Singapore. Why? Because there will be constant reminders explaining what you’re not allowed to do and how to be a better citizen. Here’s my tribute to the overwhelming amount of nanny-state signage posted all over the city.


The Nanny State


I landed in Singapore, a solo traveller once again, and effortlessly found my way to my hostel using Singapore’s user-friendly public transit and well-signed roads. It was so easy that at some points I had to wonder if I got on the wrong plane. Was I still in South East Asia? Singapore is an island of stable modernity in a sea of chaotic growth and development, a bubble of westernization sheltered in the convergence of the Adaman, Java, and South China seas.

Sadly, this urban organization has given Singapore a reputation of being sterile. Pristine condo developments, aggregated shopping malls, soaring office towers, manicured green spaces, rejuvenated heritage neighbourhoods… everything works on paper, but somehow those flawless drawings translate into a city that feels unnervingly inorganic.  But thanks to some friendly locals, I was able to find a different side of Singapore and enjoy a handful of neighbourhoods that had plenty of personality.

It took me no less than 30 minutes to find my first guides. After checking-in to Shophouse and dumping my stuff in the room, I went downstairs to the café attached to the hostel to use the wifi and assure my family that I was alive and well. Two young ladies installed themselves at my table and I naturally commenced the routine hostel small-talk: “Where are you from? How long have you been in Singapore? How’s the hostel?” The response was unexpected: “Singapore. Umm, my entire life. What hostel?” (The cafe was clearly doing fine on its own.) I had bumbled my way into a lovely evening where I got to pick two local brains about their favourite Singaporean offerings in return for tales from abroad. My new friend Hikari even volunteered to tour me around the next day.

We set off in search of her favourite laksa in East Coast Park, a seaside green space that feels pleasantly similar to the Vancouver seawall, except with a much better food selection. It’s the largest park in Singapore and a perfect escape for those who prefer to spend their free time riding a bike along the shore instead of jostling through crowded malls. You won’t see this listed on many travel itineraries since there are no metro stops near the park and the bus service is limited, but you’ll be rewarded by sandy beaches, empty bike paths, and tasty seaside food courts.

If you’ve had your fill of fresh air, you can go smell the spices in Little India. Here you’ll find inexpensive meals, colourful Hindu temples, thick crowds spilling into the streets (especially on Sundays), and just the right amount of grit to make a place feel lived-in. This neighbourhood is also home to most of the city’s backpacker hostels and watering holes.

Kampong Glam was my hood while in Singapore. I initially chose it for its central location and interesting hostel, but the locals hang out here because it manages to retain its historical character with traditional textile merchants and Muslim restaurants while at the same time housing modern design firms, IT startups, fashion boutiques, fusion restaurants, and a thriving nightlife. Hikari toured me around the nearby Bugis neighbourhood en-route to her favourite dessert in the city and I couldn’t help but scoff at the notion of “a boring city” as I strolled down the cobblestone lane surrounded by hawkers, street massages, and performers.

But if I were to move to Singapore, I’d set up shop in Tiong Bahru. Life around this neighborhood caters to people of the “hipster” persuasion: great cafes, a stellar bakery, a lovable bookstore, vintage boutiques, art deco buildings, a big market, plenty of parks to stroll around, and I’m pretty sure I saw a male-only beauty salon that offered mustache grooming. Its biggest asset is simply that the neighborhood exudes a peaceful community feel. It was one of the original mass housing projects developed in Singapore around the 1930s and I’m guessing that these community engineers just hadn’t been corrupted by the post WWII utilitarian efficiencies that plague other housing developments on the island.

If vintage design isn’t your thing, then my last recommendation is to check out the vintage grit of Geylang. A Singapore connection I had through a family friend insisted I check it out because it’s so different than the rest of the island. I’ll admit this recommendation almost fell off of my to-do list since telling people I had to check it out often resulted in a cross look (it’s the red-light district, you see), but all his other recommendations had been so spot-on that I couldn’t help but trust him. Well his batting percentage didn’t suffer from this one. My hostel-mate even thanked me for inviting him along because, as he put it, “this was exactly the Singapore I was hoping I could find.” Untouched by urban renewal projects, Geylang feels like the Asia of the 70s. Karaoke bars, late night noodle shops, old Chinese gangsters scowling with cigarettes dangling from their lips, not-so-discrete brothels… If it weren’t for contemporary cars parked along the streets I would have sworn I’d gone back in time to a pre-boom Singapore. Visit at night for the full effect.

In the end, I think Singapore gets a bad rep without just cause. Sure some people get trapped in the sterile bubble when shuttling between Marina Bay, the Singapore Zoo, Universal Studios, Orchard Park, Chinatown, etc. but if you put in a little legwork, you can certainly find some pockets of personality in this little city-state.


Finding Personality In Singapore


First things first, let’s talk about food. Singapore may be an ultra-modern city developing at breakneck speed, but step into its open-air food courts and it’s clear that this city-state that isn’t about to walk away from its culinary roots any time soon. In this part of the world, hawkers specializing in one dish spend years perfecting their interpretation of a classic. It’s no surprise that each Singaporean I met campaigned loyally for their favorite laksa, prata, or duck rice. I couldn’t help but chuckle whenever I asked a local “what should I do or see in Singapore?” and their answer would inevitably be something along the lines of “well, have you eaten X yet?”

I can’t think of a bad meal I ate in Singapore and, despite popular belief, it was completely affordable. The committee who recently named Singapore the most expensive city in the world must have eaten at the wrong restaurant. I rarely spent more than five bucks on any given meal and I certainly wasn’t depriving myself. In fact, I’m pretty sure that most Singaporeans are obsessed with food because it’s actually one of the cheapest forms of entertainment the country has to offer.


Eating like a Singaporean




Next Stop: Singapore