Everyone slightly familiar with Asia knows the Singapore cliches. It’s spotless and expensive, bubble gum is illegal and they love to publicly cane criminals on the ass with a bamboo stick. Lots of tourists staying for a couple of days as part of a longer trip, return with the image of a utopian Asian Disneyland on their mind. To be fair, I had the same idea after my first short visit. It felt a little too sterile to be very adventurous. I decided to give it another shot this year, and I’m very glad I did. The cliches are what they are, but there’s far more hidden under the surface than you would think at first glance.
“Everyone familiar with Asia knows the Singapore clichés. It’s spotless and expensive, bubble gum is illegal and they love to publicly cane criminals on the ass with a bamboo stick.”
Singapore is one of the most diverse societies on the planet. My hostel was located in Chinatown: an area where you’ll find a Buddhist and a Hindu temple, a mosque and dozens of bars within a 200m circle. Lovely neighbourhood by the way, full of brightly painted old facades. Ok, the Singapore you know from the internet – everything around Marina Bay and on Sentosa – is of course completely over the top. You can even row a boat through the shopping mall here. But elsewhere things are often quite cosy, pretty low-key and very green. My hostel kitchen looked out on a tiny park full of colourful birds whistling their little hearts out, almost literally in the shadow of the nearby skyscrapers. A patch of nature and some good clean air: a welcome change of scenery for everyone used to the smog of the Asian megacities. Here are five tips to discover a different Singapore on your own.
1. Eat in a hawker centre
Whoever thinks they’ll make it with a couple of bucks for supper is going to have a hard time in Singapore. Most restaurants are more pricey than in Brussels and alcohol is exponentially more expensive – I’m talking five dollars for a small can of shit beer at 7/11. Luckily there’s no real need to be in a restaurant at all. All over the city you’ll find food courts full of little stalls: the so called hawker centres. Here you can sample basically every known Asian dish for almost nothing. It looks a little shabby and you’ll have to share your table with some wandering oldtimers, but it’s as tasty and authentic as it gets. It’s always busy as well. The food courts are a crucial part of everyday life. Some of the stalls produce actual high standard food. Two of them even got a Michelin star for it. In the Chinatown Food Complex right next to the subway, you’ll find the very poetically named Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle stall, where the chef still sells his dishes on a paper plate for less than $2 per piece, even after getting his star. It’ll take you a while to get your order, but in Asia the length of the waiting line is the best indicator for the tastiness of the food. Here’s a list of every hawker centre per neighbourhood: www.visitsingapore.com/en_my/editorials/the-street-food-of-singapore/.
2. Visit the ten courts of hell
Singapore is home to more than a few theme parks, Universal Studios being the main one. Haw Par Villa is an amusement park as well, but of a very different kind. This kitschy little park was founded in the ‘30s, and takes visitors on a journey through Buddhist mythology. It does so – to my boundless amusement – with the help of more than 1,000 often hilariously goofy sculptures. The highlight is without a doubt the cave showcasing the ten courts of Buddhist hell. According to tradition every sinner has to be judged and adequately punished here, before reincarnating into a new life. The punishments are quite specific. Murderers get their head and arms chopped off and rapists are boiled in hot oil. Harsh but fair one might say, were it not that far less obvious sins are up for punishment as well. Ever returned a library book slightly damaged? Well, prepare to be catapulted into a tree full of knives. Ever owned or even looked at porn? Better get ready to be vertically cut in half. It’s going to get busy in that sixth court of hell, I’m sure. www.hawparvilla.sg
3. Get out of the city
The average trip to Singapore lasts only three days. This is why lots of tourists only see Gardens by the Bay as far as nature walks go. Fantastic park of course, but there’s so much more to explore. The Singapore Botanic Gardens are UNESCO world heritage and the Singapore Zoo is considered one of the world’s best as well. There are wonderful beaches to enjoy in East Coast Park, and in the MacRichie Reservoir you can walk through the treetops for hundreds of meters. I decided to visit the Southern Ridges – a hilly and forested patch of nature, connecting a couple of individual parks. You’re just a 100 meter away from civilisation here, but sometimes it feels like you’re in the middle of the jungle – screaming gangs of monkeys included. The beautifully designed Henderson Waves Bridge is the most impressive structure in the Ridges, and allows you to walk from park to park 36m above the highway running directly under it. The incredible view is completely free of charge, as are the couples getting their wedding pics made on the bridge.
4. Marvel at a chipped tooth
The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple was located just two minutes from my hostel. This gigantic temple looks authentic but is less than 20 years old. Its only purpose is to house a single chipped tooth, once part of the Buddha’s radiant toothpaste smile. The piece was discovered in the eighties, and while experts dispute its authenticity and even suggest it might be a cow’s tooth, it was decided to build a 62 million dollar structure around it anyway. Religious relics are serious business here. Whether or not the tooth is authentic and whether or not the Buddha lost it eating toffee we’ll never know, but the resulting complex is impressive nonetheless. The temple can be visited for free, and a couple of times a day the local monks hold a service. This is when you can come and enjoy some relaxing uhm-chants that would make the average hippie get the shivers. The tooth itself is revealed on certain times as well, after which it can be freely gazed upon. Ah, the marvelous world we live in. Isn’t traveling just an adventure?
“The temple’s only purpose is to house a single chipped tooth, once part of the Buddha’s radiant toothpaste smile.”
5. Have some fun at the airport
Waiting for your flight is by far the most annoying part of every journey. You’re always way too early, you have to go through that excruciating security check just to get fondled by some frustrated dropouts, and the guy next to you will – by definition – always smell like a mixture of salami and old sweat. Not so in Singapore. Changi Airport almost always tops the list of best airports on the planet, and not only because it takes just fifteen minutes to make it out of there with your checked-in luggage after landing. No, every terminal is stuffed with cool attractions – both in front and behind the check-in desks. Some Singaporeans actually come and hang out here in their free time, just because it’s fun. What exactly can you find here? Well quite a lot. Just to name a couple of things: a butterfly garden with a waterfall, a rooftop terrace full of cacti and a bar to watch the planes take off from, an open air swimming pool on another roof, a koi pond full of orchids and a cinema complex. There are also automated seats giving free foot massages at every gate, and that’s just awesome. A world away from Brussels Airport, where you’ll have to make due with a praline shop and two old Playstations.
There, those were my experiences in Singapore. Did I forget one of your favourite spots? Do you think Singapore IS boring and do you feel the need to tell the world? Think my pictures are great/total crap? Feel free to go wild in the comments below!
PS: I stayed at Tribe Theory: a mix between a hostel and a co-working space, where you can sleep in capsules. Great atmosphere and funny people behind the counter. www.tribetheory.com