ingapore is one of those cities everyone has heard about and of which everyone has a certain image, but this famous city only becomes a real place once you have been there. Everyone knows the eponymous airline, and often connects it with extreme luxury and beautiful stewardesses in tight uniforms. The city does have an air of luxury. You can spend away your life savings in expensive stores and exclusive restaurants, and sleep on Egyptian cotton sheets dreaming of what you’ll eat next. You can drink cocktails, such as the famous Singapore Sling, in fancy bars.
This striving for luxury and 5 star facilities does have a downside. The city is so clean that it is just too clean. There are so many rules, you start to feel uncomfortable. Not flushing a public toilet, begging, eating and drinking on the wrong place, smoking outside of smoking zones, spitting, walking around nude in you own hotel room, … to just name a few, are all strongly prohibited. Even chewing gum (the sale of which is forbidden) is semi-illegal. And if you are here illegally or just overstay your visa, you get caned. Rule here, more rules there, everything to get you to walk in line. A city that is trying to perfect itself, but has maybe become too perfect.
However, not everything is as perfect as it seems. Most of its population seems to spend all their waking hours looking at a smartphone screen, even when walking the streets home from work, which leads to some pretty surreal sights and stumbles.
Apart from that, it is a pretty interesting place to visit. Granted, we wouldn’t make a big detour for Singapore’s city life in itself, but when you are here you might as well see all the sights. And that isn’t even that difficult. As a Singaporese traveller told us: “What would you want to do in Singapore: there is absolutely nothing to do there, but it all costs an awful lot of money”. In short, you could have a look at the “Merlion” (one of the worst tourism mascots ever), that boat on top of a hotel (a.k.a. the Marina Bay Sands), walk around Gardens by the Bay. Sniffing some pollen in the beautiful botanical gardens and sniffing out a few different cultures in the Chinese, Malay or Indian neighbourhoods are definitely worth it. This succesful and mostly harmonious mix of cultures is one of the most interesting aspects of Singapore, which you do not only see in the streets but also on your plate. (Read more about the food here.) You can act rich by strolling through one of the grand hotels (e.g. the Raffles), you can have your fortune told in Waterloo Street and enjoy the often impressive architecture. One of our unexpected highlights was the Buddha tooth relic temple.
As everywhere, we do find things we like and get to know some pretty cool corners, but our main problem with Singapore is that it is all just too expensive for us. If you travel on a budget, this place won’t do you any favours. We are lucky that we can stay with a friend of Maarten’s family and enjoy the view over Singapore from his beautiful 36th floor apartment. For experiments with eggs it is also the perfect place, but that is another story altogether.
Our host Sven, makes sure that we see the city inside out. We get to see a few off the beaten track spots and hear some great stories about life in Singapore. The first night we are guided to a street-art festival in the Arab Street Area. Where the beer is as expensive as if it were a masterpiece in itself (and they don’t even serve real beer, only Heineken). DJ’s and bands, graffiti on cars, expensive snacks, etc… A lot of atmosphere, but of course not until the early hours, there are some rules against that as well…
We do not only get to see street art but also all types of coffee art. We get invited to the opening of a coffeebar, again thanks to Sven and his girlfriend Valerie. And it has to be said, getting on the guest list of an event in Singapore is pretty great. We get to try out all sorts of coffee & alcohol cocktails, play barrista, order little works of art made with coffee based paint, and have our fortune told by a green parrot (read more about that here). And of course, this is luxurious Singapore, there is not only free flowing wine but also a steady supply of Veuve Cliquot champange … for FREE… That is something you don’t have to say twice to a Belgian…. Voilà, we have been immersed in the trendy life in Singapore, or at least we have tested the water.
But is the city really that glamourous? Is it really as great as the projected image wants you to believe? During our time here, we got to meet expats and locals and have heard a few viewpoints on Singa life. Rich Singaporese, trendy Singaporese but also Singaporese who can barely afford living here themselves, expats who have fallen in love here, expats who feel constrained by the tight rules. Expats who love the forward looking and openess of the local start up community and the local entrepeneurs. Because the latter is also something typical: the Singaporese are very entrepreneurial and not easily scared away from reaching their goals. Hard working, entrepreneurial and set on progress, this city has it all to keep on making it in the global economy.
Our absolute favourite thing to do in Singapore is sampling the food, for which we would make a detour. Luckily licking your fingers is not illegal here (to our knowledge), because we had to do it pretty often. We don’t have the cash to patronise Singapore’s fancy restaurants but that doesn’t matter. Because some of the best food is to be found in the food markets / hawker centers. Where food from all of Singapore’s cultures is brought together at affordable prices. Delicious!!! We head there for every meal of the day, because noodles and dumplings are a perfectly normal breakfast no? For more on Singapore’s food, look here.
These food paradises are also the perfect place to meet up with some of the other expats we know here. We meet up with Maarten’s former colleague, Els, who tells us about the transition from Belgium to Singapore and we catch up with Maarten’s cousin Pieter-Jan over a few beers and plates of hawker food.
A pretty cool entrepreneurial city with a mix of cultures and filled with a lot of expats that have seen the world. However, it hasn’t captured our hearts the way for instance Hong Kong has. You can read more about our Hong Kong experiences here.
Take a look at our pictures here, there are no rules for that…
I have been going to Singapore since the beginning – 1965. It really stunk in the old days. You could smell it from the airport. It just gets better and better every year. You are right though – it is getting more expensive every year. Pauline has joined me since 2010. We don’t find the rules all that restricting. If someone wanted to jail me for seeing me naked in my hotel room – good luck to them. I would run around my jail cell naked and what could they do about it. The best thing to do is go to the roti canai workshop at the Casuarina, or take a bumboat across to Pulau Ubin, or go on the Farm Tour in Kranji, or have a Carl’s Jr burger at Vivo City, or get the Cable Car to Sentosa, or, or, or … we never run out of something to do or enjoy – but then we are easily pleased.
Great read! When I first went to Singapore in 2011, I thought more or less exactly the same as your first few paragraphs; sparkling pavements and no soul; lots of rules and an atmosphere of hygiene but not a lot of fun. I see you’ve had the benefit of meeting lots of different people, and like myself, after a couple of visits (I live in Malaysia) and being exposed to more of ‘real’ Singapore, it’s grown on me more every time since!