I thought I knew Singapore. I’d once passed through for 2 days – sampled my first Singapore Sling and went on the Zoo Night Safari – and foolishly thought that meant I’d seen the best of this island city. Luckily I was invited back despite my ignorance. From Peranakan culture to lush gardens, ‘Mod Sin’ cuisine and street art – I discovered so many different sides to Singapore on my second visit. These are some of the best surprises from that trip.
Singapore is not just about the skyscrapers. Sure it has some awesome skyrises and striking modern buildings (looking at you Marina Bay Sands) but it has Botanical Gardens and large outdoor recreational spaces too. The most astounding of these has to be the avatar-like Gardens By The Bay. Built on reclaimed land, Gardens By The Bay opened in 2011 and consists of a collection of solar-powered ‘supertrees’, a Cloud Forest, Flower Dome and World Of Plants. Perfect for visiting and local families alike, there is a free nightly light show which sees the supertrees dazzle and dance like fireworks. The most popular vantage point to watch the show seemed to be found from lying on the floor. Personally I preferred my seat at the IndoChine Cafe, which you’ll find at the top of the tallest tree.
All of Singapore’s outdoor areas are incredibly efficient – making the most of the precious space. On the Southern Ridges Walk you can cross Henderson Waves, a magnificent sculptural bridge, far removed from the traffic and homes below, whilst at MacRitchie those who dare can take the treetop walk and cross a 250m long free-standing suspension bridge through the rainforest.
On its own separate island is peaceful Pulau Ubin. A cycling/ambling paradise, you can follow paths through palm trees, past lily ponds and wild boars, to the wooden boardwalk over the sea at Chek Jawa.
Yes Singapore has beaches! (Surprised me too.) Sentosa Island is a self-declared state of fun. Made up of several resorts, including Universal Studios and luxury hotels like Shangri-La Rasa Sentosa and W Singapore, there are also sections of beach open to the general public.
We pulled up a lounger for the day at the Miami-inspired Mambo Beach Club. There’s no fee to use their pool and loungers, although you are of course expected to purchase food and drink from their bar and restaurant. Cocktails are expensive throughout Singapore but these seemed good value considering they came with a beach sun lounger and decent tunes.
Excuse me for exposing my ignorance once again but my impression from my first visit to Singapore was that the culture here was very Western. I guess this is a hazard if you only visit the commercial/tourist hubs of Orchard Road and Clarke Quay. Whilst I love the amenities that these places offer it was great to scratch below the surface on this trip and discover the fusion of cultures that make Singapore what it is today.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the Peranakan enclave of Joo Chiat. Peranakan is a Malay term that translates to ‘locally born of foreign descendent’ and is used to describe a culture of people found in Singapore. The Peranakan heritage is a rich mix of European, Chinese, Malay and Indian influences and everything from their homes, to food, language and clothing is a dynamic fusion of these cultures.
Singaporean cuisine in general is a bubbling pot of various influences and at the local hawker centres (food courts) you get a taste of the various foods Singaporean’s love. At the Changi Village Food Centre the most popular dish is Mizzy’s Nasi Lemak – a Malaysian dish of chicken, anchovy sambal, cucumber, fried egg, peanuts and rice. Averaging $3.50 (about £1.75) per meal, you can afford to try a meal from every region during your Singaporean stay.
The Singaporean’s still observe many of the conservative Chinese beliefs – men and women must be wed before co-habiting and homes are purchased according to the principles of Feng Sui, for example. But from the fashion, architecture and new cuisine I experienced, it seems the younger generations have very modern tastes.
Chef Willin Low at Wild Rocket has exquisite modern taste. After studying in the UK and struggling to find much food he found palatable (ha!) he began creating dishes that merge Asian flavours with modern trends. Some of the creations we were lucky enough to sample included slow cooked beef short rib with smoked oyster rib and a pandan (South Asia’s answer to vanilla) panna cotta.
Meanwhile, Janice Wong serves delectable desserts that look like works of art at 2am:dessertbar (click here for more on that topic!) and hidden behind a pop-up shop front in Chinatown is an ultra-trendy speakeasy called the Library. (You’ll need to know the password, found on their Facebook page, or tell a bad joke/do a dodgy dance to get in!) The creative cocktail menu at the Library (the original fake shop front was a library – hence the name) includes concoctions like From Russia With Love, which comes with a love note from James himself, or the Rye N Air, where the Rye Whiskey comes in a small ziplock plastic bag with a sticker across it proclaiming “UK Customs Paid”. (You have to pour it yourself just like on the low-cost airline!)
Singapore had one more surprise for me. As you know I am a little obsessed with street art, but as I was visiting a nation known for its cleanliness I did not have any expectations of finding it here. It took a trip to the Arab Quarter to show me that anything is possible in Singapore though, even street art.