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Singapore

When I was 16 my father got a job offer to move to Singapore for a 2-year post and after some careful planning, the whole family moved and set up a new life in the Far East. Since returning to the UK for university in 2004 I've been back to Singapore a number of times and always with the primary objective to see old friends. This isn't going to be a 'travel' blogpost as many of the others are, but rather a bit of a trip down memory lane for me and hopefully with a few little suggestions of places to go and things to see if you've never been. Before I begin, I'd just like to clarify that I am most certainly not the best equipped person to write about Singapore, I haven't lived there in more than 10 years! Anyway, here's it as I see it through my rose-tinted glasses!

Welcome to Singapore

ChangiYou've touched down at one of Changi's three passenger terminals and are one of the 50+ million people that pass through the airport every year. Now you've probably got quite a wait at immigration, albeit an efficient and well-organised wait. Once through immigration, you've got baggage claim and your last chance to grab something duty free. If you like your spirits I recommend grabbing a bottle now. Booze in Singapore ain't cheap! Once you've got your bags, booze and bags of booze it's time to head to the city. There are a few options here but in my opinion there's no really decision to be made; you're getting the MRT. Basically just follow the signs for 'Trains' and when presented with a barrier that's where you need you EZ Link card (or ticket). Buy one from uncle or auntie in the ticket office, or just get a ticket from a machine. Then get on your super efficient and clean train, and go 2 stops to Tanah Merah. Now you must get off the train, but before you do, prepare yourself as this is likely your first time out of air-con in Singapore. Chances are you were beginning to feel the cold in the MRT and wondering why you hadn't brought a jumper. Now outside, the warmth hits you but so does the humidity...Welcome to Singapore!

Singapore's National Sport

When I lived in Singapore we used to affectionately joke that Singapore's national sport was cooking. They are, after all, bloody good at it! If there's one thing you absolutely should spend a lot of time doing in Singapore it's eating! If you're vegetarian and you don't like tofu you might have a different opinion but otherwise this place is like heaven for us meat and particularly seafood eaters. In general, Singapore is an expensive city but when it comes to food you can get a very good deal if you go to the right places. Everyone has their favourite hawker centre in Singapore but mine for nostalgia sake is at Newton Circus. It's expensive (relatively), too big and quite touristy but is right by the centre of town and has pretty much everything you'll want. This section about food in Singapore could quite literally be 10,000 words long but I'll summarise a few of the places that I suggest you absolutely cannot miss out on!

  • Chicken RiceBoon Tong Kee - 425 River Valley Rd - Chicken rice is to Singapore is like Fish'n'Chips is to England and Burgers are to the US. It may not be that representative of what the country eats all the time, but chicken rice is so big in Singapore that it justifies a review of the top 47 stalls in the country! It may have come at #25 in that review and have all the cons they describe, but Boon Tong Kee is still my favourite...and it's open until 4am so if you want a 'snack' after a few beers then why not!?
  • Mr Prata - 26 Evans Rd - Coming a close second to chicken rice as a stereotypical, yet pretty accurate, dish that's consumed en masse in Singapore is prata. I don't know whether it's the population of South Indians that live in Singapore or that all nationalities enjoy stretched and fried dough, but either way there's a lot of prata to eat in Singapore and everyone will have their favourite place and flavours (cheese, egg and mushroom anyone?!). For me it's Mr Prata, despite its odd location right opposite a running track and in between two main roads!
  • DinTaiFungDin Tai Fung - various - Dumplings. Squishy, rice doughballs filled with delicious hot (scold-your-mouth-hot) soup and pork or shrimp; what more could you want? These things can be found all over the place and although Din Tai Fung probably isn't the best 'bang for your buck', there's definitely something quintessentially Singaporean about it to me! Make sure you go early though, especially on a weekend or at the Wisma Atria location!
  • ChilliCrab Chilli Crab - East Coast Parkway - See food? Eat food! I'm not picking a single place on East Coast to get your chilli crab for two reasons: 1) I haven't tried them all and 2) They're probably all very much the same! The picture here is from Jumbo Seafood but probably best to make sure you book ahead if you're going there. Chilli crab may be one of the messiest and fiddly-est dishes in the world but it is oh so worth it.
  • Satay - Newton Food Centre - To be completely honest satay is satay in my opinion. It's essentially just a meat skewer (usually chicken or mutton) served with a peanut soy sauce. Absolutely delicious but you're probably paying less than S$ 0.50 per skewer and can get a decent peanut sauce almost anywhere. Just make sure you get at least lots, two or three won't be enough. Trust me!
  • WantonNoodleWanton Noodles - Old Airport Rd Hawker - This is a relatively recent change to my list and hence why I don't have a photo! Wanton Mee (noodles) and Char Siu Noodle Soup have always been staples of mine when in Singapore but when I visited last I stayed with a friend near Old Airport Rd Hawker and have now upgraded it to be my favourite place to get Char Siu and Wantons. Tangy and sweet but with all the satisfaction of a bowl of mashed potatoes (to try and use a 'British' analogy).
  • Everything else - I could go on and on: Dim Sum, Laksa, Hokkein Mee, Sambal Sting Ray, Pig's Organ Soup, Char Kway Teow, and even Durian or Kacang...but really almost anything you order at hawker centres will be cheap and delicious. Just make sure you ask uncle or auntie if it's really spicy - my European palette wasn't quite ready for some things!

One beer is how much?!

If you planned on having a few beers while you're in Singapore, maybe trying some of their sumptuous Tiger beer, then don't expect it to be cheap! While a plate of chicken rice may set you back a mere S $3 (US $2.20/£1.50), your pint of Tiger in a Clark Quay bar will be three times that. Yep, that's right, you could have three delicious meals for the price of one pint depending on where you go. Of course it's not that expensive everywhere and you can pick up 660ml (more than a pint) bottles of Tiger at a hawker centre with your chicken rice for S $7 (US $5.20/£3.50) putting it in line with everywhere else in the world. But if you're commited to paying through the nose for a few drinks here's a few areas to go!

  • Clark Quay - I mention it up there because it's probably one the most likely places you'll end up going for a drink. Redone in the last 10 years it's a covered (for the most part) open-air collection of bars, restaurants and night clubs. Typically frequented by the younger generations after a certain time, it's a good place for everyone before that time and there are loads of places to choose from. Highlight: Brewerkz - good beer and great burgers since a long time ago.
  • tigerbeerChijmes - Generally speaking there are more restaurants than bars at Chijmes but to me there's nothing that special about the food. And while the drink isn't that special either the setting is worth going to for a beer at least. Set inside/around an ancient (for Singapore) chapel and what used to be an orphanage, the history of this complex is what it has going for it. Make sure you go at happy hour for that drink though, otherwise you might be paying S $20 for a beer! Ouch!
  • Raffles - Located right next to Chijmes you'd be a fool to go there and not go to Raffles. It's expensive, touristy and reminiscent of a more oppressive time of Singapore's history (i.e. when British Colonials ruled the country) but none of that can really be helped. Here, it would only be traditional to have two drinks...first have a yard of ale while chomping on peanuts and throwing their shells on the floor, then chase that back with a Singapore Sling. Delicious!
  • SuperTree - Likelihood is that if you're in Singapore and sightseeing then you're probably planning a trip to Marina Bay Sands (that big skyscraper that looks like a surf board on three pillars). In which case you might as well time your visit with one to the Gardens By The Bay and stop by for a late beer at the SuperTree by Indochine to watch the sun go down. After all, when else are you going to relax at the end of a day on top of a fake tree that generates energy?
  • Tanjong Beach Club - If you're only in Singapore for a few hours on a stop-over this one's probably out of your reach. But if you're considering a beach day on your trip to this metropolis (yes, it is possible), you should consider going to Tanjong Beach Club on Sentosa and enjoying a few drinks while gazing out at...ok the view isn't great; it's probably more oil tankers and a murky haze. But it's still pretty good all things considered. Bring a volleyball to play in the sand in-between your cocktails and sunbathing.
  • Others - There are so many places to grab a beer or 2 in Singapore it's ridiculous. And what's more, they're always changing! I could mention Madame Butterfly at Clark Quay with its Ice Bar, Zouk and its headline DJs, or 1-Altitude with its 'over-the-top' lavish-ness but stunning view...but in all honesty I'd much rather go to a hawker centre with a bunch of friends and while away the hours with countless 'cheap' beers, friendly aunties and some of the best food in the world.

Where's the sand?

"What touristy things should I do?" is a question I often get asked by friends when they're heading to Singapore for the first time. But the short answer is "I don't know!". I can honestly say that I've done almost nothing touristy in Singapore, despite having lived there and visited numerous times since. However, there are a few things that would recommend if you're certain you want to do the 'tourist thing'.

  • Marina Bay SandsMarina Bay Sands - Probably the most obvious choice for a tourist destination now in Singapore. The iconic building with ludicrously expensive designer shops and lavish hotel rooms gets a huge number of tourists flocking there every day, all year round. For the most part I don't see the attraction but there are a couple of exceptions to this. If you are staying at the hotel you can access the infinity pool on the top and get some breathtaking views (weather depending) while enjoying the comfort of a relaxing swim. Additionally, everyone can go up to the SkyDeck at the very top and get a drink up there. I highly recommend it and suggest going at night to get a refreshing Gin and Tonic.
  • Sentosa - This tiny island just to the south of the Singapore 'mainland' has continually been redeveloped over the last 15-20 years and now is a large collection of bars, beach clubs, an aquarium and even a small golf course. A while back now there used to be a noteworthy theme park on Sentosa with assortment of roller coasters and rides but after that was shut down development focussed on making the most of the beaches. Now, however, there is a Universal Studios on Sentosa. I have no idea whether it's worth it (although I doubt it) and if I had the choice I'd probably just choose to ride the monorail to the giant Merlion. That's the real attraction!
  • Gardens By The Bay - I mentioned them before when suggesting the SkyTree bar but the gardens themselves are also well worth a visit. There are indoor and outdoor areas which in some ways compare to some botanical gardens, though with an odd 'futuristic' twist.
  • River Cruise and Merlion - It makes it sound quite exotic: "River Cruise". In actual fact it's a small, sometimes single prop, boat that tours up and down the river that flows through 'downtown' Singapore. It's a pretty effective way of seeing a lot of the city from a unique angle, and if you get a good guide you'll learn a fair bit too. The highlight is probably the most cliché but famous token Singapore thing, the Merlion that fires water from its mouth.
  • Little India (and China Town) - The mix of cultures and nationalities in Singapore is staggering. The city, like most big cities, has areas where you feel communities congregate and Little India and China Town are certainly the highlights from my point of view. It feels a lot more authentic, even though they're pretty accommodating and used to tourists dominating the streets. While there's nothing much 'to do' in these areas, they're still worth a visit to see the temples and vast differences in achitecture.
  • All the rest - At the end of the day Singapore is a big city and with that comes all the usual things that you can do anywhere. I could mention the esplanade that hosts good theatre, the night safari that's great for people of all ages, the countless museums and temples dotted throughout the city, and even the zoo, bird park and Palau Ubin. But in reality, most of these you can do elsewhere and if you've only got a few days they're probably not worth it.

It may seem a little ridiculous to only include food, drink and 'things to do' in a travel blog about a whole country but I don't have much more knowledge than that! And in any case, I stick by this one statement - if you've only got a few hours to kill in Singapore, make sure you spend the majority of them eating!

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