Singapore is simply fascinating. It’s like few other countries in the world, first because it is the largest city-state there is, but also because there four distinct cultures, Indians, Chinese, Malaysians and Westerners all seem to cohabit in relative peacefulness and mix themselves to form the social fabric of this peculiar nation. Earlier in my travels, when I was in Seoul, I met these two Singaporean girls, and not that we spent a lot of time hanging out back there, but I found their depiction of their homeland very interesting and told them I may come one day.
And after two months, that day finally came. When it became time for me to leave Hawaii and come back to the Asian continent, I figured I had some days to spare before I had to be in Thailand and the tickets to everywhere in South-East Asia were really expensive. Except for Singapore. For those reasons, I decided to take the long way up to Thailand and visit this little island of ultra-modernity.
Singapore could be a foretaste of what the big western cities will be like a couple of decades from now, where the rising price of gas will have put a halt to urban sprawling and where the cost of real estate will have made densification and public transportation the way to go and car-centric designs obsolete.
The city is clean, well urbanized, parks, sporting facilities are abundant and the transportation network is cheap and efficient. Not one piece of trash on the ground, not one cigarette butt, not one act of vandalism, not one advertisement taped to a telephone pole. However, there is this lingering feeling of mistrust in the air, this coldness in spite of the searing hot weather. In many regards, Singapore is an example to follow and in many others, not. The state appears to be really repressive, fines are hefty; any misconduct and civil disobedience I bet is dealt with in a swift and brutal manner. In fact, upon entering the country, in bright big red letters on the customs form is written: Drug trafficking is punishable by death in Singapore. You get the idea.
Still, if me make abstraction of the barely tolerable temperature, aimless wandering in downtown Singapore is pure pleasure, a feast for the eyes, with great architecture everywhere, a bunch of colorful Indian shops selling their wares or a Chinese kitchen catering to its daily load of customers, the city is as I said, fascinating. On one street I was randomly walking on, I came across a mosque, an Hindu and Buddhist temples and I would not be surprised if there was a christian church nearby. Thanks to my Singaporean acquaintances, I also got to see what the city is like outside of its core and away from the shopping centers. While everything remains very much the same, the architecture takes a very communist turn. Understandably, there is not a whole lot of space in the country so the lower classes, those that cannot afford the exorbitant cost of property ownership, are stacked in large concrete apartment blocks. From what I understood, if you do not have a family it’s not really possible for you to buy a house until you are 35 years old and once you do, you can only sell it after five years. As for rentals, I imagine the waiting lines are very long. Consequently, both of my 29 year old friends were still living with their parents.
Singapore’s colonial past and cosmopolitanism certainly has made it stand out among other Asian cities, in the end however, there is only a couple of days’ worth of sightseeing to be done there. Unless you have a very deep wallet and a taste for shopping, the cost of activities is sort of prohibitive as is the nightlife; it starts to feel very artificial pretty fast. No other traveler lingers either. Some are just arriving from elsewhere, some are returning home to their respective country, but no one remains there for a long time.
When I questioned my Singaporean friends about one aspect of their country/city they really liked, they were unanimous: the food. As you might have predicted, so many cultures cohabiting leads to a wide variety of cuisines and fusions, certainly, but in Singapore, it’s also the format into which it is delivered, its accessibility and let’s not forget, the price. It appears that the inhabitants there don’t cook very much for themselves. All over the city you can find large food courts, or hawker centers, set up very much like those found in shopping centers except that they do not consist of your very popular fast-food chain, but of many small specialty kitchens. One serving Korean food, the other Chinese noodles, one dedicated to turtle soup, Indian fare, halal dishes, freshly pressed juices, etc. and in the middle, a larger stall catering to your need in beverages. The diversity is staggering, the one near my hostel must have housed at least 30 kitchens and for a good couple months I could have gone there without having the same meal twice. At a handful of dollars for every dish, no wonder it’s Singapore’s highlight.
My time there
Not so careful reading between the lines will give you a good idea of how my time in Singapore was spent: walking around and eating. Well, eating does not normally count as an activity since you’ll most likely be doing it three times on any given day, but in Singapore, my daily routine got structured around it, walking to the spots where the best restaurants were and always looking forward to the next meal. I did obviously hung out with my friends. We went out one night for Malay food, then translated to a nearby bar for a couple beers and subsequently headed for someone’s apartment (her parent’s actually) for some more drinks and discussions. There, the plan became to climb a hill for a view of the city and possibly a sunrise, but exhausted at 3 am, I took to taking a nap on the floor. At 5, they woke me up to go to this park but once there, no chance, it had been abandoned for some years so whatever viewpoint there might have been, either we could not find or had been overgrown with vegetation.
I made it back to my hostel at 9 and went to bed without bothering to brush my teeth or anything. Still, I managed to make the day a rather productive one by visiting the Singapore modern art museum and touring the Marina Bay Sands and Garden’s by the Bay, both very impressive in their own regard. At that moment, I already sort of had enough of the city and needed to move on so I booked a bus ticket to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for the next evening. The next day, more wandering in the city and at the end of the afternoon I met my friends one more time at a small live-music type of event at a park in the city for a beer. Coming back in time for one more last-meal at my local food court, I boarded my bus for Malaysia and in no time I had left Singapore but not without marveling one last time at its impressive skyline and gigantic shipping port.