Our philosophy about Singapore was that after flying two back-to-back 12-hour flights this would be a good moment for a long weekend of luxury before anything more adventurous. Singapore is one of the richest countries in the world and people often project a lot onto it: tax haven, Disneyland, multicultural bastion, lush garden city, ‘semi-free’ democracy with harsh penalties for dropping gum. Near and dear to my heart is that it’s a thriving city-state – much rarer in our time than it used to be – which gives it a certain freedom to experiment in ways that other countries cannot.
So even though people are often a little sceptical of Singapore, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t have a great time here. There is a lot of spectacle, but it goes hand-in-hand with a lot of natural beauty too. And although it is obviously an expensive place to visit there are also a surprising number of free things to see and do, plus relatively cheap hawker centres for food, so even if you were travelling on a tight budget it would still be worth your time to visit.
As for us, we had originally booked two nights here at the M Social Hotel. This was my carefully selected compromise: a funky, boutique hotel which would be an indulgence but also not soak up too much of our overall budget. Later, Randi’s parents blew this out of the water with a Hanukkah gift of an additional night at Marina Bay Sands. Yes, that’s the one at the end of Crazy Rich Asians with the magical infinity pool overlooking the city. Thank you! 😀
We flew from Buenos Aires to Barcelona with LEVEL – a budget airline which disguises itself as Iberia – and then on to Singapore with Singapore Airlines. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with budget flights but it’s annoying when this is only revealed at the last minute. For example, if we had known that the only food available was (a) teeny-tiny, (b) expensive and (c) not vegetarian, Randi might have packed more to eat for a 12-hour flight than trail mix.
On the other hand, all this made Singapore Airlines seem gratuitously luxurious so we arrived into Singapore pretty cheerful (though very sleep deprived) and bought our three-day tourist passes for the public transport which, you won’t be surprised to learn, is fantastic. Fun fact: to drive a car in Singapore you need to bid for a 10-year Certificate of Entitlement (which can cost more than the car itself) and you can really see the positive results on the city. Somewhat less warm and fuzzy is the decision to play a graphic video guide – on a loop – about how to react to a terrorist attack, complete with a bomb going off in a subway carriage. You also see a glimpse of the nasty and violent side of Singaporean justice when caning is threatened as a punishment for sexual harassment. And trust me – I looked it up later – it’s a lot more intense than caning in schools.
Singapore is one of two countries on this trip where my global data roaming doesn’t work, so it was a nice touch to find that all rooms at the M Social come with their own phone to help navigate the city. I also appreciated the infinity pool – it was just a little outdone by what came next, sorry – but was sad to note that the room service robot, Aura, was on sick leave during our visit so we never experienced the joy of a robot coming up to bring us more toiletries. Other than settling into the hotel, on the first day we also walked to nearby Chinatown for lunch from the market along Pagoda Street. There were pigs everywhere, having just passed Chinese New Year and beginning the Year of the Pig. (Congratulations, Katie.)
The next day we got up early and hit the city, starting with the incredible Botanic Gardens. The name undersells it. It is free to visit, absolutely huge and Hampstead Heath-esque in blending picnic-friendly open spaces with wooded areas, except here the wooded areas are rainforests and include some raised paths through the trees. Most of the park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and signs fastidiously inform you when you are moving between the World Heritage site proper and the UNESCO “buffer zone”, whatever that means. It’s all beautiful.
Afterwards we ate lunch at the amazing Lau Pa Sat market before walking through the centre of the business and financial district, Raffles Place, and arriving back at the river. On the other side we found Parliament tucked away behind some museums – utterly dwarfed by the skyscrapers in the background – and then crossed through Fort Canning Park to the National Museum of Singapore. This tells the story of Singapore from its 14th century origins through its growth as a colonial trading post, occupation by Japan during WW2, forming part of Malaysia in 1963 before being expelled in 1965 and becoming an independent sovereign state. I was mesmerised by the famous press conference where the Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, breaks down at the failure of the merger before rallying with his vision for the new Singaporean state (worth watching despite the music which someone has unnecessarily added over the top).
The Museum is also home to a somewhat strange Story of the Forest exhibition in a giant glass rotunda. I’m not quite sure how to describe this. It’s a bit like walking through a digital version of Yellow Submarine, but set in Bambi’s wood, and at the end you can lie on the floor in the dark and listen to calming music as you look up at floor-to-ceiling projections of flowers and wildlife. I am not exactly sure if there are many stoned teenagers in Singapore (“DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS” is printed in red capital letters on your immigration entry form) but if so this would be perfect for them.
That night we met up with my friend Stephanie for Indian food and drinks in some of Singapore’s hipper, more bohemian streets. I met Stephanie the first time I visited Kuala Lumpur for work back in 2014 and she has recently moved here. I’m really glad we got the chance to hang out again and appreciated her answering all of the questions I had built up about Singapore by that point.
Marina Bay Sands is not just a hotel – it’s a sprawling complex with a giant shopping centre home to absurdly expensive brands, a massive food court, a casino and a direct connection to the famous Gardens by the Bay. We had deliberately left this whole area for our last day and it certainly ramped up the Disneyland vibe several more notches. We checked in early and our bags were taken away to be brought up to our room after the official check-in time, but then we ended up having an extended discussion with the guy at the check-in counter about his South American travel plans and (possibly as a result) we were allowed into our room early.
And what a room… wow. The view over the harbour was incredible and (most exciting to me) it came with a whole seating area of chairs and sofas which would have been perfect for reading and blogging had we been the children of billionaires who could afford to stay here for longer than one night.
We decided to pay a brief visit to the Gardens by the Bay before throwing ourselves into total relaxation at the hotel. This was impressive and everything, but I think both of our minds were chanting “Infinity Pool! Infinity Pool!” and after seeing the famous Supertree Grove we soon hurried back to cool down on the 57th floor. While visitors can pay to go up to the hotel’s observation deck the pool area is kept strictly for guests, with one key card per person required to enter, thwarting any plans you might be hatching to visit Singapore and befriend someone who is staying here. Once you are in, the pool stretches along almost the entire length of the roof and is utterly gorgeous. As you might expect the whole area is well-catered for with food, drinks, bars, lounges and hot tubs, and you can take your pick of places to sit including deck chairs which rest in the shallow water of the pool itself.
I did once stay at a hotel in Carcassonne with a pool at the top. But this was better. (Sorry, that’s a joke with a maximum audience of three.)
That night we went down to the Event Plaza at the front of the hotel to watch the Spectra Light Show, which opens with some intimidating lasers seemingly beaming down from the hotel roof – as if to herald the imminent arrival of an alien fleet – before moving on to lots and lots of lights and fountains and water spray. In one particular section the music seemed suspiciously like they had removed just enough notes from the Pirates of the Caribbean theme to avoid a copyright suit.
Afterwards, we headed back up to the pool to drink Singapore Slings while dangling our feet in the water and having a long discussion about the economics of luxury hotels. I realise that this does not really qualify as ‘backpacking around Asia’ but I have no regrets about our Singaporean holiday-within-a-holiday.