Asia Cities + Snow Mini-Tour: Singapore

Teresa and I are still working on our recaps of our Taiwan cycling adventures, but in the meantime we are back on the road for a short trip around Asia composed strictly of city-states (Singapore and Hong Kong) and snowboarding destinations (Niseko and Hakuba, Japan). Here’s a summary of our short stay at our first stop, Singapore!

Dates: Dec 7 – 9 (64 hours from arrival to departure)
Airlines: Jetstar Asia (arrival), Scoot (departure)
Accommodations: 5footway.inn Project Ann Siang
Transportation: Singapore MRT, our feet

Our cities + snow mini-tour of Asia began with a trip to Singapore and a challenging travel schedule right off the bat. To go from Taitung on Taiwan’s southeastern coast to our hotel in Singapore, our itinerary looked like this: 3.5-hour train ride to Taipei, 45-minute subway ride to Taipei Airport, 4-hour flight to singapore, 4 hours of early morning…nothing at Singapore airport (we planned to arrive at 1 AM, but the subway doesn’t begin running until about 5 AM), and then a 45-minute subway ride to our hostel. All in all, not difficult logistically, but we were worried a bit about surviving the night in the airport and then trying to make the most of our first day while running on little-to-no sleep.

Fortunately, our travels began smoothly, as our travels to Taipei Airport went off without a hitch. We encountered our first hiccup at check-in for our Jetstar Asia flight, where we ran up against the weight limits for our carry-on bags, a practice that I’ve never seen in the US but appears to be common on Asia’s low-cost carriers. It felt especially silly given that the one checked bag we had pre-purchased was entirely filled with snowboarding boots, helmets, and clothing for our Japan stops, and yet we were on our way to a city showing 85+ degree weather for the duration of our stay. We reluctantly paid to check an additional backpack, sheepishly grabbed the belongings we had been frantically reshuffling, and soon boarded our flight.

Day 1

The first thing I happened to notice about Singapore, as I groggily looked out the window four hours later on our approach to the airport, was the impressive array of container ships and oil tankers arrayed offshore. While Singapore is well-known as an urban finance hub for Southeast Asia, it is also a major refiner and producer of petroleum products. The facilities for these activities have been carefully sited away from the city center to reduce pollution and maintain air quality for residents; we never once saw them during our stay.

Safely on the ground, we wandered for a while in Singapore’s Changi Airport, which has been voted the best airport in the world and features a enormous number of shops, several transit hotels (where passengers with connections can catch a few hours of sleep without needing to exit through immigration and later re-enter through security), movie theaters, a butterfly garden, and a pool. Unfortunately, many of the attractions had closed down by the time we deplaned and the transit hotels were quite pricey, so we searched for a place to get a few winks of sleep. After trying a rest area with lounge chairs (all already occupied) and some soft ottoman-type thing (lights were too bright), we wandered into a less-populated area and made use of the free foot-massage machines while plotting our next move. This proved to be a poor choice, as Teresa became somewhat stuck when the power to parts of our terminal was cut off and the machines powered down with her feet still inside. After Teresa extracted herself, we cozied up on a row of chairs that wasn’t partitioned by metal armrests and dozed off.

We awoke a few minutes shy of 3:30 AM, when a kind security guard awakened us, requesting to see our passport and boarding pass. Since we were not waiting for a connecting flight, he ask us to leave the secure area. As we sleepily grabbed our things and walked out, I realized that the security guard had only been the friendly face of the nightly sweep operation, as a handful of additional security guards and some tough-looking military dudes with assault rifles were trailing just a little ways behind. We had taken a small gamble by letting our checked bags go through to the carousel ahead of us, but after clearing immigration we easily located them in a pile by the baggage offices and went to await the 5:30 AM opening of Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit, or MRT. We killed time whatever way we could (napping, reading, getting our MRT passes at a ticket counter), and then took the airport Skytrain to the MRT station and headed for the city center.

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We never again saw Chinatown this quiet.

Emerging at our stop in the quiet, humid darkness, we made our way among enormous towers, confusing construction detours, and smaller 2-3 story buildings until we came to our hostel. We piled our luggage by the unmanned check-in counter and took in a bit of calm in Chinatown before heading for the Maxwell Food Center and our first encounter with “hawker” fare.

A well-established feature of Singapore, hawker centers are essentially food courts which feature numerous small, family-run food stalls. While certain hawker centers may more heavily emphasize one type of cuisine (Chinese, Malay, Indian, etc.), the variety within each center is pretty broad. Also, given the country’s high GDP per capita and cost of living, the food in hawker centers offers the welcome opportunity to score a great meal for $3-4 USD while sampling a wide variety of flavors.

The Maxwell center seemed like it was just starting to open up, but we cobbled together a delicious breakfast of zhou (salty rice porridge) with sliced fish, pork, and an century egg, and two baked curry buns. Momentarily bolstered against sleep deprivation with a bit of food in our bellies, we set out for a walk through our neighborhood and the downtown, with the general goal of reaching the Gardens by the Bay and locating a cafe where we could relax and awaiting the check-in time for our hostel.

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One of four different public spots where we fell asleep.

Unfortunately, we were far more sleep-deprived than we thought. To make matters worse, it was a particularly stifling, humid morning, so our progress came in 15-20 minute spurts of walking, followed by an equally long period of dazed sitting and/or napping on a park bench. We eventually made it over to the waterfront by the Marina Bay Sands, a particularly insane architectural feat, and took advantage of the wooden lounge chairs arrayed along the boardwalk to snatch a slightly longer rest.

We eventually uprooted ourselves from the chairs to search for this mythical cafe and to enjoy the gardens a bit, but the heat, sleepiness, and the fact that the park was decked out in somewhat tacky Christmas decorations (I’m sure it looks great at night all lit up…?) made this a particularly unpleasant stroll. Maybe we looked in all the wrong places, but the only cafe we found was an (outdoor) drink stand at the edge of the park. Despite the high acclaim for the cloud and rainforest exhibit halls, we also weren’t too keen to pay $25 a piece for entry. Instead, we took another rest on a bench between the two halls and the gift shops, which at least allowed us to bask in blasts of cool air whenever the sliding doors opened.

We couldn’t really stay there forever, so we dragged ourselves over to the Bayfront MRT stop to do a walk through the neighborhoods of Kampong Glam (the city’s Arab quarter) and Little India. At least, I think that’s what we did, but honestly I’m not too sure; all I have are the poorly-composed pictures above as a record. Eventually, we decided to go back near our hostel, get some lunch, and then see if we would be able to check in early (please!).

We went to the Chinatown complex, another hawker center, and saw the long line for a particular stall which sells the world’s cheapest Michelin-starred meal (a plate of chicken with rice or noodles for $SD2). Not really willing to wait in our frazzled state, we sampled a couple of local specialties like popiah (a Singaporean take on the spring roll), bak kuh teh (basically pork broth with ribs, in Chinese the translation is “meat bone tea”). It was all quite good, really, but by this point we just needed to get out of the heat and sleep, so we stumbled back to the hostel, luckily got into our room an hour or so early, showered off, and PASSED OUT.

We got up a couple hours later feeling refreshed and at least a bit rested, so we went in search of something new to eat (when in Singapore…). Some Youtube channels and other online reviews took us in search of Tian Tian Hainanese chicken and rice back in the Maxwell Center, where we ordered a large plate plus a side of beansprouts with squid. Now, I don’t want to say anything blasphemous about the chicken and rice (Anthony Bourdain apparently visited and gave his seal of approval), but it wasn’t the life-changing culinary experience we had prepared for (…but still really good). After that, I picked out a bright-fuchsia drink of dragonfruit and pineapple and we went wandering in search of snacks and flipflops for Teresa.

We traversed bustling food courts, shopping malls, and side streets to get a bit of a feel for the neighborhood as well. The scale of the development, street scenes and sheer number of people had me and Teresa agreeing that it reminded us of areas we had visited in Beijing when we studied abroad in 2008. Eventually, we secured all the essentials we were after (plus some childhood-nostalgic items at the Tintin Store for me) and we made our way back to the hotel, promising to let ourselves sleep in until whenever we happened to wake up.

Day 2

We are not usually much for late mornings, so when we awoke at 8 AM we thought, WOW so luxurious! But we had to figure out how to offset all the calories we hoped to consume that day, as well as maintain some of our bike-touring fitness for our upcoming Japan snowboarding trip, so we took off on a jog through the city towards the Singapore’s botanical gardens. The first few minutes were difficult stop-and-go city running, but we located a riverside path that got us most of the way to where we wanted to go. At one particular intersection, the heat and sweat seemed to catch up to us all at once, and we were soaked until we reached the botanical gardens a bit later.

These gardens were perhaps what I was expecting from the Gardens by the Bay, with closely grown and well-manicured trees and displays, each meticulously tagged with name and region of origin. We made our way from south to north through the park, passing rainforest areas, ginger plants (provocative sign header: “What is a Ginger?”), and up across a pedestrian bridge to our food destination, Adam Road Food Center. We picked out a variety of flavors: big prawn noodle soup; mee rebus, a noodle dish with a distinctive sauce, hardboiled egg, and other toppings; and gado-gado, an Indonesian meal with a spicy peanut sauce that took Teresa back to her days of living in that country during college summers. I got a watermelon juice to cool us down and rescue Teresa from a spicy-peanut-sauce meltdown before we set off for a walk back through the gardens to Orchard Road, a popular shopping center.

Our walk back through the park was pretty uneventful – the main attraction was sharing the walking path with an enormous lizard – and we soon turned onto the quieter Nassim Road, which hosts numerous embassies and ambassadors’ residences along with several high-end apartment complexes. While the surroundings were lush and peaceful, the heat and the copious lunchtime consumption were both getting to us again, so we searched out air-conditioning as soon as we hit Orchard Road. We realized we were wilting again, so we decided to head back to our hostel for another mid-afternoon shower (so refreshing!) and nap (so restful!).

We woke up to much more comfortable weather and headed to the western side of town to meet up with Cindy, one of Teresa’s friends from her master’s program at Stanford who now works at Singapore’s Ministry of Education. Over some herbal drinks, we got the low-down on all things Singapore – the extent of expectations for the government (because it controls so much of what happens in the country, it is counted on to engage in areas more often left untouched in the US, e.g. housing and job placement), cultural shifts regarding education (as each generation of Singaporeans has become progressively more educated, parents have become more vocal about the way teachers work in the classroom), the affinities of some local Christians for President Trump (this is as baffling in Singapore as it is in the US) and how Singapore might compare to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and other Asian countries.

We soon said goodbye and hopped back on the train to meet up with another of Teresa’s friends, Charmaine, who was a fellow Stanford Chi Omega. Along with her husband Nick and their two kids Hazel and Leia, we settled in for an authentic outdoor seafood dinner while learning more about their lives in Singapore, what they like about the country, and where they might consider heading next. While we enjoyed hearing about their work – Nick’s on a bus-routing service company that is seeking to expand, Charmaine’s for the Ministry of Education (yes, same as Cindy) – we also got to watch their tag-team parenting strategy for the two kids. It both gave us something to look forward to (it didn’t look that unbearable, and the kids were both adorable) but it also reaffirmed how difficult it would have been to do our same travels with tots in tow; making sure we take these adventures now seems like the right choice.

A short walk around the neighborhood to see a few things and snap a picture on Kim Cheng Street (hi Keeeem!), then we were back over in Chinatown for dessert, where we enjoyed a simple bowl of peanut paste (better than it sounds) and chendol, a tower of coconut milk ice with sweet soy sauce and red beans (as amazing as it sounds). A really delicious end to the day!

Day 3

We woke up a bit earlier to try to squeeze in another run and to beat the heat, this time looping through the open paths and promenades that make up the waterfront in the central area. This jog still turned out to be a stop-and-go affair, but instead of being blocked by traffic, we were constantly drawn to snap more and more pictures as we made our way along the water. This run was a mix of the downtown, flagship colonial buildings and museums, and newer developments along Marina Bay, such as the Float, a sports field/stage that sits out on the harbor in front of stadium seating, and the Artscience museum, which resembles a giant garlic clove. Oh, and there were hundreds of Santas and elves out on a holiday fun-run for the Make-a-Wish foundation. One impressive thing about Singapore I noticed on this jog was that it’s nearly impossible to get the entire skyline in a single normal photo – the buildings are too tall to capture horizontally and there are too many to squeeze them all into a vertical shot.

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The only real way to catch the whole skyline is with a panoramic shot.

We made a short detour on our way back to the hostel for a signature Singaporean breakfast of kaya toast (kaya being a delicious spread made from coconut milk, eggs, and sugar) and soft-boiled eggs at Ya Kun Kaya Toast. I enjoyed the first round of the toast so much that I ordered another set, even as Teresa voiced her suspicion that the real secret to its popularity is the large amount of butter tucked between the pieces of bread (hard to argue with that). Back at the hostel, we cleaned up, packed up, and stowed our luggage before our last side outing to the nearby URA City Gallery.

The Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) in Singapore oversees all long-term land use planning for the country, with concept plans reaching out as far as 50 years and parcel-by-parcel master plans looking out 10-15 years. They also lead Singapore’s incredible efforts to reclaim land from the sea, which have seen the country’s land area grow by 22% since 1965. I think I could have spent a full day here reading about each piece of the country’s transformation, but even in abridged format it was still really impressive. Patti and Duke, if you’re reading, this place is for you! The only thing that surprised me a bit was no mention of potential future issues such as climate-change-driven sea level rise (if the land was reclaimed from the sea, it seems like it’s at high risk of slipping right back in again…).

On our way back to the hostel, we made our very last pit stop at Maxwell for a local specialty of fish head noodle soup – the shop keeper tried to warn me that it was very bony but I insisted that yes, this was actually what we wanted, and yes, it was really good. We also enjoyed a steamed pumpkin-and-rice cake (not on any of the food blogs we had come across, but a surprise hit!) and papaya milk on our way out.

Finally, it was back to the airport for our flight. Navigating the MRT was much easier with adequate sleep and our flight check-in was way smoother due to the more generous baggage allowances on our next airline, Scoot. A bit of exploring the bustling terminal, grabbing some delicious food (nasi lemak, which is coconut rice, fried chicken, hard boiled egg, with chili paste), frowning that we didn’t receive an exit stamp on our passport, and clearing security gateside before boarding our flight and zipping off for our next adventure in Hong Kong!

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