Asia is massive, which means long layovers and exhausting itineraries for travelers. There's a solution to that: Break up the journey and spend a day somewhere interesting, like Singapore.
After Dan developed a life threatening issue from our marathon 32-hour trip to Indonesia, we were naturally concerned when we left. To shorten the wear and tear on our bodies, we broke our trip into segments. First stop: two nights and a day in Singapore.
The first thing many people notice is how pristine Singapore is. The tiny nation has a well deserved reputation for its strict laws against of littering of any kind. Littering carries a $1000 fine. As a matter of fact, the reason chewing gum isn't sold in the country is because they don't want people spitting it out on the street!
Repeat offenders have to wear bright jackets and clean up a public place. When that doesn't work, the authorities have been known to invite the media to cover the story. There's nothing like public embarrassment to keep someone in line. Having just come from Bali, Indonesia—the largest trash dump we've ever seen—the contrast was startling.
Singapore could be the most cosmopolitan city we'd ever seen. It has everything: colonial British influence, huge Indian, Malaysian, and Chinese neighborhoods, glass-and-steel high rises and a state-of-the-art infrastructure. Everywhere we looked we saw people of all colors, cultures and dress. Malay may be its national language, but this conglomeration of cultures has resulted in English being spoken everywhere.
So many cultures, so little time. How can one fit it all into a day?
1. Little India
Our flight schedule meant we would arrive late one afternoon and have most of the next day (read: an early night to catch a very early morning flight out) to get a taste of what Singapore has to offer. We began our 24 hours in Singapore by taking a taxi to Mustafa Centre in Little India. Everyone knows Mustafa Centre: The landmark takes up an entire city block. (Is this a Singapore version of Macy's, perchance?)
The clientele are mostly Indian, of course, and it was really fun to look at everything and interesting to see what appeals to their culture. We found bargains on everything: clothes, perfume, souvenirs, electronics, makeup, confectionery, groceries, … even kiosks for travel and other services. The busy tables lining the sidewalks proved that Mustafa had found the smartest way to keep their customers shopping: food.
That's where we met up with a couple of friends who split their time between Bali and Singapore. They took us to a sidewalk cafe where we sat for hours watching the passersby and chatting like old friends over bottles of Tiger Beer, Singapore's local brew. When we grew hungry, they then invited us to join them for dinner.
Where we ate. We followed our hosts to Raj, their favorite restaurant, and asked them to order their favorite dishes. Not being too well-versed in Indian food it was all new to us, but we were willing to try it all. None of us were vegetarian, but the restaurant is and to be honest, we didn't miss the meat. Cheese lover that I am, I was especially thrilled by palak paneer. Do order it the next time you have a chance to try Indian food. It's very tasty and safe for those of us who don't handle spicy dishes.
2. Singapore bus tour
Singapore's subway, bus and taxi systems are top-notch—clean, prompt and safe. However, to see the most popular Singapore attractions in the least time, we opted to begin our day with a bus tour. (We took one like this.) The two hour-long routes offer a good overview of the city and all three ethnic neighborhoods, and the accompanying narration explains everything in context. Perfect for a first-time visit to Singapore.
Tip: Wear a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen, and get a seat on the top deck of the bus. It provides the best vantage point for photos. When the sun becomes too intense you can head below for air conditioning and shade, as well as shelter from the occasional tropical rainstorm.
3. Singapore river cruise
The bus tour turned out to be an even smarter choice when we learned that our bus tour also included a 40-minute cruise on the Singapore River. Obviously, the tour bus can't drive along the waterfront, so it was time very well spent. The new vantage point resulted in some unique photos that many people don't get.
4. Shopping in Singapore's Arab Quarter
Singapore is the top shopping destination for Asians, and it's not just at discount emporium Mustafa's. In contrast to the glitz and glamour of the rest of Singapore the Arab Quarter, known as Kampong Glam, is a collection of colorful buildings and crumbling ambiance surrounding the gleaming golden dome of Sultan Mosque. Arab Street in particular is a textile mecca, where you can find cut-rate deals on quality rugs, clothes, jewelry, and more, plus shisha bars and restaurants.
Tip: Order a mezze to share—a large sampler platter of healthy Middle Eastern dishes—and enjoy a filling meal for S$15-20 (US$10).
Well, that was our plan, but Dan was curious to see how much camera gear sells for in Asia. We hopped off at Orchard Street to see what was available. This is a shopper's paradise; it seemed there was a mall on almost every block. How like high-tech Singapore to even have malls just dedicated to electronics! We saw things that aren't even available in the U.S. yet. As to prices of current products, the salesmen kept telling us the same thing: It's cheaper in America.
Unfortunately, we spent so much time comparison shopping for electronics that we had to skip visiting Kampong Glam. 🙁
5. Check out Chinatown
Back on the bus, we hopped off again in Chinatown to visit the monolithic Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. Inside its walls is a 27-foot statue of the Buddha, which I pictured as occupying a lot of space in the temple's four stories. Even more remarkable: They have one of his teeth on display.
Unfortunately the temple was closed so we could only view it from the outside and admire its architecture. If we ever get to enter its doors we will be sure to visit the 10,000 Buddhas Pagoda on the roof, which has a large Tibetan-style prayer wheel.
Since that option was out, we walked down some of the side streets and main streets hoping to discover what some of the Chinese markets had to offer. One Chinese herb shop looked especially inviting, but as it was already mid-afternoon we kept going … and were intrigued to find a Hindu temple smack-dab in the midst of Chinatown. How curious!
Tip: It's free to enter the Hindu temple, but there is a S$3.00 charge for cameras. Follow the link for more details about the temple.
6: Sightseeing from atop the Singapore Flyer
Thanks to Singapore being on the equator, the sun sets between 6:30-7:00 pm. year-round.The end of the day found us on the Singapore Flyer, just in time to watch the sun set over the city. This sightseeing Ferris wheel is similar to the famous London Eye, but they claim it's larger.
From atop the wheel I could see that I had been wrong about the city: Singapore is not just a single, small island with a bunch of high-rises. It's a collection of hilly islands with lots of greenery and very attractive, older neighborhoods too.
7. Fish Spa
On our way down the Flyer's ramp we passed a fish spa. Intrigued, we just had to try it. We rationalized it would be good to pamper ourselves before another long flight, sigh only a few hours from now. These little “doctor fish” — about the size of big guppies — like to dine on dead skin. After the attendant sanitized our feet we settled onto benches along one of their ponds and dangled our toes in the water. Soon they were delicately nibbling away at our calluses.
What an incredible experience! Any thoughts about Amazonian piranhas immediately disappeared. It felt like we'd put our feet into a vat of champagne and thousands of little tiny bubbles were popping on our skin. For about $15 it was the most unique pedicure we have ever had … and definitely worth doing again.
Our single day in Singapore left us wanting to see more. Actually Singapore has so many things to do that I could see myself living there. Even if it meant I'd have to do without chewing gum.