A weekend in Singapore

 

At the end of the Australian financial year (which falls in June for some odd reason) there was a massive sale for flights to Singapore. On a whim, my friend, Aurélie, and I booked tickets for a Friday- Tuesday night trip. It was crazy. A 7 hour flight for only 3 full days? What about the jet lag? What about the weather (30+Celcius), what about….here goes nothing.

As most trips do, this one started off not going as planned. Our little 6 hour hop across the pond, was delayed over two hours whilst we were already seated in the plane. Evidently the flight attendants didn’t match tickets with passengers correctly, and spent about an hour and a half going back and forth through the cabin coating heads, matching tickets, and furiously conversing with each other over the mishap. Eventually, the wheels were up and we were off.

We had planned ahead and grabbed a few Singaporean dollars prior to departure, which served us well when we need to get food quickly upon arrival. The airport alone was a sight to see. So big. So beautiful. So CLEAN. This was probably the most striking thing about Sinapore as a whole…the city was spotless.

As we left from the airport, I quickly learned why this city is sometimes referred to as futuristic. Their public transport system is quite simply supreme. It’s called the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT for short), and it was impressive. There were clear signs (in English, nonetheless), colored lines along the floor, and we never waited longer than about 2.5 minutes for the next train to appear.

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It was also extremely affordable. We used it exclusively for our travels during our stay and never spent more than about 5singaporean dollars per day.

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We had thoughtfully researched our location, and had pre-booked a beautiful Airbnb located in the Bugis district. The place was clean, new, well furnished, and a great launching pad to all the sites we wanted to see. The first evening, however, we were far too exhausted to venture anywhere, and with it already being about 8pm local time (though 11pm to our Aussie time-zoned bodies), we crashed after a quick meal.

 

 

Saturday- Day 1

On our first real venture out, our number one task was to find coffee. Not wanting to waste precious time, we popped into the first shop we saw, paid about 6.5 for an iced coffee (iced is the only way to go when at 9am the humidity is already above 85% and the temperature is hitting 30C). With coffee in hand we continued our walk until we saw a long line of locals queued up in front of a place called “Toast Box” (little did we know this would become our go-to brekky).

Aurélie tried a tradition kaya toast breakfast, while I indulged in what can only be described as the Singaporean equivalent of an egg mcmuffin. Only, this was SO MUCH BETTER. The bread looks like plain old whitebread, but I promise you, it simply isn’t.

Fueled by both caffeine and food, we headed off to China town (our main target for the day). Walking through the streets was a blur of color, people, shops and stalls.

I made notes of the more fragrant food options for our return trip, and we quickly made our way to the Budha Tooth Relic Temple, one of the larger ones in China Town. Our timing was impeccable as the Monks were in the middle of a morning prayer as we entered. It is traditional upon entering the temple to place extra layers of cloth over any exposed skin, and, in some instances, also remove your shoes. Seeing as the temperature was only climbing, we had chosen proper summer attire, and therefore had to add a few layers of cloth before entering. During our time in the temple, we were also treated to our first of many experiences of flash thunderstorms. We spent an hour or two wandering around the many levels of the temple (one of which included a museum), before finally reaching the rooftop gardens, where the sun conveniently reappeared.

For a refreshment, as we were both already feeling dehydrated, despite packing copious amounts of water, we stopped into a Hawker food centre. These Hawker centres are open air buildings that have dozens of food stalls within them. There is a hot debate over which hawker centres are the best in Singapore, so we chose the top rated one in China town, Maxwell Road. Aurélie’s eyes grew three sizes when she saw fresh coconuts (a luxury she has not enjoyed since her time living in Trinidad). Whilst she sipped that down (I never knew how gooey coconuts are), I found this fried shrimp pancake that I convinced myself was the perfect breakfast/lunch option. The meal was fast, cheap, fresh, and delicious. It was also an experience.

 

Did I mention just how HOT and humid this place was? Imagine 50+ food stalls (all with open flames and friers), piled into a relatively small open-air building, with nothing but a few fans helping to circulate fresh air. It’s toasty. Moreover, we quickly learned that napkins are just not a “thing” in Singapore. A very nice gentlemen directed us to sinks in the corner of the building which are evidently used for washing up after dining. Indeed, as the silverware shortage seemed to be similar to the napkin one, and thus after dining with only our fingers, it was quite necessary to have a good wash up. (the picture below is from a very nice indoor eating area at a mall…they had sinks at the hawkers, but they did NOT look like this)

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We continued on through China town, winding our way through the streets so we could pass by temples on our map.

IMG_2560We stumbled across another hawker centre in Little India, and Aurélie found another treat she had been missing, fresh made roti bread. I must admit, it was pretty delicious. Tracking down roti quickly became a theme for the duration of our stay, and proved to be quite challenging as google maps was incredibly unreliable at giving accurate opening and closing times for the food stalls. It seems shop owners here simply do as they please. So, arrive early, or no roti.

Little India had a completely different feel to China town. I must admit, I felt a lot more “watched” in the hawker center here than in China town. It didn’t seem like a lot of non-locals ventured to these lesser known hawkers and two young, female foreigners managed to attract a fair bit of attention. However, the colours and art made this section vibrant and beautiful and well worth a visit.

With a full day of walking under our belts, and our bodyweight lost twice over in sweat, we went home to clean up before dinner.

To say that I went to Singapore for this one meal is probably a bit of an overstatement, but to say I’d go back to have it again wouldn’t be far from the truth. We booked what would be our most expensive meal at Momma Kong’s in China town to enjoy the world-renowned Singaporean Chili crab. The crab was exceptional, and the sweet buns we had with it were straight from heaven. Highly, highly recommend this restaurant. A perfect end to our first full day.

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Sunday- Day 2

Having learned from our expensive first coffee, we had purchased some coffee from a store to make at home, and thus started day two with a much cheaper homemade iced coffee. We ventured over to our local Toast Box, repeating our meal from day 1, before heading off to the docks.

Today, we had decided to venture off the coast of Singapore to a little island called Pulau Ubin. With a population of 38 residents, and a size of about 10 square kilometers, it remains very underdeveloped compared to the mainland. You can only access it via little boats, and the only way to really travel the island is by bike.

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On arrival, we were greeted by 4 or 5 bike rental vendors. The lady we eventually rented from greeted us by saying “would you like a normal bike or a good bike?” I kindly asked what the difference was and she explained that a normal bike would be 8 dollars for the day, is a little squeaky and very old, whilst the good bikes are newer, have more gears, and run for 18 dollars. With the average drink costing around $15-20, we decided roughing it on an $8 bike was more cost effective. What an adventure.

No sooner had we handed over the money than another flash thunderstorm hit. Seeking the only shelter available, we huddled under a nearby tent with a few other travelers.

In true tropical fashion, the raging storm passed through quickly and we were on our way through the trails. Aurélie had mapped out our route, with an end target of the Chek Jawa wetlands at the end of the Island. While the distance wasn’t much (only a few kilometers), the bikes created some chaos. Slipping chains, missing brakes, and squeaky wheels had us very much appreciating our comparatively high-tech bikes back home in Oz.

We eventually made it to the reserve, and whilst the high tide covered some of the coral we were meant to see, the wildlife was abundant. We even caught sight of a swimming lizard ( a GIANT lizard).

Our trek by foot was slow, again, as the sun and heat was taking its toll. We found a seafood restaurant on the water. I enjoyed a small meal (feeling a bit dehydrated and not wanting to tempt my tummy), whilst Aurélie feasted on shrimp. I finished lunch at a coconut stand and finally had my first fresh cut coconut. Delicious.

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We headed back to the mainland and took a quick rest at home before venturing out on the town. We had our eyes on finding a rooftop for the sunset, and 1 Altitude Bar fit the bill. A $30 dollar cover charge seemed excessive, but with the included drink and the towering view of Singapore, it didn’t disappoint. The skyline was beautiful and seeing the shift from day to night, you get this sense that you are watching the city literally come alive from above. While most people opt to see the skyline from the Marina Bay Sands hotel (the one that looks like a boat on top of three buildings), this vantage point offered a beautiful view of the hotel itself.

Once the sun had set, we wandered along the riverbank and ended up stopping at one of the dozens of restaurants along the way. We chose ours mainly because the servers promised 30% off the food and a free drink each (you know the way to my wallet). We tried some calamari (one of my favorite seafood dishes), and the fry on them was superb and unlike any other version I’ve had before. Following dinner, we ended up exploring the Clarke Quay area, and Aurélie indulged my desire for a hearty dessert of sticky date pudding. Delicious end to day 2.

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Monday- Day 3

This morning we decided to break our routine and meander off the beaten path for a local dining experience (at least, this is the way Aurélie sold it to me). She had spent hours researching and had found this highly acclaimed traditional Singaporean breakfast café called Heap Seng Leong. When we got to the area, it took us about ten minutes to locate the tiny little café. The curb appeal was about as non-existent as the workers of the cafe.

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Two locals were having a laugh as we walked around the inside of the building complete confused. There was no front desk, no back kitchen, and no one standing up as we entered. What IS this place? Finally, the braver of the two of us (obviously not me), approached the men at the table and asked how we order. They pointed to a table at the back of the café where an old man and his father sat. We walked up to them, a bit uneasy and apprehensive, and asked for two traditional breakfasts (two poached eggs and a kaya toast) and returned to our seats. While the toast was actually not up to par with the aptly named “Toast Box” café, the kaya spread and eggs were delicious. They serve the eggs very runny (which was a bit of a worry to me), and with soy sauce.

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Amazing. I would have never walked into the place had I just walked by it, and I don’t think I would have walked up to the people in the back of this dimly lit building had I been alone. But this was the perfect example of that old adage about judging books by their covers…the cover was rough, but the story is now a cherished memory.

A little town called Joo Chiat, known for it’s beautiful housing and quirky neighborhood, was next on our list. The colours of the houses was reminiscent of pastel easter eggs.

I required some refueling after the walk (my ridiculously high metabolism was both a hindrance and bonus for the trip as I was constantly needing food, but then this allowed me to try all possible cuisines), so we ducked into a little café where I tried a different type of Bao bun (with pork floss). Bao buns had quickly become one of my favorite snacks in Singapore (think light and fluffy sweet bread), but I must admit, even for my pork-loving self, “pork floss” was a one and done experience.

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After a brief respite at our flat, we went our for the most anticipated destination of our entire trip, the Gardens by the Bay. My oh my, this did not disappoint. On arrival, we first wandered over to the onsite hawker center that some friends had recommended. I enjoyed a feast of satay skewers of shrim, beef and pork, and Aurélie found an oyster omelette and some roti. We seriously ate our way through this city.

We splurged a bit on tickets to the indoor attractions at the gardens, including the cloud forest and the flower dome. Whilst the flower dome was a bit unremarkable, the cloud forest was perhaps my single favorite destination of the entire trip. It contains the world’s tallest waterfall at 35 meters and this waterfall is the centerpiece of the exhibit creating both a calming ambiance and releasing a refreshing mist to the plethora of plants within the dome.

dscf5186.jpgThe tour through the clouds fittingly begins at the highest point of the dome. Escalators within the massive waterfall structure take you up to the peak of the falls, where you then follow skywalks that wind down and around the structure, with each level mimicking the flora of specific altitudes. Words don’t do it justice, and I’m not sure my pictures do either.

Our last stop in the gardens was by the Supertree grove. These are probably the most iconic part of the Gardens by the Bay, and, once again, they did not disappoint. Ranging in height from 25 to 50 meters, these 18 manmade trees tower over the gardens. The supertrees are adorned with over 160 thousand plants, and each tree has different planting schemes.

After we snapped some photos, we headed up to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. We bought a ticket to the 57th floor and found a table at the rooftop bar Ce La Vi. This floor provided a 360 view of Singapore, but was actually slightly less impressive having already been to the 1 Altitude Bar. We ended the evening out by snapping some nighttime pictures of the Supertree grove.

Our ill-timed meals meant we arrived back to our local neighborhood craving food. We opted to explore local cuisine and found a chain of hawker stalls nearby. We had yet to try a couple local cuisines—Aurélie was set on “fish ball soup” (how that sounded appealing, I do not know), and I went for their traditional chicken and rice. With about a $5 price tag, we both had a massive amount of food to take back to our room. I paired my meal with a local beer from Raffles.

Whilst chicken and rice may sound a bit boring (I almost didn’t go this route for just that reason), the flavoring on both the rice and chicken is very unique and delicately, deliciously simple. Aurélie’s  fishball soup, however, tastes exactly as you would imagine it would. To put it simply, it was not to my taste. She claims she enjoyed it, but would never eat it again. I think that speaks for itself.

And so ended day 3….

Tuesday- Day 4

Today marked our last day and we had honestly ticked of everything on our sight-seeing bucket-list. Thus, we decied our last day would be spent exploring the extensive shopping malls along Orchard street in the Singapore CBD. These malls were massive. I’m talking 7 stories high, with 7-8 buildings spanning multiple city blocks, with underground passageways to go under the major roads and into the MRT stations.DSCF5277.JPG

We didn’t end up doing much shopping for apparel or trinkets, but rather shifted our focus (or maybe I should say “maintained our focus”) on the cuisine. We found a grocery store that had a 30 foot long fridge full of fresh sushi/sashimi/nigiri. We grabbed the most appealing option and then continued through the shop. Taste testing items is not only an option, its practically required. Aurélie happily obliged the attendants, gleefully gobbling down every food item within reach.

Around lunchtime, she found her last “must-try” food (I swear her list grew longer and longer throughout the trip). It was called carrot cake, but there was no carrot and there was no cake. It’s cooked radish with spices, and it was something I would never EVER have ordered myself, but was probably the best thing we tried in Singapore. HIGHLY recommend. Maybe it’s a good thing we discovered it on our last day. I enjoyed a fried Kway Teow. A safe but delicious bet.

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Knowing we had our overnight return flight this evening, and being entirely determined not to eat airplane food, I began accumlating a food stash. Beyond the sushi, I also found some more kaya toast, and discovered the best beef jerky of my life. The jerky, or Bakkwa as its called there, was fresh, tasty and not at all dry. They roast it in the oven before giving it to you, which makes it even tastier. I packed away a few servings for later. Our last food purchase was Pandan cake. Again, I don’t know how we got through 3 full days in this city without trying this, but maybe it’s for the best. It’s a fluffy green spongey cake found in Southeast Asia.

Late afternoon marked the end of our adventure and we grudgingly reported back to the airport for our overnight trek back to Melbourne. The trip was a whirlwind of an adventure and has given me all the evidence I need to confirm you can see an awful lot in just 4 days. I hope to go back to Singapore one day, but I also feel like I saw all the “top things” I wanted to see. 10/10 would do again.

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