According to many, Singapore is too sterile. That’s what folk kept telling me, anyway, as my time in the micro-country approached. Sterile, serious and sombre with death penalty threats thrown around at tourists simply for chewing gum. (And, no, that last part isn’t true.)
But nor, it turns out, is the rest.
How could it not with its steamy influx of influences from India, Malaysia, Britain, China, Korea, Australia and more.
No, if Singapore is too sterile for you then one of two things has happened:
One, you haven’t found its quirkier charms.
Two, you’ve misunderstood the word sterile. (In which case, stay away from me at dinner. And, you know, surgery and the like…)
Delve into the back alleys and hawker centres to taste things like grass jelly, kopi guyou and fish balls (and look out for names like the “Million Star Fried Banana.”) No idea how to find them? Enlist the help of a local food blogger. I’d highly recommend Maureen from Miss Tam Chiak.
Hop on a short boat trip to Pulau Ubin and cycle along the protected roads surrounded by lush greenery and the sticky Singapore air. Cool off with a fresh coconut served from one of the small shacks by the harbour.
Gardens by the Bay is one of those strange ideas that doesn’t sound like it’s going to work – but somehow it just does. Built on reclaimed land, it’s a park with artificial trees (that you can both walk on and sip cocktails on) and a big bubbly greenhouse with an artificial waterfall, a kaleidoscope of plants and a confusing array of dragonfly made from stone.
One of the best things about a visit to Singapore, so the world tells you, is the chance to taste its food. Flavours from India, China, the Malay, remnants from Britain, influxes from almost everywhere else plus an infusion of unmistakably Singaporean identity line the stomach in a unique, and sometimes challenging, way.
People even say “have you eaten?” to mean the more generic “how are you?” and queue patiently at specific food stalls in hawker markets to wait for THE version of nasi lemak, curry puff or shaved ice kachang.
Yet one thing the world HADN’T told me about was a difference kind of culinary specialty: the ice cream sandwich.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this is a slab of ice cream (think chocolate, strawberry or mango) served with a single slice of bread.The bread wraps around the melting block to keep your fingers warm (Abi’s interpretation) and the bubblegum swirls represent Singapore’s cultural diversity (er, also totally made up.)
So there you are. No matter how old you grow, the world can still surprise you.
Who needs a sophisticated Singapore Sling when you can embrace such raw pink syntheticity?
Besides the soulless skyscrapers that gave Singapore the whole sterile vibe, twinkles Raffles, a colonial style hotel that’s a legend in its own right. It’s the birthplace of the famed Singapore Sling and back in its heyday it entertained Somerset Maugham and Ernest Hemingway (and I am partial to a beautiful hotel with a bit of writerly history.) Fresh, white and awash with tropical greenery, it’s a a great place to stop for a drink – in the terrace or lobby bars. (The Long Bar attracts a long queue and the literary inspiration inside sounds suspiciously like tourist chatter.)
Chef Janice Wong blindfolds herself to concentrate while painting and then decorates her tables with melted chocolate. She’s also the mastermind behind 2am: dessertbar , a cocktail bar come confectionery extravaganza which serves vodka tonics amid black sesame seeds, mango and popcorn mousse.
Saunter over the air at the Henderson Waves (the city’s highest pedestrian bridge. Imagine a cross between an airborne helix of DNA and a wooden yet loved centipede.)
The Merlion (half mermaid, half lion) shoots water across the air and into the water. Traditional, atmospheric bumboats set sail (well, OK, no sail but…) from nearby, gliding beneath illuminated bridges and taking in the best of the city’s skyline. Is it touristy? For sure. Is it worth it? I’d say so. Lovely…
For some of these tips, I travelled as a guest of the Singapore Tourist Board and Singapore Airlines, For others, I travelled on my own. Either way, I only chose these tips because they’re recommendations I’d give to a friend. I always keep the right to write what I like here on Inside the Travel Lab. Otherwise, there’s just no point. Million star fried bananas or not.