If you are a backpacker travelling on a tight budget around South East Asia, Singapore probably won’t amongst your choices of countries to visit. This is due to the fact that it is a very modern and metropolitan country, it doesn’t have as much of an “exotic factor” as other countries in SE Asia do, and it is very expensive and very strict. At least this is what I found out from talking to different backpackers that I met in my travels. Still, after having actually lived there for about 4 months, I can honestly say that you won’t regret going there.
Singapore is an incredibly multicultural place, where you will never know if someone is a tourist or Singaporean. In a single street you’ll be able to find a Buddhist temple, a mesquite, a Presbyterian church, and a Hindu temple right next to each other, this reflects just how much cultural diversity can be found there. You can go to Chinatown or to Little India and find yourself in a completely different city than the one you were in a few blocks away. This is also true when you go for a walk in the natural reserves found in the middle of the city, such as the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, you will find yourself in a rainforest and feel miles away from any sort of civilization, when in reality you are right in the heart of Singapore. With these elements you have your “exotic factor” issue solved. Having said this, Singapore really is a very modernized country, and it is very different from every other country I visited in SE Asia, it doesn’t have all those quaint elements that you would find, for example, in Thailand. Which I don’t actually see like a flaw, but which makes it a nice place to take a break from the huge cultural shock that the other countries represent, and get back to a place that has a lot of the occidental world as well.
The biggest reason that the backpackers that I met around SE Asia had for not going to Singapore was their budget. It is true that Singapore is a very expensive city, not only in comparison to the rest of the countries in Asia, but in general, so I can see how that could be a very important factor for people to skip Singapore in their travels. Actually, the only reason that I was able to live there for 4 months and live well was because I was working, I got paid and some of my living expenses, such us a place to sleep, food during the week and laundry were covered by the school where I worked. Still, there are possibilities for cheap hostels and cheap food (these can be found mainly in Chinatown). If you look hard enough, you’ll find them. Note: they are still not as cheap as the hostels in other countries, they can cost from 16 SGD a night, whereas hostels in Cambodia can cost 4 SGD.
The third reason why backpackers choose not to go to Singapore is due to the fact that Singapore is famous for being a very strict country. Of course, why go to a place where you aren’t even allowed to chew gum, when you can go to Thailand and get wild at a full moon party? But I can assure you, the fact that Singapore is a very strict country isn’t a negative thing, just the opposite, it allows things to work very well, and for you to feel very safe. As a 19 year-old girl, I’m used to being very careful while walking in the street and I never go out or take a cab alone at night, in Singapore I could easily walk home after a party at 3 am and feel like it was the most natural thing in the world.
Naturally, the fact that there are fines for everything (from crossing the street where your not supposed to, to spitting on the floor) and that they are ridiculously expensive and the fact that there are cameras everywhere, makes you feel a little bit like you are trapped in Oceania from 1984. But actually, unless you do something really stupid, like still a couple of bottles of vodka from a 7-Eleven (which we did), there really is no reason for you to get in trouble. You hardly ever see a policeman and when you do, they look like teenagers, so that whole fear of feeling oppressed and getting into trouble with the Singaporean government is totally mislead.
If you ever decide to visit Singapore, here are some tips:
- Hawker centers:
if you are looking for good and cheap local food, this is where you should go. Hawker centers are found in Malaysia and Singapore and they are basically open-air places where you can find a variety of stalls, which sell cheap Asian food. You can find them everywhere in Singapore and they are a great place to have a cheap and good lunch or dinner. The East Coast Park Hawker center is really nice, and they sell a great Chicken satay, and the Hawker center in Holland Village is a great place to have a couple of beers at night.
- Chilly Crab:
Singapore’s national food, you have to try it. If you do, I recommend that you split it with some friends. First of all, because it is a little expensive, so if you share it you can split the cost. The second reason for splitting it is that, even though the chilly crab is delicious, it is extremely spicy. Unless your taste buds are super powerful, you won’t be able to eat it all by yourself. Eating chilly crab is also really messy, so be prepared, if you don’t want to get covered in chilly sauce, there are places where you can find spaghetti with chilly crab sauce, which is also really good.
My parents always told me that the best way to get to know the heart and soul of a city is by simply walking around, and see where that takes you. Obviously you should go to all the main places in Singapore, Orchard Road, Marina Bay, Chinatown, Little India, Arab Street, Esplanade, Bugis, the East Coast, Holland Village, Clarke Quay, Sentosa, etc. But everything in between those places is also great, so walk from one place to another. You can see most of these places in a couple of days, just by walking. There are other places that are a little further, (East Coast park, Sentosa, the Singapore zoo area) for which you can easily take the public transport.
- A night out:
if you want to go out, Clarke Quay is the place where you can find all the clubs and an amazing nightlife. It is expensive to go out in Singapore, but there are usually lots of different events in the clubs, where you can get in for free or where the girls drink for free or something like that, so be sure to look for them. Holland Village and Arab Street are two other places where you can find bars, get a couple of drinks and smoke Shisha.
- Look for the lower levels:
there are hundreds of malls in Singapore and in all of the you are likely to find Prada, Louis Vuitton and Cartier stores, and extremely elegant restaurants, things that you clearly won’t be able to afford on a backpacker budget, but don’t panic. Simply go to the lower levels of the malls, the rule in Singapore is: the lower the levels, the cheaper the prices.
- Must go:
a couple of places you must go to are:
• Marina bay: go to the top of the Marina bay sands to get a panoramic view of Singapore. Visit the Gardens by the Bay botanic gardens. Walk next to the river.
• Nature reserve: there are several nature reserves in Singapore; the one that is found in the middle of Singapore is the Bukit TImah Nature Reserve. It is a nice escape from the city life.
• Singapore zoo: go to the Singapore zoo, in the north of the city. You can also find the Singapore Bird Park, the Night Safari and the recently opened River Safari. They are all amazing and the animals and kept in great conditions.
• East Coast Park: it is a park located on the eastern coast of the island where you can walk, go to the beach, rent bikes, eat at the hawker center and even water ski. This was one of my favorite places to go to, to spend the day on a weekend.
• Orchard road: the main street. Here you can find many malls full of designer stores, its really fancy. Here you are able to see just how wealthy this country is. If you keep on walking towards Tangline Road, you’ll get to some neighborhoods, which are really nice for a walk.
• Tampines: if you to have a look at “the other Singapore” away from all the luxury, and just see how the “real” people live, go to the Tampines area. This is where I used to live, and it’s a great experience to see that contrast between the rich and the working class. Go to the Hawker center in Tampines street 73 and have some cheese fries. They are amazing.
• Clarke Quay: this sector of Singapore is used to be a riverside village, which was Singapore commercial center during the colonial era. Today all the warehouses have been remodeled and have become clubs, bars and restaurants, but still keeping their colonial architecture. It’s really nice to go there during the day to see the architecture and walk around, and during the night it’s a great nightlife scene.
• Chinatown: you should always visit the Chinatown in any city that you are in (and that has one); it’s like stepping into an alternate reality. In the case on Singapore’s Chinatown, I can say that it is a little cleaner and more organized then other Chinatowns around the world, but it still keeps has its charm. One unique characteristic that this Chinatown has is that it still conserves its British colonial architecture (like in Clarke Quay). In Chinatown you have to go to the Buddha Tooth temple, its one of the prettiest Buddhist temples I went to while I was in SE Asia.
These were all the tips I could think of regarding Singapore. I really recommend that you go. If you want to know anything else, I would be glad to answer your questions as well as I can.