How to visit Singapore

by on December 12, 2015 at 12:02 am in Economics, Food and Drink, History, Travel, Travels, Uncategorized | Permalink

Two different people have asked me this question this week, so I thought I would write out my answer. My approach is slightly unorthodox, but here goes:

1. Go to the top of Marina Bay Sands hotel and get a view of the skyline, the harbor, and the Straits.  Watch the ships queuing.  This is one of my favorite views in the whole world.  Most of all I am struck by the contrast between what Singapore has achieved so quickly and also its continuing ultimate vulnerability; the view captures both of those.  If you can afford it, stay in the hotel and swim in the Infinity Pool.  That alone justifies dragging your body all the way to Singapore.

2. Organize the rest of your trip around food.  For Malay food, visit the hawker centre at Geylang Serai Night Market.  For Indian food, go to the hawker centre at the entrance to Little India, and walk around the adjacent shopping bazaar as well.  For Singaporean food, there are many good choices, depending on your location.  The optimal time to arrive is by 10:30, before most of the queues start.  Ask cabbies for the best chili and pepper crab.

3. Eat at David Thompson’s Thai restaurant, in the mall next to Marina Bay Sands.

4. Once it is dark, and edging toward 9 p.m., walk around the Merlion area and the bridge, where the city comes to life.

5. Spend the rest of your time seeking out “retro Singapore” as much as possible.  Haw Par Villa is one place to start, but there are multiple substitutes, including the hawker centres away from downtown and their special dishes.

6. The Asian Civilizations Museum is by far the best museum in town.  The zoo and the bird park are first-rate.

7. Much as Singapore calls itself a “city-state” I think of it as a “suburb-state,” unlike Hong Kong which is a true city.  I consider this high praise, but Singaporeans often are slightly insulted when I put it this way.  Your mileage may vary, but I say enjoy it as you would a suburb.

8. Talk to as many Singaporean civil servants as you can.

9. Take a day trip by cab or bus into Johor Bahru, in neighboring Malaysia, a thirty minute trip if there are no delays.  The food there is even better and you will learn some political science.  Read this book for background on both countries.  Read Lee Kuan Yew.

Here is my earlier post “Why Singapore is special.”   In a nutshell, it’s one of the world’s greatest trips, safe and easy to deal with too.

1 Ricardo December 12, 2015 at 12:23 am

I wouldn’t call this an unorthodox itinerary at all.

Singapore is a real city, it’s just small (bigger than SF but smaller than NYC). Hong Kong is much bigger with an ultra-dense urban core and vast tracts of land that are undeveloped or sparsely developed. From what I can tell, its population density is less than Singapore’s — you need to get out of Kowloon and Central to see this, though.

2 MMK December 12, 2015 at 12:26 am

How much time should one spend there?

3 Ralph Em. December 12, 2015 at 12:34 am

Great tips. I also liked the skywalk, and recommend visiting kranji cemetery (getting there is an adventure into Singaporean suburbia) on the way to Malaysia, where you can reflect on the battle for Singapore in WW2. The inscription reads “they died for all free men” in several languages. There’s a beautiful view of the skyline. Another good rooftop bar is 1-altitude, where Filipino bartenders serve drinks as you listen to excellent electronic music and watch the boats in the distance. If Hong Kong falls to China, at least there’s still Singapore..

4 andy December 12, 2015 at 1:42 am

i agree with ricardo; having lived and worked there, this itinerary is fairly orthodox. something unmentioned and fascinating to do is to eat and talk to people around joo chiat, just southeast of paya lebar. it is the heart of the red light district, a bemusing contradiction to the moralising state, and also has the best vietnamese (and some of the best singaporean) food in singapore.

the hawker centre at the entrance to little india is called the tekka centre, and used to have some sri lankan kiosks as well, though i’m uncertain if they still exist.

5 Dulimbai December 12, 2015 at 5:07 am

Why do people keep saying “talk to people” to mean “hire a prostitute”?

6 Millian December 12, 2015 at 4:34 am

Is the optimal mix of talking to civil servants versus talking to non-insiders really 1:0?

7 prior_test December 12, 2015 at 6:17 am

‘enjoy it as you would a suburb’

Much like this web site.

8 Acropunk December 12, 2015 at 7:06 am

William Gibson would disagree.

9 Ricardo December 12, 2015 at 9:31 am

A visit to the Geylang area — especially at night but even during the day — would show Gibson’s point of view to be pretty dated. I suspect Singapore will crack down on that area in next few years but when I last went there was rubbish on the side of streets, prostitutes on every corner and drunk men relieving themselves in public. People were even jaywalking. The scene is much closer to Bangkok than Disneyland and it will destroy many people’s pre-conceived notions about Singapore.

10 Jim December 12, 2015 at 10:32 am

True, It feels like a suburb when you float in Infiniti atop $400/night Marina Bay Sands.

It feels like a city-state when staying in $50/night Geylang dodging hookers and potholes.

Still never seen a cop in Singapore.

11 Jim December 12, 2015 at 10:45 am

And I think Tyler is in a tourist bubble that needs to be deflated with high interest rates (on BS). That would require pontification from the suburbian gutter, not Infiniti pool.

12 Phil December 12, 2015 at 5:19 pm

The Geylang crackdowns come and go, I’ve seen it as you describe and I’ve also seen it totally dead. Good Geylang itinerary is to catch a cab or bus to Old Airport Road Food Centre (locals will eat here any day over the downtown places) and then walk north to Aljunied MRT which will take you right through the middle of the red light district.

Also, if you are in Singapore during Ramadan, DO NOT MISS the Ramadan night market (pasar malam) in Geylang. It was one of the top things I did in Singapore, the food is incredible and it’s a very “un-Singapore” experience. A fascinating mix of Malay and Indian Muslim culture.

13 Phil December 12, 2015 at 5:37 pm

Orchard Towers is good for this, too, and more convenient for the casual visitor. It has some of the best budget Thai and Vietnamese food in town, which you can enjoy in the company of prostitutes and all types of shady characters. There’s even a passable taco stand.

If you are prepared to fend off the attentions of bar girls, the country music bar (Country Jamboree) is not to be missed for the sheer randomness of it.

14 Venkat December 12, 2015 at 8:24 am

Almost everything Tyler recommends (except the bit about talking to civil servants) is pretty much what a typical tourist does, and fairly mainstream. Truly an enlightening post, a great window to understanding Tyler’s earlier posts on Singapore.

15 prior_test December 12, 2015 at 8:35 am

Come now, Prof. Cowen was too modest to mention the magnificent accomodations of the Raffles. After all, he doesn’t just sleep only in suburban style comfort.

16 TMC December 12, 2015 at 9:36 am

Maybe there’s a reason tourists do what they do.

17 Sam Haysom December 12, 2015 at 12:28 pm

That’s not the point. The point is that Cowen thinks this completely vanilla itinerary is in some way unorthodox. Perhaps it’s a little bit unorthodox to recommend the Sands as most people trying to appeared culture wouldn’t be so gauche I guess.

18 Ricardo December 12, 2015 at 1:06 pm

Singapore is very well known as a city with good street food and, honestly, there isn’t a whole lot to do there after day 1 or 2 other than venture out to hawker centers and restaurants. In that sense, it is the perfect city for someone like Tyler (as well as every 25-year-old backpacker) and maybe that is where the comparison to the NoVA suburbs comes in. That and the relative safety of the place.

19 Phil December 12, 2015 at 5:22 pm

I lived in Singapore and I fully agree that it’s a vanilla itinerary, however even locals enjoy the view from the top of MBS and it is indeed a can’t miss. Then you can skip the Raffles, MBS has better Singapore Slings anyway.

20 Colin December 12, 2015 at 8:33 am

I went to Singapore for less than 24 hours earlier this year and was able to see a decent amount. After arriving at Changi (around 10:30am) bought a Tourist Day Pass, which I think for around $10 gets you unlimited use of the trains and buses. Then took the MRT to Paya Lebar where I dropped bags at the hotel (by staying outside the city center was able to get a nice room for around $70). After that, took MRT to Bugis, walking from there to Kampong Glam and then Little India. From Little India took the MTR to Chinatown and then Bayfront (Gardens by the Bay and Marina Bay Sands observation deck. Then MTR to Telok Ayer for dinner at the Telok Ayer hawker market, then walked towards the Merlion to catch the evening light show (meh). From there took MTR from Raffles Place back to the hotel. For those desiring a Singapore Sling at Raffles, that would be pretty easy to work into this itinerary. Obviously those with more time can see more (things I wish I had been able to see: the botanic gardens, Fort Canning Park and the National Museum of Singapore), and I don’t pretend this is the perfect itinerary, but I thought I was able to see a lot in a brief amount of time.

Lastly, was stunned at how cheap the taxi ride from the hotel to airport was at 6am the next morning.

21 Daniel December 12, 2015 at 10:01 am

Thank you so much Tyler!

I am one of the people who asked Tyler this question. I welcome any thoughts any other MR readers have on Singapore.

22 Matt2 December 12, 2015 at 10:07 am

Although I’ve been past Singapore a few times and did get off one ship before going straight to the airport I’ve only had one stay in the city. Luckily it was in company of a customer with a pile of points from the Sands in LV, and our boss told us to stay where he stayed. Visiting or staying at MBS may be orthodox or conventional but it’s also spectacular. The bathroom was about the size of my first apartment, the views were unforgettable and the breakfast was magnificent. If three nights there doesn’t inspire someone to try and strive to get into the 1% I don’t know what will.

I was disappointed in Chili Crab in general after having heard from so many people that I had to try it, but we hit several food courts and had plenty of good stuff. Paved the way for an extended stay in Taichung, where I would eat interesting looking things off of street carts without bothering to try to figure out what it was until I knew if I liked it.

23 Matt2 December 12, 2015 at 12:14 pm

My general philosophy is “The first time, do the tourist thing because you never know if you’ll be back.” The second time we go to Paris my wife and I will sit along the river sipping a glass of wine for three hours, walk the streets of the Latin Quarter, and linger in the Louvre or some other museum she chooses. The first time we went we had about 48 hours – Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Mona Lisa, cruise on the Seine, Notre Dame and most of the other majors got checked off, so if for some reason we never get back at least we won’t be sitting some day saying “I can’t believe we were there and were too cool to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower.”

I spent most of my youth working in tourism in New England – there’s a reason the big draws are the big draws. My experience in “being” the “real Cape Cod” as well as doing a lot of travel to “authentic” parts of the world is that when it comes to vacation, “authenticity” is overrated. We used to hate when the tourists would wander out of their world and show up at our party spots, breakfast joints, etc. Never actually rude or mean because ultimately that would cost us money but we sure were not welcoming. When I’m on vacation I try and respect my role. I’m there for the fun and the fantasy. It’s a business deal.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6wCAWgSB84

24 Matt2 December 12, 2015 at 12:15 pm

Tyler – could you get back to some VA/MD strip mall food recommendations? We’ve moved to Rockville and after 12 years in Norfolk we’re a little overwhelmed by the options!

25 ChrisA December 12, 2015 at 12:33 pm

I am a bit sad reading this because I moved jobs during this summer to a new part of the world so I am most unlikely to be travelling through Singapore on a regular basis, at least for a few years. I was visiting regularly perhaps 5 or 10 times a year. My family and I always enjoyed stopping over there. The people complaining that Tyler’s itinerary was mundane are missing the point, Singapore does mundane better than almost anywhere else. Visiting hotels, restaurants and malls, and food courts in Singapore is just a good experience, not challenging or interesting, just very good.

26 Ed December 12, 2015 at 2:27 pm

I agree with Matt2’s philosophy of travel. The first time you visit a place, make sure you visit the main sites. If you get a chance to have later visits, having already seen the main sites, you can do the linger in sidewalk cafes thing.

I have only two minor amendments. First, make a list of what exists in the city that exists no place or few places else, and put those at the top of your agenda. This may be somewhat different from the most well known tourist attractions. Second, there are instances where some tourist attractions are simply tourist traps or too much of pain to get too (for example, if you visit Italy, its almost guaranteed that at least one museum or church you really want to visit will be closed the day you go there). Actually I’ve been to Paris three times and have never been to the top of the Eiffel Tower, but honestly I would make the Cluny museum or St. Denis, which I both saw on my last visit higher priorities. I’ve been to the Arc de Triumphe, but wouldn’t put that on my list either, you can get a good view from far away, you have to get through dangerous traffic to get a close up view, and since the design was imitated there are similar monumental arches in other cities.

27 Tom December 12, 2015 at 2:30 pm

The best thing about the view from the marina bay sands hotel is that you can’t see the marina bay sands hotel. It is a truly ugly building.

28 Kent Guida December 12, 2015 at 3:15 pm

Eat Singapore chicken rice morning, noon and night. Wherever you happen to be, ask the locals which nearby joint has the best. You’ll never get tired of it.

29 Barkley Rosser December 12, 2015 at 3:35 pm

Not sure exactly what Tyler means by “Singapore food,” but something uinque and distinctive and only in Singapore is the mixed Chinese-Malay Peranakan culture and cuisine. Their main neighborhood is Koo Chiat/Katong in eastern Singapore where one can find restaurants serving their cuisine and also experience other aspects of their special culture. A curious and little known fact is the the while most people think the ruling Lee family is strictly Chinese, they in fact come out of this group, albeit from a more Chninese branch. Anyway, this is something worth checking out.

Oh, and the main drag is Orchard Street, which is very interesting simply to walk on for much of its length. This is the core of modern advanced Singapore.

30 Tyler December 13, 2015 at 10:16 pm

Joo Chiat is great for Malay and Peranakan food. Kim Choo nyonya chang…unbeatable.

31 Barkley Rosser December 12, 2015 at 3:38 pm

Oh, and I second going to the Raffles Hotel just to visit, if not to stay. It has some excellent, if expensive restaurants, one of them Indian, and one of them one of the best sushi restaurants in the world outside of Japan. It is also where the Singapore sling cocktail was invented, although what they serve there now is the modern schlocky sweet version, not the original orange-colored sharply tart version. An idiosyncracy of the Raffles bar is that they serve endless amounts of raw shelled peanuts, with people simply throwing the shells on the floor, which is covered with them. This is a tradition that apparently dates way back to the Victorian period of British rule when the Raffles was built.

32 Mark Thorson December 12, 2015 at 9:03 pm

If they’re shelled peanuts, where are people getting the shells from?

33 Tom December 14, 2015 at 4:23 pm

Only visit if you happen to live nearby though, by bicycle or so. Remember the climate! (wags finger)

34 Barkley Rosser December 12, 2015 at 10:24 pm

Raw peanuts come in shells, Mark. You are unaware of this fact?

35 Mark Thorson December 12, 2015 at 10:54 pm

Shelled peanuts by definition don’t have shells, even if they’re raw. Clearly, you’re unaware of that. I’m sure you’ll be astounded to learn that pitted olives don’t have pits in them. Strange, but true!

36 Barkley Rosser December 12, 2015 at 11:28 pm

OK, Mark, I misspoke. The peanuts in the bar at Raffles still have their shells on them.

37 Tyler December 13, 2015 at 9:51 pm

There’s always plenty of advice about meals later in the day, but breakfast tends to get short shrift. Singaporean breakfast is in fact excellent, and is a great way to start the day.

First, Singaporeans make much less distinction between breakfast and other meals, relative to Westerners. So you’ll often see people eating noodles or rice for breakfast, just as they would for any other meal. Normal eating advice applies if you’re game for this approach.

Second, the classic Singaporean breakfast is half-boiled eggs and kaya butter toast. Typically you’re given the eggs freshly dropped into a pot of boiling water and covered with a plate for a lid, and told to wait for 5 minutes. At that point you fish them out with a spoon, crack them into a small plate, add white pepper and dark soy sauce, then stir. This goes with kaya (coconut jam) and butter toast, which can be dipped in the egg mixture or eaten separately if you prefer to slurp the eggs directly. This meal is usually served by the drink stall in the hawker centre or canteen, so it’s typically paired with kopi or teh as a set. There are many sets of rules for ordering these two drinks, but the most important ones are ‘O’, as in “kopi O” for “black – no milk” and “kosong” for “no sugar”. So kopi O kosong is black coffee with no sugar, whereas just kopi means coffee with sweet condensed milk.

Third, you will ditch the classic Singaporean breakfast when you try roti prata with fish curry for breakfast. A very thin (and very oily) Indian bread cooked on a big griddle with your preferred combination of egg, onion, and cheese added in, then folded up and served with curry. If you’re foreign, they’ll usually give you the chicken curry by default but resist and ask for fish curry.

38 Bob spaulding December 13, 2015 at 10:04 pm

Sorry, Barkley, I must dissent from your favorable impression of the restaurants at Raffles. Our worst meal in 3weeks in Asia one year ago was at the Raffles deli. And the other restaurants all seemed overpriced. And if you must have a Singapore Sling at the bar, you will pay $17.

39 IVV December 14, 2015 at 9:50 am

Would Singapore still be a good destination for someone who has a soy allergy and cannot handle temperatures above 28C?

40 Anshu December 14, 2015 at 10:37 am

What about the nightlife? Clubs and bars ? What time to they shut down? 3AM? 5AM?

41 Phil December 14, 2015 at 2:29 pm

Nightlife is 24 hours but grossly overpriced and the quality of drinks, musical acts, etc is not great. You’re better off going to Bangkok.

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