Submitted by Alison Winward May 2004
There's more of Singapore to see now than there was several decades ago, thanks to extensive land 'reclamation'. If you want a rough of idea of just how much land has been reclaimed over the years, go stand in front of the famous Raffles Hotel and ask yourself why it stands on Beach Road…
Even so, it's easy enough to 'do' Singapore in two or three days, depending on what you want to see and how hard you want to push yourself.
One of the main reasons budget travellers might want to speed through Singapore is because accommodation is expensive, in comparison with the rest of south-east Asia at any rate. There's not much in the way of backpacker places, and it's probably likely that there will be even fewer in the future. When I was there in early 2003, I read in the Straits Times something about new planning regulations against using parts of buildings as backpacker accommodation; it would have to be the whole building or nothing, not very feasible in a city of huge high rises! How accurate the story was and whether the regulations have come into effect, I do not know. What I do know, though, is that the backpacker accommodation when I was in Singapore was pretty shoddy.
It might be OK if you're looking for the very cheapest option, such as a dormitory, but if you prefer your own room, or if you're looking for better value, I'd recommend the hotels in Geylang. This is a whole area of massive, anonymous, pretty much identical hotels. It's a bit further from the action than the backpacker places, and it's a bit of a walk from the nearest MRT (light railway) station, but it's easy enough to get to on the MRT or bus, and taxis aren't extortionate.
For example, my (then) boyfriend and I spent our first night in Singapore in a backpacker place on Beach Road, geographically very close to the Raffles, but miles away in terms of comfort! We paid S$40 - around £20 - for a room with a bathroom. Yes, it was a big room, with a big window overlooking a bit of a park, but what furniture there was was cheap and tatty, the 'hot water' bathroom wasn't and the non-slip mat in the bath was hiding a foot-sized rusty hole!
But for just S$5 more in Geylang the following night, we had an OK-sized room, with the most comfortable bed ever, TV, drinks-making facilities, phone and a sparkling bathroom… with HOT water! "I have to warn you," said the friendly receptionist as he showed us our room, "that this is the red-light district…". We'd never have guessed that as we picked our way through the hordes of men loitering on the pavement ogling the scantily clad young women on the opposite side of the road! However, in the eight or so days I stayed in Geylang, I got hassled only once, and even then it was by a man who thought I was desperate for money. Plus, it was quite entertaining watching the shenanigans outside our window, and even if our hotel did offer a two-hour 'transit rate' (ahem!) it didn't feel seedy, and was actually very secure.
We spent a couple of nights at the Happy Star on Lorong 8 and paid S$45 for our room for two; later, I stayed alone at the Princeton, a few streets away, and paid S$35 for a room that was less comfortable, but still better value than the backpacker hovels. To find out about hotels in Geylang, run 'budget 'cheap' (your adjective of choice) 'accommodation' 'hotel' 'Singapore' through Google.
Most things in Singapore are more expensive than they are elsewhere in south-east Asia, but that's the price you pay for being in a sophisticated, organised, clean, very developed city/island/state. When eating out, for example, expect something approaching 'home' prices (depending on where 'home' is, of course!), although there are some cheaper options. In 'Little India' for example, it was possible to get a massive thali meal for around S$4, and there's a fantastic variety of all kinds of other foods to eat your way through.
Still on the subject of money, when it comes to leaving Singapore, it's worth bearing in mind that if you're travelling overland to Malaysia by train (and, I think, bus), the fare is the same in Singapore dollars as it is in Malaysian ringgit. For example, if, for argument's sake, the train fare from Singapore to Kota Bahru is S$35, the fare from Kota Bahru to Singapore is 35 ringgit (don't think it's so cheap, though), even though one Singapore dollar is worth around three times as much as one ringgit! You can't pay for tickets in ringgit in Singapore but you can get a bus across the causeway to Johor Bahru in Malaysia and take the train from there. Johor Bahru train station is about five minutes' walk from the border checkpoint.
If you've been in south-east Asia for a while, orderly, well-maintained Singapore can be a bit of a culture shock; Singapore is notorious for its maintenance of public order. There is, apparently, no truth in the story about it being against the law to have chewing gum, although I think it's illegal to import it or something, but don't push your luck by dropping litter or spitting in the street. And watch out for the signs in public toilets advising you not to squat on a Western-style toilet, or to shake water off your hands before drying them in case the water makes the floor dangerously slippy!
One final word of warning for anyone who, like me, is massively musophobic (that means we have a debilitating fear of rats!): Don't believe anyone who tells you you won't see rats in pristine Singapore. Ask them to explain what were the creatures nibbling crumbs from under a bench as I strolled in the park near the marina one day, if they weren't rats… They were a nice russet brown and had pointy noses, but they still looked pretty rat-like to me!
There's a tourist office in the Suntec City Plaza, but to get the most out of Singapore - as with anywhere else - you really need a guide book such as Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, with comprehensive listings of what's on offer. I didn't check out all the attractions in Singapore, but here are the ones I do know about:
Zoo and Night Safari:
I didn't visit the zoo during the day, but I did join one of the award-winning 'night safaris', when the zoo stays open until midnight or so, so you can get to see the animals doing the stuff they do when most zoos are closed. The most unnerving experience was when, while lost on a path, I tried to read my map in the dark and a torch-wielding ranger - who had obviously been lurking in the bushes - appeared at my shoulder and asked if I needed help.
Fort Canning and Canning Park:
Once a military base, now a nice place to pass part of an afternoon. In the grounds is the Battle Box, the underground bunker from where the Allies co-ordinated the war effort against the invading Japanese army. Animatronic models recreate what happened on the morning the British commanders decided to surrender. Entry to Fort Canning and the park is free; Battle Box admission in March 2003 was S$8.
Singapore History Museum:
Exhibits celebrating Singapore's diverse ethnic mix. The "Singapore Story" 3D film show on its own is worth the price of admission, even if I can't remember how much it was! There's one bit where the narrator talks about how Singapore is growing strong, "But there are still some who want to disrupt this…" and the screen is filled with newspaper cuttings of Michael Fay, the American youth who was caned for vandalising cars, almost provoking an international incident. That might have happened several years ago, but the reaction obviously still touches a nerve!
In a beautiful Colonial-era building. If you're looking for Old Masters and Impressionists, though, you won't find them here.
An island a hundred yards or so off the coast, but probably more a theme park than an island, with artificial beaches, an aquarium (I think), wax museum, stuff like that, although there is the historic Fort Siloso. I didn't visit Sentosa, but I did take a glass-bottomed cable-car from the mainland, over Sentosa and back to a small park on Mount Faber, which was a pleasant enough half-hour or so. Singapore isn't the most romantic city on Earth, but Mount Faber at dusk would be a lovely place to be with someone special.
Rows of pretty shophouses, many of which have been restored to their former glory. There are a couple of nice walking tours. There's also the Chinatown Heritage Centre (signposted everywhere), which shows how Chinese immigrants lived during the first half of the 20th century.
Not really much to see, apart from a couple of nice Hindu temples, BUT the cheap Indian food makes it well worth a visit!
Boat Quay and Clark Quay:
Restaurants, shops and entertainment venues, on the banks of the Singapore River, close to where Sir Stamford Raffles is reputed to have landed when he 'discovered' Singapore. The UOB Building near Boat Quay is supposed to have an observation deck on the 37th floor, although it was closed when I was there. Just across the river is the famous statue of the Merlion, the emblem of Singapore.
More expensive than conventional tours, but we decided it was worth paying extra to be driven around one of the world's most sophisticated cities in an amphibious craft decorated like a duck. The tour was OK - we got up close and personal with the Merlion - but I could have done without the guide exhorting us to yell "Quack, quack!" every time he made an egg-related pun: "The apartments over there are very eggs-pensive" … see what I mean?
Changi Museum and Chapel:
Commemorating those who were interned in Changi jail during the Japanese occupation of Singapore. The chapel and museum aren't in the prison itself - which is absolutely MASSIVE considering the population of Singapore is only around 3.1million! - but nearby. Interesting and moving. Look for the poignant notes left by visitors whose relatives died at Changi, such as the card in memory of one Australian soldier "From the daughter you never knew".
Shopping on Orchard Street:
Huge street, huge shopping centres, every consumer durable under the sun…
Despite what it says (or said in the old edition) in Lonely Planet, it's not worth the effort of visiting Holland Village unless you're really, really at a loose end. For those familiar with Hampstead in London, it's a bit like that, only without the character. The most interesting part of the excursion was getting there on the MRT, as it took us past the massive, massi