Wednesday 07 December
Often referred to as “The Lion City” or “The Little Red Dot”, Singapore is the world’s only island city-state. It was founded many moons ago by Malay fishermen, and has grown to become the second largest port in the world (the first of course is Shanghai – but you all knew that didn’t you? You smart cookies you). The British used the city as a strategic base during WW2 (my great uncle was stationed here before his capture and the fall of the city to the Japanese), and today it’s become one of the most prosperous countries in the world. And one of the most expensive.
Why I initially came to somewhere that charges 8 quid a pint is almost beyond me, especially considering the countries I’ve come from. It’s a reverse culture shock paying London prices once more, and it certainly prompts me to seriously tighten the purse strings. But considering the ease of hitching in Malaysia, it would have been rude not to at least pay it a visit while I’m in the neighbourhood.
So after negotiating through the shit-show border crossing and finding a ridiculously average hostel (9 quid a night for a place that shouldn’t be worth 3), I begin my day exploring The Gardens by the Bay – a relatively new attraction consisting of vast garden walkways, lakes and “supertrees” – which have become something of a famous picture postcard for the Singapore skyline. It’s all very pleasant – in spite of the gloom and rain, but there’s one thing I discovered that was to become something of a challenge in Singapore: the art of not spending any money.
I did want to do certain attractions, but not enough to warrant paying through the nose for them. Everything – it seems – is geared towards making money. Close by is the impressive (and bizarre) Marina Bay Sands complex which has the highest infinity pool in the world, and boasts an observation deck of significant note. However it costs $25 dollars for the privilege – and you’re not allowed to see the pool unless you’re a guest – and I’m not going to pay upwards of $500 a room. It’s the most expensive resort in the world – something you can glean from wandering around the mall at the base of the towers, and the calibre of the shopping therein. The bustling casino is always busy, you can hire supercars to drive around and pick up girls for 250 bucks a pop, and there’s even a boating canal just to be super kitsch. The flagrant display of wealth is sickening.
You can’t miss Marina Bay on the Singapore skyline. It’s the three curved towers with a boat sitting on top of them. Apparently the design is taken from a Chinese superstition that living at the end of the block is a bad omen, so the towers were constructed curved, with the space between them to let energy flow through. Personally I can’t decide if I like it or not, but it certainly is unique, and with the nearby supertrees lighting up at night, makes for an interesting spectacle.
By stark contrast (and more my taste) is Chinatown and Little India – two famous districts of the city, popular with locals and tourists alike. I pay a visit to the Thieves Market in the latter, a seedy underworld that smacks of old Singapore – shady, insalubrious stall holders peddling their (suspiciously acquired) wares. Here you can buy almost anything, including thousands of watches, rusty nails, bottles of decades old coke, and one shoe – should you already have the other one.
Singapore is a food lover’s paradise – and boy is the cuisine tasty. I’m not one for food writing, as to do this city justice would take a verifiable culinary word-wizard. But they have these amazing food courts with “hawker” food stalls selling all kinds of gorgeous grub – for relatively low prices. And I have eaten at my first ever Michelin Starred restaurant. For $3.80. The world’s first street food stand awarded the coveted decoration. It was worth the hour it took to queue for it.
One of the delicacies here is something called “chicken rice”. It’s a deceptively simple dish of rice, which is cooked (sometimes for days) in chicken stock. Then you add fresh, succulent chicken, often with a sauce, and green vegetables or some other accompaniment. Famous chefs from all over the world come here to learn how they make it – and it’s goddamn delicious. I practically live off the stuff for my time here.
For me it’s a city of two halves. There are parts of it that are charming and beautiful, with plenty of green space and botanical gardens. The other half is one giant shopping mall – and it’ll make you sick in your mouth. SPEND! SPEND! SPEND! CONSUME! CONSUME! CONSUME! I decide to get out as quickly as possible – in the form of a quick, two-day excursion to Indonesia.
Batam island is only 50 minutes away, but as it’s considerably cheaper and a place I’ve not been, I decide to spend a couple of days there – and wish I hadn’t. Granted in hindsight I should have looked a little further afield to one of the other islands, as Batam is little more than Singapore’s toilet. It’s central town of Nagoya is a dirty shopping district, which many Singaporeans visit to get stuff cheaper than back home. More spending money. More buying shit people don’t need. You can get anything you want here, with some notable exceptions:
No Indonesian flag stickers.
No clip-on sunglasses for my prescription specs.
No Fat nib magic markers in any stationary shop.
There’s fuck-all else to see and my entire day isn’t even successful on what I needed to purchase. I could have got a Liverpool shirt for 3 quid though – however I probably was right not to after I watch them throw away a two goal lead TWICE, to lose to lowly Bournemouth that night in a bar. I was back to paying sensible prices for a beer though – so it wasn’t all that bad.
I decide the best option is to just cut the moon and stars off the corner of the Singapore flag and pass that off as Indonesian. Either that or turn a Polish flag upside down. I’m always the first one who lays waste to claims that people have seen a country if they’ve only spent a couple of days there – and for sure I’ve not seen anything of the real Indonesia at all. But although Batam is a dump (and arguably the worst place I’ve ever been) the people and the food were wonderful. Perhaps one day I’ll be back to explore its more attractive islands – which if you did one a day it would take you around 49 years to visit them all. Time is not on my side.
I return to the mainland (which is still an island) and bed down with a couchsurf host for the evening. A few days previous, I sent a brass neck email to Legoland, requesting a complimentary ticket to visit their Malaysian resort. I’ve been a die-hard Lego lover since my first set circa 1984, but have never had the chance to visit the theme parks. If you don’t ask – you don’t get. With this in mind, I stall my departure from Singapore in the hope they respond positively. But time has run out, and so on the morrow I exit through the gift shop for my history fix in the old colonial town of Malacca, Malaysia. There I will reside over the weekend – finally getting out of big cities – and hoping that Legoland get back to me before my stay in the country is over. I want to be a 37 year old man wandering around Legoland theme park on my own. That’s not dodgy at all.
I don’t regret coming to Singapore – but I wouldn’t recommend it as a travel destination. Unless you’re filthy rich of course. David Beckham’s smug face flashes regularly on billboards and video screens. This is the kind of folk Singapore wants and does attract. Clearly I’m not in the same league. I’m coming back Malaysia – all is forgiven.