Editor’s note: I absolutely LOVE Singapore as a destination, and have called it my favorite city in the world on a number of occasions. So it is awesome for me to read a different perspective on the city-state from Sam in this article. For more about Singapore, click here for our Ultimate Guide. For more from Sam’s trips around the world, click here to visit his index.
I will start off with a confession; I was a bit underwhelmed by Singapore. That is not to say that it is not a beautiful, incredible place; it was just not the type of place where I dream of going, even though I had heard so much hype from others about it. Let me explain. Whenever I am in Israel, I am way more excited about Jerusalem than Tel Aviv. While Tokyo was amazing, it paled in comparison to the sites of Kyoto. If I had to choose between visiting Dubai or visiting Cairo, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, despite being the world’s tallest building, would not measure up to the Pyramids of Giza. All of this is a way of saying that I like the old and historic over the new and modern. However, I realize that not everyone is like me, and that for so many of my fellow travelers and my friends, the cities I mentioned, Tel Aviv’s beaches and parties, Tokyo’s skyscrapers and bright lights, and the glitz and glamor of Dubai blow any other global destinations out of the water. If this is the type of traveler you are, then you would love Singapore.
So, how did I end up in Singapore anyhow? Singapore has what many consider to be the world’s best airport, Changi International Airport, which also happens to be one of the busiest airports in the world. When I was traveling to Indonesia from Beijing, I had a choice with AirAsia between a layover in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. I opted for Singapore as Kuala Lumpur and the area around it are places where I would want to go spend a week, and Singapore felt like a place where I could see the highlights in a day or so. Flying into Changi International, I was struck instantaneously by what I had heard about Singapore all along; like the country, the airport was exceptionally clean and also it let me know that the country was no-nonsense as I was handed a card with a smiley face that read on the back in bright, capital red letters, “WARNING: DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKERS UNDER SINGAPORE LAW”. Indeed, diplomatic spats between western countries and nations like Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia have occurred when tourists from countries like Australia have faced lengthy prison sentences and even death for drug trafficking. While it was unfortunately under construction at the time I went, today Changi Airport has opened the Jewel Changi Airport terminal, which is a nature-themed and retail complex featuring a rainforest, slides, shopping, and the world’s largest indoor waterfall. While I was at the airport, I went to the cacti garden with their 24-hour bar and restaurant and watched planes land. For many, the airport alone is a highlight of Singapore.
Yet, of course, I had to get out of the airport, and when I did, I went to one of the more historic sites in Singapore, the Battle Box. Built as a bombproof command center underneath Fort Canning Hill, the Battle Box was the headquarters for the British military for Southeast Asia during World War II. With a tour of the underground tunnels, you will hear and see the stressful tale of the British military leaders during the Battle of Singapore that ultimately led to the surrender of British forces to the Japanese Imperial Army and 80,000 Allied soldiers becoming Prisoners of War, tens of thousands of whom would die as a result of disease, starvation, and abuse from forced labor. It was this defeat that Winston Churchill called the “worst disaster” in British military history and contributed to the end of European colonialism in that part of the world. The museum is interactive and brilliantly brings to life the experience of the soldiers, helping tourists imagine the stressful conditions of the dire situation that took place in that very room.
Following my visit to the Battle Box, I wanted to explore the different cultures of Singapore. Singapore is fascinating in that it is a melting pot. In some parts of the tiny nation, there are hawker food stands that feel more like you are in the developing world and in neighboring Malaysia, while other parts of Singapore feel more like Beverly Hills (think the film Crazy Rich Asians, based in Singapore and reflecting its ritzy side). People in Singapore speak English due to the longtime British occupation, but also, due to the large Chinese population, speak Mandarin. There is a massive expat community from throughout the world and you will quickly discover that looking Singaporean is an oxymoron. In the city there are many people of European origin, there is a large Chinatown representing the dominant Chinese population there, as well as a Little India and an Arab Street, reflections of the large Indian and Arab groups in Singapore too. With only a day, I opted to explore Arab Street and marvel in the shadow of the Sultan Mosque and its golden dome, while taking in the smells and colors of all the spice shops. I also visited Little India and had some of the best curry in my life. While there, I attended a religious service at the Sri Veeramakaliamman Hindu Temple, a 19th century Hindu temple dedicated to the goddess Kali. There, I watched a procession with loud music of a shrine around the temple while the faithful gathered. Despite being an avid monotheist, I was still struck by the beauty of the Hindu stories and the displays of shrines with literally thousands of statues, especially at the overwhelming entrance of the temple. Of anywhere I have visited, the Hindu temple here stands apart as truly exceptional and marvelous.
With limited time, I had my taxi driver take me past the waterfront, where I saw the Singapore Flyer Ferris wheel and the symbol of Singapore, the Merlion statue of a lion’s head on a fish’s body spitting water into the harbor. Singapore means “Lion City” in Sanskrit after early explorers thought they witnessed a lion from the shore run into the jungle. My great regret at the time was that there was not enough time before my flight to go explore the Gardens by the Bay, a 101-acre park that includes an indoor cloud forest with the second largest indoor waterfall, much flora, ponds, and also the Supertrees. The Supertrees are a grove of artificial trees that appear futuristic and range from 82 to 160-feet in height. The Gardens by the Bay is one of Singapore’s primary attractions attracting millions of visitors annually. Instead, I went to the Marina Bay Sands, the world’s most expensive casino, which cost nearly $7 billion to build in 2010, that features three skyscrapers that are all connected on top by a 1,120-foot SkyPark that includes a nearly 500-foot infinity pool. Inside the 2,500+ room hotel, there are all the shops, restaurants, and experiences one would expect from a Las Vegas experience, but make your way to the top. I went there and was treated to sweeping views of all of Singapore at sunset, including looking below me at the Supertree Grove and getting to experience the gardens that way. While I sat and watched the sun dip behind the horizon in the bay, I sipped on the tiny nation’s signature drink, a Singapore Sling, then readied myself to go back to Changi International.
Was my day in Singapore enough? Not at all. For me personally, I could have spent at most one more day and felt like I had seen what the country has to offer. Compared to every other country in the region, Singapore is also incredibly expensive. With all the modernity, the ritzy-ness and the cost, I do not think it is the type of place that I would plan a vacation to; however, for a long layover that will guarantee an exciting and satisfying day, on top of a great airport experience, there are few places that beat Singapore.
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