11:21 AM, Friday, Dec 8: Nate and I are on a 6-hour train ride from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia. We’re feeling pretty good having navigated a bus ride to the border, customs, and the train station to get to this point. Admittedly, it was a lot of herd following, but still, we should get a badge or something.
I had been to Singapore a few times before while living in Jakarta, usually with other Fellows or fellow runners, but this one was unique on several levels. Next to smelly, overcrowded Jakarta, Singapore was an oasis of water-spouting Merlions placed an hour’s flight away by God himself. It was a place for luxury, and even on a Fellow’s salary, we could splurge on a boutique hotel, sit-down restaurants, Starbucks, and shopping. This time, though, Singapore became a gateway between The West and SE Asia. Cheaper than Europe, but more expensive than the rest of SE Asia, it was the perfect way for Nate and I to get our feet wet with couch surfing, street food, NesCafe, and finding as many free things to do as possible. It’s like training wheels to backpacker wannabes such as ourselves.
On Couch Surfing
This was my first couch surfing experience. We stayed in a house with two other couples, one UK and one Polish, as well as two other expats (one Brit and not sure about the other) and two other couch surfers (one Brit and one Aussie). Eight total strangers to spend four days with. My social anxiety was in overdrive before we even walked in the door. It didn’t help when our host, a coordinator for festivals and large-scale house parties, recruited us on the first night to set up a massive DJ stand and speakers and made small talk of skateboarding through the city and tales of challenging authority. I simultaneously felt acutely vanilla and horrified that I might be handed a skateboard or be asked to chew gum (a punishable offense in Singapore).
Within minutes of setting up the speaker system, though, the cracks of humanity began to appear. I found my anxiousness being pushed aside by admiration for my host’s ingenuity in setting up a wall of sound like none I’ve ever experienced. It was truly an art form to behold. The cracks continued to spread as I actively became curious and interested in each person’s life (a painter, a PR director, a movie editor, an English teacher, and even another lover of Muay Thai) in the house known affectionately as The Bridge. Lesson learned: It was more productive to be curious about the beautiful differences than to waste time worrying about what might happen.
In the end, I was never once made to feel uncomfortable. In fact, we were given loads of advice on sites to see, great food to eat, running trails to conquer, helpful apps/websites, and really, really good conversation. Each and every one of the people we met were endlessly generous with their time and possessions (use of a washing machine, a glass of wine, a borrowed umbrella, a short history of the country, etc.). Try to get that out of a hotel.
Recommendations: Do it!
On Street Food
Singapore is a blend of cultures: Indian, Chinese, Malaysian, and European. Add the influences from Indonesia to the south and Thailand to the north, and the cuisine is about as drool-worthy as you can imagine. The best part: The old adage of “You get what you paid for” doesn’t really apply here. There are two food stalls that boast Michelin stars. Our couch surfing hosts took us to a small, 5-6 table restaurant just a few minutes’ walk from their house that was mentioned in the Michelin Guide. So, you can pay $500 just to sit among the nouveau riche in the swankiest roof top bars (rumor has it that $200 more gets you a stick of contraband chewing gum), or you can pay $5 for the best meal of your life in an obscure mall food court in Chinatown. A quick search on Yelp will show the all the most delicious dishes anywhere from one $ to $$$$$. Often the number one suggestion will have the least number of $ signs.
- Lau Pa Sat: A colonial-looking food court seated in the middle of soaring, downtown skyscrapers. You’ll see a lot of suits here on their lunch break. It’s decently priced (we paid $7 for a large bowl of beef noodles) and there are over a dozen hawker stalls to choose from. This is a good place to eat if you’re visiting the Marina. We also got the amazing Korean frozen-milk flake concoction for two here (see pic), which was perfect after a long-sweaty hike around the bay. Pro tip: Bring a packet of tissues to save your seat at one of the first-come, first-serve tables. We may or may not have angered an elderly Chinese man by sitting down at his already tissue-claimed table. Read more about this practice of seat saving, called chope, here.
- Dragon Village Food Stall in the Food Court on the Second Floor of the Mall Behind this Pagoda in Chinatown: Sorry! I was so elated by having just consumed the most amazing meal of my life that I didn’t take note of the name of the mall. Five dollars got me a plate loaded with rice, spice chicken, eggplant, and long beans. It was heaven. You’ll pay 8-10 times as much if you eat in a restaurant in tourist areas of Chinatown.
3. Usman’s: I wanted to eat butter chicken while in Little Indian, and a yelp search touted that Usman’s street canteen had the best…and at the best price. $15 bucks got two plates of the stuff, three pieces of naan, and three drinks.
On 10 Free or Near-free things to do
Singapore is a concrete jungle, so there aren’t easily accessible beaches to lounge on or waterfall to hike to. That said, there is plenty to see.
1. Marina Bay: It’s a 3.5K walk around the Marina Bay. Along the way, you can see the famous Singaporean Merlion and various feats of architecture. This is also a popular jogging route when the sun goes down. At the very least, you can take great photos for your Instagram feed.
2. Marina Bay Light Show: This incredible show makes the Bellagio fountain in Vegas look like child’s play. For 15 minutes, lasers, goose-bump inducing music (think Pirates of the Caribbean), and animations projected on 20-foot tall fans of water have you cemented to your seat. Nate and I both had ear-to-ear smiles the entirety of the show. So, so cool. You can catch it in front of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel at 8 and 9pm every night.
3. Ce La Vie: You can pay $27 per person to ride an elevator 56 floors up to the cruise ship on top of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel and see all of Singapore. Or, little known secret, you can purchase a $20 voucher (each) to go to the 57th floor bar called Ce La Vie and take in the view while you sip a drink or two with the voucher. Of course, a beer costs about exactly $20 (one bottle of wine of the menu cost $12,800!), but a ginger beer is $8. If you get two of those, you can use your remaining voucher (Sorry, no change!) on some fries. This one is not free, but it was a highlight of the trip. Nate and I got up to the bar around 7, found a table right on the edge, and watched the sun go down and the city lights turn on. It’s a stunning view that you can enjoy with the smug knowledge that you beat the system.
4. Gardens by the Bay:Behind the Marina Bay Sands Hotel is another treasure called the Gardens by the Bay. You are free to walk around and enjoy the flora and fauna, but most people gaze at the vertical gardens climbing up half a dozen red “trees” – together called the Supertree Grove. Come back at night (7:45 or 8:45pm) to experience the “Garden Rhapsody,” a music and light show. Nate and I didn’t make it to this one, but we hear it’s not to be missed. There are also two, glass-domed gardens in the Gardens. I believe you can enter both for $28. One contains the world’s tallest indoor waterfall. We chose to skip over them, but we have it on good authority that they’re worth every penny.
5. Little India: This colorful part of town is mostly filled with delicious restaurants and a ton of jewelry, clothing, toy, and fruit markets. There isn’t too much to do, but you will stumble across some neat art and the occasional, highly ornate Hindu temple.
6. Chinatown: Again, this is another location for great eats with a sprinkling of temples and pagodas. There is also a pretty fun open-air market with various souvenir stalls. Nate and I picked up a water-color painting from one stall where the artist was taking a break from painting to watch youtube videos.
7. Botanical Gardens: The gardens cover a large expanse of land impressively barricaded from the rest of the city. If you’re a runner, get here early (7ish) for a refreshing run. There’s also an orchid garden with a $5 entrance fee.
8. Orchard Road: Orchard road is the home of shopping on the scale of Madison Ave. in NYC. Not great for travelers on a budget, but it’s a fun stroll, especially at Christmas time when the shops and street are festooned with lights.
9. Haw Par Villa: Nate explored this Chinese “Theme Park” on his own after it came heavily recommended by our hosts (I was under the weather, so this is a secondhand account). From Nate’s mouth: “It’s weird shit.” One stand out is dioramas of the seven courts of hell that feature various forms of torture. For example, being sawed in half.
10. The MRT: This subway system is not free, unfortunately, but it is very cheap. And, as we learned from our host, you can turn each commute into its own Universal Studios ride. Simply get into the first car and lean your forehead against the glass so that you can see the tracks ahead. The train is driverless, so you’ll be heading face first into the dark tunnel, expecting zombies around each bend.
Singapore gets 5 stars from us, but we’re excited to see what lays ahead in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia!