Singapore is well known in the travel blog and travel hack community, though mostly for its award winning airport. That’s how I knew Singapore having spent a couple of nights laying over there a few years back. It wasn’t a place I’d intended to visit, but work brought me there anyways. With the surprisingly popular movie Crazy Rich Asians (imdb) providing a full on commercial account of the city and the world’s longest nonstop flight between Newark and Singapore restarting (thepointsguy), I figure I’d provide my experiences there.
Unlike previous trips, this was determined for me by the Organization of Human Brain Mapping’s decision to move their conference from Seoul to Singapore for their annual conference. Several of us, including Mark pictured below and the subject of many photos in this report, were presenting our research, so Singapore it was.
The planning for this trip was also unlike our previous trips. My awesome advisers covered our expenses for our trip including flights, housing, conference fees, and food. To that extent, those of us in lab were able to buy typically costing flights and stay at a hotel near the conference center. Thanks advisers, and hopefully you haven’t found this blog! If so, please read my paper. 🙂
A Caveat to our planning was that our friend and former post-doc in our lab was getting married in Korea just after our conference, so our flight plan was a little more complicated. We ended up booking an open jaw flight from our home airport in Roanoke (ROA) to Singapore (SIN) and returning from Busan, Korea (PUS) to our home airport. In between, we had a separate one way flight connecting SIN to BUS. Busan is the subject of my next post.
In terms of planning for Singapore, we didn’t since we were mainly planning for our conference. We figured we’d just walk around and explore.
Getting around Singapore was pretty easy and decently cheap. A former post-doc of the lab who now resides in Singapore told us about the Grab app, the Singaporean Lyft or Uber. For reference, a regular ride from the airport to downtown cost us SGD$28, which was roughly USD$21 at the time of this post.
Since we were typically traveling as a group or with multiple people, we didn’t utilize public transportation. For more information regarding public transportation here are links to government public transport site and discoversg guide.
We were in Singapore in June, during the Southwest Monsoon season which run from June to September. It was hot and humid everyday and walking the 5 minutes from our hotel to the conference center would make you feel drenched. On our nice days, we were able to walk around the city and go for a hike, just bring a lot of water. There was plenty of rain while we were there as well, but luckily those were the days we spent in the conference center.
For full climate information, check out the government climate website.
Again, Google Fi (my referral link) worked well for me there.
Interestingly, it was very easy for me to communicate with locals there. English is spoken as the second most common language and when English doesn’t work, Mandarin typically works as it is the most commonly spoken language (wikipedia). Since I speak both, Singapore was very easy for me.
trip report: getting in
Our long flights connecting us to Singapore was mainly uneventful other than slight delay from while in Atlanta when a dog on board bit a stewardess, which I slept through. The passenger and their pet was removed and a new replacement stewardess had to be found.
During our stopovers in Atlanta (ATL) and Tokyo Narita (NRT), I was able to use my priority pass (detail from drofcredit) and take my lab mates to a couple lounges for refreshments and snacks. I’ve always enjoyed the Club Lounge in ATL (review by travelcodex), was glad per diem covered lunch from a restaurant rather than the sandwiches and soup at the lounge. The KAL lounge in NRT (review by travelcodex) was very basic and crowded, so not much to write home about.
After a day and half worth of flights in which we attempted to stay up as much as we could, we arrived in Singapore ready for bedtime.
During our week in Singapore, the majority of the we spent in the air conditioned conference center/mall of Suntek downtown. However, we did a little bit of time to get out and walk around the city.
A central draw of Singapore is it’s food. While Singapore has no inherent identity of food to call their own having only existed since 1965, it is more a mish mash of all sorts of asian food. The shear range of restaurants in terms of quality, type, and cost is enough to give anyone decision paralysis.
The simple way, also the cheapest, is to just plop yourself down at one of the small food courts (known as hawker centres – wikipedia) that serves as a common space to several food stalls. Each of the food stalls has a specific specialty and the person running it probably has done it their entire lives. The movie Crazy Rich Asians even showed off the Newton Food Centre (News.com) as it’s main food feature for Singapore. Our colleague took us to the more popular Makansutra Gluttons Bay (tripadvisor) near the Marina Sands, which was a nice atmosphere but more expensive due to its centrality and view. If those aren’t a priority, you can find these food stalls by just walking around and look to see where the locals are lining up during meal times, usually a good sign to join.
The most famous of these food stands is the Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice & Noodle (CNN Travel; wikipedia), who has the distinction of the cheapest Michelin Star Restaurant. While the original stand is no more and replaced by the expanded fast food looking restaurant version of it under the new name Hawker Chan (tripadvisor). Ofcourse, the cost of the meal has gone up to about SDG$4, double the original cost, and may not meet the high expectation that tourists arrive with leading to more subpar reviews. My take is that the soya sauce chicken is not earth shattering, but it is indeed excellent. I like how Mark put it in that it has ruined chicken for him because it was the best chicken he’s ever had and it changed his baseline of how he measures all chicken he’ll ever eat. If you don’t eat chicken, the noodles and rice by themselves are not the main point of the place and you just should look elsewhere. They are still very busy and going as early as possible is recommended to avoid the long wait.
We also visited the less famous Michelin Star food stand, Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle (wikipedia; tripadvisor), which has remained the same as the day they received the distinction. I thoroughly enjoyed noodles among a mix of different meats, but homemade noodles are my favorite things in the world. Again I wouldn’t say it is world shattering, just very excellent in what it does.
Even though they haven’t changed, there is a very explicit instructions now on how to order.
While I mainly focused on the food stands and soup dumplings (Din Tai Fung), there are endless choices including more Michelin star places you can visit in one trip. My recommendation would be to befriend a local or just follow the lines.
Garden by the Bay
Garden by the Bay (tripadvisor) is one of the several parks in Singapore and it is located right on the waterfront close to downtown. Majority of the park is free and open to the public, but the 3 highlights of the park do cost money.
The first is the iconic man made tree structures where you can get a good view of the Marina Bay ship casino. By itself, the cost is SGD$8 to go up the elevator and take the couple minute walk on the crosswalk. While we visited during the day time, it is also recommended to visit at night to see the structures lite up.
The second main attraction is one of the two glass domes, the Flower Dome. As named, it has a lot of flowers and succulent plants.
The other dome, Cloud Dome, was the last main attraction.
Overall, the it was a nice walk with plenty to see, but I don’t know if it’s worth the money. There are package deals that include all three main attractions. However, they were running a half off discount on their annual pass, which made the student pricing lower than the package deals. To avoid all the lines to purchase tickets, I’d recommend to buy it online if you can.
day hike: Windsor Nature Park & MacRitchie Central Catchment Nature Reserve
Among the concrete jungle, we had an afternoon to check out the actual jungle. The draw was the Macritchie Treetop walk, which was a suspension bridge.
- name: Windsor Nature Park & MacRitchie Central Catchment Nature Reserve hike (gps track – wikiloc)
- type: loopish
- distance: 4.45 miles (7.16 km)
- elevation change: 459 ft (140 m) ascend & descend
- time: 1:40 hours, 1:25 moving
- location: Singapore (google maps to trailhead)
We took a Grab to the trailhead, which had plenty of parking even though it was a very popular trail. The trail begins on concrete path and there is a bathroom shortly after the signs and regulations for the park.
We continued on the concrete that went through a swampy area, which were patrolled by large monitor lizards. Following the signs for the Treetop Walk that took us on a combination of dirt trails, roads, and wide concrete path that use to be roads. Along the way we were met with many playful monkeys.
After about a hundred feet elevation gain up a concrete road, we turned onto the wooden walkway for the treetop suspension bridge.
The suspension bridge provided views of the jungle canopies and the Peirce Reservoirs in the distance.
Afterwards, we continued a short climb on the wooden walkway before returning to the trail we came in on. From there we returned to the parking lot, though on a parallel path to the one we took in even though the overall view wasn’t much different.
ratings (range: 1-5; see link for explanation)
- views: 2. The highlight for the hike were the many monkeys that run around the area. While the suspension bridges seem to be a popular thing for jungles regions as in Costa Rica, you really have to camp out on them to see any animals. It was nice to see some green space among the concrete jungle, but nothing to write home about.
- difficulty: 1. Not much in term of elevation change, just that it’s really hot and humid in Singapore. Have plenty of water.
- technical: 1. The green space was well marked.
A popular activity in Singapore is the Zoo. Although I really don’t support the captive nature of the Zoo, the group inertia pulled me there. The night safari was said to be one of the better things to do there.
The Safari starts with a tram ride around the park starting with sections that we’d walk through later and then moving to parts only accessible by the tram. With only my phone camera, the night photography here isn’t very good.
After the ride was the well rehearsed show.
Lastly, we were able to stretch our legs out and walk around the park.
Among the many exhibits, the large cat exhibits were my favorite. It took us a good hour and half to make our way through the park.
While OHBM tends to be a drink heavy affair, buying alcohol there was quiet expensive and there really isn’t anything unique that we found there. This year’s club night for OHBM was at Zouk (tripadvisor), located on the Singapore River in an area with plenty of nightlife. I partook in that nightlife scene in a limited capacity since it’s not my thing.
However, what is my scene is ultimate frisbee and I found a pretty awesome community with regular pickups. Get on their whatsapp group list for pickup game times and locations.
Lastly, there are plenty of shopping in Singapore. So much so that our conference center was actually part of a large shopping mall. Our hotel was also attached to a mall. Outside of that, there are many large market areas selling all sorts of imported goods in stalls. While I walked around in some of them, I’ll leave it to others out there to describe it.
trip report: getting out
We spent a total of six days in Singapore for the conference. From there a contingent of us that continued to Busan (PUS) from Singapore for friend’s and former post-doc’s wedding, which will be in its own trip report.
Before our flight out of Singapore, we headed to the Singapore Airport and visited a couple of lounges as part of my Priority Pass (detail from drofcredit) for Dinner. Like the airport itself, the lounges in terminal 1 were awesome as well with plenty of food and drinks. I personally liked the Plaza Premium Lounge (youtube) with it’s on demand food such, as Sushi handrolls, better than the Dnata Lounge (youtube). However, the Plaza Premium Lounge charges for alcohol so you’ll need to get your drink on elsewhere.
A few of us took the red-eye Thai airlines flight connecting through Bangkok (BBK). While at BBK, visited a couple of the Miracle Lounges there and was able to get some snacks and some shuteye. Those lounges come in very different qualities and sizes, so look around.
The Thai flights themselves were uneventful, but were on older airplanes. We tried our best to get some sleep.
Singapore, the transit hub of Southeast Asia, is a major city with western comforts and eastern flavorings. However that’s also a negative in that it is a concrete jungle with a lot of manufactured attractions. It’s the same feel I get from the modern Chinese cities like Shanghai where the focus is to westernize or modernize (though they might approach it as the same) that it becomes bland. The high point for me was myriad of food that can be found in the city, which really is part of any major metropolitan areas. I do acknowledge that to find the best and unique qualities of a city, more time and the guide of a local who live there is needed. But that is true for all cities and if you look hard enough in each cities, you’ll find unique qualities. However as a traveler and tourist, this is my formed impressions.
As a travel destination, Singapore would not be a place I would plan to return to. If you are transiting through, spending a couple of day stopover might be worth your time but I wouldn’t do it if the alternative is on a beach, volcano, world heritage site, dive, or many of the other activities and places in Southeast Asia.