I wanted to do something special for my birthday earlier this month, so I decided to spend the weekend in Singapore—my first trip to the city-state. Have you read the New York Times features on “36 Hours in …,” where they outline a (usually extravagant) jam-packed weekend of activities? My excursion to Singapore wasn’t quite that short, but I managed to get a lot in.
Friday, October 17
3pm: Landed at Singapore’s Changi Airport, routinely named the world’s best. From my limited exposure to it at this end of the trip, I could see why. The Immigration counters held dishes of hard candy for new arrivals to take (and small containers to collect the candy wrappers); there was a massive slide for kids (not free, but it looked like fun); and there wasn’t a scrum of unlicensed taxi drivers waiting to pounce on departing passengers. Heavenly.
5pm: Checked into hotel, where the super-enthusiastic desk clerk got even more enthusiastic when he saw in my passport that I was born in Pennsylvania. Turns out he used to live in Harrisburg. He was a lot more enthusiastic about Harrisburg than I would think was warranted, based on my fourth-grade class trip to the state capital.
5:30pm: Walked down to the Maxwell Road Hawker Centre, a partially open-air food court in Chinatown. “Hawker centres” are Singapore’s place to find cheap food and drink; they contain a number of stalls that sell a range of Chinese, Indian, and Malaysian dishes. Many of the stalls seem to specialize in only one or two things. My target at Maxwell Road was Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice, which Lonely Planet told me was the hawker centre’s most famous stall. Hainanese chicken rice is basically the national dish of Singapore (though Hainan is in China); it consists of boneless poached chicken with the skin on, sitting atop a bed of raw cucumber slices and topped with a thin gravy and some cilantro. The chicken is sliced into strips, and you dip them into a spicy chili sauce on the side and eat the chicken with the accompanying rice, which has been cooked in chicken stock.
I’ve only had Hainanese chicken rice once before, and I didn’t do the ordering that time. So when I walked up to the counter at Tian Tian, I picked what seemed to me the smallest amount of chicken—a half—and a serving of rice.
Discovery #1: Ordering half a Hainanese chicken when you’re by yourself (as indicated by the single serving of rice) will provoke a reaction like when Jake orders four fried chickens and a Coke in The Blues Brothers. The counterwoman’s skepticism made sense when I moved to the adjoining counter and collected my plate: half a chicken is a lot of chicken. It’s definitely delicious, and I was pretty hungry since I didn’t eat the plane meal, so I did a fair job with the chicken rice—but I still didn’t finish the entire plate.
Discovery #2: As I saw when I checked the menu board again on my way out of the hawker centre, you can order “Hainanese chicken rice,” which is an individual serving of the dish meant for one person to eat. The half and whole chickens are for people to share. Whoops.
6:30pm: I walked slowly back to the hotel and thought about whether or not I should try to do any sight-seeing, since it was still relatively early. Lonely Planet told me that the National Museum has free admission on Friday nights, and I contemplated going there. Then I remembered that I woke up at 5am and didn’t get much sleep on the plane. I really wasn’t in the right frame of mind to tour a museum, so I decided that calling it a day made sense.
I stopped in at a 7-Eleven to check out what’s special in Singapore’s—7-Elevens in Asia are much better than those in the U.S., and often have crazy but awesome items. My favorite thing in Singapore was the mashed potato dispenser. A close second was the single-serving bags of wine; I picked up a bag of pinot grigio to take back to the hotel. Not the best wine, not the worst. But it came in a bag.
Saturday, October 18 (my birthday)
9am: I started out bright and early with a walking tour of Chinatown that I found in Lonely Planet, though I did it in reverse (and only turned the wrong way once!). Singapore’s ethnic enclaves are no longer especially well-defined—if they ever were; Chinatown contains a major Hindu temple and an important mosque, while I saw a Chinese Buddhist temple in Little India on Sunday.
10:30am: By doing the walking tour in reverse, I was able to start at my hotel and end up only steps from Ya Kun Kaya Toast, the perfect place for a mid-morning coffee break. Kaya toast is a national obsession in Singapore, it seems: slices of bread toasted and spread with a layer of coconut jam (kaya), then topped with pats of margarine and stuck together in a sweet sandwich. A full breakfast set at Ya Kun also includes two soft-boiled eggs and a cup of super-sweet milky coffee, though I managed to convince the waiter that I wanted my coffee black.
A vintage Ya Kun advertisement inside the restaurant asks, “How would you like your eggs: wet and runny or runny and wet?” This was not an exaggeration! They only serve eggs one way—no special requests, no substitutions. I love runny eggs, but was still taken aback when the ones at Ya Kun came served in a bowl with a spoon to eat them. I gamely topped them with a strong dash of black pepper and a bit of vinegar, as per local custom, but really could not get used to eating eggs that had barely been cooked. The kaya toast, however, was amazing.
I wandered around Chinatown a little bit longer and eventually wound up at a subway station, where I got on a train heading north to the heart of the old colonial district. Although the morning had started out sunny and hot, clouds were quickly rolling in and I could tell that a major rainstorm was on the way.
12pm: How much does it cost to drink an authentic Singapore Sling at the Raffles Hotel and feel vaguely uncomfortable while doing so? Um, I’d rather not say. Enough that I don’t think it’s remotely justifiable even as a Very Special Birthday Treat. But the Lonely Planet walking tour of the colonial district started at the hotel, and rain was starting to fall as I arrived there, so I decided to fulfill the ultimate touristy cliché and go to the Long Bar while waiting out the storm.
What I didn’t exactly realize ahead of time is that the Long Bar is something of a throwback to the heyday of British colonialism in Singapore, with its “plantation-style” decor and chairs filled almost entirely with older British tourists being served by Asian waiters. Nearly everyone had a glass of red-pink Singapore Sling, and most people were eating peanuts out of burlap sacks and throwing the shells on the floor. (Which made my eyelid twitch. There were containers on the tables for peanut shells. Don’t deliberately make a mess for someone else to clean up, even if it is in the “spirit” of the place.) Rudyard Kipling would have fit right in.
Maybe I’m being unnecessarily harsh. Maybe graduate school destroyed my ability to enjoy a tourist trap. I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be okay with a Gone With the Wind-themed restaurant in the United States, and I didn’t feel okay about being in the Long Bar.
12:30pm: The rainstorm concluded, I escaped from my moral quandary into Singapore’s old colonial district and began following the walking tour set out in Lonely Planet. Many of the beautiful Palladian-style buildings are undergoing renovation right now, but it was still very pleasant to walk along the river and enjoy the intermittent sunshine. Singapore reminded me a lot of Hong Kong—clean, efficient, a jumble of old and new buildings, a babel of languages spoken—but on that weekend, at least, it didn’t feel nearly as crowded, and it was nice to be in a city but with some room to breathe.
2pm: I detoured from the walking tour’s itinerary to head over to Clarke Quay, location of the Brewerkz microbrewery, where I wanted to eat lunch. Even putting aside the extraordinarily overpriced Singapore Sling at the Raffles, Singapore is an expensive place to eat and drink, especially if you go to a true restaurant rather than hawker centre. Brewerkz has a lunch special that’s pricey but not completely outrageous: S$19 (US$15.20) for a pint of beer (I picked the black raspberry ale) and half a sandwich (I got the pulled pork) with a side of sweet potato fries.
3pm: Back to exploring! The remainder of the walking tour took me on a long hike along the river, across the Esplanade, and into the Marina Bay Sands shopping mall/casino complex, which I’d been staring at all day because its three towers are topped by a boat, and you really can’t help but stare. I momentarily thought about checking out the casino (maybe I could recoup the money spent on that Singapore Sling?), but noticed the sign at the door said that foreigners had to show their passports to enter, and mine was locked in the hotel safe. Probably for the best, since I know nothing about gambling.
5pm: Hot, sweaty, and not eager to retrace my steps along the long, sun-drenched Esplanade, I took a water taxi from the casino complex back to Clarke Quay and wandered down to my hotel, stopping at 7-Eleven along the way to pick up dinner (diet Coke and instant noodles). I spent much of the remainder of my birthday delighting in Singapore’s fast and unblocked internet, which enabled me to download all the podcast episodes that my connection in China has been balking at lately. I am, clearly, so cool.
Sunday, October 19
10am: After dawdling around the hotel and delaying checkout as long as possible, I left my suitcase at the front desk and made my way to the subway station, then rode the train a few stops north to Killiney Kopitiam, another landmark source of kaya toast. I skipped the eggs this time and just had toast and coffee. Killiney had a much more generous hand with the kaya than Ya Kun did.
11am: Thus fortified, I took the metro over to Little India for my final Lonely Planet walking tour (if you haven’t noticed, I love walking tours). Since it was a Sunday morning, all the temples in Little India were filled with people going to services, so I couldn’t go inside any of them, but there was plenty to look at on the streets. As I said, the neighborhood designations of “Chinatown” and “Little India” are pretty vague ones; apparently, they had some meaning back in the 19th century, but people have created fairly mixed communities since then. There are Chinese- and Indian-specific markets in their respective neighborhoods, but otherwise I might not have realized that the areas are supposed to have defined ethnic identities.
12:45pm: I wasn’t exactly hungry yet, but I also wasn’t going to pass by the biryani restaurant that Lonely Planet recommended in the heart of Little India. It turned out to be a good thing I didn’t wait any longer, as they had already sold out of the house special mutton biryani and only had a bit of the chicken left. Diners at the table next to mine complained that the mutton was already gone, and the owner told them that on Sundays, when most people have the day off, they need to arrive when the restaurant opens at 11am to be reasonably sure of getting it. The chicken biryani was pretty darn good, so the mutton must be something special.
1:30pm: I had the rest of the afternoon left and a choice of three things to do. I could go to the Singapore Zoo, which is supposed to be an excellent and un-zoo-like experience. I could wander among the flowers in the Botanical Gardens. Or I could check out a couple of museums.
After spending almost all of Saturday outside, the idea of more time in the sun didn’t really appeal to me. I decided on the museums.
I chose wrong.
To be clear: the primary reason this was the wrong choice is that Singapore seems to be renovating museums en masse right now. I started out at the National Museum, where I found that the “living history” galleries have been closed (and the main exhibit will be very soon, reopening in fall 2015). The woman at the ticket desk assured me that there was still plenty to see in the main exhibit, which traces Singapore’s history from the 14th century to the present, and since admission was a very reasonable S$6 anyway, I went ahead with it. But once I got inside, I discovered that the museum is largely done via audio tour—there are very few placards in the exhibits, and they don’t say much—and as much as I love a good walking tour, I dislike audio tours. I thought this one was not very well done; there were too many occasions where a single object or picture got a three-minute discussion as I stood there thinking that it would be so much faster if I could just read about it. When the battery on my audio unit died three-quarters of the way through the exhibit, I decided I’d had enough.
3:30pm: I took the metro back down to Chinatown with a plan in mind: I’d go to the Chinatown Heritage Centre to see the exhibit there, then eat dinner at a restaurant in the area before going back to my hotel to pick up my bag and head to the airport. Exiting the metro stop, I walked a few feet to the museum and found … that it’s closed for renovation.
Time for a new plan.
Time for Very Special Birthday Treat #2: the Singapore Flyer observation wheel, located near the Marina Bay Sands complex. Sunday was a rather smoggy day, but I was still able to see quite a bit of the city as the wheel made its 30-minute rotation with all of us passengers sealed in glass-walled pods. I’m not overly fond of heights, or Ferris wheels, but the Singapore Flyer moves so slowly, you barely even notice it. Also, I’ve learned that they key is to look out, not down.
6pm: I walked back along the Esplanade and stopped at a tourist-focused hawker centre, “Gluttons Bay” (great name!) for a quick dinner of “carrot cake.” Not the kind with cream cheese frosting; Singaporean carrot cake is actually stir-fried cubes of glutinous radish cake and scrambled eggs, tossed with a sweet dark sauce. It was probably my favorite dish of the weekend, with kaya toast coming in a close second.
7pm: A long, meandering walk back along the river to my hotel, with a stop at Starbucks along the way to pick up a Singapore coffee mug to add to my collection. I got my suitcase and headed for the subway to make my way back to the airport; although my flight wasn’t leaving until nearly 1am, I was ready to call it a trip. Plus, I was running low on cash and couldn’t do much else besides walk around at that point, anyway.
9pm: I checked in for my flight and began exploring the wonders of Changi Airport. I saw the koi ponds. I walked through the butterfly garden (they were asleep). I sat in a free massage chair and let the motorized boots knead my aching feet. I very badly wanted to claim a chaise lounge in the “Snooze Lounge,” but worried that I would actually fall asleep and miss my flight.
11pm: I began wondering why in the world I decided to book a ticket for a flight scheduled to take off more than two hours after I’m normally asleep. Cranky, I looked for another massage chair, but they were all occupied by people who didn’t seem inclined to relinquish their spots. Even more cranky, I walked up and down the length of the terminal in an attempt to stay awake until they began boarding my flight.
12:55am: My plane mercifully took off on time. I fell asleep almost the minute I sat down in my seat and have no memory of leaving Singapore. I spent the next three days feeling groggy, and swore (not for the first time) that I’d never again book tickets on a red-eye.
What the New York Times doesn’t tell you about those 36-hour weekend trips: they are both very rewarding and completely exhausting. Next time, Singapore, I’ll try to stay for more than 58 hours.