This post is not about the recently released blockbuster rom-com titled ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, but about the city where the movie took place: Singapore. The Island of Singapore is one of the Tigers of Asia with great financial success on the international scene. Consequently, does not enter who wants in this extra-clean larger than life sovereign city-state. Everything is extremely expensive and you must to be of a certain class if you want to sustain a descent standard of living in the Republic. A social class I have conveniently named after the coinciding movie: “Crazy Rich Asians”.
I took my Friday off and left Saigon on an early morning flight to reach the Republic of Singapore about three hours later. Conveniently, there is a subway station in the airport connecting it to downtown in about an hour of commute. A few back-and-forth between the ticketing machine (that only accepts Singapore Dollars) and the ATM located on another floor (that only distributes large denominations), and a few more to the box office to make change for the machine, and we finally made it to the wagon.
When I told my friends that I had chosen a hotel in China Town, their immediate reaction was to ask if i had strategically chosen this location to be closer to the street food. Mmm… maybe? I’m a foodie after all! The Old Chinese Quarter is composed of a series of beautiful ancient buildings following the very singular Singaporean architecture. Colorful building fronts ornamented with wooden windows - it’s hard not to be charmed. It was a given that most of the restaurants in the quarter would propose cuisine from different Chinese provinces. Having said that, some outstanding jewels made this area of Singapore an unavoidable part of our visit.
My good friends (Thuymi & Mitch, from Adventure Faktory) had told me about this fast food joint holding one Michelin star. Pretty impressive, if you ask me. A restaurant doesn’t need to be fancy for its food to be delicious, nor does one need to spend a lot of money to dress well - it’s a given. Singaporeans will agree on the former statement… perhaps not so much on the latter. The joint’s specialty was the soy sauce chicken with noodles. Do I need to say more? So we placed our order: one soy sauce chicken with rice ($3.50), one soy sauce chicken with noodles ($4.50), and one can of local beer (Tiger Beer). Looking at our bill, the total order elevated to $14.00. How could this be? As it turns out, a simple 473ml can of local beer costs $6.00! Outrageous! In Saigon, the same can of beer (that is considered imported) would have cost around 10 000 VND (around $0.50). Although, the restaurant did offer a free umbrella with a minimum purchase of 30 SGD. Only in Asia can you benefit from such perks.
Once our order was placed and paid for, something very weird happened during our experience at the restaurant. We were handed a receipt with a bunch of random numbers on it. We took a seat and waited. About five minutes later, the number 516 appeared on the screen and the cashier rang the bell to alert the customer to come pick up his order. One ring, two rings… about twenty rings later, still no sign of that customer. While the order was getting colder by the minute, we wondered who could possibly not want to enjoy their food hot off the pan. Even more, who is dumb enough not to have understood the restaurant’s ordering system? As all sorts of scenario came through my mind, and as my eagerness to see the face of this idiot customer revealed, I randomly unfolded my bill and saw the number 516 appear on the top part! The order was mine and I was the idiot customer! I immediately rushed to the counter and grabbed my tray. For the following ten fifteen minutes, I shamefully enjoyed a semi-cold one Michelin star dish… That will teach me!
One of the most recognizable landmarks of Singapore is the Merlion, a statue representing a mythological hybrid creature combining mermaid and lion spitting water into the bay. Obviously, the sight was full of tourists replicating the same photo concepts, going from a simple peace sign in front of the creature to a more elaborated half-empty water bottle receiving the statue's output from a precise perspective shot. From the statue we can spot other remarkable landmarks such as the beautiful financial district skyline, the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the durian-shaped Theaters on the Bay, the Art Science Museum, and The Shoppes. As we were enjoying an overpriced scoop of coconut ice cream, the rain started to fall. The timing was perfect to find out what the shopping mall had to offer. And then... luxury!
The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands
The Shoppes is one of Singapore’s largest luxury shopping malls. Located by the Marina Bay and erected over five floors, this mall is not only the home of some of the most reputed international luxury brands, but also hosts celebrity chef-owned restaurants, a casino, and even an artificial river with gondolas. Luxury, I said!
Newton Food Center
Hawkers Centers are open-air complexes housing many stalls that sell a variety of inexpensive dishes. The foodie that I am had no choice but to take advantage of my Singaporean experience to try some of the most delicious tastes on the planet. Take flavors from China, India and Malaysia, mix them together, and you’ve got Singaporean cuisine. And, what better place to experience Singaporean street food than at one of those Hawker Centers. Historically, Hawker Centers were developed by the government as a solution to uncontrolled street food stalls through the city. The government then decided to confine those stalls into predefined controlled areas to avoid chaos in the city. Pretty clever!
After a wandering around for hours at The Shoppes, and waiting for the rain to stop, we decided to take a taxi to the Newton Food Center. You might recognize this Hawker Center from the street food scene in the movie ‘Crazy Rich Asians’. If you have seen the movie, you were probably mouthwatering as much as I did. Between the black pepper crab, fried squid and chicken tikka masala, there was just so much to taste. We ended up ordering everything. Between a 40 SGD black pepper crab and a 28 SGD chicken tikka masala, needless to say the bill was quite hefty. But, as said many times in the past, it never bothered me to treat myself with expensive plates, as long as the quality is there. In my opinion, there is nothing more disappointing than building high expectations with an expensive menu, and not delivering on the promise. Luckily, everything was delicious! Our dinner at the Newton Food Center was probably the highlight of our trip.
On our way to the Newton Food Center, a lighted boulevard had caught our attention. Once we were done with the food fest, we made sure to walk around that previously spotted area to see what it was all about. It was Little India, enlightened with beautiful garlands along the street and at the quarter’s impressive main gate on the occasion of Deepawali (also called Diwali). Little India being the epicenter of the Hindu Community in Singapore, it only made sense to make this quarter the host one of the most popular festivals of Hinduism.
FORT CANNING HILL
Fort Canning Hill is a small hill about 48 meters high in the southeast portion of the island, right in the bull’s eye of the business district. Although small in physical size, it has a long history intertwined with that of the city-state. Malays once called this hill the Forbidden Hill because they believed it to be haunted. Back in the old times, it was the place where the kings of ancient Singapore were laid to rest. There’s a good Halloween story! It is also believed that a palace once stood on the hill. Today it is the location of the Fort Canning Reservoir and Fort Canning Park, a beautiful spot to bring your date on a romantic walk.
What better way to learn about Singapore’s cultural heritage than visiting the Peranakan Museum. With all honesty, our visit to this museum was not planned at all. What happened was that during our walk through Fort Canning Hill, it suddenly started pouring seriously (as it always does in South East Asia). Therefore, we had to find a refuge quickly… once again. As we were scanning our city map under a shelter, two locals asked us if we needed help looking for a specific sight. This very sweet behavior reminded me of home. Canadians are known to be nice and go out of their way to help people. I asked them if they could suggest an indoor sight to visit while it’s raining. That’s when they proposed to us to visit the Peranakan Museum. A world of photographs, artifacts and traditional outfits opened to us. We learned a lot more about the Singaporean culture while at this museum. I definitely recommend it, not to mention the building’s architecture is breathtaking on its own.
TRUE BLUE RESTAURANT
On our way out of the museum, we had spotted a restaurant proposing a full menu of traditional cuisine. And, guess what! The restaurant was also holder of one Michelin star. It didn't take much more to convince us to step in. Funny thing about this restaurant is that the vestibule area is also a tea shop. I guess a lot of tourists often make that mistake while entering since the first thing the host said to us was to specify that this place was a restaurant. "We know", we said. "Table for two, please!" Not a second passed after sitting at our table that a lady dressed in a traditional outfit offered a full kettle of dry date tea and pickled hearings on shrimp crackers. Okay for the tea. As for the hearings, the taste sounded quite strong for an appetizer. So I passed, this time. The tea was absolutely delicious, though.
Gardens by the Bay
If you have friends who have recently travelled to Singapore, they have most definitely posted a picture taken at Gardens by the Bay on Instagram. The enchanting forest have taken the #singapore by assault over the past few years. The Gardens by the Bay was conceptualized in 2005 as a key component of the government’s “City in a Garden” vision, which evolved from Singapore’s reputation as a Garden City. When the night falls, lay down on the ground along with the other visitors and enjoy a symphony of lights to the sound of 80’s classics.
“Stay in your lane”
Driving in Singapore is quite different from the rest of Asia. The super courteous Singaporean driver not only stop if a pedestrian steps on the street, but also uses blinkers before changing lanes, if ever. Although, the “stay in your lane” statement does not refer to the driving in Singapore, but to the surprising behavior of its communities. Singapore was founded on multiculturalism, as different ethnicity visited the area to participate to the maritime Silk Road. Over the decades, some ethnic groups have found in Singapore a promising land full of opportunities for a better living. Today, the three most important ethnic groups forming the Singaporean demographic are the Chinese, Indians and Malays. Although Singapore is reputed to be multicultural, it struck me how every ethnic group has a dedicated area. In the city, you very seldom see fruits of the union from two different ethnic groups. As mentioned earlier, the city has a quarters dedicated to each group. Despite its multiculturalism, the Republic of Singapore is very heterogeneous, to say the least.
We spent our last day at Sentosa Island, an island resort off Singapore’s southern coast. There are different ways of connecting to the city by including road, cable car, pedestrian boardwalk and monorail. The cheapest way we found was by taxi, with only 10 minutes and a few SGD to the island. Our initial thought was to get to Sentosa by cable car and enjoy the panoramic view, but 35 SGD for 3 hours on the island did sound a bit excessive. First stop was at the casino, where we satiated our guilty pleasure of observing people and judging them. If you ever think of visiting one of the casinos in Singapore, make sure you bring your passport along, without which access will be refused. Funny thing about the casino is that there is a dedicated area for Singaporeans only. This is probably to ensure gains remain within the country.
After enjoying free drinks while looking at people losing their money over excessive gambling, we headed to Palawan Beach under a rainy sky. At the beach, we crossed a rope bridge to Palawan Island where the so-called “Southernmost Point of Continental Asia” is located. I scratched my head several times trying to make sense out of this nomination, as it doesn’t make sense at all. Palawan Island is neither the southernmost point of Singapore, nor is it continental. On top of that, Sentosa Island is still way far from the equator. Nevertheless, the point still offered a stunning view on the bay. Besides, a walk by the beach is always enjoyable.
Street Food at the Flea Market
Who’s got two thumbs and love street food? This guy! Right before heading to see my friend Niccolo, I visited the second floor of the flee market in China Town. The market sells all sorts of Chinese products going from traditional outfits to herbal medicine, but the second floor is fully dedicated to food and food only. We went there with the few Singapore Dollars we had left from our weekend and wandered around trying different local specialties. Among them, a hot bowl of Laksa, carrot cake, freshly pressed juices, and the weirdest dessert I had ever tried to this day. A kind of snow cone topped with different kinds of oddly shaped jellies, caramel syrup, and even corn! It looked like nothing but a sugar rush.
Crazy Rich Asians
As mentioned in my opening paragraph, does not enter who wants in the sovereign state. On a Sunday afternoon, I met up with Niccolo, a colleague of mine I had the pleasure to work with at our Herzo headquarters. Niccolo recently relocated to Singapore, as he took over a new role in the company. He met me for coffee at a coffee place meters away from his compound. Over the following hour, Niccolo shared his insider experience on the expat life in Singapore. It is not cheap! At his arrival, his colleagues brought him out to an Italian restaurant as a wink to his cultural heritage. Niccolo was very thankful, but begged them never to go back for pizza again when he realized a simple pizza and beer combo costs about 50 SGD! To summarize, Singaporean salaries are very high, and so is rent. But, the difference with other cities is that Singapore kind of forces you to spend all of your net income in food. Indeed, options for cheap dining are very difficult to find, even with street food.
Singapore on a budget
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