Looking to travel to Singapore? Culture enthusiast and off-the-beaten path traveler Katie Foote tells us how to eat good for cheap, where to go after dark and how to go beyond the guidebook in Singapore.
1. What made you decide to spend eight weeks traveling through Singapore?
I chose Singapore primarily for research reasons (as mentioned in my bio) but Singapore applies their ultramodern innovativeness to more than just education, which makes the city safe, easy to get around and filled with mind-blowing architecture. I also loved its ethnic neighbors — Chinatown, Little India, Arab street — you could travel the world in less than an hour via metro-hopping. It is like a more authentic version of Epcot for adults!
2. What was your favorite misadventure traveling through Singapore?
A friend and I visited Haw Par Villa on purpose but it was stranger than we ever imagined. Haw Par Villa was built in the 1937 by the owners of Tiger Balm as a way to teach kids morals through Chinese legends and folklore. Now, it’s partially abandoned and free to visit its 1,000 terrifying, life-size statues. You can see a woman breast-feeding a granny, dress-wearing rats drinking tea and demons yanking out their tongues in the dark diorama of 10 courts of hell. This bizarre “family park” is not for the faint of heart.
3. For travelers going to Singapore, what’s one thing you recommend that they probably won’t see in their guidebook?
Pulau Ubin, Singapore’s “wilderness” island is probably in the guidebooks but often understated. Most people visit Singapore to see its skyscrapers, impeccably manicured gardens and state-of-the-art shopping malls. Pulau Ubin requires a ferry ride, but it’s totally worth it for a trip back in time. On the island, you can imagine what life was like 60 years ago, when Singapore was a jungle island with no natural resources of its own, overshadowed by its Southeast Asian neighbors. You can explore the country’s last village, or “kambong”, by mountain bike or hike through the flora and fauna of the Jawa Wetlands. Seeing Pulau Ubin’s untamed rustic simplicity renewed my appreciation of how far the country has come in the last few decades.
4. What’s your favorite local dish in Singapore? Explain.
Eating at real restaurants in Singapore can be expensive, especially if they feature international cuisine, but hawker centers are an amazingly cheap way to eat dishes from around the world and they’re everywhere. Most neighborhoods, dorm complexes, university buildings have a food court area with stalls that sell Chinese, Indian, Malaya, Middle Eastern, Thai, Korean… the options are endless.
Even better, meals typically cost $2-5 USD and there’s always a juice stall where you can get fruit freshly juiced to wash down your meal. Singapore was surprisingly hard for a vegetarian like me but I loved Roti Prata at the Indian booth. This is a very thin, flat Indian flour-based pancake that can be traditionally filled with cheese, onion, mushroom or egg and is often eaten by dipping it in curry. Singaporeans eat this for breakfast but I’d eat it as for lunch or dinner, as a snack with beer before going dancing (Prata is best in Little India, which is conveniently the cheapest place for beer, FYI!), late night munchies… when a plain prata costs less than $1, why not?
5. What’s one underrated destination in Singapore? Explain.
The airport! With an area of less than 300 square miles, Singapore is small and being surrounded by an ultramodern cosmopolitan city caused me to go a little stir-crazy. But with budget airlines and a convenient airport, Singapore is an excellent launch pad to explore the rest of Southeast Asia. When it costs about $100 for a six-pack of Corona, swapping out a night on the town in Singapore could easily fund a long weekend in Malaysia or Indonesia. Since I traveled to several neighboring countries, I spent some time at Changi, which Skytrax recently named the best airport in the world and rightfully so. The open and airy space is filled with greenery including a orchid and butterfly garden. There’s a rooftop cocktail lounge and swim-up bar, a four-story amusement park slide, a movie theater and massage chairs everywhere. You can get clothes dry cleaned, visit a dentist and watch kids play at the jungle gym or coloring stations. Visitors with a long layover can get a free two-hour bus tour of the city- usually I hate spending time in airports but Changi is a traveler’s dream come true.
6. If a traveler had to choose one single thing to do in Singapore, what would you recommend?
That’s a hard question. For many, Singapore Zoo’s Night Safari is its best attraction and the world’s wildlife park for nocturnal animals. However, for an experience that epitomizes Singapore, I’d recommend getting a drink at 1-Altitude. At the world’s “highest multi-experience lifestyle joint in the world”, you can enjoy a 360-degree panoramic views of Singapore’s 20 most significant landmarks, including the boat-shaped Marina Bay Sands hotel, the port and the Singapore Flyer observation wheel. If you get bored listening to international live bands or guest DJs, tee off with a world championship golf simulator at the sports bar two floors below.
7. What was one thing that surprised you about Singapore?
For a metropolis, “Garden City” makes room for green space and exquisite gardens. I thought flowers were boring until I walked through the (free) Botanic Gardens. In the evolution gardens, you can see how plant life began after the Big Bang. You can learn about medicinal herbs in their healing garden. If you want to see 250,000 more rare plants, go to the innovative Gardens by the Bay. In the Supertree Grove there, 16 story vertical gardens collect rainwater, generate solar power and act as venting ducts for the park’s conservatories (which contain cool things like a Cloud Forest and plants from around the globe).
About Katie Foote
I am a graduate student in physics education research at North Carolina State University, with a research interest in how other cultures approach science education. I spent 8 weeks discovering Singapore’s innovative approach to high school and university education, through research at the brand new Singapore University of Technology and Design and visits to other schools. In addition to my passion for science education, I love to travel so I explored every nook and cranny of the city on nights and weekends. Between talking to students and graduate students, I connected with locals who showed me the best and cheapest places in their city. I used Singapore as a springboard to explore the surrounding Southeast Asian countries (Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines), which I would recommend to anyone spending an extended amount of time there. Check out my travel blog Gypsy Soul, Itchy Feet to learn more my time in Singapore and other travel adventures.