It’s never a good sign when one of the top 10 things TIME recommends to do in a city is “plastic surgery,” but so it is in Singapore. I should have taken that as an omen. Before I go any further, I’m issuing two disclaimers. One: I was only in Singapore for three days and I was pretty burned out, so I probably didn’t give it its proper due. But first impressions are valuable in their own right.
Two: because I haven’t been in a truly developed city in several weeks, I was probably going to dislike any city that I visited after being in places like Laos and Cambodia. You could chalk this up to a kind of culture shock, but I found it to be more culture revulsion. This isn’t meant to be a judgmental statement of a place like Singapore. I love big cities and would never want to live anywhere else, but if you have a conscience, you can’t wake up in one of the poorest countries in the world and go to bed in one of the richest places on earth, and not at least feel a little strange about it.
Going to Singapore is like getting a glimpse into the future. The cityscape around the bay is like a cross between San Diego and Star Wars. With some exceptions, everything is very modern, everything is overdesigned, and everything is very #hip. I’ll give Singapore one thing, it really tries.
This is a city-state with an interesting history. Its prime location right along the Equator with great ports has made Singapore a popular destination for colonizers for hundreds of years. After a flurry of Asian empires staked a claim, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to pass through in the 17th century, followed by the British in 1824. Through peaceful demonstrations and an election, Singapore gained its independence in 1959.
Three years later, Singapore joined the Federation of Malaya (now Malaysia), only to leave again a few years later after intense disagreements between the countries. When they fully and definitively gained independence in 1965, they were in the position of being a wealthy, prosperous society with the chance to build their own country. This year is particularly special as they are celebrating their 50th birthday as an independent nation.
I don’t know what they were going for when they set out to build their new country, but the result, aesthetically speaking, is pure Vegas. I have a lot of respect for Vegas. It’s the most ridiculous, over-the-top, disgusting place on earth, but it’s completely self-aware. Vegas wears its filth and sin and insanity as a badge of honor. Singapore is not as out of control as Vegas, but it thinks it’s effortlessly chic and sophisticated, a notion that doesn’t hold up in the face of things like the ridiculous Marina Bay Sands Hotel or Orchard Road, a stretch of nothing but enormous, gaudy shopping malls.
The Marina Bay hotel-cum-metropolis is the centerpiece of this overzealousness. Next to the space-age, tri-column hotel mega-building is the staggeringly huge shopping mall, and the on-site casino only rounds out the place as the Vegas extravaganza Nevada is missing out on. I’m sure the rooms are very nice and the restaurants are excellent and the views are undoubtedly incredible, but it’s just too much. If you think about the amount of energy it would take to air condition a place like this (and it is entirely air-conditioned), it’s mind blowing. Marina Bay is never going to be as tasteless as the likes of Caesars Palace, but it’s firmly in the running (Apparently there is no apostrophe in “Caesars Palace,” which is enough to drive me crazy right there. Who is Caesars?).
Obviously I’m missing something here. There is clearly a part of Singapore for normal people who don’t wear bathrobes 24/7 and while I only know of one or two neighborhoods like this, there have to be more.
The Arab Quarter is the “grittier” part of Singapore, in the way Williamsburg is the “edgy” part of New York. So, not at all. But every storefront is not a perfectly designed celebrity-chef restaurant or designer store, so in Singapore that qualifies as the eclectic part of town. This is where old Singapore feels like it’s just hanging on. Stuck between vegan-friendly diners and craft liquor bars are old-style Malay and Chinese restaurants, similar to the classic Hong Kong diners you can still see there today. I don’t think the Muslim population (which seems to be quite large in Singapore) actually lives here, but the mosque in the neighborhood is definitely active, and a lot of restaurants on streets with names like “Baghdad” and “Kandahar” advertise as being halal, and owned and operated by Muslims. This mosque, though.
Haji Lane is the heart of this neighborhood, a pedestrian-only street with craft cocktail bars, American-style dives, boutiques, and cafes. This area certainly runs the risk of trying a bit too hard, but somehow it works. Two of the nicer bars on the street, Bar Stories and LongPlay, sound utterly pretentious on paper, but they make it work.
Bar Stories doesn’t have a menu. It’s the kind of place where you go in and tell the bartender what “flavors” you’re looking for and they make you a bespoke drink. LongPlay, though they make a great cocktail, is all about the music, with a ridiculously expensive turntable in the back and a rule that prohibits playing music made after 1979.
Both of these ideas sound entirely too impressed with themselves, but they really work. The bartenders at Bar Stories are not at all pretentious and the music at LongPlay is awesome. It takes the right person to take a high-concept bar and make it accessible and self-aware. Neither establishment takes itself too seriously and both are the perfect place to stop off for an upscale drink on Haji Lane.
I only spent a very brief amount of time here, but Geylang Road will definitely give you a taste of Singapore that is not sanitized. As one of the oldest and largest connectors between the city and the suburbs, Geylang Road has always been a busy thoroughfare and is known for its booming prostitution industry that continues today. In its heyday, the alleys off Geylang Road were the site of brothels that were carefully categorized based on language spoken, ethnicity, and available sexual acts.
I only ended up here because a local was nice enough to show me the ropes when it comes to eating authentic food (thanks, Dave!) and if you know what you’re doing (or find someone who does), this is the place to try real Singaporean food and see the less refined side of the city. By comparison to almost any other city, Geylang Road is pretty safe, but in Singapore it’s about as seedy as it gets.
Though I didn’t have time to do this, an excursion to the outer reaches of Singapore, to Sentosa Island or Pulau Ubin Island, would be another way to see a side of the city that hasn’t been polished into modern perfection, as these areas are mostly still fishing communities that originally formed Singapore’s economic backbone.
Singapore does one thing exceptionally well, and that’s maintain the city’s greenery. In the British style, there are small parks scattered all over and many major streets are lined with trees, but the Singapore Botanic Gardens is the star of the show. Now 156 years old, the Gardens have a surprisingly rich history, established by Sir Stamford Raffles who is considered the founder of modern Singapore, in 1822. It initially began as a research facility to study potentially viable crops and was turned into a public park several years later in 1859.
You pay a nominal fee to visit certain areas in the Gardens, like the amazing National Orchard Garden, but otherwise it’s completely free and open to the public. I was here on a Sunday morning and while I mainly encountered the bourgeois and/or expat crowd, I felt like I got a glimpse into the lives of people who live here.
Not that this is anyone’s fault, but the weather in Singapore is oppressive. Because it’s essentially right on the Equator, the weather doesn’t change much here, which means 90 degrees and high humidity is the order of the day even in late November. Combine that with not a lot of things to actually do in Singapore as a tourist and it can be an unpleasant experience sometimes.
That same TIME article jokes that there’s nothing to do in Singapore beyond “shopping, dining, and the movies.” Finding that to be pretty accurate, I decided to go to the movies and even that was a letdown. I went to what is allegedly one of the best theaters in Singapore and not to sound like an idiot, but this place had the worst snacks I’ve ever seen. You can’t call yourself a movie theater and not have candy. The place was way too air-conditioned, as every theater is, and instead of trailers before the movie, they played just advertisements. I didn’t’ realize until this happened, but it makes for a very weird segue into the movie. As annoying as trailers can be, they get you in the mood for a movie. Seeing the same Burberry ad three times, not so much. The good news, though, is the new James Bond was great.
I realize many countries around the world have jumped on the Christmas bandwagon for commercial reasons, but Singapore turns out with the Christmas decorations more than anyone. As it’s not a Christian country, Singapore doesn’t even make the half-hearted empty pass at maintaining the “sanctity of Christmas” that we do, so the whole thing is just an unfettered shopping-fueled romp. Because I grew up in Colorado, I cannot hang with Christmas festivities in a tropical climate, but the displays in Singapore give the windows at Macy’s a run for their money with an ample dose of cheesiness.
The thing about Singapore is it’s too perfect. Well, first of all, I don’t know who has been spreading these rumors about Singapore being so incredibly clean, but I don’t get it. For a city of 5 million, it’s very clean, but Chicago is just as clean and Singapore can’t even compare to the immaculate cleanliness in places in Switzerland and Germany. The other thing is that it just tries too damn hard. The trees are perfectly planted and spaced at ideal intervals along the streets. Boulevards are wide, but not too wide, so it’s usually very easy to cross the street on foot.
All of this is great! So few cities in Asia have a lot of greenery and Singapore is more pleasant because of its flora. It’s a very walkable city and doesn’t have these huge, 10-lane streets cutting through town that make crossing the street such a headache. The public transport is excellent and really easy to use (are you listening, Tokyo?!) There’s nothing wrong with it, and that’s exactly the problem. There’s nothing beneath the glamorous, disconcertingly perfect surface. It’s a city with no substance.
Singapore’s problem is that it works on a certain level. It’s by far the greenest city I visited in Asia and they’ve done a great job building a huge concrete jungle without obliterating all signs of natural life in and around the city. I realized after a few days that the problem is the lack of diversity. There’s no East Village. There’s no Wicker Park. There’s no Camden. These places are hardly edgy and are now very upscale neighborhoods, but they don’t feel like the downtown, business center of their respective cities at all.
There are two flavors in Singapore; super modern, ultra-sleek, air-conditioned, perfectly designed malls and skyscrapers. Or you get areas like Geylang Road—the not-so-defunct red light district—that certainly have a lot of character, but not always in a good way. The few pockets that I discovered, like Haji Lane, are exceptions to this. While I’m sure there are more neighborhoods like this, they seem small, and few and far between. I don’t totally get what people do here. Singapore is of course a huge financial and business center, but it just feels like a giant playground. Like Vegas.
The city’s saving grace is its people. Some of the uber-wealthy Singaporeans seem like assholes, like anywhere else, but for the most part, everyone is incredibly friendly and the city bends over backwards to welcome tourists. That goes a long way, and while I’m still not leaving Singapore falling all over myself with love for the city, the people there helped soften my initially very negative impression.
With that, 107 days after I started in August, I’ve come to the end of my trip in Asia. I’m now in Tokyo waiting for my flight to Honolulu, and I’ll be posting about my time in Hawaii, as well as a recap of the first part of my trip when I get back to the mainland U.S.
My impression of Hawaii is based almost exclusively on movies and TV shows, so I’m expecting the experience to be a charming mix of 50 First Dates, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Lost (not really).