With the popular novel "Crazy Rich Asians" coming out as a movie this summer, you can expect a lot of people will want to visit Singapore to see what it's all about. But do you have to be a crazy rich Asian to enjoy this prosperous island nation?
Yes, Singapore can be expensive, but people don't realize that you can actually do a lot there on the cheap. In fact, now that discount airline Scoot has entered the Hawaii market, it can be a super trip without breaking the bank. The cheapest round trip fare on other airlines that I could find in previous years was about $750, which entailed flying on a ghetto airplane and/or travel time of about 17 to 30 hours. On Scoot, the cheapest round trip fare (without any promotional codes) is about $700 and takes 17 hours, which includes a short layover in Osaka.
I was apprehensive about flying a discount airline since my experience with others included nightmarish check-in lines, refurbished old airplanes, unpadded seats, sub-par service, and expensive snacks (no meals). I was pleasantly surprised to board their sparkling new 787 Dreamliners, which include high-tech window shades, motion-sensitive bathrooms (so you don't have to touch anything), and nicely comfortable seats. Usually when I have a whole row to myself, it's still hard to sleep because the seats have humps and are short or slanted or...something. On Scoot, the row was so comfortable that I was asleep for hours. You'll have to bring your own pillow or blanket for comfort, though.
The service in economy was quick and the flight attendants showed a lot of initiative in making sure that everyone had a pleasant flight. They whisked me to my seat upon boarding and put my bag up without me asking. When we got in late to Osaka to connect, my former coworker Alex Lim — who had already flown on Scoot a few times due to the cheap fares — assured me they had a system for routing us through the airport to change our tickets. Sure enough, transferring was pretty idiot-proof and they kept us informed the entire time of our status as well as why the timing and rerouting was going the way it was.
That was my first tip for Singapore on the cheap. Here are my other nine picks, many not the same old predictable tourist stuff:
Changi Village and other local hawker stands
Most first-timers to Singapore go to the more touristy Newton Hawker Centre and Lau Pa Sat. These are okay, but they're not the only choices you have — there are approximately 124 hawker centres comprised of about 8,000 vendors — and if you eat like a local you'll find better food at cheaper prices. Changi Village, near the airport, is a 15-minute metro ride from downtown, offering popular Singaporean snacks like fried bananas and Malaysian dishes like nasi lemak and nasi goreng. Gelang Serai features authentic Malaysian food, many items that you will never see in Hawaii. And at Tekka Centre facing Bukit Timah Road (near the Southern Ridges, below), you'll find many local favorites, including prawn noodles at 545 Whampoa, one of the most popular stalls for foodies in the know. I didn't have time to find Tekka Centre but I'm definitely eating there next time.
I didn't realize that one venue could also be considered a hawker style restaurant. We visited Keng Eng Kee Seafood in the Alexandra Arch area, which is kind of in the middle of nowhere for us tourists. But as we ate, the restaurant quickly filled with mostly local patrons. The food was solid and very reasonable — about $100 for five dishes, including salt egg crab (pictured at the top). The service was really fun and down to earth, from the waitress telling us when to stop ordering to the waiter who made us a complimentary snowman dessert because he thought my camera was so funny. Recommended dishes: moonlight hor fun, fried fish skin with salt egg powder, and of course, the salt egg crab. It's not for everyone, though; my Chinese taste buds loved the flavors, whereas my Hawaii-Japanese friends' palates did not.
Guidebooks will also steer you to Maxwell Center to eat at Hawker Chan, the cheapest Michelin-starred spot in Singapore with a Hainanese chicken dish that costs just $4. It's cheap, but is it worthy of a star? I don't think so, but you can decide if you have the time.
The Southern Ridges
Singapore is so safe that their parks are open 24 hours a day — and you can find people walking or jogging by themselves at any hour. One of the more scenic, less-touristy spots is an area called the Southern Ridges, a 6.2-mile trail that connects a series of parks along the southern ridges of Singapore. You can follow these trails and it will be like walking along the treetops of the forest, but with a view of the city and Sentosa Island in the distance on either side. While it's a great way to get in your daily 10,000 steps, remember that it's very hot and humid, so you'll need to slather sunscreen and bring water, or you'll be as flushed as I was at the end.
Another alternative is to take in the park trails at night, although it's harder to enjoy the sights. The main attraction at any time of day is the Henderson Waves, the highest pedestrian bridge in Singapore, which features seven curved steel ribs. The waves are lit from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. for cooler photo ops, but more importantly for residents, they're great shelters for relaxing and hanging out.
I had avoided Sentosa on my previous trips because I thought it would be a cheesy, touristy resort for people seeking a Disney-like experience. Okay, it still has that element, but Jindran took me there and showed me how much of the area is actually accessible free of charge, if you're not looking to go to the attractions. One of the important historic spots is Fort Siloso, which features interactive displays to help visitors learn about the horrific events of WWII there. This was one of many points during this trip that I realized how much Singaporeans had risen above their oppressed past to be the prospering, modern metropolis it is today. (Think of the kid who got picked on in school who later returns at the class reunion as the most successful one.)
Jindran said there are many free concerts and performances throughout the city, throughout the year, but no one ever writes about it and the calendar isn't archived in one place. If you enjoy visual and performing arts, check out these calendars of free events in Singapore.
- The Esplanade is also the theatres on the bay, the two durian-shaped buildings overlooking the water. Click here for a calendar of events.
- The Shaw Amphitheatre in the Singapore Botanic Gardens also offers free concerts and screenings regularly. Click here for a calendar of events.
Marina Bay Sands light show
Every night at 9 p.m., the water directly in front of the famous Marina Bay Sands lights up with a spectacular 15-minute holographic fountain light show with lasers, music and smoke. The entire bay area is worth a visit, as you can walk around the promenade to the various iconic sites such as the Merlion Statue and the Helix Bridge.
Gardens by the Bay
Did you know that it's free to get into the spectacular Gardens By the Bay, with the futuristic giant tree grove? There is only a fee to climb up the trees or get into the various attractions, like the conservatories. They've made it cool to visit both day and night, so if you have the time, do it all: explore the expansive gardens and the art during the day, and come back for the beautifully choreographed light show at 7:45 and 8:45 p.m. nightly. The show changes monthly, with seasonal music.
Public Housing - Everton Park
Singapore must be the only place in the world where public housing can go for millions of dollars. In the Everton Park area, you'll see a cluster of buildings called The Pinnacle at Duxton, connected by walkways at the top. Units in this public housing complex go for about $1.8 million. Many people don't know this, but the top floor can be accessed through one of the end buildings for $6, and you can walk around the rooftop garden with spectacular views of the city. This is also an über-hipster neighborhood, as you might guess, so there are a lot of chic eats and shops in the area. Be watching for a blog post about this on my next trip to Singapore.
Since Singapore is so hot and humid, you have to cool off while walking around. What better way than with cheap eats, right? One of the most Southeast Asian desserts is the Singapore ice cream sandwich, literally a block of ice cream in a slice of bread for just $1.20. You can opt for a wafer instead of the bread, which is simpy a different texture, but the bread is much more fun. These vendors are actually hard to find, because according to my late friend @SingaporeanEats, very few vendors are licensed to sell it. One of the more famous stands is located on Orchard Road in front of the Takashimaya department store.
Another icy treat can be found at hawker centres: Singaporean shave ice, or ice kachang. These bowls of shave ice are a lot sweeter than the Hawaii kind, and have various toppings like red beans and fruit or ice cream, sometimes with a sprinkle of crushed peanuts. These go for about $2.
Everyone has heard about the wonders of Changi Airport, including the butterfly conservatory, free movie theatres, flower gardens, shopping and fabulous food courts. But not many people know about the airport employee cafeteria, or the employee canteen.
If you're flying on Scoot, you'll be in Terminal 2. Walk away from the check in area (still inside the airport) and follow the signs to the airport canteen. Take the elevator to the third floor and then walk up the stairs to level M3. You'll find a huge food court for employees with booths selling almost every kind of local fare available in Singapore, at reasonable prices. You have to use cash to buy a cafeteria card, which you then use to buy your food and drink. You can see my quick video of the canteen, here.
Since I had not had fish soup in Singapore yet, I went to the booth that sold "award winning" fried fish soup, which consisted of a bowl of broth and large chunks of fried fish, plus vegetables, tofu skin, and a bowl of rice for about $5. (The drink shown was just $1.) They add some evaporated milk to the broth to give it a richer flavor and body, probably a kitchen trick developed during WWII out of necessity. I have to admit, it didn't look like much, but it had an amazing comforting flavor, with a touch of richness that wasn't too overpowering.
I hope next time, I'll be with friends, so we can try more things in the canteen!
I know many of you will say that I forgot to mention Little India and Arab Street, but you can see that and all of the typical things we've done on previous trips to Singapore, here. This post is for people who don't want to do the same old thing, especially if you're now flying to Singapore more often due to the attractive fares ... as I will be.
Here's how I'll fly to Singapore on Scoot the next time:
- Due to the large overhead bins, I will just have a rollabout carryon with a bag that can fold out to be a my checked bag on my way back. Singapore is hot, so you only need light clothes. This will save on my need to pay for a checked bag on the way over.
- I always travel with my Dreamsling Pillow, but I'll bring a scarf or towel to be my blanket so I won't be cold.
- You sweat every day in Singapore and can't reuse your outfits. I'll bring detergent so I can pack even fewer items, and use a laundromat.
Up next: Some splurges in Singapore off the beaten path!
Disclosure: The air transportation for this trip was provided by Scoot Airlines.