Singapore, in my mind, can be summed up in 3 words: green, clean, and Asian- although I was told repeatedly that Singapore was the most westernized Asian destination. Still, as an Arab who had never been anywhere past the Middle East when it came to Asia, Singapore was very different than any other city I had experienced as a tourist.
1.) You can drink from the tap and perhaps my stomach is tough but I survived it – and if you do order a drink, ask for lime juice. Instead of being a sour mix of green like you’d expect, it’s a light tangy refreshment. One place in Chinatown called G7, known for its bullfrog porridge, had particularly sweet orange-colored lime juice. Alcohol is very expensive so stock up on a few bottles from the duty free upon arrival – but beware, there are restrictions as to how much alcohol you can buy upon entry. Specific combinations are as follows: 1 pack of beer, 1 wine bottle, 1 bottle of spirits or 2 bottles of wine and 1 pack of beer or only 2 packs of beer. Drug trafficking will get you the death penalty so keep it clean.
2.) Rain boots are futile. It’s the first time I ever walked through puddles in sandals, complained about the heat in the middle of a thunderstorm, and felt fluffier than a freshly permed chia pet – all during the month of February. Being so close to the equator means that Singapore is tropical year-round, and wet all the time. And that’s what she said.
3.) Cab drivers, who are also called “uncle”, don’t know their way around the city-state, which is only 274 square miles, and insist that you tell them how to get to where you’re going. God help you if you don’t know where that is…which is the case for most tourists on the planet. They are not the best drivers – there were some close calls with a few BUSES. Their music fluctuates and is in any language: one lady driver was cruising to a melody that sounded like the Chinese Wizard of Oz soundtrack whereas my driver to the airport, Mr. Boo, was grooving to Spice Girls. And drivers sit in the right seat – it’s all quite British except that you’re in Asia. You don’t need cabs – the metro and the buses are enough to get around if you’re not out too late. Bring something to read though because some transits can be long rides. Unlike London where passengers were all buried in books or newspapers, Singy locals are all glued to their devices probably due to there being cellular reception underground.
4.) Like most things that would be antiestablishment and/or illegal in Singy, street art is virtually nonexistent. The street art that does exist isn’t real street art since its commissioned by the government. The biggest form of creative public intervention seen were some stickers and one phrase on a wall on Arab street.
5.) Most malls are underground. Connected through the metro and having the luxury brand names on the ground level, malls run deep in the earth and are also interconnected with each other. Consumerism is a huge part of Singapore – seeing that the average resident has a high salary, they have plenty to spare on goods and the schizophrenic weather keeps them indoors long enough that there’s only one place to go on a rainy day: the mall. There are mini malls in between metro stations and a giant maze of shopping centers on Orchard Road. I think I saw 4 Louis Vuittons in a stretch of 1 mile.
6.) Street markets and food centers (hawker centers) are something we are missing out on – offering cheap goods, clothing, and food. The street markets in every country must have the same source supplier given that I have items I’ve bought from the UK and France that popped up in Singapore’s Chinatown and Bugis. Sure, they’re probably bad quality (but who cares at S$10/piece) and the chicken rice may give you salmonella poisoning but what’s travel without a little adventure and germs? If it makes you feel better, Anthony Bourdain visited a few but, then again, that guy eats everything. Regardless, food stalls are graded in cleanliness and have a big range of dishes from all around the region. I preferred murtabak which I was told was Malaysian but upon a quick search, it seems it’s Arab – no wonder I liked it. Just pour chili sauce on whatever you’re eating and it’ll taste good, no joke. Besides the spice, get some honey banana fritters for dessert.
7.) Tiger Beer, Tiger Balm, and the Merlion – 3 things that I associate with Singapore now: the first two are born in the country. Tiger beer, started in 1932, is light and doesn’t give you that beer-belly feeling. Fans of Almaza may not think it’s “real beer”; I liked it but I also like margaritas and Baileys. Just saying, I’m not much of a hardcore drinker. The Merlion is a signature of Singapore because “Singapore” means “Lion’s City” in Sanskrit and the mythical creature was used to symbolize the city by combining it’s name with it’s past: a small fishing village. It’s now Singapore’s mascot around the world thanks to the statue that sits at the Marina Bay.
8.) Mustafa Center – located in Little India, it’s pretty much a shopping center that could be a small city. This place has merchandise, a pharmacy, a fresh produce grocery, a giant money exchange, and a restaurant on the roof. It has everything from “Sexfuel” pills to London souvenirs. Yeah, I don’t know why either.
9.) When giving you change and your receipt, they use both hands and you are expected to receive it with both hands as well.
10.) You’re not allowed to eat or drink on the metro or the bus but there are plenty of restaurants and 7/11s in between stations to grab quick bites. Bread Talk for some pork floss? Prawn balls, curry pockets, or maybe just some French fries from McDonald’s with chili sauce? If you’re not a big fan of Asian cuisine, there’s a bunch of Western spots and a Starbucks every 10 paces. Or just pop in to any Indian joint and fill up on garlic naan while waiting for tandoori chicken (practically like a farooj). Or have some dosai with masala potatoes dipped in an array of sauces. Or hazelnut crumb brownies from Awfully Chocolate. Really, food’s not an issue – you’ll find something.
But whatever you do, stay away from the durians.