For most travelers Asia conjures images of exotic languages, unique architecture, adventurous cuisine, and exotic cultures. Mistakenly, Singapore, a major gateway to Southeast Asia travel and tours, is often thought of as overly modern and lacking in the qualities that make Asia so exotic and beguiling. While this small and quite independent country no longer has lions (from which its name derives), or ancient ruins and monuments, and only became an independent state in 1965, there are many reasons -- including political, historical and social -- to visit and spend several days here.
First, it would be a serious omission not to mention the Singaporeans themselves as a reason to visit. Their kind manner and friendliness is experienced throughout. As an example: I have never been in a country before where in each museum, in every gallery or room I entered, the security person on duty stood up to greet me and thank me for visiting. Whether it was a “thank you for visiting this gallery” or “thank you for coming” or just a “good morning” with a smile, it was a kind gesture and unique experience.
Visiting a camera store, bookstore and clothing store, I found people eager to be helpful and eager to converse. Throughout, I found people going out of their way to be helpful and grateful. Perhaps that comes from a pride they feel about their country and their relatively newfound nationality as Singaporeans. (Singapore only became an independent country in 1965.) That is not surprising given how well it appears the country seems to operate.
That leads me to the next reason to visit. It is amazing to see how well this country seems to tick. Housing is available to most everyone, it seems, and public housing is a big deal here. You do not see beggars or homelessness in the city.
There are well known fines and punishments for not obeying the law, and while at times Singapore has been mocked for its strict rules, the city is clean of graffiti, ( but not without its approved street art); streets and shopping malls — which there are plenty of - are spic and span clean; and cars more than 10 years old are not allowed.
The story of Singapore is certainly an interesting one, and digging into it a bit, such as with a visit to The National Museum exhibit, is revealing. While I am sure, as with any country, there are issues, the general populace does not seem to be unhappy or uncared for.
Certainly experiencing local cuisine is a key interest to travelers, and here there is much to experience in this culinary paradise that is a mixture of the Indian, Malay and Chinese who comprise Singapore. Here you eat like a king and food is everywhere. In fact, one of the most difficult decisions one faces in Singapore may be where to eat -- and there appear to be no wrong answers. The Peranakan cuisine is an amalgam of Chinese and Malay and other influences.
The hundreds of hawker stands are well known here, and it’s easy to arrange a night time supper tour to visit a few choice ones. (I did avoid some of the more exotic, to me at least, that advertised pig stomach soup and frog porridge, however). Without a doubt, I enjoyed some of the best Chinese, Indian, and Muslim food here, as well as some great cups of kopi (coffee). Worth noting: one of the hawker stands recently was awarded a Michelin star! Pictured below was one stop on a late night supper tour for delicious bean curd pudding and freshly made soy milk.
Architecture is another key interest for travelers, and here the city shines, too. Both the contemporary architecture, and the use of greenery offers much eye candy, whether the fascinating and iconic Marina Bay Sands complex (pictured at the top of this post), the exquisite Gardens by the Bay, the Science Museum and convention center, and much more. Likewise the blocks of older colonial buildings, with their colorful shutters, seem unique to the city's ethnic neighborhoods and lends a special flavor to the city. Then there's the amazing Gardens by the Bay, but I'll probably have to save that for its own post.
Most Americans are probably less familiar with WWII history and how Japan took over Singapore as it bombed Pearl Harbor, and then later surrendered the region. Likewise of interest is how Singapore, which became part of Malaysia, later negotiated its independence. For history buffs, it’s a fascinating story to delve into. A walking tour of brothels or visit to a public housing area to see how locals live are just some of the options available.
Then there’s the shopping — while not to suggest shopping is a reason to visit a destination, it is prevalent and plentiful. One can find just about anything here, from tailors who will custom fit you with new clothes in whatever style you choose, to the brands known throughout the world.
I wanted to pick up a local cookbook as a gift, and ended up at Kuniyoki, which has over 100,000 titles on display in the store! Mind boggling! I stopped on a lark at a tailor shop, and the tailor was so engaging (and convincing), I ended up buying a couple of custom-tailored shirts for about the same price as a good machine-made shirt costs in the States, and had them delivered to my hotel a couple of days later. (My only regret now was to buy so few!)
Singapore’s new branding is: Passion Made Possible. It is a very apt tag line, and while one can suggest such a branding is true of many destinations, it is especially true here. It is meant not only to resonate with visitors, but also with locals, encouraging both to explore their passions in this small gem of a destination.