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Trip Report A Jaded Traveler Looks at Singapore

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I’ve visited Singapore many times, but seldom have I tackled it as a tourist. This time was different…

I’d arranged for my brother to fly with us from the US to Perth, Australia, where my spouse and I currently reside. Bob has been itching to use his passport since he got it many moons ago; I’d sweetened the deal by arranging a stopover in Singapore along the way.

We arrived at Changi Airport after midnight on a Saturday and promptly checked into the triple room I’d booked at the Ambassador Transit Hotel in Terminal Three. We checked out fairly early the next morning, as my husband was returning to Perth and had a flight to catch. Bob and I explored the cavernous terminal; we gazed at the A380s on the tarmac, pondered the Koi fish swimming in the ponds, admired the orchids and marveled at a store that sold only pink items. I’m not big on airports, but I’ll always make an exception for Changi. Besides, this was Bob’s first international trip, and just watching him take it all in with such glee warmed my heart. Here was a 45 year old kid in a candy shop; he was so excited just to be there….and we’d not yet left the airport.

We gradually made our way down to immigration, where Bob received his much coveted first passport stamp. I knew from past experience that our bags would be waiting for us near the lost luggage desk. Sure enough, as soon as we entered the deserted baggage area, we saw our suitcases off to the side. We merely walked up and rolled them away. I love Changi. Everything just works. Why can’t other airports learn from them?

We waltzed through Customs, worked our way to the landside basement of Terminal Three, located the left luggage office and paid ~$15 SGD to have our bags stored for the next 32 hours. We then weaved through the basement, which even this jaded traveler found truly amazing…a full sized grocery store (in an airport?), an impressive Kopitiam food court, shops, services, …it was like much of Singapore, a massive mall, but with a shocking amount of open space.

We followed the signs to the MRT where I tried to sort out the train system in my fuzzy, sleep deprived state. Shortly, we were on a train, which I hoped would lead us to the interchange, which would lead us to another train, which would lead to the station nearest our hotel. Oddly enough, this actually worked. We detrained at Bugis Station and, as is my custom, I picked the wrong street to exit from. Needless to say, I’m logistically challenged…always have been…I’m one of those rare types who can get lost with a map in my hands. I have no sense of direction whatsoever and without my beloved Rocky Mountains to guide me west, well…

Suffice to say, we eventually found our hotel, but not until we’d worked up quite a sweat and had asked directions from a handful of friendly Singaporeans, one of whom (an employee of the Hotel Intercontinental) practically offered to walk us there…I must have looked more harried and confused than usual to elicit such a response.

I’d booked the Ibis on Bencoolen because, 1) I’m familiar with and love the location, 2) It’s inexpensive -SGD $180 inclusive of tax and breakfast, and the hotel was offering a free city tour via a Hop on Hop off bus as further enticement.

What can I say? The hotel was spotless; the staff was efficient, friendly and very helpful. Not only did they allow us to check in at 10:30 am, but they also gave us a late check out the following day. Wow.

Our room was tiny, but it had everything we needed for a one night stay. I’ve posted a detailed review on Trip Advisor if anyone is interested.

We deposited our bags in our room and were momentarily tempted to rest, but I knew better…my plan was to keep moving until we dropped, which we damn near did.

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    Great start! I'm looking forward to hearing what you chose to do in Singapore.

    (I'm another one who always wonders why other airports can't be this way when I go through Changi!)

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    Our first stop was the concierge desk, where a friendly employee helped us book a late afternoon harbor cruise. I had the web address for the company I wanted to use, but had failed to note their phone number. No worries, the concierge did a search and came up with the tour operator I wanted, and then called to make our booking for us.

    http://www.watertours.com.sg/

    He also arranged the free Hop on Hop off bus for us the following morning. Love that guy.

    We needed nourishment, so we called in at the Kopitiam just a few blocks from the Ibis. I was anxious to see how Bob would react to this exotic food hall, and curious to see what he might order. I cut him off at the pass as he edged towards the Mexican counter, and he cheerfully agreed to try something new, a Thai noodle and shrimp dish, which he must have liked because it vaporized. Gotta love Kopitiam, good, fast and cheap (our lunch was less than SGD $5 each, sans beer).

    I desperately wanted Bob to experience the joys of durian firsthand, so we next worked our way towards Plaza Singapura, where there’s a durian counter at Carrefour. I swear I can smell the durian the minute I set foot in the store…it’s like a slap in the face. Bob was immediately sidetracked by the sushi counter, but in his distracted state he somehow missed the women rolling sushi directly above the display case (I mentioned this to him later and he was baffled). Next he was drawn to the extensive array of fresh fish and his camera kicked into high gear. Our olfactory glands began to protest in earnest as we neared the durian counter where we stood awed, watching a guy split the fruit and remove the flesh. How he does that without gagging is beyond me. I literally left the counter gasping for breath.

    A tray of sushi and two sticks of fresh fruit in hand, we sought out some fresh air. Bob seemed mesmerized by his surroundings; the exotic food, the strange smells, the mix of cultures; the saris, the abayas, and the short shorts seeming to defy one another, yet all happily coexisting. He was in sensory overload, quietly taking in the hoards of people, the level of activity and the orderly chaos that makes Singapore, Singapore.

    It was time for an iced coffee and a breather; we ducked into the relative calm of a nearby Starbucks to cool our heels and gather our thoughts.

    Revitalized and caffeinated, we set out again, with Bugis market in our sights. When I said I was familiar with the location of our hotel, I meant Bencoolen Street and its proximity to Orchard Road and Dhoby Ghaut MRT station. I had no idea of the world that exists behind the hotel…the temples, the incense and flower vendors, the big bronze Buddha that passersby fondle with enthusiasm, an entire store devoted to all things Buddha, the worshipers, the street stalls, the myriad shops, and yet another massive food hall …this was all new to me…I found myself as entranced as my Singapore virgin brother.

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    We gawked and poked, gradually working our way to the Rendezvous Hotel, the collection point for our harbor cruise aboard the Ming Dynasty Imperial vessel, Cheng Ho (SGD $32 each for a 2.5 hour High Tea cruise…and worth every penny). Our driver was waiting for us, so we set off. As we drove through the crowded chaotic streets, I watched Bob’s head swivel from side to side, taking photo after photo and mumbling things like ‘this is so cool’ and ‘ look at that’. It hasn’t been that long since I was last in Singapore, but the changes threw me for a loop…the seemingly endless cranes, the winding detours skirting the imposing Marina Sands construction, the temporary (I assume) and somewhat derelict looking housing set up for the construction workers. I hardly recognized the place. The skyline of Singapore is forever changed:

    http://www.marinabaysands.com/

    We were deposited at Marina South Pier, led to the tour kiosk to pay, and were given a sticker. We were soon on the boat (we called it ‘our junk’) and on our way. Bob was all over that boat, happily snapping away. I can’t remember the last time I saw him so...gleeful. It was a complete blast to experience a familiar place though the fresh eyes of another. His enthusiasm was contagious and I was soon grinning from ear to ear. The Cheng Ho has an open air deck and an air conditioned lower deck, and we explored both thoroughly over the next few hours and took a gazillion photos of everything that crossed our path. Partway through the cruise we were offered tea, coffee and snacks, a nice touch, but certainly nothing to get excited about.

    The boat docked at Kusu Island, and we disembarked to explore. The peace and quiet of the island was intoxicating…we walked the entire length of the beach, and worked our way around the island. We plopped our sweaty selves down on a picnic table and watched the world go by, unwilling to move, content to just soak up our surroundings. We eventually tore ourselves away and continued circling the island. Our 45 minute stop passed quickly. We made a last minute decision to climb the 152 steps up to the holy shrines, hoping that our transport wouldn’t leave us behind. We returned to the junk just as the crew was blasting the warning horn…we’d squeezed every minute out of Kusu Island that we could and were the last to board.

    As we slowly glided back towards Singapore, we imbibed in a much needed cool drink, a Tiger for the beer drinker, and a surprisingly good Singapore Sling for me…very refreshing after a hot and sticky day of exploration.

    Although I’d taken this very cruise several years back, I really, really enjoyed it the second time around. I think it’s fair to say that a good time was had by all.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kusu_Island

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    Always love reading your trip reports, Melnq8 ~ so well-written and such great detail!

    And this one is extra-special! So cool to get a combination of first-time visitor -v- veteran visitor report, with your brother's joy shining through and perhaps even changing the perceptions of the regular visitor? (Lol, don't want to call you 'old hand'.)

    Looking forward to more, thanks for sharing.

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    Back on terra firma, we were shuttled back to the Rendezvous Hotel. We hoofed it to the Ibis to investigate Happy Hour, which evolved into dinner at their restaurant Taste. Bob opted for the elegantly presented hamburger, I settled for garlic bread, adventurous eaters both. Little did I know that I’d caught a bug on the flight over and my appetite wouldn’t be the same for the next two weeks.

    We were pooped, but determined to keep moving and squeeze as much out of Singapore as we possibly could, so we caught a taxi to the Singapore Zoo for the Night Safari. I’d visited the zoo during the daytime on a previous trip and really enjoyed it, heat and humidity notwithstanding. I’d read good things about the Night Safari (although I can’t for the life of me remember where) and thought it would be a perfect activity to keep us awake for as long as possible. We paid the SGD $22 per person admission and another SGD $10 each for the tram ride. Our first stop was the Creatures of the Night show, which was packed to the rafters and just, well, strange. It was a wee bit lame, okay…really lame…maybe because it was geared to the younger set, maybe because we were overtired, who knows... What I do know is that the Night Safari was a HUGE disappointment. It was entirely too crowded; there were too many hot, sweaty people aimlessly milling about and the atmosphere was, ahem, unpleasantly fragrant…. (the people, not the animals). It was, well…a zoo.

    We followed the throngs to the tram and stood in line as if at a Disney ride. Once on the tram, we were rapidly led through the dark accompanied by the bizarre sing song-like cadence of our tour guide, who pointed out invisible animals. Halfway through, we were instructed to disembark, with the promise of more invisible animals lurking off the tramway. In reality, the path led past a few dark windows and mysteriously ended at a restaurant and shop. Hmmmm…I smell a rat.

    We returned to the tram stop, where we had to wait for the next tram to collect us. Our journey through the dark eventually resumed, accompanied by a different tour guide with a remarkably similar sing song-like cadence. We had to wonder if they’re trained to speak like that…it was discombobulating say the least. When the tram tour ended we worked our way over to the cultural performance, but by then the crowd was more than we could bear, so we left the park…only to stand in the taxi queue as if at yet another Disney ride.

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    Love your report, I fell in love with Singapore on my first visit last year. Like you, I felt the night safari greatly overrated.

    Sorry to hear that you were not well though.

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    We got back to our hotel around 11:30 pm that evening, showered and crashed. We were seriously worn out, but we’d done what we set out to do, fit as much of Singapore into our first day as we possibly could.

    Jetlagged, we were up like bread from a toaster at 5 am the following morning. Actually, that’s not entirely true…I was up like bread from a toaster; I suspect Bob would’ve been content to sleep a few more hours, but his rumbling stomach slowly brought him around. We were the first guests at the breakfast buffet when it opened at 6 am. I’m not big on breakfast, but Bob, stand back…the man loves his breakfast. This day he was spoiled for choice; eggs, bacon, potatoes, noodles, grilled tomatoes, cereal, bread, pastries, fresh fruit and all manner of unfamiliar Chinese and Singaporean dishes. He cruised the buffet with unrestrained joy…he was in breakfast heaven. He even sampled fish ball soup, who knew?

    We had plenty of time before our 9 am pick up for the Hop on Hop off bus, so we hit the streets, meandering past the deserted temples and watching the incense and flower vendors set up for the day’s business. We searched in vain for the big bronze Buddha, hoping to catch him alone for an early morning snap, but Singapore is slow to wake and Buddha was noticeably absent. We strolled past the quiet food halls and worked our way through sleepy Bugis market which was gradually coming to life. We looked on as fruit vendors stocked their stalls and we wandered through the basement of a peaceful shopping center, gawking at the unusual food offerings on display – veggie fishcakes, crispy fish bean curd rolls, jumbo fish balls…all this food was making me hungry…sort of.

    At nine sharp we were collected from the lobby of the Ibis and taken to the office of the FunVee Hop on Hop off bus, which just happens to be at the foot of the Singapore Flyer.

    http://www.singaporeflyer.com/

    We were booked in, given the ubiquitous tourist sticker and directed to a double decker open top bus… just as the skies opened. Bob and I nabbed the primo seats in the front row of the covered upper deck and we were off, touring Singapore in the pouring rain. We made one circuit, Bob happily snapping photos, seemingly undaunted by the rain. We’d planned to go around again and select a destination, but the skies were black and the downpour continued, so we bailed at the end of the line…the aptly named Rendezvous Hotel. We walked back to the Ibis sans umbrella, checked out of our room and left our luggage at the front desk.

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    I tossed out some options to Bob, asking what he’d like to do, which is how we ended up on the MRT headed to Little India. We boarded a train at Bugis station and began a rather belabored trip which involved changing trains, riding a few incredibly long escalators, walking a mile or two underground, etc. Apparently, I’d managed to find the longest possible route to Little India. Did I mention I’m logically challenged? My trusting brother was completely content to follow my misguided lead, and he seemed perfectly happy just soaking up the atmosphere and riding the MRT, regardless of the destination.

    We eventually found ourselves strolling up Race Course Road. I reckoned eating from a fresh cut banana leaf would be an ideal ethnic experience for my unworldly sibling, so I introduced Bob to Banana Leaf Apolo. Sort of…he got one sniff of the cacophony of spices coming from the restaurant (which I have to admit were a bit overwhelming, even for an Indian food lover like me) and immediately balked. Apparently he’d had a bad experience with Indian food and was in no hurry to give it another go.

    http://www.thebananaleafapolo.com/index.htm

    We worked our way up the street, where I was able to coax him into a less odoriferous, more conventional Indian restaurant, the name of which escapes me. I convinced him that a bit of Chicken Tikka never hurt anyone and was as good a ‘beginner dish’ as any. Being the good sport that he is, he obliged; he gingerly sampled his food and then sat back, as if waiting for an adverse reaction. When he didn’t convulse or erupt into hives, he went back for more, eventually finishing his meager plate of chicken, accompanied with some garlic naan. Good on ya, brother! My work here was done.

    The downpour resumed, so we moved out to the restaurant’s covered porch, ordered a few beers and sat back to watch other people get wet.

    We eventually worked our way to Mustafa Centre, 70,000 square feet and four floors of complete and utter shopping chaos. I have a love-hate relationship with Mustafa; I’m drawn to it like a moth to the flame. Any visit to Mustafa Center is a memorable one, so I thought it would be a good experience for our Colorado boy. I don’t think Bob knew quite what to make of the place. There was so much to see…he ogled row after row of unfamiliar spices, huge bags of rice, endless aisles of shoes, the largest selection of candies either one of us had ever seen, electronics by the boatload, 24 kt gold by the pound… It was exotic, colorful, hectic, uncomfortably crowded and oh-so-overwhelming. Mustafa Centre is a lot of things, but it’s never dull.

    http://www.mustafa.com.sg/aboutus.html

    Our second day in Singapore was rapidly disappearing…where had the time gone? We sought out the nearest MRT station, bypassing four chickens roaming near the door of a city apartment (free range perhaps?). You just never know what you’ll see in Little India.

    We detrained at Bugis Station and worked our way through the now crowded market to the Ibis, where we collected our luggage and requested a taxi. Our hot, sweaty selves were soon on the way back to Changi Airport. We lucked into a chatty taxi driver, who cheerfully answered our inane questions and freely discussed the cost of living in Singapore.

    We reclaimed our abandoned suitcases from left luggage in the basement of Terminal Three, checked in for our Singapore Air flight, cleared immigration and immediately sought out the Star Alliance Gold lounge. I was hoping the lounge had shower facilities, but alas it didn’t, so we worked our way to the Ambassador Transit Lounge, and happily paid ~$9 SGD each for the unmitigated pleasure of a hot shower. Refreshed, we returned to the Star Alliance Gold lounge for a snack, a cold drink and a short rest before boarding our five hour flight to Perth.

    http://athmg.com/location_T3.htm

    Our time in Singapore was short but sweet. Bob had experienced the sights, sounds, smells, heat and humidity of a new country and had wholly embraced the culture. When asked what he enjoyed most about Singapore, he said he liked ‘the boat the best’. No surprises there.

    For my part, I’d be back in Singapore for an encore 32 hour trip in two weeks time…

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