Our visit to Singapore in January 2011 was at the tail end of our epic, six week Southeast Asia adventure that had stops in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Compared to the many other countries we had just visited, Singapore was a respite in many ways. It is clean, efficient, and easy for travellers and English is one of the country’s three official languages.
But after the chaos of Thailand and the beauty of Vietnam, we found Singapore to be a little quiet, boring, and sterile.
Living as expats in London, we have met a handful of people who spent time living in Singapore. Their comments on Singapore are consistent. Not great for a single person, fantastic for families. Why? The ease. Great schools, vast modern apartment complexes, unbelievable infrastructure, low crime and an sense of not being submerged in a completely foreign culture, thanks to its ties to the UK for so long.
No one we know travels to Singapore to party, socialize or get lost in its nightlife. You don’t guzzle beers with hundreds of partygoers at a beach party. You don’t go to Singapore to “let loose.” That is reserved for other Asian destinations, most notably Bangkok.
With all of these comparisons being made about the various SE Asian countries, it comes naturally to wonder if Singapore strive to be more like Bangkok (or any other place, for that matter). Our strong opinion – absolutely not. Imagine a Bangkok that is known for its efficiency, its modern transport and sterilized street food scene. Hilarious. The beauty of cities are found in their local culture. The craziness of crossing a Hanoi street, or the legendary nightlife of Bangkok or the energy of Hong Kong. That is what makes those cities like no place else.
Below are Drew’s initial impressions of the nation from 1 February 2011.
Our advice? Take Singapore at face value. Do not compare it Hanoi or Bangkok. It is different. And in that difference, you can still find its true beauty.
We are currently hunkered down in our hotel room, looking out of our huge windows at another heavy rain fall here in Singapore. We spent most of today walking around the city centre, visiting the National Museum and the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. Strolling around the city, I can understand why Singapore gets a bit of a bad reputation from many travellers.
The city is a little…sterile.
Antiquity is quickly discarded and forgotten, replaced by modernity and convenience. It is devoid of the “edge” that makes cities like Bangkok and Saigon so distinctive. It does not feel like any part of Asia we have recently experienced. Anthony Bourdain famously called Singapore “Asia 101” because it is so familiar and easy to Western tourists.
Surprisingly, all of those reasons are exactly why I love this city. Easy can be fun. I like being able to cross the street at a green light without worrying about my safety. Residents do not routinely drive the wrong way down one-way streets and they actually stop at red lights. You do not have to be actively conscious of taxi drivers trying to screw you or overly eager tuk-tuk drivers asking to take you for a ride every 30 seconds.
The city makes sense.
Want great street food? Do not bother hitting the street; instead, go to the hawker centres where as many as 75 vendors are under one roof surrounded by tables. Looking for a parking spot or worried about traffic? Signs display the number of parking spots available in all nearby parking garages and the estimated driving times to select destinations. Need to brush your teeth? Forget about using bottled water, just use the tap water! It’s the first time I’ve been able to enjoy that like perk for over a month. Sometimes it’s the little things that make a difference.
Standing on the promenade in front of the massive Marina Bay Sands, looking at the bay and the amazing skyline, you can’t help but be impressed by what Singapore has turned into. In a little over 50 years, it has turned itself from a 3rd world country to a 1st. In many ways, it is what most Americans cities aspire to be. Clean, safe, efficient, modern. Masters of urban planning. Anyone who has been on the L in Chicago, tried to drive in Boston or seen the sprawl of Los Angeles can attest that we could stand to learn a little something from Singapore.