Otherworldly Singapore

Nothing in Southeast Asia prepared us for Singapore. For that matter, nothing in the United States did either. We’d already experienced the culture shock of going from a less developed place to a more developed one (such as from Laos’s sleepy capital, Vientiane, to modern Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia). But going from Vietnam to Singapore didn’t feel like moving from the developing world to the developed world. It felt like moving from the developing world to another planet.

All I knew about Singapore ahead of time was that it’s a small city-state with famously strict laws against drug possession, gum chewing, and other “antisocial” behavior. I was expecting a warren of densely packed high-rise buildings, like Hong Kong or Manhattan.

Singapore does have plenty of skyscrapers. But it also has lots of green space, pedestrian malls, low-rise housing developments, and quiet corners—such as near the excellent zoo—that look almost rural. As a result, Singapore feels surprisingly spacious, despite its 5.3 million people (about the same size population as Denmark).

Singapore has some amazing futuristic architecture. Nowhere is that on better display than at Gardens by the Bay, a large botanic garden that showcases plants from around the world in a mix of natural and manmade wonders. Two giant glass domes cover the indoor gardens, while the outdoor space is dominated by towering metal “supertrees” covered in plants, which are the focus of nightly music and light shows.

The gardens’ waterside location offers sweeping views of Singapore’s skyline, including a large Ferris Wheel. Next to the gardens is the massive Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino complex: three curving skyscrapers that support a terrace with what must be one of the highest infinity swimming pools in the world.

Like Malaysia, its northern neighbor, Singapore has large Chinese, Indian, and Malay populations. And as in Malaysia, all three ethnic groups produce some wonderful street food. But you won’t find anything as tawdry as roadside food carts or sidewalk restaurants in Singapore. All of the street food has been corralled into “hawker centers”—indoor food courts in which each purveyor has its own permanent, numbered stall surrounded by rows of tables, all neatly tucked away out of sight of the actual street.

Singapore is cleaner and more manicured than any city Melissa or I have ever seen—in the United States, Europe, or anywhere. Everything feels ordered and well laid out and pristine, especially the infrastructure. There’s an extensive modern bus system and a fully automated driverless subway system—something that Washington, DC, hasn’t mastered yet.

Unlike everywhere else we visited in Southeast Asia, there are virtually no motorbikes on the roads (even fewer than we see at home). Streets throughout the city employ an electronic road-pricing system that charges drivers automatically and constantly changes prices along with the traffic volume. Roads are wide and lined with spotless sidewalks and well-regulated traffic lights and crosswalks. It couldn’t be farther removed from Hanoi, Phnom Penh, or Denpasar if it tried.

The old and new in downtown Singapore

Singapore’s ultra-first-world feel comes at a high cost for budget travelers. Prices are as high as in London or New York City, and finding a hotel room with a window for less than $150 is difficult. In most of the rest of Southeast Asia, we could get a very nice room with windows, a bathroom, and air conditioning for $40 or less.) Thus, visiting Singapore was a splurge for us, even though we stayed for only five days, while waiting for a typhoon to pass by the Philippines, our next destination.

The shops, restauarants, and temples of Little India are a gathering place for Singapore’s thousands of Indian and Sri Lankan workers

In search of a cheaper and less antiseptic Singaporean experience, we based ourselves in the Little India neighborhood (at the breezy Perak Hotel). Little India has a reputation for being “gritty,” which we laughingly attributed to the fact that we saw two pieces of graffiti and three pieces of trash on the streets there. Oh, and there were some houses with peeling paint or worn-down woodwork.

Sure, the crowds of South Indian men (mostly migrant workers far from their families) who flooded the neighborhood to shop, eat, and relax after a long workweek might once have made us feel uncomfortable. But after the thronged cities of other Southeast Asian countries, it was easy to take them in stride. Especially since, once they got past their surprise at seeing two white American women in their ethnic enclave, they pointed us toward some very good food.

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