Traveling: Singapore Days 1 & 2

From March 28-31 I took a trip by myself to Singapore for leisure and sightseeing.  Most of my Japanese gal pals couldn’t believe I was going alone, but to be honest I was very much looking forward to a few days of only looking after myself.  To keep things on the cheaper side, I took a low cost flight over on Air Asia and booked a room in a condo owned by a lovely French couple on AirBnB.

From what I’d heard on Trip Advisor and on various other travel boards on the topic, 4 days and some were more than enough time to experience Singapore.  Oh, how wrong those people were!  Singapore has a plethora of things to do if you only take the time to search them out, and by no means was my time there enough to do it all.  Although there were some checks I missed on my to-do list and some less than stellar moments, I really enjoyed my trip.  The only caveat?  The heat was intense!  It was like being in the Japanese mid-summer heat and humidity 24/7.  I sweated outside, I sweated at night in the condo, I probably even sweated in the shower.  Singapore is stuck in an eternal blistering summer 365 days a year.   So be sure to keep this in mind as you read along.  😉

Day 1

I’d slept great on the plane, but I was still pretty tired and hungry from hitting the airport immediately after work/the flight over without much on my stomach.  I was stoked about trying some Ya Kun Kaya Toast as my first breakfast there, but it happened to be in a different terminal than the one I flew into.  Seeing as I still had another hour long ride on the MRT to the condo, I decided to make breakfast a quick and easy affair and stopped off at Burger King instead.

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Singapore’s Burger King has some interesting takes on the menu, like this mushroom swiss croissandwich.
© J // Washing Rice Blog

Coming from Japan, where knowing which trains to take can be confusing just because of how vast the railway system is, Singapore’s MRT was really easy and convenient with only five different lines.  (This is due to expand in the future, though.)  It was a straight shot from Changi Airport to my accommodation in Tiong Bahru on the East West Line.

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This station coincidentally shares the same name as one of my cats.
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Thanks to the super detailed instructions my host sent, finding the place was easy enough and I arrived by noon.  I spent the the majority of the afternoon unpacking, getting to know my host, and also getting to know a bit of the surrounding area.

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Almost all accommodation in Singapore is government-type housing. Structures tend to resemble one another, and additional rooms can easily be added due to the construction style.
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© J // Washing Rice Blog

Room size in Singapore seems similar to the standard 6 tatami mat size in Japan.
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I didn’t have anything planned besides a night walk food and culture tour at 6:15 p.m., put on by the Betel Box Hostel every Thursday night, so I also took advantage of the pool.

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Pretty sweet, eh? Unfortunately your average housing block doesn’t come with a pool, but may have communal space for ceremonies or a playground.
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Before leaving for the tour, my host showed me how to get around using the app Singapore Maps.  This app was my lifeline for doing anything; it gives approximate times for how long it takes to get anywhere in Singapore from point A to B on foot, by taxi, by MRT, or by bus.  With multiple bus stops nearby and the MRT station being about a 10-15 minute walk, I ended up taking the bus for the most of my sightseeing adventures.

© J // Washing Rice Blog

© J // Washing Rice Blog

However, that first night taking the bus was a big mistake.  You see buses in Singapore don’t have maps, signage or any other indication for where the bus is stopping, nor does the driver call stops out.  Because of this, you have to count the number of stops from where you want to get on until when you want to get off or just know the routes like the back of your hand.  If you’re using the Singapore Maps app, it’s usually OK because the app uses GPS to show what position the bus every step of the way on the route you’ve chosen.  Unfortunately the app froze halfway during my stop, and nobody around me was familiar with the particular stop I needed.  On top of that, the bus was running 20 minutes late because of bad traffic.  I had to guess the stop and got off about half a kilometer too soon, which left me 10 minutes to walk the rest of the way and find the hostel where everyone was gathering at.

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As you can see, no signs or route maps anywhere on the bus!
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To make matters worse, the map I’d printed off for the hostel was a bit off from the actual location.   Each person I asked for help kept pointing me in a different direction than the previous person before, and by the time I finally arrived I was 30 minutes late.  Everyone was waiting on me and I felt like the biggest douche ever!  I can’t really fault any of the locals, though.  Everyone was so nice and friendly to even attempt to help me out, even if sometimes good intentions were as far as it went. 🙂

After a fun little get-to-know everyone game we started off the tour by walking to one of, if not the best view, of the Joo Chiat/Katong area and beyond from the 17th floor of a nearby housing block.

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From here you can see the area formerly occupied by the Malay Village, a cultural heritage center, which will soon be turned into another commercial centre. 😦
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That’s one thing about Singapore- things are always changing.  Singapore also continues to expand, literally.  Much of the land on the island has been repurposed to extend the coastline, and is still being extended even today.  As a tourist, it’s confusing because locals tend to refer to places based on the names and locations of areas that they grew up with.  As areas are expanded, repositioned, or redeveloped, the names and locations also change.  This rapid expansion in such a short amount of time, the tour guide explained, is one of Singapore’s biggest problems.  If everything built disappears and is rebuilt into something new, how can people understand their roots or feel familiar/something for the area around them?

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This was only a fourth of it! Most notable dishes we tried were chili crabs (not pictured), salted egg crabs (not pictured), and fish head soup.
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As for the food- man was there a lot of it!  With Singapore made up of Chinese, Malaysians, Indians, and native Singaporeans, you can probably imagine how many different dishes and flavors are represented.  Joo Chiat is especially famous for it’s Peranakan (Chinese/local Singaporean mix) heritage, and there are a number of authentic restaurants located here.  Although much of the food was either too sweet or spicy for my tastebuds, everything we had was interesting and an example of real local delicacies.

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This is a shop we visited to pick up a variety of uncommon fruits for dessert.
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© J // Washing Rice Blog

Dessert! There was so much, especially with all of the fruit. I was brave enough to sample the durian. I found the smell much fouler than the taste, but YMMV.
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The tour was very informative, but either because I’d gotten off on the wrong foot with the tour guide or his curt manner of speaking, I felt uncomfortable asking as many questions as I would have liked.  That said, the tour definitely delivered.  I got a great insiders look at how Singapore operates, something that would have been near impossible for me to come away with just sightseeing on my own.  Besides a couple of markedly unfriendly people in the group, everyone was really pleasant to boot.  I got on well with one of the other solo female travelers, and we ended up having a few other sightseeing adventures together later on. 😀

Should you find yourself in Singapore, I recommend taking the tour, or at least putting aside some time to check out all the great local shop architecture, restaurants, coffeehouses, and Peranakan influences around Joo Chiat.

Day 2

I set aside this day to hit up Universal Studios Singapore.  Originally I wasn’t going to go, but besides Hollywood it’s the only theme park in the family where you can meet the Minions from Despicable Me.  I doubt I’ll find myself taking a trip to California within the next 5 years, so I was sold on that point alone. 🙂

© J // Washing Rice Blog

© J // Washing Rice Blog

Bonus points for the Chili’s located right outside the theme park gates. You may scoff, but the only “American” options you get in Japan are TGIF’s and Outback Steakhouse.  Not that I don’t love Japanese food and all, but sometimes you want something that actually tastes like something back home instead of pseudo-Western stuff like hambaagu and omurice.

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Yum! Southwestern eggrolls and blackberry iced tea.
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Universal Studios is located at Sentosa Resort, where many other touristy attractions are also located.  Perks for using public transport to get there include a nice view of the resort area from the cable cars above.  If you ever visit USS, I recommend getting a discount voucher from somewhere like Travel Asia.  There are a number merchants that sell them, and you exchange the pre-paid voucher for a real ticket at the merchant’s kiosk located in the parking area underground near the Casino.

The thing that impressed me most about the park was how efficiently it was constructed in such a small space.  You only needed to look at the map once to know where you were going; all of the areas wrapped around in an arc shape and blended seamlessly into one another.  Main attraction lines weren’t too bad overall since I went on a weekday that didn’t coincide with any Singaporean school/work holidays, and because I visited solo, any ride that had a single riders line let me jump immediately to the front.  Woohoo!

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Accelerator ride located in Sci-Fi City
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After doing the Light’s, Camera, Action! special effects experience and taking the Accelerator for a spin, I had just enough time to make the Monster Rock! musical show playing at select times throughout the day at the theatre.  From the very first mash-up of “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “Everyday I’m Shufflin'”, I was quite impressed with the production.  It was kind of like an episode of Glee, but with monsters and better dancing.  Really, they had it all going on:  enthusiastic performers, good music variety, cheesy love story, crowd participation, etc.  They even threw in a touch of K-pop a la Wonder Girls’ “Nobody”.

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© J // Washing Rice Blog

When the show was finished I was feeling thirsty so I headed over to Mel’s Diner and caught another outside performance while I sipped on Coke float.

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The Daddy O’s perform outside of Mel’s Diner.
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There were a number of photo opportunities throughout the day, but the big stars were the Minions.  I did a few more rides before heading back to the Hollywood area for their next photo session.  The Minions were so popular they had to stop doing pictures right before I’d gotten my chance to take pics with them so Kung-Fu Panda could have his spot back.  😦  I had another two hours to kill until the next session, but was pretty much done with the park, so I finished all my souvenir shopping before chilling out at the Starbucks with their wi-fi nearby to wait.

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MINIONS! 😀
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I enjoyed the park a lot more than I’d anticipated, but there were some disappointments.  In general, the food wasn’t all that stellar… I mean theme parks aren’t usually the culinary capitals of the world to begin with, but I thought it fared a bit worse than Universal Studios Japan and any Disney theme park I’ve been to.  I’d recommend having a big meal before and after, sneaking your own snacks in (nobody checks bags at the gate), and maybe just treating you or your kids to one or two eats inside the park.  The main attraction, Battlestar Galactica’s dueling roller coaster ride, has been out of commission since August 2013 .  Ride time for most of the attractions I rode were kind of like bad sex; some felt like they were over in less than a minute.  I skipped anything that had a wait time of more than an hour without a single riders lane because it just didn’t feel like it’d be worth it.

If you’re the souvenir type, USS doesn’t have much to offer.  Many of the souvenirs have been imported over from Universal Studios Japan, and it was a bit ironic buying USJ souvenirs with a Universal Studios Singapore sticker slapped on to take back to Japan.  Minions souvenirs were pretty much only for the kids, although I chanced upon a pair of adult sized Minions pajama pants and decided to splurge on them.  USS seems to have a Minions-only souvenir shop in the works, so maybe in the near-future they’ll have a better selection.

After USS I’d planned to meet the gal from the previous day’s food walk tour at the National Museum of Singapore for their free evening exhibit.  Taxi lines were absolutely cray cray; it was over an hour wait!  One of the expensive taxi van guys sought me out and offered his services, which I readily accepted- I didn’t want to be late AGAIN, even if it put me out a whopping 40 SGD.

To many it might seem like a waste to drop money on cabs when you’ve got public transport, but I actually preferred taking a taxi when I could justify it.  A lot of the drivers were like tour guides in themselves; they explained the sights we drove past or chatted about what work was like, recent headlines, or politics.  One even had a killer cab playlist and gave me some great music recs.  When I reminisce about my trip to Singapore in the future, I know that these conversations and interactions with locals as we both went about our days will be what I remember most.

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© J // Washing Rice Blog

As for the museum, I can’t say it was all that special.  The free exhibit was limited, and only the portion about Singaporean textiles and fashions through the decades really stood out in my opinion.  We didn’t spend a lot of time there.

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If you don’t know which stall to choose, just pick the one with the most locals lined up.
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After perusing the exhibits, we headed off to Chinatown to have dinner at Maxwell Hawker Centre, one of the more well-known hawker eateries due to the Tian Tian chicken rice stall located there.  Tian Tian was closed for the day, but that was okay.  I get the feel from online reviews that it was probably overrated, anyways.  On the way to the centre we passed by a night service at the Sri Mariamman temple nearby and took a moment to peek in on it as it was finishing up.

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Chicken rice, yang chow fried rice, and and coconut juice to sip on.
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By the end of the meal we were both pretty pooped so we parted ways promising to meet at the Botanical Garden early the next morning, and I took the bus back to the condo.  After a whole day on my feet in the heat it felt absolutely wonderful to take a cold shower and crawl into bed.

And so, that wraps up my first two days there!  If you’re still with me, I applaud your attention span. 😉  I hope you’ll stick around for next week’s post about the rest of my trip.

– J

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