Always-tropical Singapore is known for its bright skyscrapers but there’s another side to the city, too.
By: Ben Mack
“Frog legs… good choice,” says my friend, Keith Chow, as we look at the menu on the side of the food stall. Each item listed includes a photo. There’s chicken, pork, fish, duck, noodles – and frog legs. It’s not uncommon to find them in Singapore, especially at a collection of food stalls known as a hawker centre, like the one we’re at near a busy motorway.
The frog legs are served on a large, round plate. Steam rising from them, they taste crispy, a bit like chicken, even though they’re coated in soy sauce. Even more surprising, they cost just a few Singapore dollars – hawker centres are not meant to be expensive.
That food can be cheap in a city packed with as many skyscrapers, luxury hotels and designer stores as Singapore may come as a surprise. But there’s a whole other side to the Asian city-state, which I discover while exploring the city with Keith who lives in Singapore.
Our day, which will end with having frog legs for dinner, begins near the bustling centre of the city-state. We get to Little India by local train – Singapore has a clean, well-connected system called the MRT that lets visitors get anywhere within minutes, and each station has good air conditioning that ensures a comfortable journey.
Bright colours and a trip back in time
Little India was founded by Indian immigrants. Bright colours – yellows, reds, pinks, oranges, greens, blues, purples and more – are everywhere. They’re on the front of buildings, the clothes in the shops so full of things for sale it’s hard to walk around, the candles at shrines for various Hindu goddesses and gods, even the plates at many of the restaurants and cafes.
The smell of spice is everywhere, too. We follow what seems to be an especially strong aroma and find ourselves at one of the many restaurants in the area. It’s an Indian eatery serving Tamil cuisine, as many people who immigrated to Singapore came from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Tamil food is known for being incredibly spicy – and the fish curry I have with rice is no exception. But it’s instantly cooled off with sips of mango lassi, a thick, fruity drink with a yoghurt-like texture that’s also very sweet.
After our lunch in the cosy restaurant, with whirring fans on the ceiling providing a comfortable break from the midday heat, we hop back on the train and within a couple stops travelling south on the downtown line, arrive in Chinatown. Like Little India, Chinatown was originally a place where many immigrants settled. In this area in the centre of Singapore, signs are still written in Chinese, and the brick buildings have orange tiled roofs and colonial architecture. Strings of paper lanterns crisscross the streets, which can trick a person into thinking they’ve gone back in time.
An authentic Singaporean experience
The area is also famous for shopping – everything from clothes to shoes, souvenirs, electronics, antiques, fresh food and more, and like Little India, prices far lower than the nearby shopping malls and their designer stores. The hours melt away seeing, hearing and smelling (the smell of incense can be quite strong in some places) the shops. My friend recommended bringing two water bottles for a day of wandering, and I’m glad to have followed his suggestion, as I find myself taking a refreshing sip every few minutes.
As the sun gets lower, it’s time for dinner. Keith suggests a hawker centre for an authentic Singaporean experience. He says there’s a particularly good one practically just around the corner from where we are in Chinatown.
Hawker centres are found throughout Singapore. They almost always sell Asian cuisine (think lots of chicken, rice, pork, beef and noodles), and again the prices are cheap: often $5 Singaporean dollars or less for a plate piled high with plenty of food. The number of choices can be dizzying, but a must-try is popiah (a type of spring roll usually stuffed with meat and vegetables), washed down with a glass of sugarcane juice, which tastes as sweet as it sounds.
I try the frog legs because it looked the most interesting. Another feature of hawker centres is stalls display their cleanliness rating given by government inspectors – this means you can be sure your food will be safe.
The hawker centre is packed with people, most of whom seem to be locals. The sky glows cheerfully thanks to the lights of the forest of skyscrapers surrounding us in the warm night air. Even though it is crowded, it’s a perfectly relaxing way to end the day.
Popular Singapore spots
The following morning begins at Keith’s apartment with a hot cup of kopi, coffee with butter and condensed milk – a popular drink in Singapore. It’s time to check out some of the attractions Singapore is most famous for.
The three huge, ultramodern towers – and SkyPark with nightclubs and infinity pool connecting them – of Marina Bay Sands are perhaps the first thing people think of when they think of Singapore. There’s much more to the complex (located along Marina Bay in the south of Singapore and accessible by both the Circle and Downtown MRT lines) than a hotel: there are award-winning restaurants serving all types of food, a museum, casino, theatre and more.
We peek at the lobby. With its smooth lines, glass, natural light and white colours, it feels like being inside a spaceship. But since we’re not staying at the hotel, there isn’t a lot to do, so we head to The Shoppes next door.
The Shoppes is a shopping centre with 300-plus stores, including Dior, Gucci, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Prada and more. But it’s worth visiting even if you’re not buying anything. It also looks like it belongs in a science-fiction film, and even has a huge, man-made canal similar to the ones in Venice that you can ride along in a gondola.
But to really experience science fiction, we walk a couple minutes to Gardens by the Bay. The raised walkways, giant tree-like structures, real tropical plants, enormous greenhouses with indoor waterfalls, fountains and more feel like we’re on the lush world of James Cameron’s Avatar films or another distant planet.
Otherworldly as the scenery is, we can’t escape the fact that Singapore is hot and sticky all year-round and at all hours of the day. Keith recommends cooling off by going for a swim – good thing we packed bathing suits.
We take the Circle Line MRT to Harbourfront station and walk a few metres south-west to the box-like Keppel Bay Tower. Inside, we ascend a lift to a cable car station, and soon are gliding high above the shimmering blue water to Sentosa Island.
The ride is smooth, taking only a few minutes. Sentosa Island is famous for its resorts, theme parks (like Universal Studios Singapore), restaurants and beaches. The golden sand at Palawan Beach – only a short walk-through beautiful gardens from the cable car station – is as soft as flour, and the water is refreshingly cool as we take a dip. Palm trees, with plenty of lounge chairs in the shade under them, are just beyond the sand.
It’s a peaceful scene. Like trying new food at the hawker centre the night before, it’s also satisfying knowing this is something anyone can experience in Singapore.