The customs desk that I walked up to to get my passport stamped in Singapore’s Changi Airport had a little box of free candy on top of it. I took a few moments to choose the flavor I wanted before pocketing a piece. The lady that was inspecting my passport commented on how I had taken a long time to choose a piece of candy, and I replied that I take my candy seriously and that I didn’t want to make a choice that I would later regret. The woman smiled broadly and handed me my passport back. It was the first time that I’d ever been welcomed to a country with either a piece of candy or a smile.
That experience kind of sums up Singapore. I don’t think I saw or did anything that was without precedent anywhere else in the world, but the Singaporean version is just more better, nicer, more efficient, or more impressive in some way.
I think that the main thing I’d heard over and over again about Singapore was about how clean and orderly it was. To be honest, I was a little bit worried. I was worried that I’d unknowingly do some mundane but illegal thing and face a fine or jail time. And I was worried that I wouldn’t like Singapore because it would be too clean, too sterile.
I needn’t have worried. Downtown Singapore was clean, sure, but I saw plenty of trash in Chinatown, Little India, and other places outside of downtown. I saw multiple people littering and jaywalking on that first night as I was walking from the metro station to my hotel. The city still felt like a city that people actually actively live in and not some museum showpiece.
The other thing I’d heard over and over again about Singapore was that it was expensive. In my experience, the accommodation certainly was. The very cheapest single rooms that I could find to stay in were about $50, and that was with a shared bathroom in a not-so-nice guesthouse. $50 isn’t crazy expensive in the grand scheme of things, but it was still more expensive than what I’d gotten used to during the previous year in Thailand, Cambodia, and the rest of Southeast Asia . I considered getting a bed in a hostel dorm, but that didn’t really appeal to me. I have actually never stayed in a hostel before, and I’d like to keep that streak going.
Then I realized that for not much more than a dorm bed, I could get a pod in one of those pod- or capsule-style hotels. It was $19 per night. My pod was about 3 feet wide, 3 feet tall, and 6.5 feet long. Inside was a wall outlet and a light and nothing else. A curtain at the foot of the pod provided complete privacy. The room that my pod was in held 18 pods total. They lined both sides of the room like the cells in honeycomb. Each room of pods also had an attached bathroom with one toilet, four sinks, and three showers stalls. I’d wanted to stay in a pod hotel for years, and it was fun to finally do it. I enjoyed it. I’ll definitely do it again in the future if I go back to Singapore or if I travel to similarly expensive places like Hong Kong or Tokyo.
But the food in Singapore didn’t seem terribly expensive. Maybe a little bit more expensive than in Bangkok, but not by much. I was very excited about eating in Singapore. I’m not talking about crab or curry or any of the more local dishes. I’d had access to that kind of thing for the past year, and I wasn’t interested. I was more excited about the American food that I could get there, and I am not ashamed to admit it. Over the two days that I was in the country, I ate at Quizno’s (where I got a delicious toasted sub sandwich), Krispy Kreme (a chocolate donut with Oreo chunks on it), and Wendy’s twice (baked potatoes! Fries that aren’t pointy at the ends!). I loved it. Oh, and I also got a breakfast croissant at a Burger King at the airport.
Getting around on the local metro system, the MRT, was slick. In terms of ticketing, trains, transfers, and everything, it works exactly like Bangkok’s transit system (I’m guessing that Bangkok took some pointers from Singapore here). It was relatively inexpensive, too. I think that the minimum amount I paid to go one stop down the line was $1.30 SGD, which is about $1.00 USD. The most expensive ride was to and from the airport, which was $2.30 SGD ($1.85 USD). Not too bad. Again, Singapore wasn’t as expensive as I thought it would be.
The people in Singapore are beautiful. They are fit (I don’t know if I’ve ever seen so many people running or biking in a major city), are good-looking, and wear nice clothes. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a seamless integration of multiple cultures. While the majority of Singaporeans are of Chinese ancestry, there are significant minorities of Malaysians and Indians. So there are people of East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian descent, plus you’ve got a bunch of European and North American tourists and expats. The variety is really interesting, and Singapore is a great place for people watching. All of these cultures seem much more integrated than not. I saw Indian guys with Chinese girlfriends, Chinese guys with European girlfriends, and every other combination there is. I loved it. Singapore’s ethnic diversity is reflected in its four official languages: English, Malay, Mandarin, and Tamil. I heard people speaking all of these languages, and most official signs are in all of these languages. It feels like a truly global city, more so than any other city I’ve been to.
Though I grew up in the suburbs and have spent more leisure time in the mountains and desert than just about anyone else I know, I’m a city boy at heart. Nighttime in cities is especially great. I think that being in a big city at night is every bit as beautiful and exciting as being in the mountains. Singapore did not disappoint in this regard. It was stunning at night. Some of the buildings were downright otherworldly. Looking up at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel was like looking up at a space station.
I thought I would love Singapore, and I was right. It’s a really neat place. It’s probably the easiest country I’ve ever traveled to. It felt very familiar. Nearly everyone speaks English fluently. Everything is signed or labeled in English. All lines I encountered were orderly and moved quickly. I don’t think I heard any shouting the whole time I was in the country. Overall, it was just a very pleasant place to be. It would be an excellent destination for a first trip overseas. Singapore is as easy and comfortable as travel gets.
Earlier today I was talking to someone who didn’t like Singapore. He essentially said that it wasn’t “Asian enough” for him. I understand where he’s coming from—it’s a modern city. There is no great historical or cultural inheritance like the Great Wall, the Taj Mahal, or Angkor Wat. But Singapore is the face of modern Asia. All big Asian cities are becoming more globalized, more focused on the future than the past. More skyscraper, less temple. If that is today’s Asia, then Singapore is as Asian as it gets.
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