Here’s one way to conduct a 20-hour layover in Singapore, if you don’t mind walking to walk many, many miles in sticky humidity.
Wednesday, November 18th, 2016
12:00am – Sleeping at the Airport
I really didn’t want to spend money for a hotel – only to sleep there for less than six hours. Luckily, there are sleeping cots at the airport. It’s dark, there is soft music playing, the chairs are reclined. B-Y-O-Blanket or pillow.
7:00am – Using the MRT
I’ve accomplished both sleep and then coffee while still at the airport. I stowed my larger carry-on in a rent-a-locker. I’m feeling light, agile and ready to take on the public transit system.
The MRT is clean and efficient and easy to understand. It puts any U.S. metro system to shame for its punctuality and straightforward maps.
8:00am — Little India!
I wandered aimlessly – sounds, smells and sights too much to comprehend at the early hour in a foggy haze. This place is a tourist draw, for sure, but first and foremost, the main market is a place to find daily necessities for Singaporeans.
There are also many tiny food stalls to buy ready-made food. A blog I read dared me to try bull penis stew. I couldn’t find it. Admittedly, I can’t say I looked that hard.
Many of the market-goers were eating dosa (a crepe-type thing made from rice/lentils with different fillings). I opted for that and also a prata (a flat bread fried in butter).
Embarrassingly enough, I was nervous to dive into either. After watching the chefs exchange money intermittently with cooking and filling up water with plastic buckets stowed on the floor. I sent a prayer up to the street food gods and sat at the communal tables across from a nice couple also sheepishly eating with their hands. It was a sloppy and flavorful mess.
It was nice, but nothing to rave about. I’m not an Indian fare connoisseur, so its hard to know whether I chose a reputable food stall, or, whether I used the right sauces, etc. Embarrassingly, I was very nervous to use the communal sauces. Many flies were also sharing the sauces with us.
Above all, my favorite part of Little India was my new friend Ragini. She had a henna table right in front of the entrance to the marketplace. She looked about my age and calmly welcoming. After being accosted by many other henna artists (some with cheaper prices), I still returned to seek her out because she seemed kind and welcoming.
I sat. We chatted. I learned that she lives in Malaysia with her husband and two kids, but comes to Singapore to catch the tourists in high season. The henna design took about five minutes, but I sat for another 25 minutes waiting for it to dry. She had a sing-songy voice and a very calming nature.
Ragini said I should start doing henna and open up a shop in my own city! Then, she could come to live and work at my shop in the U.S. Maybe one day I can kick this plan into motion.
9:30am — Downtown Core
I ended up here basically by mistake. There is a bar/vista opportunity called Altitude where you can get a stunningly high view above the skyscrapers. But, I found out that was going to cost a neat $30-ish Singapore dollars, so I passed.
The Downtown Core has sharply clad business people swarming the entire area. I looked really out of place with a camera slung on one shoulder and athletic-wear on. I sat down for a coffee to find that anything on a cafe’s menu was at least seven or eight Singapore dollars.
Singapore is not cheap. I instantly felt not fancy enough for this hyper clean, hyper stylized city. I bought my $8 Singapore dollar coffee and did some people watching of the business types.
I didn’t have many preconceived ideas about Singapore. So its opulence doesn’t surprise me, per se, but it certainly is strange to see in contrast to the vast open markets with tiny food stalls. The new and intimidating innovation are built right up next to the older and traditional.
11:00am — Chinatown
The great Singapore chicken rice battle has two heavy weights competing… Anthony Bourdain vs. a Michelin Star.
Tian Tian Hainanese Chicken Rice is in the Maxwell Food Centre – the main Chinatown area of food stands. Apparently Anthony Bourdain has been there. I haven’t seen that episode, so I’m not sure what his review was.
Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle has a Michelin star. It’s the cheapest meal available that’s been awarded one, so the Internet tells me.
I decided initially to for the Michelin star place, only to find that it was closed on Wednesdays (my one day in Singapore)!
Tian Tian in Chinatown was lovely, although, again I think the nuance and delicate simplicity of this dish is likely lost on me. The chicken is steamed and very tender, rice is fluffy and buttery, the chili sauce is great. And that’s it! That’s chicken rice.
I wish I could have tried this dish against the Michelin star rated one!
3:00 pm — Marina Bay Sands (Gardens by the Bay)
I think if I would have gone at night, this place would have been like a scene from Avatar. It’s hard to comprehend what you’re seeing – it looks so surreal.
A tourist trap for sure, but there’s so much space it doesn’t matter much. It doesn’t feel too crowded. You do have to buy a ticket for basically everything, of course.
The Cloud Forest (which is inside Marina Bay Sands) especially caught me off guard. I had pegged it as just another symbol of Singapore’s success on the cutting edge. But, the intention behind the indoor garden is very interesting. The Cloud Forest houses many tropical plants from around the world that are going extinct. An informational video in the exhibit talked about humans’ impact on the environment is killing off many plant species in the rainforests.
5:00pm — Marina Sands Mall
Adjacent to the Gardens, there is a terribly large mall, which is frustrating to navigate. The best part was walking toward the mall and enjoying a sunset on the bay. I grabbed a bite to eat at a fast-casual dining spot, and got some great Korean sunscreen at a little pharmacy. Why are all Korean skin products so superior to ours?
The architecture, again, doesn’t disappoint. There’s the Helix Bridge (self-explanatory), cozied up next to the ArtScience Museum which looks like a blossomed artichoke.
7:00pm – Returning to the Airport!
Riding the immaculate MRT back to the airport, I watched almost everyone play Pokemon Go on their phones. No one seems stressed. The metro announcements play in Mandarin, English, Malay and then Tamil. How incredibly hospitable.
Singapore seems to really have its act together.