After five weeks in Australia I was ready for a change. Singapore is a great city – clean, cheap to get around in either public transport or taxi (our taxi back to the airport was only £7!), plenty of temples and museums for culture vultures and with great nightlife and restaurants on the river for nights out.
For this visit I was lucky enough to stay at Raffles, the most iconic hotel in Singapore (some may argue that Marina Bay Sands is taking over this mantle but having now stayed at both, Raffles is winning the battle in my view). On arrival I was greeted with a Singapore Sling, not my usual type of cocktail but delicious. Raffles has had many famous guests and especially pride themselves on the number of writers and journalists who have stayed there. The Writer’s Bar is by the lobby and is a tribute to such former guests as Noel Coward, Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham. This is an all suite hotel, even our lead-in room had separate entrance hall, bedroom and living room. The location is super central – we walked to the river in ten minutes and from there easily across into Chinatown taking in Boat Quay.
A walking tour is the best way to get to know the real Singapore. Ours was through SneakPeek (sneakpeeksingapore.com). We met our guide, Darren, at the Asian Civilisations Museum close to the river. The group was a mix of British, Americans and some local Singaporeans (it’s worth noting that Darren gets a lot of locals on his tours – definitely one for a more authentic feel!). This is a free tour, apart from an optional $5 to access a viewing deck at the end of the tour, and lasts for four hours (there are a couple of rest stops along the way). Darren is a student hence why this tour only runs on a Saturday. He relies on tips and definitely earns them.
The tour began along the river. Darren carries a Mary Poppins style bag with him – it looked like a normal courier bag but during the course of the trip he produced several props to help him explain Singapore history, fans for those who were a bit hot and local snacks for us to try. First we learned how Singapore came to be, along with the story of how Sir Stamford Raffles really managed to set up a British port here by taking advantage of a severe case of sibling rivalry. Darren showed us how the city was built, much of it according to Chinese beliefs, so that Boat Quay sprang up as that section of the river resembled the belly of a carp therefore leading to wealth and prosperity.
Crossing the river, we moved into Chinatown. Many buildings in this district are now heritage listed. Because of this many of the shophouses that Singapore is famous for are still protected. Within reason these can be painted according to the owner’s preference so there are many colourful examples.
We visited a couple of temples here, one smaller one and the much bigger and quite tourist heavy Thian Hock Keng temple. Dating back to 1842, Chinese immigrants came here to give thanks to Ma Zu, goddess of the sea. Around one third would perish on the voyage from southern China and so those who made it to Sinagpore were truly thankful. When Raffles arrived here in 1819 the population of Singapore was only around one thousand, mainly indigenous Malays. Within fifty years the population had grown to over 80 000 and over half were Chinese.
As well as swelling in terms of population, Singapore has also grown in size. At Telok Ayer MRT station Darren showed us old photos showing the old coastline and how land reclamation had changed the profile of the city. Land reclamation is an important part of future planning in the city with already around 20% of Singapore having been reclaimed from the sea. We had a rest stop at Maxwell Food Centre (recommended for anyone wanting to visit an authentic hawker centre for local food) before going on to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) where Darren used to work as an intern.
The URA City Gallery may sound boring but is actually fascinating. It’s free to enter and open six days a week. There are several models of the city on three levels. All buildings in Singapore have to be agreed with the URA, down to the colour of the glass used on the windows. In the picture above you can see all the current buildings, then the plain brown buildings at the top which have not yet been constructed. We also saw how the island has changed and grown over the years, and the process used today in reclaiming land for further building.
Our final stops of the day were at two public housing blocks. Darren took us to an older style block where the lifts only stop on every other floor! Following World War II and the Japanese occupation, the severe housing shortage resulted in many Singaporeans living in slums, with several families living on each floor of the shophouse style buildings pictured above. Without proper sanitation diseases such as cholera were rife. These housing blocks were built from the 1960s onwards and are much cheaper to buy than private homes. There are very strict regulations for buyers though – families and married couples are vastly preferred so single buyers would find it almost impossible to access public housing.
From the older style building we went to see The Pinnacle @ Duxton. Only a few years old, the Pinnacle is seven connected towers of 50-storeys with a total of 1848 units! Residents have free access to the Sky Garden on the 50th floor but tourists can go up there for only $5, much cheaper than most other viewing points in the city.
That was the end of our tour. though Darren was happy to take people back to Outram station or point out directions for those wanting to head off on foot. We went back down to Ann Siang Hill and Club Street, still in Chinatown. and had a few drinks. Clarke and Boat Quays are very well known for nightlife but I preferred this area. Drinks in Singapore aren’t cheap – be prepared to pay $80 minimum for a bottle of wine (at the moment the rate is approx. $2 = £1 so…). but the atmosphere was excellent, reminding me of Lan Kwai Fong in Hong Kong. From there we managed to walk back to Raffles fairly easily via the river. Overall a great way to see the city when on a tight timescale.