The stark differences between Singapore and Bangkok struck us as soon as we exited the aircraft and entered the incredible world of Changi Airport efficiency. The Immigration lines were a fraction of the length of those in Thailand, the processing twice the speed and the signage clear and informative. The only small inconvenience we experienced was that our MRT cards had expired and we had to purchase new ones. One was so old that we could not retrieve the $13 credit on it but the other was replaced and the credit transferred. Then it was away on the MRT with a change of trains to the Downtown line at Expo and an easy 30 minute ride to the riverside area and the Robertson Quay Hotel.
The Robertson Quay Hotel is superbly located right next to the Singapore River and surrounded by wonderful eateries and incredible ambience. It is quiet by day except for the steady stream of fitness types jogging along the river paths and vibrant at night. What would have once been a smelly, busy and somewhat shady part of the old colonial city is now one of the chic places to be seen. Unfortunately, the prices reflect that and grabbing a beer and a snack can hit the hip pocket quite hard. The hotel itself is very moderately priced by Singapore standards in a city where anything around $100 a night is a bargain. It is basic, lacking in glitz and glamour but clean, does a very basic but edible breakfast and even has a small comfortable pool. Strangely, the foyer is the least glamorous part of the hotel, with the actual rooms presenting better than the public face of the place. It’s usually the other way around.
By the time we had checked in and stowed out luggage, it was around 8:30pm and too late to move too far away so we explored around, settling on a great bar that had affordable beer and an exciting range of tapas dishes. We were already missing the luxury of endless food and drink at the M Club in Bangkok.
Over the next three days, we re-acquainted ourselves with our favourite eateries. We have not visited Singapore since 2010 and had heard tales of how the place is now too pricey as a holiday destination. We actually did not find this to be the case, but then we know where to look. What has changed in the last twenty years is the lifestyle of many Singaporeans, whose increased income and improved living conditions has produced great change across the city. The riverside area is a prime example, full of eateries selling Italian, Spanish, Mexican, Japanese and Korean foods, rather than the traditional Hokkien and Nonya foods of the past. The old choice between a Tiger or a Carlsberg beer has now morphed into a bewildering array of craft beers with prices to match ($12 pints are the norm). Wine, once a rarity, is now everywhere, although a deep wallet is needed with a tiny glass of the cheapest red running at $8 to $10.
However, once away from the riverside, marina or downtown areas and back to the more traditional food stall concept the prices drop away to what they were twenty years ago. We visited the very touristy Newton Circus where prices have always been $1 to $2 dearer per dish than the more local places but things were still affordable, with many dishes available for $4 and a large 700ml Tiger Beer selling at $7.50. It is fun to watch the hawkers pounce on first time tourists with the outrageously expensive seafood menus with a bit of pressure selling soon making the bill mount. More savvy visitors will look around to see which stalls have the longest lines of locals, because that is where the good food is. We basically came back to Singapore just to sample some local favourite dishes that somehow are never as good if cooked elsewhere in the world.
Our favourite, Murtabak, is a genuine Straits special and one stall at Newton Circus produces the best. It is a pancake filled with cabbage and mutton then fried and chopped into slices. It is served with a wonderful curry sauce for dipping. Delicious.
We also savour the Singapore Oyster Omelette, not a real omelette in the French sense but fresh oysters fried quickly with a mixture of beaten egg and flour. It takes on a light but partly crusty texture with the plump oysters dotted throughout. It’s hard to beat.
Another favourite is Carrot Cake, not a real cake in the usual sense and neither does it contain carrot in the usual sense. The “carrot” is actually a white yam and it is diced and fried up in a similar mixture to the oyster omelette. The yam is soft and fluffy if done well. It is a wonderful flavour.
We also ate at the old People’s Park in China Town where several floors of food stalls in the old tradition still exist. Inside the complex can be hot and steamy at times with enough spices and cooking aromas to overcome the hardiest of western senses but when things are quieter or near the outside of the complex things are easier to handle. Here, most dishes will be had for $3 or $4. The range is not quite as big as in some places with Hokkien dishes predominating but it is the place to get lots of good cheap BBQ duck. Christine finds in very hard to go past duck while I feel the same about wontons and the broad flat rice noodles used in Hor Fun or Kwaey Teow.
Because we had to take some time off from eating, we did a couple of excursions. Just down the road a bit from our hotel was the Fort Canning area, once a British fortress and barracks but now a beautiful nature park spread across a 50m high hill. Fortunately, a series of escalators keeps the climb to the top civilized. It is worth the walk to take in the magnificent trees that grow on the slopes of the hill, splendid tropical species adorned with all manner of staghorn and bird’s nest ferns. The hill is thought to be the ancient site of a palace dating from around the 14th Century when a kingdom called Singapura was prominent. We visited an archaeological site where a dig has exposed some old walls and layers of pottery shards. We also toured a spice garden where an impressive range of Asian spices are growing. It was a really worthwhile place to explore. It was interesting to note the lack of trees on the photographs and lithographs of Fort Canning in the old days. I guess there is not much point in having a fortress full of guns but surrounded by forest so cutting down all the trees makes some kind of sense. All the wonderful towering giants we admired must have dated from after the time of the hill being used as a fortress.
At the base of Fort Canning is the Singapore National Museum, which we last visited over twenty years ago. These days, it is a modern and captivating display of the history of the island nation, each era being beautifully represented with a mixture of old artifacts, photographs and hi-tech electronic displays. It is well worth a couple of hours. One section was dedicated to the tribulations suffered by the locals during the Japanese occupation, a part of history that is often overshadowed by the story of the interned allied soldiers. The Chinese Singaporeans in particular suffered terribly at the hands of the invaders with more than 5000 being executed. It was a bit of an eye-opener.
Every time we visit Singapore it has changed, always for the better. For those who bemoan the lack of markets stuffed full of pirated goods and stores packed full of cheap electronic goods remember that the life of the average Singaporean has improved enormously in the last three decades. While extreme wealth is very much in evidence, it is also clear that the growth in wealth has been shared to a much greater extent than some SE Asian countries. The population is relatively stable but with an ageing profile, leading to a shortage of local labour. The nation relies on importing labour to maintain utilities and growth. The Singaporeans seem to have found a marvellous balance between modern growth and first class facilities while maintaining a strong sense of the past and their heritage. It is clean, safe and still very affordable. Most importantly, everything seems to work and work well. People obey laws and behave well towards each other. We love it.