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It’s been almost a year since my last trip to South East Asia, and my last adventure there gave me the bug. No - not the Novovirus I caught, but the yearning to return!
When the chance arose to spend 22 hours travelling “cattle class” (as sales affectionately call it) to a city on literally the other side of the world, I did what any self-respecting wanderlust infected solution architect did, and leaped at the chance.
While I won’t bore with details of the three days of twelve-hour work days, the trip did have two very distinct parts. The first, a work engagement, saw me staying in the Orchard Road area of the city. This area is densely packed with high-end shopping outlets - like Champs D’Elysees without the charm.
For work, we travelled by taxi every day to the Harbourfront district. Here, many multinationals call a floor or two of high-rent office space their APAC HQ. Like Canary Warf, without the allure.
Seeing a trend? Singapore was looking to me much like a Frankfurt of the east: A very clean and live-able city, albeit without the desirability of many of it’s neighbours. Singapore was a blur of coding, mediocre chain steakhouses & minimal sleep. I was beginning to regret choosing to spend my weekend layover here before travelling on to Ireland for business the following week.
Then, things changed. The transition started slowly; Marina Bay is architecturally stunning, and spectacular by night. The three towers of the Marina Bay Sands, joined atop by what looks like a space ship, emits a spectacular light show every night. The rooftop bar, although pricey (expect $25SGD/drink) is worth a visit. Skip the “club” side - same view, British public school ex-pat crowd. Better still, find a room rate special & enjoy the world’s most famous infinity pool - deserving of it’s reputation.
For me, however, a city needs more than stunning waterfront architecture - there needs to be a balance of old meets new, where independent stores win out over chain super-brands peddeling homogenised culture. Meeting an old friend in Chinatown armed me with an itinerary for the next two days of touristing. Here, I was introduced to the Maxwell Food Center - a “hawker center”, think S.E. Asia street food with Western-style food safety inspections (complete with NYC-style letter-based grading). Avoid the “hainese chicken” - bland & overpriced, like everything else Anthony Bourdain ever touches. Instead, try the Pork Buns (“Bao”), Fried Tofu and Won Ton Soup. Longer lines are usually a good sign. Look out for the craft beer stall dead center, beers only $10SGD - some of the cheapest in the city. Club Street features an array of nightlife - try the very well hidden speakeasy “Operation Dagger”, where every spirit is crafted in-house. Think New York’s Death & Company meets San Francisco’s Rickhouse, only somehow more expensive - but maybe also more better?!
Travelling further out of the city, the Tiong Bahru district is made up of incredible art-deco styled public housing.
(Aside: Not to be mistaken for “projects” or “council estates”, 82% of the population of Singapore live in public housing of some kind. These properties are sold on a 99-year lease, and are far more affordable than private ownership.)
Bangkok coffee houses feel like an ill-juxtaposed imitation of Brooklyn Hipster. In Tiong Bahru, the bohemian mashup of ex-pat & local culture feels more organic: Independant bookstores, fair trade crafts and people who “brunch”.
Another cultural gem is the muslim quarter around Haji Lane. Here, turkish coffee houses, hipster bicycle shops and arabian silks meet in the most fascinating blend of east-meets-west.
This theme - the harmonious blending of culture, religion and race abides throughout Singapore. It seems every major world religion is represented, living without strife or discrimination. It’s an odd modern utopia, something the rest of the world could surely learn from.
With this utopia-like setting comes trade-offs. The hidden underbelly of Singapore? There is little freedom of press, corporal and capital punishment are both brutally enforced, and there is little room for protest. It’s a fundemental “ends justify the means” quandry - the means is clearly effective, but at what cost?
Of course, we could just skip my pseudointellectual analysis and enjoy the climate, culture and cusine at face value. Grand job, so..