Seeking the unseen in Singapore

The city state seems to be on everyone’s hotlist for shopping and entertainment. But what if, like me, you want more from a travel destination? I delved deeper and was pleasantly surprised…

I’ll be honest. My early perception of Singapore was that it wasn’t my kind of place. I had heard so much about how organised it was, how hygienic it was, how perfect it was… that I thought it would be devoid of character and culture, history, and heritage. In fact, when I was working with a successful media house and was invited on an all-expenses paid trip to the country, I politely declined.

Singapore, neighbourhood, city tours, singapore travel
The Merlion, emblematic of Singapore, is a big tourist attraction. Image: Shutterstock/Vichy Deal.

‘But you’ll stay at Raffles, enjoy a complimentary chocolate spa (those were all the rage back then!), check out Crazy Horse (the controversial French cabaret that’s made a comeback recently), besides all the usual touristy sights!’ they tried to entice me. But I was strangely adamant. Singapore isn’t for me, I chanted then and often after that. When I had to spend a couple of hours at the famed Changi International Airport on a layover back from Melbourne, I had Shania Twain’s song — That Don’t Impress Me Much — on loop in my head, especially while being eaten alive by mosquitos at a café. Although, yes, I had to admit that the lovely butterfly park inside the airport was pretty cool, even if the local weather wasn’t.  

Close friends moved to Singapore, and I kept hearing how great it was as a city to live in, parent a child and a Labradoodle. The parks, the recreation, the ease of transport, the access to quality schooling, shopping, cuisine, entertainment, and more. A friend extolled its virtues for someone with a heightened sense (or OCD?) of order. All very good, I thought. But is it a droolworthy destination for an inveterate traveller like me? Nah, I supposed.

And yet, if one is a true travel junkie, isn’t it important to set aside preconceived notions of a place and allow it to work its charms on one’s mind? I slowly started to think that I must surmount my reservations about Singapore and see it myself before I made such snap judgments. So, I landed at Changi once again, this time with a mix of trepidation and thrill.

Checking out the check-ins

My first tryst with the city was via the Mandarin Orchard, a five star on the famed shopping mall-lined Orchard Road. The fact that there was a mall attached to the hotel sort of dovetailed with my expectations of Singapore. I tasted their signature, award-winning Mandarin Chicken Rice, said to be a Singapore staple. Pretty decent. Another visit, being a fan of ‘the fan’, I stayed in a swish suite at the uber luxe Mandarin Oriental Singapore. From here, I had the best views, albeit from an eagle’s POV. I also checked out more affordable acco at the Studio M at Robertson Quay, with cool, loft-inspired rooms and a friendly robot at reception! Staywise, they all were top notch. Obviously, I thought.

Singapore skyline, neighbourhood, city tours, singapore travel
Singapore skyline. Image: Shutterstock/Patrick Foto.

Excellent experiences

I ticked off all the Singapore must-dos. Marina Bay Sands, touted as one of the most exquisite and high-end resorts and coolest destination to head to in Singapore, had a fantastic view, to be sure. It was all glitz and glam. Like the little Louis Vuitton Museum with gorgeous vintage monogrammed luggage from an Indian maharani and other delectables on display.

At the lv museum: the maharani's monogrammed trunk, number eight of 21! Singapore, singapore travel
At the LV museum: The maharani’s monogrammed trunk, number eight of 21! Image: Priya Pathiyan.
In case you want to have your singapore chilli crab and eat it too! Singapore, singapore travel, luxury. Lv
In case you want to have your Singapore chilli crab and eat it too! Image: Priya Pathiyan.

A glorious al fresco observation deck where we sipped classy cocktails 57 floors up in the air and heard tales of Japanese billionaires coming here from the world’s largest rooftop infinity pool to check out the view in their bathrobes! Or its own Spago, serving up Wolfgang Puck’s elevated Californian cuisine.

A view to vie for from the observation deck at the top of marina bay sands. Singapore, singapore travel
A view to vie for from the observation deck at the top of Marina Bay Sands. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

From here, the Gardens By The Bay are but a short distance away. Three distinct spaces that span over 101 hectares — Bay South Garden, Bay East Garden, and Bay Central Garden — have been a hit with locals and visitors alike since they first opened in 2012.

I marvelled at the cooled conservatory called the Flower Dome, with flora from across five continents, from thousand-year-old olive trees to magnolias and orchids. Another giant greenhouse called the Cloud Forest is a cool and moist environment with a full-fledged 35-metre-high mountain rising up into a misty faux sky, complete with a waterfall cascading down! Pesky pitcher plants and shiny tropical ferns held my eye as I walked up the stairs to the top.

A third conservatory named Floral Fantasy is a mix of lore and history, floral art, and design drama. Outdoors, they have a grove of ‘Supertrees’, some almost 50 metres tall! This is a cluster of towering vertical gardens, two of them connected by an arching skyway. On the observation deck atop these, you’re bound to chance upon an influencer preening for their feed or find yourself doing it for your own!

The spectacle of the supertrees. Singapore, neighbourhood, city tours, singapore travel
The spectacle of the Supertrees. Image: Shutterstock/Palo_ok.

I was duly impressed by Universal Studios too. The rides are varied and well maintained, the feel of the park meets global standards and every experience is beautifully curated and executed. The Trick Eye Museum is exceptional, and my friends and I wished we had more time to appreciate the creativity of the artists that conceptualised and crafted those visual illusions.

I’m not for zoos and holding creatures in captivity, but the behind-the-scenes tours at the sprawling Singapore Zoo and Jurong Bird Park, gave me deeper insights into the lives of our feathered, furred, scaled, and gilled friends. I appreciated the fact that their research and breeding departments were actually helping in conservation efforts rather than just being mere sources of entertainment as many zoos are.

Sentosa Island, with its modern manmade attractions like the luge, skyride, cable cars, and Merlion statue. Fort Siloso was fascinating for its history since it was built in the 1880s to guard the narrow western entrance to Keppel Harbor. I was told it’s the only preserved British coastal fortification where you can understand how prisoners of war in concentration camps during the Japanese occupation were held. It does have a lot of World War II memorabilia as well as the largest collection of original naval guns in Asia. The Images of Singapore museum has life-sized dioramas and wax figures showcasing Singapore’s history, customs, and traditions.

Model of a gun battery at fort siloso.
Model of a gun battery at Fort Siloso. Image: Shutterstock/Ints Vikmanis.

Many an evening was spent at the colourful Clarke Quay, sometimes enjoying a relaxed meal with live music, sometimes clubbing furiously in massive nightclubs, where black velvet curtains separated one giant space from another, each throbbing with the music from rival hotshot deejays. The crowd was cosmopolitan and trés chic, the sort you’d expect on the sets of Crazy Rich Asians.

Less flash and more sass were the cool bars on Club Street and Ann Siang Hill, perfect for a floating tipple on the town. I savoured my Negroni on a cool kerbside barstool at the hot gastropub called Oxwell & Co.

Following all the must-do recommendations, I dutifully went to Dempsey Hill, tried the black pepper crab at Long Beach and the award-winning chilli crab at its rival establishment Jumbo. Both delicious. But did they wow me? Not as much as I had hoped. I was still searching for that Holy Grail, something authentic and not air-brushed into oblivion.

Black pepper crab, said to be an invention of the chefs at long beach on dempsey hill. Singapore, singapore travel
Black pepper crab, said to be an invention of the chefs at Long Beach on Dempsey Hill. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

Digging deeper

But I realised that Singapore had slowly started to cast its spell on me, even though my heart yearned for something less packaged and more rooted in the real. As I spent more time, I started to find little pools of this. One day, I was amazed to spot the slew of Filipino domestic workers collectively enjoying their common day off in a picnic-like atmosphere in public spaces like the Botanic Gardens, East Coast Park and Lucky Plaza. Shared food and confidences, guitar riffs and hymns, broad smiles punctuating the proceedings. For those few hours in the week, these women who are the mainstay of so many affluent Singaporean households, found a piece of home in their joined joy.

Singapore, neighbourhood, city tours, singapore travel
Enjoying their day off. Image: Shutterstock/ZDL.

This was another side to Sg, a less sanitised one. Now that the curtain had shifted slightly, it was evident that there was more than the manicured perfection that first met the eye. A friend told me about the existence of a sleazy side to this Lion City.

Recreating mumbai's seedy underbelly in singapore! Singapore, neighborhood, city tours, singapore travel
Recreating Mumbai’s seedy underbelly in Singapore! Image: Priya Pathiyan.

I didn’t really want to see Orchard Towers that’s rudely called ‘Four Floors of Hos’ because of the sex workers that people it every night. But I did check out Circular Road, which has loads of upmarket eateries and hipster bars sharing space with a lot of much murkier businesses. I was amused to see a Club Colaba, an Indian Bollywood dance bar reminiscent of 90s Mumbai, apart from others that mainly employed poor Filipinos as dancers and go-go girls.

Zooming around the city streets at night, stopping for a 2 am bite of mutton roti prata (as malabar paratha is called here) at seedy joints like Al Afrose at River Valley Road or French oysters and Champagne at the posh Cafe Gavroche on Tras Street, I got a real feel of the breadth of all that this city state is.

A confluence of influences

On many a trade route down the decades, Singapore has been influenced by the ways of many of countries – China, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, the UK, the Netherlands, and even Japan. This is evident in many of its present-day neighbourhoods. I found thriving vestiges of culture and architecture in many areas.

It was when I stepped into the grittier streets of Chinatown, that I could feel the true pulse of Sg, as the locals call it fondly. Singaporeans bingeing on durian icecream and pandan cakes. Tossing sticks and lighting candles at the altar of the Thian Hock Keng, one of Singapore’s oldest Chinese temples, to see if their luck was going to turn.

True blue singaporean fare at the chinatown seafood restaurant. Singapore, neighborhood, city tours, singapore travel
Finally, true blue Singaporean fare at the Chinatown Seafood Restaurant. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

The chilli crab in Chinatown was certainly sensational. And I wasn’t even eating at Chan Hon Meng’s noodle kiosks, street food so delish, it had earned Michelin stars at one point. I loved the vibe and the sizzling hot satay at the Lau Pa Sat hawker centre at Raffles Quay, which is transformed into eat street every evening, with tables and benches set up all down this historic stretch lined with the walls of a colonial market and modern-day shops.

Other pockets of ethnicity enthralled me just as much. Kampong Gelam is a rich tapestry of tradition meets modern, with the glistening golden dome of the Sultan Mosque at its geographical as well as spiritual centre, and a wide array of eateries, and purveyors of silk and perfumes, a throwback to a time when the area was allocated to the Malay, Arab and Bugis communities by Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore. The Malay Heritage Centre, housed in a former palace, is a treasure trove of Malay history and culture.

Little india is a lot of colour. Singapore, neighbourhood, city tours, singapore travel
Little India is a lot of colour. Image: Shutterstock/Sing Studios.

Little India, with its multi-hued South Indian temples, showrooms filled with gorgeous textiles, and kitschy spice shops, was interesting too, although the mindboggling megamall that is Mustafa Centre, open 24/7, was definitely not my scene! Indians have contributed much to Singapore, right down to its name which comes from the Sanskrit for Lion City, Singapura. The legend goes that an Indian prince landed on these shores in ancient times and spotted a lion (it probably was a tiger though!), which led to the new land being dubbed Sinhapur, which was later anglicised to Singapore by the British colonial rulers.

The Dutch colonial estates of Holland Village too may be long gone, but a distinctly European vibe permeates the precinct, which is now known for its clutch of creatives — musicians, artists, designers — all at the cutting edge of their craft. I also loved the low-rise buildings of Chip Bee Garden nearby, once a military compound for British soldiers, now home to art galleries, artisanal design outlets and local vendors.

Suggested read: Eight colourful places to make your next vacay vivid

The old shophouses on koon seng road. Singapore, neighborhood, city tours, singapore travel
The old shophouses on Koon Seng Road. Image: Shutterstock/Alex Waltner Photography.

An art trail through the Civic District revealed modern sculptures and museums amid British colonial architecture, while a visit to Joo Chiat on the East Coast had me oohing and aahing over the rows of stunningly ornate Peranakan shophouses, especially the ones on Koon Seng Road, which are like the gorgeous one in Last Madame, a series on Netflix.

The enchantment was complete when I stepped into trendy Tiong Bahru, a delightfully quaint district filled with a tantalising mix of Art Deco housing blocks, old shophouses, artisanal bakeries, vivid murals, and magical bookstores.

Suggested read: Restored vintage Vespas swing into action in Singapore

Tiong bahru has it all. Singapore, neighbourhood, city tours, singapore travel
Tiong Bahru has it all… Image: Shutterstock/Kevin Hellon.
From traditional pandan chiffon cakes to flaky almond croissants. Singapore, neighbourhood, city tours, singapore travel
From traditional pandan chiffon cakes to flaky almond croissants. Images: Priya Pathiyan.

As hip as can be, but also wholesomely historic. The old corner where people once brought their pet birds to compete in singing contests memorialised in a beautiful mural by self-taught artist Yip Yew Chong grabbed my attention. After that, I’ve followed his work, throughout Tiong Bahru, Changi International Airport, and now even in our own Lodhi Art District in Delhi.

One of the many murals by yip yew chong. This one captures the multi-cultural essence of singapore. Singapore, singapore travel
One of the many murals by Yip Yew Chong. This one captures the multi-cultural essence of Singapore. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

I was amazed by how much there was to see in this country that measures less than 730 sq kms! Apart from more manmade magic, there are also some super nature trails and parks left for me to explore. But, at the end of the day, it’s unique neighbourhoods like these that continue to be my enduring image of Singapore. The one reason I would keep going back and why I recommend it to you wholeheartedly.

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TD Conversations: GB Srithar, Regional Director (India, Middle East, and South Asia), Singapore Tourism Board