Saturday, 1 October 2011

Singapore Slinging

This is probably the one place that I have visited most outside my own country. I know a lot of people don't particularly care for it and I often hear phrases like, "it's antiseptic" or "it has no character". So yeah, if you are looking for character then please head to Venice or Morocco. As far as it being 'antiseptic' is concerned, then I am quite happy not seeing people spit and piss on the road.

Singapore could very well have been Singhapur, an extension of India (without the dirt and character of course) - it's practically in the neighbourhood, there are a whole bunch of Indians living there and Tamil is one of their four official languages. I have more friends living there than I have in Delhi, and have certainly attended more workshops and conferences there as part of my erstwhile corporate life.

Well, even if you do not know any one in Singapore it's a decent enough getaway. It's got a great party scene, fabulous food and tons of shopping if you are into those malls mushrooming everywhere. And for those of you with kids, there's the usual bird park, night safari, seaworld etc. It's also a convenient stopover en route to other destinations such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Australia, so if you're not satified with Singapore alone, you could always make a bigger vacation out of it.

Here's what I like to do best in Singapore...

That's pretty obvious, isn't it? Singapore boasts of all kinds of cuisines and if you're a fan of Pan Asian like me, there's enough to dig into. It is a melting pot of different influences - Malay, Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, Sri Lankan, Portuguese, Arabic - so be prepared for some gastronomical giddiness! Do remember though that almost every place stops serving dinner around 9:30 pm so if you want to enjoy your meal, get to your destination well in time. 

Food Courting:
If you are the experimentative sort, the best way to get initiated into the world of Singaporean cuisine is to go to a food court and let your senses guide you. You'll find plenty of options on practically every street and every mall, but two of my favorites are Newton Food Centre and Lau Pa Sat. The atmosphere here is always alive and festive, with a mix of locals and tourists chattering around crowded tables as they tuck into their meals. There are almost a hundred food stalls to choose from, so it can be a bit overwhelming at first but just follow the old trick and head for the stalls with the longest queues. There are no gauranteed results and not everything you order is going to blow you away, but it's an experience nevertheless.
Breakfast by the River
This is a great idea for a Sunday brunch. Go sit by the river at Robertson Quay, it has a couple of nice spots and is relatively more laid back than it's counterparts, Clarke Quay and Boat Quay. Perfect for washing away a hangover with some greasy bacon, runny eggs and a jug of OJ! Do avoid the pancakes, they make them thick and large and it tastes almost like bread!
Bak Kut Teh lunch at Songfa

Explore Street Food 
On my last trip, a friend took us to try out one of her favourite meals, Bak Kut Teh which literally means 'meat bone tea'. It's a simple pork rib broth, served with rice and some accompaniments. It's nothing to look at but has a fantastic flavour. So the next time you're there go to Songfa opposite Clarke Quay Central Mall and experience it for yourslef.
Arab Street is an absolute must. It's full of cosy little restaurants and cafes serving Middle Eastern cuisine, besides other stuff of course. In the evening, there are chairs and tables laid out on the sidewalk and almost every place offers flavoured sheeshas (tobacco pipes). It's quite enchanting to walk the by lanes, inhaling the smell of apples and cinnamon and vanilla as the smoke comes wafting out of the cafes. 
Bugis is another great place to go exploring for street food. Right at the entrance of Liang Seah lane you'll see two restaurants facing each other called Ah Chew and Yu Kee...I guess that's what happens when you sneeze and don't have a tissue! On a serious note, there were quite a few joints that looked promising. I tried out a Vietnamese place called Madam Saigon, and it's definitely a place I would go back to.

Meal at Madam Siagon, Bugis
Other Dining Delights
A place to seek out would be the Taiwanese restaurant chain, Din Tai Fung. Their steamed pork dumplings are to die for, as is almost everything else on the menu. 
Dempsey Hill has quite a few spots to go testing your taste buds, some of the popular places here are Jones the Grocer, I hear they serve a pretty good breakfast. There's also the hip and happening PS Cafe.
You can't go to Singapore and not have the famous Chilli Crab. You have to have it simply because the next time two people are arguing about whether it's worth trying or not, you have something to say!  I had it at the popular seafood chain, Jumbo. It's nothing like the name suggests and is actually drenched in a sweet and savoury sauce. I've had better crabs before, but I wouldn't write it off either. Coupled with the soft steamed buns, I managed to polish off a fair bit of the pot below.
Chilli crab with steamed buns at Jumbo, Clarke Quay
There is always a party on somewhere so after you've tucked in a good meal, the only thing to do is to hit the bars. The riverside is the most popular destination simply because of the number of choices you have there and Clarke Quay is definitely the most action packed. Go to Highlander and The Pump Room for some great drinks and live music. If you are into hardcore clubbing then head to Attica, and in case you're missing some desi style Bollywood dancing, there's always the Rupee Room.
Here are a couple of other options: 
No. 5 Emerald Hill, off Orchard, is a new found favourite. It's tucked away in a lovely little lane and has a casual, fun ambiance. Don't be surprised if you find the place strewn with peanut shells coz that's what you are supposed to do here, simply crack open the peanuts and chuck the shells on the floor. You get to be a pig and they save on housekeeping bills...everyone's happy. 
Blu Jaz on Arab Street is 
another place that's buzzing with energy and open late. There's plenty of outdoor seating and it's perfect for getting some drinks and catching up with friends, without being drowned out by loud music. 
Chijmes (pronounced 'chimes') is a great place to spend an evening. It was once a Catholic convent with a Gothic church inside, but today it houses a whole host of restaurants, bars and shops. However the colonial structure, including the church, is still intact which is what makes this place charming and unique.
1-Altitude is one of the more hip places that I kept hearing of during my last visit. It's a rooftop bar offering a great view of the city. But not all the reviews were great, some consider it too chichi and over priced, so I decided to give it a skip this time. 

If you have travelled around the world, you would have definitely come across a Chinatown before, and I don't mean just in China! Whether it's in Singapore or San Francisco, there is a certain similarity to all Chinatowns but it's a place that I can never tire of.  Apart from the food of course, the best part is browsing around those little stores, looking for souvenirs and trinkets to take home. And don't forget your camera coz there are plenty of sights to capture.

Chinatown, a splash of colour against the usual gray skyline
Sunday morning bustle
Colourful shutters and lanterns from the mid autumn festival
It's no Hawaii or even Goa, so please do not expect sprawling sandy beaches and crystal clear water. But if you have enough time to kill in Singapore, then a great way to spend the day would be to head to the 'beach', get a few beers, soak in the sun and generally lounge in the water.
Sentosa has a bunch of beaches so even if you're not up to the Merlion sighting and seaworld tour, you can just head to one of the beach clubs and hang there all day. Cafe del Mar has a decent stretch with plenty of day beds and cabanas. Tanjong Beach Club also has it's own pool, so when you get tired of the sea, you can sit by the pool and check out the bikini bodies. These places typically have families and sun bathers during the day, but as the sun begins to set the mood changes completely, and you have yourself a rocking bar on the beach with lanterns, fire shows, club music, the works!
Cafe del Mar, Sentosa

In case you hadn't heard, Singapore is synonymous with shopping. There are at least a millions malls and growing, they even have a 'shopping festival' for crying out loud! Now, I am a shopaholic but after my first few visits, I decided to steer clear from those malls. But if you are there for the first time, it's something that you cannot and will not avoid. So all I can do is give you a few suggestions and hope that you are able to prevent a migraine and a twisted ankle. Also note that you will not be in for bargain experience, this is no Thailand.
Lets start at Orchard Road, there was a time I used to love hanging out here but now it's so overcrowded that once you enter a mall you'll need a GPS device to find your way back out on the same street. Nevertheless, it's still the number one shopping destination if you are a first timer. You'll find all the brands in the world on this single stretch. Mind you, it's an expensive destination, but it's something you want to tick off your list anyway.
Vivo City is the largest mall in Singapore and one of my favourites with a good mix of international and local brands. It's pretty well located at Harbourfront and you can also find an easy connect to Sentosa via a cable car from here.
Another old favourite is Suntec City Mall. After a point, you'll find the same shops everywhere but this one is relatively less crowded. Start at Galleria and Tropics in Tower 5.
For cheaper shopping destinations, there are the more local places like the Bugis Street Market and the Far East Mall near Orchard. I didn't much care for them but it really depends on what you're looking for, if it's just trinkets and souvenirs to carry back home, then it's not a bad option.

Finally, it's Ikea time! For us Indians who are severely deprived, any trip to an Ikea enabled country is incomplete without a visit to this Swedish temple. For me its like going to Disneyland! So if you feel the same way, I suggest before you shop anywhere else, head to Ikea in Tampines which houses the larger of the two outlets in Singapore. While you are at it, just remember that you did not come into the country on a boat and that no amount of sweet talking is going to make a those extra 100 kilos disappear at baggage check, so choose wisely. And remind me to take my own advise next time...that way I won't have to leave the salad spinner behind at a friend's place!

I hope this was enough to get you started. I could go on and on but I don't want to turn this post into the Lonely Planet Singapore edition, so I'll stop here.

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