Call us Sloan and Ferris, we just had the best day off. It was a day off from temples. A day off from haggling. A day off from scooters, tuctucs, and other unreasonable traffic. It was in every sense but geographic a day off from backpacking South East Asia. It was our 14 hour layover in Singapore.
Natalie obsessed with the lotus-shaped Art & Science Museum
Why Just a Layover in Singapore?
Because what backpacker can actually afford to visit Singapore? If the city-state’s affordability is a question that even begs your asking, the answer is a definite no. Luckily there’s a thrifty option: schedule a pan-Asia flight to include a healthy layover in Singapore. With just a few hours (10 should suffice) and a couple of bucks (we spent just shy of $50, you want at least that much to eat) you can easily pull off a perfect layover in Singapore, adding a totally different experience to your SEA travels without breaking the bank.
Our (retrospective) thoughts on framing a budget-friendly layover in Singapore:
Pick a Hood and Get Your MRT On
Consistently voted home of the world’s best airport, Singapore is so well planned that its neighborhoods resemble urban terminals. Each hood surely has its own vibe, but the city is so dense and intentionally laid out that you get the feeling one corporate entity (the government) runs the show. The actual airport is connected to these neighbourhood terminals by the quick and comprehensive MRT system*.
With zero interest in visiting Singapore’s shopping mecca, Orchard Road, we went straight for the jugular and focused our visit on the tourist-friendly Marina Bay neighbourhood. We exited the MRT at the Raffles Hotel stop thinking we’d visit the institution to sample the original Singapore Sling. Despite the station name, we couldn’t actually find the hotel. In googling it we find out that cocktails cost $25, so we bypassed cocktail hour and walked through the CBD in the rough direction of the water.
*Singapore’s MRT runs until 11 pm on weeknights and midnight on weekends. We landed around 2:30 pm Saturday, were in the city by 4:30 and back at the airport around midnight for a few hours of sleep before or 5 am flight to Jakarta.
Eat the Cleanest Hawker Fair in South East Asia
The first Singapore street eats we stumbled upon were ice–wiches packed fresh to order at a little cart. A cute old man stood facing a ravenous crowd of twenty-five. People picked their ice cream flavour from a list of eight options and the ice-wich man cut a dense slab straight off the carton, wrapper and all. With one deft movement, he sandwiched the ice cream between two air-thin rice wafers, wrapped one end in wax paper, and presented the final package to grabbing hands.
Ice-which vendor placating the masses
Not so many steps after our ice-which we found ourselves in front of Singapore’s famed Glutton’s Bay, a veritable street food food court.
The street food scene in Singapore took off in the 60s and 70s. In the 80s, the government consolidated, relocated, and sanitized the city’s disparate hawkers establishing the city’s current network of street eat hubs. Cleaner and better plated some restaurant meals served in other Asian cities, Singapore’s hawker fare is much less “street” than we’re used to. Not surprisingly it’s also considerably pricier than most Asian street food. $6 noodles could seem absurd in Malaysia and definitely at stalls in Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. But it didn’t seem a total crime to fork over several such bundles during the course of our first (and second) supper in the city recently named the world’s most expensive.
Layover in Singapore lesson learned: eating is cheaper than doing and infinitely more affordable than drinking.
Some of our Glutton’s Bay favorites included roti parata (grill fried roti bread served with a deliciously succulent goat curry) and Mamack mee goreng (Muslim India stir-fried hokkien noodles served “wet” and spicy) from Old Satay Club, 10-hour marinated chicken wings from Huat Huat BBQ, and crispy fried cereal prawns. Each dish was $6 or less. We wanted to try the famous Singaporean chili crab, but for $50 a pop, we couldn’t remotely justify it (similar dishes in Cambodia and Indonesia cost us less than $10).
Mamack Mee Goreng
Run Amuck in Singapore’s Public Art, Music, and Theater Scene
Singapore—sometimes called “the little red dot on the map”—has big capitalistic tendencies and the internationally renowned infrastructure to prove it. In the past decade the government has worked hard to make art as much a part of the city’s international image as dollars. The Marina Bay Sands Hotel (resort, casino, and convention center) is the standout architectural wonder, but the entire waterfront is covered in smaller works of art. Blooming in Marina Sands’ colossal three-building shadow the lotus-flower inspired Art & Science museum is one of the most beautiful building projects we’ve seen.
With architectural astonishments and public art literally blooming like wildflowers, Marina Bay is one big piece of installation art. We lucked out and arrived in the middle of a month-long outdoor exhibit titled i Light Marina Bay. Numerous interactive pieces playing with light spanned out around the Bay. Just in front of Glutton’s Bay we watched Olivia D’Aboville’s Giant Dandelion go from noticeably upcycled water bottles by day to celestial milkweed pods glowing in the dark.
From the Bay we crossed the iconic Helix footbridge to reach the Disney-esq Gardens By the Bay (I’ve wanted to see its Super Tree Grove since I discovered Pinterest). Although we didn’t make it in time to lay on our backs and watch the clouds float over the 16-story trees, we did get to watch them light up at night like a solar-powered forest of overgrown LEDs. Unbeknownst to us, the Grove puts on a free light and sound show every night at 7:45 and 8:45. We lucked into the last showing and cozied up next to lots of families with small kids enjoying the perfect night air.
Layover in Singapore lesson learned: for a great panorama of the bay, Marina Sands Hotel, and Art & Science Museum, head to the rooftop of the Esplanade Theaters. There’s an open air bar to the left, but free seating to the right. BYOB and camera.
Sneak into a Hotel Pool (or Go Out Trying)
Singapore is home to some of the most lavish hotel pools in the world. But none top the Marina Bay Sands Hotel pool which stretches across the rooftops of all three of the resort’s 55-story buildings; at 150 meters long it’s both the world’s largest and highest infinity pool.
Not surprisingly, you can’t just mosey up and take a bath. But you can try. We walked into the hotel like we knew what we were doing, snuck into the keycard operated elevator on the tail end of a birthday balloon delivery, and shot to the top. But like helium escaping one of those balloons, our luck ran out. There’s one last key card checkpoint at the pool entrance, and we weren’t fooling anyone. Egos bruised but not broken, we settled for a side long glance at Singapore’s most opulent pool party before sulking back down 56 floors of hotel paradise and back into the MRT. Better luck next time.
Travel, of course broadens, the mind. Our layover in Singapore reminded us how different and eye-opening things we take for granted at home—city planning, technology, art—can seem after a long period of absence. What a day.