Singapore on a budget: food, things to do, and nightlife
September 27, 2018
by Tiahli Martyn
I ended up in Singapore more out of convenience than any particular longing to travel there. Coming from New Zealand, but now living in England, when visiting home I face the joy of at least 24 hours of quality plane time. It struck me as silly to put myself through that, when there was a whole world waiting to be discovered in Asia, halfway through my journey back to the UK.
I was all for a slightly longer interlude than my usual eternity trapped in airport transit. So I ignored my sassy 93 year old Granny (who assured me all I’d encounter was shopping malls) and booked a five-day sojourn in Singapore. I had faith, because if travelling has taught me anything, it’s that at the heart of every city, no matter how commercial it may seem, is a culture that gives it a soul!
Good thing I proved Granny wrong and discovered an exciting, astonishingly affordable side to the country. If like me, you’re a backpacker on a budget, you’ll understand my wanting to save every penny. Not only did I enjoy Singapore on a shoestring, but I also realised it comprised exceedingly more than just shopping centres (although I can’t downplay the joy their air conditioning gifted me when I was melting in the heat).
Restaurants in Singapore
Sure, Singapore’s renowned for its shopping and progress, so it isn’t the cheapest place in Asia. Even eating can levy exorbitant fees. So, of utmost importance is familiarising yourself with the concept of the humble Hawker Centre. Think of it as a roofed, open air food court.
You’ll find most of these centres’ patrons are locals enjoying glorious food for a fraction of the price charged at most restaurants. The range of cuisines spoil you for choice and represent Singapore’s diversity, with Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, and Western influences.
Groggy mornings were fixed with kopi— coffee made with evaporated milk, so beware of this if you’re one of those vampires that prefers coffee without sugar *shudder* — and nasi lemak (coconut rice, egg, fried chicken, chutney, crispy anchovies and nuts). The Singaporean snack favourite, chicken rice, (that’s literally what it’s called) is super tasty and costs you tuppence (ok, technically S$2-3, but that’s nothing for a fresh, hot meal!).
Hawker centres are usually located near MRT (the Singapore underground) stations, which makes them convenient for then continuing your exploring, both stomach and wallet happily replete. I never once spent more than S$7 on a meal (including drinks), although some of the seafood options are more expensive.
Things to do in Singapore
I wasn’t exaggerating when I mentioned the heat of Singapore weather. Some days, my whole body was saturated, and I’d later find salt all over my skin from sweat. Sitting in a park doesn’t seem particularly interesting, until you’re about to melt. You’ll be thankful Singapore strives to maintain its status as the greenest Asian city. Perfectly designed and manicured, the free parks and gardens are lovely to hang out in, and provided us with a moment of respite from the heat, hustle and bustle of the city.
Gardens by the Bay
The most popular park, Gardens by the Bay South offers a free light and music show every night at the Supertree grove. We lay on the ground underneath the collection of soaring, tree-like structures, covered from top to bottom in plants, and watched the show from below.
I visited these free, UNESCO World Heritage gardens for a picnic. If you’re a student from any part of the world, it’s only a dollar to enter the famous Orchid Garden with valid ID. I might have got drenched in a tropical storm while I was there, but it was so nice to cool off in the rain, and this didn’t diminish the gardens’ beauty.
East Coast Park
The beachfront is no match for those of Sri Lanka or Thailand, but with its barbecues, volleyball nets, and large walking and cycling paths, hanging out here is a lovely way to spend a sunny afternoon. I’m an embarrassingly unconfident cyclist, but I had a ball wobbling my way along the waterfront. We then stopped to eat at the lakeside hawker centre, before watching the sun set over the lake.
Insider tip: at East Coast Park, you can hire a bike for a fairly cheap rate. Or, you could download the OFO app, and use one of their yellow public bikes located all over the country. Choose a day when you’ll be biking a lot to use your first OFO ride, as it’s offered free, no matter for how long you cycle! Afterwards, it’s just 50c per half hour.
What would Singapore be without its multiculturalism? Being of Sri Lankan descent, and having spent the past year living in a distinctly Caucasian city, it was so refreshing being surrounded by such diversity. In the city centre, however, the only indication you’re still in Asia is the humidity, but when you venture out, you experience a much different side to the country.
One side features a market and hawker centre full of locals enjoying their day. The other side features a bunch of tourists — but it is incredibly aesthetic with its colourful streets. I enjoyed visiting both sides, and I’d recommend you do the same — one side for the authenticity and food, the other for the gram. We went further on and lost ourselves for a moment among the quirky, hipster cafes and bars of Ann Siang Hill and Club St. Their patterned, tiled walls rival those of Lisbon!
Arab Quarter and Little India
Hipsters have left their mark on this area, with Haji Lane, adorned in beautiful street art, vinyl and vintage clothing stores and quirky cafes. Wandering down the other streets, where vendors sell beautiful textiles and rugs, leads you to the majestic Masjid Sultan mosque, a must-see.
Not too far away is the famous Tekka Food Market. Stall owners were particularly pushy here, some even made kissy faces at me, which made me really peeved, but our food was well cooked, delicious, and (most importantly) very cheap!
A piece of India is found in Chinatown, at Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple, Sri Mariamman. In contrast, the most eye-catching building of Little India would be the vibrantly painted old Chinese houses.
Haw Par Villa
I relish finding quirky locations that I, as an outsider, would find captivatingly bizarre. I always end up with a fresh appreciation for the city. If you’re the same, immerse yourself in Chinese folklore at this sculptural park. It is free and colourful, and if I may respectfully declare it so, wonderfully weird. Most known for its dark, famous Ten Courts of Hell, this attraction graphically depicts the torture and punishment inflicted for sins committed in one’s life. Exercise caution if you may find this upsetting (understandably so), but it was extremely fascinating. The rest of the park is pretty, and informative of traditional Chinese and Buddhist teachings
This tip’s for the girls — sorry lads — because Wednesday is ladies’ night. Drinking out is very expensive in Singapore — perhaps the only downside to an otherwise safe, vibrant nightlife. However, on Wednesday, us girls enjoyed a range of bonuses which basically landed us a free night out! We had free flowing wine at the exchange students’ bar (aptly named, The Exchange) then headed over to Marina Bay Sands’ CÉ LA VI, normally notoriously expensive. On Wednesday nights, ladies access the bar, Diamond Life, 57 floors high with the most incredible view of the Singapore skyline, completely free, and get a bonus drink! What’s not to love? Make sure you politely ask for a chance to get a photo with the view if others are hogging it, because things can get crowded. Go up earlier to catch the sunset, and stay to see the city light up, but be aware that every drink after your first free one will possibly break the bank (a cocktail goes for around S$26).
Relax the budget
Sometimes you’ve just got to ignore the budget. It’s not everyday you get to travel to a foreign country. But what I hope you don’t do it let Singapore’s reputation as an ever growing, built up nation deter you from paying it a visit, as there is so much to see and do for free. I’ve had the most wonderful week, without breaking the bank.