Singapore – Advice for a first time traveller

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First Impressions

First impressions count for a lot, both how you project yourself but also how you perceive others.

Now my first impression of Singapore starts at the airport. Since I’ve never been before I was entirely unsure as to what to expect from Singaporean security staff. I single out security staff because well, they seem to always single me out, now I’m not the most average looking guy, broad shoulders, tattoos and piercings and a big ginger beard, I seem to draw attention wherever I go.

Taken off to the side and told it was a ‘random’ search I was a quite vigorously and erm… intimately patted down.

Needless to say, they didn’t find anything so onwards we went, through immigration where we weren’t even greeted with a smile it words for that matter.

So far first impressions are that this country really is as strict and no-nonsense as all the videos suggest. The first really friendly soul we met was a kindly old man working at an information desk who wanted to engage in a real conversation with me so my mood lifted and on we went, to sleep for about 9 hours as we couldn’t leave the airport because of our hotel check-in time, what a slog that was. Just on a side note, I will say that the airport is very clean and once we found a dark, quiet corner we had quite a comfortable nights sleep, even if it was on the floor.

I guess the conclusion here is inconclusive, I think it’s the same as most places, there are serious people and those who are friendly, the natives are hard workers and when you get them in work mode while doing serious jobs then their no-nonsense attitudes come out as they take their work seriously.

Just keep an open mind about it and don’t let a few bad apples spoil the bunch.

Local thoughts

While in Singapore I decided to not help the cause of my looks and go and get another tattoo. It was a rather surreal experience I must say walking into a parlour where the owners are drinking and smoking but I thought I’d roll with it. Solong as the equipment was clean and the needle sterile then I’m happy and it certainly makes for an interesting story.

We did get in a conversation where they were asking my thoughts on Singapore. Having spent a few days there now, I can say that the people by & large are nice. And compared to my hometown, the city is immaculately clean.

Well apparently the locals don’t see what I do, they consider the place to be fairly dirty, and the people rude. All they could say was wait until I see Japan, especially Tokyo, its classed as the cleanest city in East Asia, possibly the world.

Street view of singapore

A picture to show the average city street in Singapore

Time management

Don’t always go to plan! Truth be told for us things went stale pretty fast after just a few days, this was down to the fact we didn’t do much moving around, we visited a couple of attractions, the gardens by the bay for one, this I highly recommend to anyone who visits.

Gardens by the bay

Gardens by the bay

We visited quite a few shopping centres because aside from the main tourist attractions these are really all there are to do. High streets the likes of which we have in the UK don’t really exist, shops that aren’t convenient stores are few and far between meaning you have to head towards shopping centres for a decent retail experience. These, in all honesty, are worth a visit, however, they aren’t particularly cheap places if you were out on a serious shopping spree. They also have a lot of the same items from one centre to the next with prices that are for the most part the same, so ‘shopping around’ for a better deal may prove a frivolous task.

Shopping centre

A street view of Orchard Central shopping centre

Singapore architecture

What amazes me truthfully is the architecture of Singapore, being a city-state that is already so developed, ground space is limited at best, because if this it forces buildings to grow up instead of out. This makes for some breathtaking sights when walking the street and means places like shopping centres grow from a single building to entire districts of adjoining buildings making it very easy to get lost or miss things, so find a map and be careful!

The building are big!

A bottom up view just to help in visualizing this massive city

Transport – Cabs, buses and subways

This is a short section just to try and help you understand and also debunk the myth that taxis are unaffordable and a rip-off. My personal experience tells me that this just simply isn’t true. Not if you stick with the main hubs and genuine taxies at least.

Our first taxis was from the airport to our hotel, about a twenty minute drive.

There was a service charge of about $3 when we first got in, the drive itself was about $7 – $8 then a service charge at the end of about $2.5. This was for four people in a standard taxi travelling for 20 minutes or so, this worked out at about £2 – £3 per person, for a cab direct to our hotel, meaning we didn’t have to walk far or navigate subway stations and bus stops, this was more than acceptable a price considering the humidity of Singapore as well.

To sum up, I would say be vigilant, there are hidden charges but you can watch the metre and you can ask, these charges aren’t so massive as they are made out in tourist videos however. Also always stick with legitimate taxies, if you are going from the airport, go to an official taxi rank at the airport itself and get your ticket, don’t just hail one, same goes for if you are leaving your hotel via taxi, if you hail the street the taxi can put whatever starting cost they want and you have no one to argue the point with if you need to.

When you split a bill, like we did four ways, it works out at about the same as it would to hire a direct bus, if not a little bit cheaper. Without a doubt, it’s more expensive than subways but for me personally, I think it’s better the devil you know, when it means I get dropped off at the door of my destination, especially when in an unfamiliar city.

The other keynote to know about taxis or road travel, in general, is although the distance between destinations may look like a long way on a map or app, and thus will be a long drive in a taxi, this simply isn’t the case, the roads are huge! The lanes are many and the traffic, compared to most cities is, well, strangely scarce. It builds up at traffic lights because some can take up to several minutes before they change to green but once you move you move fast.

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Singaporean cuisine

As mentioned above, the shops on the average city Singapore streets are few and far between, what does fill the in-between parts are convenience stores, restaurants and food marts, and they are by the dozen.

Singapore has the reputation of expense and this can be true, but also like anywhere, if you’re working to a budget then you can find cheaper, I highly recommend walking the streets until you come across somewhere, if one of the many restaurants doesn’t take your fancy then find yourself a hawker centre, I recommend ever tourist try them at least once, they are a fantastic place to find clean, delicious and local food at a very good price, I went to several and the price would average out at about $6 which for a full meal pluss drink plus a sweet if you want one is a decent shout.

Something to note about hawker centres that I found absolutely amazing is that unlike food courts in the UK, these shops don’t try to compete for custom. Instead they seem to work in harmony with each other. They offer a different style of cooking despite similar ingredients, they even have separate beverage and sweet stands but usually only one per court, that way no one shop is out competing another and the customer isn’t left feeling bad for going to just one place while others get left behind.

Favourites are gone and everyone benefits from balanced custom, I think the west has something to learn.

Budget planning

So this is the final section and probably one of the most relevant in terms of myths that surround Singapore, the myth is that Singapore is a very expensive place to visit, you would arrive rich and leave poor.

Well, I’m here to tell you that this myth is well… false, sort of.

I think that the case with Singapore, in general, is that compared to other countries in southeast Asia it is expensive. If you’re used to living cheaper from other countries, Bali for example then you will be shocked at the price of living as it initially is expensive, but with correct planning it doesn’t have to be.

To give you a few facts and figures from my own travels so you have at least some sort of a reference. My daily budget per country was £20. Now when in Bali, £20 a day works out at about 380,000 IDR (Indonesian Rupiah), yes you read that right.

The average price of a meal was about 80-100,000 IDR. About £5 give or take, plus keep in mind exchange rates can change by the hour.

So skip ahead to Singapore and this is where things get complicated but you can also see why the traveller doing multiple countries, with no pre-planned daily budget may say it’s an expensive place.

Again I had £20 a day, for the six days in Singapore, that equates to £120, or $222.55 Singapore dollar (SGD).

That divided daily comes in at about $37. Now the average price I found at a hawker centre or was about $6, that’s £3.25 for a full meal, suddenly doesn’t seem so expensive right?

Now when you are walking the vast streets searching for the hidden gems you will probably come across some fantastic little cafes, independently owned these are a little more expensive than the average hawker but at about $12 for a coffee and light to medium meal, I still think you can’t complain as they all have their own individual themes and the staff really value your custom.

One of my favourites was a unicorn cafe, that served a unicorn waffle as pictured below. For a few dollars more than a hawker, you get value for money plus a unique experience.

Unicorn waffle

Is it a unicorn or a waffle?

Overall Singapore I would say isn’t the cheapest of places comparatively but I also think a lot of the rumours come from travellers who haven’t planned their money and time accordingly. Aside from eating the major activities are the shopping centres and these are massive and price wise I would say are about on par with that of shops back home, especially electronics. It’s not the kind of place you can go to do souvenir shopping like you would in say Bali or Thailand but that doesn’t mean shopping is impossible at all even for the passing traveller, you just have to be smart, plan your money properly. Make a daily budget and stick to it. That’s the best advice I can give.

Overall conclusion

Singapore is beautiful, it is rich in culture and embraces the modern world with open arms.

If you’re considering it but unsure I say go, even if for just a few days, set out from your hotel with no particular aiming point and just get yourself lost, it’s a city where you can because the roads lead on forever and the few shops or centres you do find offer a wonderfully unique experience. The downside, if you don’t have tours or pre-planned activities then I wouldn’t recommend more than a few days to a week, at least in one district. It’s easy for the boredom to set in and leave you with potentially a bitter taste which would be a shame to say the least, since this city has so much to offer.

I have purposely not commented to much on accommodation because during my visit I only stayed in one hotel, I would like to do a thorough review regarding this subject at a later date.

I hope you enjoyed this blog and can’t wait to see you next time!

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