Singapore is a beautiful, vivacious city-state situated at the very tip of the Malaysian peninsula roughly 1.3 degrees north of the equator. In my opinion, Singapore almost has it all: city and coast. If they had maybe one hikeable mountain, that would complete my must-have trifecta. Singapore is also incredibly safe, with the penalty for stealing being the loss of a hand (so no need to fret over leaving your laptop on the table while you run to the coffee shop bathroom).
Singapore is largely a combination of Malaysian and Chinese heritages, but it seems to me that everyone is perfectly fluent in English. One really interesting thing about not the language, but the way they speak it, is that the interject “lah” into their sentences. I kept pestering a friend of mine about what it meant, but I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around it. Lah doesn’t have an exact meaning, but I suppose it is used in a similar way to “like”- but using it doesn’t have the same stigma as frequent use of like. Once in Singapore you’ll quickly learn that lah is…. just lah. Love the lah.
Singapore has four official languages: Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, and English. You’ll find that most populations speak one of the first three and English. During my time there, I found that everyone around me was communicating in English (which is the unifying language it seems). However, Singapore has a handful of slang phrases to listen for, and it’s always fun to learn some colloquialisms; ya know lah?
- Last warning – I thought nothing of it when I first heard it, but hearing it more than once in a day? That sticks with you! In Singapore “last warning” is said to someone who has really gotten on your nerves- for whatever reason. Imagine your friend starts to reach for the last piece of pizza and you haven’t had any yet… you would most definitely call “last warning” on him.
- E-yer– Just like the English “ew” this is how they communicate disgust.
- Lor– “Whatever lor” is something you’ll hear quite a bit. It’s a way of expressing you don’t know what you want, but you’re too lazy to come up with an idea of your own. If your friend asks you what you want to do, you might answer “whatever lor” or “anything lor”
- Siao– Crazy. If you need to indicate that someone you’re talking to is has gone a little bonkers, you would use “siao.” If your travel buddy suggests you go to a market and find some crispy, deep-fried bugs, you might fire back with “Eeee-yer! You siao?!”
Note: Though you’ll notice the words they speak in Singapore are English, you’ll need to use your attentive-listening ears, and many of the colloquial terms are quite different.
Food and drink
- Kaya toast– Kaya is almost like a thick coconut jam, and when slathered on toast, turns into something divine. The sweetness of the kaya and the crunch of the toast make for a fantastic breakfast or snack on the go!
- Carrot Cake– Stop, it’s not what you’re thinking. Daikon is shredded and mixed with rice flour, steamed, chunked, and fried with a handful of other things (egg, soy and fish sauces, turnip, and green onion). It is wonderfully satisfying and healthy… because vegetables (right?!).
- Roti– Awesome flatbread! I’ve had it with curry and sugar. Two separate occasions; not sure those two items would mix well.
- Katong laksa– I would have eaten this every meal of every day I was in SG, but my friend didn’t let me. Slightly spicy, coconutty, veggie-filed, and vaguely reminiscent of a curry, laksa is soul-satisfying. It’s a hot dish, so find somewhere with air conditioning and snag a bowl. I highly recommend a place called Mei Xi Yong Tau Foo in the hawker food court (Rasapura Masters) in the basement of Marina Bay Sands, we were able to do a sort of ‘build your own’ bowl.
- Chili crab– If you like crab, try this. There are loads of different options, and whatever flavor you want your crab to take on, you can likely find it. That being said, chili crab still reigns supreme as the #1 most popular option.
- Clarke Quay– Ok, so Clarke Quay is actually a place- not a food, but its where all the Western food lives and is an absolutely hoppin’ night spot. You’ll go once and want to go back every night because of how fun it is just to be there and hang out. Grab something to go, stop into a 7-11, and plop down on the bridge. You’ll know exactly what bridge I’m talking about (it’ll be the one with loads of other people with beer and food). If you’re flying solo, this is a great place to meet people!
Things to see and do
Saying “everything” wouldn’t be very helpful, would it? Many people with whom I have spoken, only dedicated a day or two to exploring Singapore. My opinion: not enough time. There is just too much to do here, and it’s such a comfortable city to just… be.
- Walk everything. They have a metro system, but
unless the weather is bad or you’re physically unable, throw on some sneakers and walk it all. The metro is beautiful, easy, and clean; but by only taking the metro, you miss all the small little things that make Singapore beautiful. The colors and random art all around the city make for a very visually stimulating experience.
- The merlion is one of the things that you’ll see all over Singapore, but the one in Merlion Park by Marina Bay is the most iconic. This statue/fountain is a massive 8.6 meters (28 ¼ feet) and spends its day just spewing water into Marina Bay. Ah, that’s the life, innit?
- Sands SkyPark Observation Deck is 57 floors up at the very top of the luxurious Marina Bay Sands Hotel. If the weather is nice, you get spectacular views of the city and can see pretty far into Malaysia. If the weather isn’t great, it’s still a nice view, but try to save it for the clearest day of your trip.
- The Chinatown area is really popular and if you’re looking for souvenirs or some great food at a reasonable price, this area is where you want to head.
- Sentosa Island is where they hide Universal Studios and a few good beaches. From Clarke Quay to Harbourfront Station is a quick 10 minute trip, and then it’s just a short hop over to the island. This is a great, beachy place to spend a half-day (it can get pricey around there!), and I highly recommend walking as much of the island as you can- Sentosa has loads of gorgeous flowers and you’ll miss them if you take the tram!
- The Sri Marimamman Temple (just outside Chinatown) is tied for the coolest thing I did in Singapore. Wandering around eastern portions of Asia, you encounter loads of temples- mostly Buddhist; so stumbling upon my first Hindu temple was seriously cool. The imagery is so unique, and if you’re lucky enough, you may happen to be there while they’re having some form of ceremony.
- The other coolest thing was taking a tour of the Sultan Mosque (Arab Street) during Ramadan. The tour started about an hour prior to sundown, and it consisted of a short info session about Islam, a tour of the mosque, and wrapped up with us being able to partake in the Ramadan breaking of the fast meal after sundown. As if that wasn’t interesting enough, our tour was led by a converted European woman.
Singapore is so much more than a city with an incredible airport (seriously, Changi Airport is a place that young locals go to hang out with their friends). If you put a little effort in, you can not only experience a new place, but you can also learn about multiple new cultures. The people are friendly, the weather is hot, and the food is really unique because of all the various influences found in Singapore. What off-the-beaten-path spots have you come across in your SG adventures?
Katie is a late-twentysomething who spent four years teaching in South Korea and exploring new parts of eastern Asia every six months or so. She returned to the U.S. in early 2014 and currently works in hospitality in Boston, MA; happy to be in an industry that is travel-adjacent. Her biggest pride-points are her packing prowess, ability to find great prices on air travel, and ultra-fat passport. Katie has set a 2016 goal of seeing (and blogging about) ten U.S. major-destination cities. She writes over at The Budget Backpack and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram as well!