Many faces of Singapore

Singapore is very pedestrian-friendly. The huge downtown area divided in districts historically connected to various ethnic groups is beautifully renovated and largely traffic free. Furthermore, there are plenty of very enjoyable green areas. Walking around downtown would take you 2-3 days and if your budget allows that, there are quite a few good museums to visit.

A row of Sino-Portuguese-styled shophouses with columns and wooden shutters in Singapore's downtown

Kampong Glam

I started my exploration of Singapore with Kampong Glam, the Malay and Arab district. First, I visited the Malay Heritage Centre. It was housed in the former palace of the Sultan of Johor. The exhibitions were very well made, presenting really engaging stories and using various multimedia.

Simple yelllow buiding with large windows formerly Sultan's of Johor Palace, now Malay Heritage Centre in Singapore

Kampong Glam most characteristic building is an imposing Sultan Mosque, built in a style mixing Arabic and Mogul influences in the beginning of the 20th century. The district is filled with the historical buildings in Sino-Portuguese style, many of which house carpet shops.

A large, golden dome of the Sulta's Mosque and the upper floors of the colonial style buildings in Kampong Glam.

Little India

From Kampong Glam, I had a 15 minutes walk to the Little India district. Little India did feel less organized than the rest of Singapore. The colourful, south Indian temples were full of devotees and I could hear people in the streets speaking in Tamil.

Street in Singapore's Little India with ethnic style colourful decorations across the street and ladies in Indian kurta pajamas walking

China Town

On the next day I walked from Outram Park to China Town- a large district full of historical buildings. It’s worth to check out Outram Park area. Just like in China Town there are plenty of stylish, beautifully renovated old buildings but unlike in China Town, there are no tourists . It’s just a residential area.

The front doors of beautifully painted old Sino-Portuguese style building with a blossoming bush growing in front of it.

I started the visit to China Town with the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. The temple was richly decorated with hundreds of Buddha figures on the shelves along the walls. The temple has many levels and the third floor is a free Buddhist Cultural Museum featuring Buddhist art from all over Asia. The rooftop features a small pagoda and a surrounding it peaceful garden. On Saturday free guided tours of the temple are offered.

The bordo- golden interior of the Temple of the Tooth Relic in Singapore with an altar of Buddha and the golden background of flying dragons.

The streets in that part of China Town are filled with Traditional Chinese Medicine shops selling things like dried flying lizards or seahorses as well as lots of mushrooms and herbs.

Mushrooms and dried out flying lizards on the pole displayed on the street in front of the Traditional Chinese Medicine shop in Singapore

I then moved to the China Town Heritage Centre. The entrance fee was expensive but it was worth every penny. The interior was the exact reconstruction of how it looked like in the 50s, when Singapore wasn’t a rich country yet.

The interior of the Chinese Heritage Centre in SIngapore with reconstruction of the living quarters from 70 years ago. Old buidings visible through the windows.

The house was owned by a tailor who lived downstairs in a tiny cubicle despite his wealth. His priviledge was a separate kitchen and a bathroom (with a bucket toilet) shared with his apprentices. Upstairs the life conditions were even tougher with a family of 8 sharing a minuscule cubicle and three day labourers were using a single bed on a rotation basis. It was incredible to see how much those people managed to achieve and how much the lives of their children changed. It took me 4 hours to see the museum, using a free audio guide provided.

Thian Hock Keng temple in Singapore with a typical pagoda roof and beautifully painted front doors

Unfortunately, I was too late to see the interior of the two oldest pagodas in the China Town (closing at 3.30pm). 19th century Thian Hock Keng on Telok Ayer Street and Wak Hai Cheng Bio Temple near Boat Quay are both devoted to the Chinese goddess of the sea. I really liked the murals near Thian HOck Keng, showing the life in Singapore in the past.

Boat Quay and Downtown Core

Not being able to enter the temples, I had a long walk to the Boat Quay (for a couple of decades now devoid of any boats). I had as stroll along the river and watched the high rise buildings in the background.

I crossed the river via historical Cavenagh Bridge (now used just by pedestrians) to enter the colonial district. Beyond the Esplanade Park and a large lawn stood European monumental edifices including National Gallery Singapore, Asian Civilisations Museum and a large St. Andrew’s Cathedral.

Gardens by the Bay

I was tired of walking so I jumped on the metro and went to the famous Gardens by the Bay. It was already dark when I arrived but it didn’t make the place any less attractive. The heart of the gardens were the towering ‘Super Trees‘ – 25-50 meters tall metal towers covered with living foliage and flowers and connected to each other with a skywalk. There were hunderds of people lying on the lawns and concrete in preparation for the light and sound show.

The Super Trees at the Gardens by the Bay illuminated in pink during the light and sound show

The show was quite pretty but personally I get bored with this kind of attractions soon. It was possible to enter the skywalk for a 8 S$. I did not see the point to do it after dark. The entrance to two large glasshouses: Flower Dome and Cloud Forest featuring indoor waterfall among others were even more pricey but apparently very much worth visiting. While hundreds of people were milling around the centre, the paths encircling it were almost empty. The huge outdoor area of the gardens can be explored completely for free.

Botanical Gardens

I spent most of the next day at the Singapore Botanical Gardens, a UNESCO Heritage Site since they were established in 1859. The gardens are free to enter. It took me quite a few hours to walk through the vast area, full of themed parks and educational paths in the newer section and old colonial buildings in the core UNESCO zone.

A white colonial-times gazebo at the Singapore Botanic Gardens

The highliht of the gardens were Orchid Gardens requiring a 5S$ entrance fee. I got tempted to have a look. In fact, it was just a normal, not particularly large gardens full of different kinds of orchids. I’m not a particular fan of flowers so I was far from being blown away. If I knew how it looked like, I definitely wouldn’t bother.

A monitor lizard with a tongue out hiding among fallen leaves at Singapore Botanic Garden

I was surprised to see a patch of primary rainforest in the middle of the botanical gardens, though I must say it didn’t really feel very wild to me. I also saw two monitor lizards roaming around the paths which was quite unexpected in the middle of the city.

PRACTICALITIES

How to get to Singapore?
By air
Singapore is the largest aviation hub of the region, with direct flights from many destinations in Europe, North America, Australia and the Middle East. There are a few budget companies operating from Singapore.

Changi Airport is often voted the best airport in the world. All 4 terminals are well connected, with free transfer. You can get from Changi to the citycentre by MRT changing at Tanah Merah ($S2, 30-40min) or bus which would take around 1.5h.

By bus
Bus would be best option if you’re travelling from Malacca (3.5h). It’s also not too far from Kuala Lumpur (6h). When travelling from Singapore to Malaysia, change at the border town of Johor Bahru to save some money as the Singaporean buses are more expensive than the Malaysian ones.

Prices [in Singaporean dollars as of September 2018]

15 S$ China Town Heritage Centre ticket
12 S$ travel card, $5 is refundable upon return
8 S$ OCBC Skyway at Gardens By the Bay
6 S$ Malay Heritage centre entrance
3.50 S$ bus to Johor Bahru
2-2.50 S$ cheap meal at the food hall in China Town/ Little India
1.80 S$ sugarcane juice at the food hall
1.80 S$ cendol dessert at the food hall

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