It’s been four years since the movie Crazy Rich Asians took the world by storm but in the interim we’ve had two waves of covid during which travel to, through and from the smal, vibrant island nation came to a crashing halt, write Sue Williams.
The US$30 million movie centred around an ultra-lavish wedding and the razzle-dazzle flashiness that can be Singapore was beautifully showcased, from the party atop the landmark 57-level towers of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel to the helicopter sweep over the glistening modern city, from the stunning shopping malls to the elegance of Raffles Hotel.
It came too just as Singapore was proclaimed the most expensive city in the world by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Worldwide Cost of Living Survey 2018 – and for the fifth year running.
And now that we can even think about visiting again, while it would be delightful to be crazy rich in Singapore, you didn’t need then to be wealthy to enjoy it as a tourist, and you still don’t. For the island nation feels strangely bi-polar and while maybe it’s still not the place for the crazy poor, the crazy not-so-rich can definitely have a brilliant time.
And for seasoned travellers it has one thing going for it – it may rightly feel like you are truly in Asia but it is so indisputably clean and safe that you can totally relax.
Take the food, for example. The fine dining is very fine indeed, but the reason that many people very rarely eat at home is that eating out generally is so incredibly cheap.
Street food at any of the 100-plus hawker centres around the city, like the Chinatown Complex Food Centre with its 260 food stalls, the Maxwell Food Centre and Boon Tat Street aka ‘Satay Street’, is very good … and very, very cheap.
Singapore even has two food stalls with Michelin star ratings. Chicken rice – roasted chicken and white rice and pickles – at Hong Kong Soya Sauce starts at just A$3, and is billed as the cheapest Michelin-starred meal in the world.
Then there’s the accommodation. The top hotels are often better-priced than their equivalents around the world, like, for example, the stunning new Six Senses Duxton boutique hotel, with its Anouska Hempel-designed gold and black interiors, but at the other end of the scale, there’s also a wide choice. Dormitory accommodation starts at A$20 a night, and a 2.5-star hotel room at A$50.
Shopping too can be luxe – as in The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands or on the Orchard Road boulevard, considered Asia’s version of New York’s Fifth Avenue – but at lower-cost centres like the Chinatown Complex, you can pick up cotton shirts from A$3.50, wrap skirts from A$4.50 and all manner of bargain basement souvenirs.
Transport, in addition, is surprisingly well-priced. The trains are very, very cheap and even the taxis have fares probably a fifth of what you’d pay for a similar distance ride in Sydney or Melbourne.
And then there’s what to see and do, and Singapore has more freebies here than almost any city I know.
At Marina Bay Sands, there’s the nightly outdoor light and water shows, while Supertree Grove next door, with their giant tree-like vertical gardens can be explored by day or by night when they’re lit up by their studding of thousands of photo-voltaic cells. Drone sweeps over the structures are product placement in Crazy Rich Asians, bar none
For kids, there’s also the free children’s garden with water play features, interactive games and educational programs in a lush green setting.
As far as culture goes, there’s free entry to the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, a Tang-styled Chinese Buddhist temple built in 2007, with awe-inspiring art and cultural exhibits. One of Singapore’s oldest temples also offers free admission, the Hindu Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, dedicated to the goddess and destroyer of evil, Kali.
The iconic 70-tonne, 8.6-metre-high Merlion statue is another memorable sight, with water pouring from its mouth on the waterfront promenade, while on the other side of the water Helix Bridge, a curved bridge designed to resemble a DNA ladder, offers panoramic views of the city.
There’s so much both commercial and residential architecture to admire too, including the complete greenery-wrapped new 27-level Oasia Hotel Downtown and the 19th Century neoclassical former Catholic convent, with lawns, courtyards and marble fountains, which features in the movie as its wedding chapel.
The incredible gardens of Singapore always leave visitors awestruck. Gardens by the Bay, reclaimed land from the sea for a 101-hectare green oasis in the heart of the city, includes two massive, free-standing domes: the Flower Dome – the largest glass greenhouse in the world – and the Cloud Forest. While admission to the gardens is free, tickets to the two domes are just A$28 per adult.
In addition, the Singapore Botanic Gardens are free to visit and were recently listed as a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site, with its 13 hectares of virgin rainforest, overgrown plantations, and National Orchid Garden. There’s also a treetop walk at the MacRitchie Reservoir, a free-standing, 250-metre-long suspension bridge 25 metres up from the forest floor.
There are always lots of free events as well. On Sundays, there’s a showcase of local musicians at the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, and Singapore has free festivals all year around, like the Hindu Deepavali from September to November 25, and events for Christmas which starts in mid-November.
One of the things I loved most about Singapore, and which won’t have changed, is wandering around the different neighbourhoods and people-watching.
Chinatown is a fabulous cultural enclave with a bustling, colourful mix of old and new, including night markets, spas, bakeries, bars and restaurants. Kampong Glam is the Malay-Arab quarter and has the old Royal Palace, the Sultan Mosque and the Tombs of the Malayan Princes.
Close by is Little India, a showcase of Indian heritage, food and clothing, while Koon Seng Road, Joo Chiat, is one of Singapore’s most historic areas and the preserve of its unique Peranakan culture, and is lined with colourful pre-war shophouses with ornate facades.
Finally, there are some lovely beaches. Sentosa Island has a number of the best, including Palawan, Siloso and Tanjong.
The latter was the scenic setting a friend’s real wedding, where she married her fiancé on the sand beneath a make-shift wooden arch decorated with flowers. It was nowhere near a fraction of the cost of the Crazy Rich Asians’ wedding, but absolutely beautiful in its simplicity.
“You see,” she said to me the day after the ceremony as we went to eat some hawker food in Chinatown. “To have a good time in Singapore, you don’t have to be crazy rich. Of course, it would always help, but it can be just as beautiful on a budget.” I couldn’t help but agree.
- Sue Williams stayed in Singapore as a guest of Six Senses Duxton, Singapore
Covid: Having endured its own lockdowns, in recent months Singapore has transitioned to a new Vaccinated Travel Framework. If you’re fully vaccinated and haven’t visited a ‘Restricted Category’ destination, you can enter Singapore quarantine free. You no longer need a pre-departure test before travelling to Singapore. You’ll need to complete a Singapore Arrival Card. If you’re not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and have received prior approval to enter Singapore, you’ll need travel insurance with a minimum coverage of SGD$30,000. You don’t need a pre-departure test to transit through Singapore. This information is subject to change but is valid as at June 24, 2022.
Fly: Singapore Airlines, Qantas, Scoot and Emirates are among the airlines flying regularly direct from Australian cities to Singapore
Stay: Six Senses Duxton, 83 Duxton Road, Singapore, a new boutique heritage hotel in Chinatown. Phone (+65) 6914 1428. See sixsenses.com/hotels/duxton/destination
More Information: visitsingapore.com; traveller.com.au/singapore