The ‘Lion City’ of South East Asia, Singapore enjoys a well-deserved reputation as the business hub of the region.
Having taken a tough line on crime and littering, this is a city state that is clean, efficient and safe.
While that may be good news for the expat or visiting business person, Singapore has generally been regarded as ‘Asia-lite’ or a bit too bland to bother visiting when you could get a more vibrant and edgy experience by traveling to Hong Kong, Bangkok or Shanghai.
Having been to Australia to visit family and friends (which happened to coincide with Mardi Gras celebrations in Sydney), I was looking to delay my return to wintry London for a little longer and so opted to break up the flight with a few days in Singapore. My expectations were low - all I needed was a nice hotel with a pool for a bit of ‘me-time’.
I was traveling with my photographer friend Tristan who loves a bit of five-star action, so we opted for the newish Marina Bay Sands. This is a massive casino and shopping complex with three enormous towers defining the Singapore skyline. The hook? They have a roof-top infinity pool that spans the three towers - genius.
Marina Bay Sands (or ‘MBS’ as the locals refer to it) has it’s own station on the efficient and easy-to-use MRT subway system, so when we did manage to drag ourselves away from the spectacular views of the roof-top pool, exploring the city was easy (plus cabs are inexpensive if you’re feeling a bit too weary to walk).
It’s a long time since I’ve been to Singapore and I was impressed by what we found.
The bustling food markets of Tekka Market in Little India offered plenty of excitement for adventurous taste buds, and the myriad of discount electronics stores in nearby Sim Lim Square could keep a gadget geek boy entertained for hours.
Chinatown is worth checking out - predictably there’s a lot of market stalls all selling pretty much the same stuff, but it’s a good illustration of how Singapore manages to seamlessly and harmoniously blend the cultures and flavours of South East Asia.
Of course there is also plenty of shopping. The humid weather in Singapore has encouraged the creation of large, air-conditioned retail complexes where you can lose yourself in well-known and emerging brands to suit all budgets. We spent a day meandering down Orchard Road, lunching in the giant food hall of the ION shopping complex.
There is a big focus on food in Singapore. One of the most famous local dishes is their messy but lip-smackingly good chilli crab. I felt a little sorry for the wriggling crab as he was scooped out of the bucket and handed over to the chef. He was, however, delicious.
We also sampled some really good dumplings from Din Tai Fung near City Hall - slippery and slurpy to eat (with vinegar and chilli), we had a selection of pork, shrimp and some amazing truffle dumplings.
Often an important consideration for the international traveller, Singapore’s nightlife can be a bit hit and miss. There are plenty of big name restaurants but things are pretty quiet mid-week and your fellow diners will most likely be lonely people away from home on a conference. Hotel bars can be fun (and searching for the city’s best lychee martini is a mission that I will happily commit to), but the drinks bill will quickly mount up so may not be the smartest option.
As a gay man visiting Singapore it is advisable to be a little cautious. Although the law is generally not enforced, male same-sex sexual activity is illegal in Singapore (there was a conviction in 2011 but this appeared to involve force - the penalty was 15 months imprisonment). While the criminalisation of male homosexuality (there is no specific law against homosexual acts between women) is a legacy of the Victorian-era British colonial administration, the Singapore government continues to resist calls for reform.
Most of Singapore's gay and lesbian bars are located in the Tanjong Pagar and Neil Road areas. Although reportedly quite quiet during the week, we hit the town on a Thursday night. Tantric Bar on Neil Road got busy around 11pm - the drinks were good and the (mostly foreign) crowd was relaxed and friendly. DYMK (which stands for ‘Does Your Mother Know’) is another nearby option and is popular with locals.
It was with some regret that we headed out to Changi airport to catch our flight to London. No more roof-top pools. No more buffet breakfasts. But we’re leaving happy, relaxed, with some new purchases in our suitcase, some new experiences under our belts and some dodgy tan-lines with which to impress our friends.
Thanks Singapore - loving your work!