As I sat in my Bangkok hotel room frantically booking a flight out of the Philippines — I had just heard that immigration was strict in their dislike of one-way flights into the country — I stumbled upon an interesting loophole. There were no direct flights from Manila to Bali (weird, right?) and the cheapest options actually allowed for a twenty-four hour layover in Singapore.
And just like that, I added a new country to my itinerary.
I never had much of a calling to visit Singapore. Despite my mother’s pontificating on what a wonderful city it was, (or let’s be honest, perhaps because of it — I was a surly teenager at the time [and now I’m a surly young adult, thank you very much]) I always thought it to be a rather bland and sterile metropolis. Still, I’m not one to turn down a free visit to a new city and the chance to add a new stamp to my passport.
Speaking of, I’ve been vocally quite opinionated in the past about what does and does not belong on a personal Country Count. I’m sorry, but layovers where you don’t leave the airport do not count! Border runs where you get your passport stamped, buy some black market whisky and turn right around do not count! The jury is still out on four hour cruise ship stops and nights spent at airport hotels. And why yes, as a matter of fact, someone did die and make me Queen of Country Counting.
All of that ranting is only to explain that if I was only going to have twenty four hours in Singapore, and I wanted to scratch it off my world map, I was going to have to make the most of every minute. After arriving at Singapore’s immaculate airport and sailing through immigration and security — can we get an award for Asia’s most efficient airport up in here, please? — I took the $9SGD (about $7USD) shuttle that dropped me directly at the door of my accommodation for the night. The colorful and trendy Matchbox Hostel was the perfect base — great location, free breakfast, Nutella included, and an original bed layout that provided lots of privacy and noise and light blocking.
I basically threw my bags around, grabbed a map, and hit the pavement immediately — okay, fine, there may have been a Nutella snack break involved. Matchbox is located in the heart of Chinatown, and this photogenic and vibrant neighborhood showed me right away that I had been all wrong about Singapore.
As my daylight hours were ticking away I didn’t linger to explore the area’s temples or mosques, or browse through its tempting markets. Instead, I tucked those ideas away for a future visit and strolled up South Bridge Road towards the river.
When I reached the mighty Singapore River, I found a lively riverfront lined with bars, restaurants, cafes, and backed by beautiful colonial buildings. I was particularly enamored with the rainbow-inspired paint job on the MICA building (Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts).
At the airport I had spotted an ad for a special Buddhism exhibit at the Asia Civilizations Museum, and quickly factored in a stop there on my mental itinerary. After paying my $4SGD ($3USD) special student rate — okay, so technically I’m no longer a college student, but I don’t think using my old ID is really cheating, right? I’m still a student of the world! — I spent the next hour in air-conditioned, culture-absorbing bliss.
First I hit up the permanent exhibit on the history and significance of the Singapore River, which was a fascinating slap in the face of how little I actually knew about this diverse city nation.
Next I hit up the special exhibit Exploring the Cosmos, the Buddhist symbol-based show that had brought me to the museum. There were some beautiful works that were new and original to me, but even more that had me doing a double take. They just seemed so familiar. Then I saw a curration list posted by the exit, and saw where many of the works had come from: The National Museum of Thailand in Bangkok, The Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap, and the Phra Narai Ratchaniwet Museum in Lopburi. I had now followed these paintings and sculptures across Southeast Asia!
Exiting the museum and back on the sweaty streets, I crossed back over the river and walked towards Marina Bay. With every step the skyscrapers shot higher and the buildings newer and shinier.
Pausing for photos at Merlion Park, it was difficult to line up a shot without other people in it — I had suddenly found the tourist crowds I had been wondering about before! Of course, I could see what all the fuss was about. The famous Marina Bay Sands building towered over the bay, with the lotus-shaped ArtScience Museum squatting in its shadow.
At this point it became somewhat difficult to find a straight walking path — I felt at times like I was back in Vegas, where there is now way to get from Point A to Point B without taking seven escalators and a pedestrian bridge. But I forged forward, and finally made it around the bay to Marina Bay Sands.
While I would have loved to see the famous roof deck and have a drink there, my wallet was feeling slim after The Philippines and I decided to stick to sub-$10 activities on this visit. Just stepping foot on the observation deck would have set me back $20SGD.
I was only there to cut through, anyway. And after a few false turns, an elevator ride, and a walkway, I found it: My true destination, and my first priority for this trip to Singapore, was Gardens by the Bay.
Awkward selfies prove it: I was there!
Months before, I had seen a single, full page close up photo of a Gardens By the Bay sculpture in a travel magazine. I had ripped the page out and stuffed it in my backpack and forgotten about it until the day I booked that flight. While the photo had intrigued me, I had no idea the true visual treat that awaited me in person.
Standing in the shadow of these massive, interactive, living sculptures, I truly felt that I was in wanderland.
The conservatories that are part of the botanical gardens carry heavy entrance fees, but walking around the bases of the Supertree Grove is free — and the Skywalk is a mere $5SGD ($4USD). The trees are as tall as sixteen story buildings, and are embedded with futuristic solar energy-harvesting photovoltaic cells (full disclosure: I have no idea what that means). The Grove’s residents also covered in a “living skin” of more than 200 species and varieties of orchids, ferns and tropical flowering climbers so that they will continue to grow and change over time.
The sun would soon set, kicking off my one night in Singapore (stay tuned!) But my short visit could have been clipped to this moment and it would have been enough for me to declare it a success. Gardens by the Bay was the undeniable highlight to this funny destination — a city I not long ago had mentally dismissed, but now could not wait to return to.
Have you ever been to Singapore? What do I need to return to see?