The word was that Singapore was boring. I found this to be the furthest thing from the reality on the ground.
“Singapore is boring.”
“Maybe Singapore may be a little boring for you.”
“I think Singapore is a little bit boring.”
These words were all spoken to me by native Singaporeans, by people who grew up in the city-state and knew it through and through. You’d think that you could take their word for it and just coast through this place on the way to your next port of call. But as I walked through the streets of Singapore, meeting people, making friends a theme readily emerged: I was having fun, I was intrigued, I was engaged — which is all I really ask from a place. Singapore was far from boring, it was actually a good stop to stumble through as a traveler or, I imagine, go to on a package tour.
What other country is a mix of five+ very distinct cultures pooled together though still retaining their separate identities? What other city, besides maybe New York, can you decide what culture you feel like interacting with on any given day and go to their district. Singapore is a confluence of culture; it has a Chinatown, a Little India, an Arab district, and sections for Thai, Indonesians, Malays, as well as a huge amount of permanently transplanted Europeans . . . Singapore is the cultural crossroads of Asia, a distinction it’s always held. Singapore is the place where this globalization fiasco comes together — how could this ever be boring?
To really experience the admixture of Singapore’s cultures, just go to a hawker center. Hawker centers are essentially open air food courts. They often consist of a ring of stalls that surround a central dining area where the culinary menagerie of Singapore is available in one place. Indian food is sold right next to Chinese food, Arab food is cook across the way from Malay food, and many booths sell a syncretic mix that is simply known as Singaporean cuisine. You can walk into a hawker center, order food from multiple booths, and within a few moments have a meal sitting in front of you that represents all corners of Asia.
Cafes/ sidewalk bars
Singapore’s coffee shops, called kopi tiam — an admixture of the Malay word for coffee with the Fujianese word for shop — are at the center of the city’s social life. These sidewalk cafes are part street food center, part bar, and part coffee shop. Singaporeans go to their local kopi tiam each day to drink coffee or beer, talk with their neighbors, play checkers, and just hang out. There are more than 2,000 of these cafes in the city; they are present in almost every neighborhood, street corner, and cranny of the city — which is very, very good for the traveler, as these are prime locations for meeting people and having conversation. As an added benefit, Singaporean coffee, being a dark roast mixed with condensed milk, is simply amazing — it is the cheesecake of coffee.
Things to do, places to go
As Singapore is a tropical island there is plenty coastline to stroll down and beaches to swim on. There are the typical tourist attractions like museums, parks, funny looking buildings, and historic sites to get your picture taken in front of. Though what makes Singapore really appealing for the traveler is that there are still out of the way places, like Paulu Ubin — a fully undeveloped island a twenty minute boat ride away.
Easy to navigate
“You can’t get lost in Singapore,” is what I was told when I first arrived. After a couple of weeks of criss-crossing the city I found that this was true. The streets of Singapore have a semblance of order and their is a an extensive metro system. The distances between any two points there are also not too daunting, so if you hear of something interesting that’s happening on the other side of the city you can actually get there in a reasonable amount of time — which greatly reduces your odds of being bored stiff riding for hours on public transport.
It’s Singapore, of course it’s clean and orderly. You can be summarily ticketed and fined for a huge range of offences, which could actually serve as a quintessential souvenir from the city.
No language barrier
There is no language barrier for English speakers in Singapore. In fact, there is no language barrier for Mandarin speakers either, or Malay, or a host of other languages. An incredibly huge chunk of the world can land in Singapore and speak their native tongue and expect to be understood by a decent percentage of the population, as it is probably one of the most multi-lingual cities in the world. This means that you can sit down in a place, start talking to the person next to you, and have a reasonable chance of them understanding you — which is a real novelty in world travel.
From the traditional buildings of a dozen different cultures to colonial neighborhoods to uber-modern hotels that look like boats and skyscrapers covered in plants, Singapore is a global epicenter for architecture.
Still a port of ill repute
The nightlife of the variety of the old days still continues in Singapore. The totalitarian eye simply looks the other way, accepting the other side of the city by managing it rather than exterminating it. If this translates to fun for you then Singapore is about as fun as cities come.
The people are easy to talk to
It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a place as much as Singapore. It’s not that the streets are clean, it’s not that everything is orderly, it’s not that the place is as safe as places get, but something much more integral: the people are very open to connecting with each other. You can walk through the streets here, sit in the cafes, and strike up a conversation with the people around you. Not only do they understand what you’re saying but they generally seem interested in responding. There is also a very low risk of being scammed here or lured into a compromising situation by any “new friends,” so being open and loquacious doesn’t come with the same risks that it may in some other countries in the region. This core aspect of the place is really what sets it apart.
It is my impression that it’s not that Singapore is boring, it’s that it’s so good that it is easy to take for granted.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York