Singapore: Merlions and Durian-free Subways

by mo on 02/26/2012

Impression of Singapore after spending about five minutes in the country:
It’s shiny, modern, tropical, and everything is running swimmingly.

Singapore is run by a benevolent dictator who has spent the past couple of decades turning this country into a well-oiled socialist machine, that people seem legit happy with because it’s working out pretty well for everyone.

Yeah yeah don’t spit your gum, but loiter outside 7-11 and mix your cocktails.

One thing about traveling is that you learn your own countrymen’s stereotypes about the places you’re visiting. Just tell people, “Oh I’m about to travel to ______.” and let the stereotypes spout forth. For Singapore, the first thing any American tells you is that you can be thrown in jail for spitting out your gum on the sidewalk. I suppose this is meant to indicate they’re really strict in Singapore?

However, upon arrival, we immediately realized that this was the ONLY information we knew about Singapore, and that it was effectively useless. First of all, WHO SPITS THEIR GUM ON THE STREET, that’s just a jerk move. Alright, some people must, but I have never done this before and wasn’t about to start. Second of all, this is useless info because it doesn’t give you a sense of ANY OTHER LAWS in Singapore. We saw people jaywalking everywhere, which doesn’t seem to jive with the crazy-strict vibe of the no gum rule, so we were like, are all these people risking their lives jaywalking? Or is it just like any other place in the world? Hmmmm. (We jaywalked.)

Turns out, the gum rule was instated after they started construction of the MRT (subway system) and people vandalized it by putting gum in the doors, causing them to stick closed. ENOUGH IS ENOUGH GUYS, no more gum.

Here’s a more practical list of subway rules. Try really hard to remember not to bring durian, because it smells bad (though, there doesn’t seem to be any fine…?)

Okay, so don’t spit your gum, but you can drink and smoke in public (no open container laws, plenty of smokers), and you can apparently also loiter in front of 7-11 mixing cocktails. We wandered into a 7-11 around 12:30 AM one night and sitting outside on the curb was a group of three or four teenagers (definitely looked really young). They had an impressive array of supplies: plastic cups and bottles of liquor and mixers, and were actually sitting there making drinks.


Culture and Language Mishmash

There are four official languages in Singapore: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. So there’s a huge mix of different people and each minority group is really huge. According to my friend Yan, kids growing up are required to learn the language of their ethnic background — so Chinese kids study Mandarin, etc. It’s not clear to me how many of these people are speaking the language at home as well, but school is normally taught in English. According to Wikipedia, the second language taught is determined by the father’s ethnicity. Interesting.

It was pretty common to be surrounded by 3-4 different languages at a time, and signage could be really lengthy/complicated since everything had to be translated into the FOUR different languages.

There is some geographical segregation of the different ethnic groups — Little India, and Chinatown for example, but I felt like it could have been way more segregated than it was.

Staying in Chinatown

We stayed at Winkhostel, a brand new hostel in Chinatown and apparently the best hostel in Singapore. It was really nicely designed and well-located for foodie adventures. The security was better than any other hostel I’ve been to — you got swipe cards for the rooms and your own personal lockers, also with key cards. The beds were pod-style and had nice green lights.

Winkhostel was a little less social than other hostels I’ve been to. I think this is partially because the only air-conditioned rooms were the bedrooms, where people tend to avoid talking if there’s sleepers, and not everyone was as excited as I was to hang out in un-airconditioned sweat-inducing temperatures. Also as my travel buddies suggested, not everyone’s English was as good as travelers in say, European hostels. I did talk to a couple of people, who seemed cool, and ended up having a very bizarre relationship with the dude at the front desk, who would give me useful tips (like to check out the parade going on a block away) but also question my travel habits, e.g. why are you not napping before your 5:30 AM flight???? No seriously, your friends are napping, you should too!!

The answer to this (and all questions, of why I might not be doing something, ever) was of course: Dude, I’ll get to it MAYBE, I’m busy reading the internet.

Aforementioned parade, with master photobomber

Places to Go

Merlion – Singapore’s weird-ass mascot. “Singapura” means lion and fish is fish, so clearly. It’s out by the bay where you should be going anyway, for good views of the city and to check out the Marina Bay Sands.

Marina Bay Sands – Kind of the most amazing hotel ever. How’d they get a boat on it!?

The most important thing about this hotel is that there is an infinity pool on the ROOF. The problem is, only hotel guests are allowed to swim, so you’d best be booking a night there. We made the mistake of not doing that and were full of tears and regrets.

I mean, this hotel is cool enough to basically be the subject of an entire Martin Solveig video.

We did manage to spend an evening on the roof though (tragically outside the pool) by going to the Chocolate Bar on top of the Marina Bay Sands. At the very least, do this. Go forth and be decadent.

Stand on the balcony on the opposite side from the pool, cuz hey, boats! (I like boats!)

Okay I swear I’m shutting up about Marina Bay Sands now.

Orchard Road – Mall country. You cannot cross a street without being sucked into a 4-5 story underground mall.

This is how it works: “Oh hey, there’s a big road and no crosswalk, but looks like we just have to enter that glass bubble thing to cross the street…


15 minutes later, $15 at MUJI and a takoyaki snack later, you have re-emerged on the other side of the street. Why were we crossing the street again? I’ve already forgot. Let’s go back to MUJI instead. Or maybe let’s explore one of the 29 other malls.

Siloso Beach

Take the MRT from HarbourFront and get off at the beach stop. Lie down on the beach and be really happy because you are on the beach and it’s February out. Go in the water and it will be warm and the seaweed is cute instead of disgusting. Also, Siloso Beach appears to be the beach with the fewest children, which is probably the most important beach-selection criterion. Party tunes emanate from the bars behind us.

This is how each of us felt about being on the beach, and also how I felt when Boyce spilled his smoothie on me. Verdict: his smoothie was yummy! But smoothie bodyshots, probably not for me.

Wander over and find some rocks when it’s time to go think on rocks.

Haw Par Villa / Tiger Balm Gardens – A strange park where you get a tour of the Ten Courts of Hell, and you learn which sins on Earth result in which punishments in Hell, and illustrate said punishments it through creepy sculptures. Here’s a helpful sample of the crime/punishment menu:

Other fun part about visiting, you can legit tell your travel buddies to go to Hell.

Also, there are some animals with guns. Might also has something to do with Hell.

That’s pretty much all we did that didn’t have to do with food or partying, so stay tuned for the next two posts!