5 Reasons why Singapore is the best intro to Asia

Singapore has brilliantly positioned itself as a major hub for international travel. However, it is far from merely a transit point. The entrepreneurial nation is a superb destination in its own right and the ideal introduction for Westerners wishing to find an entry point into Asia.

And these are the reasons why:

Changi Airport

Most regular travellers look with trepidation at spending time at international airports: having to wait, standing in queues, having to wait, collecting baggage, having to wait, clearing customs, having to wait…

Changi is different!

Singapore’s main airport and the major aviation hub for Southeast Asia, Changi handled upward of 51 million passengers in 2012 – and it did so with aplomb! At present, Changi has three terminals for a passenger capacity of 66 million per annum, which is set to increase with additional terminals planned for completion in 2017 and 2025, and the capacity to manage a whopping 135 million passengers per year.

This is a lot of people! And best not to upset them!

Changi Airport's butterfly garden
Changi Airport’s butterfly garden

Which is why Changi has excelled at providing for the creature comforts of those in transit and facilitated ease of movement and clearance through the airport for new arrivals…

Inter-terminal transport is easily achieved via the skytrain or shuttle bus. The skytrain is the quickest mode of transport with a waiting time of no more than 3 minutes and travel time of between 1 and 4 minutes.

The terminals boast an embarrassment of riches in terms of shopping, activities and cuisine. The butterfly garden in Terminal 3 is home to more than 1000 butterflies and the first of its kind at an international airport!

Rapid Transit Infrastructure

Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) and Light Rapid Transit (LRT) systems take the uncertainty and slog out of urban public transport. The four MRT lines provide outstanding access to almost all the major tourist attractions in Singapore, while the three LRT lines connect residential estates to the MRT.

For the odd occasion that the MRT is not the preferred transport choice, public buses or taxis will get you where you want to be.

A host of ticketing options are available, based on stored value smartcards. A good option is the Singapore Tourist Pass. It allows unlimited travel on the MRT, LRT and basic bus services for the duration that it is valid. Purchase the Pass for 1, 2 or 3 days at the TransitLink Ticket Office at Changi Airport, Orchard or Chinatown.

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

Attractions

Singapore offers an array of attractions that will appeal to mum, dad and the children.

Cultural delights abound in Singapore’s three ethnic enclaves, Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street.

Chinatown is furthest south and boasts the scenically stunning Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, the Chinatown Heritage Centre, Chinatown Complex and Maxwell Road Food Centre. For something a bit different, attend a Chinese Tea Art course at Tea Chapter, 9 & 11 Neil Road, or Yixing Xuan Teahouse at 30 Tanjong Pagar Road.

North of Chinatown, the Singapore River winds its way towards Singapore Strait. The river banks along Clarke Quay and Boat Quay pulsates with life after dark, alfresco restaurants and lively pubs casting their neon presence onto the inky water. Across the river from Boat Quay, the Asian Civilisations Museum presents the visitor with a microcosm of Asian cultures in their galleries.

Asian Civilisations Museum
Asian Civilisations Museum

Walking east along Boat Quay will bring you to Singapore’s famous mascot – the Merlion, a mythical beast with the head of a lion and body of a fish. Across the water, the glittering Esplanades Theatres on the Bay provides a pleasing venue for the island nation’s performing artists.

The Arab Quarter introduces the traveller to Arab Street and Busorrah Streets where Muslim gentlemen serenely sip from steaming cups of Teh Tarik on lazy afternoons. The Malay Heritage Centre and Istana Compound are nearby, but it is the Sultan Mosque with its huge golden dome that attracts most of the attention. The huge prayer hall hold up to 5000 worshippers!

Further afield, the Singapore Botanic Gardens, Holland Village Market & Food Centre, Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Zoo and Night Safari, and Sentosa Island will make further demands for your attention. Jurong Bird Park is a fascinating collection of exotic birds from all over the world, while Singapore Zoo is deservedly one of the best on the planet. Curators have succeeded in connecting the visitor with animals in a setting that appears both realistic and natural.

Shopping

Mustafa Centre is at the heart of Little India. A favourite among bargain hunters in search of clothes, perfume, electronics – almost anything, in fact! – the Centre is open 24 hours a day and bustling with activity. For a more reflective atmosphere, visit the nearby Sri Veeramakaliamman or Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temples.

Orchard Road is the iconic Singapore shopping experience with glistening high-rise steel structures and famous brand names making a determined (and convincing) pitch for tourist dollars. Look out for Tangs, Wisma Atria, Paragon Shopping Centre, Ngee Ann City, The Heeren and The Centrepoint.

Sri Sivan Temple and the Foo Hai Chan Monastery
Sri Sivan Temple and the Foo Hai Chan Monastery next to each other

Nonya Cuisine

Believe me, Nonya food is a reason to visit Singapore! The term Nonya refers to a magical mix or fusion of Chinese, Malay, Indonesian and Indian flavours. The cuisine has its origin in Chinese migrants who settled in Southeast Asia in the 15th century and married local women. Male children from these unions received their education in China before returning and settling down. Female children, however, remained at home and were tutored by their mothers. In time, a distinct sub-culture evolved with its own language, dress and cuisine. The men of the Peranakan sub-culture became known as Baba and the women as Nonya.

Singapore is extremely proud of its culinary heritage and hosts an annual food festival to showcase the nation’s favourite dishes. Some of the more famous foods to enthral devotees include Bak Kut Teh, Char Kway Teow, Chilli Crab, Hainanese Chicken Rice, Hakka Yong Tau Foo, Hokkien Prawn Mee, Laksa, Nasi Lemak, Rendang, Roti Prata, Satay and Thosai.

The best places to savour Nonya cuisine are at the famous hawker stalls, such as the Maxwell Road Food Centre in Chinatown (try the Hainanese Chicken Rice from the Tian Tian stall!) or the Newton Circus Hawker Centre.

Singapore, with its cultural diversity and economic acumen, eases Westerners into the delights of Asia. It minimises the culture shock, while maximising the enjoyment of diversity. Travellers will do well to think of Singapore as a destination to be enjoyed rather than a transit hub to be endured.

Want to know more about Teh Tarik? Click to go to Asia’s top tea-drinking nations!

Where to after Singapore? Click to go to the Vietnam destination guide

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3 comments

  1. Singapore is an easy introduction to travellers who’ve never been to Asia before, but the city state gets a bit claustrophobic after about 3 days for me! It also seems a little less colourful than the rest of its SEA neighbours like Thailand and Indonesia, both of which seem more spiritual and less soulless. Your thoughts?

    • I think Singapore is very colourful – from the pastel-coloured traditional shophouses to the voluptuously endowed Hindu temples to the mouth-watering food 🙂
      The Peranakan history is also full of soul and the vibrancy of the cultural diversity make for a dynamic experience.
      I love Singapore, but I also love China, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Korea… They all have something unique – and beautiful – to offer.

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