Singapore is my very first Asian country. Though I found the combination of heat and humidity oppressive perhaps 90% of the time, it at least hammered home the remoteness of Singapore in sensation as well as distance from anywhere I’ve ever been before. Especially from home!
Evening arrival: A gleaming, green city
Arriving into Singapore in the middle of the afternoon, we were weary from two long flights but itching to discover this shiny unfamiliar city. Rather than visit anywhere in particular, we decided to go for a wander—to get our bearings and take in the surroundings.
At Clarke Quay we stopped to watch the tourist riverboats drift across watery reflections of skyscrapers towards the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. The hotel is really monumental – three vertical towers with what looks like a slender ocean liner balanced on top.
There’s a harmonious juxtaposition in the city between the lush plant life and polished urban architecture – two very different aesthetics – without either aspect ever feeling artificial.
With the sun setting, we followed joggers and people on motorised scooters (which look terrific fun, by the way. I want one!) along the river promenade towards the Marlion Park area. There we sat and watched the sky grow a deep cobalt blue. What had been impressive and sterile buildings in daylight took on a merrier feel after dark. The lights twinkled and the heat eased off. As the city grew sleepy so did we, retiring back to our Airbnb to gather energy for the next day.
Day 1: Singapore Botanic Gardens
For our first full day, the “list” came back into play.
Getting to the Botanic Gardens
We took the metro. Buying 3-day tourist transport passes for 2 people turned out to be harder than we thought (the lady first tried to give us 3 passes for 3 days and then to sell us 2 passes for only 2 days. Luckily she had a good sense of humour!).
I was really impressed. It’s meticulously clean, cooled throughout with air con and so much more spacious than your average metro.
The Botanic Gardens are a huge public space. I had expected a formal entrance, maybe even tickets. There was nothing like that, just a path leading onwards into the greenery.
We most wanted to see the National Orchid Garden, but took opportunities to stop at other places en route. The tiny Fragrant Garden had a wonderful scent in the air, but strangely no matter which plants we sniffed more closely, none of them seemed to have a particularly strong smell. It must have been piped in! The Healing Garden was a lot larger (we got lost trying to find the right exit), and the board for each plant showed its origin and what traditional medical uses the plant has been ascribed over the years. Many plants seemed to treat a surprisingly diverse array of ailments, if you believe the traditional usage. My favourite part of this garden was discovering growing pineapples! I’ve never seen the plant before, and naively had no idea they grew the way they do, so close to the ground and such a bright red colour.
We followed our very own yellow brick road to the Orchid Garden — the “Red Brick Path” — hugging the shade in order to avoid the harsh sun and enjoying ourselves spotting local wildlife (one small lizard, one very large lizard and a very vocal rooster). The garden itself was impressive. I had no conception of how many species of orchid there are until I visited. Thousands, and so varied in colour, shape, sizes and pattern, each one somehow looking more extraordinary than the last. The orchids are mostly spread over sprawling paths, but there are some more focused locations, including a mist house, cool house and VIP orchids (named for foreign dignitaries).
After a late lunch at Casa Verde in the gardens, we made a conscious decision to cut our day short and tramped on back to the MRT (metro) and home to the Airbnb for much needed rest. As it happened, popping back for siestas became rather habitual over our time in Singapore. Whether due to jet lag, the heat, tiredness from over-exertion I’m not sure, it was always blissful to return to deliciously cold air and catch a few Zs.
Day 2: Asian Civilisations Museum and Gardens by the Bay
Asian Civilisations Museum
For our second full day in Singapore we made a beeline to the lovely Asian Civilizations Museum. They charged a modest entry fee, but this felt worthwhile given the free (and good quality) guided tours in English that were available.
By far the most intriguing exhibit for me was the Tang Shipwreck. The exhibit features superbly preserved cargo from a 9th Century trading ship that was dredged up from the Java Sea in 1998 after over a millennium spent deep underwater. Seeing the pottery still stacked together as they were packed back then is surreal. Though some of the items are encrusted with sea life, many look pristine — close in appearance to the day they set sail all those years ago.
Gardens by the Bay
Pouring rain in the late afternoon kept us indoors longer than we would have liked, but as soon as it subsided we headed for Gardens by the Bay.
In the Skytree area we caught a glimpse of the sunset before ascending to the walkway at twilight (a fleeting 15 minutes but still impressive). We returned back to earth just in time for the Garden Rhapsody — a light show that drenched the whole garden in colour and music.
With all these skeletal, larger-than-life trees towering over me, I couldn’t help feeling transported into some sort of sci-fi fairy story. Pretty magical. We were so happy to have caught this, especially since it was utter fluke. We hadn’t realised any of it was going to happen, we’d just heard good things about the Gardens!
Not having chance to fully explore the conservatories on this day, we returned on Day 3 (see below).
Day 3: Universal Studios & Gardens by the Bay again
Universal Studios Singapore
Approaching our third and final day, I was thrilled to realise we had sufficient funds left to splash out on a day at Universal Studios. I am unashamed in my love of theme parks and was only further spurred on to visit by learning that Ben had never been to a “proper” theme park before. I’d read that this one was a little on the small side, which was true, but I was also expecting huge queues, which we were lucky enough not to experience at all. Our longest wait for a ride was 15 minutes, presumably helped by the fact that we visited on a weekday and got there in advance of opening.
I had an incredible time, which refused to be marred even by the torrential rain that hit at lunchtime (thankfully it didn’t last). It was possibly even more enjoyable being Ben’s first time on “proper” rollercoasters. He didn’t hate it, although he did claim to hate me at several points! My highlights were Ben deciding that his favourite roller coaster was the (very tame) Puss in Boots ride, seeing Mel’s Dinettes perform 50s classics in Hollywood and admiring all the wonderful staging around the different areas (the fake midcentury grubbiness of New York always appeals to me, likewise with Ancient Egypt!).
A return to Gardens by the Bay
As I said, Universal Studios is on the small side, so having seen everything we wanted to by 2pm we headed back into the city for a second visit to the Gardens by the Bay. We’d loved the outside garden and the Skytree so much that we felt compelled to see the conservatories, albeit at extra cost. The setting was gorgeous – sleek glass domes with viewing platforms and meandering pathways, all cool and air-conditioned. The Flower Dome took the form of a trip around different Mediterranean climates, from Australia to California to, well, the actual Mediterranean. Ah, the baobab trees! Never until that point had I considered naming a favourite tree but let me tell you — once I’d seen a baobab tree, there was no contest! In all seriousness, though, they’re really very cool. All bulbous and bottle like.
The Cloud Forest hits you with a blast of air and spray the moment you walk through the doors. The sight of the central “mountain” of plants, waterfall pouring down from the top, has a similarly powerful effect — you can’t help but stand and stare. Viewed from above and up close, the whole thing is so vibrant, vast and full of interest that it’s hard to take it in.
Bright and early the next morning we were on a plane, drawing our brief stint in Singapore to a close. For me the country held true to my first impression: a contrast between leafy green plants and gardens and soaring metallic architecture, sometimes the two were side by side, sometimes interwoven (as in the Gardens by the Bay).
The temperature and humidity definitely took us out of our comfort zone, meaning that we ended up very pleased to have only stayed for four nights. We also felt that we had seen all that we wanted to, with only a few small exceptions (the Raffles building, Buddha tooth relic temple and, obviously, the Marina Bay Sands infinity pool).
Have you been to Singapore? Was there anything great I missed? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!