Dynamic, frenetic, at times thrilling, Singapore is one of the best places in the world to be a tourist. With its heady mixture of cultures and aromas – Singapore’s population serves as a microcosm of Asia itself, blending ethnic Indians, Malays, and Chinese with large groups of immigrants and expatriates from all over Asia and the world – Singapore is a city of discovery. Turn a street corner to find the best food in the world at a seemingly unprepossessing street food vendor’s cart, or wend your way in search of your hotel only to find yourself in a twenty-four hour coffee shop.
Yet for some, Singapore’s reputation for efficiency and cleanliness makes it less, not more, appealing. To its detractors, Singapore is “Disneyland with the death penalty”, an overly-prosperous, overly-sterile city at remove from the nit and grit of “real life.”
But like any city, Singapore has more than meets the eye. Behind the manicured gardens and shiny buildings, there lies a hidden Singapore of artists’ galleries and underground cafes, a Singapore for bohemians and travellers in search of something more than just the tradition. We here at Never Fly Coach Again have put together a list of our favorite Singapore haunts: the very best of Singapore off the beaten track.
If the crowds of Singapore ever start to feel overwhelming, take a break: an island getaway is just an easy ferry ride away. But when you take your first steps onto the historic island, dotted with traditional kampong houses and leafy palm trees, the hustle of Singapore will seem oceans away.Walkers and hikers will find a wealth of trails on offer (bicycles are also available to rent), while those looking for a more sedentary time can enjoy the picturesque restaurants on the main square, which serve up delectable fresh-caught fish. Be sure to take a walk on the boardwalk of the Chek Jawa Wetlands, one of the most diverse ecosystems in Singapore. To get to Pulau Ubin, take one of the ubiquitous bumboats from Changi Point jetty in Changi Village; boats leave regularly throughout the day until sundown.
Go Shopping at Hadji Lane
New York has Bedford Avenue. London has Portobello Road. But for hip fashions in the heart of Singapore, check out Haji Lane, in the heart of Singapore’s Arab district. At first glance the street – a picturesque back alley of historic houses, lined by palm trees – hardly seems like a nexus for global fashion. But Haji Lane’s shops tell a different story. Vintage fashion – from high-end designers to boutique labels collected by savvy collectors in-the-know lines the shelves of nearly every shop on this block; housewares and other decorative items can also b found. Check out Know It Nothing, a former industrial space known for its elegant dress shirts, given a slightly funky vibe by buttons in the shape of a silver skull. Lunch at Cafe le Caire adds to the element of Arab authenticity.
Take a Bath in Public
Singapore may not be as famous for its bathing culture as Iceland or Turkey. But for a relaxing soak in natural hot springs, look no further than the grounds of the Sembawang Air Base. Here, three stations emit torrential jets of naturally-warm sulphurous water – locals say the waters here have healing properties. So fill up your pails (or a whole tub) and test those healing powers for yourself. But don’t just come for the physical benefits: the hot springs here are a whole cultural experience. The same “regulars” visit day in and day out, making the hot springs a perfect place to observe local mores in action.
Visit a Hidden Art Gallery
“Go on – you know you want to.” Those are the words written above the peephole to the fantastically trendy FLABSLAB, an art and design collective tucked away on the sixth floor of an otherwise inconspicuous office building on Commonwealth Lane. Head behind the nondescript gray doors during office hours to find a dazzling cornucopia of cutting-edge work, from pop art (local artist Mojoko, famous for his vintage-style cartoon collages, is a recent feature) to utter avant-garde. You’ll never look at an ordinary office building the same way again.
Experience Chinese Culture at an Abandoned Theme Park
When Haw Par Villa was built in 1937, it was designed as a theme park celebrating Chinese culture, featuring 150 dioramas and over one thousand statues commemorating major events in Chinese history and folklore. Yet this is no Disneyland. Several of the dioramas are fantastically gruesome – including a depiction of the Chinese concept of the afterlife for eveildoers (think Dante’s Inferno in 3D). Virtually abandoned, the park is unsettling enough by day; don’t go too close to sundown.