Friday, February 23, 2018

Visiting Singapore?

As a Singaporean, I don't do travel tips for visiting Singapore.

But I watch videos of tips on travelling to Singapore. To see what misinformation is being shared.

And I nod at certain points. Or I laugh at some ridiculous misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Singapore's quirks or idiosyncracies.

Or get furious at some misinformation or outright lies (most likely just uninformed. They are not lies if the person really believes it) in the video.

So here are a collection of videos with tips for visiting or travelling to Singapore that I found quite informative (and mostly if not completely true). If there are any misinformation, I think they are quite minor and should not present any real problems.




Things you need to know before you go to Singapore. Singapore weather: Hot, humid, and rainy! Singapore Language: English (or Singlish!) Singapore Money: It's the Singapore Dollar -- bring cash! Singapore Laws: Don't chew gum! Singapore Food: Eat at the Hawker Centres. Singapore Public Transportation: Take the Singapore MRT, it's clean, fast and cheap! 
The above video is by Yellow Productions, and they have a whole series on Singapore.

The next video is by an expat living in Singapore, and her tips for moving to Singapore and what to expect.


Weather 0:58
Language/ Singlish 2:11
Cost of living 3:07
Auntie/Uncle 4:13
Public Transport 4:44
Food 5:29
Travelling 6:08
Pack Light 7:22
Chope 8:05
Finally, a video on culture shock for a Finnish exchange student who was here for 4.5 months, according to the video. If this sounds mostly negative it is because it is a "culture shock" video. She says she is doing another video on her experience here and it should be more balanced if not positive. It is rather long at 17 minutes, so be prepared to settle in for long, complaint session. I think she has been here a little too long! (Singaporean inside joke about how Singaporeans love to complain).




Oh, she has a section on bugs (at 6:06 of the video).

Fortunately, she was not like this Singaporean woman who was scared by a cockroach in her car, causing her to crash.




So are you sure you want to come to Singapore? According to one survey, out of 32 countries, Singapore was ranked 31st in terms of "excitement". Which prompted this comment on FaceBook:
Singaporeans have it good. We have at least 30 other cities to visit for excitement (don't go to Istanbul) when we want to go on a holiday.... 
Here's the thing. If you read the article, it says: "Singapore came in at 31 in the anonymous survey of 15,000 urbanites across the 32 cities".

So basically, it was a self-survey. Singaporeans were asked if Singapore was exciting. And Singaporeans being (jaded) Singaporeans, or modestly Asian, rated ourselves boring.

What a surprise.

So, the comment "If you thought Singapore was boring, you're not wrong." is actually wrong. A more accurate comment or question would be, "if you thought Singapore was boring, did you take part in this survey?"

Ok. If I have not turned you off visiting SG (and no, our cars are not infested with cockroaches. Generally. A crash caused by a cockroach in a car in SG is still newsworthy so it's an unusual occurrence).

Let me just list the few things the videos have in common - Weather/climate, language, food, and transport.

Which is generally also the few things I check for when travelling to a new place for a holiday.

Weather/Climate

SG is a tropical island just above the equator. We do not have the 4 seasons of the temperate climate. We do joke that we have 3 seasons - the Hot season; the Hot and Wet season; and the Hotter and Wetter season. 

Hot and humid. The daytime temperature in SG is over 30 Celsius year round. sometimes as hot as 35, sometimes as cool as 26. but expect to sweat. A lot. Because, humidity. That's over 70%. Sometimes as high as 90%. This means that your normal means of regulating your body temperature when it is too hot - sweating (or perspiring, if you're a lady and not a horse... or is than glisten?) - is less effective. Because of the humidity, your sweat does not easily evaporate and that adds to your discomfort. The Yellow Production's video offered a very useful tip - wear light, easy-to-dry clothes. And bring a towel.

Because of the heat and humidity, distances which you could walk easily in a more temperate climate is daunting in Singapore. In the cooler seasons in Japan or Australia, I could walk for 2 km without a problem. In hot humid SG, walking 200 m (one-eighth of a mile for you imperialists) in the heat would be torture.

The heat and humidity also affects all the "nature" attractions or attractions that are outdoors and not air-conditioned. We have many parks but in our heat and humidity, it is hard to enjoy them. Same for Universal Studios Amusement Park, and our Zoo, "Safaris", and Bird Park.

It also explains why "shopping" is one of our favourite "pastime" - shopping malls are invariably air-conditioned.

Clothes/What to wear

Short answer: T-Shirt and Bermudas.

Longer answer: Heat and humidity means light, summer wear is most appropriate. Singaporeans are generally casual, and few of us would voluntarily go out and about in a suit and tie. Even office attire (long-sleeve shirts) have been done away with in many offices with some (many?) having a "casual day everyday" policy, rather than just "dress down Friday".

So don't feel the need to dress formally, unless you are here for a wedding or a funeral or some other formal occasion.

But this doesn't mean that there is no place for sweaters, jackets, and cardigans.

Air-conditioning

One of the best inventions, according to (one of) our founding father(s).

However, some feel that Singaporeans take it to the extreme and we turn our air-con a little too low, and it is practically freezing.

Well, how else will we have the opportunity to show off our nice jackets we bought overseas on sale?

If you are used to coming out of the cold and hanging up your coat in the office, the opposite could happen. You come in from the heat to be faced with the blast of arctic air from the office air-conditioning, and you put on your jacket you left in your office just for this purpose. Or if you go to a cinema in SG, bring a jacket or a sweater.

If you wear glasses, when you walk out of an air-conditioned environment into the humid outdoors, your glasses will invariably fog up when your cold lens meet the humid air.

Storms.
One of the best things I love about Singapore are the "storms of biblical proportions". Really. Sure there are probably worst storms in other places (like hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones), but the thunderstorms in SG are one of the things I love and missed when I was overseas for studies.

Or rather, when I was stuck in Vancouver during a light drizzle that lasted for weeks.

The thing about the weather in Singapore is that it is generally hot and sunny. If it is not, and you don't like the current weather, just wait 30 minutes. It will change.

Generally.

The key takeaway is, bring an umbrella. Or be patient.

Tip: skip the disposable poncho. In this humidity, it would just turn you into a walking sauna, and while it will keep the rain off, you will sweat yourself silly in that non-breathable plastic wrap. It is not completely useless. You could use it for a short while. Then you would have a large wet poncho to deal with. I think it is quite useless, but that's my opinion.

Language/Singlish

As a native of SG, I cannot comment objectively on the comprehensibility of Singlish. But there is a joke that when Singaporeans want to confuse foreigners we break into very "deep" Singlish to make ourselves incomprehensible.

It's almost like a different language. Maybe a kind of creole. Not to be confused with a patois.

Actually, to be honest, I'm not sure if Singlish is a creole or a pidgin or a dialect or just bad English. The jury is still out. It is what it is. And if you come to SG, you will encounter it. You will hear words that are familiar to you, used in unfamiliar ways, and having, you suspect, inflections of meanings that you do not grasp.

But, in many cases, Singaporeans are able to speak standard English if pushed. Not all, just some. Which may be helpful. Or just get them to explain themselves. 

I could point you to some sites with a Singlish-English dictionary, but those should be taken with a grain of salt. Singlish is a living language. I cannot say if those "entries" are still current.

You may come to love the compact economy of Singlish, or you might hate the informality and "laziness" of the language, if it is even that. But that is the nature of language. Over time complex pronunciation gets shortened. e.g. "Leicester", "Marylebone", and "Worchestershire". 


Food

Most reviewers of SG food scene are usually very taken by the amazing food at ridiculously low prices.

Except for the exchange student (video above on culture shock) who is a vegetarian and could not find suitable food. Mainly because of the language barrier.

If you don't have any special dietary requirements, our amazing hawker food is available for you to explore.

If you are Muslim and require "halal" food, that is readily available because approximately 15% of Singaporeans are Muslim. There are also Chinese Muslim converts who open restaurants serving halal Chinese food.

There are also Chinese Buddhist vegetarian stalls and restaurants, and these are strictly vegetarian, because pure Buddhism abhors the taking of a life. So you can be quite assured that it is strictly vegetarian.

If you have other specific dietary needs, you will need to do more research elsewhere.

I'm just going to mention some dishes or hawker food that you will likely encounter in SG, what it is (as far as I know), and why you should try it. Or not.

Chicken Rice. This is often regarded as Singapore's national dish and can be found at almost every hawker centre. There are some established chains (in or particular order) - Loy Kee, Boon Tong Kee, and Wee Nam Kee. Which lead one food reviewer to comment that all the reasonably good chicken rice have "Kee" in their names.

What is it? Chicken rice is steamed or roasted chicken served with fragrant chicken flavoured rice. If the rice is good, you can even eat it on its own. There are variants of chicken rice. The one Michelin star chicken rice is a soy sauce chicken. This is not a very common variant.

What you will usually find are steamed (white) or roasted chicken. The rice is usually said to be cooked in chicken broth. And drizzled with sesame oil. And soy sauce, with a few slivers of cucumbers as garnish. Or to reduce your guilt.


Chilli Crab/Pepper Crab. This is the OTHER Singapore National Dish. Or a contender. Or a Challenger. It is available is many seafood restaurants, but Long House Seafood and Jumbo Seafood are most well-known for them. Here's a food blogger's video review.

What it is? Crab cooked in a tomato-based chilli sauce, or in a black pepper-based sauce (for Black Pepper Crab. Here's a video recipe for chilli crab. This is from Food Wishes, and is a reasonable approximation if you want to cook it at home (if you are from the West (i.e. US, etc). I'm sure the Singapore Food Nazis will tell me that it is not authentic.

Alternatively, you can get Chilli Crab sauce from Singapore Supermarkets. Not sure how authentic those are either. (Note: I'm not a fan of crab, but I do like the chilli sauce, which I soak up with mantou - Chinese bread. If you do have a bottle of Chilli Crab sauce, you can use it as a dip for bread or toast. Should be nice. If you like spicy.

Fish head curry. This is an exotic sounding dish, which is deceptively normal. But hey, you tell your friends you came to Singapore and ate Fish Head Curry, won't they be curious?

What is it? It is exactly what its name says. It's a huge fish head (about the size of a large loaf of bread or a dinner plate, usually), cooked in a claypot of curry. There are okra (we call them Lady's Fingers), and maybe eggplant (Brinjal). And maybe tomatoes. Because the fish head is so large, there are quite a bit of edible flesh. There is usually some flesh at the collar (where the head joins the body). But the best part (according to aficionados) is the cheeks, below the eyes.Speaking of which, there are some who relish the eyes. I haven't gotten that adventurous yet. I'll eat the cheeks which is not very exotic.

But why? The really great cuisines of the world is not steak and pork chops or any other kinds of "normal" food. It is cooks taking "leftovers" or remnants, or discarded bits after all the good bits have been taken, and asking "what can I make of this?" and then making GREAT FOOD from offal. Which is why the Chinese cook and eat "chicken feet" (Which they call, "Phoenix Claws" because, why not?), and there is Shark's fin (which is basically tasteless and any taste you get/enjoy is actually from the broth and other ingredients), and there's "Kway Chap" which is pig's innards or offal or viscera and includes pork intestine, pork stomach, and also pork skin, served with "kway" which is a rice sheet like a lasagne sheet, except made of rice, and cooked in a broth.

And it's not just the Chinese who go with "exotic" animal parts. There is also Haggis, Balut, Kidney pie, Blood pudding, Foie Gras and so many more.

In the case of Fish Head Curry, it's something from the Indians of this region (Singapore-Malaysia).


Roti Prata/Murtabak
This is the first of the visually interesting food. You don't have to like the crispy, chewy prata, or the murtabak stuffed with chicken or mutton (or other innovative fillings), you're just here to be amazed by the prata flipping.

What is it? Indian pancakes, plain or with eggs or other fillings. Murtabak is prata on steroids, or think of it as a closed pizza or a thin skinned calzone. It is called Prata or Roti Prata in Singapore, and Roti Canai in Malaysia. It is served with a thin curry or dhall (vegetarian curry - sort of). Some stalls may have fish curry which has a tangy (sour) fishy flavour (it tastes better than it sounds). And for those who don't like spicy, you can have it with sugar... like young Singaporean kids.

There are many variations of prata - plain, egg, onions, bom (with condensed milk), plaster (with a "bull's eye" - sunny side - egg), paper/tissue (extra thin prata, crispy), chocolate, banana, strawberry, and probably quite a few more I haven't even encountered.






Battura/Poori
While Prata is a "visual feast" to enjoy watching while it is prepared, Battura and Poori are Instagram-friendly food.

One blogpost calls it, "deep fried balloon". But that was an explanation to a toddler. They eat balloons, right?

What is it? Well, it is not fried balloons, but it is fried bread. Battura is a single large piece, larger (usually) than a basketball, when fried. It inflates in the hot oil into a round ball. Poori is exactly the same but smaller, and usually served in pairs.

The fried bread, like all Indian breads, are served with curry or some dips.


Teh Tarik.

This is another "visual feast".

What is it? "Teh Tarik" is Malay and literally means "tea" "pull". This is tea with sweetened milk (condensed milk) and to cool the tea, the hawker would "pull" the tea. He would pour the tea from one mug to another, and as he does so, he "pulls" the mugs apart, increasing the distance the tea has to travel through the air, and that cools the tea down for the customers to drink it.

Pulled Tea or Teh Tarik is very sweet and can be considered a dessert. At least to me. If you are familiar with "builder's tea", this may remind you of it, or is EXACTLY like it. I don't know. I never had builder's tea.

But it is generally just a very sweet tea.

But why? I think the reason for pulled tea was... to save on teaspoons and washing up. Maybe (this is just my theory), back then hawkers, either to save on tea spoons, or on water to wash them, or did not want their customers to linger too long waiting for their tea to cool down sufficiently to drink it, would cool the drinks this way - saving on spoons, and cooling the tea very quickly, so their customers would quickly finish their drinks and be on their way.

Note: there are some stalls which claim to serve teh tarik, but they don't actually "tarik" the teh. They just serve you very sweet milk tea (builder's tea). It is a bit of a let down. Be warned.


Milo Dinosaur/Godzilla.

This is an indulgence.

Google "Milo Dinosaur" and "Milo Godzilla". And look at the pictures.

Here's a recipe.

What is it? If you know what Milo is, Milo Dinosaur is Milo drink, with a big heaping scoop of Milo powder on top of it. Milo Godzilla is exactly the same except you put a scoop of (vanilla) ice cream on top of the Milo, before burying it under a heap of Milo powder.

Like I said, indulgent.


Char Kway Teow. Chye Tow Kway (a.k.a. Carrot cake).

This entry is to clarify some terms or names. Char Kway Teow (CKT) can be easily confused with Chye Tow Kway (CTK). These are quite different, though all are delicious to me (if done right.

Also note that the spelling is phonetic, so "Kway" may also be spelled "kueh", "kuey", "kuay", and possibly "quey", though that would be rather unique. "Tow" may also be spelled "tao", "toh", and so on. We're quite flexible when trying to use English spelling to represent the Chinese dialect names of these dishes.

What are they?

CKT is fried rice noodles (white) and yellow noodles. Kway Teow are strips of the rice sheets. (Kway is the rice sheets in Kway Chap, but that is another dish which I had mentioned in the section on Fish Head Curry.) Kway Teow is from the Teochew dialect group, while the yellow noodles are also called "Hokkien mee" from the Hokkien dialect group. Some food blogger or reviewer pointed out the symbolism of CKT as it encompass the Teochew and the Hokkien - the two largest dialect groups of the Chinese in Singapore. But that is probably more information than you needed to know. 

CKT is fried with fish cakes (fish paste mixed with rice(?) flour, salt, other seasonings(?) and cooked), Chinese sausages, eggs and cockles. If the oil used to fry the CKT is the traditional pork oil, there may be crunchy bits of pork fat (which is the best part for me). But there was a move to have healthier CKT, so some hawkers changed to vegetable oil. But fans of CKT usually feel that that reduces the flavour. CKT is usually fried with sweet, black sauce, but I have seen a new trend of White CKT. I have not tried it. I am leery of messing with a good thing.

CTK is also often called "fried carrot cake", and it is NOT the carrot cake of the West which which is a dessert. There is something lost in translation. Chinese carrot cake is made with grated radish and rice flour. "Radish" is also called "carrot". Or "white carrot" to distinguish it from orange or red carrot (i.e. carrot as it is known in the English-speaking world). So "fried carrot cake" is missing a "white" between "fried" and "carrot".

Not that it would help if you did not know that "white carrot" references radish in Chinese.

The other "problem" is that there are two kinds of CTK - black and white. And so calling it "white carrot" could be confusing.

White CTK is saltier, as the main sauce would be light soya sauce.

Black CTK is sweeter, as the sweet black sauce is responsible for the colour.

And both are fried with bits of preserved radish. Or is it turnips?


Satay.

These are savoury flavourful skewers of meat barbequed on a charcoal grill, and served with spicy peanut sauce.  The meat may be beef, mutton or chicken (if served by a Muslim/Malay stall), or pork (if by a non-Muslim). Some stalls innovate with prawn satay.

What is it? Mini-kebabs. Served with spicy peanut sauce. Some stalls mix in pineapple paste into the satay gravy/peanut sauce. And the stalls would usually provide cucumbers and red onions (raw) to go with the satay. Usually, you would order the number of sticks of satay, with prices generally starting at about $0.50 per stick. But prices maybe higher in some locations. Some stalls in tourist areas may offer satay sets with a number of sticks of satay for a fixed price. Work out the price per stick and if it is more than $1 a stick, it is probably not going to be value for money. You could find a cheaper stall. Unless you are pressed for time.


There are more fabulous food in SG, but that blog is still being written. And maybe you should discover them for yourself. Other Singaporeans or fans of Singapore food scene may be aghast that I have not mentioned kaya, laksa, sambal stingray, prawn-paste chicken, chendol, ice kachang, bak kwa, nasi lemak... and the list goes on. The truth is, it is nearly impossible to list every food that you should try in SG. So this is at best a good starting guide.


Transport

The Mass Rapid Transit (MRT - metro/subway/tube in your hometown) system is quite comprehensive and possibly could be quite complicated at first glance. Like most subway systems in mature cities, it will take a bit of study (or use) to get a handle on it. This is supplemented by the bus system which is also very efficient (IMHO). There aren't any printed bus schedules as most services run regularly (every 10 minutes or so, more frequently during peak hours) so if you miss a bus, another will be along shortly. MRT trains run every few minutes. Again, if you miss one, another will be along shortly.

What you might want to do is get an EZ-link (or Transit Link) card for travel if you are here for more than a few days, or you can get one of those tourist transit link cards. Those are good for travel on the trains and the buses for 1, 2 or 3 days. 

As a resident here, I am familiar with the transport here, so I cannot say if it is easy to navigate. As signages are in English I think it should be easy for an English-speaking (and reading) visitor, but I cannot be sure how much local knowledge you need to figure things out. In any case, Singapore is not very big, so you can't get TOO lost. :-)

The usual tourist places are all quite well served, and you can even ask the hotel for directions to the usual places. It is when you want to go off the beaten track (at least for tourists) that I cannot be sure that my personal knowledge might interfere with my assessment.

However, I refer you to the videos and I think SG is reasonably easy to navigate by public transport.


"Auntie/Uncle"


If you are not clued in, you would think that all Singaporeans are related, with everyone an aunt or uncle. Well, "aunt" and "uncle" are used as informal honorific - like "guv'ner" or "bro". I believe it derives from the Chinese custom of referring to an older woman as "sister-in-law" ("Ah So" in dialect). This apparently gets translated into English, as "Aunt"(because no one addresses one's sister-in-law in English as "Sister-in-Law" except as a joke or parody or something).

So quite informally, we may refer to a taxi driver as a "taxi uncle". 



Singapore Attractions

What are the attractions I would recommend to visitors to Singapore?


That would depend on what you like.

I am proud of our Zoo, but that would mean braving the heat and humidity unless you are fortunate to visit on a cool cloudy day. The Singapore Zoo has an "open concept" that seems to allow the animals and visitors to get pretty close. Or at least the illusion of it.

The River Safari is a more structured "zoo" that is dedicated to river life and inhabitants. It is cooler because it is mostly sheltered, and the Panda exhibit is air-conditioned (because the panda's prefer a cooler climate).

And there is the Night Safari, which is cooler because it only opens at night. But it is still humid, and now it is dark. But you get to meet animals that are more at home at night. It is a unique experience.

I haven't been to the Bird Park for a while. It's also pretty good the last time I was there. It's a "Zoo" specialising in birds. But it is also open to the elements, so it's going to be hot and humid.

Admission is a little pricey (for the Zoos and the Bird Park), but I think it is worth it. But that's me. 

The Marina Bay Sands is now the iconic image of Singapore, particularly their infinity pool on their roof terrace. Almost all upmarket image of Singapore features a shot of or from the MBS Infinity Pool. For many it is the "die die must have" photo op in Singapore. And one of the Casinos (Sands) is situated there. If you are so inclined. 

Gardens by the Bay is another new iconic Singapore Attraction. The free portion of the attraction is the open gardens, which includes the Super Trees (or is it "Supertrees"?) Being in the open, it can be warm. Also the light show is after dark. If you pay for admission to the two "domes" or conservatories, those are air-conditined. Flower Dome has plants from all over the world, and the feature garden is changed periodically, to showcase different plants or themes. The Cloud Forest Dome has a waterfall. The most important thing you should know is that both these domes are climate controlled, i.e. air-conditioned.

Sentosa Island is Singapore's "leisure" island. But cynical Singaporeans (i.e. "Singaporeans") might tell you (as I am doing now) that SENToSA is short for "So Expensive! Nothing To See Anyway." But you will find that the island is packed with visitors on most days. There are lots of activities there you could try. And the other Casino (Resorts World Genting) is there.

IMHO, Universal Studios on Sentosa is usually too hot to be enjoyable. If you happen to be there on a not-so-hot day or even a cool but not wet day, you are lucky. If you need a cooler place to visit (i.e. air-conditioned), try the SEA Aquarium. This is indoors, air-conditioned, and you can spend quite a lot of time in there. Easily 2 hours, more if you really stop to pet the rays. My favourite spot in the whole place is the Manatee cavern. At least that is what I call it. It's dark, cool, and I could take a nap there. 

Shopping. I am not too sure about SG as a shopper's paradise. This is not the place to get a good deal on designer clothes, AFAIK. But one foreigner was very taken by our local designer shoes by Charles and Keith. I have NO IDEA if they are any good. I don't wear ladies shoes. That's not my kink.

Anyway, we shop so that we can enjoy the air-conditioning in our shopping malls. 

Lots of tourists, or travellers come here to buy computers and accessories. If so, they would go to Sim Lim Square to get it. This place is renowned for very competitively priced electronic goods, but also for scams and frauds. If you know what you want and you know the specs, and the market rate for what you want, you can try shopping here. But be wary. Don't be too trusting here. 

24 Hour shopping. Of course, there are 7-Elevens and other convenience stores. But for 24 hour full market shopping, there is Mustafa in Little India, and Don Don Donki on Orchard Road.

Local sights, culture and history. Some things can only be experienced by yourself, and is priceless. Or the tourism board hasn't found a way to charge for it. There is Chinatown, Little India, the Central Business District, Orchard Road, Geylang Road, and Kampong Glam.

Google any of the places I have named in bold for more information. 


Changi Airport is the gateway to Singapore and has it's attractions. If you arrived at an odd hour, you might not have had a chance to enjoy it. If you have time before your departure, you might want to go to the Airport early and explore the airport. 

There will be a future attraction called "Jewel". I have no idea what it is (the link has the concept plans, but I don't want to promise what is not for me to deliver. But see what the plans are). It will open in 2019. So if you are visiting after 2019, this may be ready. I may update this post when it opens and I've visited it.

Or not.

Here's a sponsored piece on Bloomberg.



















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