Since this was our first destination on a 4 month trip through Southeast Asia it was hard to decide how long we should stay. A few people told us we would probably be ready to leave after 3 or 4 days since it’s very hot, it’s very expensive to stay there, and it’s more of a hub than a destination (for some people). We had agreed early in our planning process to avoid staying anywhere for only 3 or 4 days unless there’s a really good reason to move again that quickly. We like to put at least a week between travel days and want to slow travel as much as possible. After weighing our options we decided to stay in Singapore for 8 nights.
In order to put things in perspective, we compared the general cost of living between Singapore and Seattle, where we used to live, just to get a general idea for what things cost in Singapore. Below is the comparison of those two cities from numbeo.com. When looking at this comparison keep in mind that rent is expensive in Seattle compared to average prices in the US, and that rent is so expensive in Singapore compared to average prices in the region that there are substantial subsidies in place in an effort to prevent poverty and homelessness.
What we spent
At the end of our trip to Singapore Alison played her Money Crush game and found that we had stayed there for 8 nights for only $20.62 per person per day (PPPD). Singapore was not an expensive city for us. We even shopped a little and bought a few tropical weather necessities. We saved a lot of money by booking a hotel on points and having a free hotel breakfast every day, and then splurged on eating out and enjoying our fair share of cold beers. We also used light rail and Grab cars every day to move between neighborhoods. But as much as we tried to splurge we only spent $12 PPPD on food. And our transportation costs around the island were only and $4.04 PPPD. We definitely could have spent less by avoiding restaurants and sticking to street food hawker stalls, but we ended up at indoor restaurants a few too many times because we wanted the air conditioning.
The graphic below shows what we spent in Singapore in US Dollars. This does not include costs for our fixed expenses, such as annual medical insurance. It also does not include travel costs for getting in and out of Singapore. For details about how we used points and saved money on our multi-city booking from the US to Singapore (and from Chiang Mai to Ho Chi Minh City, and from Hanoi to Osaka, and from Tokyo to San Francisco), check out our Money Crush post “Our Use of the United Airlines Excursionist Perk.”
Our housing options range from a hotel booked with points or dollars, an Airbnb, or a house sit. I compared Airbnb prices in Singapore to our 2nd destination, Kuala Lumpur, and with our filters the average nightly price in Singapore was $93, while the average nightly price in Kuala Lumpur was $51. And when I compared Hilton Garden Inn points prices the cost in Singapore was 17,500 points per night, and the cost in Kuala Lumpur was 9,000 points per night. For comparison, the downtown Hilton Singapore is 60,000 points per night. We didn’t consider a house sit because they come with extra responsibilities and we wanted to be 100% free to explore. After checking the numbers our Money Crush goal for Singapore was to book a hotel stay using points. Our stay at the Hilton Garden Inn Singapore Serangoon cost 140,000 points plus $3.86 in taxes.
We enjoyed free breakfast at the hotel every morning. Free is our favorite! The breakfast options were plentiful and included American style food (which Alison enjoyed but I avoided), Indian food (which we both thought was usually too spicy for breakfast), some Malay food but not much and not every day, and tons of Chinese food options (which I loved). Since I’m a practicing food-aholic I made sure I tasted everything I saw and ate until I was completely stuffed. I also enjoyed mixing and matching things that really didn’t go together (I tried putting almost everything they had in the congee and got a lot of weird looks from the staff when they saw me doing that). It was a food party! We also grab a banana or two to go every day.
The hawker stall that was closest to our hotel was the Tekka Centre, which has a vast majority of Indian food and only a small amount of other types of food stalls. For our first few days in Singapore we returned to the Tekka Centre repeatedly to try different things. We had a habit of picking dishes and asking, “Is this very spicy?” So the cooks could tell us, “Only a little spicy.” And then we would catch on fire! We loved Roti pancakes with all sorts of things on them, in them, or with them. We ate a lot of spicy Indian food and then maxed out on those flavors and wanted other options.
Street food rocks!
Once we broke out of our neighborhood we began to explore different areas and street markets and found new and different dishes. We had some great pork and seafood dishes at the Chinatown street market. We also had some killer chicken wings at Maxwell hawker centre with a shrimp paste rub, which I will keep trying to recreate at home. Since this was our first week in Southeast Asia we were on a mission to try new things. One we bought banana leaf packages without knowing what was inside and found rice, a whole dried fish about 6 inches long, a large pile of tiny dried fish (we were told they are anchovies?), and a mash of cooked fish meat with yummy seasonings. I have a feeling Alison will not be talked into more dishes that prominently feature those little dried anchovies in the future.
1. Walking Little India
We loved strolling along Serangoon Road and all of the side streets. There are bright colors and flowers everywhere, and the air is rich with spices. There were so many traditional garland vendors that we lost count, and lots of fabulous Hindu temples to admire. It’s an amazing neighborhood to stay in and we felt very safe coming and going.
2. Botanic Gardens
This was our favorite place to spend a full day. We walked all over and thought it just might be the best park and best botanic garden we have ever visited. Ever. In the whole world. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is 160 years old, covers more than 200 acres, and is gorgeous. We visited for free, but if you like spending money you can pay $5 to visit the National Orchid Garden since that’s inside the Botanic Garden. We saw more than enough orchids in the Botanic Garden and preferred to stay outside where there was shade and a breeze. We wished we had gone back every morning for walks!
3. Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve
We were so excited to visit this reserve, which is Singapore’s first ASEAN Heritage Park. This park is ranked high in global importance as a stop-over point for migrating birds, and it cost us nothing to go there. The park covers 320 acres with a lot of boardwalks and hides for birdwatching. It’s a great place for a more secluded walk since it’s not very popular with tourists (we only saw 5 people and we walked every path and spent the whole day there). We saw tons of birds, fish, crabs, spiders, butterflies, monitor lizards, and we even saw the famous saltwater crocodile without a tail. The park is at the northwest tip of the main island so you need to pay attention to the location and schedule for the bus, distance from train stations, and keep in mind that it might be harder to find a Grab car when you’re ready to leave. Admission is free on weekdays and only $1 on weekends and holidays. Don’t forget your binoculars!
4. Walking Chinatown
Chinatowns all over the world tend to be very busy, very exciting, and very loud! This one is as well, and we loved it. We spent a day walking all over the neighborhood, visiting various Buddhist and Hindu temples, and peeking in traditional Chinese shops and markets selling everything from teas to medicine to dried seafood and vegetables. We enjoyed some amazing pork and seafood dishes at the hawker stalls, and loved all of the people watching. The colors and decorations were amazing, especially with the extra bedazzling that comes just before the Chinese New Year. And our favorite temple experience was here as well.
5. Buddha Tooth Relic Temple
This was our favorite temple experience in Singapore. The building is 5 stories tall and designed in the Tang dynasty architectural style. The temple was completed in 2007 and it’s clear that they spared no expense to make sure it would be fabulous. Ordinarily we favor the oldest temples, but this one was especially memorable because it’s so opulent but also tranquil, and there are different spaces to enjoy both inside and outside. The roof garden has a massive prayer wheel (said to be the world’s largest prayer wheel) that I took a spin on. This temple is also a major pilgrimage site because of the Buddha tooth relic contained in a giant gold stupa there (which they apparently removed from Myanmar in 1980). You can’t get very close to it but you can see it clearly and that room feels especially sacred and thrilling to visit.
6. Garden Rhapsody
We loved the music and light show that plays every night in the Supertree Grove at the Gardens By The Bay. We arrived before sunset to get a good look at the steel frames and planting panels on the Supertrees, which are covered with tropical plants. We strolled around below the trees looking up and then picked a spot under one of them to enjoy the magnificent lights and music after sunset. It’s like being at they symphony combined with an amazing fireworks-like show. We thought it was so awesome we went twice during our week there. There are two shows at 7:45pm and 8:45pm every night, and they last around 15 minutes. We visited for free, though you can pay $8 to walk on the skyway if you like to pay admission fees.
Bonus – Socializing with Friends / Marina Bay Sands
While we were in Singapore we crossed paths with a good friend that I used to work with, who was also one of our close neighbors in Seattle. These guys were wrapping up their fabulous trip to Southeast Asia and we just happened to be in Singapore for one night between our arrival and their departure. For us there’s nothing better than spending time with friends on the road, so we knew this was going to be the highlight of our time in Singapore! We joked that we’d be willing to meet the guys in Little India, Chinatown, the Marina Bay Sands, or a 7-11. When they arrived they invited us to join them for an evening at their hotel, the world famous Marina Bay Sands. So we had the unexpected bonus of adding that to our Singapore experiences. This massive, super high-end hotel is like a very private club. You can’t get near the elevators without passing security at multiple points. Admission to the Sands SkyPark costs $23 per person, but if you are accompanying a hotel guest they offer 20% off tickets. But our buddies gave us their spare hotel room key cards so we were able to access the SkyPark for free! And then the guys treated us to an amazing night with drinks and dinner and spectacular views. We felt very honored that they invited us over and took such great care of us. We would not have visited the Marina Bay Sands if they weren’t staying there, and we still can’t believe they spoiled us that way. THANKS GUYS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Singapore is very pedestrian-friendly and we really enjoyed walking through neighborhoods. Everything is relatively clean and orderly, but it’s also very hot. We tried to get an early start and get out walking everyday. All of the green spaces feel cooler than the urban spaces, which works great for us. But we also stepped into stores and malls and restaurants to enjoy their air-conditioning pretty often. And we were careful to respect the fact that jaywalking is illegal.
We picked Singapore as our first stop in the region because it’s a major regional hub and it was so easy for us to fly there using travel reward points. Changi Airport is recognized as the best airport in the world, and it’s an attraction on its own. We arrived there after 24 hours of planes and airports so we barely paused to look around. As we dashed through the airport we noticed how big and beautiful it is. But what we most enjoyed was their impressively quick and hassle-free customs and immigration process. We presented our passports and received our stamps allowing us to visit for up to 90 days. Boom, we were out of there very quickly!
Light rail and bus
We used the city’s MRT light rail system daily to get between neighborhoods. We purchased MRT cards for 12 Singapore Dollars (SGD), which was really a cost of 5 SGD with a stored value of 7 SGD. The entire light rail system is fabulous. Every station we used was clean, well-lit, cool and air-conditioned, and felt perfectly safe. The trains arrived every 2 or 3 minutes, though we had to wait 5 whole minutes once when we were practicing being night owls and used the MRT at an off-peak time.
We also used Grab cars when we went the longest distances, such as our trip to the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. Grab is the Uber of Southeast Asia. The rides were cheap and cars showed up within a couple of minutes every time we requested one. The only time we couldn’t get a Grab car was when we were leaving the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve since that area is pretty far away from the tourist center.
Where we spent most of our time
Most of the activities we enjoyed in Singapore were in the central area between Little India to the north and the Marina Bay Sands area. But we did venture up to the northwest tip of the island to see the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. On our next visit we intend to see one of the smaller islands and maybe also pick a house sit so we can stay out of the central area.
Other Stuff We Think is Interesting
# ZERO. The Gum Issue
I thought it was odd how this topic was the first thing that came to mind for lots of people in the U.S. when we talked about traveling to Singapore. Ironically, I’m bringing it up too! Seriously, the gum thing is not that interesting. But people were constantly telling us “chewing gum is illegal there!” It was declared with a mix of enthusiasm and horror, over and over again. By around the 4th time I heard that I couldn’t keep from rolling my eyes. Ok so chewing gum is banned in Singapore. Big deal? Good excuse to pick on my home country! One of the things I hate about big cities in America is seeing, touching, stepping in, or sitting on nasty wads of chewing gum. There’s gum on the sidewalks, hand rails, public tables and chairs, park benches, signs, handrails, trains and buses, etc. Since I’m ranting I’ll add another thing I hate about big cities in America — the overwhelming smell of urine on the sidewalks. From people. Singapore has banned chewing gum. They have a mission to maintain a reputation as a clean and green big city. Since I have spent lots of time in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City, and Seattle and put my hand in chewing gum on a table or chair or handrail in each of those places, I am comfortable with a lack of gum-chewing-freedom when I visit Singapore. There, I said it!
1. You can drink the water!
For people who just left their condo in Seattle to travel around SE Asia for a few months, being able to drink the tap water actually matters. Singapore is the only city we visited in Southeast Asia that the CDC rates as having clean and healthy drinking water that meets similar standards to the U.S. (Singapore’s tap water might even be cleaner than in some U.S. cities). It makes life easier if we can refill our personal water bottles with tap water. We also save money if we don’t buy water. And we don’t like contributing to the piles of one-time use plastic water bottles in the world.
2. It’s an island babe!
Singapore is a small island with a growing population, a growing tourism industry, and some serious supply and demand issues. Actually it’s one main island with another 62 smaller islands surrounding it. The size of the main island is only 276 square miles (716 square kilometers). That’s only around 60% of the size of New York City. Singapore’s current population is over 5.8 million people, which makes it an extremely densely populated country. But I never got trampled there the way I always do in New York City!
3. Perfect if you like to spend time outside
For a big city, Singapore truly is a Garden City. More than 50% of Singapore’s area is covered by greenery. There are more than 50 major parks and 4 nature reserves, which is one of the main reasons we loved it!
4. If consistency is the goal, this is ideal weather
Singapore is very close to the Equator, which means its weather is pretty constant, and very sunny. Before our trip I went through a bunch of different weather apps. It basically averages around 82.4°F (28°C), ranging between 76°F and 90°F. On top of that the humidity averages around 80% with a range of 96% maximum to 64% minimum. In other words, it’s hot. Really hot. Coming from Seattle we thought that was pretty rough! We tried to spend a lot of time in gardens and in the shade, and decided if the air is moving just a little we can handle it.
Singapore is a multi-racial country, which is one of the things we loved most about it. Most people we ran into spoke good or excellent English but we tried to use polite phrases in Mandarin, Tamil, or Malay depending on the situation. Pretty much every sign we needed to read was in English with British spelling. Malays are the descendants of Singapore’s native people, but only make up around 14% of the current population. Malay is officially the national language, but around 75% of the population is Chinese so Mandarin is more commonly spoken. Indians are the third largest group at around 9% of the population, but we stayed in Little India so we saw more Indian people and tried to use Tamil phrases daily.
Singapore is also religiously diverse and religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution. No religious group forms a majority. Buddhism is the “most popular” religion with about 33% of the population declaring themselves Buddhist. But locals follow other religions, or more than one religion, or no religion at all. Singapore celebrates Chinese, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Indian, and Christian holidays.
6. Politics and stuff
Singapore became a trading post of the British East India Company in 1819, and then a crown colony of the British Empire in 1858, and finally gained independence from the British in 1963. Singapore briefly joined the Malaysian Federation in 1963, but was expelled because the Chinese-majority city was seen as a threat to Malay dominance. The Republic of Singapore became a sovereign city-state in 1965. Singapore essentially gained full independence against its own will. Since then Singapore has very rapidly transitioned from a developing nation to a developed nation in only one generation.
7. Book recommendations
I have a long list of books I want to read that relate to every place I’ve visited so far. For our first trip to Singapore I picked these two:
- Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan. A sweet Singapore Cinderella story! I think you get a fun slice of pop culture relating to Singapore from the book. And I admit that I totally enjoyed the book and the movie.
- From Third World to First: The Singapore Story – 1965-2000, by Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore history is fascinating, especially considering the massive changes that have occurred in just one generation. This is one of many books out there that gets into the story of Singapore as it was a colonized spot of land that gained independence from Britain and then went through massive change under a controversial longterm leader. Fascinating stuff!
Money Crush Score: Great, Under Budget!
This score is not impacted by how much we liked the city, we focus on whether we made good financial choices and stuck to our budget. Our average daily spending goal for 2019 as a couple is $115 per day. That’s total dollars spent for the two of us, averaged out across the duration of our stay. Our actual daily spending in Singapore averages out to $41.25 for two, which is only 35.87% of our daily budget. We feel confident that we know how to make Singapore work for us, by staying either in a hotel using points or finding a house sit.
Travel Score: Love It! We Want to Return!
Our overall travel score is essentially a rating for how happy we were in this city, which is 100% variable based on tons of factors. This score is not impacted by what we spent in a city. It’s based mostly on whether we want to return for a longer stay in the future. We loved Singapore, and we definitely want to return. Maybe next time we’ll stay in Singapore for a month!
LGBTQ Score: We had an excellent personal experience, but Singapore needs some improvement.
Personally, we felt very at home in Singapore. It’s a very modern, very diverse city state. But it’s still illegal for men to be homosexual in Singapore. And somewhere between 70-80% of the local population believe that same sex relationships are wrong. Singapore has no legal protections for its LGBTQ citizens. And there are no laws protecting LGTBQ people from hate crimes or violation of their bodies. We loved our experience in Singapore, but we’d also love to see some progress there in terms of protections for LGBTQ citizens.