Nanny state. “Asia Lite.” “Disneyland with the death penalty.” A “fine” city. It’s all about shopping and eating. And you can see anything worth seeing in a 3.9-day visit. Or in 3.9 hours.
Even without the headline, savvy travelers would already have guessed the country. It could only be Singapore.
But here’s news: while the world was making fun, Singapore became an amalgam of an Asian Las Vegas with a bit of Manhattan, Sydney and Los Angeles thrown in.
I’ve visited this most improbable of all Asian countries many times over the last 15 years, and each time it’s something different, but never so much as on my most recent trip. True, some things haven’t changed. Convicted criminals still get caned; there’s no trial by jury; a monolithic and, however well-meaning, authoritarian government never lets the citizenry forget that it knows best. Andthere’s still some unnecessary censorship and Internet regulation in place.
But dig deeper and you’ll see the real Singapore. You just have to know where to look.
Here are seven things I love about Singapore:
It reminds me of Disney World. Singapore is clean. It’s safe. It’s well managed. Like Disney World, it’s a mind bogglingly awesome accomplishment, but Disney’s achievement doesn’t even compare. Sixty years ago, Singapore was a shambles, brought to its knees by a viciously cruel Japanese occupation during which more than 60,000 citizens were slaughtered and many more imprisoned in unimaginably savage conditions (Changi Prison is an eye-opening tourist draw).
Its great outdoors is pretty great. Most people would never think of uber-urban Singapore as a haven for outdoorsy types, but there are actually some great gardens, parks and open spaces that are unique in Asia. And (hello, Beijing and Hong Kong) your lungs won’t be filled with soot at the end of the day.
The big Singapore attraction is Gardens by the Bay, a domed horticultural conservatory that re-creates a cool and dry Mediterranean climate with springtime flowers blooming all year.
The Jurong Bird Park, Singapore Zoo and the 150-year-old Botanic Gardens with their amazing display of orchids are some other favorites.
Its Universal Studio has 14 rides and attractions. That’s almost as many as the 15 you’ll find in California, and Singapore has attractions you won’t find at Universal Studios Hollywood. For more recreation, visit the Marina Bay Golf Course, arguably Asia’s best public links, or experience the G-Max Bungy Jump, which hurtles you almost 200 feet into the air at 125 mph. Fun!
Speaking of jumping, it’s a great jumping-off point for visiting Asia. With several relatively new discount airlines (such as Air Asia and Tiger Air), you can fly from Changi Airport to anywhere in Asia for ridiculously little. And Singapore’s airport is the best in the world. Oh, and let’s not forget that you’ll most likely be flying into Singapore on Singapore Airlines. It, too, is the best in the world. Best airport? Best airline? For a fly guy like me, that’s enough reason to go there.
You can see it all in 3.96 hours. Just kidding! But Singapore’s Changi Airport sponsors a free four-hour “highlights” tour for transit passengers. You can leave from the airport between flights and take a bus tour of the city and be back in time for your connection. I’ve never done this, and frankly I think the tourist board is doing itself a disfavor by giving the impression that Singapore can be “done” in four hours, but I won’t tell them how to run their country.
There are more restaurants and shops here per square mile than anywhere else – except maybe the Las Vegas Strip. Multicultural Singapore has the widest variety of Asian cuisine in Asia. Indian, Malay, Chinese and fusions of the above. The famous Hawker Centres (street food without the street) are carefully inspected and regulated by the government.
And with the Marina Bay Sands casino/shopping/entertainment complex, Singapore is looking a lot like Las Vegas these days. You can walk in air-conditioned comfort from mall to casino to mall, and although there are only two casinos so far, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more coming.
Probably the best hotel service in the world (except perhaps Bangkok). I have always been amazed by the staff at the places I’ve stayed in Singapore (shout-outs to the Intercontinental, the Four Seasons, the Shangri La, the Mandarin Oriental, even the Crowne Plaza at the airport, perhaps the best airport hotel I’ve ever encountered). They unfailingly succeed in pleasing. And the same can be said about the entire city-state.
Singapore is aiming to be Asia’s must-do destination, and, knowing Singaporeans as I do, I wouldn’t bet against that happening.