When people ask me about Singapore, I always describe my home country as a very small place – that you can go from east to west in less than an hour, especially with our efficient public transport system. For the budget traveller looking to see as much of Singapore in the easiest way possible, here’s my take on how you can take in Singapore’s culture and sights just by hopping onto one of our Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) trains from Changi Airport in the east and heading across the island.
Cover photo of MRT by awee_19 via Flickr CC
This article was first published in Turkish Airlines inflight magazine Skylife in May 2017 and reproduced here with permission and some tweaks. See the online version here. The print version in PDF with Turkish translations can be seen here. Pictures here are my own.
A quick exploration in Singapore
Start from Changi Airport
Your journey starts right when you land in the eastern end of the island. Singapore’s Changi Airport is a destination in itself, world renowned as one of the airports travelers love passing through and sometimes their only contact with Singapore. How many airports have multiple gardens, a free cinema and even a swimming pool for their visitors? It’s hard to leave such a mini paradise.
But your real foray into Singapore begins by hopping onto the green East-West line that connects the airport to the rest of Singapore. This section of the MRT is above ground and lets you take in the view of Singaporean life around you.
Tall buildings surround the train tracks that you zip down, painted in all colors of the rainbow. These are Singapore’s flats – public housing blocks that over 80% of Singaporeans live in today. Land-scarce Singapore built these flats in the 1960s and transplanted its village-dwelling citizens from their kampongs to these space-saving apartments in the sky.
Escape the city at Tanah Merah
If you want to see a side of Singapore beyond the cityscape, make Tanah Merah your first stop. Singapore actually consists of not just one island, but over 60 smaller ones scattered around the mainland, mostly accessible by ferry. Take a bus from here to Changi Point Ferry Terminal to get to Pulau Ubin, one of the larger and more popular islands, for an outdoor adventure away from the city, cycling in the forest, and scouting for crabs in the wetlands of Chek Jawa natural reserve.
As you continue your ride, you might notice that many of the MRT stations are located right next to large shopping malls. Fully air-conditioned and stocked with Singaporeans’ favorite retail shops, we are a nation obsessed with shopping malls and they make a perfect hideout for nearby residents on swelteringly hot days and lazy weekends when you would rather not venture into the crowded downtown area.
Peranakan Culture near Paya Lebar
The next stop you can check out is Paya Lebar Station, an interchange with the newly built yellow Circle Line that connects to all the other MRT lines. You are close to the Joo Chiat district, an area famous for a unique ethnic group called the Peranakans, descended from the unions of Chinese immigrants and Malays from the surrounding region. Since many of the old Peranakan shop houses have been preserved, you can find traces of this local culture in the area.
Art and heritage around Bugis
As you approach the central area, the view disappears as the MRT heads underground. The next stop of note is Bugis, and, if you wanted to, you could spend a few days just checking out the sights in this area. It is close to one of Singapore’s ethnic neighborhoods, Kampong Glam – my personal favorite hangout. This is the Malay and Arab heritage area, and home to the beautiful Sultan Mosque, a bevy of independent boutiques and cafés as well as some of Singapore’s most colorful street art amidst fabric shops and Middle Eastern cuisine.
Downtown in the Central Business District
The next stops, namely City Hall and Raffles Place, are officially downtown Singapore and interchanges to the other MRT lines. Here is where you will encounter your fellow tourists who will spend most of their time in Singapore exploring this zone. The port city of Singapore sprung up in this area, where the trading ships landed and the first immigrants set foot on a new land. The borders of Singapore have expanded since then thanks to land reclamation, and the city has grown exponentially, now home to over 5.6 million people.
The City Hall stop is where architecture lovers should disembark, with various unusual shaped landmarks that make up the Singapore skyline within walking distance. The spiky domes of the Esplanade Theater are said to resemble two durians, a beloved local fruit; the three towers of the Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resort stand proudly on the bay, connected by a long, boat-like shape on top; and Singapore’s famous half-lion and half-fish symbol, the Merlion, always draws a large crowd of selfie-taking tourists eager to prove that they have visited Singapore.
Explore Old and New in Chinatown
Take a detour to nearby Chinatown, a microcosm of the diversity to be found in Singapore: religious buildings of various faiths sit side by side on the same street, elderly men play chess while sharing tables with fashionably dressed entrepreneurs in the hawker center, and historical shophouses lie just around the corner from tall modern offices.
Head to hipster Tiong Bahru
As the train heads west, your next stop is Tiong Bahru. This estate is unique for its low pre-war flats with architecture that cannot be found anywhere else in Singapore, and is also a well-known hipster haven. One of my favorite shops is Books Actually, one of Singapore’s most successful indie book retailers; make sure to make time for the Tiong Bahru hawker center, situated amidst cafés, where you can sample some cheap and good local food the quintessentially Singaporean way.
Original flavour Queenstown
Or go a little further on to Queenstown, another local neighborhood worth exploring as one of Singapore’s oldest public housing estates and the blueprint for many that followed. Follow any of the self-guided walking tours to learn some of this estate’s secrets: butterfly-shaped blocks of flats and even a hidden bunker or two from the war. Locals know it as the place to get cheap sports gear from the old Queensway Shopping Centre or factory outlet prices from the neighboring mall Anchorpoint.
West side story
Bypass the busy Jurong East interchange for now, one of the most crowded stations especially at peak hour in the morning. This is where you change to the red North-South line – the bit between Jurong East and Bishan Stations is especially scenic as you pass through some of the last remaining forested areas in the northern part of the country.
As you pass Bukit Gombak Station, keep a look out for an area that bears some resemblance to the granite rock formations of Guilin, China. This is Bukit Batok Town Park and where local television networks used to film Chinese period drama scenes.
Head instead for the Chinese Garden stop for a little greenery and fresh air at the Jurong Lake Gardens. It’s not as fanciful as the alien- like tree towers and pods of Gardens by the Bay or the flower haven that is the Singapore Botanic Gardens downtown, but it does boast a rather impressive pagoda in its midst, along with some statues of ancient Chinese military figures and is popular with local families.
End of the line
You’re almost at the end of the line – Boon Lay used to be the last stop and an eclectic area with a mix of university students and industrial workers from the nearby Nanyang Technological University and the surrounding factories. The line was extended a little further and your last stop is now Joo Koon Station.
You’re not quite at the western point yet though – the whole industrial district of Tuas lies in between but congratulations, you’ve mostly made it across Singapore. Take out that passport and cross the Tuas Second Link into Malaysia by bus, or get back onto the MRT and find your way onto any of the other MRT lines to continue your explorations.
Behind the Scenes
I was asked to write a personal narrative piece about spending a week in my home country Singapore for Turkish Airline’s inflight magazine Skylife, my first ever print travel piece and I thought I’d give you guys a bit more insight as to how this piece came together.
You would think a piece about Singapore would be easy for me to write since it’s my home, I’m pretty decent at recommending less touristy places but I was definitely tearing my hair out at points because I couldn’t get started right. It felt like I had so much to say, but I couldn’t find a coherent or interesting way to say it. It probably didn’t help that I had to write while embarking on the South America leg of my Career Break – I think I wrote bits and pieces of this while travelling around Vancouver, Colombia and Ecuador! Writing while travelling is hard, which is kinda why this blog slowed down a fair bit in the last year while I was busy traipsing around.
My first draft was a lot more bloggery, for lack of a better word – I’ll post it up separately because I still like the gist of it, though it wasn’t quite right for this particular magazine – but finally I was inspired by… myself (…right.). I thought about how I always tell people in hostels that Singapore is ‘very small’ and to give some context, ‘that it takes under an hour to go from east to west’. That was the basis for how this article ended up morphing into what I’ve taken to calling my ‘Journey to the West’ piece, where I take the reader on a journey across the sights of Singapore through our cross-island MRT line aka our metro/subway system. I feel like I need to spend an actual week doing all the things in this article (I’ve done some, not all!) to see whether I’ve done it justice.
The article has been edited from my original submission of course, but overall I’m pretty proud of how this piece turned out and I hope you guys love it too. I appreciate any shares and love and comments you leave on this post or the original article :)
Do share the article if you liked it. And if anyone is headed to Singapore or wants some tips, feel free to leave a comment or drop me a note, I’m always happy to help you out if I can.