Wednesday, December 21, 2016

S is for: Singapore {travel}

When my friends Geno and Michelle decided to move their family to Singapore for work, I knew right away I needed to go visit them.

What I didn't know is how much I would love this unique city state!

First of all, Michelle informed me the favorite pastime here is eating. Uhhh... Sign me up!! (Close second is shopping, and I'm all for that as well).

It's also one of the cleanest cities I've ever visited. (It's illegal to spit on the streets, chew gum, or litter.) Pretty impressive considering it's one of the most densely populated countries on the planet (second only to Monaco, which I also visited this year.) And being that we had two awesome and gracious tour guides, it made for a wonderful start to our Southeast Asian trip!

If you are a loyal follower of my blog and my travels, you should know Dana pretty well by now. She has become my go-to adventure partner, always down for an exotic trip, whether it's South Africa, the South of France or Southeast Asia. We added a third traveler to the equation this time, Dana's college friend Kate, whom I also randomly know from my time in San Francisco. (In a round-a-bout way, Kate actually played a role in introducing Dana and me.) If you travel a lot, you know how important it is to find compatible travel companions, and this trio clicked together perfectly!

Where to Stay (and/or Get a Bird's Eye View of the City): As I mentioned, Geno and Michelle were the best hosts you could ask for, meaning they also provided us a comfortable place to crash during our two days in this island country. However, realizing most people won't have this luxury, you should absolutely consider the Marina Bay Sands if money is no object. (The price will be worth that rooftop infinity pool selfie.) If the budget doesn't allow, I would at the very least recommend venturing up to the top of this magnificent hotel for a drink and panoramic views of the city. Even on a misty evening, it was breathtaking (and the cocktails were good too... once we finally got them. Service is sloooooow.) The night we went, they were "charging" S$20 to visit Cé La Vi Skybar, but you received it back in the way of a voucher to be used toward a drink. (So basically, as long as you had a cocktail, you could go up to check out the view.)

Tip: Don't get sucked into visiting the "observation deck." It's actually a floor below the rooftop (though does extend a bit further out.) However, you have to pay S$23 to get up there and there's not a bar.

What to Eat: EVERYTHING! But more specifically: Chili Crabs & Black Pepper Crabs
Just like the people of Singapore, the food here is somewhat of a melting pot of different cultures. Malay, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian and Western influences can all be found in Singapore cuisine. But one dish that is uniquely "Singapore" is the black pepper and chili crabs. The chili crabs (lower right) are served in a sweet and spicy tomato-based sauce, accompanied by delicious buns for soaking up the amazing flavors. The black pepper preparation (middle) is exactly what it sounds like, and sans sauce. Each are excellent in their own way, and I would recommend trying both if you have the chance. The bibs aren't just for show. You will get messy, so be prepared to get your hands dirty and dig into get every last bit of that wonderful crab. We visited Jumbo Seafood, which has five locations in the city, though we picked the one near the river, which provided a nice little post-dinner stroll, and some bar hopping as well.

*Want to check out more options? Here's a list of the best 5 chili crab spots, according to (Jumbo is on there).

Where to eat the best and cheapest lunch of your life: Hawker Centers!
You can't visit Singapore without venturing out to one of its many hawker centers (aka food courts.) But not to worry: this isn't the type of crappy food court you find in your local mall with Auntie Anne's pretzels and Sbarro pizza. This is some of the best and most inexpensive food you will find in in the city. While Singapore is generally a very metropolitan (and pricey) city, the hawker stalls provide extremely cheap eats and a chance to sample a variety of different cuisines in one spot. Some are also located in conjunction with some of the more popular wet markets in the city, so if you choose wisely, you can experience both in one trip!

Tiong Bahru Market: One of the cleaner and more spacious hawker centers, this one is located on the second floor, above the wet market (where you can find fresh produce, seafood, meat, etc). It's located in a more "hipster" neighborhood, with a lot of Chinese influence. If you are lucky to have a group like we did, best to divide and conquer. Scope out which dishes you would like to try, split up and meet back at a table to share the goods! Since we had two very knowledgeable tour guides with us, we knew exactly what to order (though, if you're at a loss, look for the ones with the longest lines.) And to help get you started, here are some of our favorites:

Chwee Kuek: (upper left photo), stall #5: A very local dish, often served for breakfast or lunch. They are steamed rice cakes, topped with preserved radish and chili sauce. So simple, but so good! (And cheap).

Hainanese Chicken Rice: (upper right), stall #82: Another well-known Singaporean dish, this is usually made by boiling a whole chicken in a flavorful stock, and serving over rice. Other variations roast the chicken (which is called black chicken). We tried both! It's often served cold, alongside different sauces.

Wanton Mee: (bottom left) stall #30: This may have been my favorite of the bunch (and that's saying a lot.) These noodles were likely influenced by Hong Kong cuisine, but have become a Singapore staple. The noodles are topped with pork char siew & wantons, drenched with a light sweet sauce and served with chili sauce on the side if you'd like. It's usually accompanied by a small bowl of soup as well. You can easily spot this stall, as it will have a giant line in front of it almost at all times.

Char Kway Teow (bottom, second from left) stall #11: If the wanton noodles were my fave, these came in a close second. The literal translation is "stir fried rice cake strips." The rice noodles are stir-fried with chili, soy sauce, Chinese sausage, fish cake and sometimes cockles. Tons of flavor and definitely had me grabbing for third and fourth bites!

Shumai (bottom, second from right) stall #19: You will also see these spelled "Siew Mai." These were much larger than the shumai I've had in the U.S. (and would later have in Thailand). Large steamed dumplings filled with pork.

Popiah (bottom right) stall #83: I kept calling this a little burrito, but in reality it's more like a paper-thin crepe stuffed with sauce and veggies. Best of all: it will only run you about 80 cents!

Tekka Market (Little India): Tekka Market is another wet market and hawker center all rolled into one. This is located in the Indian section of the city, and was the first market we visited on our trip to Singapore. In general, this is a cool neighborhood to explore with plenty of food, shopping and a really unique Indian temple. A warning: this particular wet market has a strong "aroma" of mutton (common in Indian cuisine), so proceed with caution knowing that.

As for the hawker stalls, definitely don't miss trying some Roti Prata (upper right photo), which is sort of a flour-based pancake of Indian origin. We got ours with a side of sambal sauce for dipping and washed it down with some fresh coconut water (always served inside the coconut in Asia, which I love!) Since we were going to lunch after, we didn't eat a ton of food here, but Geno recommended a Biryani stall at this market (an Indian fried rice dish). We also got some curry puffs and samosas (types of pastries stuffed with curried potatoes & peas) to go before heading off to a sit down Indian lunch at the Banana Leaf Apolo. There, you can sample several Indian dishes, including a Singapore favorite: Curry Fish Head! (We were not bold enough for that, but it seemed like a popular item!)

Something to try once (or maybe just skip it): Durian
Our final night in Singapore, we also sampled a Peranakan restaurant called Blue Ginger, which is ultra-local to the people of Singapore and Malaysia. However, the food wasn't ultra photogenic, and to be honest, compared to the amazing food I outlined above, it definitely wasn't our favorite. That said... it did give us a chance to try a Durian dessert! If you haven't heard of it, you will definitely become well aware of its presence while in Asia, as it is very popular among the locals, and has an unmistakable  (/slash horrible) smell. It is quite possibly the most foul fruit I have ever smelled, so the fact that I took not one, but TWO bites of the dessert is a real sense of accomplishment (that I was burping up the rest of the night.) After smelling (and tasting) durian, it comes as no surprise it is outlawed on public transportation in the city.

*For more ideas of what to eat in Singapore, check out this comprehensive list. Many of the above items appear here, along with several others!

Where to peep some street art: Kampong Glam
As you may have read in my London post and my visit to Shoreditch, I love me some street art. Kampong Glam was formerly the Arab/Muslim quarter in Singapore, and now sort of an artsy and hipster neighborhood. Here, you'll find the beautiful Sultan Mosque, Arab Street filled with cloth merchants, along with coffee shops, restaurants, boutiques and some cool street art.

**Here's a helpful link of specific spots to find some street art in this neighborhood.

Other things to see & do: As I mentioned, the #1 thing to do in Singapore is eat! But if you'd like to take in some of the other sights of the city, I highly recommend taking a walk up Emerald Hill. This is a conservation area where several of the wealthy Peranakan community once lived, and several of the old mansions have been restored. Additionally, there are some cool bars located on this street that we visited our final night. If you'd like to do some shopping, peruse the high end shops on nearby Orchard Road, and if you happen to be there around Christmas, you will be treated to quite the display of holiday spirit. The Botanical Gardens are very popular as well (though we were too busy eating to bother).

And last, but certainly not least, don't forget to try a Singapore Sling. If you want to be super authentic with your Singapore Sling, you can visit the Long Bar at the Raffles Hotel, where this cocktail was first invented. But as you might suspect, it can be found on virtually every drink menu in the city. It's a tropical mix of gin, cherry liquor, cointreau, pineapple juice, grenadine and bitters and perfect for cooling down on those humid Singapore nights.

We spent just 2 days in this awesome city before jetting off to Thailand for the rest of our adventures. Thanks once again to the Villanuevas for being such awesome hosts as we thoroughly enjoyed our time in Singapore!

Up next: Chiang Mai... click here to read about our next stop. 

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