People tell me all the time that Singapore is an island characterised by excessiveness and indulgence, a world-class city designed for the collective of global aristocrats. Although I agree with the statement to a fine extent, I find the need to shed light on the humble, warm, unpretentious yet inconspicuous side to this country. Often uncredited, this dual-faced city is capable of being an accommodating host to budget travellers.
From the moment you set foot in the local airport, your mind begins processing all the subtle messages conveyed to you – the numerous “world’s best airport” awards, businessmen in sleek suits and impenetrable luggages strutting by, stunning stewardesses from around the world looking accomplished, and the general atmosphere just whispering extravagant by the side of your ear. What you don’t notice, on the other hand, is the amount of passengers who travel via budget airlines and the enormous pool of cabbies waiting outside. You aren’t aware of how cheap your next cup of coffee can actually be either.
If your intention is to ride on public transport, usual train fares begin from SGD1.40 (USD1.00) and peak at approximately SGD2.70 (USD1.93), and these prices allow you to ride on clean and (if you’re in luck) new trains. Bus fares begin from SGD1.40 (USD1.00) and peak at SGD2.50 (USD1.79). However, depending on your itinerary, you could go for the Singapore Tourist Pass (STP) instead, bringing those numbers down quite substantially.
But suppose the budget traveller in you just wants to get to the main tourist grounds and complete the excursion within the span of half a day before scuttling off into Malaysia or onto a flight back home. You want speed and efficiency so you can see the spots you have popped by for. Uber and GrabTaxi are two transport service providers that cater to just that need. We all know what Uber is, but for those who have not heard of its Singaporean competitor GrabTaxi, they are just the same except that GrabTaxi doesn’t have a card-only policy and has a fixed fare indicator that should curb fare shocks. A typical ride on a GrabCar to a tourist hotspot like Orchard should only cost you SGD19 (USD13), which is a whole lot cheaper than an average cab ride (SGD26/USD18) you would get from the line of local taxis lurking outside.
Accommodation can do quite some damage to your wallet here because of the country’s lack of land. A puny hotel room should cost north of SGD100 (USD71) a night, with no promise of breakfast or clean sheets. The common alternative these days would be of course to scan Airbnb and Couchsurfing for a host or two during your itinerary planning. But in the off chance you don’t manage well with that, hostels here are reasonably priced and some remarkably novel. The diminutive size of this island-country, in this case, allows travellers to make good time as well, even if the location of the hostel you ultimately choose isn’t quite favourable. I’ve been to the Green Kiwi on more than five occasions and recommended it to Couchsurfing guests and travellers I’ve met abroad largely because the owner is such a delightful character on top of being an experienced traveller with four continents under his belt. The place is filled with amenities and features that resonate tremendously with travellers from all around the world, marking it as the most ingenious local hostel in my book. The Green Kiwi can be patronised for just SGD24 (USD16) a night at 280A Lavender Street, a ten-minute walk from Lavender station on the East-West Line.
However, some of us may not have bought into the idea of having “housemates” on a holiday. Some may just be quieter, reflective and expecting more personal space during a trip, nevertheless being on a budget. With that in mind, Adler Hostel in Chinatown offers train cabin style dormitories with extra privacy, warm lighting and adequate noise control. It’s located at 265 South Bridge Road, a five-minute walk from Chinatown station on the North-East Line. Prices start from SGD55 (USD39) a night and include basic amenities.
The matter of food expenses is a personal favourite as I am certain I don’t see more than a couple of foreigners at the eateries many locals and myself frequent. We all want to eat well on a holiday, and eat different. This reason has become one of the main contenders in every traveller’s decision-making process prior to the purchase of plane tickets. The best eateries in Singapore aren’t internationally acclaimed cafes or continental restaurants that flew thousands of kilometres to entice us, even though our impressive arsenal of such bistros is in itself worthy of a Michelin star. Contrary to popular belief, the best meals here aren’t accompanied by exorbitant price tags. Instead, they are commonly hidden from travellers in multi-storey food centres called hawker centres. Hawker centres are distributed across many parts of the country, and although there are inevitably less encouraging ones, a good rule of thumb is that there is at least one good hawker in every hawker centre. Prices of dishes start from as low as SGD2.50 (USD1.75) and are capable of satisfying even the most outrageous palate. In other words, they are perfect for any traveller on a budget.
The first dish I know for sure I can impose on almost every traveller’s gastrointestinal tract is what’s known here as Fried Oyster Egg. What’s in it can be explained by its name. The Oyster Egg can be found in every hawker centre, so the tourist traps are well concealed. Regardless, the best on my list belongs to Lim’s Fried Oyster in Berseh Food Centre located in the neighbourhood of Jalan Besar, a five-minute walk from Farrer Park station. A small plate of this only costs SGD5 (USD3.50) and can be shared amongst two friends if the general intention is to share myriad dishes. Mr Lim has been frying oysters in Singapore’s treacherous heat for twenty years, but he still maintains a chirpy disposition when you speak to him, so that’s a plus when you’re on a holiday in a foreign country I suppose.
The second dish is called Char Kway Teow, which is in Hokkien, a local dialect. What the dish consists of are essentially stir-fried ricecake strips coated with dark soya sauce, giving it a brownish overall tone. You’ll also find little cockles, some vegetables and bits of Taiwanese sausages in it. Again, this dish can be found in every hawker centre, so I’ll offer you the benefit of my experience and announce that the best Char Kway Teow comes from the kitchen of 91 Fried Kway Teow Mee in the Golden Mile Food Centre situated along Beach Road, a five-minute walk from Nicoll Highway station. This stall does not come with the amicable host cum boss like the previously mentioned one, but they do provide you with a generous amount of leafy greens atop the dish – a trademark you will not find elsewhere. Price of a small plate that feeds one starts from just SGD3 (USD2).
There are numerous seafood stalls in hawker centres that will give you a fulfilling return on investment, but there are also plenty that jack up prices for foreigners or use substandard ingredients on the supposition that tourists lack the experience to tell the difference. This is an ugly business practice that does not represent Singapore in any way, so I will make use of this piece to caution as many travellers as possible, hopefully ensuring a pleasant trip all-round. Seafood stalls in hawker centres offer a wide range of fishes, crustaceans and vegetables to go with rice. The average prices of each category of food are SGD15 (USD10.50), SGD9 (USD6) and SGD6 (USD4) respectively and may vary according to size or season. Hai Wei Yuan Seafood BBQ in Chomp Chomp, the name of a hawker centre, is by far one of the best seafood stall in the lower price range, as opposed to the higher price range seafood stalls that operate in a restaurant of their own rather than within a hawker centre. Hai Wei Yuan in Chinese means sea-taste-garden, which basically translates to “A taste of the Sea in a garden”. The stall is lively and enthusiastic every time I’ve been there. The vendors are a courteous and well-mannered bunch who told me that they’re just proud to be able to maintain their family’s time-honoured tradition of trading seafood while making waves and money. They also have menus clearly displaying the prices for every dish and the size of each dish to prevent any accusations of foul play. My personal recommendations are the Sambal Stingray, La-la (bamboo clams), and stir-fried Sambal Kang-Kong (Water Spinach). Chomp Chomp is located in Serangoon Gardens, a 10-minute bus ride from Serangoon station on either bus 315 or 317. Once you’ve settled down with seats and a Sugar Cane drink, walk over to stall one and place your order. I’m certain you won’t need to go out of the way to visit any other seafood stall in town again, ever.
Lastly, experiences are crucial to every traveller. It’s why we travel to places we have never been to, filled with people we may not even understand. People like us feel a sense of accomplishment mixed with enlightenment when we become truly integrated with the country and its culture, things that were so far away from us that the distance is sometimes unimaginable. These encounters are often surreal and astonishing, defining our good and best days. In Singapore, it is relatively easy to trek across the country’s prime locations without falling victim to a catastrophic accident like in Western films. It also allows you to save on transport, meet interesting people and stumble upon fascinating places you may never see again. Bars and clubs are too expensive to be mentioned on this list, but if you do meet a local Couchsurfer or traveller, request that they bring you to meet the local Couchsurfing community. Crack open a cheap bottle of beer or white wine and lay back with them on a breezy night wherever they bring you. It definitely beats hurting your eardrums in a stuffy club and not getting any conversation in at all.
Condos here are fairly easy to breach, especially if you’re not local and are entering a condo near Orchard. You could give City Square Residences in Farrer Park (3-minute walk from train station) a try, or The Quartz in Buangkok (3-minute walk from train station). The pools in there could remind you of a simple pool party, if you gathered enough friends. Otherwise, the sleek beach chairs and alfresco chill-out spots could do you just fine. These experiences get you up close and personal with the local lifestyle at no cost. There is also no need to worry even if you get caught as the security guard would just escort you off the premises. Most of the time though, they wouldn’t take the risk of upsetting a possible resident.
Nature is scarce here, but there are still worthy places you may visit. Mount Faber, a 10-minute walk from Harbourfront station, is a hill in the south of the country that elevates your sight of the neighbourhoods in the south. You can also catch a good view of Sentosa and the monorail and cable cars it uses, accompanied by the ocean surrounding it and the few islands situated beside Singapore. Bukit Timah Hill is another natural site to explore with locals and expats all around day after day. Pay a visit in shorts, singlet and covered shoes on a weekend morning if you intend to mingle with adventurous locals there. You can take bus 173 from Bukit Batok station and alight after 15 stops at the bus stop Southhaven II.
Cycling is another economical way to maximise the experience with this country’s natural sites and landmarks. All our roads are bicycle-friendly and there are various rental kiosks in park connectors all around the island.
A park connector is essentially what we know as cycling and running tracks that go on for miles, connecting countless neighbourhoods and their sporting residents. Bicycle rental fees start from as low as SGD7 (USD5) per hour, excluding optional safety gear.
This is, of course, but one local’s perspective of the country. It may not represent the views of the masses, but it does, indubitably, bring you closer to a nation in an affordable way – how it should be everywhere. With that being said, I can only hope the journeys I inspire manage to teach you a thing or two about yourself and the wonders around you.