Sunday, 15 March 2015

Singapore; where tradition mixes with modernity (contains detailed info of the easiest way to get to Malaysia with public transportation and my very first Coachsurfing experience)

While doing research I often came across with several comments from other travelers about how Singapore (the Lion City) is that tiny country that a traveler use just to cross countries or as a step over between flights so I was, in a certain way, influenced by all these comments and I decided before I arrived that there was pretty much nothing to do in Singapore just to hang around and let the time passed by waiting to get onto my next destination.

With little real knowledge about Singapore more than I was heading to a small Republic with little more than 5 million habitants and lots of wrong impressions based on other people’s opinions, it was then time for me to leave my beloved Indonesia behind and head to a new territory so after a couple of short flight of less than two hours each with Air Asia, I landed in what they say is one of the best airports in the world,  shame that It was night time and I could not see much around it partly because I chose to have my first Coachsurfing experience in Singapore. I thought I found a great host that transmitted me good sensations in our email exchanges and I did not want to arrive past midnight causing a bad first impression.

With his very detailed directions in hand, I made my way to the public buses on the ground floor and basically followed them. I found the whole journey extremely easy even though I had to take a total of two buses and a little detour walk to get to his place. In resume, getting from the airport to my Coachsurfing host place in the Woodlands was a breeze.

While on the buses, I noticed these things (and darkness wasn't a problem as it was THAT obvious); Singapore is extremely clean.

About 99.9% of the population owns the latest smart phones in the market and they obsessively play with them while on public transport.
Everyone was dressed nicely and for the first time since I left London, I constantly felt like a tramp for most of the time.

Yes, I was officially in the less appropriate land for backpacking within SE Asia, how very weird, most of all because I felt I could have been anywhere but in SE Asia. Singapore felt VERY different.
With very little issues I got to the Woodlands and easily found my host place, his directions were spot on (later on I found out from him that many people got lost trying to find his place…I felt I am truly becoming a smart traveler J)
I was really anxious and unsure how to act, I badly wanted to offer my best face and behavior. At the same time, I could not shake off this admiration that goes to anyone who offers his/her house to a complete stranger and also a huge curiosity of the reasons that go behind it. 

Soon enough I realized that Coachsurfing hosts and hostesses often lack a reason but they just get satisfaction for helping and interacting with travelers which made my admiration only grow. Truly the world is full of wonderful people and sometimes when you are stuck at home and watching the world through depressing news, it is easy to think otherwise.
This is, among thousands of others, another good reason to travel and explore, human nature is extremely kind and I believe this whole idea of Coachsurfing or similar websites prove it consistently.

Luckily for me, when I arrived, my host, Mr TY, was extremely welcoming and made me feel comfortable right away showing me a double room with a private bathroom beautifully decorated all to myself. I got his house keys to give me freedom of movement and he discreetly disappeared into his room.

Two planes, five buses and two countries later, I was ready for my beauty sleep.

Here's a pic of my nice room

The next day I left Mr TY deeply asleep and I adventured into the city. While I always have a first notion of where I'm heading to, with Singapore it was not like that at all and I had this feeling after the night before that I would easily find my way around. Well, I was not only right but so far, I can safely say that Singapore had been the easiest city/country to get around with no maps and no directions.

After ten minutes’ walk into the peaceful Woodlands neighborhood and a couple of questions to locals for some orientation, I easily got to the closest MRT station from the flat; Marsiling.
The MRT is Singapore’s public transport system and is like underground trains that are ran overground; they are highly efficient and frequent.

I did buy every day of my three days stay single tickets for each journey as I would leave the flat in the morning and came back at night time. Each ticket down town cost me between 2.50 to 2.60 SGD but note that you can also buy Singapore Tourist Passes that allowed you travel unlimited times for one two, or three days starting from 10SGD for one day.

Again, Singapore is extremely easy to get to know and here below is a bad pic of the MRT map that covers the whole city. As you can see, it is extremely easy and the different lines are divided by colours. It possibly is one of the easiest metro maps in the world.

The MRT is very clean and so are the buses. Why? Because if you are stupid enough to eat or drink, the below will apply….! No one eats, drinks or chews in any way in any public transport. I would be honestly terrified being the first one, I would feel that an alien would appear out of the blue from the sky and take me. I would feel too terrified to break the rules…Is that maybe the common feeling among the population hence why the country seems to be ran like the army…? 

The Woodlands are in the extreme north of the map and most of the main sights are in the extreme south of the map. It would take me about 40 minutes each journey to get from one side to the other. Once you are down town, then everything else if easily walkable. Don’t be lazy!!

The first impression about Singapore confused me slightly, I saw a place that seemed to be ran with German precision. Everything was organized, clean and transportation ran in timely manner and coming from 

London, something like that seems pretty much impossible. I thought these things only happened in Japan! I didn't see anyone breaking any rules but how can you if even chewing gum is a temerity! Jokes aside, this is something to be admired. 

Could it be that the country is so tiny that control over population is easy for the government?

Singapore possesses some clear nationalities divisions; the growing number of Singaporeans, many of them from Chinese descendants, Chinese immigrants, Malay, Indians and many Westerns that seemed to hold really good jobs and concentrate in downtown where the big offices and banks are located.

I noticed that while Singaporeans hold jobs that keep the city running, all the construction jobs (all) had Indian males working on them (ONLY). Without becoming too judgmental, that made me sad. Are there certain nationalities given hard jobs specifically for any concrete reasons?

 I wish I could have asked Mr YT as he seemed to have great answers for almost each question. Instead, when I mentioned to him that I was very surprised to see many Westerners in the financial area, he said that the Singapore Government pays really well people with brains to stay and work. Is that why the country is so developed?
I found really impossible to get lost in Singapore downtown, where I spent a lot of time since the bay area stole my heart and brought me so much inner peace contemplating the sea and skyline for hours.
 All the streets seemed to lead to all the familiar sights and somehow I always found my way around the areas I was looking for. It has been perfectly build and there is an incredible logic to it that makes finding your way around very easy.

My favorite stops to get off from the MRT to the center where Chinatown, Raffles Place, City Hall and Marina Bay but in reality any stop on the South side of the city will get you to the main sightseeing area and again I would like to mention that you can walk anywhere!
The only places that are not located downtown are the Japanese Garden, Night Zoo and some others however are extremely easily reachable either with the MRT or bus.
I was also very concerned about the prices and yes, to clarify what you have read about it or heart about it, Singapore it is expensive for SE Asia standards and gets too close to European prices. Here’s an example; a tall Cappuccino from Starbucks would set you back almost 6 GSD!

Do not make my same mistake and get a coffee to use WiFi in a Starbucks, as it happens, is password free and they don’t seemed to care if you sit down for hours just to use it which I have to say I have done and not only that, I have grab a cappuccino from McDonald's and take it to the oasis of tranquility of Starbucks….I know, I know, but I wasn't going to pay again almost 6 dollars for a coffee, don’t you think? (Besides, McDonald's does not have WiFi in Singapore)

For cheap and good food, head to the foot courts, these are extremely easy to find. Are normally located in each single mall of the city and these malls (or shopping centers) are everywhere, Singapore like any other big Asian city, is full of them as Asians love shopping and spend easily whole days in them as we would spend a whole day or weekend at the beach or camping .
These foot courts can be recognized as they have pictures of the food on them and also the prices, which is good. Little India has a food court of only Indian food right outside the Little India MRT station and is great and it does not get any cheaper than that.

Also, note that on a different note, Chinatown has free WiFi in an extended area of the neighborhood, you just have to register once. Also, is a great place to find really cheap stuff and good typical backpacking clothes that will make you look as terrible as I do right now! J 
I was surprised and amazed to see how tradition and modernity live in perfect harmony in this city that is about to celebrate fifty years of Independence. I became very aware of this contradiction of different styles and cultures when I was walking towards Chinatown on a Sunday morning and luckily I passed a beautiful Chinese temple where some volunteers offered me a free tour, which it was pretty amazing and incredibly interesting

 I highly recommend visiting this temple, called Thian Hock Keng Temple, when visiting Chinatown being the oldest temple in Singapore and that is dedicated to Mazu, the Goddess of the Sea; a true jewel. I also had the chance to do some prayers to the several Gods in the temple and well, I suppose I have to wait and see if my prayers are listen! I’ll let you know or well…maybe not!

I could actually keep writing about Singapore but I do believe that is the sort of place that besides easy to see and move around, is better discovered by small steps.
Visit it too quickly and you will be one of these people to judge it as a city to simple cross countries that lack interest.
Visit it at your own paced and you will find yourself falling in love slowly with the place.

Yet, we all know that sometimes first impressions are there to stay. If you avoid this with Singapore, you will see way more than buildings, shopping and order.
Here’s a very short list of my favorite places there that I kept coming back;
  • Chinatown; a little city within the city with a very strong identity
  • Bay Area: Absolutely gorgeous, beauty everywhere, makes you happy just being there and contemplating the sea and skyline.
  • Gardens by the Bay: Just imagine being inside the Avatar movie.
  • Walking at night time through the super modern bridge that connects the Bay with the Marina Bay Sands Hotel; the views are not only amazing but the bridge gets illuminated with colorful lights and is an incredible beautiful walk
  • Little India: A very small neighborhood but I loved the colors of the houses and of course, the food. Delicious!
  • Clarke Quay: A beautiful spot on the river lively with bars and restaurants and a very popular spot with westerners.


Few things are so easy in SE Asia and possibly crossing from Singapore to Malaysia is one of them. Here’s in very simple steps how I did it in just a matter of few hours.
From my accommodation in the Woodlands, I took the bus 950 opposite Marsiling MRT Station (1.50 SGD) and from there, it was just a five minutes ride to the Malaysian check point (they stamp you exit from the country). That same bus or another one with the same number (950) waits on the other side to collect the passengers (keep the ticket).

Don’t worry, there is a sign with the bus number and if your bus is gone, just wait for the next 950 to arrive.

From there, another ten minutes ride to the Immigration Control to enter Malaysia (you receive a free 90 days visa to stay in the country upon arrival). As soon as you get your passport stamped and come out on the other side, there is a money exchange counter in case you have some Singapore Dollars left.

It is very advisable to change some money as you will need to pay in ringgits from then onward.

Go downstairs to the ground floor, you will then see a sign for the bus 170 (for less than two ringgits) that will take you to the Larking Bus Terminal (a ten/fifteen minutes ride).

Once you get off, go to one of the many counters you will see right away selling bus tickets going everywhere in Malaysia. I paid 24 ringgits for a bus ride to Kuala Lumpur and took about four hours.

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