Singapore is often considered among the more expensive cities to visit in Southeast Asia, but it is still possible to experience the city state on a backpacker’s budget. Here’s our tips on independent travel in Singapore.
The backpacker scene
Singapore stands out in Southeast Asia as one of the more cosmopolitan and orderly countries to visit, with an international reputation for its legions of rules and relatively high cost of living, but simultaneously lauded for its safety and cleanliness. A land of perpetual tropical summer, Singapore’s central position as a major hub for the surrounding region makes it a popular place to stopover for a quick visit any time of the year. Its relatively small size and efficient public transport system is easy for independent explorers to navigate quickly.
Making the most of it
Follow the rules
The chewing gum ban made Singapore infamous for its many rules and regulations, and the country does take them quite seriously–drugs, vandalism and littering are just some of the things you can get arrested for. But considering that Singapore also has a reputation as one of the safest countries in the world, it is perhaps worth toeing the line during your time here.
Experience the melting pot
Singapore espouses multiculturalism, with racial and ethnic harmony a major keystone in the country’s policies. This is most evident in the diversity of food, the use of four official languages in signage, plus the peaceful coexistence of various religious buildings and cultures side by side. The dominant races in Singapore today are the Chinese who make up almost three-quarters of the population, followed by the Malays and Indians.
Accept the costs
Most visitors to Singapore tend to keep their stays short because the cost of living is relatively high compared to cheaper neighbours in the surrounding Southeast Asian region, but also because it is a small urban city state that is relatively easy to explore quickly. It may not be as affordable especially when it comes to accommodation costs, but there are plenty of free and cheap things you can do in Singapore to help you manage your budget wisely.
In general, Singapore is a very safe place with a very low crime rate–you are unlikely to get robbed or mugged, and it is quite safe to take public transport or walk around late at night even if you are travelling alone. Just take sensible precautions as you would in any major international city, like not leaving your valuables lying around.
Some people do take advantage of this safe environment–there have been some instances of unscrupulous shops charging tourists exorbitant marked up prices, or fake monks asking for alms, but these are few and far between. The police are well-respected in general and non-corrupt, so don’t try to slip anyone a bribe to get out of trouble here.
Food and accommodation
Locals know the most authentic local food in Singapore is usually found in one of the country’s ubiquitous hawker centres. The best stalls always have long queues so be prepared to wait in line and sweat it out in the humidity. However, rest assured your patience will be rewarded with some tasty delights for a relatively cheap price. Singapore’s street food is so good, some hawker stalls have even been awarded Michelin stars.
For those who prefer to pay a little more, there is no shortage of good cafes, international food chains and fine dining celebrity chef restaurants to meet any taste. International cuisine is diverse in Singapore especially if you have a taste for Asian flavours–Japanese, Thai, Korean and Indonesian are some of the popular cuisines represented beyond the major ethnicities.
When it comes to accommodation, Singapore’s hostels tend to be more expensive compared to its Southeast Asian neighbours. The cheapest dormitory bed will cost around $10-$15 USD, though there has been a growing trend of Japanese pod-style bunks that offer more privacy, though these can go as high as $50 USD. Boutique and international brand hotel rooms in the central locations typically are priced from $120 USD and up.
Most of the backpacker accommodation is concentrated in the historic ethnic neighbourhoods, a veritable contrast of multicultural identities and histories against a backdrop of gleaming skyscrapers. Little India and Chinatown are popular districts for backpackers, while hotels have prime locations along Orchard Road or in the Marina Bay district. Airbnb does have Singapore listings though technically it isn’t legal at this point.
Joining group activities is one easy way to make friends–check out a local walking or food tour to find fellow travellers. Singaporeans tend to be a bit more reserved but are friendly enough once you get the conversation going, and it doesn’t hurt that English is quite widely understood so communication should not be a major issue. One easy way to befriend them is to ask them teach you some proper Singlish slang, or ask for a recommendation on where to go and what to eat.
Money, money, money
The local currency used is the Singapore Dollar, currently $1 USD is worth about $1.30 SGD. ATMs can be found easily all across Singapore, especially in shopping malls, MRT stations and at tourist attractions. Credit and debit cards are commonly used in major shops and establishments, and there is a gradual shift towards cashless payments, but it is still best to carry some cash for smaller shops and hawker centres that typically do not accept credit cards.
1 meal at a hawker centre or food court costs $3-$10 USD. A cafe or casual eatery will typically set you back about $5-$20 USD
1 mug of beer costs $5-$8 USD in a hawker centre, or $10-$15 USD in a pub/bar
1 night at a backpacker hostel $20-$50 USD
1 bus or MRT ride $0.50-$2 USD, taxis or shared cars $5-$30 USD (depending on peak hour surcharges)
1 hygiene/medical essential (at a local shop) costs $2-$10 USD
1 affordable experience (e.g. average entry to visit a museum) $10-$20 USD
Where to go and what to do
Kampong Glam: The Arab and Malay ethnic quarter of Kampong Glam is a mishmash of some of Singapore’s best attractions. Look out for one of Singapore’s oldest mosques, a bevy of Middle Eastern cuisine amidst cloth merchants and hipster boutiques, as well as some beautiful murals in the narrow lanes of this district.
Marina Bay: Home to Singapore’s iconic city skyline, Marina Bay is one of the must-sees in Singapore, especially at night when the building lights are fully lit and the weather is much cooler for a leisurely stroll. There are plenty of other interesting buildings around the bay for photographers and architecture lovers.
Katong: This little district in the East is known as the home of the Peranakans, a unique hybrid culture of the Straits Chinese and Malays. Keep a sharp eye out for the distinct shophouse architecture that can be found all around this area, and try all the yummy Peranakan cuisine you can find.
Little India: This historic ethnic district is a favourite base for backpackers visiting Singapore. The best thing to do here is get lost in the little lanes and people watch–it is especially festive during Indian festivals like Deepavali, Thaipusam and Pongal.
Tiong Bahru: Tiong Bahru’s pre-war art deco housing blocks are unique among the apartment blocks in Singapore, and in recent years many boutique shops and dining establishments have popped up amidst the quaint and traditional shops, making it one of the top hangout spots that hipsters love.
Bucket list experiences
Head up high for the best view: The sky deck at Marina Bay Sands is popular with tourists, especially with the iconic infinity pool that is unfortunately only available to guests. But there are plenty of rooftop bars and restaurant options to check out instead. For those who love nature, Mount Faber or the Southern Ridges are nice options that involve a little walking and are free to boot.
Go beyond the city: Singapore is often thought of as just a city, but there is a surprising amount of nature to be found if you know where to go. Intrepid explorers and animal lovers should check out Kranji, home to Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve and the farms of Kranji Countryside, or head out to the offshore islands of Pulau Ubin or the Southern Islands to get away from the tall buildings.
Have yourself a Singaporean feast: Whether you embark on an epic food tour of your favourite hawker centres and local delicacies, enjoy a delicious chilli crab dinner or indulge in some award-winning cuisine, there is no better way to experience Singapore than to eat your way through it.
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