Going Off the Beaten Path in Singapore, Part I

A reflection and narrative on my travels through Singapore

When visiting a new city you can opt for one of two options: follow the traditional tourist route and do what 99% of your fellow travelers are doing...or toss the guidebook in the trash and head off the beaten path. I'm not advocating either option, as both have their upsides. But one thing is for certain: if you choose the road less traveled you'll certainly return home with a bit more swagger in your step and a potent case of wanderlust.

Singapore, like all other cities, has its go-to tourist locales. You've got Sentosa Island, effectively a western theme park boasting imports like Universal Studios and American chain restaurants; the Marina Bay Sands hotel, a swank cluster of three 55-story buildings connected by a roof terrace shaped like a cruise ship and overflowing with luxury stores; or Gardens by the Bay, a 101 hectare garden teeming with exquisite florae. There's nothing wrong with these localities, but if you really want to experience unique and under-the-radar spots Singapore has to offer you've come to the right place.

So put down that $7 Starbucks (be prepared to shell out for western chain coffees) and grab a local kopi (coffee) or teh (tea) – we're going exploring.

1. Central Catchment Nature Reserve (MacRitchie)

This underrated 12-hectare national park is rather inconvenient to access via public transportation, so try taking an Uber or a GrabTaxi (Uber's Southeast Asia competitor.) They're always running promotions, so look online before you download the app to save some money. Pack plenty of sunscreen and water as many paths will leave you exposed to the relentless sun. But keep your phone handy for photos because you'll probably see a monkey or two. Just don't feed them. The best part of the reservoir is the TreeTop Walk that allows you to cross over a small ravine. Just wide enough for allow for one-way traffic, it affords an incredible opportunity to gaze across the wild jungle that once blanketed the island before a human presence forced it underground.

2. Singapore Sports Hub

Don't be fooled by the name. While you can certainly take advantage of the athletics on display, the true value of this local haunt lies in its spectacular nighttime view of the island. Gaze across a glittering body of water that hosts dragon boat races during the day and feast your eyes on the spectacular skyline of Singapore's CBD (central business district.) You can also rent a kayak, paddleboat, or even a dragon boat should the desire so move you. If you're in the mood to nosh, try a bun from Fun Toast, a local bakery located inside the Kallang Wave Mall that has served up traditional Singaporean snacks for over 70 years. The best part? You'll rarely see another foreigner. Instead, locals chattering away in Mandarin, Bahasa, or "Singlish," Singapore's hodgepodge language comprised of English and Hokkien phrases, will surround you.

3. Biking in East Coast Park

If zipping down a path with the wind whistling in your ears sounds appealing, definitely rent a bike and take it for a spin on an East Coast path. East Coast Park is accessible by public transportation and is a perennial local favorite. The path borders the sea and most of the time it's wide enough so if you get stuck behind a slow-moving auntie or uncle (colloquial casual term for a mature man or woman) you'll be able to easily navigate around them.

4. Mint Museum of Toys

Indulge your inner­­—or outer—child at this eclectic museum near the legendary Raffles Hotel. (Pro-tip: pop by Raffles anyway to ogle the exquisite stained glass framing the Raffles Courtyard restaurant and gawk at sweat-stained tourists slurping $30 Singapore Slings.) The Museum showcases an astounding 8,000 collectibles on display at any given time from 40 countries, ranging from the 1840s –1970's. Take a gander at early Batmans and popular Japanese toys, or admire the original enamel signs hawking dry goods from days past.

5. Saigon Jalan

The Best Vietnamese Hawker Stall – Most of the food found at hawker stalls—tiny food vendors serving up steam bowls of laksa, economic bee hoon, or other local favorites—is outstanding. Singapore takes great pride in its foodie culture, and it's quite easy to find a satisfying and delicious meal for under $5USD. However, this understated joint dishes out some of the best and most affordable Vietnamese fare in Singapore. Enjoy slurping down fragrant beef noodle soup (Phở Tái) overflowing with plump bean sprouts and paper thin wisps of scallion, topped with dried shrimp flakes and fresh sprigs of thai basil. Or dig into Chả Giò, a crunchy, so-greasy-you-can't-stop-eating deep fried spring roll filled with pork and veggies.

6. Labrador Nature Reserve

Reserve a grill online at this local park to enjoy a barbecue by an aquamarine sea with waves lapping hypnotically in the background. While your view of the Pacific will be slightly marred by the ever-present shipping vessels stationed a mile or so out, it's still an incredibly serene park to spend a lazy afternoon picnicking or running around with the kids. If you take a walk through the forest in the center of the park it'll seem like the frenetic energy of the Singapore streets is miles away and it's easy to see what the island must have been like hundreds of years before man ever set foot upon it.


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