I didn’t have much time left.
I only had three full days in Singapore, and this was already Day 3. I had a lot to pack in!
One of the attractions on my Singapore to-do list was the Gardens by the Bay, a 250-acre landscaping project adjacent to the Marina Reservoir built on reclaimed land in Central Singapore. The park, which opened in 2012, was part of the government’s plan to transform this area into a new downtown district.
And it’s worked.
This park, with two climate-controlled conservatories and its famous man-made mechanical forest of 18 Supertrees that generate solar power and collect rainwater, is a major destination for anyone visiting Singapore.
Our first stop was to the Flower Dome, the larger of the two conservatories here. It spans three acres, with a mild, dry climate ideal for plants found in the Mediterranean and other semi-arid tropical regions like Australia and South Africa. There were succulents, orchids, olive trees, chrysanthemums, palms and lilacs — all flourishing in this habitat that remains between 73 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit. (There’s also an awesome bistro, called Pollen, here. We didn’t get a chance to eat there, though.)
Next to the Flower Dome is the the 2-acre Cloud Forest, which replicates the cool, moist conditions found in tropical mountain regions from 3,000 to nearly 10,000 feet above sea level. There’s a 138-foot Cloud Mountain that you can walk around, complete with a 115-foot waterfall.
Both domes, kept at around the same temperature, was a welcome respite from the humidity outside. We took our time walking through the gardens in here!
Then we wandered around the Supertrees, standing 160 feet tall and towering over the rest of the gardens. These innovative structures, which light up at night, are really the focal point of the Gardens by the Bay — and provide a lesson in sustainability. These trees are home to enclaves of unique and exotic ferns, vines, orchids and bromeliads. They’re also outfitted with photovoltaic cells that harness solar energy. And they collect rainwater to use in irrigation and fountain displays. These are super functional — and super cool.
Here’s what it’s like to walk along the Skywalk.
After a quick stop at McDonald’s for seaweed fries and flat whites, we headed to Little India, a Singaporean neighborhood east of the Singapore River and across from Chinatown. The goal: to find something to eat. (Isn’t that always the goal?)
We caught a cab from the Gardens by the Bay to Mustafa Centre, one of Singapore’s 24-hour shopping malls. It’s a retail hub attracting people with its variety of goods and services. We were mesmerized by the sheer volume of stuff sold here, from saris to dishwashing soap.
Among cities, Singapore has one of the largest Indian populations outside of India. The mass migration to this island country started in the early 1800s; a more settled community emerged in the mid-20th century. Today, this gritty neighborhood lures unskilled migrant workers and tourists seeking tasty Indian food.
We were in the latter group.
Our plan was to eat at a restaurant on freshly cut banana leaves with our hands.
That’s a must in Singapore!
And the best place to do this — and eat delicious food — is the Banana Leaf Apolo on Race Course Road. (There are two of these restaurants; find the one that has the word, “Apolo,” on its name.)
This restaurant serves authentic Northern and Southern Indian fare that’s served on a banana leaf placemat. You’re supposed to eat with your hands — well, your right hand only; your left hand is for, uh, something else.
But this restaurant must get enough tourists to know how uncomfortable eating that way is for Westerners, so it offers utensils. Still, it’s an experience you should try while in Singapore — if not because it’s fun to do and considered rude in the U.S. I mean, when else can you eat with your hands — and it’s OK?
(Not all Indian food should be eaten with the hands, though. Soupy dishes like daal and curry are consumed with spoons, for obvious reasons.)
I have to say, this was one of the best meals I’ve had all year. The star of my plate was the butter chicken, a popular — and fairly simple — dish with flavored chicken pieces in a creamy tomato-based gravy that’s utterly sublime with naan. The gravy is made with tomato puree, onion, garlic, ginger, chili powder, turmeric, coriander powder and fresh cream. Oh, and butter. Perfection.
And a note about Indian cuisine: Cattle are considered sacred animals by Hindus and aren’t consumed. So you won’t see a lot of beef in Indian restaurants. And Muslims don’t eat pork due to the teachings of Islam, so you may not see that, either. But what’s prevalent on menus are chicken, goat, lamb/mutton and various seafood.
We probably overstayed our welcome here, enjoying the air conditioning, before heading back out into the humid streets of Little India.
For the first time, we ventured to Orchard Road, a 1.3-mile-long boulevard lined with shops, restaurants and huge malls. The original road was cut in the 1830s — there were orchards and plantations here, hence the name — but it didn’t become a retail and entertainment hub until much later; the first shop opened here in the 1950s. The area underwent a $40 million refresh in 2009 with the addition of new street lamps, planter boxes, flower totem poles and other urban upgrades.
This was what I had imagined Singapore to look like — a sprawling urban area with open spaces and trees. It was nice to walk along this boulevard and get a feel of city life here.
And then — whaddya know! — it was time to eat!
We met up with a mutual friend, Roger Lim, at one of his favorite Cantonese restaurants, Wing Seong Fatty’s — which was conveniently located just across the street from our hotel. (He said it’s “Cantonese with a twist.”)
Just for the record, there are six “Fatty” restaurants in the Singapore telephone directory today, but only one — the one on Bencoolen Street — is the real thing.
The restaurant is named after its owner, Au Chan Seng, nicknamed Fatty. (His son, Au Kok Weng, is “Skinny.” Not kidding.)
Signature dishes include the had cheong kai (prawn paste fried chicken, like the one we ate at Makansutra Gluttons Bay the night before) and the shell-less cereal prawns.
Lim knows the owner and got items not on the menu. In fact, now that I think about it, we didn’t even see the menu!
While we waited for our food, Lim, who works in marketing in Singapore, shared with us insight about Singapore. Why more people don’t own cars — too expensive; it’s around $80,000 just to get a license! — and why he prefers Hong Kong to his own home country — “more lively and real.”
And in between really great conversation, we ate.
I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect last day in Singapore. Great food, great friends and a garden I’ll never forget.
Special thanks to my traveling pals — Melissa, Edwina and Dean — for planning everything and eating everything. We had way too much fun! And thanks to @singaporeaneats and Roger for showing us why you love your home country so much!