Five Tips For First-Timers Going To Singapore
Including where to get the "perfect" Milo.
Singapore is a unique melting pot. And while most frequent flyers will have enjoyed the spoils of Changi Airport, it’s worth going beyond the terminal to get a true taste of the city.
It sits just one degree north of the equator, nestled at the southernmost tip of the Malay peninsula, which is home to a kaleidoscope of Chinese, Malay, Indian and British colonial influences.
Whether you’re popping in for a pit-stop or a longer stay, here are some tips to help you hit the ground running.
#1 Tuck in at hawker centres
Food is the best and most visceral entry point to Singaporean culture. The bedrock of local cuisine is the hawker centre, which is a kind of street food stalls/classic food court hybrid.
It sounds basic, but it’s a vital community practice, and the food is eclectic, delicious and very affordable. Most dishes won’t set you back more than SG$3 (AU$3) a plate. As an added bonus (as you can see) the Australian-to-Singapore-dollar exchange rate is pretty much equivalent right now, so no tricky holiday maths.
Picking the right dish can seem overwhelming, but food standards are strictly regulated in Singapore. Each vendor must prominently display their health rating. Stick to the A’s and B’s and you’ll be fine. If you don’t know where to start, take your cue from the queues – foot traffic is a fair indicator of quality and flavour.
Some popular hawker centres include Tiong Bahru Market, Maxwell Food Centre, and the iconic Old Airport Road Food Centre.
Fun fact: Singapore carrot cake (or chai tow kway) is neither a cake nor includes carrot. But it’s definitely worth trying.
#2 BYO napkins and respect the “chope”
While we’re on hawker centres, it’s worth noting that a little forward-planning goes a long way in Singapore. When combined with year-round humidity, the spices used in Singaporean cooking mean you should always have tissues close at hand as not many food stalls provide napkins. Be sure to stock up before you head out.
There’s also strict etiquette for hawker centres: The scattered tables might look like a free-for-all, but don’t just plonk yourself on the first vacant seat you find. They may have been choped.
More subtle than the old towel-on-the-deck-chair trick, choping involves leaving tissue packets on tables to reserve them while ordering food. Other items used to chope include umbrellas, ID cards and occasionally phones (which isn’t advisable, even if crime rates in Singapore are super low).
Choping is a divisive practice among locals, so approach any tug-of-war in good spirits. If you find yourself in a stand-off, priority should go to those with food in hand.
#3 Bring your love of Milo
You might think Milo is as dinky-di as Nick “Honey Badger” Cummins chucking Vegemite-glazed prawns on the barbie, but Singapore is right into it. In fact, an independent 2017 survey saw Milo ranked as the country’s favourite brand, meaning Aussies craving a taste of home won’t have to look far.
Most kopi tiams (cafés) sell it as a matter of priority. There’s even a Milo van that roams around like an ice cream truck, serving up what most locals consider the definitive Milo blend.
A popular variation on the traditional Milo-plus-milk serving is the Milo Dinosaur, which is basically an iced Milo with another heap of undissolved Milo on top, just like eight-year-old you used to make.
#4 Prepare to shell out for booze
While you can feast for next to nothing, drinking in Singapore is a different story thanks to an incredibly high tax on alcohol.
Many put it down to the fact that Singapore puts a tax on vice, meaning alcohol and tobacco are exorbitantly priced. GoEuro’s 2016 Beer Price Index, a ranking of beer affordability around the world, placed Singapore at 68 out of 70 cities.
But hey, you’re on holiday, you want to unwind. One thing you can do is pick up some duty-free liquor at the airport or try a local supermarket. When you’re out on the town, your dollar will go a lot further if you stick to more PG thirst-quenchers like lime juice or a pink bandung (rose syrup and milk).
#5 Make tactical pit stops
One thing you can guarantee in Singapore is hot, humid weather. Monsoon season runs from November to January, but it’s steaming 12 months of the year. Even the coolest cats will fall victim to a keen sweat.
If you’re getting around on foot, dip in and out of shops to take advantage of industrial-strength air conditioning, or pop into Cloud Forest, part of the Gardens by the Bay complex.
Billed as a “mysterious world veiled in mist”, the Cloud Forest is a curated ecosystem with a constant and pleasing light spritz for all visitors. Interact with diverse flora while staying mercifully cool. It’s like Avatar minus the prosaic narrative.
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(Lead image: Colleen Rivas)