1st to 6th February 2018
My journey from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore was painless. My Uber dropped me at the bus terminal in central Kuala Lumpur minutes before the 12:30pm coach departed, which carried me in comfort to the southern border within six hours. The dozen or so of us on the bus stepped off on the Malaysian side, to get our passports stamped out, and again on the Singaporean side, to get stamped in. Despite having to stand for half an hour in a queue, in the Singaporean customs building, the process ran very smoothly.
The bus dropped us near the very centre of Singapore, a half-hour walk from a hostel I’d found on Hostelworld, but not booked. As I hauled my heavy backpack along streets and through parks on that warm Thursday evening, I took in my first impressions of Singapore. The streets were clean, and spacious. The buildings and gardens were carefully maintained, with no disrepair or disregard in sight. The density of both people and traffic was refreshingly low, giving me more than enough space to breathe. In all, the city/country seemed as wealthy, and civilised, and pleasant as was possible.
The hostel I’d selected had room for me for one night only. With Chinese New Year fast approaching, all the hostels and hotels in the city were booking out fast. Ultimately, I ended up staying in three different hostels over my five days in Singapore: Green Kiwi for one night; Traveller@SG for the next; and Gusti Bed and Breakfast for my final three. Each hostel was clean and comfortable, with friendly, professional staff, and complimentary tea, coffee, and toast in the kitchens.
I never made an effort to try to get to know my dormmates in any of the hostels, since I was constantly either out exploring the city, or busy working on my laptop. On my first night, I dropped my bag in Green Kiwi, and rushed out to buy a Singaporean SIM, eat in a Chinese food court, and meet Sayufi.
Sayufi and I had crossed paths in Cappadocia, Turkey, in May. He had been most of the way through a six month motorbike tour from Singapore to England; almost a mirror of my year long backpacking tour from Europe to Singapore. We met at a cafe a half-hour walk from my hostel, where Sayufi gave me a transit card for all the metro and bus routes in Singapore, and treated me to a glass of rosewater. Sayufi worked as a designer of offshore drilling platforms: a very respectable job, which kept him in the office from dawn to dusk.
As we sat outside the roadside cafe, Sayufi told me a lot about the Singaporean way of life: how the city’s civility and order is maintained through harsh punishments for littering, theft, and disobedience; how the government encourages marriage and traditional family values through their housing schemes; and how Singaporeans champion hard work over leisure time. What I’m doing, spending over a year off backpacking the world, would be very difficult for a Singaporean, Sayufi told me. Even his six month trip, which he’d taken between jobs, had left him with an awkward gap on his CV.
“The Singapore passport is one of the strongest in the world,” he told me. “We get into most countries visa-free. It’s funny; we have strong passport, and the money to travel, but we don’t. We stay at home and work.”
There seemed to be four distinct ethnic groups in Singapore. There were the Malay people, like Sayufi, who inhabited the island originally; there were the Chinese and Indians, who’d settled in the country over the past few hundred years; and there were the western expats, here to work in banks and engineering firms. This blend of cultures caused the city to be dotted with near-equal numbers of mosques, churches, Buddhist temples and Hindu temples, and for four major languages to be spoken: Malay; Mandarin; Tamil, from southern India; and English, the lingua franca and default go-to.
Like many European cities, Singapore had a bike sharing scheme in operation. Unlike any other bike scheme I’d ever encountered, however, the bikes didn’t need to be left locked in special racks. Instead, one could walk up to a bike left propped on the footpath, scan its code with their phone, wait for the internal lock to click open, and cycle off.
I never quite got used to the system. It always felt strange, just walking up to a bike on the street, and taking it, legally. Even more strange, was the feeling of leaving the bike down. I’d cycle up to wherever I was looking to go, then just step off my bike, click the lock closed, and walk away, knowing that the bike would be gone when I returned.
There were four private companies offering the scheme, with hundreds of bikes from each company laying around the city. Mobike, the company I signed up with, charged only five Singaporean dollars (around €3), for unlimited use of the bikes for 120 days (actually, each ride was limited to 2 hours, but taking ten seconds to lock and unlock the bike would reset the timer).
I spent my third and fourth days exploring the city with Markus, a local of Chinese descent, whom I’d met in Phuket, Thailand. Markus, who was interning at Google in the gap between high school and university, gave me a fast-paced tour of the major highlights of the city. Over the space of twelve hours, we rushed between the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, the National Gallery, the Marina Bay Shopping Centre, the Masjid Sultan, the Kwan Im Thong Chinese Buddhist Temple, the Gardens by the Bay, and a temporary rollercoaster park set up near the heart of Downtown.
The next day, Markus took me to the Har Paw Villa park of Chinese legends, and Sentosa island to the south, where local families were spending their Sunday afternoon. He showed me around Fort Siloso, a British military base from the days of colonialism, while explaining to me the history of his country. After my two days with Markus, I’d been given a very thorough overview of all that Singapore had to offer.
In the evening, after parting with Markus, I went for a beer with Alastair, a friend of a friend from home. Alastair, who was working in the Singaporean branch of his multinational engineering company for six months, agreed with me that the city was a beautiful, civilised place to live for a while, but perhaps not somewhere to settle long-term. Not at this stage of our lives, at least.
I spent my final day in Singapore resting, and getting myself prepared for my journey to Melbourne. I wasn’t nervous about flying out. Yes, I was giving up the lifestyle I’d lived for the past year, and would be spending a few challenging weeks job and house hunting; but this was just another change for me. Constant change had been the only certainty for me for the previous thirteen months: every few days had seen me packing up, and moving city; every few weeks had seen me starting anew in a different country. At this stage, I was very used to change.
On Thursday the 6th of February, a year and a month after leaving Ireland, I woke to a 3am alarm, walked out of my hostel, called an Uber to Singapore airport, and flew to Melbourne via Bali, ending the first stage of my travels, and beginning the next.
I'll be writing blog posts less regularly over my time in Australia