WHEN I TRAVEL, I AM OFTEN ASKED TO DESCRIBE MY HOME, SINGAPORE. MY ANSWER IS QUITE BRIEF: MY FAVORITE WAY TO NAVIGATE ACROSS SINGAPORE IS ON THE MASS RAPID TRANSIT(MRT) SYSTEM, ONE OF THE MOST PLEASANT, CHEAPEST AND EASIEST WAYS TO GET AROUND THIS ISLAND.
Your journey starts right when you land in the eastern end of the island. Singapore's Changi Airport is a destination in itself, world renowned as one of the airports travelers love passing through and sometimes their only contact with Singapore. How many airports have multiple gardens, a free cinema and even a swimming pool for their visitors? It’s hard to leave such a mini paradise.
Surrounded by Skyscrapers
But your real foray into Singapore begins by hopping onto the green East-West line that connects the airport to the rest of Singapore. This section of the MRT is above ground and lets you take in the view of Singaporean life around you. Tall buildings surround the train tracks that you zip down, painted in all colors of the rainbow. These are Singapore's flats - public housing blocks that over 80% of Singaporeans live in today. Land-scarce Singapore built these flats in the 1960s and transplanted its village-dwelling citizens from their kampongs to these space-saving apartments in the sky.
If you want to see a side of Singapore beyond the cityscape, make Tanah Merah your first stop.
Singapore actually consists of not just one island, but over 60 smaller ones scattered around the mainland, mostly accessible by ferry. Take a bus from here to Changi Point Ferry Terminal to get to Pulau Ubin, one of the larger and more popular islands, for an outdoor adventure away from the city, cycling in the forest, and scouting for crabs in the wetlands of Chek Jawa natural reserve.
If You're Bored from the Crowd
As you continue your ride, you might notice that many of the MRT stations are located right next to large shopping malls. Fully air-conditioned and stocked with Singaporeans' favorite retail shops, we are a nation obsessed with shopping malls and they make a perfect hideout for nearby residents on swelteringly hot days and lazy weekends when you would rather not venture into the crowded downtown area.
The next stop you can check out is Paya Lebar Station, an interchange with the newly built yellow Circle Line that connects to all the other MRT lines. You are close to the Joo Chiat district, an area famous for a unique ethnic group called the Peranakans, descended from the unions of Chinese immigrants and Malays from the surrounding region. Since many of the old Peranakan shop houses have been preserved, you can find traces of this local culture in the area.
For Art Shopping
As you approach the central area, the view disappears as the MRT heads underground. The next stop of note is Bugis, and, if you wanted to, you could spend a few days just checking out the sights in this area. It is close to one of Singapore’s ethnic neighborhoods, Kampong Glam - my personal favorite hangout. This is the Malay and Arab heritage area, and home to the beautiful Sultan Mosque, a bevy of independent boutiques and cafés as well as some of Singapore’s most colorful street art amidst fabric shops and Middle Eastern cuisine.
The next stops, namely City Hall and Raffles Place, are officially downtown Singapore and interchanges to the other MRT lines. Here is where you will encounter your fellow tourists who will spend most of their time in Singapore exploring this zone. The port city of Singapore sprung up in this area, where the trading ships landed and the first immigrants set foot on a new land. The borders of Singapore have expanded since then thanks to land reclamation, and the city has grown exponentially, now home to over 5.6 million people.
The City Hall stop is where architecture lovers should disembark, with various unusual shaped landmarks that make up the Singapore skyline within walking distance. The spiky domes of the Esplanade Theater are said to resemble two durians, a beloved local fruit; the three towers of the Marina Bay Sands Integrated Resort stand proudly on the bay, connected by a long, boat-like shape on top; and Singapore’s famous half-lion and half-fish symbol, the Merlion, always draws a large crowd of selfie-taking tourists eager to prove that they have visited Singapore.
The Reflections of Diversity
Take a detour to nearby Chinatown, a microcosm of the diversity to be found in Singapore: religious buildings of various faiths sit side by side on the same street, elderly men play chess while sharing tables with fashionably dressed entrepreneurs in the hawker center, and historical shophouses lie just around the corner from tall modern offices.
As the train heads west, your next stop is Tiong Bahru. This estate is unique for its low pre-war flats with architecture that cannot be found anywhere else in Singapore, and is also a well-known hipster haven. One of my favorite shops is Books Actually, one of Singapore’s most successful indie book retailers; make sure to make time for the Tiong Bahru hawker center, situated amidst cafés, where you can sample some cheap and good local food the quintessentially Singaporean way.
A Must for Shopping
Or go a little further on to Queenstown, another local neighborhood worth exploring as one of Singapore’s oldest public housing estates and the blueprint for many that followed. Follow any of the self-guided walking tours to learn some of this estate's secrets: butterfly-shaped blocks of flats and even a hidden bunker or two from the war. Locals know it as the place to get cheap sports gear from the old Queensway Shopping Centre or factory outlet prices from the neighboring mall Anchorpoint.
Bypass the busy Jurong East interchange, one of the most crowded stations especially at peak hour in the morning. This is where you change to the red North-South line - the bit between Jurong East and Bishan Stations is especially scenic as you pass through some of the last remaining forested areas in the northern part of the country.
As you pass Bukit Gombak Station, keep a look out for an area that bears some resemblance to the granite rock formations of Guilin, China. This is Bukit Batok Town Park and where local television networks used to film Chinese period drama scenes.
Head instead for the Chinese Garden stop for a little greenery and fresh air. It’s not as fanciful as the alien- like tree towers and pods of Gardens by the Bay or the flower haven that is the Singapore Botanic Gardens downtown, but it does boast a rather impressive pagoda in its midst, along with some statues of ancient Chinese military figures and is popular with local families.
You’re almost at the end of the line - Boon Lay used to be the last stop and an eclectic area with a mix of university students and industrial workers from the nearby Nanyang Technological University and the surrounding factories. The line was extended a little further and your last stop is now Joo Koon Station. You’re not quite at the western point yet though - the whole industrial district of Tuas lies in between but congratulations, you’ve mostly made it across Singapore. Take out that passport and cross the Tuas Second Link into Malaysia by bus, or get back onto the MRT and find your way onto any of the other MRT lines to continue your explorations.