My Geylang Food Affair in Singapore (2012)

Due to unnecessary VISA complications, I found myself on an impromptu Singapore weekend with less than 18 hours to prepare. Now, twenty-two hours after arriving, I find myself penniless, perched at a Geylang food hawker stall with a bowl of duck noodles, a large bottle of Carlsberg and a shirt stained with mutton Biryani. In 5 hours I will be boarding a plane back to Bangkok. As scribbling on a piece of paper is easier than hauling luggage through Singapore’s streets I have decided to mimic a travel blogger for the next 5 hours.

On arriving at Singapore airport less than 2 days ago all I had was a small hold-all, a pre-booked budget hotel and S$130 in my pocket (£65). I was ready to discover Singapore on a budget. As my budget does limit my enjoyment I chose to visit areas rather than attractions. I found some fantastic places some mundane. I have selected four areas to review highlighting two good and two not-so-good. Is this what travel bloggers do?

Clarke Quay (MRT Clarke Quay)

I stumbled upon this area on a stroll between the City Hall area to the riverside quay. Bungee jump, Bumble Bee Boat Rides, Asia’s first Hooters. There is absolutely nothing of interest in this area. All featured on a horribly designed quay decorated with ghastly plastic colours. This area was a complete waste of my time. The prices in the area are extortionate with overpriced, international restaurants sprawling the lengths of the riverside until it meets the Raffles Place area.

If you do visit the riverside, arrive at Raffles Place and take a right along the river to find the famed Merlion, the Esplanade building and fantastic views of the city skyline.

The Skypark (MRT Marina Bay)

Resembling something from a futuristic sci-fi movie, this hard-to-miss building towers over the far side of Marina Bay. The inside is as magnificent as the outside. Impeccable décor, smartly dressed clientele, suited gamblers pacing the doors of the adjoining Sands Casino. I felt out of place, as though I wasn’t meant to be here and in part this was true.

After ascending 55 floors on the wrong tower I was quickly shooed away after failing to produce a hotel key card to security. “So this place is a hotel?”, “Cool”. I descended the 55 floors again feeling lost in a surreal video game world. The futuristic lift music had really got to me by this stage.  Back on the lobby floor I eventually navigate to the outside ‘tourist tower’ on the far end of the building.

A short queue, a S$20 fee (my biggest expense this trip) and I am again on my way to the 55th floor Skypark. The views are impressive. Like Hong Kong except more up close and intimate. I arrived at the perfect time as the skies darken and lights appear on Singapore’s skyline.

Not much to do other than take in the views and a snap photo or two. There is an equally impressive restaurant (Ku De Ta) but one cocktail here would have destroyed my tiny budget.

Chinatown (MRT Chinatown)

Arriving from the MRT I was excited to follow the red lanterns as they guide me to the sign-posted ‘Chinatown Food Street’. The closer I get, however, the less excited I become. Something just didn’t feel right about the area. Squeaky clean pavements, lack of locals. It definitely wasn’t how I expected a traditional Chinatown. A closed-off street, strings of red lanterns, shiny hawker stands selling stereotypical Chinese dishes. Surround them with merchandise stores, hike up the prices and there we have it, Chinatown. Boring. It was all too forced. If the locals don’t eat there you shouldn’t either.

Heeding my own advice I took pace around the corner in search of authenticity. Again bored, I reluctantly ordered half a honey-glazed duck at a plastic restaurant. Duck arrived with a side dip of sweet Thai Chilli sauce? I was soon on my way to find something less bland and sterile. In a country with 3/4 ethnic Chinese population is it really necessary to visit a themed street to experience Chinese culture. In Singapore everywhere is Chinatown (well maybe not little India).

Geylang (MRT Aljunied)

This is where I had booked my hotel. The cheapest hotel I could find situated in the centre of Singapore’s infamous red-light district. When I first arrived, alone, trailing my fake Gucci holdall through the seedy streets of Geylang I admit it, it was a little intimidating. Being the only white guy in sight did add to this anxiety. Nonetheless, I marched on through head held high until a few blocks later I found my hotel.

That evening when the streets were darker I ventured to the main street to feast. Meeting the hawker stalls I was somewhat reluctant to take a seat. Am I welcome here? How will people react? Feeling courageous I approached a stall, ordered Roti Prata with Mutton Murtabak and took a seat close to the street.  I felt at home here. My presence did not disturb the clean-cut Chinese man from scribbling on his horse betting book. The toothless banter between flat-topped Chinese gents continued. I loved it and I was hooked.

The area itself is not intimidating. Join the streams of leggy ‘freelancers’ and inconspicuous, local punters as they navigate the seedy side streets of numbered brothels. People barely notice you. Unlike Bangkok there is no hard sell here. People just go about their business. Every time I left the area I was itching to get back. My Geylang food affair continued. Hainanese chicken, mee goreng, duck noodles. My biryani breakfast is the reason I now sit here with a stained shirt.

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