I visited Singapore, the outlandishly wealthy setting of 'Crazy Rich Asians,' and was surprised by how much fun you can have even without billions

Chris McGrath/Getty Images
  • The summer blockbuster “Crazy Rich Asians” is set in Singapore, which is known worldwide for its extravagance and wealth.
  • I visited Singapore in May expecting it to be wildly expensive and out of reach for all but wealthy travellers.
  • But I found that the city was full of cheap, delicious food, efficient public transportation, top-notch museums, a budding nightlife scene, and beautiful parks. As I quickly learned, if you do as the Singaporeans do, you can easily have a blast in the city without breaking the bank.

Singapore, known worldwide for its extravagance and wealth, is the setting of “Crazy Rich Asians,” the summer blockbuster everyone’s talking about based on the bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan.

In recent years, it has become “a one-stop shop for Asia’s rich,” according to The New York Times, perhaps surpassing even Switzerland as a place for the world’s millionaires and billionaires to park their money.

The airport has a private-jet terminal. The city-state’s best-known landmark is a $US6.6 billion megahotel that looks like a floating ship. And there are facilities like Le Freeport, an ultra-secure duty- and tax-free facility for the superrich to store their stuff.

In March, Singapore was named the world’s most expensive city to live in for the fifth year running by the Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Worldwide Cost of Living” survey.

As a traveller not accustomed to spending a fortune on trips (exhibit A: my bungled recent trip to Mykonos), I wasn’t sure what visiting Singapore would be like.

But after spending four days in the city in May, I found that my fears were unfounded. The city abounds with cheap, delicious food, efficient public transportation, top-notch museums, a budding nightlife scene, and beautiful parks. As I quickly learned, if you do as the Singaporeans do, you can easily have a blast in the city without breaking the bank.

Contrary to depictions like those found in “Crazy Rich Asians,” most Singaporeans are not rolling in cash. The average salary in the city is about $US42,000, according to Payscale.

Here’s what it was like to visit Singapore:


My trip to Singapore, like most places, started at the airport. But Singapore’s Changi International Airport isn’t just any airport — it’s considered the best in the world. Upon arriving, I found out why.

Source: Business Insider


Though the airport boasts impressive amenities like a free movie theatre, a butterfly garden, a rooftop swimming pool, and 24-hour spas, it’s the facility’s cleanliness and efficiency that the average traveller will notice most. I really enjoyed the abundant green spaces as well.

Source: Business Insider


As I rode in a car from Grab, Singapore’s main ride-hailing app, from the airport ($US12), it hit me how green the city is. The streets and highways are shaded with umbrella-like rain trees, dense evergreen tembusu trees, and colourful bougainvillea from magenta to crimson.

Shutterstock

Source: Straits Times, Singaporean government


The city has been known as the “garden city” since Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, introduced the concept in 1967. His vision was to envelop it in lush foliage to make it cleaner and more pleasant. His initiative worked. About 1.4 million trees have been planted in the past 40 years, and new buildings are routinely covered in greenery.

Shutterstock

Source: Straits Times, Singaporean government


For my first two nights in Singapore, I got a steal at Hotel G for $US77 a night. Located near the city center, the chic boutique hotel had tight, clean, well-arranged rooms.

Source: Hotel G Singapore


It was also near lots of cheap food options, which are not that hard to find in Singapore. The city is stocked with cheap, tasty food. One of my first meals there was this curry chicken from Killiney, a long-standing coffee shop in the city.

Source: Killiney Kopitiam


The hotel was right next to the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple. Singapore has a diverse population, and there are Buddhist temples like this one, Hindu temples, and mosques dotted throughout the city. I didn’t actually go in, as it was a Buddhist holiday.

Shutterstock

I did spend a few hours wandering through the Bugis Street Market, Singapore’s biggest market. While it has a salacious past, today it is packed with cheap clothes, accessories, and food stalls. It’s a classic market often seen in Asia: rambunctious, colourful, and rife with copyright infringement.

Shutterstock

You experience Singapore with your mouth — perhaps more than any other place I’ve visited. For those in the know, the city is foodie heaven. Chinese, Indian, and Malay populations bring their unique culinary cultures to the food scene. And the best place to experience that is in Singapore’s hawker centres.


Built in the 1950s and 1960s to make street food more sanitary while preserving the local food culture, hawker centres are large, open-air complexes with food stalls where many Singaporeans eat every day. There are dozens of centres across the city.


I spent an entire day visiting hawker centres and trying as many dishes as I could fit in my stomach; they rarely exceeded $US10. What makes Singaporean food so incredible is the way it transforms dishes from one culture to another. Case in point: Indian mutton noodles, which incorporates noodles from Chinese cuisine. (Traditional Indian food usually doesn’t include noodles.)

Harrison Jacobs/Business InsiderThree dishes I had on my food tour, from left: lor mee, a Chinese noodle soup of flat noodles and thick gravy; Indian mutton noodles; and chwee kueh, steamed rice cakes with hot preserved radish relish.

While there are dozens of cooks in each hawker center, most centres specialize in particular dishes or cuisines. At the center in Little India, I had rojak, a traditional fruit-and-vegetable salad. There are different types of rojak with Chinese, Indian, or Malay flavours, but the basic idea is that you select what you want in your salad, and depending on the items, it might be fried up or served fresh with sauces.


To give you an idea of how integral food is to Singapore’s culture: When I asked a Grab driver where to eat dinner, he spent the entire 15-minute drive giving me detailed instructions for no fewer than a dozen restaurants — what to order, the best time to go, how to find the inevitably hidden restaurant or stall.


But what I loved most was how accessible it all was. Any Singaporean I met was happy to share favourites or advice, the most valuable of which was to look for the stall with the longest line. In Singapore, that means it’s the best food.


As I walked through the city, I found myself stopping often to take photos of the colourful architecture. Having always thought of Singapore as a business city, I was surprised to see such distinctive architecture — but that’s my ignorance. Singapore is well known for its abundance of Peranakan facades and shophouses.

Shutterstock

Peranakan Singaporeans are the descendants of Chinese immigrants who came to the city between the 15th and 17th centuries, eventually intermarrying with the indigenous Malay people. The distinctive culture that resulted is heralded in Singapore and can be seen in the colourful architecture, elaborate clothing styles, and unique food.

Shutterstock

One night after eating way too much during the day, I hopped on the metro, or MRT, to Chinatown. Singapore’s metro blew me away. It is spotless, fast, cheap, and efficient. You can use it to get just about everywhere very quickly.


In Chinatown, I decided to do some souvenir shopping. Temple Street is the heart of the neighbourhood. The shopping is nothing particularly special, but the shophouses are gorgeous, and it all makes for great photos.

Shutterstock

And many restaurants serve chilli crab, perhaps one of the most hyped Singaporean dishes, in which hefty mud crabs are cooked in sweet, savoury tomato-chilli sauce. It’s one of the more expensive dishes in Singapore — but even so, it’s within reach. I had a very tasty plate of two crabs for $US40. Obviously it can be much more expensive at the white-tablecloth restaurants.


I found better shopping the next day in Kampong Glam, a neighbourhood sometimes called the Muslim Quarter because of its ties to the Muslim and Malay communities. The Masjid Sultan mosque is the gorgeous jewel at the center of the neighbourhood.

Shutterstock

While traditional businesses — like textile, carpet, and religious shops — still exist, the neighbourhood is seeing more and more art galleries, clothing boutiques, cafes, and other hallmarks of global hipsterdom.

Shutterstock

Haji Lane, a narrow street in Kampong Glam, is the focal point of the development. You can easily spend a day wandering in the funky shops, eating or drinking at the cafes, or taking photos in front of the colourful graffiti walls.

Shutterstock

Singapore’s mix-and-match food culture continues to evolve. This ice-cream dish from Moosh was a take on onde-onde, a traditional dessert of rice-cake balls filled with sugar and coated in coconut. Only serious sweet-tooths need apply.

Source: Moosh


The next morning, I headed back to Chinatown to meet Chan Hon Meng, also known as Hawker Chan, the owner and chef of Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle. In 2016, his hawker stall became the cheapest restaurant to earn a Michelin. His soya-sauce chicken rice is less than $US4.

Source: The National


Later, I headed to Sentosa, a former British military base turned into an island of resorts. There, I visited Universal Studios Singapore, one of the properties of Resorts World Sentosa. It includes casinos, a water park, hotels, and the theme park.


Honestly, it was my least favourite part of Singapore. There’s just nothing particularly distinctive about it for an international tourist. That said, I did appreciate that it seemed to be a place of leisure for Singaporeans. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the balmy June day, hopping on roller coasters.


After the theme park, I headed to my second hotel, which was admittedly a big step up. I was staying at Marina Bay Sands, a landmark $US6.6 billion megahotel featuring a casino, a museum, a shopping mall, and incredible views of the city and bay.

Source: Marina Bay Sands


The Marina Bay Sands is iconic — most will recognise the futuristic architecture, which was designed to look like a ship floating on the three towers.

Wikimedia CommonsMarina Bay Sands

The bed in my hotel room was super comfy, as expected, but the decor was all very dated. It seemed as if it was cutting edge when it opened, but now it’s kind of drab for a hotel that costs a minimum $US500 a night. Honestly, I felt I got more bang for my buck in Hotel G.


The real star of the hotel is the Sands Skypark, which has the world’s largest rooftop infinity pool — and it’s available only for hotel guests. At 57 stories up and overlooking the Singapore skyline, it makes for quite a pool day. I spent the morning after my first night floating in the water.


The Marina Bay Sands provided a perfect view of Gardens by the Bay, the futuristic park featuring more than 1 million plants, the world’s largest glass greenhouse, and a grove of 160-foot-tall “supertrees.”

Shutterstock

Source: Business Insider


In the afternoon, I headed there to see whether it lived up to the hype. Most people know about Gardens by the Bay because of the Supertree Grove: 12 tree-like structures that act as vertical gardens and range from 82 to 160 feet tall.

Source: Business Insider


But the park’s real stars are the biodomes, including the 129,000-square-foot Flower Dome and the 86,000-square-foot Cloud Forest. The Flower Dome is maintained to have a semi-arid, subtropical climate and features plants from places like the Mediterranean, California, Australia, Chile, and South Africa.

Shutterstock

Source: Business Insider


The Cloud Forest conservatory is smaller than the Flower Dome, but it may be more impressive. Its climate mimics that of mist-covered tropical highlands and contains 72,000 plants. You can walk on a skyway that encircles a 115-foot-tall “mountain” with the world’s tallest indoor waterfall.

Source: Business Insider


After seeing the biodomes, I headed to the Supertree Grove. The design of the supertrees is inspired by the karri trees of Australia and the magical forest in the classic Japanese film “Princess Mononoke.” I walked along a suspended walkway that provided a vertigo-inducing view of the trees.

Source: Business Insider


The “trees” are covered with 162,900 plants from 200 species on panels attached to the reddish trellises — this was my favourite view. The idea behind the trees is that the longer they are maintained, the denser the greenery will become. In 10 or 20 years, you won’t be able to see any trellises.

Source: Business Insider


At night, the trees light up in coordination with music. Called the “Garden Rhapsody,” the light-and-music show happens twice a night, and the music changes nightly. When I was there, the thunderous peals from popular movies like “Indiana Jones” and “Star Wars” played.

Shutterstock

Source: Business Insider


On my last night in Singapore, I finally got a chance to check out the nightlife. Afterward, I was upset that I didn’t go out earlier. The city has a burgeoning, creative cocktail scene that rivals that of New York or London. I started my night at the Spiffy Dapper. You’ve got to love a bar whose menu includes a guide to “bars better than us.”

Source: Spiffy Dapper,Bloomberg


Speakeasy culture may be everywhere these days, but Singapore’s cocktail bars stood out for their uniqueness, approachability, and communal spirit. Every bartender I spoke to seemed excited to try a new concoction or recommend another bar I should visit. I particularly liked Potato Head, a three-story bar with beach vibes, eclectic decor, and great music.

Source: Potato Head


On my last day, I visited the ArtScience Museum, in the Marina Bay Sands. It could have been lame, but it seemed genuinely engaged in thinking about what a museum of the future looks like by providing museumgoers with lots of interactivity.


While I was there, the main exhibit was “Futureworld” ($US9.50 for a ticket), created in collaboration with a Japanese art collective. It showcased the museum’s mission of highlighting the intersections of art and technology. I was particularly moved by “Black Waves,” a kind of moving digital painting mapped onto the walls of the room. It enveloped viewers in a moving ocean, mimicking Japanese premodern paintings.

Courtesy of Marina Bay Sands

By the time I left Singapore, I found that what I expected it to be — a cloistered metropolis of luxury shopping malls, casinos, and hotels — was light-years from the vibrant city I saw. While those elements are there, the real Singapore was accessible, colourful, and a ton of fun.

NOW WATCH: Executive Life videos

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.