Singapore is known as one of the most prosperous countries in the world. At just under 300 square miles, it’s not exactly famous for its rolling hills or vast geography, but instead for its luxury. What it lacks in territory, it handsomely makes up for in decadent landmarks, high-tech metropolitan areas, and a steep cost of living.
Most people know Singapore for its high price tags, but what is often left out in this small country’s reputation is the ability to have a great trip at a low price. After living in Thailand as a teacher for a year and taking three months to travel around southeast Asia, Singapore was my last stop before going home to the United States. Needless to say, I was short on funds. I went into the country expecting to blow my last dollar on expensive meals and over-priced tourist attractions, but surprisingly, I got so much more.
1) Transport yourself into and around Singapore on the Cheap
Of course, when you fly into Changi Airport, you immediately feel taken aback by the sheer luxury of the place. With a waterfall, butterfly garden, and gigantic maze (yes, really, check it out) in the middle, the airport is not exactly low-key. But after driving into the city, you realize that Singapore isn’t actually that different from most major cities. The streets are similar to any you can find in a western city. The subway system is very normal (if not amusement park-esque).
I was staying in a Chinese neighborhood, very close to the Aljunid train stop. While it was a little far out from the middle of town, it was the cheapest option. As I said, I definitely didn’t have the funds to stay at the Marina Bay Sands. I stayed there for three nights, so I decided to pay for a three-day all-inclusive pass for trains and buses. It ended up being a great investment and well worth the up-front costs.
I put my bus pass to use, and took buses all over the city. It was a budget traveler’s version of a Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour. While I didn’t get to have sites explained to me like a “real” bus tour, I did get to see so much of the city at a much cheaper cost. I saw neighborhoods, amazing architecture, and got a real feel for the entire city.
I also walked around my neighborhood a lot. A lot of people have a preconceived idea that Asian countries are wildly different than Western countries. In reality, they’re extremely similar. There are grocery stores, churches, and coffee shops right beside bars and tattoo shops. They might be halfway across the world, but they’re really not all that different.
2) Hang out in Singapore Botantic Gardens
The only thing you have to invest at Singapore Botanic Gardens is time. An example of the amusement park world: the train stop for the gardens was literally named Botanic Gardens. Love it. For free, visitors can walk around an enormous and beautiful park. It had tons of walking paths, greenery to look at, and places to grab a drink or relax. I also got very lucky, because one of the local schools was actually putting on a performance with their orchestra in the amphitheater. I spent most of the afternoon and evening there, listening to music, sitting in the grass, and walking around.
3) Explore Marina Bay Sands
On my further quest for inexpensive activities, I found the Marina Bay Sands. If you’ve ever watched a Travel Channel documentary about Singapore or looked at influencer pictures on Instagram, you’ve definitely seen the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. It’s the three-tower building with the floating infinity pool on top. It’s world-renowned, and has tons of tourist hot spots such as bars, restaurants, casinos, and shopping centers on top of the incredible hotel. The Marina Bay Sands Hotel is gigantic, luxurious, and expensive. BUT, there are plenty of cheap/free things to do around it.
One of those inexpensive experiences is the Garden. The Garden is a huge outdoor area that surrounds the southern part of the hotel. It has huge artificial tree sculptures that light up at night, as well as many other light shows and spectacles.
I went right as the sun was setting, so the light shows were even more amazing. They are incredibly creative and gravity-defying, as well as stunning. I was there in the middle of December. Although it was humid and hot out, the tree sculptures were putting on a show to Christmas music.
There is also a light show that happens on the northern side of the hotel. It started immediately after the tree show, so I raced around the huge hotel to try to get a glimpse of that show. Unfortunately, it was a flop of an attempt. I missed most of the show and had a terrible view, so I decided to just make it my mission to come back the next day for it.
4) Feast on Satisfyingly Inexpensive Singapore Cuisine
I’ve talked a lot about things to see and do in Singapore, but I can’t forget everyone’s favorite part of traveling: the food. Chinese immigrants founded Singapore, so a lot of the food has major Chinese influences. Many know the cuisine for things like fried rice, noodles, and barbecue. One of my favorite dishes was Hokkien chicken with rice and chilli sauce. It is a very simple meal, but it is still something I dream about months later. And if you know where to look, you can get it for a fantastic price. Usually, I paid about three Singaporean dollars per meal, which translates to about $2.50 USD.
Singapore is also home to my all time favorite dessert. Think of an Uncrustable sandwich, but instead of bread, it’s made of rice flour. And instead of peanut butter and jelly, the inside is caramelized palm sugar. The sand-dollar sized treats are covered with coconut shavings and eaten with a spoon. The inside is warm and gooey, and when you take a bite it actually melts in your mouth. It’s unbelievably good.
One of the best parts of Asian cuisine is the cafeteria-like food courts, where vendors gather together for a one-stop-shop for great food. Hungry for dinner one night, I got some famous Singaporean fried rice, where the culture demands to actually burn the rice to the bowl a little bit. It adds a crunchy taste with a little bit of char flavoring. It goes great with a warm cup of tea.
After dinner, I raced to the water show viewing spot from the day before. I got there about thirty minutes early to reserve a great seat upfront. As my luck would have it, it rained a little, but that really didn’t take away from the beauty of it. And it was beautiful. I watched the twenty-minute fountain, music, and light show as it took my breath away. I’m not even sure my words can do it justice.
5) Meet a Friend
The next day was my last day in Singapore and my only goal for the day was to make it to the top of Marina Bay Sands for a drink overlooking the city and water. But first, I met up with a friend that worked at Google in Singapore. She was able to give me a tour of the place and we grabbed lunch. It was super cool to see a bunch of ex-pats all working together and loving their job.
After exploring the inside of the decadent hotel/shopping center/palace, I made my way up to the top. On top there are two restaurants, two bars, a viewing deck, and a swimming pool. I grabbed an (overpriced) drink and had a seat. With the sun setting and the light show starting down below, it was a fantastic way to end the trip. It was definitely worth the money spent on the cocktail.
Singapore is probably one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. It has history to the brim, sitting right next to technology and modernism. You can stay in a luxurious hotel, and still be able to sit on a plastic stool and eat a humble meal of chicken and rice. There is so much culture everywhere you look and the juxtaposition of Old World and New World is fascinating.
If there’s anything that you should take from reading about my trip, it should be that Singapore is absolutely doable on a low budget. Regardless of the hype and puffery that surrounds Singapore, it is really an amazing, down-to-Earth country. Of course, there are casinos and places to spend money, but there are plenty of things to do on a budget. You don’t need to have a Singapore salary to have an excellent time there.
by Emma Higgins