So this was how the story went.
I was going to be celebrating my 21st birthday in a few days, I had just started my first proper job since quitting college, and I just got dumped by an emotionally and physically absent boyfriend. So, I had plenty to celebrate, and I wanted to make it special.
Several weeks prior to that, a friend of mine had taken me on my first international trip to Thailand, where I immediately caught the travel bug. I was itching to travel again. This time around, I was not going to wait for anyone to take me — I was going to do it myself. And I chose to go to Singapore. Here’s why.
#1 Its Strategic Location
One of the major selling points of Singapore to me at that time was its location. I had only been working for a few months by then, so I wasn’t exactly the richest kid on the block. Flight tickets to faraway places were simply out of the question. Besides, I also didn’t have many days off, so my perfect destination would be somewhere that was close enough for me to make a weekend trip.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out what my best option would be.
So, if you’re Malaysian wanting to travel solo for the first time, Singapore would be the most convenient choice (or Thailand, depending on which one is closer to you). You can travel to Singapore by bus, train, or plane. From Kuala Lumpur by bus, it would take around 4 – 5 hours. By train would be slightly longer.
For those from other countries, Singapore International Airport (Changi) — which is an attraction in itself — is easily reachable from anywhere in the world. It is, in fact, one of the main air hubs in Asia, and is served by most major carriers. Budget airlines that fly into Singapore include Fly Scoot, Jetstar, Air Asia, Malindo Air, Batik Air, IndiGo, Lion Air, and Cebu Pacific.
#2 It's Visa-Free
Yes, Singapore is visa-free for citizens of almost 80% of the world countries. That means, they may travel in Singapore for a period of up to 30 days or 90 days without a visa, depending on their nationality (please refer to the map above).
For my first solo trip, I didn’t want to go through all the hassle of applying for a visa. I don’t think I would have known how, anyway. It was 2010. I wasn’t very tech savvy back then.
#3 It's One of the Safest Countries in the World
No matter how adventurous you are as a person, it’s normal to be concerned about safety when you travel. Especially if you’re female and traveling solo for the first time. I’d like to emphasize that danger is everywhere. There’s no such place that is completely free of crime. But there are countries that are rated ‘more dangerous’ than the others, based on their crime index, political instability, potential for terrorist acts, and military expenditures as a percentage of GDP.
Singapore has very strict laws compared to other Asian countries. There are no religious or racial tensions (apart from minor ones that I’m sure exist everywhere in the world), and no civil unrest. The crime rate is as low as 0.38 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants compared to 6.4 of New York City and 45.1 of Venezuela.
#4 It's Very Clean and Modern
These qualities don’t necessarily make a country the perfect holiday destination. After all, how many people choose their dream vacation based solely on how clean the city is? Probably not so many. Oftentimes, the more remote and the more ‘challenging’ the place, the higher the appeal.
But if you’re traveling abroad for the first time, or if it’s your first time in Asia, it kind of makes sense to want to be in a clean and modern environment. Especially after a long, tiring flight, you probably wouldn’t want to arrive in a place that has no clean water, no clean toilets, no public transports, and frequent power cuts.
Well, good news for you: none of this should be an issue in Singapore. What with its strict no-spitting, no-littering, and no-chewing-gum laws, Singapore is one of the cleanest cities in the world. So clean that some people criticize it for being too ‘clinical’ and ‘sterile’. As for modernity, its gleaming and futuristic skyscrapers will make you think that you’re not in Southeast Asia.
#5 The Locals Speak Good English
Arriving in a country where nobody speaks your language is intimidating, to say the least. Maybe not so much for a seasoned traveler. But for a first-timer, it could be a nightmare. Especially if you can’t read the alphabets either.
If English is the only language you can speak and learning new ones is not your strong suit, fret not. Singapore has a very high English proficiency — even better than many European countries. Being multiracial, it also has three other official languages — Bahasa Melayu, Mandarin, and Tamil — but English is the most widely spoken. So, if you know English, or any of the languages mentioned above, you’ll be fine.
#6 The Locals are Friendly and Helpful
Okay, maybe not as friendly as Malaysians (I’m biased), but they sure are helpful.
Well, okay, maybe not all of them, but out of the many people I had to ask for direction (before smartphones, I had to do that every 10 minutes), most of them were very eager to help.
Singapore is a very fast-paced metropolis; even the escalators are faster than the ones in Malaysia. Everybody seems to be in a hurry to get somewhere. In general, people who live in this kind of environment, i.e. urban-dwellers, tend to be more closed off and prefer minding their own business. Thus, they might come across as unfriendly.
In Singapore, you won’t get the laid-back vibe that’s typical of other Southeast Asian countries. Nobody will call out to you and offer you tuktuk or massage. But if you approach someone for help, you can almost be certain that they will respond positively — if they’re not in a hurry to get to work, that is.
#7 The Attractions
This island country may be tiny in size, but it’s big on entertainment. It’s jam-packed with it. The best thing is, there’s something for everyone, from kids to fashionistas to thrill seekers. Here are some of the attractions that you can amuse yourself with when you’re in Singapore:
- Gardens by the Bay – futuristic tree-like structures that light up at night, and are designed to perform environmentally sustainable functions. It also has the world’s tallest indoor waterfall.
- Marina Bay Sands Resort – houses a luxury hotel with 2,561 rooms, a mall with a canal running through it, and the highest and largest rooftop infinity pool in the world.
- Singapore Flyer – a giant observation wheel standing at 165 meters, where you can indulge in a flute of champagne or a glass of the iconic Singapore Sling. You can also opt for the Premium Sky Dining Flight, which includes a four-course dinner and an in-flight host. Not your ordinary Ferris wheel.
- Singapore Zoo – features an ‘open captivity’ concept, where most of the animals are kept in enclosures that are surrounded by moats and other relatively noninvasive barriers. Home to over 300 animal species, it is the world’s best rainforest zoo.
- Universal Studios Singapore – a 49-acre theme park that pays tribute to films and television shows, where each area of the park features a different theme, such as Hollywood, Madagascar, Shrek’s Far Far Away, the Lost World, and Battlestar Galactica.
- GX-5 Extreme Swing & Reverse Bungee – experience being dropped from a height of 50 meters on the extreme swing or being catapulted to the same height on the reverse bungee. Take your pick.
- The nightlife – Singapore is easily the nightlife capital of Asia. For many years, it has been leading in the prestigious Asia’s 50 Best Bars award, with 11 bars making it to the list.
- Changi Airport – Yes, the airport. Having been named the world’s best airport for the 7th year running, Changi advertises itself as “more than an airport”, and it sure is. Apart from the usual stuff that a typical airport should have — like boarding gates and immigration checkpoints — it also contains art installations and sculptures, a butterfly park, a cactus garden, an orchid garden, a sunflower garden, a cinema, a swimming pool, a giant slide, and an indoor forest with a waterfall.
If I had to describe Singapore (and Singaporeans) in only one word, I would say they are ‘competitive’. When they build something, it has to be the best, the biggest, and the most impressive. It’s as if they’re trying to compensate for their size and lack of natural attractions.
Almost all of Singapore’s attractions are man-made, which makes the whole country feel rather artificial. But it’s hard to not be impressed by what they have achieved, considering their humble beginning as a small fishing village with very few resources.
#8 It Has the Perfect Balance of Modernity and Greenery
Beyond the glitzy opulence and concrete jungle, Singapore is not completely devoid of greenery. Nature lovers can find respite in the Singapore Zoo, the Chinese & Japanese Gardens, Windsor Nature Park, Thomson Nature Park, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, MacRitchie, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, Pulau Ubin, and the Singapore Botanic Gardens, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (the first and only tropical botanic garden on the list).
#9 It's Possible to Cover Everything on Foot
It’s no secret that Singapore is an expensive country to live in and to visit. However, if you only plan to see the main attractions in the city center, you can save on transportation, as it’s possible to cover everything on foot. With a little bit of planning, you could even do it in one day. These attractions are all within walking distance from one another:
- Merlion Park
- Gardens by the Bay
- Marina Bay Sands
- Little India
- Kampung Glam
- Raffles Hotel
- Fort Canning
- Clarke Quay
- Boat Quay
- Art & Science Museum
- National Gallery Singapore
- Singapore National Museum
#10 The Public Transportation is Excellent
If you need to visit attractions that are a little out of the way, or if you simply don’t feel like walking, it’s very easy to get around by public transport. All the attractions in Singapore are well connected with the MRT, LRT, and buses, unlike in some other countries where it’s only possible to explore everything if you rent a car. The metro system here is also easy to navigate as all the signs are in English, and there are English-speaking people everywhere if you need help.
Singapore may not be the most challenging country to visit, but it can be the perfect training ground for those who are new to solo traveling. Many travelers I know who are from Europe or the US and traveling to Southeast Asia for the first time like to use Singapore as the entry point and/or the last destination before returning home. It gives them some sort of a buffer against the stark contrast between Southeast Asia and their home countries.
On my first trip there, I took an overnight train from Kuala Lumpur, arrived in Singapore in the morning, and spent the whole day exploring the city, before taking another overnight train back to Kuala Lumpur. This saved me from having to spend money on accommodation and also helped break the overwhelming task of traveling solo into a more manageable chunk. Visiting Singapore as my first solo destination certainly helped build my confidence to prepare me for more adventures to come.
How about you? Have you visited Singapore? Or have you always wanted to? Share your thoughts in the comments below.