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Singapore is not what I expected. Not at all. After backpacking through the rest of South East Asia, I was accustomed to messy, chaotic streets.
Yet, I arrived in Singapore with disbelief. This modern, clean and forward thinking the city sitting at the southern tip of continental Asia would not be out of place in many western countries.
As a country, Singapore is relatively young having recently celebrated it’s 50th year of independence. But it’s roots extend well back in to Malaysian rule and colonialist times.
It’s these roots that have been key to it’s success. Although very small (it could fit more than 400 times in to neighbouring Malaysia), the country has worked tirelessly to show that it can thrive under independence.
The wealth is impressive. Demonstrated by it’s skyline featuring over 80 skyscrapers in a variety of shapes and sizes. From Marina Bay Sands, where a 3 acre park sits atop the three main towers of the hotel/casino, to a theatre shaped like a Durian fruit.
What really caught my attention, was how sustainable Singapore is. For a city with just 5 million citizens, the city is clearly at the forefront of the green revolution. Solar panels, vertical garden with plants sprawling up them, rainwater collection and many parks, some even on top of buildings.
Singapore Quick Facts
- Currency: Singapore uses the Singapore Dollar which is usually written as SGD$ or S$. This is equivalent to £0.60 / €0.65 / US$0.72.
- Population: Singapore’s population is 5.6 million.
- Language: Singapore has 4 official languages; Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, and English. Whilst the national anthem is sung in Malay, English is the most common with most schools teaching this as the first language.
- Religion: There is no official religion in Singapore.
- Plug Socket: Singapore use the type G plug socket (same as the UK) at 230V
- Driving: Singapore drive on the left hand side, you’ll need to have a 1949 international driving permit to hire a vehicle.
Where to Stay in Singapore on a Budget?
If you’re planning to travel Singapore on a budget then you’ll want to stay in hostels. You’ll find hostels to be a little different in Singapore as they attract a much wider audience than your typical backpacker crowd in the rest of South East Asia.
The good ones tend to get booked up during peak periods so booking ahead is advised at these times.
There are a two great hostels near the Rochor MRT stop, this is just 3 stops from Gardens by the Bay and 5 stops from the Merlion statue so it’s not far at all:
- The InnCrowd Backpackers Hostel: This is where I stayed, they have a kitchen area which helps keep costs down, free breakfast and a free scooter tour all at a reasonable price for the city.
- The Little Red Dot Hostel: Good place to socialise with free breakfast, friendly staff and comfy beds. They provide free walking tours where you’ll learn about the city.
Getting Around Singapore on a Budget
Within the central area of the city near the Singapore isn’t that big, I was able to explore most of it on foot. But there will likely be some times when you need to use public transport, your main options are:
MRT (Mass Rapid Transit)
This is the main train system in Singapore and is the most convenient way to get around. A single fare costs between SGD$1-1.50 within the central parts of the city.
You must purchase single use tickets for the MRT, however you can reload the same ticket up to 6 times and you’ll get SGD$0.10 off your 3rd and 6th journeys. Plus, it’s better for the environment.
There’s an extensive bus network in Singapore, I’d recommend you download google maps to help navigate it as the app is well integrated.
A single bus fare is about the same as the MRT, however you’ll need to pay in cash and they don’t give change so be aware of that before using them (unless you have the travel cards outlined below).
This is the ride hailing app that is prominent in Asia. It is similar to Uber although you get the journey cost up front before even booking and you’ll pay in cash as it currently doesn’t connect to foreign bank accounts.
Travel Passes in Singapore
With single fares on the MRT and buses so low, it’s likely that this will be the most economic option when travelling in Singapore on a budget. However if you expect to be making a considerable number of trips, you can consider the following travel passes:
Singapore Tourist Pass
A Singapore tourist card allows unlimited travel for 1/2/3 days on the MRT and buses for SGD$10/16/20 respectively.
If you’ll be using the MRT a lot then this might be worthwhile but on my visit I tended to make between 2-4 journeys per day so a tourist pass would not be advisable.
EZ Link Card
Another option is to get an EZ link card. There is an SGD$5 non-refundable deposit, but as a result you get to take advantage of much cheaper fares on the buses and MRT. You could save as much as 45% on each single trip.
2020 Update: Contactless Payments
You can now use Contactless payments seamlessly on the MRT and buses, and take advantage of the same rates as EZ Link card holders. You’ll tap your card when entering the MRT station or boarding a bus and tap again when leaving.
Fares will be calculated at the reduced rate and charged to your card either daily (for Visa) or every 5 days (for MasterCard).
This is a new service that I have not personally tried, however I would recommend checking if your bank charges international transaction fees before trying this.
Travelling Over the Border
If you’re planning to head further afield to Malaysia and beyond, it’s not advisable to book through hostels as you’ll usually be booking a premium. Try booking on Easybook which provides reasonably priced bus travel in Malaysia and Singapore.
Eating and Drinking on a Budget
Dine at Hawker Centres as opposed to restaurants
If you’re visiting a restaurant in Singapore, you can expect to pay prices similar to western standards. Luckily, there’s an abundance of cheap and delicious food available at the Hawker centres.
These are open air food courts that offer a wide selection of cuisines, including Chinese, Indian, Western, Seafood and local dishes. Dishes cost between SGD$3-5 for excellent food.
Drink the tap water
Unlike other countries in South East Asia, you can drink the tap water in Singapore so won’t need to keep buying bottled water – good for your pocket and the environment.
Cut down on booze
Singapore is a very strict country which has contributed to it’s financial success. As such, alcohol and cigarettes are heavily taxed making them very expensive compared to nearby countries. If you’re on a budget, you’re not going to want to go on any nights out in Singapore.
Things To Do in Singapore on a Budget
Singapore seems to have two extremes when it comes to tourist attractions, either completely free or quite pricey. Obviously this guide is going to focus on the free things to do in Singapore:
1. Gardens by the Bay
Gardens by the bay is a huge 101 acre green area where nature and technology come together to create a stunning attraction.
It is free to enter the gardens and look around, you’ll be able to wander amongst the Supertrees that stand as tall as 50m.
Not only do these trees look visually appealing and draw in tourists, but functionally they are very environmentally friendly, collecting rainwater, generating solar energy and providing air ventilation for the conservatories.
You can take a stroll along the 440m boardwalk by the dragonfly lake try spotting the many sculptures that are on display throughout the park. Some parts of the gardens do charge for entry including the flower dome, the cloud forest and the sky walk.
Each night there is a light show at 7.45 and 8.45 pm, the trees light up in time to music which is inspiring to watch.
2. Merlion Statue
At first, the strange half lion, half fish statue in the middle of Singapore might seem a little strange, but the ‘Merlion’ is an ode to the city’s humble beginnings. The fish is reminiscent of the original fishing village whilst the lion represents the original name, Singapura, meaning lion city.
The sculpture has been moved from it’s original location to the new Merlion Park. This is the perfect place to admire the city, with sweeping views across the bay towards the west and the incredible architecture that dominates the skyline towards the East.
3. Marina Bay Sands Light Show
Marina Bay Sands, the USD$8billion hotel and casino, has become synonymous with the skyline of Singapore. The three towers are a fantastic piece of architecture in themselves but the 3 acre park that spans across the top of them is something else.
Each evening, there is an impressive light show where the fountains and surrounding buildings light up with lasers and projections to orchestral music.
For the best view of the fountains, sit in front of the Louis Vuitton building or to get a fuller view of the lights, sit on the other side of the lake looking directly across at Marina Bay Sands. Show times are 8 pm and 9 pm each day with an additional 10 pm show on Fridays and Saturdays (check official website for changes).
4. Free Concerts and Movie Showings at Esplanade
Look out for many free events that are held throughout the city year round. Both the Esplanade theatre located by the bay and the botanic gardens hold fantastic concerts that are free to attend.
I was lucky enough to visit Singapore during the Esplanades ‘Jazz in July’ event and was able to attend one of the performances which was really enjoyable. Also look out for the free outdoor movies that are frequently held across the city.
Here are the links to find out what events might be on during your visit:
5. Day Trip to the Forts and Beaches of Sentosa Island
Sentosa island is home to many resorts including universal studios, SEA Aquarium and the trick eye museum so you may be wondering why I’ve included it on a list of free things to do in Singapore.
Well, many people do not realise but you can actually visit the Island for free and there are some great things to see and do without paying a penny.
Avoid the SGD$35 cable car and instead head to HarbourFront MRT station, from here you can walk across the bridge to Sentosa Island free of charge.
Once you’re actually on the Island, you can use the shuttle bus to get around for free. There is a SGD$4 tram across to the Island if you don’t want to walk. The tram stops on Sentosa Island don’t have ticket check points so once you’ve walked over the bridge you can easily use this for free too.
Visit the beaches of Sentosa by taking the free shuttle bus that journeys up and down the island or head to Fort Siloso where you can stroll across the sky walk and learn how Singapore defended its waters in war time.
Whilst not comparable to the beaches in the South of Thailand or Cambodia, it makes a nice brief escape from the buzz of the city.
Whilst on Sentosa island, I also took a visit to the ‘Southernmost Point in Continental Asia‘. The view wasn’t particularly special as the sea was filled with cargo ships, but after spending 4 months travelling through South East Asia,it was a nice sense of accomplishment to have reached the edge of the continent.
6. Tiger Balm Gardens
You’ve most likely come across Tiger Balm during your travels around Asia. This cure-anything cream was the creation of Chinese-Burmese brothers; Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par.
Tiger Balm was a huge success, so armed with more than enough cash, one of the brothers purchased a villa and designed Haw Par Villa (also referred to as Tiger Balm Gardens) which is now free to visit. With thousands of statues, the gardens are heavily influenced by Chinese traditions and religions.
The most famous feature is a depiction of the Ten Courts Of Hell, based on the belief that wrong-doers are judged for their sins in the afterlife through ten courts. The tunnel is full of very graphic statues showing the punishments, each court has worsening punishments from being thrown in to volcanic pits to having your body dismembered.
Singapore Daily Budget
With lavish casinos and fancy restaurants, it’s possible to spend a huge amount whilst you’re in Singapore. But it’s also possible to have a reasonably priced visit if you seek out the right places to stay, eat and explore.
If you follow the budget travel tips in this guide, expect your average daily budget in Singapore to be around SGD$60 per day (£36 / USD$43). This doesn’t include transport in and out of the city.
Here are some of the key costs to bear in mind:
- Average dorm bed in a hostel: SGD$25
- Single public transport ticket: SGD$1.50
- Meal in a restaurant: SGD$12-15
- Meal in a Hawker Centre (more on this below): SGD$3-5
- Grab to/from the airport: SGD$22
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Kieren is the avid traveller behind the blog. His adventures have included Interrailing through Europe, road tripping the US and backpacking SE Asia.