SEEING as you’ll have used all of your savings and annual leave on this trip, and come so far, it makes sense to throw in a stopover to acclimatise yourself to the time difference. You could do worse than to pick Singapore, one of the original Asian tiger economies and now home to more than 50,000 British expats, mostly plying their trade in the city state’s booming financial services sector.
Though it shares a peninsula with Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, which I visited a couple of years ago and loved for its chaotic wet markets and unashamed designer rip-offs, landing in Singapore is a very different experience. If KL is the creative, slightly wild younger sibling, then Singapore is its serious, studious older brother; dressed up in Sunday best to tell you just how high his quality of life is.
Touring the city’s various ethnic quarters – Chinatown, Arab Street, the colonial district – is a bit like walking through a studio lot of film locations; each quarter is impeccably clean and easy to navigate, as if its identity has been power hosed to remove any trace of a dirty past.
But that’s not to say Singapore doesn’t have one. By 1977 almost 100 years of trade had left its river so buried in filth that an ambitious clean-up project took an entire decade, as sewage systems were built from scratch and swathes of squatters were relocated.
If all this sounds a bit negative, it’s not. Singapore knows exactly what it wants to be and is unapologetically making it happen, attracting money with its huge designer malls, casinos, restaurants and luxury hotels. Take it for what it is – clean, easy fun – and you can happily fill a few days seeing the sights and spending your tourist dollar on cut-price electronics, fuelled by hotter-than-hell chilli crab and decent local beer.
The government’s most recent effort to scrub itself up for tourists is Gardens by the Bay, a $1bn, 250-acre park built on reclaimed land and completed in 2012 (on time and on budget: imagine that). With two enormous conservatories and a forest of Supertrees – looming manmade towers that serve as vertical gardens – it’s an Avatar-esque playground on the waterfront; beautiful, serene, and very much to be looked at but not touched.
For a bird’s eye view of the park it’s worth ascending one of the metal trees to IndoChine, a rotating restaurant with views right across the bay as well as inland to the architectural insanity of the Marina Bay Sands hotel; a giant surfboard perched on top of three Jenga pieces, complete with a 200m-high infinity pool. With its chrome, brocade and leopard print decor, IndoChine looks like the sort of place that Elton John might live if he gave up singing to become a Bond villain, but the food (and lurid Singapore Slings) is good, and the view alone is worth the trip.