Singapore wows with food, fun, and floral fantasía

While traveling through Southeast Asia, author Angie Hong shares tales from her adventures.

There is a towering grove of truffula trees twinkling beside the ocean. Inside two giant glass domes, sweet air carries the scent of orchids, roses, and myriad tropical flowers. There are waterfalls, lush green walls, and even a room full of stalactites and stalagmites. This is Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay – one of the newest additions to the city-state’s already verdant landscape and a step towards realizing the government’s grand vision of a city inside a garden.

Flowers and vines tumble down a wall inside a dome at Singapore’s Gardens by the Bay

Singapore is one of four stops in a Crazy Rich Asian adventure I’ve embarked upon with my husband and son (age 7). Later we’ll travel three days on the Kinabatangan River in Malaysian Borneo, before visiting Kuala Lumpur and then the Parhentian Islands. I planned the trip on a whim during a bitter cold February weekend while my son sat nursing a broken leg and watching endless hours of television. Key factors in my choice of destination included cheap airfare to and within the region, tropical climate, famously fabulous street food, and the potential to see orangutans in the wild.

The sights to see in Singapore are almost ostentatiously over-the-top. The neighborhoods – Little India, Chinatown, and Kampong Glam – are like countries in and of themselves and each offers a unique array of shops, restaurants, people, and world religions. Green architecture is on display throughout the central city where you can see green roofs and walls, solar panels, porous pavers, and urban parks all around.

Within the Kampong Glam neighborhood, some streets feature Moroccan and Turkish delights, while others offer hip restaurants and chic boutiques.

Equally impressive, were the things we didn’t see in Singapore. There are no beggars, no homeless people, no graffiti, and no litter. The subway system is the cleanest I have ever seen – there are no dingy corridors, no sketchy characters, and no lingering smell of urine. The floors and seats of the trains virtually sparkle.

As a country, Singapore is quite young, having only gained self-governance in 1959. It is a parliamentary democracy and is consistently ranked as one of the top three least corrupt governments in the world. In practical terms, however, life and governance in Singapore are markedly different than in the U.S. Rules are strictly enforced, and the government applies corporal punishment and even the death penalty for non-violent crimes. There is no unemployment or welfare support, but the government heavily subsidizes services to make them affordable. Eighty percent of Singaporeans live in government-provided housing and there is a government-run universal health care system, supplemented by the private sector.

Singapore is also one of the most environmentally progressive countries in the world, mostly due to necessity. With only 278 square miles of land for more than 5 million people, Singapore doesn’t have the luxury of seemingly endless land and water resources like we do in the U.S. Nonetheless, over 47% of the island is devoted to green space and more than 80% of households are within a ten-minute walk of a park. Water reclamation and energy efficiency features abound.

As we leave Singapore, I get the sense we’ve caught a glimpse into the future – either that or an alternate reality. It’s a place where cities grow inside gardens and truffula trees come to life.