Heidi Sarna, author of Secret Singapore, is an expat living with her family on that island-nation for 15 years. Lea introduces facts about Singapore, and then Heidi tells its secrets, including seawalls, shophouses, rail lines, mansions and shrines.
We talk cruising and of exceptional Changi airport with its offerings, and 'Gardens By The Bay.' We discuss if safety in Singapore-- including fines for jaywalking, chewing gum -- is too much.
Singapore's multi-national cuisine is renowned, and we speak of favorite foods, often served at communal Hawker Centers.
You can get a good overview of Singapore from the huge ferris wheel, but an even better one from a rooftop locals know about. We talk of nightlife, shopping, historic neighborhoods, and architecture. Also the famed Hotel Raffles -- the lore and the reality.
Heidi ends our surprising tour with her favorite Singapore memory.
Heidi Sarna, author of Secret Singapore, is an expat living with her family on that island-nation for 15 years. She writes, takes photos and has been on over 150 cruises.
Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at forbes.com, has traveled to over 100 countries, written nine books, including Places I Remember, and contributed to guidebooks. She's @lealane on Twitter; PlacesIRememberLeaLane on Insta; on Facebook, it's Places I Remember with Lea Lane. Website: placesirememberlealane.com. Please follow, rate and review this weekly travel podcast!
* Transcript edited for clarity.
Lea Lane 00:00
Hi, I'm Lea Lane, an award winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales Truths Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world.
Singapore is a tropical island in Southeast Asia off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, home to about 6 million people. It's been a city, a state and a nation and it became part of Malaysia on September 16 1963. Singapore consists of some 60 small islands plus the main island separated from the Malaysian peninsula to the north. The southern limits run through Singapore Strait, where an Indonesian archipelago extends within 10 miles of the main island. Because of Singapore's ethnic diversity, English, Mandarin, Chinese, Malay and Tamil are official languages. Our guest today is Heidi Sarna, an expat living in Singapore and author of Secret Singapore, Heidi specializes in travel business and human interest stories. And she's explored around 80 countries and sailed aboard 120 cruise ships and county. Welcome, Heidi.
Heidi Sarna 01:21
Lea Lane 01:22
You know, you've been on so many cruises, can you first tell us what's going on in the Far East, especially in Singapore in regards to cruising?
Heidi Sarna 01:30
Well, much of Asia, Southeast Asia is still sort of under lockdowns of different different levels. But there's cruises to nowhere which I sampled, actually, that six months ago, Royal Caribbean, for instance, is doing "nowhere cruises," and they're quite popular, I have to say. You had to do all the testing and all, but very popular. And there's still, there's still happening. And I did one, it was interesting.
Lea Lane 01:52
But more and more ships are coming through Singapore, is that correct?
Heidi Sarna 01:55
They are, but cruising has not opened up though as it has in North America and Europe and is not open to that extent. There are some lines that are still paused, unfortunately, in that part of the world.
Lea Lane 02:07
Right. I think the future after this situation will be that the Far East will be growing tremendously in terms of cruising. So that's something to look forward to.
Heidi Sarna 02:17
Sure, sure. Pre-COVID that was the trajectory, it was definitely going that way. So hopefully that will come back.
Lea Lane 02:23
So you wrote Secret Singapore, can you tell us some of the secrets and how you found them?
Heidi Sarna 02:28
Yeah, so I've been in Singapore for over 15 years with my family. And I'm a curious person by nature. I'm into heritage. I'm a writer, a travel writer. So I started exploring, and I realized that there's just more than meets the eye; a lot of people assume partly rightly so, that Singapore is full of skyscrapers and modern everything and they just have bulldozed the old stuff. But in fact, if you nose around, there is a lot of secret things: old ruins sea walls, I especially love the old sea walls of Singapore. Singapore is a lot of reclaimed land. So if you know where to look, you can see the original you can find the original coastline, which is a thrill for me.
Lea Lane 03:06
How far back does the those walls go?
Heidi Sarna 03:08
Yeah, so, the walls that I found were about a century old. And that's one of the secrets in the book. And you know, in the old days, they are these grand mansions right up along the beach. And now there are far fewer beaches in Singapore because of the reclaimed land. So yes, some are 100 years old, some are 5060 years old. Singapore's history really is only goes back to the early 19th century, for the most part, there were sort of migrating groups of people in the region as far back as 800 years. But the British came in the early 1800s. So there are no structures that go back before the mid 1800s.
Lea Lane 03:47
Give us a couple more secrets.
Heidi Sarna 03:51
So right, so beside the sea walls, there's a airport that's an art-deco gem that is sort of hidden now behind other buildings. And Amelia Earhart, for instance, had stopped there on her second attempt around the world. So that's a beautiful old airport, the terminal building survives. So there's some really amazing art deco architecture. There's for instance, a neighborhood where you probably have heard of the shop houses of Singapore, those are based on you know, the shops are on the bottom and the people live above. And there's some really amazing old shop houses, but some have some secret elements, like one has an old painted facade that is starting to show through that is the oldest painted facade in Singapore one Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister, lived in; most people don't know that. I think other secrets are old rail line. Singapore used to have a lot of rail lines running all through it. And if you live there, you'll see there aren't any now but you can find pieces of old track. Secret Singapore has a lot of quirky history and it's part of a series, There's a secret New York there's a secret Rome. He has at least 100 titles, and it's sort of quirky secrets that mostly appeal to locals and people that are long term residents because maybe for some tours, they won't care as much about some of these offbeat; but, you know, there's some old mansions too in Singapore that a lot of people don't know about. Because it's a tropical country, the jungle swallows up things quite quickly. And so there can be things hidden in plain sight, and you just don't know because of the foliage. But if you know you read blogs or you read my book, You can sort of crawl around through through, you know, into the bushwhacking a little bit. Like, Oh, here's another secret; there's an old Shinto shrine, the ruins of a Shinto shrine from World War Two. The Japanese occupied Singapore for a couple of years, it was brutal occupation. And then they started building things all over Singapore, including a Shinto shrine. And then when the Japanese were run out, and the British came back, most of these things were destroyed, but there are still remnants of in the forest. And I went in there once with a local guy who knew where it was. That was so interesting, the stone steps were still there, the font, some ceremonial stone font, but all hidden in the jungle; like you wouldn't know it unless, you had some insider tip.
Lea Lane 06:17
Interesting, because I know many people don't think of Singapore as having any of this kind of thing. It's, as you said, a modern city and they go for that. So really, really interesting. Well, when you get to Singapore, the first thing you notice is the airport. I know. It's known for being efficient and modern and terrific, but they have something now called Jewel Changi Airport. It's a nature themed entertainment and retail complex linked to three of the terminals. The centerpiece of it is the world's tallest indoor waterfall called the rain vortex. And your secrets sound very interesting because they're natural. This one is a typical Singapore splendor because it's a forest 10. storys high. It is five storys above ground, five underground -- more than 2000 trees and 100,000 shrubs. And it's probably the largest indoor garden in Singapore. And they have old trees, hundreds of years old, weighing 3.5 tons each. So you can go outside or inside to find nature in Singapore. Have you seen that?
Heidi Sarna 07:24
Yeah, yeah, it's quite something. I mean, the airport in general, Changi Airport, truly is the best airport that you could go to, I mean,, it's a pleasure. It's efficient, as you can imagine, and all that, clean, but then they have features like this. I mean, Jewel takes the cake. But Singapore likes making places destinations. They love the phrase, iconic destination lifestyle, they have these sort of goofy words, but it really is. Local people would go to the Jewel just to see the Jewel, they're not flying anywhere, just because of how you you know, you described it, it's quite amazing, and then a lot of restaurants around and yeah, so there's something called Gardens by the Bay also, which is similar, an amazing outdoor, or indoor nature garden, sort of paralleling the outdoor.
Lea Lane 08:12
Gardens by the Bay is a gigantic garden. And it has three main attractions: a Flower Dome, the cloud forest, and of course, the super trees, people see that all the time, when you look at pictures of Singapore, those huge trees, and their greenhouses and all that kind of thing. It's good for the environment. But it's also become kind of a logo. And as about Changi. I remember going there in the 1980s. And everybody commented that I think they did a statistic that you could get through customs in 17 seconds, it was so efficient. And that was a time when you know, there were many more things to stamp and so forth. We didn't have fast, kinds of things. So it's always been known for its airport. But now of course, they've gone further on that even than before. Let me just ask you, Singapore is known for certain things. I'd like to hear your response about it. What is the safe and secure environment? We all know that it's a high level of law and order there. I remember going in as I said, in the 1980s there was a big sign -- something to the effect that if you bring in drugs, you die, it was just direct, it wasn't wasn't subtle at all, and I didn't have any drug problem during that period. I know the penalties for jaywalking and eating gum and so forth are kind of folklore. Is that true?
Heidi Sarna 09:31
Well, I'd say it's both because some of that is folklore like the the gum chewing it's actually illegal to sell gum, but it's not illegal to chew it so if you bring it into it illegal to sell it well because they do want to discourage gum chewing and spitting it; it's really based on they don't want the sidewalks like in New York to have all those blobs that you can never scrape off, so they don't encourage it by day, so it's not available there to sell or buy but you're allowed to chew it; no cop is gonna run after you. So there's a lot. As you said to No, but yeah, but in general, there are rules. I mean, jaywalking; nobody says anything about that. But yeah, there are rules, which you really see in the COVID air. Like, if you don't wear a mask, it's like a real thing. Then you get fined or you get in trouble, you know. So, it's a benevolent dictatorship. I think that's how I look at it. But if things work well, and it really is sort of a pleasure to live there, for the most part; I didn't feel like my freedoms were impinged upon really.
Lea Lane 10:28
Well, I know, it's considered one of the safest places in the world. So that is a part of it. Let's talk about something a little more fun, because I know that Singapore is a haven for foodies, and all kinds of foods are served. And there's some something that's called a hawker center that I'd like you to tell us about.
Heidi Sarna 10:49
Right? Well, so back in the day, say before the 1960s, hawkers were actually men, mostly who would go door to door hawking their food, and so they might have a pull across their back with two big hanging containers of food and a basket or such. And they would just go hawking through the streets, calling out whatever they were selling -- chicken, rice, and whatever they would probably be selling in Chinese. And then people would come down, or they'd send their staff down to get the fresh food. And so that was the hawker culture. But then when Singapore cleaned up its act and cleaned the rivers and tried to get rid of some of the busking and the selling on the streets, then they put these food sellers into hawker centers. So then all over Singapore are hawker centers, they still call them hawker centers, although they're really food courts, how an American would understand them. And they're all over the place. A lot of local Singaporeans don't cook that much at home, you know, unless you're really well senior people helping with that, but it's not, and most people are working, and they have kids and they're juggling their lives. They eat in the hawker centers, and they're often built around the towering complexes, called the HDB. The housing development board flats most people live in. So yeah, they're all over the place; they have their affordable you know, self-serve -- you wait, you get it, you get your tray, and you sit down and put on a plastic chair. And some are better than others. I can't say like all Hawker food, but some of it if you know where to go; they say look for the stall with the longest line, of course, because there's a reason. I mean, sometimes you literally see 30 or 40 people because it's so tasty. And it's like 4.50 a plate of for whatever they're getting. So yeah, I mean, I go to them. I love the local coffee. They called kopi, and I'm craving the coffee. I've been in the US all summer and I miss my Singapore.
Lea Lane 12:35
Kopi. What is the difference? What makes it so special?
Heidi Sarna 12:38
I don't know, I'm not expert enough to explain it, but it's gritty and it's like thicker, it's more grainy. And it just has a really different flavor. They often mix it with condensed milk. I know that's not good for you, but that's really tasty. Sounds good. And then they pour it out of this log. You might have seen pictures like along a tin sort of pouring thing and they stretch it up and down so that it drops from behind from their arm stretched out down into the cup and that makes it frothy; it's fun.
Lea Lane 13:08
So yeah, yeah, I think besides the hawker centers in the in the night markets and all these kinds of places where you can get local food -- Indonesian, Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, Thai, whatever Western. There were also Michelin star restaurants; I read there are many, maybe 40 of them in the area. So it is a foodie haven for all levels of cuisine. I gather. I'm going to mention just a few popular foods; if there's any that you especially like just chime in; chili crab barbecued sting, red fish head curry, satay, Singapore noodles, many others.
Heidi Sarna 13:44
What lochsa. You mentioned that gets me salivating. I love lochsa. So that's a coconut based soup with noodles. And there's different versions of it, but noodles and some seafood and it's just a really spicy. I love lots. It's not a diet food, but it's really tasty. Yeah. And like and you mentioned that chili crab, most of those come from Sri Lanka. And they're quite expensive, even on a hawker center that looks quite rundown with red plastic chairs. If you want the Sri Lankan chili crab that's gonna cost you 20 or $30. You know, people love it. And that fish head curry, I have to say that is not something that interests me, but that's very popular and yeah, the little head is floating in there. Chinese often like to eat meat off the bone. And so they like that the bone is there in the cartilage and it's a very tactile cuisine. And I would say generally Chinese tend to like that. There's something called I don't know if you mentioned carrot cake. Now that's one thing when I first arrived and like carrot with frosting on it, but no carrot cake -- in a hawker center is made from turnips, and it's so tasty. It's like shredded turnips, like almost made into sort of like a pancake thing and syrup on it. It's so tasty.
Lea Lane 14:57
So why did they call it carrot cake?
Heidi Sarna 15:00
Because I think even in India, this is kind of a turnip that looks like a carrot. I know in India. And so I think maybe it's connected to that.
Lea Lane 15:09
I think it would be interesting for someone expecting that carrot cake with frosting to get turnips. But I'm sure it's delicious. Let's see, what are some of the other things; how about the Singapore Flyer, this huge ferris wheel? It was the second largest in the world until Las Vegas high roller in 2014. That gives you a good view of Singapore, I would think. Have you been up?
Heidi Sarna 15:30
It's funny, actually, I'm not crazy about heights, but my I sent my husband and kids on it like 10 years ago. And you know, I would say that is a little bit of much of a muchness as actually my husband has that great line 'much of a muchness,' so it's quite expensive to go on it. And it's not the best view, actually.
Lea Lane 15:48
Where is the best view?
Heidi Sarna 15:50
So one of the best views that I've written about for instance, is in a building. Swissotel is a building near the Raffles Hotel. Swissotel has a bar restaurant on like the 17th floor, and that's the best view and there's a barn part of it, and then there's a brunch place. So that's a much better view; Singapore Flyer isn't that high and has you know, it's not a bad view, but you can't see all of the islands.
Lea Lane 16:14
How about a view from the Helix? The Helix bridge, the bridge that's spiral in the form of the human DNA, I know it has four viewing platforms, you get a good view there.
Heidi Sarna 16:25
That's pretty low. But it's a cool bridge. It's you can see the bay, you can see the Singapore River, you can see some of the the the oldest part of Singapore colonial architectures at the mouth of the river, and the helix bridges in that area. But yeah, but it's not high up. It's so big that if I was a tourist I would I'd say that you should walk cross the Helix bridge.
Lea Lane 16:45
How about nightlife? Is is Clarke Quay? Is it pronounced Clarke Quay?
Heidi Sarna 16:50
Yeah, I know the area. Well, I think a lot of tourists go there. I mean, Clarke Quay is good for just the setting on the river but I wouldn't recommend eating on Clarke Quay.
Lea Lane 17:03
Heidi Sarna 17:05
It's fun to walk along it but I would say just more touristy and some of the bars. I wouldn't go there. Yeah, so for nightlife people, there's Robertson key. There's the downtown a lot of the top of the Marina Bay Sands, you know, that's the three towers that you might have seen. It looks like a like a surfboard on top. That's an iconic building. They have some nightlife clubs. On top of there, there's a place called Duxton. Hill, which is sort of more cool. In terms of nightlife and cool bars. Chinatown. The edge of Chinatown has some cool stuff. So yeah, there's certainly some nightlife. I mean, if you've come from New York, or Hong Kong, and you moved to Singapore, you'd be like, uh, you know, it's not the same as those places. But there's nightlife.
Lea Lane 17:47
Oh, good to know. How about shopping? Everybody knows about Orchard Road, is that where you go? Or somewhere?
Heidi Sarna 17:54
So Orchard Road would be just the big, big brand names, you know, Gucci and all that. And Banana Republic, Gap and that sort of thing. But if you want more interesting, I would go to some of the smaller shops in neighborhoods, even Little India, Chinatown. I mean, so then it depends what you want. But if you want more local stuff, more boutique II stuff that I would not go on Orchard. And I would say generally prices, you don't get a bargain in Singapore. So if you want a pair of some designer sunglasses. I could get in New York for 100 bucks or 200 there, so it's not a bargain lovers dream now.
Lea Lane 18:36
Well, that's interesting, because I think people sometimes think that it's a great place to bargain and shop. So I that's very interesting. Yeah.
Heidi Sarna 18:45
Not really. I mean, generally, but no,
Lea Lane 18:48
Good to know. I mean, if you want to take a walk, how about the colonial district along the Singapore River? That was an area that was founded by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles and I hear it's great for walking: you have the Victoria theatre, the City Hall, the Supreme Court, the old Parliament House.
Heidi Sarna 19:06
Yeah, so that's where Raffles and is contingent first arrived at the river. And so that's why some of that stuff is the oldest Victorian scenery, as you said, the Asians civilizations museum. We used to be a government buildings, but that that is one of the oldest buildings in Singapore. Yeah, it's really pretty there. It's really pretty. The Fullerton Hotel is another iconic building that used to be the General Post Office and that's quite gorgeous. That's about 100 years old. So yeah, definitely. Even though it's touristy, definitely I would recommend walking around there. There's two or three bridges that span the Singapore River that are that are still there from more than 100 years ago. Many of them were built with Scottish steel, and they were brought over in pieces from Scotland and reassembled in Singapore. And you can still see like, you know, the Scottish name on, you know, somewhere on the bottom of the bridge. Like the bridges are really cool. And there's some really nice mid-century architecture there. I'm sort of getting more into architecture. There's a really cool brutalist building along the river, the Singapore River. So it's a really, it's a really neat area. Definitely walkable.
Lea Lane 20:14
Well also, this is we're talking about Raffles. There's a hotel, that's one of the most historic in the world called Raffles. And in his 1889 book, from Sea to Sea, Rudyard Kipling writes of a place called Raffles, where the food is excellent, and the rooms are bad. Is that still true?
Heidi Sarna 20:33
That's funny. Yeah. So the Raffles was just renovated again. I mean, it looks it looks amazing. And parts of it date back to the mid 19th century. But originally, it was a small, small hotel with mediocre rooms, like he said, but it became a place where people like him would hang out. And so the reputation was of it being a place to meet other writers and politicians and bigwigs and stuff. And then it evolved over the years to have grander buildings and what you would see today, but it really did start as sort of a humble, almost tropical Lodge. Like you said, the rooms were bad, but they're not bad, now, trust me, they're really nice. But either expensive. Yeah. You feel like you go back in time, and you're there. Just walking around. Some of it's a bit touristy like this Singapore Sling drink. I mean, I'm just saying like, $30 like, don't do it.
Lea Lane 21:24
Well, it's Singapore. It's a gin based cocktail, and it contains pineapple juice, lime juice, Curacao, and Benedictine. You're saying that's $30?
Heidi Sarna 21:35
Right, no, I mean, it's tasty, but can be a little too touristy.
Lea Lane 21:41
Well, you can have high tea there. That's fun, too. Some people enjoy when they go around the world. And there's something called the long bar. That's just a famous place to look at. It's a tradition, they are to throw nuts on the wooden floor to help with clearing the dust. So people still throw nuts on the floor, I gather.
Heidi Sarna 21:58
Right, right. But the long bar is one of the that's that that room has been completely redone. So of all the places and raffles that's the one place that I don't care to go to anywhere because there's nothing original about it. I know I'm being negative. But there's no no, you're being helpful. Oh, yeah. But partially the Raffles Hotel complex are authentic and just stunning. But yeah, I actually would I direct people away from the bar, because it's not it wasn't there. And it used to be in a different part of the building.
Lea Lane 22:26
You're giving us really insightful information. So it's terrific. Well, the name of the podcast is Places I Remember. So Heidi, can you please give us one of your special memories of Singapore?
Heidi Sarna 22:38
Well, I would say sort of going back to something earlier I was saying about the jungles swallowing up things in Singapore just because it grows so fast. And it's tropical. So when I first started nosing around because I'm a heritage buff, as I said, I had read about an old Malay mansion or palace even it was described, just off of the busy road near the Botanic Gardens and which is near where I live. And I just couldn't believe it. I kept reading these blogs and then I tried to find it. And then the first attempt. I just was like walking in circles and getting bitten by mosquitoes and but I kept reading it was there. And then finally I got better instructions from one of the bloggers. And I really bushwhacked through the jungle with long pants on and you know, the reppellant. And it was just like a quarter mile up this little hill in a really heavily wooded area. And there were the ruins of a Malay royal palace and then it's still there. Thrilled. so in a way that was a symbolic moment to have like hidden in plain sight. There really are more layers to Singapore; peel the onion and explore. And that propelled me to get into the Secret Singapore book -- that was the first secret that I wrote up for the book. And so that has a special place in my heart.
Lea Lane 23:51
Thank you, Heidi Sarna, author of Secret Singapore. You've shared some of those secrets here with us and we really appreciate it. I'm going to toast you with an imaginary Singapore Sling.
Heidi Sarna 24:06
Cheers. Thank you.
Lea Lane 24:13
Thanks for sharing travel memories with us. My book Places I Remember is available on Amazon and in bookstores, in print and Kindle, and I read the audio version. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. Until next time, join us wherever in the world we're going.