Singapore, the world's only island city-state, is clean, safe, and mostly democratic, unlike much of Asia. As my friend Brian remarked once, for Westerners, Singapore is a gentle gateway into Asia. It recently celebrated its golden jubilee, so what better time to visit?

Although I had visited two other Asian countries previously, both were islands, so Singapore was not going to take me any closer to the actual continent. Nevertheless, I was content to explore this gentle gateway without crossing over to the other side. For most travelers, the city-state is a convenient stop-over on those long trans-Pacific routes, but for me and my mom, it was a destination in and of itself. This left airport and customs officials somewhat puzzled.

Being just one degree north of the equator, Singapore is always warm; the average temperature is roughly constant throughout the year. One of our Uber drivers joked that there are just two seasons: sunny days and rainy days. And the rainy days happen to be distributed fairly evenly throughout the year.

The rain is a force here, and as one quickly learns, the umbrella is a pointless defense mechanism against it. When rain surprises you, and it will, with huge, unapologetic buckets, it is best to run for more solid cover, which city planners seem to have prudently placed within a hundred feet of all public walkways. Fortunately, the weather never stayed angry for long during our visit, and we were able to do a fair bit of sightseeing with minimum ducking for cover.

Botanical Gardens

Singapore is an interesting quilt of cultures. The largest ethnic group is Chinese, followed by nearly equal parts Malay and Indian. The latter two groups are concentrated in the neighborhoods of Kampong Glam and Little India, and while there is a Chinatown district, it is not so much an enclave.

We stayed in Little India the first few nights, which friends of mine recommended for the most authentic South Indian food outside of India. The food is good, but I still find it amusing that Asian cuisine does not really differentiate breakfast from other meals, except for, possibly, the presence or absence of an egg.

Following our first breakfast attempt, we decided to check out the botanic gardens. Being only a couple of miles from the hotel, they were easily reachable on foot, but an air-conditioned Uber seemed far more appealing in the Singaporean sauna. The city's adoption of technology was very much appreciated.

Singapore's botanical gardens are world-famous, most of all for their dazzling variety of orchids. There are over 1,200 different species and 2,000 hybrids. Many are variations on a theme, but some are truly extraordinary. I spent so much time photographing every blooming blossom that I could easily fill an entire wall calendar with a different orchid for every month.

The grounds are well maintained and crisscrossed by miles of trails. Having signed up for a 50-mile ultra marathon in May, I needed to continue my training, even while on vacation, so I decided to return to these trails the next morning.

Even in the very early hours, the humidity is stifling. Ten minutes into my run I was drenched. Running without a phone for map guidance, I found it surprisingly difficult to reach the botanic garden. The city is not laid out intuitively, and the data my GPS watch recorded resembled brownian motion on Strava. When I returned, I looked like I had just taken a plunge in the pool. The experience pretty much killed future running attempts, and I decided instead to exercise in the actual pool for the remainder of our stay.


Singapore's other big attraction is the mini resort island of Sentosa, a cross between Las Vegas and Monaco. The casino held no interest for us, but the South East Asia (S.E.A.) Aquarium is a really worthwhile visit. It has forced nearby Underwater World out of business, which closed its doors in June 2016. Until 2012, S.E.A. was the largest oceanarium in the world, housing 100,000 marine animals in over 12 million gallons of water.

It can get a bit crowded, and one has to be mindful of the fast-waving selfie sticks, but the displays are magical. The jellyfish in particular are works of art.

Marina Bay Sands

One of the most impressive hotels in the world is the Marina Bay Sands. Completed in 2010, it has quickly become a landmark and symbol of Singapore. It is famous for an infinity pool shaped like a ship's hull, perched atop three, fifty-some story towers with stunning views of the city.

The “sands” part of the name refers to the resort's foundation—it is built on what used to be sea. And you wouldn't know it by walking around, but almost a fifth of Singapore's land area consists of imported sand.

The infinity pool on the roof of the hotel had the densest concentration of smart phones and cameras suspended over water I had ever seen. The guests seemed to get more enjoyment out of sending the rest of the world live updates of their presence here than out of the architectural marvel they were splashing in or the breathtaking view of the city, low down below. The selfie stick has descended upon Asia like a plague. The obnoxiousness of it all forced us out after a mere thirty minutes.

As one can imagine, the hotel is not cheap, so we chose to spend a single night here (wisely, it turns out), staying at our modest yet still comfortably affordable 5-star hotel in Little India the rest of the time.

On the way back to the airport, our taxi driver asked us which terminal we were flying out of, which sounded like a perfectly relevant question, but also one whose answer we couldn't possibly have known ahead of time. He kindly offered to try to slow down as we approached the airport so we could read the airline information sign. The sign ended up being tucked away by the side of the road and completely dark, rendering it useless.

“World class,” the driver mockingly exclaimed as we passed the sign, referring broadly to Singapore's quirks. From our car rides around town, we got the impression that the prosperity hadn't hit everyone evenly, and not everyone shared a feeling of nationalism. Nevertheless, the economic and democratic successes Singapore has achieved in the mere fifty years of its existence are impressive. It is world class in my book.