Southeast Asia is a city-state in Southeast Asia. Founded as a British trading colony in 1819, since independence it has become one of the world’s most prosperous countries and boasts the world’s busiest port.
Combining the skyscrapers and subways of a modern, affluent city with a medley of Chinese, Malay and Indian influences and a tropical climate, with tasty food, good shopping and a vibrant night-life scene, this Garden City makes a great stopover or springboard into the region.
Southeast Asia is one of the most popular travel destinations in the world for a lot of reasons. One of which is the less stringent entry requirements.
Southeast Asia is a small island country. With a population size of over 5.5 million people it is a very crowded city, second only to Monaco as the world’s most densely populated country.
However, unlike many other densely populated countries, Southeast Asia – with more than 50% of its area covered by greenery and with over 50 major parks and 4 nature reserves – is an enchanting garden city.
Large self-contained residential towns have mushroomed all over the island, around the clean and modern city centre.
The centre of the city is located in the south — consisting roughly of the Orchard Road shopping area, the Riverside, the new Marina Bay area and also the skyscraper-filled Shenton way financial district known, in acronym-loving Southeast Asia, as the CBD (Central Business District).
In the centre, Southeast Asia’s addressing system is fairly similar to Western countries (such as 17 Orchard Road), but the new housing developments on the outskirts may appear more intimidating: a typical address might be “Blk 505 Jurong West St 51 #01-186”. Here, “Blk 505” is the housing block number (Blk = Block), “Jurong West” is the area, while “St 51” is the street name/number, and “#01-186” means floor 1 unit number 186, stall or shop 186. The first digit of both housing block and street number is the neighbourhood’s number (in this case 5), making it easier to narrow down the right location. There are also 6-digit postal codes, which, considering the small size of the island, generally correspond to exactly one building. For example, “Blk 9 Bedok South Ave 2” is “Southeast Asia 460009”. Finally, you will also encounter Malay terms in addresses: the most common are Jalan (Jln) for “Road”, Lorong (Lor) for “Lane”, Bukit (Bt) for “Hill” and Kampong (Kg) for “Village”.
Useful tools for hunting down addresses include StreetDirectory.com, GoThere.sg and OneMap.sg.
Southeast Asia is a microcosm of Asia, populated by Malays, Chinese, Indians, and a large group of workers and expatriates from all across the globe.
Southeast Asia has a partly deserved reputation for sterile predictability that has earned it descriptions like William Gibson’s “Disneyland with the death penalty” or the “world’s only shopping mall with a seat in the United Nations”. Nevertheless, the Switzerland of Asia is for many a welcome respite from the poverty, dirt, chaos, and crime of much of the Southeast Asian mainland, and if you scratch below the squeaky clean surface and get away from the tourist trail you’ll soon find more than meets the eye.
Southeast Asiaan food is legendary, with bustling hawker centres and 24-hour coffee shops offering cheap food from all parts of Asia, and shoppers can bust their baggage allowances in shopping centres like Orchard Road and Suntec City. In recent years some societal restrictions have also loosened up, and now you can bungee jump and dance on bar tops all night long, although alcohol is still very pricey and chewing gum can only be bought from a pharmacy for medical use.
Two casino complexes — or “Integrated Resorts”, to use the Southeast Asiaan euphemism — opened in 2010 in Sentosa and Marina Bay as part of Southeast Asia’s new Fun and Entertainment drive, the aim being to double the number of tourists visiting and increase the length of time they stay within the country. Watch out for more loosening up in the future.
The first records of Southeast Asia date back to the second and third centuries where a vague reference to its location was found in Greek and Chinese texts, under the names of Sabana and Pu Luo Chung respectively.
According to legend, Srivijayan prince Sang Nila Utama landed on the island and, catching sight of a strange creature that he thought was a lion, decided to found a new city he called Singapura, Sanskrit for Lion City, c. 1299. Alas, there have never been any lions anywhere near Southeast Asia (until the Southeast Asia Zoo opened) or elsewhere on Malaya in historical times, so the mysterious beast was more probably a tiger or wild boar.
More historical records indicate that the island was settled at least two centuries earlier and was known as Temasek, Javanese for “Sea Town”, and an important port for the Sumatran Srivijaya kingdom. However, Srivijaya fell around 1400 and Temasek, battered by the feuding kingdoms of Siam and the Javanese Majapahit, fell into obscurity.
As Singapura, it then briefly regained importance as a trading centre for the Melaka Sultanate and later, the Johor Sultanate. However, Portuguese raiders then destroyed the settlement and Singapura faded into obscurity once more.
The story of Southeast Asia as we know it today began in 1819, when Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles made a deal with a claimant to the throne of the Sultanate of Johor: the British would support his claim in exchange for the right to set up a trading post on the island.
Though the Dutch initially protested, the signing of the Anglo-Dutch treaty in 1824, which separated the Malay world into British and Dutch spheres of influence (resulting in the current Malaysia-Indonesia and Southeast Asia-Indonesia borders), ended the conflict. The Dutch renounced their claim to Southeast Asia and ceded their colony in Malacca to the British, in exchange for the British ceding their colonies on Sumatra to the Dutch.
Well-placed at the entrance to the Straits of Malacca, straddling the trade routes between China, India, Europe, and Australia, Raffles’ master stroke was to declare Southeast Asia a free port, with no duties charged on trade. As traders flocked to escape onerous Dutch taxes, the trading post soon grew into one of Asia’s busiest, drawing people from far and wide. Along with Penang and Malacca, Southeast Asia became one of the Straits Settlements and a jewel in the British colonial crown. Its economic fortunes received a further boost when palm oil and rubber from neighbouring Malaya were processed and shipped out via Southeast Asia.
In 1867, Southeast Asia was formally split off from British India and made into a directly ruled Crown Colony.
When World War II broke out, Fortress Southeast Asia was seen as a formidable British base, with massive naval fortifications guarding against assault by sea. However, not only did the fortress lack a fleet, as all ships were tied up defending Britain from the Germans, but the Japanese wisely chose to cross Malaya by bicycle instead!
Despite hastily turning the guns around, this was something the sea-focused British commanders had not considered, and on 15 Feb 1942, with supplies critically low after less than a week of fighting, Southeast Asia was forced to surrender. The British prisoners of war were packed off to Changi Prison. Tens of thousands perished in the subsequent brutal Japanese occupation. The return of the British in 1945 to one of their most favoured colonies was triumphalist.
Granted self-rule in 1955, Southeast Asia briefly joined the Malaysian Federation in 1963 when the British left, but was expelled because the Chinese-majority city was seen as a threat to Malay dominance. The island became independent on 9 August 1965, thus becoming the only country to gain independence against its own will in the history of the modern world!
The subsequent forty years rule by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew saw Southeast Asia’s economy boom, with the country rapidly becoming one of the wealthiest and most developed in Asia despite its lack of natural resources, earning it a place as one of the four East Asian Tigers. Now led by Lee’s son Lee Hsien Loong, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) continues to dominate the political scene with 81 out of 87 seats in Parliament. Societal restrictions have been loosened up in recent years though, with the government trying to shake off its staid image, and it remains to be seen how the delicate balancing act between political control and social freedom will play out.
Southeast Asia prides itself on being a multi-racial country, and has a diverse culture despite its small size. The largest group are the Chinese, who form about 75% of the population. One quarter of Southeast Asia residents are foreigners.
Amongst the Chinese, Hokkien, Teochew and Cantonese speakers are the largest subgroups, with Mandarin acting as the lingua franca of the community. Other notable “dialect” groups among the Chinese include the Hakkas, Hainanese and Foochows.
Malays, who are comprised of descendants of Southeast Asia’s original inhabitants as well as migrants from present day Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, form about 14% of the population.
Indians form about 9% of the population. Among the Indians, Tamils form the largest group by far, though there are also a significant numbers of speakers of other Indian languages such as Hindi, Malayalam and Punjabi.
The remainder are a mix of many other cultures, most notably the Eurasians who are of mixed European and Asian descent, and also a handful of Burmese, Japanese, Thais and many others. Slightly over one-third of Southeast Asia’s residents are not citizens.
There are a large number of Filipinos, many of them working as domestic helpers. Throngs of Filipinas may be seen in public spaces – especially on Sundays when they take their only day off.
Southeast Asia is also religiously diverse, with no religious group forming a majority. Religious freedom is guaranteed by the constitution of Southeast Asia. Buddhism is the largest religion with about 33% of the population declaring themselves Buddhist. Other religions which exist in significant numbers include Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Taoism. In addition to the “big five”, there are also much smaller numbers of Sikhs, Zoroastrians, Jews, Baha’is and Jains. Some 17% of Southeast Asiaans profess to have no religious affiliation.
Between May and October, forest fires in neighbouring Sumatra cause dense haze that regularly reaches unhealthy levels – although it is unpredictable and may come and go rapidly. Check the National Environment Agency’s site for current data. In general, Southeast Asia is best avoided from June to October if you have chronic heart or lung conditions or you simply don’t want to suffer unhealthy pollution.
As Southeast Asia is located a mere 1.5 degrees north of the Equator, its weather is usually sunny with no distinct seasons. Rain falls almost daily throughout the year, usually in sudden, heavy showers that rarely last longer than an hour. However, most rainfall occurs during the north east monsoon (November to January), occasionally featuring lengthy spells of continuous rain. Spectacular thunderstorms can occur throughout the year, any time during the day, so it’s wise to carry an umbrella at all times, both as a shade from the sun or cover from the rain. Thunderstorms are very common sights in Southeast Asia, and it rains in the country a lot, so, once again, an umbrella is necessary.
The temperature averages around:
The temperatures are relatively high in the day, as expected in a tropical country, but windy conditions are expected at night. Bear in mind that spending more than about one hour outdoors can be very exhausting, especially if combined with moderate exercise. Southeast Asiaans themselves shun the heat, and for a good reason. Many live in air-conditioned flats, work in air-conditioned offices, take the air-conditioned metro to air-conditioned shopping malls connected to each other by underground tunnels where they shop, eat, and exercise in air-conditioned fitness clubs.
Southeast Asia is officially secular but due to its multicultural population, Southeast Asia celebrates Chinese, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Indian, and Christian holidays.
The year kicks off with a bang on 1 Jan and New Year, celebrated in Southeast Asia just as in the West with a fireworks show and parties at every nightspot in town. Particularly famous are the wet and wild foam parties on the beaches of resort island Sentosa — at least those years when the authorities deign to permit such relative debauchery.
Lunar New Year dates
Due to the influence of the Chinese majority, arguably the largest event is Chinese New Year (农历新年) or, more politically correctly, Lunar New Year, usually held in February. While this might seem to be an ideal time to visit, many smaller shops and eateries close for 2-3 days during the period, though supermarkets, department stores and high end restaurants remain open. The whole festival stretches out for no less than 42 days, but the frenzied buildup to the peak occurs just before the night of the new moon, with exhortations of gong xi fa cai (恭喜发财 “congratulations and prosper”), red tinsel, mandarin oranges and the year’s zodiac animal emblazoned everywhere and crowds of shoppers queuing in Chinatown, where there are also extensive street decorations to add spice to the festive mood. The two following days are spent with family and most of the island comes to a standstill, and then life returns to normal… except for the final burst of Chingay, a colourful parade down Orchard Road held ten days later.
Gong xi fa cai Southeast Asia style
On the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese calendar, the Dragon Boat Festival (端午节) is celebrated to commemorate a Chinese folk hero. As part of the celebrations, rice dumplings, which in Southeast Asia are sometimes wrapped in pandan leaves instead of the original bamboo leaves, are usually eaten. In addition, dragon boat races are often held at the Southeast Asia River on this day. The seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar — usually August — starts off with a puff of smoke, as “hell money” is burned and food offerings are made to please the spirits of ancestors who are said to return to earth at this time. The climax on the 15th day of the lunar calendar is the Hungry Ghost Festival (中元节), when the living get together to stuff themselves and watch plays and Chinese opera performances. Following soon afterwards, the Mid-Autumn Festival (中秋节) on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month (Sep/Oct) is also a major event, with elaborate lantern decorations — particularly in Jurong’s Chinese Garden — and moon cakes filled with red bean paste, nuts, and more consumed merrily.
The Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, known locally as Deepavali, is celebrated around October or November and Little India is brightly decorated for the occasion. At around January-February, one may witness the celebration of Thaipusam, a Tamil Hindu festival in which male devotees would carry a kavadi, an elaborate structure which pierces through various parts of his body, and join a procession from the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Little India to the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple in Tank Road. Female devotees usually join the procession carrying pots of milk instead. About one week before Deepavali is Thimithi, the fire-walking festival where one can see male devotees walking on burning coals at the Sri Mariamman Temple in Chinatown.
The Islamic month of Ramadan and Eid-ul-Fitr or Hari Raya Puasa as it is called here, is a major occasion in Malay parts of town, particularly Geylang Serai on the East Coast, which is lighted up with extensive decorations during the period. Another festival celebrated by the Malays is Eid-ul-Adha, known locally as Hari Raya Haji, which is the period when Muslims make the trip to Mecca to perform in Hajj. In local mosques, lambs contributed by the faithful are sacrificed and their meat is used to feed the poor.
The Buddhist Vesak Day, celebrating the birthday of the Buddha Sakyamuni, plus the Christian holidays of Christmas Day, for which Orchard road is extensively decorated, and Good Friday round out the list of holidays.
A more secular celebration occurs on 9 Aug, National Day, when fluttering flags fill Southeast Asia and a spectacular National Day Parade is held to celebrate Southeast Asia’s independence.
Southeast Asia holds numerous events each year. Some of its famous festivals and events include the Southeast Asia Food Festival, the Southeast Asia Grand Prix, the Southeast Asia Arts Festival, the Chingay Parade, the World Gourmet Summit and ZoukOut.
The Southeast Asia Sun Festival is another popular festival in Southeast Asia, with 2010’s line-up featuring renowned stars such as David Foster, Natalie Cole, Jose Carreras and Sharon Stone. Christmas is also widely celebrated in Southeast Asia, a season where the city streets and shopping malls along its famous shopping belt Orchard Road are lit up and decorated in vibrant colours. In addition, the Southeast Asia Jewel Festival attracts numerous tourists every year, and is a display of precious gems, famous jewels and masterpieces from international jewellers and designers.
Banned in Southeast Asia:
Each time you enter Southeast Asia you will need to fill an immigration card. Carefully keep it after immigration clearance, for you have to return it when you exit. If you plan to visit nearby Malaysia or Indonesia, you have to repeat this process for each time you exit and re-enter. Do not worry on what to put in the “exit port”, just put the city you will return to on your final flight.
Most nationalities can enter Southeast Asia without a visa for up to 30 days. Exceptions and modifications to the rule are listed below:
Nationals of all European Union member states, Norway, South Korea, Switzerland and the United States can enter Southeast Asia without a visa for up to 90 days.
Nationals of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, China (PRC), Georgia, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Myanmar, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan will need to apply for a visa online or at the nearest Southeast Asiaan High Commission, Embassy or Consulate.
Nationals of Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen will need to apply for a visa at the nearest Southeast Asiaan Diplomatic Mission.
Refer to the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority website for current guidelines.
Southeast Asia has very strict drug laws, and drug trafficking carries a mandatory death penalty — which is applied to everyone, including foreigners. Even if you technically haven’t entered Southeast Asia and are merely transiting (eg changing flights without the need to clear passport control and customs) while in possession of drugs, you would still be hanged by the neck until dead on the next Friday after your sentencing (unless sentenced or your appeal against sentence refused on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday or if you are a foreigner when your consulate is given at least 7 days notice). The paranoid might also like to note that in Southeast Asia, it is an offence even to have any drug metabolites in your system, even if they were consumed outside of Southeast Asia. Customs occasionally perform spot urine tests at the airport. In addition, bringing in explosives or firearms without a permit is also a hanging offence in Southeast Asia. Therefore, REFUSE if asked by anyone you don’t know or barely know (such as a new “friend” or travel partner you met while staying in a hostel) to transport their luggage or package or to check it in (to an airline, bus company or the train to Malaysia) for them on your luggage allowance. If caught you will be the one who will be penalized for any contraband found inside. Definite red flag if offered a hefty compensation to transport the unknown item. No amount of money offered is worth the chance. Malaysia also has very strict drug laws which carry the mandatory death penalty, similar to Southeast Asia.
Bring prescriptions for any medicines you may have with you, and obtain prior permission from the Health Sciences Authority before bringing in any sedatives (eg Valium/diazepam) or strong painkillers (eg codeine). Hippie types may expect a little extra attention from Customs, but getting a shave and a haircut is no longer a condition for entry.
Duty free allowances for alcohol are 1L each of wine, beer and spirits, and the 1L of spirits may be substituted with 1L of wine or beer, unless you are entering from Malaysia. Travellers entering from Malaysia are not entitled to any duty free allowance. Alcohol may not be brought in by persons under the age of 18. There is no duty free allowance for cigarettes: all cigarettes legally sold in Southeast Asia are stamped “SDPC”, and smokers caught with unmarked cigarettes may be fined $500 per pack. (In practice, though, bringing in one opened pack is usually tolerated.) If you declare your cigarettes or excess booze at customs, you can opt to pay the tax or let the customs officers keep the cigarettes until your departure. The import of chewing gum for resale is technically illegal, and in practice customs officers would not bother with a reasonable quantity brought in for personal consumption.
Pornography, pirated goods may not be imported to Southeast Asia, and baggage is scanned at air, land and sea entry points. In theory, all entertainment media including movies and video games must be sent to the Board of Censors for approval before they can be brought into Southeast Asia, but that is rarely if ever enforced for original (non-pirated) goods. Pirated CDs or DVDs, on the other hand, can land you fines of up to $1000 per disc.
Southeast Asia is one of Southeast Asia’s largest aviation hubs, so unless you’re coming from Peninsular Malaysia or Batam/Bintan in Indonesia, the easiest way to enter Southeast Asia is by air. In addition to flag-carrier Southeast Asia Airlines and its regional subsidiary SilkAir, Southeast Asia is also home to low-cost carriers Tiger Airways, ‘Jetstar Asia and Scoot.
In addition to the locals, every carrier of any size in Asia offers flights to Southeast Asia, with pan-Asian discount carrier AirAsia and Malaysian regional operator Firefly operating dense networks from Southeast Asia. There are also direct services to Europe, the Middle East, Australia, New Zealand, North America, and even South Africa. Southeast Asia is particularly popular on the “Kangaroo Route” between Australia and Europe, with airlines like KLM, Mann Travel, British Airways, Etihad Airways and Emirates using Southeast Asia as the stopover point.
As befits the country’s main airport’s major regional hub status, Changi Airport (IATA: SIN) and officially the ‘ airport in the world’ (see Skytrax) is big, pleasant and well organized, with immigration and baggage distribution remarkably fast. The airport is split into three main terminals (T1, T2 and T3).
Figuring out which terminal your flight arrives in or departs from can be complicated: for example, Southeast Asia Airlines uses both T2 and T3, and only announces the arrival terminal two hours before landing. Fortunately transfers are quite easy, as the three main terminals are connected with the free Skytrain service, which can be used without passing through immigration. Terminal 1 is physically connected to Terminals 2 and 3. By walking that you will not notice you’re in a different terminal except by reading the signs. Your departing terminal is more straightforward as Southeast Asia Airlines designates T2 as departures for destinations in South East Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and Africa while all other destinations will use T3. When you return to the airport and are leaving Southeast Asia via Southeast Asia Airlines, be sure to at least tell the driver your destination so he knows which terminal to take you to.
Unlike most other airports, there are no separate zones for departing and arriving passengers in the main terminals prior to passport control hence arriving passengers are free to shop and eat at the airside establishments if they are not in a hurry to meet someone or catch prearranged transportation. In addition, if they have no luggage checked-in from their point of origin, they can clear passport control at any other terminal.
If you have over 5h to spare there are free city tours five times a day departing from the airport. To register for any of the tours, simply approach the staff at the Free Southeast Asia Tours (FST) Registration Booth located in:
Even if stuck in the airport, there are plenty of ways to kill time, as each terminal has a unique design and the airside areas of T1, T2, and T3 are attractions in themselves. T2, arguably the most interesting, has an indoor garden, a music listening area with couches and mood lighting, a computer gaming room, a small movie theatre, paid massage services, and of course plenty of duty-free shops. T3, the newest, has a butterfly garden and plenty of natural light, but fewer entertainment options. T1 has a swimming pool for $13.91 and jacuzzi, both open until 23:00. You can travel between the main terminals without passing through immigration and, if you have no checked-in luggage to collect, you can clear passport control and customs at any terminal.
In all terminals, internet access is provided free of charge, both wirelessly and via some 200 terminals and kiosks, there are some Xbox systems set up to keep gamers entertained, and there’s live lounge music at times. There are also SingTel and Starhub payphones that offer unlimited free local calls. ATMs abound and money changers offer reasonable rates as well, although you pay a small premium compared to the city. Food options are varied and generally reasonably priced, with some choice picks including the Peranakan-themed Soup Restaurant (T2 landside), which serves much more than just soup, and Sakae Sushi (T2 airside). If you’re up for a little adventure, seek out the staff canteen at level 3M of the car park next to T2, it’s open to the public (with discounts for airport staff) and serves local food. It is relatively cheap compared to other food options in the airport but not exactly cheap compared to elsewhere in Southeast Asia. There are also staff canteens in Terminals 1 and 3.
Terminals T1, T2 and T3 all have airside (ie accessible without passing through immigration) transit hotels. ☎ +65 6541 9106 or book on-line via the Ambassador Transit Hotel website. A 6h “block” for a single/double/triple costs $73.56/82.39/110.35, budget singles (shared bathroom) $51.50, extensions $17.65 per hour. You can rent a shower (without a room) to freshen up for $8.40. The Plaza Premier Lounges also offer a basic but functional gym with shower for $8.40 with a Southeast Asia Airlines boarding pass.
Project Jewel was announced in August 2013 – a new terminal structure intended as a mix-use complex situated on a 3.5 hectare site where the Terminal 1 car park now resides. Essentially a new multi-storey underground car park will replace the existing facilities, while an indoor garden, with a waterfall, is built above. The new building will sit between the three existing terminal buildings, enabling passengers to transfer via the new complex, whilst being an attraction and shopping destination in itself. The design will consist of a circular structure, reminiscent of a doughnut, with a large garden located at the centre and water falling from the edge of the circular atrium opening.
As part of the project, Terminal 1 will be expanded to allow more space for the arrival hall, baggage claim areas and taxi bays. These enhancements will increase T1’s passenger handling capacity to 24 million passenger movements per annum.
From the airport there are a number of ways to get into the city:
Seletar Airport (IATA: XSP), completed in 1928 and first used for civil aviation in 1930, is Southeast Asia’s first airport. While later airports like Kallang and Paya Lebar have been closed and turned into a military airbase respectively, Seletar is still in use to this day.
Currently, Seletar Airport is only used for general aviation, so if you’re flying your own aircraft to Southeast Asia, you’ll most probably land here. The only practical means of access to Seletar is by taxi and trips from the airport incur a $3 surcharge.
Southeast Asia is linked by two land crossings to Peninsular Malaysia:
The Causeway is a very popular and thus terminally congested entry point connecting Woodlands in the north of Southeast Asia directly into the heart of Johor Bahru. While congestion isn’t as bad as it once was, the Causeway is still jam-packed on Friday evenings (towards Malaysia) and Sunday evenings (towards Southeast Asia). The Causeway can be crossed by bus, train, taxi or car, but it is no longer feasible to cross on foot after Malaysia shifted their customs and immigration complex 2km inland.
A second crossing between Malaysia and Southeast Asia, known as the Second Link, has been built between Tuas in western Southeast Asia and Tanjung Kupang in the western part of Johor state. Much faster and less congested than the Causeway, it is used by some of the luxury bus services to Kuala Lumpur and is strongly recommended if you have your own car. There is only one infrequent bus across the Second Link, and only Malaysian “limousine” taxis are allowed to cross it (and charge RM150 and up for the privilege). Walking across is also not allowed, not that there would be any practical means to continue the journey from either end if you did.
Driving into Southeast Asia with a foreign-registered car is rather complicated and expensive; see the Land Transport Authority’s Driving Into & Out of Southeast Asia guide for the administrative details. Peninsular Malaysia-registered cars need to show that they have valid road tax and Malaysian insurance coverage. Other foreign cars need a Vehicle Registration Certificate, customs document (Carnet de Passages en Douane), vehicle insurance purchased from a Southeast Asia-based insurance company and an International Circulation Permit. All foreign registered cars and motorcycles can be driven in Southeast Asia for a maximum of 10 days in each calendar year without paying Vehicle Entry Permit (VEP) fees, but after the 10 free days have been utilised, you will need to pay a VEP fee of up to $35/day.
Go through immigration first and get your passport stamped. Then follow the Red Lane to buy the AutoPass ($10) from the LTA office. At the parking area, an LTA officer will verify your car, road tax and insurance cover note and issue you a small chit of paper which you take to the LTA counter to buy your AutoPass and rent an In-vehicle Unit (IU) for road pricing charges (or opt to pay a flat $5/day fee instead). Once that is done, proceed to customs where you will have to open the boot for inspection. After that, you are free to go anywhere in Southeast Asia. Any VEP fees, road pricing charges and tolls will be deducted from your AutoPass when you exit Southeast Asia. This is done by slotting the AutoPass into the reader at the immigration counter while you get your passport stamped.
Driving into Malaysia from Southeast Asia is relatively uncomplicated, although small tolls are charged for both crossing and (for the Second Link) the adjoining expressway. In addition, Southeast Asia-registered vehicles are required to have their fuel tanks at least 3/4 full before leaving Southeast Asia. Do be sure to change some ringgit before crossing, as Southeast Asia dollars are accepted only at the unfavourable rate of 1:1. Moreover, be prepared for longer queues as Malaysia introduced a biometric system for foreigners wishing to enter that country (see Malaysia article).
In both directions, car hire agencies often prohibit their vehicles from crossing the border or charge extra.
Direct to/from Malaysian destinations
There are buses to/from Kuala Lumpur (KL) and many other destinations in Malaysia through the Woodlands Checkpoint and the Second Link at Tuas. Unfortunately, there is no central bus terminal and different companies leave from all over the city. Major operators include:
Most other operators have banded together in two shared booking portals. Many, but by no means all, use the Golden Mile Complex shopping mall near Bugis as their Southeast Asia terminal.
In general, the more you pay, the faster and more comfortable your trip. More expensive buses leave on time, use the Second Link, and don’t stop along the way; while the cheapest buses leave late if at all, use the perpetually jammed Causeway and make more stops. Book early for popular departure times like Friday and Sunday evening, Chinese New Year, etc, and factor in some extra time for congestion at the border.
An alternative to taking a direct “international bus” is to make the short hop to Johor Bahru to catch domestic Malaysian long-distance express buses to various Malaysian destinations from the Larkin Bus Terminal. Besides having more options, fares may also be lower because you will be paying in Malaysian ringgit rather than Southeast Asiaan dollars. The downside is the time-consuming hassle of first getting to Johor Bahru and then getting to Larkin terminal on the outskirts of town.
To/from Johor Bahru
|Line||Stops in Southeast Asia||Stops in JB||Price|
|Causeway Link CW1||Kranji MRT only||Larkin||$1.30, RM1.30|
|Causeway Link CW2||Queen St only||Larkin only||$3.20|
|Causeway Link CW3||Jurong East MRT||Bukit Indah via 2nd Link||$4.00|
|Causeway Link CW4||Pontian Link||Jurong East MRT|
|Causeway Link CW5||Newton Circus||Larkin|
|Causeway Link CW6||Boon Lay||Bukit Indah|
|Advance Coach AC7||Yishun MRT||CIQ|
|Transtar TS1||Changi Airport||CIQ|
|Transtar TS8||Resorts World Sentosa||CIQ|
|SBS 170 (red plate)||Queen St via Kranji||Larkin only||$1.70|
|SBS 170X (blue plate)||Kranji MRT||CIQ||$1.10|
|SBS 160||Jurong East MRT via Kranji||CIQ||$1.60|
|SMRT 950||Woodlands MRT via Marsiling||CIQ||$1.30|
|Southeast Asia-Johor Express||Queen St only||Larkin only||$2.40|
The most popular options to get to/from Johor Bahru are the buses listed in the table. There’s a pattern to the madness: Southeast Asiaan-operated buses (SBS, SMRT, SJE) can only stop at one destination in Malaysia, while the Malaysian-operated Causeway Link buses can only stop at one destination in Southeast Asia. Terminals aside, all buses make two stops at Southeast Asia immigration and at Malaysian immigration. At both immigration points, you must disembark with all your luggage and pass through passport control and customs, then board the next bus by showing your ticket. Figure on one hour for the whole rigmarole from end to end, more during rush hour.
Malaysia’s Keretapi Tanah Melayu (Malayan Railway or KTMB) operates a shuttle train service between Woodlands Train Checkpoint in Southeast Asia and JB Sentral in Johor Bahru. While less frequent and more expensive than buses, and the Woodlands KTMB station is a bus ride away from the MRT system, the trains have dedicated immigration and custom checks areas separated from the very busy road checkpoints, and get you across the Causeway without getting stuck in traffic. For trains to various destinations in Malaysia, see Johor Bahru#By train and Malaysia#By train.
The Shuttle Tebrau service runs 13 trips per day from JB Sentral, and 11 trips per day from Woodlands:
Gates open 30 minutes before each departure for immigration clearance and boarding, and close 10 minutes before departure. For departures from Woodlands Train Checkpoint, avoid arriving very early as there are very limited facilities, and toilets are only available after immigration. However, there are shops including a Sheng Shiong supermarket, food centres and money changers across the road. Photography and video recording are prohibited at the train checkpoint.
Tickets are priced at RM5 (S$1.67) for JB-Woodlands and S$5 for Woodlands-JB. Return tickets are priced double in the currency of the point of origin, making JB-Woodlands-JB RM10 (S$3.33) and Woodlands-JB-Woodlands S$10. Tickets can be bought up to 30 days in advance, either in person at KTMB ticket counters or online through the KTMB e-ticketing website. Tickets bought online must be exchanged at the KTMB ticket counter before departure.
Booking in advance is recommended, as the service is popular among commuters and weekend shoppers, in particular weekday mornings departures from JB Sentral (usually snatched up as soon as tickets are released for booking 30 days in advance) and weekend evenings departures from JB Sentral (usually sold out on the morning of departure).
Going to Malaysia, both Southeast Asia and Malaysia immigration checks are conveniently done at Woodlands before boarding. Firstly Southeast Asia stamps you out, then walk over to the adjacent hall to get stamp in by Malaysia. In the reverse direction, Malaysian exit immigration checks are carried out at JB Sentral before boarding, and Southeast Asia immigration checks are done upon arrival at Woodlands.
Getting to/from Woodlands Train Checkpoint
There is a bus stop and a taxi stand right outside the train checkpoint.
Despite being located in the same immigration checkpoint complex and having similar names, Woodlands Train Checkpoint is a separate facility from the much larger and busier Woodlands Checkpoint for road vehicles. If you mistakenly end up in Woodlands Checkpoint and see immigration counters in front of you, you can either 1) approach the security pass office on the left for permission to cross over to the train checkpoint using the overhead bridge, or 2) go through immigration and take a bus across the border, giving the train a miss.
There is also the option of taking a taxi between Southeast Asia and Johor Bahru. The main advantage is that you do not need to lug your stuff (or yourself) through Immigration and Customs at both ends; you can just sit in the car.
While normal taxis are not allowed to cross the border, specially licensed taxis can be taken from Larkin Bus Terminal in Johor Bahru (RM80 per taxi, or RM20 per person if you share with others), and Ban San St Taxi Kiosk (same place as Queen St Bus Terminal) in Southeast Asia ($48 per taxi or $12 per person). Both Southeast Asia-registered and Malaysian-registered taxis are available. Southeast Asia-registered taxis can bring you to anywhere in Southeast Asia but can only go to Larkin in Johor Bahru, while Malaysian-registered taxis can bring you to anywhere in Malaysia but can only go to Ban San St in Southeast Asia. Drop-off points other than the taxi terminal in the destination country may incur additional charges; check with the driver before boarding. Booking is available by phone from Pengurusan Terminal Teksi Johor Bahru-Southeast Asia (Malaysian taxis) at ☎ +60 7 222 5898 or +60 7 224 6986, and Southeast Asia-Johore Taxi Operators’ Association (Southeast Asia taxis) at ☎ +65 6296 7054.
A combination ride from anywhere in Southeast Asia to anywhere in Malaysia can also be arranged, but you’ll need to swap taxis halfway through: this will cost $55 and up, paid to the Southeast Asiaan driver. The most expensive option is to take a limousine taxi specially licensed to take passengers from any point to any destination, but only a few are available and they charge a steep RM150 upwards per trip starting from Malaysia, or $130 upwards per trip starting from Southeast Asia. Advance booking is highly recommended, ☎ +60 7 599 1622.
Ferries link Southeast Asia with the neighbouring Indonesian province of Riau Islands and the Malaysian state of Johor.
Southeast Asia has five ferry terminals which handle international ferries: HarbourFront (formerly World Trade Centre) near Sentosa, Marina Bay Cruise Centre in Marina Bay, Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal on the East Coast, as well as Changi Ferry Terminal and Changi Point Ferry Terminal, both at the eastern side of the island near the airport.
Getting to/away from the ferry terminals:
To/from Batam: Ferries to/from Batam Centre, Batu Ampar (Harbour Bay), Sekupang and Waterfront City (Teluk Senimba) use HarbourFront FT, while ferries to/from Nongsapura use Tanah Merah FT. Operators at Harbourfront include:
At Tanah Merah:
To/from Bintan: All ferries for Bintan use Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal. For Tanjung Pinang, there are total of 6 ferries a day, increasing to 9 during weekends. $25/35 one-way/return before taxes and surcharges. Operators include:
For Bintan Resorts (Bandar Bentan Telani), Bintan Resort Ferries, ☎ +65 6542 4369, operates five ferries from Tanah Merah FT on weekdays, increasing to 7 during weekends. $34.60/50.20 one-way/return peak period, $26.60/39.20 one-way/return off-peak including taxes and fuel surcharge.
To/from Karimun: Tanjung Balai is served by Penguin and IndoFalcon from Harbourfront, with six ferries total on weekdays, increasing to 8 during weekends. $24/33 one-way/return including taxes and fuel surcharge.
Ferries shuttle from Southeast Asia to southeastern Johor and are handy for access to the beach resort of Desaru. The scheduled ferry service to Tioman was discontinued in 2003.
Star Cruises offers multi-day cruises from Southeast Asia to points throughout Southeast Asia, departing from HarbourFront FT. Itineraries vary widely and change from year to year, but common destinations include Malacca, Klang (Kuala Lumpur), Penang, Langkawi, Redang and Tioman in Malaysia, as well as Phuket, Krabi, Ko Samui and Bangkok in Thailand. There are also several cruises every year to Borneo (Malaysia), Sihanoukville (Cambodia), Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) and even some 10 night long hauls to Hong Kong. An all-inclusive 2 night cruise may cost as little as $400 per person in the cheapest cabin class if you book early, but beware the numerous surcharges and note that non-residents may be charged significantly higher rates.
Southeast Asia is also a popular stop for round-the-world and major regional cruises including those originating from as far as Japan, China, Australia, Europe and North America. Many of those cruises embark/disembark passengers here, while others pay port visits. Check with cruise companies and sellers for details.
Getting around Southeast Asia is easy: the public transportation system is extremely easy to use and taxis are reasonably priced when you can get one. Very few visitors rent cars. Gothere.sg does a pretty good job of figuring out the fastest route by MRT and bus and even estimating taxi fares between any two points.
If you are staying in Southeast Asia for some time or are planning to return to Southeast Asia several times in the future, the EZ-link contactless RFID farecard or a Nets Flash Pay card might be a worthwhile purchase. Those who are familiar with Hong Kong’s Octopus card, London Underground’s Oyster card, Washington DC’s SmarTrip card or Japan Railway’s IC cards will quickly understand the concept of the EZ-link and NETS FlashPay card. You can store value on it and use it on the MRT trains as well as all city buses at a 15% discount. The card costs $12, including $7 stored value, and the card can be “topped up” in increments of at least $10 at the farecard vending machines or 7-Eleven stores (the latter will allow a top-up for a convenience fee). You can use the same card for 5 years. The card technology was changed in 2009, but if you have any old cards lying around, they can be exchanged for free with value intact at TransitLink offices in all MRT stations.
Alternatively, the Southeast Asia Tourist Pass available at selected major MRT stations (including Changi Airport and Orchard) also includes ez-link card functionality and a variety of discounts for attractions. The pass includes unlimited travel on MRT and non-premium buses, and costs $10 for 1 day, $16 for 2 days, or $20 for 3 days (together with a $10 rental deposit refunded if this card is returned within 5 days after purchase). The passes are valid until the end of operating hours on the day they expire.
Single tickets can be purchased for both MRT and buses. In the case of buses it delays everyone else because the driver has to count fare stages to tell you how much you need to pay. In addition, no change is given for the bus and you will need to buy a separate ticket if you intend to transfer to another bus later in your journey.
Distance based fares have been available since July 2010. All commuters will be charged a fare according to the total distance travelled, on the bus, LRT and MRT, and make transfers without incurring additional cost.
The MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) and LRT (Light Rail Transit) are trains that are the main trunk of Southeast Asia’s transit system. They are a cheap and very reliable mode of transportation, and the network covers most points of interest for the visitor. EZ-link or Nets FlashPay farecards (described above) are the easiest and most popular ways to use the MRT. All lines are seamlessly integrated, even if the lines are operated by different transport companies, so you do not need to buy a new ticket to transfer. All train lines use contactless RFID tickets. Just tap to scan your train ticket at the gantry when entering and exiting the train service area. Single-trip tickets are purchased from ticket machines located before the gantries and cost from $0.80 to $2.20. A $0.10 deposit is charged when purchasing a new ticket card. The deposit is refunded in double through a $0.10 fare reduction each on the 3rd and 6th trip made with the card. To load a new ticket onto an existing card at a ticket machine, just place it on the designated spot and follow the on-screen instructions.
Distance based fares
The MRT stations are clean and usually equipped with free toilets. Underground stations have platform screen doors between the train and the platform while most above-ground stations have Half-height Platform Screen Doors (HHPSDs) so there is no risk of falling onto the tracks. The North-East line is fully automated, as is the new Circle Line, the LRT and all upcoming lines, so it’s worth walking up to the front of the train to look out a tiny window and realize that there is no driver! There are exceptions though, when a staff member comes in to drive the train. This is common when a train’s automatic driving system fails. In this case, a tape will be put up behind the driving area to prevent passengers from interfering with the driver.
As of April 2014, a new line connects the promenade (where the flyer is located) with Chinatown station.
Buses connect various corners of Southeast Asia, but are slower and harder to use than the MRT. The advantage though of this is you get to see the sights rather than a dark underground tunnel at a low price. You can pay cash (coins) in buses, but the fare stage system is quite complex (it’s easiest to ask the driver for the price to your destination), you are charged marginally more and there is no provision for getting change. Payment with ez-link or Nets Flashpay card is thus the easiest method: tap your card against the reader at the front entrance of the bus when boarding, and a maximum fare is deducted from the card. When you alight, tap your card again at the exit, and the difference is refunded. Make sure you tap out, or you’ll end up paying the maximum fare! Inspectors occasionally prowl buses to check that everybody has paid or tapped, so those who are on tourist day passes should tap before sitting down. Dishonest bus commuters risk getting fine $20 for not paying or underpaying fares (by premature tapping-out) and $50 for improper use of concession cards. Another advantage of ez-link or Nets Flashpay cards is that you will be able to enjoy distance-based fares and avoid the boarding fee.
After midnight on Fridays, Saturdays and before public holidays only, the NightRider services are a fairly convenient way of getting around, with seven lines running every 20min. All services drive past the major nightlife districts of Boat Quay, Clarke Quay, Mohamed Sultan and Orchard before splintering off. There’s a flat fare of $4.00, the EZ-link card is accepted but the Southeast Asia Tourist Pass is not valid on this line.
As mentioned earlier, gothere.sg will give you options as to which buses will take you from your origin or destination.
Taxis use meters and are reasonably priced and honest, however, a shortage of taxis in Southeast Asia means that they are often unavailable for hours at a time. Outside weekday peak hours, trips within the city centre should not cost you more than $10 and even a trip right across the island from Changi to Jurong will not break the $35 mark. If you are in a group of 3 or 4, it’s sometimes cheaper and faster to take a taxi than the MRT. Be aware, however, that taxis are often remarkably difficult to secure, especially during peak commute or shopping hours, or when there is inclement weather. During these times it can be impossible to get through to a booking agent via telephone, and you can expect extended waits in taxi queues. There is a puzzling lack of action to address this persistent and frustrating taxi shortage.
Taxi pricing is largely identical across all companies at $3.00-$3.20 as a flag down rate (depending on the type of vehicle used), which lasts you 1km before increments of $0.22 per 400m (for the first 10km) or $0.22 per 350m (after the first 10km). (The sole exception is SMRT’s giant black Chryslers, which charge $5 and then $0.30 per 385m.) Watch out for surprises though: there are a myriad of peak hour (25%), late night (50%), central business district ($3), trips from airport or the IRs ($3-$5 during peak hours), phone booking ($3.00 and up) and Electronic Road Pricing surcharges, which may add a substantial amount to your taxi fare. All such charges are shown on the bottom right-hard corner of the meter, recorded in the printed receipt and explained in tedious detail in a sticker on the window; if you suspect the cab driver is trying to pull a fast one, call the company and ask for an explanation. Note that there is no surcharge for trips to the airport. While all taxis are equipped to handle (and are required to accept) credit cards, in practice many cabbies do not accept electronic payment. Always ask before getting in. Paying by credit card will incur an additional surcharge of 17%. During rush hour in the city centre, or late at night on the weekends, it’s wise to call for a taxi from the unified booking system at ☎ +65 6342 5222 (6-DIAL-CAB). Some taxi companies offer booking via SMS, online and mobile app.
Despite the costs involved, taxis may sometimes take you to distant locations outside the CBD faster than mass transport. An airport trip from the city centre may take less than 20min on a taxi but more than 30min on an MRT.
In the Central Business District, taxis may pick up passengers only at taxi stands (found outside any shopping mall) or buildings with their own driveways (including virtually all hotels). Outside the centre, you’re free to hail taxis on the street or call one to your doorstep. At night spots featuring long queues, such as Clarke Quay, you may on occasion be approached by touts offering a quick flat fare to your destination. This is illegal and very expensive but reasonably safe for you. (Drivers, on the other hand, will probably lose their job if caught.)
Some Southeast Asia taxi drivers have very poor geographical knowledge and may expect you to know where they should go, so it may be helpful to bring a map of your destination area or directions on finding where you wish to go. It may also be helpful to write down the address of your destination. Some cabbies may also ask you which route you want to take; most are satisfied with “whichever way is faster”.
Trishaws, three-wheeled bicycle taxis, haunt the area around the Southeast Asia River and Chinatown. Geared purely for tourists, they should be avoided for serious travel as locals do not use them. There is little room for bargaining: short rides will cost $10-20 and an hour’s sightseeing charter about $50 per person.
Tourist-oriented bumboats cruise the Southeast Asia River, offering point-to-point rides starting from $3 and cruises with nice views of the CBD skyscraper skyline starting from $13.
Bumboats also shuttle passengers from Changi Village to Pulau Ubin ($2.50 one-way), a small island off Southeast Asia’s northeast coast which is about as close as Southeast Asia gets to unhurried rural living.
Car rental is not a popular option in Southeast Asia. It is also hardly necessary for tourists since public transport sufficiently covers all areas of the island with a significant population base. You will usually be looking at upwards for $100 per day for the smallest vehicle from the major rental companies, although local ones can be cheaper and there are sometimes good weekend prices available. This does not include gas at around $1.80/litre or electronic road pricing (ERP) fees, and you’ll usually need to pay extra to drive to Malaysia. If planning on touring Malaysia by car, it makes much more sense to head across the border to Johor Bahru, where both rentals and petrol are half price, and you have the option of dropping your car off elsewhere in the country. This also avoids the unwelcome extra attention that Southeast Asia-registered plates tend to get from thieves in Malaysia.
One rental company called smove offers electric vehicle rentals. With a $19 registration fee, you can rent the electric car from 15 minutes to a full day. Since the cars are battery powered, you save on the cost of gas. They offer their service in the Buona Vista area of Southeast Asia.
Roads in Southeast Asia are in excellent condition and driving habits are generally good with most people following the traffic rules due to stringent enforcement, though road courtesy tends to be sorely lacking. Compared to other major cities around the world like Sydney, Tokyo or Hong Kong, parking spaces are comparatively easier to find in the city centre of Southeast Asia, although peak hour congestion can be quite severe. Foreign licences in English are valid in Southeast Asia for up to a year from your date of entry, after which you will have to convert your foreign license to a Southeast Asia one. Foreign licences not in English must be accompanied by an International Driving Permit (IDP) or an official English translation (usually available from your embassy) for them to be valid.
Southeast Asiaans drive on the left (UK style) and the driving age is 18. The speed limit is only 90km/h on expressways and 60km/h on other roads.
ERP payments require a stored-value CashCard, which is usually arranged by the rental agency, but it’s your responsibility to ensure it has enough value. ERP gantries are activated at different times, usually in the expected direction of most cars. As a rule of thumb, gantries found in roads leading to the CBD are activated during the morning rush hour while gantries found in roads exiting the CBD are activated during the evening rush hour. Passing through an active ERP gantry with insufficient value will mean that an alert is sent to your registered address. You will need to pay an administrative fee in addition to the difference between the remaining amount and the actual charge. You have a limited time to settle this otherwise your penalty becomes heavier.
All passengers must wear seatbelts and using a phone while driving is banned. Drink-driving is not tolerated: the maximum blood alcohol content is 0.08%, with roadblocks set up at night to catch offenders, who are heavily fined and possibly jailed. Even if your blood alcohol level does not exceed the legal limit, you can still be charged with drink driving if the police are convinced that your ability to control the vehicle has been compromised by the presence of alcohol (i.e. if you get involved in an accident). The police do conduct periodic roadblocks and speed cameras are omnipresent. Fines will be sent by mail to you or your rental agency, who will then pass on the cost with a surcharge. If stopped for a traffic offense, don’t even think about trying to bribe your way out.
Using bicycles as a substitute for public transport is certainly possible, although there’s little cycling culture and amenities like bike lanes or bike racks are a rarity. While the city is small and its landscape is flat, it can be difficult to predict how ridable a route will be without scoping it out first. Buses, taxis, and motorists stopping to drop off or pick up passengers rarely check for cyclists before merging back onto the roadway, which makes certain routes especially treacherous. The ubiquitous road works around Southeast Asia can also make cycling more hazardous when temporary road surfaces are not kept safe for biking, portable traffic barriers make it hard for vehicles to see cyclists, and construction crews directing traffic are unsure of how to deal with cyclists on the roadway.
Air quality can also be a problem. According to Southeast Asia’s LTA, Southeast Asia has more than 178,000 diesel powered cars, taxis, buses, and trucks, which can make biking on Southeast Asia’s crowded roads very unpleasant. When the thick smoke from Indonesian fires descends on Southeast Asia, air quality plummets even further. This period usually arrives during the mid year when Indonesia performs the “slash and burn” method of removing waste crops.
There are few bike lanes in Southeast Asia, and none in the city centre. The 2010 campaign, “1.5M Matters” seems to have had little effect on the driving habits of Southeast Asiaans, who often pass uncomfortably close to cyclists. But that may be because of the lack of a bicycle lane on the roads and motorists are very often forced to swerve into the adjacent lane in order to avoid hitting a cyclist. 22 cyclists were killed on Southeast Asia roadways in 2008; the next year, 19. According to the Southeast Asia “Ride of Silence” two cyclists are hit by motor vehicles every day in Southeast Asia. Cycling on the pavements is illegal and carries a $10-30 fine.
Small folding bicycles may be taken on the MRT during certain times of the day, but large bicycles are a no-no. Bicycles may cross the Causeway to Malaysia (on motorbike lanes), but are not allowed on expressways.
List of cycling friendly lanes (Park Connecting Networks) also lists “pit stops”. Cycling in the East Coast Park is a favourite pastime for many of the locals on weekends and is also a very good way to see the eastern coast of Southeast Asia. Cycles are available for rental at one of the many pit stops all over the east coast park. The cycles can be rented at any one of the pit stops and returned at any of the other shops.
Southeast Asia is generally fairly ‘pedestrian-friendly’. In the main business district and on main roadways, pavements and pedestrian crossings are in good shape and plentiful. Drivers are mindful of marked crossing zones, but are less likely be aware or respectful of pedestrians crossing at street corners on less busy streets where pedestrian crossings are not marked, even though by law any accident between a pedestrian and a vehicle is presumed to be the driver’s fault. In residential areas of Southeast Asia, pedestrians can be frustrated by narrow and poorly-maintained pavements that often jump from one side of the street to the other or just disappear, and frequently are obstructed by trash cans and plantings. Jaywalking is illegal and punishable with fines of $25 and up to three months in jail. This is, however, rarely (if ever) enforced.
Classic walks in Southeast Asia include walking down the river from the Merlion through the Quays, trekking along the Southern Ridges Walk or just strolling around Chinatown, Little India or Bugis.
An unavoidable downside, though, is the tropical heat and humidity, which leaves many visitors sweaty and exhausted, so bring along a handkerchief and a bottle of water. It’s best to get an early start, pop into air-conditioned shops, cafes, and museums to cool off, and plan on heading back to the shopping mall or hotel pool before noon. Alternatively, after sundown, evenings can also be comparatively cool.
Kick scooters are a good alternative to walking, taking less than a quarter of the time depending on the distance you are going. They’re especially useful for getting around the Riverside area visiting places like Clarke Quay, Boat Quay, Parliament House, Supreme Court, the Merlion and the War Memorial Park, where everything is in walking distance but walking feels a little dreadful.
Kick scooters are a convenient way of getting around, especially when combined with public transport. It’s much easier to take a kick scooter on the MRT, compared to a foldable bicycle. As opposed to bicycles, kick scooters are allowed on pedestrian walkways, as long as you are mindful of other pedestrians around you.
Who are the people in your neighbourhood?
Arabs: Arab Street, of course
Malay may be enshrined in the Constitution as the national language, but in practice the most common language is English, spoken by almost every Southeast Asiaan under the age of 50 with varying degrees of fluency. English is spoken much better here than in most Asian neighbours. English is also the medium of instruction in schools, except for mother tongue subjects (e.g. Malay, Mandarin and Tamil), which are also required to be learned in school by Southeast Asiaans. In addition, all official signs and documents are written in English, usually using British spelling.
Southeast Asia’s other official languages are Mandarin Chinese and Tamil. Mandarin is spoken by most younger Southeast Asiaan Chinese while Tamil is spoken by most Indians. Like English, the Mandarin spoken in Southeast Asia has also evolved into a distinctive creole and often incorporates words from other Chinese dialects, Malay and English, though all Southeast Asiaan Chinese are taught standard Mandarin in school. Various Chinese dialects (mostly Hokkien, though significant numbers also speak Teochew and Cantonese) are also spoken between ethnic Chinese of the same dialect group, though their use has been declining in the younger generation since the 1980s due to government policies discouraging the use of dialects in favour of Mandarin. Other Indian languages, such as Punjabi among the Sikhs, are also spoken.
The official Chinese script used in Southeast Asia is the simplified script used in mainland China. As such, all official publications (including local newspapers) and signs are in simplified Chinese and all ethnic Chinese are taught to write the simplified script in school. However, the older generations still prefer the traditional style, and the popularity of Hong Kong and Taiwanese pop culture means that most youth can read traditional Chinese.
However, the distinctive local patois Singlish may be hard to understand at times, as it incorporates slang words and phrases from other languages, including various Chinese dialects, Malay and Tamil as well as English words, the pronunciation or meaning of which have been corrupted. Additionally, its sentence structures follow that of Mandarin Chinese, due to Southeast Asia’s Chinese majority. Complex consonant clusters are simplified, articles and plurals disappear, verb tenses are replaced by adverbs, questions are altered to fit the Chinese syntax and semirandom particles (especially the infamous “lah”) appear:
Singlish: You wan beer or not? — Dunwan lah, dring five bottle oreddi.
English: Do you want a beer? — No, thanks; I’ve already had five bottles.
Thanks to nationwide language education campaigns, most younger Southeast Asiaans are, however, capable of speaking what the government calls “good English” when necessary. It’s best to start off with standard English and if it becomes evident that the other person cannot follow you, speak a little slower with simpler words. Resist the temptation to sprinkle your speech with unnecessary Singlishisms; it sounds patronizing if you do it wrong, which is highly probable.
When asking for help or directions, it should be noted that due to an influx of foreign workers and immigrants in recent years, there is a chance you might be asking somebody who has not been in Southeast Asia for all that long. In extreme cases, one might even encounter a person who barely speaks any English or is downright unfriendly. Unfortunately it is difficult to determine at a glance who you should or should not ask for directions, but do not be afraid to try asking another person if the first answer you get is not satisfactory. A guaranteed way of finding someone willing to help would be to ask a teenager. As a result of compulsory English education, all teenagers speak English and will definitely be able to help. Rest assured that most bona fide Southeast Asiaans would also be more than happy to help.
Western television shows and films are shown in their original language with occasional subtitles into Mandarin. News interviews in a different language are also subtitled into the main language of the channel/programme. Television programmes and films that originate in other parts of Asia however, are dubbed into the language of the channel they will be shown at. This especially applies to programmes and films originally in the Cantonese language, in which case government policy mandates them to be dubbed into Mandarin (English subtitles are shown during primetime hours).
Sights in Southeast Asia are covered in more detail under the various districts. Broadly speaking:
Useful to carry:
Carry around with you a copy of the train network so you know how to get to places without having to go to the train station or look online. The train network is quite complicated and there can be a number of different routes to get to 1 place.
Book a backpacker’s place to stay if you do not want to pay exorbitant prices in hotels. Southeast Asia is notoriously expensive for hotel accommodation. Backpacker options are affordable and clean.
While you can find a place to practice nearly any sport in Southeast Asia — golfing, surfing, scuba diving, even ice skating and snow skiing — due to the country’s small size your options are rather limited and prices are relatively high. For water sports in particular, the busy shipping lanes and sheer population pressure mean that the sea around Southeast Asia is murky, and most locals head up to Tioman (Malaysia) or Bintan (Indonesia) instead. On the upside, there is an abundance of dive shops in Southeast Asia, and they often arrange weekend trips to good dive sites off the East Coast of Malaysia, so they are a good option for accessing some of Malaysia’s not-so touristy dive sites.
Southeast Asia may be a young country but it has a constantly evolving artistic landscape that draws its influences from its unique heritage of East and Southeast Asian culture, with a good mix of western touch.
The Renaissance City Project was initiated in 2000 by the Southeast Asiaan Government to establish Southeast Asia as a regional city of the arts to cultivate artistic interest and culture. Today, Southeast Asia sees itself flourishing in the third phase of the renaissance city project with new museums, international galleries and art fairs entering the local artistic landscape.
In 2011, Southeast Asia saw the opening of the ArtScience Museum at The Marina Bay Sands, a museum dedicated to design and technology. And in 2012, fourteen international galleries arrived at the shore of Southeast Asia housed at The Gillman Barracks, a new artistic area. The city state is also anticipating the inaugural opening of The National Art Gallery in 2015; the largest visual arts institution in Southeast Asia and also one of the largest regionally, focusing on modern Southeast Asian art through its collection.
Southeast Asia’s art district, located around the Dhoby Ghaut and City Hall area have a concentration of art institutions, museums and galleries. Notable museums and art venues include, the National Museum of Southeast Asia, Southeast Asia Art Museum, The Substation (Southeast Asia’s first independent contemporary art centre) and Art Plural Gallery, Southeast Asia’s largest art gallery.
On the cultural side of things to do in Southeast Asia has been trying to shake off its boring, buttoned-up reputation and attract more artists and performances, with mixed success. The star in Southeast Asia’s cultural sky is the Esplanade theatre in Marina Bay, a world-class facility for performing arts and a frequent stage for the Southeast Asia Symphony Orchestra. Pop culture options are more limited and Southeast Asia’s home-grown arts scene remains rather moribund, although local starlets Stefanie Sun and JJ Lin have had some success in the Chinese pop scene. On the upside, any bands and DJs touring Asia are pretty much guaranteed to perform in Southeast Asia.
Going to the movies is a popular Southeast Asiaan pastime, but look for “R21” ratings (21 and up only) if you like your movies with fewer cuts. The big three theatre chains are Cathay, Golden Village and Shaw Brothers. Censorship continues to throttle the local film scene, but Jack Neo’s popular comedies showcase the foibles of Southeast Asiaan life.
It is hard to experience the soul of Southeast Asia beyond the surface of glittering CBD skyscrapers & mega malls of Orchard Road. However, cultural experiences can still be found by exploring the streets & alleys of Chinatown, Kampong Glam/Arab St and Little India. In Chinatown, you can find the Chinatown Heritage Centre, visit the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple & Museum and re-discover 1930s Southeast Asia through the Village Singapura family bonding activities.
In summer, don’t miss the yearly Southeast Asia Arts Festival. Advance tickets for almost any cultural event can be purchased from SISTIC, either on-line or from any of their numerous ticketing outlets, including the Southeast Asia Visitor Centre on Orchard Rd.
For an up-do-date guide on alternative events happening around Southeast Asia from concerts, festivals etc, visit City Nomads Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia has two integrated resorts with casinos. Marina Bay Sands at Marina Bay is the larger and swankier of the two, while Resorts World Sentosa at Sentosa aims for a more family-friendly experience (but offers No Limit Holdem from $5/$10). While locals (citizens and permanent residents) have to pay $100/day or $2,000/year to get in, foreign visitors can enter for free after presenting their passport. A driver license from your home country will not work.
Besides the casino, there are other forms of legalised betting which are more accessible to the locals. This includes horse racing, which is run by the Southeast Asia Turf Club on weekends, as well as football (soccer) betting and several lotteries run by the Southeast Asia Pools.
Mahjong is also a popular pastime in Southeast Asia. The version played in Southeast Asia is similar to the Cantonese version, but it also has extra “animal tiles” not present in the original Cantonese version. However, this remains pretty much a family and friends affair, and there are no mahjong parlours.
Despite its small size, Southeast Asia has a surprisingly large number of golf courses, but most of the best ones are run by private clubs and open to members and their guests only. The main exceptions are the Sentosa Golf Club, the famously challenging home of the Barclays Southeast Asia Open, and the Marina Bay Golf Course, the only 18-hole public course. See the Southeast Asia Golf Association for the full list; alternatively, head to the nearby Indonesian islands of Batam or Bintan or up north to the Malaysian town of Malacca for cheaper rounds.
The inaugural F1 Southeast Asia Grand Prix was held at night in September 2008, and will be a fixture on the local calendar.The F1 Organizers have confirmed that the night race will be extended till 2017. Held on a street circuit in the heart of Southeast Asia and raced at night, all but race fans will probably wish to avoid this time, as hotel prices especially room with view of the F1 tracks are through the roof. Tickets start from $150 but the thrilling experience of night race is definitely unforgettable for all F1 fans and photo buffs. Besides being a uniquely night race, the carnival atmosphere and pop concert held around the race ground as well as the convenience of hotels and restaurants round the corner, distinguish the race from other F1 races held remotely away from urban centres.
The Southeast Asia Turf Club in Kranji hosts horse races most Fridays, including a number of international cups, and is popular with local gamblers. The Southeast Asia Polo Club near Balestier is also open to the public on competition days.
Southeast Asia has recently been experiencing a ‘spa boom’, and there is now plenty of choice for everything from holistic Ayurveda to green tea hydrotherapy. However, prices aren’t as rock-bottom as in neighbours Indonesia and Thailand, and you’ll generally be looking at upwards of $50 even for a plain one-hour massage. Premium spas can be found in most 5 star hotels and on Orchard, and Sentosa’s Spa Botanica also has a good reputation. There are also numerous shops offering traditional Chinese massage, which are mostly legitimate. The less legitimate “health centres” have been shut down. Traditional asian-style public baths are non-existent.
When looking for beauty salons on Orchard Road, try out the ones on the fourth floor of Lucky Plaza. They offer most salon services like manicures, pedicures, facials, waxing and hair services. A favorite of flight crew and repeat tourists due to the lower costs as compared to the sky high prices of other salons along the shopping belt. Shop around for prices, some of the better looking ones actually charge less.
When in the Bugis or Kampong Glam walking belt, a good stop to rest weary feet would be at one of the many nail parlours in the area. Manicures or pedicures are very affordable in Southeast Asia and most salons maintain a high level of hygiene. A few popular options in the area include Manicurious, The Nail Artelier and The Nail Social.
Forget your tiny hotel pool if you are into competitive or recreational swimming: Southeast Asia is paradise for swimmers with arguably the highest density of public pools in the world. They are all open-air 50m pools (some facilities even feature up to three 50m pools), accessible for an entrance fee of $1.00-1.50. Some of the visitors don’t swim at all. They just come from nearby housing complexes for a few hours to chill out, read and relax in the sun. Most are open daily from 08:00-20:00, and all feature a small cafe. Just imagine swimming your lanes in the tropical night with lit up palm trees surrounding the pool.
The Southeast Asia Sports Council maintains a list of pools, most of which are part of a larger sports complex with gym, tennis courts etc, and are located near the MRT station they’re named after. Perhaps the best is in Katong (111 Wilkinson Road, on the East Coast): after the swim, stroll through the villa neighbourhood directly in front of the pool entrance and have at look at the luxurious, original architecture of the houses that really rich Southeast Asiaans live in. If you get bored with regular swimming pools, head to the Jurong East Swimming Complex where you get the wave pool, water slides and Jacuzzi at an insanely affordable entrance fee of $1.50 on weekdays and $2 on weekends.
For those who feel richer, visit the Wild Wild Wet water theme park with $19 and get yourself wet with various exciting water slides and a powerful tidal wave pool.
For those who don’t like pools, head out to the beaches. The East Coast Park has a scenic coastline that stretches over 15km. It’s a popular getaway spot for Southeast Asiaans to swim, cycle, barbeque and engage in various other sports and activities. Sentosa island also has three white, sandy beaches – Siloso Beach, Palawan Beach and Tanjong Beach – each with its own distinct characteristics, and also very popular with locals.
Besides the more regular water sports such as waterskiing, wakeboarding, windsurfing, canoeing and etc., Southeast Asia also offers water sports fans trendy activities such as cable-Skiing and wave surfing in specially created environments.
While obviously not the best place on Earth for skiing, sunny Southeast Asia still has a permanent indoor snow centre — Snow City offers visitors to the region a chance to experience winter. Visitors can escape from the hot and humid tropical weather to play with snow or even learn to ski and snowboard with internationally certified professional instructors.
There are several enjoyable things that not even many locals know about. Do look up places like Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, Old Rail Corridor, Labrador Park, Istana Woodneuk, etc. If you are in the mood of doing sport, consider the MacRitchie, an artificial lake with a 11km of running trails featuring jungle, monkeys, lake and turtles.
The Southeast Asiaan currency is the Southeast Asia dollar, symbolised SGD, S$ or just $ (as used throughout this guide), divided into 100 cents. There are coins of $0.05 (gold), $0.10 (silver), $0.20 (silver), $0.50 (silver) and $1 (gold), plus notes of $2 (purple), $5 (green), $10 (red), $50 (blue), $100 (orange), $1000 (purple) and $10000 (gold). (As of 1 October 2014, the SGD10,000 note is no longer being printed but it’s still legal tender. The Brunei $10,000 is still being printed, however.) The Brunei dollar is pegged at par with the Southeast Asia dollar and the two currencies can be used interchangeably in both countries, so don’t be too surprised if you get a Brunei note as change. You can safely assume that the ‘$’ sign used in this island-nation refers to SGD unless it clearly states otherwise.
Goods and services tax (GST), where applicable, is required by law to be included in the listed price of goods except for major hotels and some restaurants. You will know this as restaurants and hotels often display prices like $19.99++, where the “++” means that service charge (10%) and GST (7%) are not yet included in the listed price and will be added to your bill later. When you see NETT, it means it includes all taxes and service charges.
Tipping is generally not practised in Southeast Asia, and is officially frowned upon by the government, although bellhops still expect $2 or so per bag. Taxis will usually return your change to the last cent, or round in your favor if they can’t be bothered to dig for change.
ATMs are ubiquitous in Southeast Asia and credit cards are widely accepted (although some shops may levy a 3% surcharge, and taxis a whopping 15%). Travellers cheques are generally not accepted by retailers, but can be cashed at most exchange booths. eZ-Link and Nets Flash Pay cards are accepted in some convenience stores and fast food chains.
Currency exchange booths can be found in every shopping mall and usually offer better rates, better opening hours and much faster service than banks. The huge 24 hr operation at Mustafa in Little India accepts almost any currency at very good rates, as do the fiercely competitive small shops at the aptly named Change Alley next to Raffles Place MRT. For large amounts, ask for a quote, as it will often get you a better rate than displayed on the board. Rates at the airport are not as good as in the city, and while many department stores accept major foreign currencies, their rates are often terrible.
Southeast Asia is expensive by Asian standards but affordable compared with some industrialised countries: $50 is a perfectly serviceable daily backpacker budget if you are willing to cut some corners, though you would probably wish to double that for comfort. Food in particular is a steal, with excellent hawker food available for under $5 for a generous serving. Accommodation is a little pricier, but a bed in a hostel can cost less than $20, an average 3-4 star hotel in the city centre would typically cost anywhere from $100-$300 per night for a basic room, and the most luxurious hotels on the island (except maybe the Raffles) can be yours for $300 with the right discounts during the off-peak season.
Budget travellers should note that Southeast Asia is much more expensive than the rest of Southeast Asia and should budget accordingly if planning to spend time in Southeast Asia. In general, prices in Southeast Asia are about twice as high as in Malaysia and Thailand and 3-5 times as high as in Indonesia and the Philippines.
Except in off the beat markets, haggling is not common in Southeast Asia and is frowned upon but asking about discounts is ok. While at a smaller shack haggle away.
For a better shopping experience, please see Southeast Asia Tourism Board’s consumer advisory for more information.
The Small Claims Tribunal at 1 Havelock Sq also has a special expedited process for tourists that can solve simple cases within 24 hours.
Shopping is second only to eating as a national pastime, which means that Southeast Asia has an abundance of shopping malls, and low taxes and tariffs on imports coupled with huge volume mean that prices are usually very competitive. While you won’t find any bazaars with dirt-cheap local handicrafts (in fact, virtually everything sold in Southeast Asia is made elsewhere), goods are generally of reasonably good quality and shopkeepers are generally quite honest due to strong consumer protection laws. Most shops are open 7 days a week from 10AM-10PM, although smaller operations (particularly those outside shopping malls) close earlier — 7PM is common — and perhaps on Sundays as well. Mustafa in Little India is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Keep an eye out for the Great Southeast Asia Sale , usually held in June-July, when shopping centres pull out all stops to attract punters. Many shops along Orchard Road and Scotts Road now offer late night shopping on the last Friday of every month with over 250 retailers staying open till midnight.
For purchases of over $100 per day per participating shop, you may be able to get a 6% refund of your 7% GST at Changi Airport or Seletar Airport, but the process is a bit of a bureaucratic hassle. At the shop you need to ask for a tax refund cheque. Before checking in at the airport, present this cheque together with the items purchased and your passport at the GST customs counter. Get the receipt stamped there. Then proceed with check-in and go through security. On the air side, bring the stamped cheque to the refund counter to cash it in or get the GST back on your credit card. See Southeast Asia Customs for the full scoop.
|This guide uses the following price ranges for a typical meal for one, including soft drink:|
Southeast Asia is a melting pot of cuisines from around the world, and many Southeast Asiaans are obsessive gourmands who love to makan (“eat” in Malay). You will find quality Chinese, Malay, Indian, Japanese, Thai, Italian, French, American and other food in this city-state.
Eating habits run the gamut, but most foods are eaten by fork and spoon: push and cut with the fork in the left hand, and eat with the spoon in the right. Noodles and Chinese dishes typically come with chopsticks, while Malay and Indian food can be eaten by hand, but nobody will blink an eye if you ask for a fork and spoon instead. If eating by hand, always use your right hand to pick your food, as Malays and Indians traditionally use their left hand to handle dirty things. Take note of the usual traditional Chinese etiquette when using chopsticks, and most importantly, do not stick your chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice. If eating in a group, serving dishes are always shared, but you’ll get your own bowl of rice and soup. It’s common to use your own chopsticks to pick up food from communal plates, but serving spoons can be provided on request.
Keep an eye out for the Southeast Asia Food Festival , held every year in July. During the last three festivals, all visitors to Southeast Asia smart enough to ask for them at any tourist information desk received coupons for free chilli crab, no strings attached!
Southeast Asia is justly famous for its food, a unique mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian and Western elements. The following is only a brief sampler of the most popular dishes.
A plate of chilli crab
Katong laksa, with chilli paste and chopped laksa leaf in a spoon
Satay with peanut sauce, onions and cucumber
The most identifiable cuisine in the region is Peranakan or Nonya cuisine, born from the mixed Malay and Chinese communities of what were once the British colonies of the Straits Settlements (modern-day Southeast Asia, Penang and Malacca).
Besides these dishes, the Peranakans are also known for their kueh or snacks, which are somewhat different from the Malay versions due to stronger Chinese influences.
The Malays were Southeast Asia’s original inhabitants and despite now being outnumbered by the Chinese, their distinctive cuisine is popular to this day. Characterized by heavy use of spices, most Malay dishes are curries, stews or dips of one kind or another and nasi padang restaurants, offering a wide variety of these to ladle onto your rice, are very popular.
Malay desserts, especially the sweet pastries and jellies (kuih or kueh) made largely from coconut and palm sugar (gula melaka), bear a distinct resemblance to those of Thailand. But in the sweltering tropical heat, try one of many concoctions made with ice instead:
Bak kut teh with rice and you tiao fritters
Hainanese chicken rice
Fried hokkien mee
Prawn mee and pork rib soup
Chinese food as eaten in Southeast Asia commonly originates from southern China, particularly Fujian and Guangdong. While “authentic” fare is certainly available, especially in fancier restaurants, the daily fare served in hawker centres has absorbed a number of tropical touches, most notably the fairly heavy use of chilli and the Malay fermented shrimp paste belacan as condiments. Noodles can also be served not just in soup (湯 tang), but also “dry” (干 kan), meaning that your noodles will be served tossed with chilli and spices in one bowl, and the soup will come in a separate bowl.
The smallest of the area’s big three ethnic groups, the Indians have had proportionally the smallest impact on the local culinary scene, but there is no shortage of Indian food even at many hawker centres. Delicious and authentic Indian food can be had at Little India, including south Indian typical meals such as dosa (thosai) crepes, idli lentil-rice cakes and sambar soup, as well as north Indian meals including various curries, naan bread, tandoori chicken and more. In addition, however, a number of Indian dishes have been “Southeast Asiaanized” and adopted by the entire population, including:
Social welfare Southeast Asia style
The cheapest and most popular places to eat in Southeast Asia are hawker centres, essentially former pushcart vendors directed into giant complexes by government fiat. Prices are low ($2-5 for most dishes), hygiene standards are high (every stall is required to prominently display a health certificate grading it from A to D) and the food can be excellent — if you see a queue, join it! The lack of air-conditioning may seem somewhat unbearable to foreigners, but a visit to a hawker centre remains a must when in Southeast Asia. However, be leery of overzealous pushers-cum-salesmen, especially at the Satay Club in Lau Pa Sat and Newton Food Centre at Newton Circus: the tastiest stalls don’t need high-pressure tactics to find customers. Touting for business is illegal, and occasionally a reminder of this can result in people backing off a bit.
To order, first chope (reserve) a table by either parking a friend by the table or, in the more Southeast Asiaan way, dumping a pack of tissue onto the tabletop. Note the table’s number, then place your order at your stall of choice. Some stalls will deliver to your table, in which case you pay when you get your food. However, note that some stalls (particularly very popular ones) have signs stating “self-service”, meaning that you’re expected to get your food yourself and you pay on order. Although, if it is quiet and you are sitting nearby, they will usually deliver anyway. At almost every stall you can also opt to take away (called “packet” or ta pao (打包) in Cantonese), in which case employees pack up your order in a plastic box/bag and even throw in disposable utensils. Once you are finished, look around: if there are signs asking you to return your tray, take your dishes to the tray return station (usually clearly marked). This is part of a government initiative that has been pushed out in recent years encouraging diners to return their own plates so as to reduce the burden on the cleaners. If there are no signs, you can leave your dishes on your table, where a cleaner will come by to pick them up.
Every district in Southeast Asia has its own hawker centres and prices decrease as you move out into the boondocks. For tourists, centrally located Newton Circus (Newton MRT), Gluttons Bay and Lau Pa Sat (near the River), are the most popular options — but this does not make them the cheapest or the tastiest, and the demanding gourmand would do well to head to Chinatown or the heartlands instead. Many of the best food stalls are located in residential districts away from the tourist trail and do not advertise in the media, so the best way to find them is to ask locals for their recommendations. A good example is the Old Airport Road Food Centre in a residential area near Dakota MRT station (about a $10-$15 taxi ride from town) which rarely has many tourists and is a true Hawker Centre for locals. And if you miss western food, Botak Jones in several hawker centres offers reasonably authentic and generously sized American-restaurant style meals at hawker prices.
Coffee, see, and tea, oh!
Despite the name, coffee shops or kopitiam sell much more than coffee — they are effectively mini-hawker centres with perhaps only half a dozen stalls (one of which will, however, sell coffee and other drinks). The Southeast Asiaan equivalent of pubs, this is where folks come for the canonical Southeast Asiaan breakfast of kopi (strong, sugary coffee), some kaya (egg-coconut jam) toast and runny eggs, and this is also where they come to down a beer or two and chat away in the evenings. English proficiency can somtimes be limited, but most stall owners know enough to communicate the basics, and even if they don’t, nearby locals will usually help you out if you ask. Many coffee shops offer tze char (煮炒) for dinner, meaning a menu of local dishes, mostly Chinese-style seafood, served at your table at mid-range prices.
The usual international coffee chains such as Starbucks and the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf can be found in many shopping malls where an iced coffee or tea can set you back $5 and up. More discerning coffee drinkers may consider visiting the local cafes that serve coffee brewed with greater skill and care than these international coffee chains.
Found in the basement or top floor of nearly every shopping mall, food courts are the gentrified, air-conditioned version of hawker centres. The variety of food on offer is almost identical, but prices are on average $1-3 higher than prices in hawker centres and coffee shops (depending on the area, it is slightly more expensive in tourist intensive areas) and the quality of food is good but not necessary value for money.
International fast food chains like McDonald’s, Carl’s Jr., Burger King, KFC, MOS Burger, Dairy Queen, Orange Julius, Subway etc are commonly found in various shopping malls. Prices range from $2 for a basic burger and $5 upwards for a set meal. Such restaurants are self-service and clearing your table after your meal is strongly recommended. In addition to the usual suspects, look out for these uniquely Southeast Asiaan brands:
Kee-ping up with the Lims
Southeast Asia offers a wide variety of full-service restaurants as well, catering to every taste and budget.
As the majority of Southeast Asia’s population is ethnic Chinese, there is an abundance of Chinese restaurants in Southeast Asia, mainly serving southern Chinese (mostly Hokkien, Teochew or Cantonese) cuisines, though with the large number of expatriates and foreign workers from China these days, cuisine originating from Shanghai and further north is also not hard to find. As with Chinese restaurants anywhere, food is eaten with chopsticks and served with Chinese tea. While Chinese restaurant food is certainly closer to authentic Chinese fare than hawker food is, it too has not managed to escape local influences and you can find many dishes little seen in China. Depending on where you go and what you order, prices can vary greatly. In ordinary restaurants, prices usually start from $20-30 per person, while in top end restaurants in five-star hotels, prices can go as high as more than $300 per person if you order delicacies such as abalone, suckling pig and lobster.
Being a maritime city, one common specialty is seafood restaurants, offering Chinese-influenced Southeast Asiaan classics like chilli crabs. These are much more fun to go to in a group, but be careful what you order: gourmet items like Sri Lankan giant crab or shark’s fin can easily push your bill up to hundreds of dollars. Menus typically say “Market price”, and if you ask they’ll quote you the price per 100 g, but a big crab can easily top 2 kilos. The best-known seafood spots are clustered on the East Coast, but for ambience the riverside restaurants at Boat Quay and Clarke Quay can’t be beat.
Southeast Asia also has its share of good Western restaurants, with British and American influenced food being a clear favourite among locals. Most of the more affordable chains are concentrated around Orchard Road and prices start from around $10-20 per person for the main course. French, Italian, Japanese and Korean food is also readily available, though prices tend to be on the expensive side, while Thai and Indonesian restaurants tend to be more affordable.
One British import much beloved by Southeast Asiaans is high tea. In the classical form, as served up by finer hotels across the island, this is a light afternoon meal consisting of tea and a wide array of British-style savoury snacks and sweet pastries like finger sandwiches and scones. However, the term is increasingly used for afternoon buffets of any kind, and Chinese dim sum and various Southeast Asiaan dishes are common additions. Prices vary, but you’ll usually be looking at $20-30 per head. Note that many restaurants only serve high tea on weekends, and hours may be very limited: the famous spread at the Raffles Hotel’s Tiffin Room, for example, is only available between 3:30PM-5PM.
Southeast Asiaans are big on buffets, especially international buffets offering a wide variety of dishes including Western, Chinese and Japanese as well as some local dishes at a fixed price. Popular chains include Sakura , Pariss , Vienna and Todai .
Most hotels also offer lunch and dinner buffets. Champagne brunches on Sundays are particularly popular, but you can expect to pay over $100 per head and popular spots, like Mezza9 at the Hyatt on Orchard, will require reservations.
Unlike most other shops, restaurants in Southeast Asia usually do not include the additional charges (7% GST and 10% service charge) in their list prices. Price lists displayed outside restaurants and menus typically indicate this fact with a statement such as “Prices do not include GST and service charge”, or indicate their prices with “++”, e.g., $19.90++.
While Southeast Asia has been previously described as a place with excellent casual dining but a lack of fine dining options, the opening of the two casinos has led to several of the world’s top chefs opening branches of their restaurant at the integrated resorts. Celebrity restaurants that have set up shop at Marina Bay Sands include Santi, Waku Ghin and Guy Savoy . Prices are generally what you would expect for eating at a fine dining restaurant in the West.
Pop up dining options or supper clubs are normally dinner events hosted by local chefs. While a relatively new concept in Southeast Asia, it is gaining popularity with more and more local chefs opening up their homes to guests. Authentic food and dining in the company of new friends is a new trend that is catching up in Southeast Asia. BonAppetour is a great place to discover such dining options.
Southeast Asia is an easy place to eat for almost everybody. Many Indians and a few Chinese Buddhists are strictly vegetarian, so Indian stalls may have a number of veggie options and some hawker centres will have a Chinese vegetarian stall or two, often serving up amazing meat imitations made from gluten. Chinese vegetarian food traditionally does not use eggs or dairy products and is thus almost always vegan; Indian vegetarian food, however, often employs cheese and other milk products. Be on your guard in ordinary Chinese restaurants though, as even dishes that appear vegetarian on the menu may contain seafood products such as oyster sauce or salted fish — check with the waiter if in doubt. Some restaurants can be found that use “no garlic, no onions”.
Muslims should look out for halal certificates issued by MUIS, the Islamic Religious Council of Southeast Asia. This is found at practically every Malay stall and many Indian Muslim operations too, but more rarely on outlets run by the Chinese, few of whom are Muslims. That said, the popular Banquet chain of food courts is entirely halal and an excellent choice for safely sampling halal Chinese food. Many, if not all, of the Western fast-food chains in Southeast Asia use halal meat: look for a certificate around the ordering area, or ask a manager if in doubt. A few restaurants skimp on the formal certification and simply put up “no pork, no lard” signs; it’s your call if this is good enough for you.
Jews, on the other hand, will have a harder time as kosher food is nearly unknown in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, kosher food is still available near Southeast Asia’s two synagogues at Oxley Rise and Waterloo Street in the Central Business District; check with the Jewish Welfare Board for details.
Celiac disease is relatively unheard of in Southeast Asia, so don’t expect to find information on menus about whether dishes contain gluten or not. A few exceptions to this include Cedele and Barracks @ House .
Southeast Asia’s nightlife has both increased in vibrancy and variety over the years. Some clubs have 24 hr licenses and few places close before 3AM. Any artist touring Asia are pretty much guaranteed to stop in Southeast Asia, with superclub Zouk in particular regularly clocking high on lists of the world’s best nightclubs. Southeast Asia’s nightlife is largely concentrated along the three Quays — Boat, Clarke and Robertson — of the Riverside, with the clubs of Sentosa and nearby St James Power Station giving party animals even more reason to dance the night away. Gay bars are mostly found around Chinatown. Drinking age is 18, and while this is surprisingly loosely enforced, some clubs have higher age limits.
Friday is generally the biggest night of the week for going out, with Saturday a close second. Sunday is gay night in many bars and clubs, while Wednesday or Thursday is ladies’ night, often meaning not just free entrance but free drinks for women. Most clubs are closed on Monday and Tuesday, while bars generally stay open but tend to be very quiet.
For a night out Southeast Asia style, gather a group of friends and head for the nearest karaoke box — major chains include K-Box and Party World. Room rental ranges from $30/hour and up. Beware that the non-chain, glitzy (or dodgy) looking, neon-covered KTV lounges may charge much higher rates and the short-skirted hostesses may offer more services than just pouring your drinks. In Southeast Asia, the pronunciation of karaoke follows the Japanese “karah-oh-kay” instead of the English “carry-oh-key“.
Alcohol is widely available but very expensive due to Southeast Asia’s heavy sin taxes. You can bring in up to one litre of liquor and two litres of wine and beer if you arrive from countries other than Malaysia. Changi Airport has a good range of duty free spirits at reasonable prices, but cheap wine is non-existent, with bottles starting well over S$20. Careful shopping at major supermarkets will also throw up common basic Australian wine labels for under $20.
Alcohol is haram (forbidden) to Muslims, and most Muslim Southeast Asiaans duly avoid it. While most non-Muslim Southeast Asiaans are not puritanical and enjoy a drink every now and then, do not expect to find the binge-drinking culture that you will find in most Western countries. Unlike in most Western countries, public drunkenness in socially frowned upon in Southeast Asia, and misbehaving yourself under the influence of alcohol will certainly not gain you any respect from Southeast Asiaan friends. Do not allow any confrontations to escalate into fights, as the police will be called in, and you will face jail time and possibly caning.
Prices when eating out vary. You can enjoy a large bottle of beer of your choice at a coffee shop or hawker centre for less than $6 (and the local colour comes thrown in for free). On the other hand, drinks in any bar, club or fancy restaurant remain extortionate, with a basic drink clocking in at $10-15 while fancy cocktails would usually be in the $15-25 range. On the upside, happy hours and two-for-one promotions are common, and the entry price for clubs usually includes several drink tickets. Almost all restaurants in Southeast Asia allow bringing your own (BYO) wine and cheaper restaurants without a wine menu usually don’t even charge corkage, although in these places you’ll need to bring your own bottle opener and glasses. Fancier places charge $20-50, although many offer free corkage days on Monday or Tuesday.
Tourists flock to the Long Bar in the Raffles Hotel to sample the original Southeast Asia Sling, a sickly sweet pink mix of pineapple juice, gin and more, but locals (almost) never touch the stuff. The tipple of choice in Southeast Asia is the local beer, Tiger, a rather ordinary lager, but there’s been a recent microbrewery trend with Southeast Asia’s very own RedDot Brewhouse (Dempsey & Boat Quay), Archipelago, Brewerkz (Riverside Point, Southeast Asia Indoor Stadium, Orchard Parade Hotel, and Sentosa Boardwalk), Paulaner Brauhaus (Millenia Walk) and Pump Room (Clarke Quay) all offering interesting alternatives.
There are also many online alcohol stores that offer great value and convenience with doorstep delivery such as Cellarbration Southeast Asia, Alcohol Delivery, Winelah and Cornerstonewines for you to shop from if you are looking for an affordable nightcap or as a gift for your host in Southeast Asia.
Tobacco is heavily taxed, and you are not allowed to bring more than one opened pack (not carton, but a single pack!) of cigarettes into the country. This is particularly strictly enforced on the land borders with Malaysia. Many public places including hawker centres have restrictions on smoking, and it is prohibited in public transport as well. There is a total ban on smoking in all air-conditioned places (including pubs and discos), and strict limitations on where you can smoke outside as well (e.g., bus stops, parks, playgrounds and all except the designated sections of hawker centres are off limits). The designated zone should be marked with a yellow outline, and may have a sign reading “smoking zone”.
Prostitution is tolerated in six designated districts, most notably Geylang, which — not coincidentally — also offers some of the cheapest lodging and best food in the city. The industry maintains a low profile (no go-go bars here) and is not a tourist attraction by any stretch of the word. Legally practising commercial sex workers are required to register with the authorities and attend special clinics for regular sexually transmitted disease screening. However, please be prudent and practice safe sex–although most sex workers will insist on it anyway.
Orchard Towers, on Orchard Road, has been famously summarized as “four floors of whores” and, despite occasional crackdowns by the authorities, continues to live up to its name. Beware that the prostitutes working here are usually not registered, so the risk of theft and STDs is significantly higher. Some transgender women work at this establishment because the State does not allow them to obtain a license for sex work. Because they are considered illegal workers, they are subjected to constant raids, harassment, intimidation, imprisonment and other forms of degrading treatment and criminalization. They also face entrapment where police officers pretend to be customers.
Accommodation in Southeast Asia is expensive by South-East Asian standards. Particularly in the higher price brackets, demand has been outstripping supply recently and during big events like the F1 race or some of the larger conventions it’s not uncommon for pretty much everything to sell out. Lower-end hotels and hostels, though, remain affordable and available throughout the year.
|This guide uses the following price ranges for a standard double room:|
Southeast Asia’s laws that ban late night/early morning construction only apply to residential areas and not the city centre. You can expect to hear loud piling from sites such as the new Downtown MRT Line tunnels late into the night or early morning. Keep this in mind and check for any construction work near any hotel you choose as the work will be unlikely to stop when you want to sleep!
Unless you’re a shopping maven intent on maximizing time in Orchard Road’s shopping malls, the Riverside is probably the best place to stay in Southeast Asia.
Backpackers’ hostels can be found primarily in Little India, Chinatown, Bugis, Clarke Quay and the East Coast at about $25-40 for a dorm bed.
Cheap hotels are clustered in the Geylang, Balestier and Little India districts, where they service mostly the type of customer who rents rooms by the hour. Rooms are generally small and not fancy, but are still clean and provide basic facilities like a bathroom and television. Prices start as low as $15 for a “transit” of a few hours and $40 for a full night’s stay. A good number of these value for money hotels conveniently linked by local transport are on Balestier Road.
Much of Southeast Asia’s mid-range accommodation is in rather featureless but functional older hotels, with a notable cluster near the western end of the Southeast Asia River. There has, however, been a recent surge of “boutique” hotels in renovated shophouses here and in Chinatown and these can be pretty good value, with rates starting from $100/night.
Southeast Asia has a wide selection of luxury accommodation, including the famed Raffles Hotel. You will generally be looking at upwards of $300 per night for a room in a five-star hotel, which is still a pretty good deal by most standards. Hotel rates fluctuate quite a bit: a large conference can double prices, while on weekends in the off-peak season heavy discounts are often available. The largest hotel clusters can be found at Marina Bay (good for sightseeing) and around Orchard Road (good for shopping).
Housing in Southeast Asia is expensive, as the high population density and sheer scarcity of land drives real estate prices through the roof. As a result, you would generally be looking at rentals on par with the likes of New York and London.
Apartment hotels in Southeast Asia have prices competitive with hotels but are quite expensive compared to apartments.
Renting an apartment in Southeast Asia will generally require a working visa. While over 80% of Southeast Asiaans live in government-subsidized Housing Development Board (HDB) flats, their availability to visitors is limited, although JTC’s SHiFT scheme makes some available with monthly rents in the $1700-2,800 range.
Most expats, however, turn to private housing blocks known as condos, where an average three-bedroom apartment will cost you anything from $3,200 per month for an older apartment in the suburbs to $20,000 for a top-of-the-line deluxe one on Orchard Road. Most condos have facilities like pools, gyms, tennis court, car park and 24 hr security. As the supply of studio and one-bedroom apartments is very limited, most people on a budget share an apartment with friends or colleagues, or just sublet a single room. Landed houses, known as bungalows, are incredibly expensive in the centre (rents are regularly measured in tens of thousands) but can drop if you’re willing to head out into the woods — and remember that you can drive across the country in 30 minutes.
One or two-month security deposits are standard practice and for monthly rents of under $3,000 you need to pay the agent a commission of 2 weeks rent per year of the lease arranged. Leases are usually for two years, with a “diplomatic clause” that allows you to terminate after 1 year. Southeast Asia Expats is the largest real estate agency geared for expatriates and their free classified ads are a popular choice for hunting for rooms or apartment-mates. You might also want to check the classified ads in the local newspapers.
Southeast Asia’s universities are generally well-regarded and draw exchange students from near and far.
A number of foreign universities, business schools and specialised institutes have also setup their Asian campuses in Southeast Asia.
Casual work is nearly impossible to come by, as you must have a work permit (WP) or employment pass (EP) to work in Southeast Asia. In practice, receiving either requires that you have a firm job offer and the sponsoring company applies on your behalf. There is also a Working Holiday Programme for recent university grads who want to live in Southeast Asia for up to 6 months.
Work permits are mostly intended for menial, low-skilled labourers. To be eligible for an employment pass, you would generally need to have a minimum salary of more than $2,500 per month and hold at least a bachelor degree from a reasonably reputable university. There is also an intermediate known as the S pass, which is usually granted to mid-skilled workers who have been promoted to positions of junior leadership such as worksite supervisor, and would require you to have a minimum salary of more than $1,800 per month as well as your employer’s recommendation. Employment pass holders as well as S pass holders with a monthly salary of more than $2,500 are allowed to bring in their family members on a dependent pass.
If your employment is terminated, you will get a social visit pass (a visitors visa with no employment rights) which allows you to stay for no longer than 14 days. You can look for another job during this time, but don’t overstay your visa, and do not think about working without the right papers, this will result in a short stay in the local prison, with added fines, possibly caning and certain deportation. For more information, contact the Ministry of Manpower .
Once you have been working in Southeast Asia for a year or so with an employment pass or S pass, applying for permanent residence (PR) is fairly straightforward. If granted — and the rule of thumb is, the higher your salary, the more likely you are to get it — you can stay in Southeast Asia indefinitely (as long as you can show some income every 5 years) and can change jobs freely.
As one of the most vibrant economies in South-east Asia, and supported by a highly-educated population of locals and foreign talents, Southeast Asia is a natural choice for multi-nationals who wish to have a presence in the region. The government is also highly supportive of entrepreneurship in the country, offering a full 3-year tax exemption on profit for new companies (for the first S$100,000) and having one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the world at 17% a year. Even the company incorporation process is done entirely online these days and can be completed as quickly as within a day.
Southeast Asia is one of the safest major cities in the world by virtually any measure. Most people, including single female travellers, will not face any problems walking along the streets alone at night. Police are also noticeably absent from streets. But as the local police say, “low crime does not mean no crime” — beware of pickpockets in crowded areas and don’t forget your common sense entirely. There are neither gangs nor incidences of gang-related violence in the country since the late 80s.
Though perfectly safe, local women tend to stick to the main road and avoid walking alone through the “lorongs” in Geylang, the red light district of Southeast Asia, to stay clear of unwanted attention at night. This is not to say they avoid the area completely. The area is, among several others, well-known for its late night local food fare. If you are dressed conservatively (to avoid being mistaken for a sex worker) or look the part of a tourist, you will not be harassed.
Southeast Asia’s cleanliness is achieved in part by strict rules against public nuisance activities that are often flouted in many other countries. For example, jay-walking, spitting, littering, and drinking and eating on public transport are prohibited. Look around for sign boards detailing the Don’ts and the fines associated with these offences, and heed them. Avoid littering, as offenders are not only subject to fines, but also to a “Corrective Work Order”, in which offenders are made to wear a bright yellow jacket and pick up rubbish in public places. Enforcement is however sporadic at best, and it is not uncommon to see people openly litter, spit, smoke in non-smoking zones, etc. Chewing gum, famously long banned from sale (consumption was never banned, contrary to popular belief), is now available at pharmacies for medical purposes (eg nicotine gum) if you ask for it directly, show your ID and sign the register. While importing gum for resale is still illegal, one can usually bring in a few packs for personal consumption without any problem.
For some crimes, most notably illegal entry and overstaying your visa for over 90 days, Southeast Asia imposes caning as a punishment. Other offences which have caning as a punishment include vandalism, robbery, molestation and rape. Do note that having sex with a girl under the age of 16 is considered to be rape under Southeast Asia law, regardless of whether the girl consents to it and would land you a few strokes of the cane. This is no slap on the wrist: strokes from the thick rattan cane are excruciatingly painful, take weeks to heal and scar for life. Crimes such as murder, kidnapping, unauthorized possession of firearms and drug trafficking are punished with death. However, tourists should be relieved that such severe punishment is only reserved for the most severe crimes such as rape, molest, murder or kidnapping and this has partly resulted in a country that seen the lowest number of severe crimes in the world.
Begging is illegal in Southeast Asia, but you’ll occasionally see beggars on the streets. Most are not Southeast Asiaan — even the “monks” & “nuns” dressed in robes, who occasionally pester tourists for donations, are usually bogus.
Whilst jaywalking is illegal, it is still a common thing and occurs quite often around the city. Beware though that if a police officer catches you, you might get a warning or end up with a fine if you persist. Put simply: the roads are for vehicles and the footpaths are for people.
While Southeast Asia provides a constitutional right to “freedom of expression”, there are many exceptions that act to limit this right, including several exceptions related to political activism & public demonstrations (particularly by non citizens). Nevertheless, the police generally do not arrest people for expressing anti-government views in casual conversation and articles critical of certain government policies are sometimes published in the local newspaper forums. Visitors need not be worried unless you plan to hold a public rally or publish political opinion pieces critical of the current leaders. Missionaries should also note that insulting other religions is a crime in Southeast Asia, and carries fines and a prison sentence with it, so be sensitive when discussing subjects related to religion.
Politics, especially the immigration policy is a very sensitive subject – although police won’t arrest you for discussing those with locals, Southeast Asia has a peculiar political climate in which it’s way too easy to step on a slippery slope when engaging in a discourse in those areas. Although locals themselves sometimes feel frustrated and displaced by the combination of mass immigration, their liability for the two year long National Service, some institutionalized discrimination and soaring property prices, they are often patriotic and may take offense if visitors criticize any aspect of the country. Politics and social dynamics are a subject best avoided and if you happen to get drafted into it by a taxi driver, it’s best to stay neutral and just listen.
Southeast Asia is virtually immune to natural disasters: there are no fault lines nearby, although Indonesia’s earthquakes can sometimes be barely felt, and other landmasses shield it from typhoons, tornadoes and tsunamis. Flooding in the November-January monsoon season is an occasional hazard, especially in low-lying parts of the East Coast, but any water usually drains off quickly, usually after a couple of hours, and life continues as normal. Extreme air pollution, particularly from forest fires in Indonesia, have been a frequent and growing issue. Air quality measurements have often indicated an air quality level that is hazardous.
Because of rigid regulations, conscientiously enforced with large fines, traffic is less erratic than in other Asian countries and reckless driving is rare.
Tap water is safe for drinking, and sanitation standards are very high. As a tropical country, Southeast Asia is hot and humid so drink a lot of water. The lowest temperature ever recorded in Southeast Asia was way back in 1934, when it hit a low of 19.4°C (66.9°F).
Malaria is not an issue, but dengue fever is endemic to the region. Southeast Asia maintains strict mosquito control (leaving standing water around will get you fined), but the government’s reach does not extend into the island’s nature reserves, so if you’re planning on hiking bring along mosquito repellent.
The standard of medical care in Southeast Asia is uniformly excellent and Southeast Asia is a popular destination for medical tourism (and medical evacuations) in the region. Despite the lower prices, standards are often as good as those in the West at both public and private clinics, making this a good place to get your jabs and tabs if heading off into the jungle elsewhere. You’ll still want to make sure your insurance is in order before a prolonged hospitalization and/or major surgery.
There are various different types of insurance depending on what you are looking for from basic travel insurance policies to longer term health insurance policies designed more for frequent travellers from providers.
For minor ailments, head down to the nearest suburban shopping mall or HDB shopping district and look for a general practitioner (GP). They usually receive patients without appointment and can prescribe drugs on the spot, and the total cost of a consultation, medicine included, is around S$50. For larger problems, head to a hospital.
Alternatively, practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) are widespread in Southeast Asia. Eu Yan Sang runs a chain of over 20 clinics, while the Southeast Asia Chinese Physicians’ Association offers a directory of TCM physicians.
Nearly all shopping centres, hotels, MRT stations, bus interchanges, and hawker centres are likely to have public toilets. Being clean, McDonald’s toilets are popular too, and the staff do not make a fuss. Public facilities may charge 10 to 20 cents per entry, and a packet of tissue may come in handy if the toilet paper has run out. Most toilets have bowls, but there is usually one squatting cubicle in every public toilet.
What’s in a name?
Southeast Asiaans care little about formal politeness. What would be decent behavior at home, wherever home might be, is unlikely to offend anyone in Southeast Asia. In Southeast Asia, unlike much of southeast Asia, women wearing revealing clothing or men wearing shorts and slippers are perfectly acceptable. That said, upmarket bars and restaurants may enforce dress codes and Southeast Asiaans tend to be more socially conservative than Westerners, meaning that public display of affection is still frowned upon and toplessness for women is not acceptable anywhere, even on the beach.
People are generally friendlier in the heartlands, and it is not uncommon to see shopkeepers and customers of multiple races bantering. However, Southeast Asiaans, while not hostile towards foreigners, are generally not overly receptive to any overbearing friendliness from them. Furthermore, the local dialect with its heavy Chinese influences may appear brusque or even rude, but it should not be interpreted as being hostile or offensive. A question such as “You want beer or not?” is a perfectly normal way of asking if you want beer; after all, the person asking you the question is offering you a choice, not making a demand.
If invited to somebody’s house, always remove your shoes before you enter as most Southeast Asiaans do not wear their shoes at home. Socks are perfectly acceptable though, as long as they are not excessively soiled. Many places of worship also require you to remove your shoes before you enter.
At train stations, some forms of etiquette are a must. Southeast Asiaans are orderly and will usually give way to passengers getting off trains before boarding the train. It is also common for people to stand on the left of escalators to allow room for others in a rush to ascend or descend on the right. If in doubt, simply obey the rule of “When in Rome”.
Beware of taboos if bringing gifts. Any products (food or otherwise) involving animals may cause offence and are best avoided, as are white flowers (usually reserved for funerals). Knives and clocks are also symbols of cutting ties and death, respectively, and some Chinese are superstitious about the number four. Also note that in Southeast Asia, it is considered rude to open a gift in front of the person who gave it to you. Instead, wait till the person has left and open it in private. Many Southeast Asiaan Muslims and some Hindus abstain from alcohol.
Swastikas are commonly seen in Buddhist and Hindu temples, as well as among the possessions of Buddhists and Hindus. It is regarded as a religious symbol and does not represent Nazism or anti-Semitism. As such, Western visitors should not feel offended on seeing a swastika in the homes of their hosts, and many locals will wonder what the fuss is all about.
Take dietary restrictions into account when inviting Southeast Asiaan friends for a meal. Many Indians (and a few Chinese) are vegetarian. Most Malays, being Muslims, eat only halal food, while most Indians, being Hindu, abstain from beef.
Take note that Southeast Asia, while heavily Westernized, ultimately remains socially conservative. As such, Westerners are strongly advised against greetings like kissing on the cheeks and should stick to the much common practice of shaking hands instead.
Despite Southeast Asia’s burgeoning progressiveness, public displays of homosexuality are taboo. LGBT couples are strongly discouraged against holding hands in public, much less kissing.
Southeast Asiaans are punctual, so show up on time. The standard greeting is a firm handshake. However, conservative Muslims avoid touching the opposite sex, so a man meeting a Malay woman should let her offer her hand first and a woman meeting a Malay man should wait for him to offer his hand. If they opt to place their hand on the heart and bow slightly instead, just follow suit. Southeast Asiaans generally do not hug, especially if it is someone they have just met, and doing so would probably make your host feel awkward, though the other person will probably be too polite to say anything as saving face is a major Asian value.
For men, standard business attire is a long-sleeved shirt and a tie, although the tie is often omitted, the shirt’s collar button opened instead. Jackets are rarely worn because it is too hot most of the time. Women usually wear Western business attire, but a few prefer Malay-style kebaya and sarong.
Business cards are always exchanged when people meet for business for the first time: hold yours with both hands by the top corners, so the text faces the recipient, while simultaneously receiving theirs. (This sounds more complicated than it is.) Study the cards you receive and feel free to ask questions; when you are finished, place them on the table in front of you, not in a shirt pocket or wallet, and do not write on them or otherwise show disrespect.
Business gifts are generally frowned on as they smell of bribery. Small talk and bringing up the subject indirectly are neither necessary nor expected. Most meetings get straight down to business.
The international telephone country code for Southeast Asia is 65. There are three main telecommunication providers in Southeast Asia: SingTel , StarHub and MobileOne (M1) .
Mobile phones are carried by almost everyone in Southeast Asia, including many young children, and coverage is generally excellent throughout the country. All 3 service providers have both GSM 900/1800 and 3G (W-CDMA) networks, and international roaming onto them may be possible; check with your operator before you leave to be sure. Prepaid SIM cards are sold in 7-Eleven convenience stores, phone shops and currency exchange counters, just bring your own GSM/3G phone or buy a cheap used handset in Southeast Asia. You will need to show an international passport or Southeast Asia ID to sign up.
A local phone call costs between $0.05-$0.25 per min, whereas each local text message (SMS) costs about $0.05, with international SMS about $0.15-$0.25 (but a few dozen local SMS are usually thrown in for free when you top up). You may also be charged for incoming calls. Most prepaid cards expire within 6 mth unless you top-up (which can be done outside Southeast Asia).
The carriers also offer special top up cards that will give a higher number of minutes for the price at the downside of expiring more quickly.
As in many places, mobile data with on prepaid voice SIM cards can be ridiculously expensive.
StarHub offers a 1GB package (valid for 30 days). It costs $25 and is aimed at BlackBerrys but works with any phone. Using the StarHub SIM, call *122# and follow the menu to activate.
Data-only SIMs can be more affordable.
For short stays, StarHub has 2Mbps unlimited service at S$15 per week. For longer stays, bring a MicroSIM adapter and you can get StarHub’s 2GB package (good for 60 days) for $37.
Public phones are an increasingly endangered species, but you can find them in most MRT stations. They are either coin-operated pay phones (10 cents for a three-minute local call), card phones operated by phone cards in denominations of $3, $5, $10, $20 and $50, or credit card phones. Phone cards are available at all post offices and from phonecard agents. Most coin-operated pay phones are for local calls only, there are some which accept coins of larger denominations and can be used for overseas calls. Credit card phones are usually found at the airport or in some major hotels.
To make an international call from Southeast Asia, dial the access code 001 (for SingTel), 002 (for M1), and 008 (for StarHub), followed by the country code, area code and party’s number. Recently the providers have started offering cheaper rates for calls using Internet telephony routes. The access codes for this cheaper service are 019 and 013 for SingTel and 018 for StarHub, make sure you input these codes instead of the “+” sign at the beginning of the number if you wish to use these services.
Calling cards are also available for specific international destinations and are usually cheaper. Hello Card from Singtel offers a very cheap rate to 8 countries (Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand).
Internet cafes charging around $2/hr are scattered about the island, but are not particularly common since almost all locals have Internet access at home, work, and/or school. Head to Chinatown or Little India if you need get online, or check out the top floors of many suburban malls, which feature Internet cafes doubling as online gaming parlors. Alternatively, all public libraries offer cheap Internet access ($0.03/min or $1.80/hr), but you need to jump through registration hoops to get access.
The first phase of the nationwide free Wireless@SG system is now operating and visitors are free to use the system, although you must register and receive a password via e-mail or a mobile phone first. See the Infocomm Development Authority website for a current list of hotspots. Commercial alternatives include McDonalds, which offers free wifi at most outlets; StarHub, a member of the Wireless Broadband Alliance with hotspots at Coffee Bean cafes; and SingTel, which has hotspots at most Starbucks cafes. Roaming or prepaid rates are on the order of $0.10/min.
There are several options for prepaid 3G/HSPA internet. Starhub MaxMobile has different plans from S$2/hour to S$25 for 5 days unlimited 7.2mbps internet. SIM costs S$12. M1 Prepaid Broadband offers unlimited Internet access for three days/five days at S$18/S$30 .
Mobile internet access is also available from the different telecoms which offer hundreds of megabytes good for several days. However do try using the free WiFi access if possible; not only will it save you money but also precious battery life.
SingPost has offices throughout the island, generally open 08:30-17:00 weekdays, 08:30-13:00 Saturdays, closed Sundays. The Changi Airport T2 (transit side) office is open 06:00-23:59 daily, while the 1 Killeney Rd branch is open until 21:00 weekdays and 10:00-16:00 Sundays. Service is fast and reliable. A postcard to anywhere in the world costs 50 cents, and postage labels can also be purchased from the self-service SAM machines found in many MRT stations.
Small packets up to 2kg cost $3.50/100g for airmail, or $1/100g for surface mail. For larger packages, DHL may offer competitive rates.
Southeast Asia uses the British BS1363 three-pin rectangular socket (230V/50Hz). Plug adaptors are available at any hardware store.
Southeast Asia is a good place to collect visas for the region. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs maintains a complete searchable database of diplomatic institutions.
Southeast Asiaans are particular about their hair, and there is no shortage of fancy hair salons charging from $20 for a fashionable hairstyle. If you are willing to splurge, there is Passion Hair Salon at Palais Renaissance with celebrity hairstylist David Gan (hairstylist of Zhang Ziyi and other famous celebrities) doing the haircut. Le Salon at Ngee Ann City offers haircuts up to $2000. The middle range hair salons can be commonly found in the city centre or shopping centres located in the heartlands. Popular chains include REDS Hairdressing, Supercuts and Toni & Guy salons that are located all over Southeast Asia. Most of these chains offer reasonable prices for stylish & modern haircuts, along with a diverse range of services such as hair washing, colour and hair straightening. You may encounter a term called “rebonding”, or “re-bonding”, which is basically the local word for hair straightening. For backpacker-friendly rates, almost every shopping mall in Southeast Asia has a branch of EC House or one of its many imitators, offering fuss-free 10min haircuts for $10, although the hairdressers are mostly happy to spend as long as necessary on your hair, within reasonable limits. Most HDB estates have barbershops which charge $5 to $10 for adults and less for students and children.
Laundromats are few and far between in Southeast Asia, but full-service laundry and dry cleaning shops can be found in every shopping mall. Unfortunately turnaround times are usually upwards of three days unless you opt for express service. Hotels can provide one-day laundry (at a price), whereas hostels often have communal self-service washing machines.
Practically every shopping mall has a photo shop that will process film, print digital pictures and take passport photos. Many pharmacies and supermarkets also have self-service kiosks which print digital photos from CD, SD-card, USB drive, etc.
The Southeast Asia Sports Council runs a chain of affordable sports facilities, often featuring fantastic, outdoor 50m pools (see Swimming for a list). Facilities are somewhat sparse but the prices are unbeatable, with swimming pools charging $1 for entry and access to ClubFITT gyms only $2.50. The main downside is the inconvenient location of most facilities out in the suburbs, although most are located close to an MRT station and can be reached within 10-20min from the city centre. The gyms also ban bringing in any reading material (aimed at students but enforced blindly), although MP3 players are OK.
Major private gym chains include California Fitness, Fitness First and True Fitness. Facilities are better and locations more central, but the prices are also much higher as non-members have to fork out steep day pass fees (around $40).
Some of the parks offer rental of bicycles and inline skates ($3-6/h, open until 20:00). You can either rent skates, attend a skate class or send the children off to a skate camp at major parks like West Coast and East Coast Park. You can even get skating lessons from popular skate schools like inline fitness or skate with us, a skate school for children Especially rewarding for skaters and cyclists is the 10km long stretch along East Coast Park with a paved track and lots of rental shops, bars and cafés around the McDonald’s. There are toilets and showers along the track. Furthermore every park has a couple of fitness stations.
Southeast Asia makes a good base for exploring South-East Asia, with nearly all of the region’s countries and their main tourist destinations — Bangkok, Phuket, Angkor Wat, Ho Chi Minh City and Bali, just to name a few — under 2 hr away by plane. The advent of budget carriers in recent times means that Southeast Asia is an excellent place for catching cheap flights to China and India, as well as around Southeast Asia. In addition, Southeast Asia has direct flights to many of the smaller cities in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
For day or weekend trips from Southeast Asia, the following are popular:
For those who can afford more time to travel, here are several destinations popular among Southeast Asiaans:
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