On my way back from Timor, I spent a few days in Singapore to see the Lunar New Year and eat at the famed hawker centers. Like all my post-work trip stopovers, I was already pretty exhausted and planned very little. After reaching my hostel in Chinatown, which was right in the middle of the LNY celebrations, I barely had enough energy to get myself out of my tiny closet of a room.
The first thing I did was just wander around Chinatown and explore the mass of souvenir and food stalls adorned with red and gold for the festival. It was ridiculously crowded and I quickly stopped trying to get out of peoples' way. Being Asia, I was about twice the size of everyone there, which made plowing through the crowds pretty easy. Countless stores peddled red envelopes, little Buddha figurines, and gold lucky cats. Curiously, some of the busiest stalls were the ones selling little jelly snacks cups with guys yelling about specials into megaphones like auctioneers. I still don't know why those were such big deals. The main road at the top of Chinatown was lit by a massive procession of horse lanterns to commemorate the Year of the Horse. Galloping into Prosperity. On the way back to the hostel I discovered that I could avoid wading through the sea of people on the main streets and started cutting through garbage strewn alleys.
One of the next days, I stopped by the Buddhist temple in Chinatown. I happened to arrive during a ceremony where a group of monks were chanting under the entrance archway. Inside visitors lit incense and said prayers before a large gilded Buddha, while tourists (including me) looked on and were obnoxious with their cameras.
In between observing the LNY, I made my way to a number of the popular dining centers in Singapore. Called hawker centers, these are basically just giant, semi-open air food courts. My time in Timor having been longer than my past trips, however, and the food being so bad, my appetite had shrunk to a fraction of its normal size. My first night I made my way to the Chinatown Complex hawker center and ordered a tray full of dishes from a number of stalls (I don't even remember what I ordered at this point), and could barely finish half of it. Hawker centers are so cheap that it didn't make a huge difference, but it was still surprising and disappointing. What I did manage to eat that first night was delicious though.
Later on I visited the Maxwell Center, which is where I'd read and been told many times had the best Hainanese chicken rice. I stood in line at Tian Tian with an Estonian friend I made at the hostel and we ordered the signature dish for about $2 each and it was pretty damn tasty. I can only imagine having that kind of option near me at home. Boiled chicken that appears bland, but is re-seasoned in chicken stock multiple times, which is then used to steep the rice is simple but packs an immense density of flavor. Topped with chili and hoisin sauce, it's an incredible flavor bomb. I want some now. In my mouth.
One thing I discovered that I had never heard mention of before was bak kwa. I passed by a stand on my first day with a line wrapping around the corner and made note of it to check out when the line was shorter. Bak kwa is basically pork jerky-compressed and smoked. When I finally got to try some, I understood those lines immediately. It's freaking delicious and the best street snack I've ever had. I want some now. All over my body.
I also visited Singapore's red light district, otherwise known as Geylang. It doubles as both a center for prostitutes and some of the best food in Singapore. A friend of a friend took me there and we wandered a bit and found a place to have some fish head curry. It sounds odd, but it was great-spicy, rich, and fishy.
Singapore was OK. People talk about how clean and sterile it is and, while true, I found that to be more representative of the culture overall. All of the ethnic neighborhoods exist because they were placed there by the government and very little feels organic. The entire time I was there, I kept thinking that it felt like a less cool Tokyo. That said, Tokyo is fantastic so everywhere feels less cool. The food in Singapore was great, I jaywalked a lot and never got fined, and got to experience one of the biggest LNY celebrations in the world. The Ippudo there sucks though.