Downtown Singapore is best explored on foot and is compact enough to be tackled this way: for example, Orchard Road is only just over 2km end to end, and it’s a similar distance from the Padang to the middle of Chinatown. Of course you’ll need a high tolerance for muggy heat to put in the legwork, and tourists tend instead to rely on the underground MRT trains. At some point you may also end up taking buses, which are just as efficient as the trains but a little bewildering, such is the profusion of routes. Both trains and buses are reasonably priced, as are taxis.
For public transport information, contact either SBS Transit (1800 287 2727, sbstransit.com.sg) – historically a bus company, though it’s now respon- sible for two MRT lines – or SMRT (1800 336 8900, smrt.com.sg), which runs the bulk of the MRT network and has some bus services of its own.
Singapore’s MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) metro network is a marvel of engineering – the island’s remarkably soft subsoil made it a real challenge to drill train tunnels – and of cleanliness, efficiency and value for money, though the network is often overcrowded. The system has four lines. SMRT operates the North South Line, which runs a vaguely horseshoe-shaped route from Marina Bay up to the north of the island and then southwest to Jurong; the East West Line, connecting Boon Lay in the west to Pasir Ris and Changi airport in the east; and the Circle Line which, despite its name, is a long arc rather than a circle. It passes through little of downtown, since it runs from the Colonial District out to the eastern suburbs, then curls north and west before heading south to the HarbourFront Centre; there’s also a short side extension from Promenade station to Marina Bay via Bayfront station (for Marina Bay Sands). Finally, the North East Line, linking the HarbourFront Centre with Punggol in the northeast, is operated by SBS Transit. They will also run the new Downtown Line, whose first stage, from Chinatown to Bugis via Bayfront, should open in 2013.
Trains run every five minutes on average from 6am until midnight downtown, but, as you’ll soon discover, overcrowding is a problem, not just during rush hour, and the last trains leave downtown as early as 11.30pm – which puts paid to getting back by train after an extended drinking or clubbing session. Your mobile phone will work on stations, trains, even in the tunnels, but you aren’t allowed to eat, drink or smoke (the signs that appear to ban hedgehogs from the MRT actually signify “no durians”).
The easiest and cheapest way of getting about is to buy a stored-value card. Otherwise, single tickets cost between $1.20 and $2.40, and can be bought from ticket counters or from automated machines at stations. Annoyingly, all such tickets require you to pay an additional $1 deposit, refunded when you return the ticket to the ticket counter or a ticket machine at the end of your journey.
Singapore’s bus network is comprehensive and slightly cheaper to use than the MRT system for short trips. Most buses operate from 6am, with services tailing off between 11.30pm and 12.30am, and the majority are air-conditioned. Both double- and single-decker buses are in use, and you always board at the front.
Fares rise in small steps with the distance travelled (cash fares are always between $1.10 and $2.20), so if you’re paying cash you may well have to consult the driver on the precise fare for your destination. Cash should be dropped down the metal chute next to the driver; change isn’t given, so have plenty of coins to hand to avoid frittering money away – or buy an EZ-Link card or tourist pass. With an EZ-Link card, note that you must touch the card on the electronic reader not only on entering but also at the exit, otherwise the maximum fare will be deducted.
A few buses have fixed fares, chiefly services within new towns, limited premium services (which run express for much of their route, always have route numbers of the form “5xx” and cost $3 or $3.50) and night buses, which operate late on Fridays, Saturdays and before a public holiday and connect downtown with the new towns. SMRT’s night buses (11.30pm–4.30am; $3.50) start from Resorts World Sentosa, while SBS night buses (midnight–2am; $4) operate from Marina Centre; they can be useful for downtown travel after the MRT shuts, but note that they may run express in certain parts of town.
Both the SBS Transit and SMRT websites have detailed breakdowns of their bus routes, including journey planners and maps. A pocket-sized guide to the network, the Singapore Bus Guide, is also available from bookshops for a few dollars.
Singapore’s taxis are seemingly without number and they keep on proliferating; indeed some locals joke that in uncertain economic times the authori- ties probably license yet more taxis to keep jobless figures down. While this means flagging down a taxi generally isn’t a problem, it can be tricky at night or during a storm. If you have difficulty finding a cab, it’s best to join the queue at the nearest taxi rank – hotels and malls are your best bet. Note that in the downtown area, queueing at a taxi is supposed to be compulsory, though some drivers will ignore this rule to pick up passengers on quieter roads after dark. If you want to book a taxi over the phone, you’ll pay a fee of at least $2.50 (or at least $8 if you want a vehicle at a specific time, rather than the next available one). To book a taxi, either call 6342 5222, which represents all of the taxi operators, or try individual firms such as Comfort/CityCab (6552 1111), Premier Taxi (6363 6888) or SMRT Taxis (6555 8888).
Taxis come in various colours, but all are clearly marked “TAXI” and have a sign or display on top indicating if they are available for hire. Regular cabs (as opposed to premium/”limousine” vehicles) charge $3 for the first kilometre and then 22c for every 400 metres travelled, with a slightly lower tariff kicking in after you’ve gone 10km.
There are surcharges to bear in mind: 25 percent extra on journeys during rush hour (which, for taxis, means Mon–Fri 6–9.30am & 6pm–midnight, Sat & Sun 6pm–midnight), and fifty percent extra between midnight and 6am. Then there are charges arising from Singapore’s electronic road pricing (ERP) scheme, which means a $3 surcharge on taxi journeys starting from the ERP zone downtown between 5pm and midnight, plus passengers being liable for the actual ERP charge their trip has incurred (shown on the driver’s ERP card reader). Journeys from Changi Airport incur a $3 surcharge ($5 Fri–Sun 5pm–midnight), trips from Sentosa $3. On the whole, Singaporean taxi drivers are friendly and honest, but their English isn’t always good, so if you are heading off the beaten track, it’s worth having the address written down for them to digest. If a taxi displays a destination sign or “Changing shift” above, it means the driver is about to head home or that a new driver is about to take over the vehicle, and that passengers will be accepted only if they are going in the right direction for either to happen.
Given the efficiency of public transport, there’s hardly any reason to rent a car in Singapore, especially when it’s a pricey business. Major disin- centives to driving are in place in order to combat traffic congestion, including large fees for a permit to own a car and tolls to drive into and within a large part of downtown. This being Singapore, it’s all done in the most hi-tech way using electronic road pricing (ERP): all Singapore cars have a gizmo installed that reads a stored-value card or EZ-Link card, from which the toll is deducted as you drive past an ERP gantry. Parking can be expensive, though at least every mall has a car park (displays all over town will tell you how many spaces are left at nearby buildings) and many car parks offer the convenience of taking the fee off your ERP card, failing which you will have to purchase coupons from a licence booth, post office or shop. If you are still keen to rent a car, you can contact Avis (avis .com.sg) or Hertz (hertz.com), both of which have offices at Changi Airport – and note that in Singapore, you drive on the left.
Though largely flat, Singapore is hardly ideal cycling country. Main roads have furious traffic and few bike lanes, and there have been some much-publi- cized fatal accidents involving cyclists, though this doesn’t put off the few dedicated locals and expats whom you’ll see pedalling equally furiously along suburban thoroughfares such as Bukit Timah Road. Cycling downtown isn’t such a great idea though, and bicycles aren’t allowed at all on expressways.
Where bikes come into their own, in theory, is in out-of-town recreational areas and nature parks, which are linked by a park connector network that it’s possible to cycle. The reality, however, is that most of these rides involve some stretches along busy suburban roads, and anyway you’re unlikely to be visiting any of these parks on a short stay. For more on the network, see the Visitors’ Guide section of the Singapore National Parks website (nparks.gov.sg). As for bicycle-friendly areas that tourists are likely to visit, there are really only four: the Bukit Timah nature reserve, Changi Beach, Pulau Ubin and Sentosa. Bike rental outlets exist at all except Sukit Timah. Wherever you cycle, you’ll need a high tolerance for getting very hot and sweaty – or drenched if you’re caught in a downpour. For more on the local cycling scene, including details of bike shops, try the Singapore Mountain Bike Forum at smbf.com.sg/forum.
Organized tours and trips
If you’re pushed for time, consider taking a sight- seeing tour. Various offerings are available, either taking in the obvious downtown districts or, in some cases, focusing on specialist themes as World War II sites and Peranakan culture. It’s also possible to do trips down the Singapore River or take a spin in a trishaw, a three-wheeled cycle rickshaw. Once trishaws functioned like taxis, but these days they exist only to give tourists a spin on certain routes (they aren’t allowed on many major roads). In Chinatown, freelance trishaw men may congregate near the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, though you’ll have to bargain to arrange a ride; alternatively you can book a trip with the operator listed below.
For details of other tour options, contact the STB or check the Tours and Guides section of yoursingapore.com. It’s also possible to arrange a tour with one of the country’s registered tourist guides, each of whom will have their own fees and specializations; again, contact STB for details or use the directory at guides-online.yoursingapore.com.
If you will be staying in Singapore for any length of time and have an interest in Singapore’s wilder side, consider joining the Singapore Nature Society (6741 2036, nss.org.sg). This veteran group undertakes conservation projects and organizes guided walks for birdwatchers, plant lovers and so forth, sometimes in areas genuinely off the beaten track; annual membership costs $40. Similarly, the Singapore Heritage Society (6345 5770, singaporeheritage.org; $60 per year) organizes regular talks on history and conservation as well as tours of buildings of architectural interest.