A glittering jewel of a city, Singapore is a port, a business superpower, a wonder of architecture and arguably the best place to live in Asia.
The Lion City is also a country in its own right, famed for excellent healthcare, clean streets and being the safest city in the world. However, it’s also got a reputation for being a little bit dull.Once a wild port city where the world’s sailors came to drink and cause trouble, Singapore launched a concerted campaign to clean up its reputation. Now the population are safe and well looked after, but heavily restricted by a host of laws.
Expats living in the city can feel hemmed in, especially when chewing gum is illegal and a permit is needed to drink beer at an outside barbecue.
Luckily Singapore’s stature as an economic titan means it is connected to the rest of the world by a comprehensive network of air routes. One of the most connected airports in Asia, Singapore‘s Changi Airport has flights departing to over 320 cities in 80 countries worldwide.
Expats looking to globetrot can fly direct to London, New York, Dubai, Moscow and Zurich. But destinations closer to home are more likely to interest those looking to escape from Singapore.
A short hop out of the city can carry travellers to cities, beaches, ski slopes, mountains and coral reefs across Asia. Adventure, romance and cultural awakenings are just a few hours away and can make for the perfect weekend escape from the business-focused bustle of Singapore.
One of the perks of expat living is finding what were once far-flung, exotic locations to suddenly be in the local neighbourhood. Thousands of years of history, neon-lit modern metropolises and a huge spread of cuisines are available just a few hours from home.
We’ve taken a look at the pick of places for expats in Singapore to spend a weekend out of the city.
They say a change is as good as a rest, so swapping one city for another might be just what you need. Seoul is very different from Singapore; both are multicultural melting pots, but Seoul crafts an identity all of its own.
Korea has been invaded over the millennia by successions of aggressive neighbours, all of whom added a little something to the nation before the next wave of troops arrived.
Seoul has seen a rapid economic growth in the past decade, making it an ultramodern city that draws on American influences as well as the legacy of Japanese occupation and trade with China.
Explore the city’s pagoda-topped palaces, like the expansive Changdeok Palace and the mighty Namdaemun, protected as ‘National Treasure Number One’.
But it isn’t just ancient history in Seoul. The swanky Gangnam neighbourhood is awash with designer suits, diamonds and champagne. Other shopping districts cater for smaller budgets, including high-rise malls close to the national football stadium, which sell the latest in youth culture.
If heavy shopping bags aren’t your thing, swap them for a loaded backpack and explore the Olympic Park. Built as part of the 1988 games, the winding paths are excellent for light hiking or jogging. The park is decorated with statues and regularly hosts open-air concerts.
A short bus ride from the city delivers travellers to Bearstown ski resort, a great place to stock up on cheap equipment before hitting the slopes in earnest.
Lace up those hiking boots and hit the trails. Bromo-Tengger-Semeru National Park on the island of Java, Indonesia is home to some spectacular landscapes. The volcanoes that give the park its name are part of a system of seismic features that have turned the area into a geological marvel.
Once a huge volcanic cone stood in the park, then millions of years ago it blew its top, collapsing in on itself to form a giant, ash-filled bowl. Now in this circular valley other volcanoes have started to grow out of the rubble.
Indonesians make pilgrimages to the top of Gunung Bromo and make offerings at the belching crater’s edge as thrill seekers brave the shifting volcanic craters to navigate the rim. In the distance Mount Semeru belches sulphurous gas and rock every 20 minutes with clockwork regularity.
A toll road carries tour parties to expensive hostels and to the very base of the mountain. Instead, stay in the local guesthouses and walk across the valley floor, stepping across the moonscape surrounded on all sides by lush jungle.
Hiking through the foliage is a popular option, but the paths aren’t over-trodden. Daring travellers can spot deer, wild pigs and marbled cats through the undergrowth as they explore.
Bangkok is where Singapore goes shopping. The Thai capital is a festival of neon, spices and bargains as the city offers everything from clothing to electronics and handicrafts.
Millions of revellers head to the bright lights every year to party the night away in wild bars and cheesy nightclubs or to throw back the bubbly in classier venues on the Sukhumvit Road. Bangkok has a reputation as one of the world’s premier sin cities, with plenty of chances to party with bikini-clad dancing girls in go-go bars or enjoy a ‘sensual’ massage.
Shop away the hangover in Chatuchak market or the backpacking capital of the world, Khao San Road.
Of course Bangkok isn’t all expense and excess. The city boasts thousands of years of history and spectacular cultural heritage. Plan to spend half a day exploring the massive Grand Palace, including the temple complex of Wat Phra Kaew, home to the Emerald Buddha, which is one of the most revered relics in Thailand.
Thailand is also a great place to pick up a new hobby. Sign up to a cookery class and become an expert in Thai cuisine, centre your soul with a weekend of meditation or learn to kick butt at a Muay Thai boot camp.
Phu Quoc in an island off the south coast of Cambodia, but it can only be reached from Vietnam. Once upon a time the 40km long island was a well-kept secret to an elite class of backpackers who kept the island out of the guidebooks. Now the word is out and a growing number of visitors are heading to Phu Quoc.
The island’s beauty is not yet ruined, but developers are getting ready to pour foundations on mega-hotels and change the atmosphere forever. Get to visit beaches that were once voted ‘best in the world’ before they are choked with tourists and fast food chains.
It can cost as little as USD $35 to fly from Ho Chi Minh City to Phu Quoc and just USD $12 a day to hire a scooter to explore the island’s mountainous and forested interior.
Try your hand at squid fishing, leaving for a night of eating delicious seafood, even if nothing is actually caught. Make sure you try the ‘world’s best’ fish sauce, nuoc mam, to get a true taste of Vietnam.
Bangkok might be the glitzy party capital, but Chiang Mai is the home of tradition in Thailand. This northern capital is surrounded by lush greenery and is significantly more relaxed than the frantic pace of Bangkok.
It’s possible to fly direct from Singapore to ‘Rose of the North’ as Chiang Mai is known. The city is packed with hundreds of temples and surrounded by forests which are home to tribes who still live a traditional life off the land. Elephants can be seen roaming the city and are frequently part of tourist performances.
For an afternoon of excitement, hike to the waterfalls high in the surrounding hills, zip line down the valley or ride the river itself in an exciting white water experience.
The Fragrant Harbour is another bustling city with a global reputation and has spent the last ten years competing with Singapore to be the financial capital of Asia.
Hong Kong is also a great place to explore the schizophrenic identity that comes from being a former British colony so close to China. A heady mix of Chinese lanterns, dragon boats and spicy cuisine meets the starch of members’ clubs, English street names and a significant expat community that make Hong Kong unique.
Cruise the harbour and admire the incredible skyscrapers, or take a tasty tour of Kowloon to get a taste of both street food and high cuisine. There’s a plethora of museums, galleries and concert halls to lap up both western and Chinese culture.
Sri Lanka is yet to be inundated by backpackers or budget travellers, meaning you can enjoy exploring this island’s unspoilt beauty. Despite being a small island, Sri Lanka boasts 8 UNESCO world heritage sites, plus hundreds of pristine beaches.
The interior features rolling hills clad in tea plantations and sleepy villages hidden in the jungle. Head down the west coast for miles of pristine sands and to try surfing in the Indian Ocean. The East coast offers kitesurfing, whilst companies all along the coast offer dolphin and whale watching excursions.
A bloody civil war has kept away fearful travellers in recent years, but now that peace has settled the only dangers remaining are from uncleared minefields in the north of the island.
The Mekong River is the lifeblood of Vietnam. Its sluggish waters flow through expansive flood plains where layers of rich silt nourish crops that feed the country.
As the river nears the sea it splits into dozens of smaller waterways, creating communities who rely on, or even live aboard, boats that buzz up and down the water.
Organised tours run up and down the Mekong, offering travellers an amazing chance to interact with remote communities and explore the jungles.
Higher up the river is more evidence of the war fought during the 60s and 70s as wreckage of aircraft sit on the bank and networks of secret tunnels honeycomb the space below the hills.
Direct flights to Siem Riep mean expats in Singapore can spend a weekend exploring one of the true wonders of the world: Angkor Wat.
The citadel was lost to the jungle for centuries before its spectacular architecture was rediscovered in the mid 19th century. The complex is made up of several cities that served as the capital of the Khmer empire from the 9th to the 15th century.
The palaces, temples, towers and reservoirs are still impressive pieces of engineering and are stand-out examples of ancient buildings.
Picture the perfect tropical paradise: waves gently lapping onto soft white sand as the breeze softly rustles the leaves of the looming palm tree that shades you from the brilliant sun. Welcome to the Maldives.
The flight time from Singapore to Malé airport might be a little longer than some of the destinations on this list, but once you land, it’s just a short boat ride to the perfect beach break.
Over 1,100 islands make up the atoll-nation of The Maldives, and each one seems to have its own sleepy resort offering the finest foods in a picturesque setting.
Set in the Indian Ocean, the islands rise just a few metres above the ocean, but the surrounding coral means waves never rise to more than a gentle sweep across the sand.
Pamper yourself in the spa or snorkel all day in the azure waters. Some resorts have chalets which stand in the lagoons, so guests can look straight down onto the coral and watch the fish swim below them.
Accommodation is not cheap, but deals can be found and budget airlines now fly direct to the Maldives. Splash out to make the most of the Maldives, book a personal chef to make your favourites or arrive by seaplane to make an entrance. A popular destination for honeymooners, there’s no reason why you can’t have a wonderful weekend away in this tropical paradise.
What are your favourite weekend trips? Let us know in the comments!
Article by Andy Scofield, Expat Focus International Features Writer