People get all kinds of surprised when in response to their socially-mandated inquiry into your planned weekend activity you tell them that you’re popping over to Singapore. Travelling from Scotland to South East Asia for a three-night runaround is apparently something only a crazy person would do. Have you met me, though? Borderline lunacy is kind of my thing. Especially when it is of the travel variety.
It helped my case that my dear friend Fish was getting married there on the Sunday, and his wedding was not something that seven thousand miles of planet could get in the way of… Trouble is, I’ve just got back from a 3-week twin-centre in Rio de Janeiro/Chicago and have already used up more annual leave than I’m technically allowed to on my 6-month contract (story of my life), and even though I managed to wangle another three days unpaid vacation from my awesome employer, I was still not left with an awful lot to play with. Including Saturday and Sunday, I had a five-day window. This was going to be a challenge. Which brings us to this quick Q&A.
Q: Is it possible to get from Edinburgh to Singapore and back in 120 hours and actually have a good time?
Q: How might one do this?
A: By following this handy three-step guide to long-haul micro-tripping!
1) Fly Smart
I’ve had a few air travel horror stories in my time and have always lived to tell the tale, but since my schedule was so tight this time I wanted to minimise the risk of things going tits-up. Also, since a third of the trip was to be spent travelling, it seemed pretty crucial to at least try and get that part right.
Keeping the number of layovers to a minimum was a good start. One is fine (and also necessary since there were no direct flights). Any more than that and you’re adding time to the trip as well as increasing the chances of unexpected delays or lost baggage. The location of said layover is also a key variable. Certain airports currently in operation are not bound by the laws of this earth. It is yet to be officially confirmed, but I’m pretty sure they occupy some sort of planar glitch where time is a meaningless concept and only half of the scheduled flights actually exist. Chicago O’Hare is one such hole, London Heathrow is another. Layover here at your peril.
Specific flight times are something I normally ignore when booking, but they become very important when your time off work is so limited. I wanted to leave as early as possible in the morning of my first day off (Friday) to get a full day in Singapore on the Saturday. Ideally I would also get an evening flight on the Tuesday which would give me an extended time in Singapore but get me back in to Edinburgh on Wednesday morning early enough to be in the office by 9am (which you may call insanity but I call “dedication to the art of travel”).
After some hardcore research I managed to find flights that met all the above criteria (and were also pretty cheap at £550). The chosen ticket was Etihad Airlines via Abu Dhabi, with flight times for both the Edinburgh to Abu Dhabi leg and the Abu Dhabi to Singapore leg being about 8 hours, with a two-hour layover. Timing-wise, this setup was pretty ideal as it broke the journey nicely in half and I had time for a walk around the airport and grab some beast falafel before getting on the next plane. Also pretty ideal was the airline itself. Brand new Dreamliner planes with the mood lighting and clicky window magic and large widescreens and games console things that I didn’t use but I imagine would be super fun if that was your sorta thing.
Top-notch service too. Food was either Middle Eastern or Southeast Asian, and it was damn fine (I am generally not a fan of plane grub), hot towels before each meal, all the drink you could want, and metal cutlery. People flying Etihad are obviously too content to get all stabby.
All four flights went without the slightest hitch. Transitioning in Abu Dhabi was dead easy, and the planes took off and landed when they were supposed to. Bizarre. There was no unscheduled tyre changes, no sitting on the tarmac for hours, no circling the airport waiting for clouds to move, no “sorry the ground crew didn’t know we were coming” (yes, LaGuardia), no sprinting along the travelator between terminals chased by the embarrassing noise your suitcase makes when its wheels hit 4000 rpm. I had forgotten how enjoyable air travel can still be when everything is going to plan like it does in the adverts. And I probably did have one of those annoying smug looks on my face as I sipped on diet coke, settled down for a marathon of dodgy sci-fi sequels, and thought about how pleasant it all was.
But wait there’s more!
Not in all the hundreds of thousands of miles I’ve flown have I ever got such a joyous surprise as that which I received during my mid-flight pee break. I slip into the toilet, lock the door behind me and immediately I know that this feels different from all the other aeroplane lavs but I don’t yet know why. It’s not as claustrophobic, It seems brighter yet not as unpleasantly fluorescent. It’s- hang on, holy shit, this is real daylight! There’s a window! In the toilet! Yes, in this here plane toilet exists an actual window to the outside world. Sunlight is flooding in and I can see Iranian mountains. From the loo. Iranian mountains from the loo. It hurts my neck but I can see Iran whilst I pee. What a time to be alive.
Luggage could be a separate category of advice altogether, but since the benefits of savvy packing mostly relate to ease of flying, I’m going to stick it in here. You’re only going for three days, you don’t need hold luggage. Packing light was probably the smartest thing I did on this trip. I took a small backpack and a standard-sized cabin suitcase and within that had everything I needed for a wedding (including the gift and a pair of really high heels), a couple of days of sightseeing, the pool at the apartment, plus my trusty Mac and a bunch of paperwork for going straight to work when I got back. Sure, I didn’t have six pairs of shoes to chose from on Sunday morning, but I zipped between planes like somebody who knew what they were doing and there was no niggling fear that all my stuff was gonna end up in Houston (yes, United). And I still had space to take home some fine-ass Sumatran coffee beans.
2) Pretend you live there
Hear me out on this one.
I tourist a lot, and I’ve lived abroad a bunch, and I’m conscious of the differences in the way you experience a place based on the amount of time you have to spend there. For example: Chicago is a sightseeing paradise, but when I first moved there I didn’t do anything touristy – mostly I ate donuts in Wicker Park and drank PBRs on the back deck with my neighbours. Living like a local cause a) it was fun and an experience in itself, and b) I knew I’d have plenty of time later to take panoramas atop the Sears Tower and stare at Caravaggios in the Art Institute.
When I’m on a holiday of normal length, I’m the girl with the guidebook who does all the stuff. You’ve read my blogs – I plan meticulously and make sure that everything I want to see gets put on the list and then seen in an order I’ve pre-arranged to be the most efficient, because I know that my time there is limited, and that’s how you get everything done. I call this going “full tourist” and I’m damn good at it.
But what if you know you’re not going to be there long enough to see all the tourist sights, no matter how hard you plan and how much you stress over your itinerary? Sometimes you don’t have time to go full tourist. Sometimes you just have to stuff the guidebook back in your bag, take a breath… and let go.
So that’s what we did.
We splashed around in the rooftop pool of our Airbnb catching up with each other until 3am, we walked around random neighbourhoods, we ate local street food, went to markets, sat in hipster cafes people-watching, hit up swanky rooftop bars full of businessfolk, normal bars full of normal folk, we drank bubble tea from take-out cups, did brunch a lot, and bought snacks from slightly sketchy supermarkets in the red light district. And, of course, we went to a Chinese wedding with 500 locals, which was probably about the single most Singapore experience a person can do! We did also see a fair amount of what would be classed as touristy things; a light show, Marina Bay Sands, the Supertrees, Chinatown, a bunch of cool temples… but these were on the spur of the moment, or if we happened to pass them, and they embellished the visit rather than defined it.
I do think it was the best way I could have experienced Singapore in the amount of time I had. I walked back into the airport at the end of it all feeling like I’d had a genuine experience in this city – which is all you can really hope for. Not going “full tourist” wasn’t really a conscious decision either, it just sort of happened and I was too busy having a bloody marvellous time to even notice. But now I’m home and thinking about it it makes sense. So here’s a useful graph I’ve made of when you might want to go full tourist and when you might not.
3) Sleep is for the weak
Regular humans may spend 35 percent of their lives tucked up in their beds… but when you fly halfway around the world for the weekend you temporarily forfeit your status as regular human. Because spending 35 percent of your destination time asleep is not an option.
If you can sleep on aeroplanes you’re ahead of the game here. I’m of the unfortunate sort that can’t sleep anywhere that’s not a completely horizontal bed with a pillow of familiar depth in a pitch-dark, silent room behind a locked door. I was thus technically sleep-deprived from the moment I arrived, but it was 9am on a gloriously sunny day, I was in Asia for the first time in my life, and some of the best people I know were in the rooftop pool of an apartment in the red light district with a bottle of Bombay Sapphire, just waiting for me to join them. I had the buzz big time and tiredness wasn’t anywhere close to being on my radar.
I’ve preached before that I think tiredness is mostly about one’s state of mind, and I stand by it (don’t even get me started on “jet-lag”). If you act like you’re tired and tell everybody who’ll listen how tired you are… you’re gonna feel tired. I do the opposite, and it works. Trust me, there’s enough energy in your body and brain to keep you bouncing through the trip if you want to. I probably averaged around 5 hours sleep a night and that was enough. Because it left me with 70 waking hours in Singapore. To do this: