x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

There's plenty to do in Singapore - just don't ask the concierge

The Practical Traveller The small city-state which is now more than just a transit destination.

The taxi driver who picks me up at Changi International Airport is being chatty, but that's his job. "First time in Singapore?" he asks.

"No, I've been many times. Good to be back."

I'm not really in the mood for chit-chat, but no matter: as far as I can tell, taxi drivers in Singapore are instructed to act as de facto tour guides for visitors to the city state. The whole ride to my hotel near Dhoby Ghaut, I get the rundown on the better-known tourist attractions. It starts with Sentosa, a garish recreation of South Florida theme parks. Then it continues to the night zoo, which contains - wait for it - "many animals". I finally hear about the famed Singapore Flyer that cycles visitors up, up and away in the sky, overlooking the harbour.

But thanks to Singapore's consistent branding and marketing campaigns, I know all of this already.

Singapore is often maligned as a beginner's travel destination. "You must be in transit," other travellers tell me whenever I mention I'm headed that way. "There's nothing interesting there." Well, I am indeed often in transit, but that doesn't mean Singapore isn't worth a visit on its own.

If you've heard much about Singapore, you've probably heard about all the things you can't do there. You can't jaywalk, you can't chew gum, you can't bring durian on the subway or into your hotel room, and so on. Fortunately, the list of entertainment options far exceeds the restrictions. Just don't ask the concierge.

One time I was in the up-and-coming Marina Bay area, and I asked for recommendations. He pointed me to the nearby shopping centre that had just been built. "It's very nice," he said.

"Great," I replied. "What's there?"

"Well," he said. "There's a nice Louis Vuitton store, but it's not open yet. You can go there and imagine it."

For some reason, I'm not incredibly excited about any Louis Vuitton store, but one that is closed sounds even less interesting. "Uh, anything else?"

"They're building a big cinema too," he says hopefully.

"But it's not open yet?" I ask.

"No, sorry."

As they've said about Dubai for years, I'm sure it will be great when it's all finished. But thankfully, there's more to Singapore than meets the eye - you just have to get out a little. To explore the city, it's best to move beyond the well-trodden path of Orchard Road and head to more unusual neighbourhoods.

Little India is always my first stop, and unlike many ethnic enclaves around the world, this Little India lives up its name. I like to go for a thali meal in one of the many authentic restaurants, then sit in the park and watch the sunset as hundreds of people gather to talk and drink tea.

Another favourite stop is the Arab Quarter, which I didn't know existed until my last time in the city. If you need interesting souvenirs that don't come from multinational companies, head over there and take a look at the scarves and sarongs. You'll also find a number of bars that cater to the expats who live in Singapore, who tend to gather at places a bit farther away from where visitors usually hang out.

One time, a series of flights misconnected due to a five-hour delay getting out of the Maldives. I was going on to Bangkok, but had no flight until the next morning. Singapore Airlines put me up at the River View Hotel and I went for a run along Boat Quay before showering in the upstairs fitness room.

During my next visit I was staying in a different area, but I took the metro down to Boat Quay, popped up to the fitness room, then changed into running clothes. After running along the river again, I went back up to the fitness area at the River View and took a quick, illegitimate shower. I felt like a fugitive as I hurriedly changed and took the lift back down to the street. Unfortunately, a subsequent visit revealed that they have now installed coded locks on the fitness room. I hope it wasn't because of me.

On another visit I got a rogue taxi driver who delivered me to a small hotel in a faraway neighbourhood. Like the others, he gave me a spiel about Singapore, but went off course from the usual discussion about the zoo and the shopping. Driving along, he explained how prostitution worked in the country. I'm not sure this is what Singapore intended for their taxi ambassadors, but it was quite a comprehensive briefing.

With Singapore as your base, you're well situated to travel throughout the region. You can catch a ferry to Bintan Island in Indonesia, or a bus for the short ride across the border to Malaysia. While Singapore Airlines flies travellers in style to more than 60 destinations, visit the budget terminal for no-frills flights on Tiger Airways. Ending up with a long layover is no problem, because Singapore's Changi airport is frequently voted the best in the world.

Alternatively, you can take it easy and visit the Marina Bay shopping centre. And the Louis Vuitton store is now open, so you don't have to imagine it.

Chris Guillebeau, 33, is on a five-year mission to visit every country in the world. He is currently on number 175. Next week: how to meet people while travelling.??