Do you find yourself fighting off the urge to travel? If so, read on as Writer Wint takes you through a travel-themed exhibition at the National Museum of while sharing some of her own solo-travel tips.
This past summer, amidst my own exhilarating adventures as an exchange student, I had the opportunity to visit a fascinating exhibition at the National Museum of Singapore (conveniently located next door to SMU!). An immersive travel-themed showcase, “Now Boarding: Experiencing Singapore through Travel, 1800s–2000s” aimed to explore Singapore’s evolving identity as a travel destination through the decades.
As I wandered through the exhibits, I found myself still intoxicated with the idea of travelling and seeing the world, having just embarked on my own solo trips as a student living abroad. It was nice to be back home, but it was special to dig into this unique showcase about Singapore through the eyes of a traveller, an identity I had secretly embraced for the past couple of months. So, as I take you through the captivating sections of this historically-rich showcase, I’ll also share some solo-travel tips, and lessons I’ve learned as an exchange student.
Checking In with the Display Flipboard
The travel-inspired experience of the exhibit begins even before you get your tickets. Right at the entrance, you are greeted by the massive flight information display flip-board from Changi Airport. Diligently providing flight information since 1999, these classic analogue boards had earned their status as iconic Changi airport features until their retirement in 2020. For those who have witnessed these boards hard at work in Terminal 2, stepping into the museum evokes a sense of nostalgia, as the 5.3 m-tall display produces its rhythmic clacking sounds that could rival any ASMR channel. The display board changes every few minutes, displaying a welcome message, or some old regional flights, adding onto the overall nostalgic ambience.
The boards are full of old flights and displaying a personalized welcome message, photo taken by a very entertained Writer Wint.
Flight information boards when travelling alone offer less of a respite – their cold digital screens (ugh, digital) provide no extra comfort outside of their clinical provision of information about the upcoming flights. Obviously, I am being dramatic, and we both know flight information screens are not particularly cold nor terrorising. But when you are alone at the airport, frantically searching for your boarding gate, everyone—everything, feels intimidating and unwelcome, even unassuming screens.
Here’s a tip to alleviate that pre-flight anxiety: Channel your inner airport dad*. Check in online the day before, and arrive early enough to breeze through the long security check queues. While having to get there earlier is a little bit of extra effort work, having that extra time before your flight to kick back and breathe feels a lot better than stressing about possibly missing the flight. (*Airport dad is a term that went viral online, referring to the overzealous, responsible father who takes charge of everything before a flight: getting to the airport early, making sure all the bags are ready, etc.)
Chapter 1: Getting Around
Returning to Now Boarding, the showcase itself was cleverly divided into 4 separate sections that are aptly named “Chapters” to mimic the format of a classic travel guidebook. The first Chapter, Getting Around, featured memorabilia that delved into the ways people have moved about in Singapore over the years, from international arrivals to domestic transportation.
The section divider stand for Chapter 1: Getting Around. Image by The National Museum of Singapore.
The vintage travel brochures and posters from the early 20th century revealed the old-timey orientalist impressions of Singapore and Southeast Asia as an exotic getaway destination, constructing for the modern viewer the image that was projected for foreign visitors from distant lands.
Orientalist depictions in vintage tourist posters, perfectly capturing the impression of Malaya & Southeast Asia to travelers from other parts of the world. Snapped by Writer Wint.
Trishaw. Image by National Museum of Singapore.
Continuing the journey through time, the exhibit featured trishaws, old MRT maps, and posters, assembling an outline of the evolution of Singapore’s local transport network. As an enthusiast of public transport networks AND vintage posters, I was enthralled by this inviting advertisement for the new MRT line, from back in 1987.
With the enthusiasm and hubbub created with every new MRT line, Writer Wint tried to imagine what it must’ve been like to wait in anticipation for the first ever MRT.
During my trips, especially as I was trying to hit many cities on weekends and short-term breaks, I did not always invest sufficient time researching on the most cost-efficient ways to get around – and it ended up costing me a lot more than I anticipated.
So, here are some pro tips: In addition to planning and budgeting for your in-city transportation, look out for transport passes tailored to the number of days you are visiting – many cities offer tourist packages for short travels. It was also surprisingly helpful to check city subreddits and community pages for more authentic advice.
Chapter 2: Places to Stay
The next chapter explored another major aspect of travelling: searching for accommodations.
Section divider stand for Chapter 2: Places to Stay. Image by The National Museum of Singapore.
Once again, the section illustrated how Singapore could have leaned into its image as a gem in the “Exotic East”, with the display of nostalgic memorabilia including an iconic doorman uniform from the Raffles Hotel, and other vintage postcards of renowned hotels from the 60s to 80s. The exhibit prompted me to contemplate Singapore’s reputation as a tourist destination even today– through its associations with being a glamorous playground for the wealthy as depicted in the 2018 film, Crazy Rich Asians.
Doorman uniform from the Raffles Hotel and Postcard of the Shangri-La Hotel. Source; National Museum of Singapore.
Travelling as a student is often far less glamorous than these lovely postcard images suggest. During my adventures, I dedicated countless hours to scouring various booking platforms like Airbnb or Booking.com for most budget-friendly places. Yet, I discovered that some of these budget options came with unexpected challenges that overshadowed the savings they offered.
Hence, my key tip for accommodations-hunting: Befriend a local (before your trip), and seek their valuable opinion. Information on booking sites only scratches the surface – it doesn’t offer the nuances of the safety, culture, or overall vibes of the place or neighbourhood. I found that tapping into the insights of locals was the secret to finding the best places to stay. You could forge these connections through various ways: by asking friends and acquaintances if they knew anyone from the city, by simply reaching out on the previously-mentioned subreddits, or if you’re feeling adventurous… even through online dating, or friend-making apps! Yes, yes, stranger danger rules still apply, so stay cautious and smart, but you’d be amazed by how open internet friends can be, especially when you’re looking for recommendations in their hometowns. So of course, proper research through these connections or through online reviews, could seriously help to unmask these accommodation catfishes that appear perfect online, but conceal hidden drawbacks to mar your travel adventures.
Chapter 3: Eating Out
A universal experience shared by many Singaporeans abroad is an intense yearning for a taste of home. I was no exception, and indeed, few things are as violently Singaporean as our passion for food. This chapter explored the evolution of this cherished pastime over the decades.
Section divider stand for Chapter 3: Eating Out. Image by The National Museum of Singapore.
From old photographs capturing food stalls to fading menus of a bygone era, this section painted a vibrant picture of the ceaselessly beating heart of Singaporean food culture.
Vibrant metal-board advertisements of alcoholic & non-alcoholic beverages. Very hawker centre-esque for sure. Taken by Writer Wint.
One display that stood out to me in encapsulating this spirit, was this sprawling wall-arrangement of hawker centre merchandise, featuring coffee cups and boldly-coloured drink trays.
An avid Kopi & Teh hunter, Writer Wint spent a good amount of time stopping to appreciate this sprawling display of varying types of cups, trays, and bottles commonly seen at hawker centres.
This charming display resonated deeply with me, as local cuisine was something I constantly tried to recreate while on exchange.
Here are my tips for satiating that relentless craving for local flavours:
1. Bring your sauces overseas: I made sure to pack essentials like lao gan ma or other Southeast Asian flavours that were difficult to acquire abroad. This went a long way in ensuring that all of my home-cooked food – even when prepared with non-Asian ingredients, really hit the spot.
2. Look for wholesale Asian grocers, rather than standard retail Asian supermarkets, in case you find yourself desperate for Asian ingredients. Take it from a girl who lugged a 5kg bag of Basmati rice through the streets of Milan in winter. For about 20 minutes. It was totally worth it.
Chapter 4: Sights & Shopping
Finally, the fourth chapter focused on the activities and shopping opportunities available to tourists in the city throughout the decades, illustrating how these aspects all added different dimensions to the overall construction of Singapore’s persona as a travel destination.
Section divider stand for Chapter 4: Sights & Shopping. Image by The National Museum of Singapore.
In laying out the tourist experiences that have both endured and faded away, this chapter shed further light on the shifting priorities of Singapore, and allowed me to learn a little more about the tourist spots that had been sidelined over the years.
Info-card and memorabilia from the Tiger Balm Gardens, also known as the Haw Par Villa gardens, revived and reopened to the public in the 1980s.
This section of the exhibit was also arranged to convey the wide array of tourist activities, bringing attention to nature getaways through vintage postcards, and introducing the Singapore nightlife with old flashing nightclub LED sign boards.
Familiar and unfamiliar faces. Old LED signboards of ‘the Neptune’, which no longer exists, and ‘Zouk’, a popular nightclub located at Clarke Quay.
Singapore, like many other cities, offers activities and opportunities that tourists would not be able to cover in their short visits. This exhibit reminded me of the lovely local gems that most tourists end up skipping, or never even hear about, contributing to this image of a getaway to Singapore as being a glamorous, flashy whirl of a time with the MBS a prominent feature in the backdrop. Similarly, many cities that you will end up visiting will have a certain projected image as a tourist destination, but they will have so much more to offer.
My tip for exploring a new city: Look for what you want to do. Search up, ask your local friends where you can do, or buy whatever it is you're looking for, and enjoy your unique holiday. But of course, if your idea of a good time is seeing the popular tourist spots for yourself, knock yourself out. The point is, you will have a much better time exploring the places you want to see, or not exploring at all, as long as it is at your own pace rather than following a random itinerary on the internet.
One last tip for a good time: google food or drink places in their local languages – that’s where the non-touristy google reviews will show up.
So, if you’re going to be a solo-traveler or a student abroad, I hope my tips come in handy, and I hope you have the best time – I’m awfully jealous, and living vicariously through all of you. But for those readers staying in Singapore, maybe you can be a local tourist in your own country, and check out this lovely exhibit at the National Museum of Singapore, open until 25 February 2024 and free for Singaporeans & PRs. Bon Voyage!