With no guidebook and nothing but a Kindle, David Whitley ventures into the unknown.
Haji Lane is probably the sort of place you'd not discover on your own. It's a narrow street, crammed with traditional, brightly-painted shophouses. Except the contents aren't that traditional - it's all vintage fashion, handmade crafts and, in one instance, some rather odd flavours of ice-cream. It's unlikely that I'd stumble across that lychee martini flavour scoop without a guidebook. But on this visit to Singapore, I hadn't packed one.
It's a city I'd stopped over in three times previously, ticking off most of the major tourist sites. I know roughly how the main areas fit together without properly "knowing" the city. But I wanted to travel light this time, and sticking an extra guidebook in the bag for the two days I'd be there wasn't a good use of space.
However, I did have my Kindle. And in the Kindle store, there are plenty of downloadable guides to Singapore. Some are by well-known brands such as Frommers and Lonely Planet, others are by authors and companies only close relations of those involved would know. So I decided to experiment - could I get by for two days, finding interesting things to do that I hadn't done before, using only Kindle guides, and from sources I'd never heard of?
The first two guides I downloaded were disappointing. Sheila's Guide to Fast & Easy Singapore is essentially an account of places that Sheila Simkin has been to rather than a properly researched guide about places readers may wish to visit.
The interlinking was good, so was the format.
The second, Singapore Travel Guide - What to See & Do in 2012 by April Ellis, had plenty of background information and useful detail on the nitty-gritty stuff such as public transport. What it didn't have was any information on things to see and do. There was no detail about any particular attractions, merely a two-line overview of the different districts.
So I ended up using a combination of two guides: Singapore (the Essential Guide for Travellers) by BookViz and Singapore in 3 Days by GuideGecko.
BookViz is a bit of a cheat - it's largely information copied wholesale from Wikitravel. It has plenty of detail and lots of suggestions for attractions, dining and drinking. In many ways, it's exactly what I was after. But some judicious editing wouldn't go amiss; I'm not sure visitors really need sections on the Singapore Dads for Life movement or Dating Violence Awareness Week.
The GuideGecko effort, however, was properly researched and recommendations were made with discerning judgment. The interlinking was good, so was the day-by-day format, but the flaw was that attractions, restaurants and bars weren't really organised by area. My task became one of getting ideas from GuideGecko, then trying to work out where they were with BookViz.
This slightly awkward method worked. I didn't know about the Chinatown Heritage Centre before, and it's brilliant - a superbly put-together exploration of Chinese immigrants and their lives. Reconstructed shophouses show how cramped conditions once were, while the dark history of gambling, opium and prostitution are not shied away from.
I had my head turned towards Sentosa Island - a place I'd previously written off as a giant theme park - when I read about the old colonial fort at the western tip. It turns out Fort Siloso is full of fascinating displays about Singapore in World War II and the island itself is a collection of different attractions rather than one large cartoon mouse-infested fun emporium.
On the food and drink side, discovering Chijmes made me kick myself for not knowing about it before. It's a beautiful old convent that has been tastefully converted into a complex of restaurants and bars.
My inner beer monster would never have thought to go to the Suntec City Mall either - but that's where GuideGecko led me, specifically to the Tawandang Thai-German microbrewery.
The catch, however, is that I merely learnt about these places through the Kindle guides. To actually find them, I had to go elsewhere. The GuideGecko guide doesn't have any maps at all, while the ones nabbed from Wikitravel in the BookViz guide are unusable. Maps are the Kindle's Achilles heel - even the big publishers haven't quite worked out how to do them in Kindle format without them being frustratingly clunky to use. I ended up with a tourist map taken from the hotel and frequent sessions on my laptop, looking at Google Maps to find exact locations.
It seems paper guidebooks are not going to die just yet - even if new electronic upstarts manage to create trusted brands in the Wild West of e-book publishing.
The writer was a guest of Intercontinental Hotels.
Making the most of your Kindle
1 Forget the standard, entry-level Kindles and go for the slightly pricier ones with 3G access - they allow you to download books on a whim pretty much anywhere in the world.
2 The 3G version with keyboard also gives you free web access wherever there's 3G coverage. The browser's not great, but it's a handy way of checking email, Facebook or news sites without racking up huge roaming charges.
3 Set up a Kindle email address (it's free and simple to do) so you can email documents and PDFs to your device. This is useful for itineraries, copies of tickets and any information you've put together from web sources.
4 If using Google Chrome or Safari web browsers on your laptop, Klip.me offers an extension that allows you to send web articles to your Kindle.
InterContinental Hotel, 80 Middle Road; singapore.intercontinental.com. From $US327 ($310) a night.
Guides cost less than $5 at Amazon.com and the Kindle store.