“Happiness is your illness in an air-conditioned nightmare.” – Mr. Bungle
By Brian Spencer
Although I felt a strong sense of place during a recent stay at Marina Bay Sands, those three concave towers rising above downtown Singapore’s bay on one side and the Singapore Strait on the other, its rooftop SkyPark like a docked spaceship waiting to jettison its passengers to a casino colony on Mars, I also felt displaced, suffocated, and strangely disconnected. Wandering through this self-contained city for three days, only surfacing from its bloated belly of calculated convenience and labyrinthine luxury for a breath of fresh air once or twice a day on that not-unimpressive 57th-floor SkyPark, I felt trapped inside a vacuous, uncharismatic netherworld of nothingness packed with everything you could possibly need. Bring your camera, folks, and don’t forget your credit cards either.
Marina Bay Sands is much more than just a hotel, though with over 2,500 rooms and suites the hotel certainly comprises a big, faux-glitzy chunk of the place.
There’s also the casino, a basement-level smoker’s den where foreigner guests get in free and Singaporeans and permanent residents pay S$100 for 24-hour access, or S$2,000 for a year’s membership. (There’ s a healthy, heated, ongoing debate about this, but rather than wade into these murky waters I’ll simply say I don’t have a problem with the policy.)
There’s The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, home to dozens of restaurants and hundreds of outlets for international luxury and mid-range retail chains, all disorientingly spread out across floors that aren’t numbered but instead named Galleria Level, Bay Level, and Canal Level. Here you’ll also find dentists and doctors, banks and bars, groceries and drugstores, along with an indoor ice-skating rink and a canal where you can be paddled around in a miniature sampan. (Nothing says Singapore like a sampan.)
Finally, Marina Bay Sands is connected to the lotus-shaped ArtScience Museum, where the current headliner exhibits feature costumes and props from the Harry Potter films and over 260 works from Andy Warhol. It’s also linked to the Sands & Grands theaters, home to stomach-churning Broadway- and Vegas-style musicals and performances like Disney Live! Mickey’s Rockin’ Roadshow and Jersey Boys.
You’ll find a wealth of additional facilities back in the hotel proper, including the requisite lobby bars and restaurants. If you’re hungry you can wake up to a gorging at Rise’s sprawling breakfast buffet, but only if you fork over US$36 because breakfast probably isn’t included in your basic US$400/night rate.
It’s not all bad, though. Tower 2 houses the sparkling, state-of-the-art Banyan Tree Fitness Club, where from your treadmill facing the gym’s floor-to-ceiling windows you can either gaze out at the panoramic eye candy of Singapore, or look down at the large, in-machine screen connected to a number of international cable and sports channels. There’s also, of course, the palm tree-lined SkyPark, Marina Bay Sand’s clubby, show-stopping crown jewel that’s home to the world’s largest and highest infinity pool — it’s pretty spectacular.
The SkyPark and its infinity pool aren’t just spectacular, though: they’re life preservers. Ambitious design flourishes of the hotel’s towers, its SkyPark, the ArtScience Museum, and even arguably some parts of The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands aside, almost everything else about those spaces not branded Banyan Tree exude half-hearted effort and vapid character, from the abominable decor and stale color schemes of the guest rooms to the generally aloof and disinterested demeanor of many, though not all of, the staff. You can ignore or even laugh at such shortcomings when you’re paying less than $100 a night, but not when you’re paying at least four times more than that.
What’s the best way to experience Marina Bay Sands? Take a walk through the cavernous lobby, where you’ll pass underneath British artist Anthony Gormley’s 14.8-ton sculpture Drift and alongside Chinese artist Chongbin Zheng’s whimsical, Burton-esque Rising Forest. Buy a combo ticket for the Sands SkyPark Observation Deck and ArtScience Museum and take your time visiting both. (The pool, unfortunately, is only open to guests.) Snap a bunch of photos. Put a few coins down on your lucky number at the roulette wheel if you’re into that sort of thing, then make the 10-minute walk to Lau Pa Sat hawker centre and reconnect with Singapore outside of this air-conditioned nightmare. (If you’re looking for recs, the black carrot cakes at Lai Heng Fried Kway Teow are sick.)
Because to escape Marina Bay Sands is to rejoin Singaporean civilization. Oh, the views of Singapore from your guest room and from near the guest room elevators and from the SkyPark are fantastic, but those views are the only faint connection this sterile icon really has with its hometown. When you’re there, you don’t feel like you’re anywhere in particular. I certainly didn’t feel like I was in Singapore, even though every night I was looking down at it from somewhere on the 49th – 57th story.
Marina Bay Sands is easy on the eyes from across the bay. I don’t mind looking at it, but I probably don’t need to go inside of it ever again.
More Perceptive Travel Blog features from the author can be found right here.