At Changi we find out how a visit to the airport could be the point of the journey itself

I wait for my hosts in the lobby of Crowne Plaza (the hotel at Singapore’s Changi airport) that wears a deliberately muted look so as to not be harsh on the eyes of the transiting traveller. It’s striking how, at this bustling port city, the past jets seamlessly into the present. Today, Singapore continues to act as a window to the East for most travellers. It’s also why, for a lot of people, Singapore begins and ends with a visit to Changi. The people behind the scenes realise this and ensure that the airport celebrates it, by bringing in as much of the outside world into Changi as they can. Think large-scale art installations, gardens, butterflies and over 500 trees — all of which co-exist with advanced technology and a design mantra that reflects a deep understanding of the fact that travel can be stressful.

Melvin Leong and Eugene Wong of Changi, who took on the noble task of helping me shed a few kilos by walking me all over the massive Changi over two whole days, guide me towards Terminal 1 (T1), the oldest and the one with the most renovations. The décor here reflects Singapore’s tropical climate, with actual trees and full-fledged gardens maintained by the airport’s in-house horticulturalists. T1’s most famous stop, however, is the sculpture Kinetic Rain. It features 1,216 copper raindrops, weighing over 24 tonnes, creating 16 different patterns in air such as an airplane or a dragon. It even uses strings from an old fountain that stood in the same terminal back when it was first set up. The cactus garden has over 40 varieties of cacti from Golden Barrels to Prickly Pears and is a unique addition to the airport.

The Eastern end has an outdoor deck, with lily-pads that catch rainwater and offer passengers a chance to breathe in fresh air. And if you feel like a dip, there’s the rooftop pool and Jacuzzis. The tropical theme continues near the check-in counters where a stainless tree sculpture reflects abundant daylight. But what caught my fancy the most at T1 was the Canopy next to the viewing mall (from where you can watch flights take off). The play area for children has artificial tree barks with patterns embedded on them. There are papers and crayons. What’s not to love? After spending a few minutes scribbling away until a beautiful pattern emerged, I was still not in the mood to leave, until my hosts gently reminded me that there were two more terminals to see.

Taking a skytrain to the next terminal, T2, designed in the shape of a palm leaf, I arrive at the entertainment deck where passengers take their gaming seriously. I see Playstations and Xboxes keep young ones and the young-at-heart busy. T2 is also home to a sunflower garden, an orchid garden as well as a movie theatre (which is there in all the terminals), where you can catch a movie for free, anytime during the day.

But the most breathtaking sight I witnessed unfolded in front of me at T3 — I saw a caterpillar emerge from a cocoon at the Butterfly Garden, which has more than 1,000 butterflies, designed in a way that allows the breeding of the insects in a natural as well as protected manner. Next to the garden is a Koi Pond, featuring Koi fish. T3 is also the most energy-efficient of the terminals with over 900 skylights that bring in abundant light. The slide at this terminal is most tempting. Reminds me of days spent travelling from one floor of my apartment building to another sliding down the railing; you can actually slide down four storeys on these fun shiny things!

It’s not just the fun things but the little thoughtful things, all for free, that make Changi different. Like the charging stations with keys where you can put your phone in a locker to charge, take the keys, go shopping and collect it later, or the free Wifi, gym, and lounge chairs where you can stretch before boarding.

If you’ve got over two hours at Changi and haven’t seen the city yet, sign up for the Free Singapore Tour. You hand in your passport and go on a guided tour of the city, and even stop for pictures in front of the famous Merlion in Marina Bay. But like me, if you check in early, don’t worry, there are over 330 retail stores, and when you buy at the airport they absorb the GST too. P.S. Wear walking shoes. You’ll thank me for this tip later.

(The writer was at Changi Airport on invitation.)