As Singaporeans, our craving for mala (麻辣) is here to stay — cue mala hotpot, mala snacks and more! A brothy, spicy sauce made with Sichuan peppercorns, chilli peppers, oil and a dozen other spices, the term mala literally means numbing and spicy in Chinese.
While mala has made its way to almost all over the world and made Sichuan cuisine popular, there is more to the region than its spicy cuisine. Occupying the Southwest of China, Sichuan is a land of many guises.
Its capital, Chengdu, is one of the biggest and most well-connected cities in China, rich in culture and heritage; while the other parts of the Sichuan province boast of many natural wonders like mountainous views and grassy plateaus.
And just beside Chengdu lies Chongqing — one of China’s major municipalities. Its cultural and historical sites are magnified by its surrounding rivers and mountains, making this city a must-visit for all who travel to Sichuan.
Wondering if Chongqing or Chengdu is better? The answer is – both are equally amazing. Whether you’ve got a mala craving to curb or simply have an immense wanderlust to satisfy, this spicy duo of cities have much to offer.
Experience the best of Sichuan culture, sights and cuisine in Chengdu
Step out of the Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport (成都双流国际机场) and into a beautiful, bustling city of skyscrapers. Chengdu has become a capital with great historical significance (tracing all the way back to 316 BC).
Once a political, economic and cultural centre of Southwest China, Chengdu continues to be a prime destination for the best of city comforts and natural wonders. In fact, you’ll be surprised to find that its pace of life is relatively slow and relaxing for a modern city.
Here's a list of things to see and do in Chengdu.
1. Explore Chengdu with these cultural experiences
Begin your journey into China’s rich culture at the Chengdu Culture Park (成都文化公园). Like a scene out of an ancient Chinese drama of palaces and royals, this mesmerising garden quickly whisks you away from the usual city vibe and into a serene hideout.
Here, you’ll find a glimpse into the lives of locals, sipping on a cup of brewed tea by the lake, playing mahjong (麻將; a Chinese tile-based game) under the canopy of trees and enjoying a traditional Sichuan opera performance alfresco-style.
Looking for things to do in Chengdu? Just next to the park, you’ll also find one of Chengdu’s ancient palaces, Qingyang Palace (青羊宫), within which lies the Shufeng Yayun Opera House (蜀风雅韵). A multi-functional theatre, the Opera House puts up splendid performances every evening, including acrobatic acts like fire-spitting and the all-famous face-changing (that Hai Di Lao lovers would have been treated to), also known as bian lian (变脸) — where performers seamlessly swap a series of brightly-coloured masks out with a flick of a traditional Chinese fan.
Chengdu Culture Park
Address: 7 West 2nd Section, 1st Ring Road, Qin Tai Lu, Qingyang District, Chengdu, Sichuan, China
Nearest station: Qingyang Palace (青羊宫) Station (Line 2/5)
Operating hours: Daily – 6:00am to 9:00pm
Address: 9 West 2nd Section, 1st Ring Rd, Qin Tai Lu, Qingyang District, Chengdu, Sichuan, China
Nearest station: Qingyang Palace (青羊宫) Station (Line 2/5)
Operating hours: Daily – 8:00am to 6:00pm
Shufeng Yayun Opera House
Address: 132 Qintai Road, Caotang Catering Yulequan, Qingyang District, Chengdu, Sichuan, China
Nearest station: 10min-long walk from Tonghuimen (通惠门) Station (Line 2)
Operating hours: Daily - 6:30pm to 9:30pm
Another cultural reserve to visit in the same vicinity is the Wide and Narrow Alleys (also known as Kuanzhai Alley; 宽窄巷子). Its name is confusing sometimes because when you’re there, you’ll actually find three parallel alleys — Wide Alley, Narrow Alley and Well Alley.
With a history dating back to the Qing dynasty, they were newly refurbished in 2008 and are now lined with popular entertainment and nightlife spots. Picture alfresco dining under the cool shade of trees, pubs inviting you in with live music, and performers basking by the sides of the street. You’ll even find quirky tea houses, local boutiques and souvenir shops peppered around for a little retail therapy. Remember to bring along a big tote bag to hold all your shopping loots.
Searching for more things to do in Chengdu? Just one metro station away also lies the Chengdu Museum New Hall (hooray, museum-hoppers!). An architecturally-impressive modern façade with six storeys (five above ground and one underground) housing over 200,000 exhibits, each floor showcasing artefacts from a particular dynasty in Chinese history. There is even a floor showcasing the history of the puppetry and shadow plays of China!
The museum is the biggest one in the city and it sits right in the geographical centre of Chengdu. Cleverly combining modern technology with historical artefacts, you may even find vantage points to soak in its surrounding sights.
The best part? Admission is free!
Address: 127 Changshun Upper Street, Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi Te Se Shang Ye Jie, Qingyang District, Chengdu, Sichuan, China
Nearest station: Kuanzhai Alley (宽窄巷子) Station (Line 4)
Chengdu Museum New Hall
Address: Xiaohe St, Luomashi, Qingyang District, Chengdu, Sichuan, China
Nearest station: Tianfu Square (天府广场) Station (Line 1)
Opening hours: Tuesday to Sunday – 9:00am to 8.30pm
2. Get up close and personal with China’s national treasures
When in Chengdu, a visit to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is a must. Just its name will tell you just what kind of cuddly animals await. Not only will you get to see them up-close in their natural habitats, it also has an on-site museum where you get to learn all about their panda conservation efforts.
When you’re here, you can hop on their tour bus service that costs RMB 30, approximately S$6 per person. The bus stops at 11 tour sites, allowing you to fully cover all grounds – including the baby panda delivery houses, panda enclosures and even the Panda Tower.
Remember to bring along your cameras to snap various shots of those cute pandas!
Address: 1375 Panda Road, Northern Suburb, Chengdu, Sichuan, China
Nearest station: Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (成都大熊猫繁育研究基地) Station (Line 3)
Operating hours: Daily - 7.30am to 5:00pm
Admission fee: RMB 55/pax (approx. S$11)
3. Spice up your meals in the land of mala
It’s finally time to satisfy your mala hotpot cravings. Bashu Dazhaimen Hot Pot (巴蜀大宅门火锅) is the place to visit for the best Sichuan cuisine. One of Chengdu’s most popular hotpot chains with outlets all around the city, this place offers a taste of traditional food in a comfortable setting.
Most importantly, its hotpot oil is so fragrant and full of Sichuan peppercorn, you’re sure to have a spicy feast to warm the tummy especially if you’re there during the colder seasons.
As you savour the mouth-numbing broth, do as the locals do and order yourself a nice cold beer to keep yourself going. Their hongtang bingfen (红糖冰粉), a traditional iced jelly with brown sugar, is also a satisfying way to soothe your taste buds after a fiery meal.
Address: 36 Qingjiang East Road, Qingyang Gong Shang Quan, Qingyang District, Chengdu, Sichuan, China
Nearest station: 6min-long walk from University of TCM (Provincial Hospital) (中医大省医院) Station (Line 2)
Operating hours: Daily - 10:00am to 10:00pm
But mala is not all Sichuan (and Chengdu) is known for. One of the best places to try out all the other popular dishes at one go is Jinli Ancient Street (锦里古; sometimes also referred to as Jinli Pedestrian Street).
Akin to the night markets you’ll find in Taiwan or Bangkok, here is where you’ll find local delicacies like dan dan noodles (担担面; a springy noodle dish typically mixed with preserved vegetable, chilli oil, Sichuan peppercorns, minced meat and scallions); Sichuan dumplings served with a sour, spicy and garlic sauce (also known as hongyou chaoshou 红油抄手); and an all-time local favourite, cold chicken in chilli oil (also known as liangbanji 凉拌鸡).
One thing’s for sure, if you can’t handle the spice in your food, you might be in the wrong country!
Address: 231 Wuhouci Street, Wuhou District, Chengdu, Sichuan, China
Nearest station: 15min-long walk from Gao Sheng Qiao (高升桥) Station (Line 3)
Operating hours: Daily - 5:00am to 11:00pm (most vendors open at 9:00am and close by 10:00pm)
Hop over to Chongqing, for more breath-taking views and gastronomic adventures
Chengdu’s neighbouring “it”city, Chongqing, has no lack of experiences and mala indulgence as well.
It’s relatively straightforward to get to Chongqing from Chengdu with high speed and normal trains. How long is the train from Chengdu to Chongqing? The high speed train takes roughly 1-2h-long, costing from RMB 154 (approx. S$31) onwards. Alternatively, the normal speed trains take 3-5h-long, costing from RMB 46.5 (approx. S$9.50) onwards.
Wondering what is Chongqing best known for? Let’s dive right in and discover the best things to do in Chongqing.
1. Discover Chongqing’s culture from an 11-storey stilt house by a cliff
Jiangbei District (江北区), Yuzhong District (渝中区) and Nan’an District (南岸区) are three of the more accessible areas to stay in when you’re at Chongqing. Yuzhong District, in particular, is our favourite because it’s where most popular attractions can be found — one of which is the Hongya Cave (洪崖洞), an 11-storey high stilt house that sits idyllically by a steep cliff.
There is much to behold! For instance, on the fourth floor, you’ll find traditional Chongqing restaurants selling mala hotpot buffets, pork dumplings and hot and sour rice noodles along the Tiancheng Xiang Bayu Culture Street (天成巷巴渝风情街).
On the eleventh floor (城市阳台), you’ll find exotic garnitures and handiworks and a pirate-themed bar has half of a ship’s hull suspended from the ceiling! It also boasts an amazing view overlooking the city, especially when night falls.
Address: Chongqing Hongyadong (Northwest Gate), Yuzhong District, Jialingjiang Binjiang Road Chongqing, China
Nearest station: 15min-long walk from Xiaoshizi (小什字) Station (Line 1 Terminal)
2. Taste local delicacies along Haochi (delicious) Street
If you can’t get enough of Chongqing’s local delicacies, then the Haochi Street (好吃街), just one metro station away, is another stop to visit. Haochi (好吃) translated to English means delicious — so you can imagine what a feast you’ll find here. Besides all-time food favourites like hot and sour noodles, this lively street is full of vendors selling skewers of meat, seafood and fish balls (what the locals call chuan-chuan 串串).
You can also savour sweet rice balls sometimes made with peanut or sesame fillings (also known as tangyuan汤圆) or a nice hot bowl of porridge-like dish made with fragrant, warm oil, puffed rice ground to mush, and topped with green onions and fried soybeans (also known as youcha 油茶). Like any food street, the snacking never stops!
Address: Chongqing Haochi Street, Bayi Road, Jie Fang Bei Shang Quan, Yuzhong District, Chongqing, China
Nearest station: 15min-long walk from Linjiangmen (临江门)Station; Line 2
Operating hours: Daily. Timings vary for individual stalls, but generally, stalls are open between 9:00am to 10:00pm.
3. Traverse the renowned Three Gorges Dam
One of the greatest appeals of Chongqing is its proximity to China’s magnificent Yangtze River (扬子江, or more commonly known as 长江). You could stay by the coast in Yuzhong District to get the best of the city and river view, but if you’re feeling a little adventurous, why not venture further to be fully immersed in the natural wonders that Chongqing presents?
One way to do that, is by going on a cruise — from Chongqing to Yichang (another city in the province) through the stunning Three Gorges (三峡谷). The Qutang Gorge (瞿塘峽) is the shortest out of the three but also the most magnificent as you navigate through mountains that are as high as 1500m.
The Wu Gorge (巫峡), on the other hand, is famous for its serene scenery, full of natural peaks and majestic rock structures. If you’re travelling during autumn, you’ll also be pleasantly greeted by lands of vibrant red leaves.
Finally, the Xiling Gorge (西陵峡) is the longest of all, providing you a view of the Three Gorges Dam — the largest hydropower project in the world and an infrastructure that has kept the gorges safe for years. You definitely cannot find this majestic view in Singapore!
You could visit these gorges separately on your own, but it’d be much easier to spend four days aboard a cruise without having to fuss over accommodation whenever you get to the next spot. It’s also a more convenient option compared to having to take the local public bus for hours each time to travel to the next gorge.
Tip: Victoria Cruises offers tours in English. Other options include the Century Paragon or Century Legend cruise ships, the newest ones with spectacular comfort. These two cruises also have English-speaking guides onboard.
Spice up your adventures to China at Chengdu & Chongqing
Chengdu and Chongqing are definitely more than the lands of Sichuan mala. Like brilliant cities landlocked by Mother Nature’s most beautiful sights and structures, the duo prove themselves to be a worthy destination to visit from Singapore — whether you’re an adventurer, foodie or simply looking for your next escapade. But before you head to these two cities, do download these must-have mobile applications in China!
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Travelling to Chengdu and Chongqing
Best time to visit
Springtime from March to May and autumn from September to November are the best times to visit both Chengdu and Chongqing. November to February is when the rainy season starts, which may not be ideal if you’re planning to go on hikes — but can still be a great weather for hotpot and their signature spicy cuisine.
The official currency of Chengdu and Chongqing is the Renminbi (RMB), also referred to as the Chinese Yuan (CNY).
Get to Chengdu, China in 4hr 25min or Chongqing, China, in 4hr 15min via direct flights from Singapore. Search for airfare deals and book your tickets here.
Getting around this metropolis can be a little daunting at first glance, but not if you know the options you have.
Taxi: Travelling by taxi is of course the most convenient option, especially if you’re travelling with family.
Public bus / Sightseeing bus: Most tourists, however, prefer travelling by public bus because their routes cover most tourist attractions, making them just as convenient yet more affordable. Chengdu even has sightseeing buses (namely No.901 and No.902) complete with an open upper deck for a clear, undisrupted view of the city.
Metro: With seven functional lines and more expected to open in the near future, Chengdu’s metro map is fairly similar to Singapore’s — so you don’t have to worry about not being able to decipher them. If you see yourself travelling often via the metro, you’d also want to get a rechargeable payment card (also known as tianfu tong ka 天府通卡) that can be used on buses too.
An on-loan card costs about RMB 10 (approx. S$2) while a souvenir card (that has more design options) costs at least RMB 20 (approx. S$4). You can purchase them at the airport when you arrive or at any customer service office found in almost all metro stations; and you can top them up whenever you need to conveniently at any 7-11 stores or their local Wudongfeng (舞东风超市) or Hongqi (红旗超市) supermarkets.
By high-speed train: Get yourself a ticket on the high-speed train from the Chengdu South or Chengdu East Railway Station and you’ll be in Chongqing in as fast as 1.5 hours. Tickets, however, can cost between RMB 154 (approx. S$31) for second-class seats to RMB 462.5 (approx. S$93) for business-class seats.
By normal train: If you’re looking for more affordable options, you can travel there via the normal trains, which would take anything between 3-5h. Tickets range from RMB 46.5 (approx. S$9.50) for hard seats to RMB 185.5 (approx. S$37) for soft sleeper seats.
By bus: From Chengdu Chengbei, you can also choose to take a bus. A bus ride will cost about RMB 35 (approx. S$7) and may take you at least 7 hours to get there. In addition, there are no direct buses between the cities so you will have to make a bus transfer at Leshan Central Bus Station.
By flight: Lastly, you can take a domestic flight from Chengdu directly to Chongqing for about RMB 90 to RMB 320 (approx. S$18 to S$65; depending on peak season). It will, however, also take between 3-4h to get there, not including the time you need to check in and go through immigration.
We’ll say if time is of essence, then the high-speed trains are the way to go. But if you don’t mind spending a little more time travelling and soaking in the sights on the way, then a normal train ride might still be more comfortable and value-for-money compared to taking the bus or airplane.
In Chongqing, travelling options are rather similar to Chengdu.
Taxi: Travelling by taxi is the most convenient option, especially if you’re travelling with family.
Public bus / Sightseeing bus: Chongqing has 511 bus lines and are categorised into ordinary and air-conditioned buses. Ordinary buses charge RMB 1 (approx. S$0.20) per ride while air conditioned buses charge RMB 2 (approx. S$0.40) per ride. Some buses, however, charge by distance and can go up to RMB 10 (approx. S$2) for air-conditioned rides.
Metro: Chongqing has six main lines that connect the districts. If you’re able to navigate your way in Chengdu, deciphering the metro map in Chongqing should be no problem. Similarly, if you see yourself taking the public bus or metro often, you may purchase a Transportation Card for RMB 25 (approx. S$5) at any bus station, metro station or Transportation Card offices.
Note: You will only be able to get a refund of your remaining balance with cards bought from Transportation Card offices. The service fee of RMB 25 (approx. S$5) will, however, still apply.