Real Singapore is much more than skyscrapers, banks and commerce. This multicultural city is full of heart, soul and flavor celebrated in the streets and neighborhoods beneath those towering buildings.
Most people know Singapore as one of the largest banking and financial centers in the world, replete with newly-acquired wealth, mega modern skyscrapers and other state-of-the-art urban attractions.
Some also know Singapore as a strict, antiseptic city where spitting on the sidewalk, chewing gum or forgetting to flush a toilet can result in large fines; where a 19-year-old American was sentenced to a barbaric rattan caning for a relatively petty crime and where possessing drugs will not only land you in prison but also might procure the death penalty.
However, behind this rather intimidating and sterile reputation lies a surprisingly down-to-earth and real Singapore. At the heart of this diverse city one finds a veritable cultural mecca with a rich eclectic mix of Asian cultures, foods and religions, all existing harmoniously under the same neutral flag.
Find real Singapore on Pulau Ubin and take a step back in time
Pulau Ubin is a small island (10km²/4mi²) off eastern Singapore that many call the last “kampong” (village) in Singapore.
As soon as you climb aboard one of the ferries that take you to the island, you know you’ve left modern Singapore. These funky old “bumboats” are not what you might expect in an ultra-modern setting such as Singapore. There a bit scruffy and low-tech and won’t even leave the dock until they have 12 passengers on board.
The concept of Pulau Ubin arose when Singapore exploded as a banking, trade and finance center for Southeast Asia. As the main city began to be choked with skyscrapers, developers started to look at Pulau Ubin. City officials, afraid the whole of Singapore might become a concrete jungle, decided to preserve the small island so people could use it as a recreational area and have a sense of what Singapore once was.
The ferry takes you to a tiny village that looks more like a remote destination in Sumatra than a location a few miles outside of Singapore. The first thing you will notice is a lot of bike rental shops. That’s because a bicycle is the preferred way to get around Pulau Ubin. The roads around the island are mostly paved, and there are almost no cars. You can easily circumnavigate most of the island in a day, depending on your fitness.
As you roll through the island’s cool peaceful forests past the simple wooden huts that once served as homes to the island natives, you’ll start to believe that your bumboat passed through some kind of worm hole that has taken you far, far away.
In addition to biking the island, I recommend walking the boardwalk through the preserved mangroves or climbing the lookout tower at Chek Jawa Wetlands. You can also visit the the former Balai Quarry, which is now a crustal blue lake, or you can dig your toes in the sand on the beach after having enjoyed lunch in the main village. Is this really Singapore I am talking about? Amazing!
Find real Singapore in Kampong Glam, the Muslim Quarter with soul
One of my favorite spots in Singapore is Kampong Glam, otherwise known as the Muslim Quarter.
Located north of the Singapore River, this part of town was home to the Malay aristocracy before the British colonized Singapore. In 1819, the Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor and Temenggong, Abdul Rahman, signed a treaty with the British East India Company to set up a trading post in Singapore, and the neighborhood expanded greatly.
It’s this rich history that makes the quarter so special. A walk through the streets of Kampong Glam will treat you to some of Singapore’s oldest architecture, much of which has recently seen a renaissance of restoration and preservation.
The best places to experience the architecture and flavor of the area are on Arab, Baghdad and Bussorah streets. Don’t be fooled by the rustic simple appearance of this quaint neighborhood. Property here is expensive and nobody is selling.
The Muslim population still remains a significant presence in Kampong Glam, and there are numerous beautiful mosques, the Sultan Mosque being one of the most famous congregation points for Singapore Muslims.
In spite of the ethnic feel, don’t expect to see only rustic shops selling ancient crafts and nick-knacks. Real Singapore is also modern Singapore, and mixed in with these historic cultural establishments are fine art galleries, hip restaurants and trendy bars.
Find real Singapore in Little India with its enchanting spices
Little India developed much later than Kampong Glam when Tamil immigrants from southern India and Sri Lanka moved into this part of the city. As the name suggests, this region has a very distinct Indian feel with countless shops selling wares and foods, all housed in low, colonial style buildings painted in those crazy rich colors that “scream” India.
Serangoon Road is a rather busy commercial thoroughfare, so be sure to venture into the side streets and immerse yourself in the sights, scenes and smells of street vendors selling flower garlands, women rushing to and fro in brightly colored saris and the scent of mysterious eastern spices and incense.
The highlight of our visit to Little India was the food court in the Tekka Center. The fragrant delicacies and rich spices here let you taste and feel India, even though you’re thousands of miles away.
Find real Singapore in Chinatown, the heart of this island nation
The Chinese are the largest ethnic group in Singapore and as such, Chinatown is one of the most famous and largest neighborhoods here. If you’re a fan of Chinatown in New York or San Francisco, be prepared for a much more intense and varied experience.
The heart of Chinatown is Kreta Ayer, which is surrounded by the precincts of Telok Ayer, Tanjong Pagar, Bukit Pasoh and Ann Siang Hill.
You just have to visit the food courts here (e.g., Maxwell Road Hawker Centre), so you can taste your way through China.
After getting your share of chicken rice (a very popular dish here), roam beautiful Sago Street and soak in the charming, historic homes, many of which are not more than two stories high.
One of our favorite features in Chinatown is the Kreta Ayer Wet Market inside the China Town Food Complex, just behind the Visitor Center. Despite being (unceremoniously) located in the basement of a huge concrete building, it offers a huge variety of interesting food experiences. Just be careful not to get sprayed by the butchers at work!
At night, take a stroll down Smith Street, just parallel to Sago Street, where you’ll find the ever-bustling Chinatown Night Market.
Places where you won’t find real Singapore
Most of Singapore’s historic districts are rich with local culture and life. In contrast, one historic area that we found surprisingly sterile and boring was the popularized area along Clarks Quay and Robertson Quay. As the heart of a former British enclave, this should by all accounts be a fascinating historic journey back through Singapore’s colonial history.
Sadly, it has been high-jacked by that unfortunate international design team that creates those ubiquitous “inner city” features à la Hard Rock Café and other hackneyed attractions, like carnival amusement rides that have nothing to do with the character and history of the city they inhabit.
Located in the heart of Southeast Asia, Singapore is much more than just a bunch of concrete buildings and banks. It’s a colorful eclectic city rich with diversity where cultures have been meeting and sharing their traditions for centuries.
In addition to all the culture and spice you’ll find in the ethnic neighborhoods, the rest of Singapore is loaded with amazing restaurants, hopping clubs, and some of the best shopping in the world on Orchard Road. It’s also a convenient airline hub for visiting pretty much any other part of Southeast Asia.
Just don’t get too sucked into Singapore’s glitzy glamour and make sure you take time to hit the streets in search of real Singapore; that’s where you’ll find the true heart and soul of this amazing city!
Have you explored Singapore? Tell us what you found!
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