Singaporean Gems

After an early morning trip to the Singapore Tourist Information Centre, I am delighted to find out that due to today’s national holiday (for Deepavali), the Istana – which is the home of Singapore’s Prime Minister – is open to the public.  For a small fee of SGD$2.00, you can wander around the beautiful, lush gardens and up to the Istana’s porch, with all donations going to support a children’s charity.

The expansive lawns are bright green and perfectly manicured and though the long pathway to the Istana is lined by shady trees, they do little to allay today’s humidity.  Beautiful scents waft across the air every now and again welcoming you to the grounds.

The Istana is a grand white building perched a top a sweeping white staircase, which leads onto a large grassed balcony with views back to the city.  The Singaporean flag proudly flying atop its roof.  Today there are lots of activities on for the people and there are masses of families coming through the gates to spend a few hours in this regal setting.

Back outside the Istana, I am melting, when I come across something else that typically melts – ice cream.  I have seen these ice cream vendors many times before, but have shrugged off the thought of trying ice cream wrapped in bread – I mean, why?  Well today, it’s a case of why not.  I’m not sure if I’m brave enough to try the bread yet, but you can also get ice cream sandwiched between a wafer, so I make a compromise.  You can have the wafer, as long as you try an unusual ice cream flavour.  Deal?  Deal.  I scan the list and decide on sweet corn.  Yes, sweet corn.

I take a seat and prepare myself to bite into my sweet corn (eek) ice cream.  Mmmm.  It tastes kind of, well, like sweet corn.  But in an ice cream format and it’s actually not bad.  In fact, I’d go so far as to say I like it because it’s not anything you’d normally eat in an ice cream flavour.  My verdict?  Try it.

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Next I grab a taxi to the Katong/Joo Chiat area of Singapore.  Less than $10, will get you to this suburb filled with brightly painted Peranakan shophouses, so charming you can’t believe it.  Also known as Baba-Nyona’s, the Peranakan Chinese were descendants of Chinese immigrants who arrived in the Malay archipelago and British Malaya (which is now Peninsula Malaysia and Singapore) between the 15th and 17th centuries) – Peranakan meaning ‘local born’.

They have a very rich culture which can be seen in the architecture of the shophouses as well as the food and richly beaded traditional costumes.  Unfortunately as I have arrived fairly early in the day (before 2pm) and on a public holiday, hardly anything is open and I am unable to try any of the awesome Peranakan food.  I guess this area will be marked for a return at some point so I can do just that.

Another short taxi ride away is East Coast Lagoon Food Village.  It’s a hawkers restaurant, where you can pretty much get anything.  From seafood to chicken rice.  And from Indian to Chinese.  All at a great price and with a free view of the sea.  Normally at this time of the afternoon, the place would be fairly quiet, as things don’t get busy til the late afternoon/early evening, but being a public holiday there’s loads of people here.  The trick is to look for the stalls with the longer queues as these are generally good, but each stall also has a rating (A, B, C) which grades their cleanliness and food quality.

Unable to make a decision and after doing about four loops of the village, I end up going for some chicken wings which are supposed to be absolutely amazing (they are) and a cup of sugar cane juice.  The juice is not something I would usually drink, but with the heat today, it’s going down better than beer and bounces nicely off the sauce that accompanies the chicken.  East Coast is not just for eating though there are several places along this stretch where you can do just that.  You can also camp in one of the designated areas, or hire a bike to ride along the coast and enjoy the wind in your hair.  Although it’s on the coast, you don’t swim here because as you can see when you look out towards the horizon, there are loads of tankers and well, the water quality would definitely be debateable.  It’s definitely a nice place to hang out and chill though.

I can’t believe it took me so long to get to either of these places when they are only a short, cheap (compared to Australia anyway) taxi ride away.  I would definitely come back to both of these places in a heart beat.  I guess everything is so close and easy to get to in Singapore, that perhaps you get a little lazy sometimes and forget to venture out into some of the more local treasures.

On my way back to the hotel for a rest, I pass by Teck Kee Tanglin Pau in Killiney Road, which was closed yesterday.  I have read about this place and know that if you pass it by you will be sorry, so knowing I only had a small lunch at East Coast Park, I have plenty of room to try their Char Siew and Big Chicken Pau.  I bite into them and OMG they are good.  So good.  I’d go as far to say the Char Siew is the best I’ve ever had, and I’ve never tried the Big Chicken before but it too is awesome.  This could be a very dangerous place to have around the corner from my hotel.  Oh yum.  Yum, yum, yum.

The public holiday today is to celebrate the Indian Deepavali festival – or the festival of lights.  It’s one of the biggest and brightest of the Indian festivals and lasts a month from mid October to mid November, although the main celebrations tend to last around five days.  Before Deepavali night, people clean, renovate and decorate their homes and then on the night they dress up in their finest clothes, light lamps and candles inside and outside their homes and participate in family prayers.  Traditional sweets (or mithai) are then exchanged between friends and family.

Tonight, all of Little India is lit up and there are masses of people lining the sidewalks.  It’s even madder than usual and trying to find a spot to dine at a restaurant is crazy, but it’s worth it to see the lights and soak up the atmosphere and see yet another side to Singapore’s multicultural little island.

 

Malay Today

All the pampering and relaxation of the last couple of days must be starting to pay off, because we can’t for the life of us decide what to do today.  As it turns out we decided it wasn’t going to be much, and what could suit that requirement better than anything else?  Sitting on the sightseeing bus.

It’s actually something I’ve not done before in Singapore – apart from the special bus that drives you around to see the Christmas lights at the end of the year.  And it’s kind of nice.  It gives a different perspective on Singapore, seeing things from a different height.  There’s more scope to appreciate the amazing architecture and I even spotted things I must have walked past a million times and not noticed before.

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There are, as always roadworks going on – more additions to Singapore’s wonderful MRT system.  This time the roads around Little India are being dug up like there’s no tomorrow, and I wonder how far away it will be before the new route is completed?

When we arrive at Kampong Glam, otherwise known as the Malay Quarter, we jump off the bus to explore.  Although I have been here a couple of times before, I have not yet ventured inside the Malay Heritage Centre.  The beautiful wooden floorboards are a welcome relief to bare feet and as we pad through the rooms of what was the former Istana (royal residence) of the Sultanate of Singapore-Johor, we get to learn all about Singapore’s Malay heritage.

Built in 1819, the Istana now houses an array of historical artefacts which detail the many stories of the Malays.  From every day household items to musical history, this is another example of Singapore’s wonderful museum odes to its cultural background.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – museums are something that Singapore does incredibly well.

The museum is situated next to Sultan Mosque and to enter you pay your ticket entrance fee at the small pavilion next door to the Istana.  Visitors are then required to remove their shoes and leave them in the shelving outside.

One of the other incredible things we found today was something that had alluded me on previous visits to Singapore – the Civilian War Memorial.  The padang (the Malay word for ‘field) is a stretch of green located on the left bank of the Singapore River.  It was a popular place for people to meet and relax and had been a place of social gathers before the times of colonisation.  When the Japanese occupied Singapore during WWII, it was also the place where the Japanese hearded together the European population before marching them off to Changi Prison.

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The memorial was completed in 1967 on the site of the Padang in remembrance of those civilians killed during the Japanese occupation of Singapore.  The design was selected in an open competition and was won by one of Singapore’s most renowned architects – Leong Swee Lim.  The four posts, sometimes referred to as the giant chopsticks locally, symbolise the four main cultures of Singapore:  Chinese, Eurasian, Indian and Malay.  The remains of unknown victims are buried beneath the memorial.

Henna, Mosques and Transvestites

Legend has it that Singapore was founded by a Sumatran Prince who visited the island of Temasek.  He saw a strange animal which was believed to be a lion and this prompted the prince to found a city on the spot which he named Singapura (Lion City).

In 1822 and to ease the chaotic and disorganised island, Sir Stamford Raffles created a “Town  Plan”, which allocated different areas of the city to the different ethnic groups:  the Europeans were granted land to the northeast of the government offices (today’s Colonial District), the Chinese predominated the area around the mouth and to the southwest of the Singapore River, the Indians were, and are still, largely housed in Kampong Kapor and around Serangoon Road and Kampong Glam was allocated to the Malays, Bugis and Arabs.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Chinatown and the Colonial Districts over the years, not that I’d been keen enough to say I’d seen even half of it, but today I want to get stuck into Little India and Kampong Glam, also known as the Arab Quarter.  So after breakfast across the road at Raffles City (breakfast omelette and fresh watermelon juice – yum!), we are ready for the assault on our senses.

Breakfast Omelette and Watermelon Juice

I’ve made a couple of unsuccessful attempts to spend time in Little India.  I really want to love it, but it overwhelms me and that has always felt to me a bad thing.  I’m going to spend some decent time here today if it kills me.  It seems quieter here today than on previous visits.  No hectic buzz, no thumping Bollywood.  Little India seems to be asleep, and I like this new introduction.  The first stop is Tekka Market.

Parrot astrology is a tradition brought to Singapore by the ethnic Indian community from the South Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.  In the old days, Singaporeans went to seers for psychic help in their daily lives, whether it be for determining auspicious dates, to finding a lifelong partner or simply checking on one’s luck.  The parrot astrologer’s reading of the fortune cards was taken as valuable advice.

Unfortunately the parrot astrologers are a dying breed.  In fact, there are only two parrot astrologers left in all of Singapore.  But we walk around Tekka Market twice and we can’t see one, which is unfortunate because we were looking forward to some guidance for the new year.  For those lucky enough to locate a fortune teller, a S$5 fee gets you a card reading session which lasts anywhere from 15-30 minutes. Depending on your beliefs, you could get an intriguing glimpse of the future — or at the very least, a memorable travel experience.

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Tekka Market/Centre
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Dried goods
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Sweets stall

Walking around Tekka, there’s all sorts of colours, smells and sights.  Rows of gold bracelets, intricately designed, catch your eye as you walk past.  There are sweet shops, swathes of colourful, delicate fabrics, the wet market, food stalls and henna shops.  Breathe it all in and enjoy.

When you come across one of the henna tattoo stalls, stop on in.  $5 gets you a stunning design on the body part of your choice – just remember not to rub it against anything for 20 minutes or you’ll end up with a smudgy stain instead of a stunning piece of artwork.  There’s books of designs to choose from or you can let them have free range.  I’m surprised at how quickly the design appears on my hand, and can’t wait until the crust layer flakes off to reveal the burnt orange temporary tattoo.

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Imagine a shop that is open 24 hours a day, that sells everything your heart desires.  Such a place exists in Little India and its called the Mustafa Centre.  Floor upon floor of books, clothes, food, art supplies, décor, luggage – you name it, you will find it here.  Of course, it’s not anything like the flashy, sterile malls of Orchard Road, and it can be rather overwhelming if you let it.  But just pretend the walls aren’t closing in on you and browse in wonderment.

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Just outside Mustafa we come across an Indian Restaurant with a four star table rating, and given our stomachs are telling us its time to eat, in we go.  The service is swift at the Copper Chimney and soon Pakoras, Chicken Murghlai, rice and naan soon adorn our table, washed down nicely with glasses of wine.

Paneer Pakora

In Malay, the word “Kampung” means “village or settlement” and  “Glam” is the name of a particular tree, which grew in abundance in  the area in early Singapore.  Kampong Glam began its life as a fishing village at the mouth of the Rochor River.  Today it is one of Singapore’s ethnic district and retains a strong Malay-Arab influence.  As trade flourished, Farquhar preferred the business quarter to be centered here at Kampong Glam. Rough justice, robberies, street brawls and stabbings  were common.  We’re not looking for any trouble today, but we are keen to find the Sultan Mosque.

Its begun to rain while we were filling our stomachs so we decide to take a cab.  The driver isn’t sure what we’re talking about, but takes us in the direction I’ve shown him on the street map.  “Ahhhh” he says when we get there – must be known as something else locally.  I’ll have to find out.

Located along North Bridge Road, Sultan mosque is considered one of the most important in Singapore.  Its a striking building, its golden domes dominating the skyline and its truly a focal point of the muslim community in Singapore.  It has essentially remained unchanged since it was built and was named a national monument in 1975.

Visitors can feel free to enter the mosque which is open 24 hours a day, but of course you will need to remember to remove your shoes and dress appropriately.

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Walking along the streets, the main thing I notice is the abundance of fabric shops.  Not just any old fabric shops, but stunning colours, unusual fabrics, beautiful combinations of lace and satin.  If you wanted a special outfit to be made, I can imagine this would be the place to come.

Bussorah Street is a shophouse-lined alley which leads to the back of Sultan Mosque.  A mish mash of shops, including an intriguing little toy museum (who’s owner felt relaxed enough to nap while we browsed), it’s a quaint little area and I can’t believe it has taken me so long to make it here!  There’s also several restaurants which look ripe for picking on my next trip back.

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Haji Lane is a funky little alley that’s been around for a while, regularly touted as the cool place to shop if you want something different.  Brightly coloured pre-war shop houses stock vintage clothing, jewelry and knick-knacks and there’s also several places to stop for a glass of wine, which is what we did.  I’d love to come back here and spend some time browsing the goods – can you see how my trips to Singapore become so busy each and every time I come back!

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Hi, can I have an, um, er, Tiger beer?
Hi, can I have an, um, er, Tiger beer?

In the 1950’s Bugis Street was a night owl.  Known worldwide for its flamboyant transvestites, who would parade themselves amongst the visiting sailors and military personnel.  The entire street would come alive, as vendors plied their wares, exotic street food and cheap goods.  More recently it’s been transformed into another one of Singapore’s retail shopping locations and houses Bugis Village, which is a quaint little shopping quarter characterised by an outer mall filled with shopping cart vendors.  There are no transvestites around.

I’ve really loved our cultural wanderings today – and we were lucky the weather made it so comfortable to do so.  I am so glad to have finally enjoyed wandering around Little India.  I’m so glad I gave it yet another chance and I’m excited that it has now widened my area of enjoyment for Singapore, with a whole host of new restaurants and venues to check out next time!  And I know where to come for beautiful gold jewelry.

Done with our wanderings for the day, we decide to head to Boat Quay for dinner, but we wander around aimlessly trying to find something to whet our appetites, at one point taking a table and then up and leaving when the menu didn’t present any shout out dishes.  For some reason, all I can smell tonight is cigarettes and, together with my weeping eyes, I feel just awful.  At the junction of Boat and Clarke Quays, we come across a police tent, cordoned off next to the river.  This is something I’ve never seen in Singapore before and I get the feeling there’s a body under that tent.  I’m sure the news will reveal the story in the morning.  We have just about exhausted the restaurants in Clarke Quay too, until we slide into a corner booth at Fern and Kiwi.  We are still unsure exactly what it is we are looking for, but this place has quite an extensive array of choices, so we should be able to find something here, and it appears in the form of a pizza, followed by chips and copious amounts of wine and singing.