Singapore is famous as a high-end stopover, but there’s still plenty of old-world Asia to see, writes David Bonnici
One thing you often hear about Singapore is that it’s sterile and lacks the charm of traditional Asian cities. This is not only silly, it’s a condescending view held by travel snobs who want Asia to stay in the 20th century just to satisfy their own ideals of what exotic travel should be like.
Singapore does first-world better than us, which isn’t Singapore’s fault, and its 21st century icons, like the epic Marina Bay Sands, are worth the eight-hour flight alone.
But there are still places in Singapore with an old-world charm without the five-star prices that pay homage to the tiny nation’s heritage. And, even better, you don’t have to travel far from the centre of town to experience them.
Home to the many Indian and Bangladeshi migrant workers who continue to help build this magnificent city, Little India is a riot of colour and noise.
Colonial buildings with colourful window shutters compete with colourful shop fronts for your eyes’ attention.
LITTLE INDIA. PICTURE: ISTOCK
There’s a great vibe here, particularly in the cool of evening when the place comes alive. There are plenty of places to score some cheap South Asian curries or tandoori dishes.
If you fancy some finer dining, there are great restaurants along Racecourse Road, including the Banana Leaf Apolo, which did a wonderful Indian spread which cost less than A$20 per person with beers.
One of my favourite places to eat was actually the roof-top Zsofi Spanish tapas bar, which served free tapas, including buffalo wings, when you bought a drink.
Centred around the magnificent gold-domed Sultan Mosque, this is the Islamic heart of Singapore (although it’s more than easy to get a drink).
In the throes of gentrification, it’s become quite a hip place, almost like a Singapore version of Brunswick, complete with hipster bars and barber shops.
ARAB STREET PRECINCT. PICTURE: ISTOCK
The Turkish restaurants along the pedestrianised Bussorah Street are pretty popular although a bit on the pricey side – I paid A$40 for plated shish kebab and a big 650ml bottle of Tiger beer.
You can also blow on a hookah pipe if that kinda thing floats your boat.
If you want cheaper eats, go around the corner to North Bridge Road where there’s a group of Bangladeshi restaurants.
A COOK PREPARES MURTUBAK PASTRY AT AL-TASNEEM. PICTURE: DAVID BONNICI
I was trying to decide on one and ended up at Al-Tasneem, thanks to the giant of a man they had spruiking for business. He didn’t even speak to me; he didn’t have to.
I ended up having a curry and mutton murtabak (minced mutton in pastry) and was absolutely stuffed, all for about A$7 with a can of Coke.
This is where modern shopping mall Singapore meets Asian bazaar Singapore and you can walk for miles here through shops, stalls and food courts without realising it.
I particularly like the Bugis Street market which opens until late, even on Sunday nights, as it specialises in fashion, day spas and cheap electronics.
I didn’t even buy anything here but spent hours just taking it all in.
There are quite a few cultural attractions here, too, including the National Museum of Singapore and the LASALLE College of the Arts.
And there are plenty of food courts around here selling noodles and the like for around A$3 a bowl. A great spot for breakfast.
In the shadow of the central business district skyscrapers, Chinatown is as vibrant as its namesake enclaves around the world.
CHINATOWN TERRACES: PICTURE: DAVID BONNICI
Like Little India, it’s adorned with beautifully restored and colourful colonial-era terrace rows.
The streets lead to narrow laneways full of hawkers’ cheap stalls, where it’s difficult to go past a bowl of char kway teow (fried noodles) or mooncakes.
There’s also the obligatory herbal medicine stores and jewellers.
Alternative shopping in Singapore
Singapore is a world-renowned shopping destination with high-end malls springing up everywhere. To me it was like Highpoint on steroids and all a little same-same, but look away from Orchard Road and Marina Bay and you’ll find some absolute gems.
One thing I love about the place was the older, 1970s-era shopping centres and arcades that often specialised in certain products. Want to buy a drone or remote-controlled model planes, ships and cars? There’s a little arcade for that in Chinatown.
Want vinyl records or serious hi-fi equipment including old valve amps? Burlington Square, on the corner of Albert and Bencoolen streets in Bugis, will have everything you need.
One of my favourite shopping centres in the world is Peninsula Plaza below the Peninsula Excelsior Hotel on North Bridge Road, near City Hall.
Unlike the hotel above, it retains its dour 1970 decor but is a fantastic one-stop destination for streetwear and sportswear (cheap runners), skateboards, guitars and militaria.
These places are like walking through eBay. In fact, most of these stores are just shopfronts for online traders who sell items around the world.
If you’ve ever bought genuine American snake hide cowboy boots from Singapore, they were probably from Peninsula Plaza.
Where to stay
Village Hotel Albert Court, 180 Albert Street, Singapore
This four-star hotel in Bras Basah.Bugis is close to Little India. It has rooms for below $200 a night, but it’s of a pretty high standard. You’re not far from the centre of town.
There are plenty of buses Little India MRT station is a short walk away.
You’ve probably heard people rave on about Singapore’s public transport. The hype is valid. You can purchase an MRT card, similar to myki, at the airport and use it for buses and trains to get absolutely everywhere.
Taxis are reasonably priced and you can get from Changi Airport to the centre of town for about A$25.
Little India, Bras Basah.Bugis and Arab Street are within walking distance of each other when it’s not stinking hot.