Singapore
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Singapore Travel Guide, Little India

Little India, Arab Street and Bugis

A visit to some of Singapore's most exotic areas...

As its name denotes,

Little India used to be the enclave of Singapore's Indian community during early colonial times, when ethnic quarters were built under the British policy of ethnic segregation (according to the Raffles Plan of Singapore).

 

The area stretches to the northeast of the city centre and northwest of Arab Street and Bugis, from Rochor Canal Road in the south to Lavender Street in the north.

 

Serangoon Road is Little India's main thoroughfare and most attractions and shops can be found along it, as well as on the neighboring side streets.

 

Little India is bustling with life, day and night... Take a pleasant evening stroll through Serangoon Street and its smaller offshoots, and don't forget to enjoy all these snacks and street foods that are sold everywhere...

Although it stopped being an "Indian only" suburb long time ago, Little India still maintains its unique character... The streets here boast an enormous variety of authentic shops: From colorful sari boutiques, emporiums and heavenly scented spice shops to modern shopping malls and inexpensive electronics and computer shops.

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You really should try to take your time when visiting Little India, as there is so much to see and do around this lovely, colorful area... Even long after the sun goes down.

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Kampong Glam, more commonly known by the name of its main thoroughfare Arab Street, was where Singapore's Arab traders settled in the early days of the colony. But when real-estate prices started to go insane, sometimes around the 1920s, most of the original inhabitants left the area, and nowadays the hub of Singapore's Muslim community has moved to Geylang Serai on the East Coast.

 

Arab Street and its small offshoots are packed with old-style shops where you can get a whole lot of exotic and oriental stuff: Great variety of textiles and fabrics at reasonable prices seems to be the area's main drawing point...  Then there are Basketry and other products of rattan, cane and straw, as well as carpets, spices, and a wide range of authentic ornaments and bric-a-brac...

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Bugis Street, north of Bras Basah Road and Marina Centre (around MRT-Bugis), and south of Arab Street, used to be Singapore's illicit playground between the 1950s and the 1980s, and was internationally known for its colorful population of transvestites and transwomen.

 

The area's promiscuous lifestyle came to an end in the mid-1980s, when the street underwent major urban redevelopment and was turned into a retail complex of modern shopping malls, restaurants and nightspots, mixed with regulated back-alley roadside vendors.  Underground digging to construct the Bugis MRT station prior to that also caused the upheaval and termination of nightly transgender sex bazaar culture, marking the end of one of the most colorful and unique eras in Singapore's history.

 

Nowadays, what was the original Bugis Street is a fairly wide cobblestone avenue, sandwiched between the buildings of the Bugis Junction shopping complex.  On the other hand, the lane presently known as "Bugis Street" is actually developed from New Bugis Street, and is billed as "the largest street-shopping location in Singapore". 

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The excursion : We chose MRT-Little India as our starting point. The station is located along the purple marked NorthEast Line and can easily be accessed from the MRT stations of Dhoby Ghaut or Chinatown (if coming from another MRT station, you'll have to switch trains at Dhoby Ghaut).

 

Walk out from the station to Buffalo Road. As soon as you start walking along the road, you will see the building complex of Tekka Centre on your right side. The centre houses a wet market, a food centre and some shops.  The huge wet market, on the center's ground floor, specializes mainly in fresh seafood and vegetables. The hawker centre, on the same level, has a good selection of vegetarian food stalls serving different Indian cuisines, as well as vegetarian Malay and Chinese delicacies, and the shops are selling a wide range of stuff... From Indian fashion and inexpensive casual clothes to Taoist and Buddhist paraphernalia, and from tailor shops to henna salons...

 

A small note from 'Metropolasia-Man':

Tekka Centre was closed for renovations BUT has now reopened

 

Allauddin's Briyani, in Tekka Centre, has long became one of Little India's best known cullinary landmarks... 

A few more steps along Buffalo Road will bring you to the corner of Little India's main thoroughfare, Serangoon RoadLittle India Arcade, on the other side of the junction is housed in a cluster of restored shophouses that were turned into a bustling, colorful and authentic Indian-style shopping complex.  The shops here sell everything Indian... From bangles, cheap jewels and other trinkets to saris, spices, incenses and Indian sweets... Alongside the exotic shops, there are some excellent (and inexpensive) eating houses, selling various Indian delicacies.

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From Little India Arcade, proceed to Campbell Lane,turn left to Clive Street and right to Dunlop. On the corner of Clive and Dunlop there is a well known emporium shop, called "Haniffa Textiles", which has been selling a wide range of Indian and international clothes for more than 50 years. They also offer a decent choice of cameras, electronics, handbags and what have you... Walk back through Dunlop to the corner of Serangoon Street, turn right and right again, to Upper Dickson Road, which runs parallel to Dunlop and boasts some nice shops and cheap eateries...

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A culinary tip from 'Metropolasia-Man':

nibbling snacks from authentic local eateries is one of the most enjoyable sides of strolling the streets of Little India. Komala Vilas, on Serangoon Road (Between the corner of Dunlop and Upper Dickson) has earned itself a reputation of a "local institution", after serving scrumptious vegetarian fare at reasonable prices for God knows how many years... Kulfi Bar, on No. 15 Upper Dickson, is known for its lovely home-made Indian ice cream (Kulfi), while Sakunthala's Restaurant, on 151 Dunlop, serves a variety of both vegetarian and non-vegetarian specialties and is particularly famous for its Dosa (Thosai): A South-Indian stule crispy crêpe, stuffed with various fillings and served with different sauces and deeps on the side...

 

From Upper Dickson, turn right to Serangoon (and cross it to the other side).  On 141 Serangoon, just pass the corner of Belilios Street, you will see the beautiful Hindu temple Sri Veerama Kaliamman, devoted to the multi-handed goddess Kali, destroyer of evil, whose statue adorns the temple's central shrine.  Originally built in 1881, the temple also boasts shrines of elephant-headed Lord Ganesh, son of the goddess Pārvatī, and Lord Murugan (Subramanian) who defeated the demon Surapadman.

 

Kali was "chosen" as the temple's chief deity for two main reasons: The first one is that the temple was built by migrants from Bengal, where Kali is very popular and, second, thanks to her abilities to fight evil (that gave the newcomers a lot of confidence and peace of mind).

 

Although established by Bengalese, the temple is built in the South Indian Dravidian style, with a distinctive Gopuram "pyramid" rising atop of its main gate, covered with sculptures and figurines of Hindu deities, alongside mystic animals from the Hindu mythology and other ornamental decorations.

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Keep on walking along Serangoon for another 350 meters or so, and turn right to Syed Alwi Road.  Mustafa Centre, near the corner of Serangoon and Syed Alwi Rd., is Singapore's legendary 24 hours super-shop.  The massive department store sells an enormous range of goods at some of the lowest fixed prices in Singapore.  It actually comprises two main sections: Mustafa Centre itself is located on 145 Syed Alwi Road, while neighboring Serangoon Plaza is just behind the corner, on 320 Serangoon Road (they are linked to each other).

 

The immense variety of goods includes household items, fashion, footwear, books and magazines, CDs and DVDs, electronics and photo gears, watches and jewellery... You name it.

If you are there anyway...

Before reaching Mustafa Centre, you can turn right from Serangoon Road to a small side street called Rowell Road, where the Museum of Shaghai Toys (MoST) is located. As its name suggests, this tiny museum displays a collection of vintage toys and games from the metropolis of Shaghai, in China. The museum is open daily (except Mondays), 11am - 7pm and there is a small admission fee. For more details, you can simply visit their website.

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Continue walking along Serangoon for another 300 meters or so, and you will get to another beautiful (and quite important) Hindu temple, Sri Srinivasa Perumal. Originally built in 1855, the temple is dedicated to Vishnu, one of Hinduism's supreme trinity of gods (the Hindu trinity is formed by Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer).

 

Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, on Little India's Serangoon Road.

To be more precise, the temple is dedicated to Krishna, one of Vishnu's incarnations. Perumal is another name for Krishna and his statues can be seen all over the temple.  Statues of Lakshmi, the goddess of beauty and wealth, and Andal, a Tamil saint known for her complete devotion to Vishnu, can also be seen within the temple, alongside Vishnu's legendary mount, a large mythical bird called the Garuda.

 

The temple's ceiling is dominated by a colorful circular pattern depicting the nine planets of the universe, and its five-tier Gopuram tower shows the different incarnations of Lord Vishnu (mostly as Krishna).

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Sri Srinivasa Perumal temple is also the starting point of the famous Vel kavadi Parade, held during the Hindu festival of Thaipusam. The parade is a spectacular practice where hundreds of devotees walk along the route, carrying large, cage-like steel altars, called Kavadi. Those portable altars are up to two meters tall, decorated with peacock feathers and other ornaments and attached to the devotees' body by more than a hundred vels (spikes), pierced into the skin on the chest and the back.

The procession's final station is at Sri Thandayuthapani Temple, on Tank Road.

 

A few more steps up the road, pass the Shell petrol-station and turn left to a narrow alley, and again left, to Race Course Road. A few meters after the corner, on your left side, you will see the Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple (also known as the Temple of 1,000 Lights), guarded by two statues of tigers, on both sides of the entrance.

 

Built in 1927, the main draw of this Thai-style temple is a huge, 15 meter high statue of a seated Buddha, weighing almost 300 tons.  The statue is surrounded by an "aura" of numerous light bulbs, which gave the temple its popular name: Temple of 1,000 Lights

 

Alongside the central statue, there are quite a few smaller images of Buddha around the temple (the lying Buddha in the small room, beneath the altar, is worth seeing).

  

Leong San See Temple, across the street, opposite the temple, is a beautifully decorated Chinese Buddhist temple, worth visiting. It is dedicated to Kuan Yin, the Chinese Bodhisattva of Compassion.

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This is where our Little India part of the excursion ends up.  From here, you can proceed to Arab Street in either of the following ways:

  • Continue walking along Race Course Road until you reach MRT-Farrer Park (five minutes walk from the Temple of 1,000 Lights), take the train to Outram Park and from there to MRT-Lavender.
  • By foot: Continue walking along Race Course Road until you reach MRT-Farrer Park, turn left to Kitchener Road and right to Serangoon, then left again to Syed Alwi Road (where Mustafa Centre is). Follow Syed Alwi until you get there (about 1.5 Km. / 25 minutes walk from the Temple of 1,000 Lights). 

Our Arab Street starting point will be on the corner of Sultan Jalan and Victoria Street, near Malabar Mosque: A light-blue mosque with octagonal minaret and golden onion-domes.

 

If you walked all the way from Little India (along Syed Alwi Rd.), you will see the mosque on your right hand side, a few steps after the canal.

 

If you came from MRT-Lavender: Walk out through exit-A, next to ICA Building, turn left to Kallang Road, and walk along it for a few minutes, until you reach the corner of Sultan Jalan and see the mosque on your right.

We enter Kampong Glam area through Sultan Jalan: If you walked from Little India, continue straight after crossing Victoria St.  If you came from MRT-Lavender, turn left to Sultan Jalan.

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Walk along Sultan Jalan to its end, turn left to Beach Road and after a few steps you will see Masjid Hajjah Fatimah on your left. This splendid mosque was built in 1846 by Hajjah Fatimah (the title Hajjah is given to a Muslim lady who did the "Hajj" pilgrimage to Mecca): A wealthy Malay lady who was born in Malacca and got married to a Bugis prince from Celebes who ran a trading post in Singapore, and it stands where her house used to be.

The Hajjah was a well-seasoned businesswoman (quite uncommon for a Muslim woman in those days) and used to travel frequently on her business. Her house was broken into twice when she was away and, on the second occasion, also set on fire. Grateful to the good lord who spared her from trouble, she decided to designate the land for a mosque and had also made a significant capital contribution.

 

What is really nice about this mosque is its architecture, combining both European and Muslim styles.

 

The graves of the Hajjah, her only daughter and her son in law can be found in a private enclosure in the mosque.

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As you come out of the mosque, turn right to Beach Road and walk along it for about 250 meters. Turn right to Sultan Gate and walk to the end of the small street, where Istana Kampong Glam and the Malay Heritage Centre are located.

 

This compound used to accommodate the royal palace of Sultan Ali Iskandar Shah, son of Sultan Hussein Shah.  Both were Sultans of Johor, which Singapore formed a part of.

 

The father, Sultan Hussein Shah, who was also the one who authorized Sir Raffles to establish modern Singapore, built the original structure around the 1820s and his son, Sultan Ali Iskandar Shah, rebuilt it in the 1840s.  The beautiful building was designed by early Singapore's best known architect, George Coleman, and combines Neo-Palladian architecture with traditional Malay motifs.

 

The compound and the palace, alongside the adjacent Gedung Kuning palace, were beautifully restored and refurbished in the early 2000s, as part of the development of the Malay Heritage Centre.

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In the , there is a nice restaurant called Tepak Sireh, where you can enjoy traditional Malay delicacies in a pleasant surroundings.  For more info, visit their website.

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The heritage centre includes the Malay Heritage Museum, with 9 galleries where you can learn a lot about the history of Singapore's Malay community and its culture through historic artifacts, multimedia and diorama displays, as well as other exhibits.  The visit is quite interesting and the compound is beautiful.  Otherwise, there are occasional Malay folklore performances and other cultural events, worth watching.

 

The museum open daily: Monday 1 - 6 pm, Tuesday - Sunday 10am - 6pm

The compound is open daily, 8am - 9pm

 

They also organize a Malay evening, including a traditional feast and a cultural program (you have to call them to get the exact details)

For more information, call 6391 0450 or visit their website.

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A small note from 'Metropolasia-Man':

The Malay Heritage Centre is currently undergoing redevelopment works and will re-open in June 2012

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A nice and short video-tour of Kampong Glam and its rich history

 

Walk back to Sultan Gate, turn right to Baghdad Street (before you reach Beach Rd.), walk a few steps along it and turn right again, into the pedestrian only Bussorah Street.  At the end of the short street lies the largest and most impressive of Singapore's mosques: Masjid Sultan.  This beautiful mosque was built in 1928 and replaced a smaller mosque that was built by the sultan of johor, back in 1824, and used to stand on the same site. It features fine Islamic architecture that combines a few styles, like classical Persian, Turkish and Moorish. The humongous main prayer hall can accommodate around five thousand people and the giant golden onion-dome can be seen from far away.  An interesting feature is the dark ring, below the dome and above its base... this "ring" is made from hundreds of dark bottles, stuck in the building in symmetric rows.

 

After visiting the mosque, you can take a stroll around Arab Street and neighboring streets that carry 1001 nights names, like Kandahar and Muscat...

 

Arab Street and the small offshoots around it are packed with old-style shops where you can get a whole lot of exotic and oriental stuff: Great variety of textiles and fabrics at reasonable prices seems to be the area's main drawing point...  Then there are Basketry and other products of rattan, cane and straw, as well as carpets, spices, and a wide range of authentic ornaments and bric-a-brac...

 

Hajji Lane and Bali Lane, next to Arab Street, are dominated by a few cool and hip shops, selling all sorts of funky stuff like second hand records and designer clothes.

 

There are also some very nice and easygoing cafés around Arab Street, Bali Lane and Bussorah Street, which make them a good place to chill out...

 

From Masjid Sultan you can take a short walk along North Bridge Road to MRT-Bugis and the shopping venues around it...

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Bugis Junction Mall is the first shopping complex in Singapore that comprises of actual shopping streets, covered by a glass ceiling

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Colonial shophouses are lined along what used to be Singapore's 'sin street' , in a (not-so-successful) attempt to bring back some of the special atmosphere that this area enjoyed during its heydays...  The mall is easily accessed through MRT-Bugis and, other than the usual shebang of international brand names and lifestyle shops, there is youth themed area, a "cineplex" and a very good choice of restaurants, cafés and food-court-stalls.

 

Bugis Street is Singapore's own version of a "night market" and although it is far less authentic than the night markets in some of Asia's large cities, you can still fetch some nice things here at a reasonable price...

A stone's throw away from Bugis Junction and just around the area where drunken sailors and all sorts of lowlifes used to market their smuggled goods, New Bugis Street (presently known as 'Bugis street') is another attempt to bring back some of the ambience that characterized the original Bugis Street. Hundreds of street stalls along the covered walkway are selling almost everything... from trendy street wear and watches to knick-knacks, and from cheap cosmetics and fashion accessories to fruits and vegetables... you name it...

It's a pretty good place to fetch bargains and enjoy some authentic snacks, and if you are after some reasonable quality stuff that is a step above the usual chintzy garbage (but you still want to pay a good price), Bugis Street and adjacent Bugis Village might be the right places for you to browse...

 

These two places are also acting as a "night market" and although it is not the authentic night market you'll see in cities across "third world Asia", it's still worth a visit.

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If you still have power after all this walking around, there are two beautiful temples you might want to visit right behind "Bugis street"... One Chinese and one Indian.

 

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple (also known as simply Kwan Im Temple) on Waterloo Street is primarily dedicated to Kwan Im (Guan Yin), Chinese goddess of mercy and the female form of Avalokiteśvara: one of the most highly valued bodhisattvas in mainstream Mahayana Buddhism, although the altars are crammed with many statues of other deities...

 

The temple was originally built in 1884 and although it's not one of the city's most architecturally impressive structures, it's well worth visiting, as it is very popular among Singapore's Chinese community, and has a reputation for bringing good luck to worshippers. The temple's peak season is at the Chinese New Year, when the whole street outside is sometimes packed with people... but it also gets busy on "normal" days, when hundreds of devotees flock into the temple and fill the air with the incense of joss sticks.

 

Otherwise, there are quite a few traditional decorations that are worth paying attention to.

  

Did you know ?

Kwan Im Temple was used as a refuge for the sick and homeless during World War II, and miraculously didn't suffer any damage, when every other building around it was severely hit... No wonder it is so popular...

 

Right next to Kwan Im Temple is Sri Krishnan Temple, a beautifully decorated Hindu temple which started its life back in the 1870s, when a local devotee named Hanuman Beem Singh set up a shrine for Lord Krishna under a banyan tree in Waterloo Street.

  

The humble open-air temple gathered popularity and at the beginning of the 20th century the main shrine was built, but it was only in the late 1980s when the current structure was completed...

  

Due to the temple's proximity to Kwan Im Temple, quite a few Chinese devotees light joss sticks here as well... If it won't help, it won't harm...

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