For someone who was greatly impressed by Singapore’s efforts to conserve nature in the face of a growing concrete invasion, I was baffled as to why it was referred to as merely a ‘fine’ city. It took me a couple of close encounters with law enforcers to eventually realise what the ‘fine’ was all about — a hefty S$500 fine for eating in a no-food zone! Getting into trouble is, however, the last thing one should worry about while in Singapore because knowing that you are a tourist, locals will go the extra mile to guide and alert you.
This tiny green, well-planned and safe island country is an unexpected tourist destination for me but I’m glad I went. The colourful neighbourhood, cuisines from around the world and serene beaches make Singapore a must-see for tourists.
This should be your first stop if you are craving desi food or just wish to feel at home. It is also perhaps the only place where you can see people casually violating the pedestrian rules.
Little India. PHOTOS: FERYA ILYAS
The smell of curry leaves welcomes you as you get off the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) at the Little India station. As you pass by three-for-$1 shops and mobile phone outlets, you can hear families chatting in Hindi. A short walk into the area and you enter a small market selling vegetables and fruits, including bitter gourd, green chillies and mangoes. Foreigners and locals flock to this area to get their hands on authentic Indian dresses, while others gorge themselves on tikkas and biryani.
It’s an absolute delight to visit this Tamil-dominated locality during a religious festival to witness devotees take part in processions. Just like the rest of Singapore, Little India has its own share of mosques and churches. Before you head to the famed multi-storey Mustafa Centre for discounted shopping, make a pit stop at the mustard-coloured Angolia Masjid located on Seragoon Road, the main thoroughfare. For another spiritual experience, walk into the Arabian and Renaissance-styled Abdul Gafoor Mosque constructed in 1097 AD. You can’t help but notice the many minarets that crown the pale yellow and green structure.
On a Sunday, the area appears like a South Asian pilgrimage site, teeming with people who gather to meet, greet and eat on their day off.
Little India. PHOTOS: FERYA ILYAS
Do order a plate of biryani at the Usman Restaurant. Although it looks nothing like its Pakistani counterpart, it tastes heavenly.
Widely known as Muslim Quarters for its Malay-Arab history, this neighbourhood is a cultural precinct with colourful shophouses and vibrant heritage structures. A walk down the area’s famous Arab Street will make you admire the collection of semi-precious stones, batik prints and Persian carpets on display. Right next to it is the famous Haji Lane, where hipsters commonly hang out. High-end fashion boutiques line the road and the walls are adorned with eye-catching graffiti.
Sultan Masjid. PHOTOS: FERYA ILYAS
The city’s biggest mosque, the Sultan Masjid, also stands tall in this cultural enclave. Located at the crossroads of Muscat Street and North Bridge Road, the colossal structure with its golden dome welcomes throngs of visitors and worshippers every day.
Arab Street. PHOTOS: FERYA ILYAS
For a trip down history, stop by the Malay Heritage Centre to learn about how the Malays inhabited Singapore through the many cultural artefacts and diorama on display. Originally belonging to the Malay royalty, built by Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor in 1819, it was restored into a cultural hub in 2004.
Haji Lane. PHOTOS: FERYA ILYAS
At the Chinatown Street Market, you can see the pastel-coloured shophouses and rows of red Chinese lanterns hanging above the street. Although I was advised that the best time to visit this area is during the Chinese New Year, I was not disappointed. As I walked from one narrow street to another, I passed by stalls loaded with ethnic crafts. The market buzzes with hawkers selling tiny ceramic statues, antiques and T-shirts at slashed prices. You can spot artists who use their Chinese calligraphy skills to draw your name into a painting to take back as a souvenir.
China Town. PHOTOS: FERYA ILYAS
If you are lucky, you might witness the famous lion dance. While I was busy counting the dozen keychains I was planning to purchase, I was interrupted by a flurry of drum beats. A marching band came closer and the lone white and purple lion swayed to the tunes as tourists gathered around to record the out-of-season performance.
Sri Mariamman Temple. PHOTOS: FERYA ILYAS
Before you exit the area, do stop by the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple to light incense, the Sri Mariamman Temple to take in its sculptures of Hindu deities and the Jamae Mosque.
From a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II to Asia’s ‘favourite playground’ housing themed attractions, Sentosa has come a long way restoring its reputation as a famous tourist attraction with nature parks, beaches, aquariums and amusement parks. Once known as Pulau Blakang Mati, meaning ‘Behind Death’ for the bloodshed that is believed to have taken place on the island, tales of horror still haunt Sentosa. A local asked me if I had heard the sound of soldiers marching late at night. To my surprise, he said only a lucky few get to listen to the thumping sounds.
The SEA Aquarium in Sentosa. PHOTOS: FERYA ILYAS
From Asia’s tallest observation tower, largest tropical oceanarium to the ski lift, there are tonnes of things to enjoy on the island. If you are a beach lover, this is the place to be with its crystal clear waters.
Take the wooden suspension bridge from Palawan Island and walk to the southernmost point of Continental Asia, the unnamed U-shaped artificial sandy islet.
Ferya Ilyas is a sub-editor for the web desk at The Express Tribune. She tweets @ferya_ilyas
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, June 29th, 2014.
Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.
For more information, please see our Comments FAQ