Singapore is a mix of cultures, traditions, religions and customs with development and modernity. Like nowhere else, we saw temples of various faiths side by side or squeezed between skyscrapers. There are also two rather sizable neighborhoods here that are so colorful and distinctive that you can’t pass by them indifferently. We are talking about the Chinese district (Chinatown) and the Indian district (Little India).
In this post, we set off into areas full of different cultures, good cuisine, temples and…. no air conditioning! While we’ve written so far about places where it’s not hard to take a break from the high temperatures and even higher humidity, in both Chinatown and Little India, however, set your sights on walking outside and saving yourself every bit of shade :-)
Singapore is regarded as an intercultural country and this is the image it wants to promote. The majority in Singapore are Chinese (about 76%), followed by Malaysians (14%) and Indians (8%) [source: Lonely Planet, Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei, 2013]. It is worth mentioning here that historically, Singapore was divided into parts, where different ethnic groups could settle hence we can distinguish regions, districts, where you can feel like in another part of the world.
And it is this diversity and multiculturalism that surprises. Religions, cultures intertwine, in food courts you will find cuisines from almost all over Asia, and the diversity and proximity of different temples in many countries could be unacceptable.
In the City of Lion, the two most popular neighborhoods in terms of cultural diversity are the just-mentioned Chinatown and Little India. It’s also worth mentioning the Arab Quarter, which unfortunately we didn’t go to, but we know from other reports that it’s an equally interesting and colorful place, where you’ll be struck by the contrast and detachment from the Singapore we’ve known so far.
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Chinatown in Singapore
One could write that Chinatown is a typical Chinese neighborhood, but as befits Singapore, typical cannot be. Yes, from everywhere we are attacked by Chinese restaurants, intense smells, crowds, stores offering everything they can, but it is nevertheless cleaner and more modern here. You can stroll along lantern-decorated streets full of Chinese snail mail and noise, while somewhere further above you, towering skyscrapers typical of Singapore.
This is the case now, but once upon a time, this is where the center was, the beating heart of Singapore. This is where Chinese workers lived, this is where more stores were built, as well as nightclubs, but the neighborhood’s reputation was declining. The authorities have invested heavily in restoring and cleaning up the area. Unfortunately, cleanliness and Singapore’s well-known order and cleanliness in some places in the Chinese district still limp a bit. Especially if we are talking about larger gatherings of people, such as shopping malls or local food courts.
There happens to be garbage, dirty tables, chairs, stench…. something that in China we did not pay attention to, because it was the norm, in Singapore it immediately strikes the eye. The worst experience is in the shopping center – People’s Park Complex, where we wanted to use the restroom. First of all, it was chargeable, something we had not encountered before in Singapore, but that was not the problem. The problem was cockroaches, after opening the changing table, which began to hide immediately. Yes, we know – exoticism, nature and all that stuff, but without exaggeration….
So the shopping center is discouraged, but it is worth eating in the area – there are many, typical Chinese eateries and stalls. If one likes greasy Chinese food, there will be plenty to choose from. You can also disguise yourself with dumplings, buns, cakes – we made provisions and had food for almost the whole day :)
While in this district, be sure to check out the Buddhist temple and museum that houses theBuddha Tooth Relic Temple. And it’s not even the relics themselves that are at stake, but the entire temple, five stories high, with numerous rooms and a roof garden. Smoke from the incense sticks we remember so well from temples in China and Japan spreads here.
The aforementioned tooth is located on the 4th floor – admire it surrounded by shiny gold, preferably with binoculars, as it is presented from a distance. One walks around the room without shoes, on the carpet all around…. Olive liked walking so much that we probably did 10 rounds, and we know the room with the tooth by heart ;)
Besides, in the temple, on the first floor there is a hall of a hundred Buddhas, where the walls are decorated with small statues depicting the deity – each handmade by several artists, and accompanied by hundreds of even smaller figurines. And contrary to the name of the temple, it was the floor that impressed us more than the tooth itself.
You can learn about the history of Chinatown, the residents, the immigrants at the museum – Chinatown Heritage Center.
In the Chinese district, it’s not as if we’ll only see Buddhist temples. Remember how at the beginning of the post we wrote about how here the temples are almost adjacent to each other? When walking around the various districts of Singapore, keep your minds open, because in the Chinese district it is easy to come across Hindu temples (Sri Mariamman or Sri Layan Sithi Vinayagar), and next door, just around the corner, mosques (e.g.. Masjid Jamae (Khulia) on Mosque street).
From Chinatown we walked towards Telok Ayer Street, stopping at a very large food court – Maxwell Food Center– on the way. Don’t let the long line at the entrance scare you away, as these are people waiting for a particular bar, the food court itself can be entered and it’s quicker to order from another booth (though probably not as good as in this “queue” booth).
On Telok Ayer Street, we can once again enjoy religious diversity: there’s the Al-Abrar Mosque, founded in 1827 by immigrants who pioneered the development of trade in Singapore, the Taoist temple of Thian Hock Keng, and further on, the Nagore Dargah Temple, which houses the Indian Muslim Heritage Center.
Little India – Little India in Singapore
We took the subway to the Indian district and, as you can guess, you should get off at the station…. Little India;) And already in the underground it feels as if we suddenly found ourselves in another country. There are Bollywood-like faces smiling at us from billboards, it’s more crowded, louder, women walk around in saris, but it’s still clean, modern and orderly.
Once out on the street, it gets even more interesting. Admittedly, we have never been to India, but we were able to get a mini-taste of the best of India – colors, costumes, spices, smells, cuisine, markets. The only thing we missed were the cows walking slowly through the streets! And yes, there are no slums here and it’s a place where life is better than in India, a place where there is still a total ban on littering and chewing gum.
It’s worth coming here at least for a walk – to see and feel a completely different climate, take a break from the skyscrapers and have a more modern foretaste of what may await us in India. During the walk, we will see colorful, brightly colored houses, bazaars with clothes scattered on the ground, temples, stores with all kinds of goods.
What’s worth seeing in Little India? It’s worth taking a look at the special heritage trail designated around this district, which leads among the most interesting mosques, temples, cultural centers, that is, showing the most interesting faces of Little India.
We didn’t walk the entire trail, but we were most impressed by the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple, dedicated to the goddess Kali – the most colorful and bustling probably best captures the local atmosphere. Outside, our attention was immediately drawn to the overwhelming number of figurines on the roof of the temple. Inside the incredible bustle, commotion, preparation for the rites. People bringing in dishes, dressing up….
Of the mosques, Abdul Gafoor is worth seeing – on the recommendation of the guidebook, we decided to see this mix of different architectural styles. Other temples that also deserve attention are Sri Srinivasa Perumal (Hindu, equally overwhelmed by colorful figures on the roof) and Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya (inside of which is a 15-meter tall Buddha statue weighing 300 tons).
What else besides temples and architecture? One of the many local restaurants is worth a look. Don’t forget to drink lassi, which perfectly softens the spicy taste of the food and even better quenches your thirst (it’s best to order two at once ;) ).
We were also at Little India Arcade – a place where you can buy, according to advertisements, original pashminas (how much truth in this we don’t know), silk products, colorful woven bags, handicrafts and many, many other things that are associated with India.
Many people go to popular shopping malls (e.g. Mustafa Center), but for us it was too crowded, cramped and not particularly good value for money. However, it must be admitted that the choice of everything unearthly and causes dizziness.
An excellent complement to the above should be the Arab district, although smaller than the others. It’s worth heading towards the Masjid Sultan mosque, walking through the surrounding streets, full of Arabic inscriptions, restaurants, stores filled with spices, shawls and carpets. The aforementioned mosque, built in 1825, is the largest mosque in Singapore, although it owes its current appearance to a reconstruction that took place more than 100 years after its construction.
It’s worth visiting the aforementioned neighborhoods to get a completely different feel for the city, learn about the history, eat locally, and maybe do some shopping.
We encourage :)
Read more about Singapore and what to see in our post Singapore – TOP 9 places you must see!
We also recommend the photo gallery for our entry: