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If you are keen to venture off the beaten tracks of Orchard Road and other tourist spots to check out some interesting neighbourhoods, we have circled out a few that have that bit of character about them.
Think Texas and the US, Catalonia and Spain. If Singapore had a breakaway region, it may be Changi Village. Then again, the vibe and the area’s inhabitants are so laid back that they will probably not get around to doing it. It is quite different from the rest of Singapore and hums along to its own beat.
Located at the eastern tip of Singapore, Changi Village is close to nearby islands like Pulau Ubin and Pengarang, which may explain its distinctive village feel. You can hop on a bumboat to these islands from the Changi Point Ferry Terminal. Pulau Ubin is one of 60 small islands and islets in Singapore and remains a rustic, untouched last village or “kampong” that is reminiscent of how Singapore was like in the 1960s. It is also now a bird and wildlife lovers’ paradise to watch resident migratory birds in their natural habitat.
Changi’s historical significance runs deep, and the area saw lots of action during World War II. Changi Beach was where mass executions of Chinese took place. It was also where European prisoner-of-war (POW) soldiers marched to on the day of the surrender to the Japanese, all 21 kilometres from the Padang. To learn more about Singapore during the war years, we highly encourage a visit to the Changi War Museum. If you have half a day, we encourage you to join our Day Out in Changi and Ubin getaway. And finally, Changi Hospital (formerly known as the Royal Airforce Hospital) was built in the 1930s and during the Japanese Occupation, many atrocities were committed there and it is said to be haunted by restless spirits which further adds to the area’s mystique.
At Changi Village, there are a couple of places not to be missed. Don’t forget to enjoy a relaxing stroll on the Changi Boardwalk at sunset for a breathtaking view. Then head down to Charlie’s corner for some chicken wings. This place is practically and institution of Changi serving unpretentious Western food and beers. Want something more local? Then try the nasi lemak at Changi Village Market & Food Centre (read our Hawker Centre review). Ask the local foodies, this is one of three top nasi lemak stalls in Singapore. People drive here for the fragrant coconut rice with crispy chicken wings and the samba chilli sauce is to-die-for. Another stall is Weng Kee Ipoh Hor Fun. Order the chicken cutlet hor fun. Thank me later.
And finally, Changi Village is also a fame spot where transsexuals hang out and mingle. Late night, cars can be seen pulling up on Lorong Bekukong to chat with the ladyboys.
All said, Changi Village to us is one of the more colourful neighbourhoods in Singapore. A friend once said “every city – Vegas, NY, Amsterdam, Tokyo has an armpit, but it seems like Singapore does not. Too squeaky clean, not seedy enough, and lacks an edge”. We pointed him to Changi and he said neighbourhoods like Changi make the city more real, more believable. We agree.
Traditional businesses selling batiks and crafts sit side by side some of the trendiest bars, indie clothing stores, bike shops and tattoo parlours at Kampong Glam. This area, home to the golden-domed Sultan Mosque – one of Singapore’s most famous mosques designated a national monument – has made a name as one of the hippest neighbourhoods (also check out Tiong Bahru, Everton Park, Joo Chiat for other hip neighbourhoods) in Singapore in recent years.
The shophouses that line Haji Lane, Arab Street and Bussorah Street also house many restaurants and cafes. Foodwise, the neighborhood serves up predominantly Middle Eastern fare, but lately the area has seen more modern additions such as a Swedish restaurant and a Moroccan diner. Whatever you do, DO NOT leave Kampong Glam or Singapore for the matter without having teh tarik (“pulled” tea) at 21 Bussorah Street. This place is practically an institution. There is no name (aren’t all the best hole-in-the-wall places always nameless?) and locals know it as the teh tarik stall with the old man with the white beard located next to Jamal Kazura Aromatics and opposite Kampong Glam Cafe. For more about teh tarik culture, read here.
In the evenings, Kampong Glam is shishah central. Walking along the narrow streets, you cannot escape the sweet aroma of flavored tobacco as people sit on Middle Eastern rugs in Shishah cafes, sipping on mint tea while puffing away. For more on Kampong Glam, see our After Hours section on Kampong Glam.
It may no longer be the thriving, bustling neighborhood it used to be in the 1970s and 1980s, but Queenstown holds the distinction of being Singapore’s first satellite town. What’s a satellite town you ask? It is a self-contained estate replete with the residential and social facilities – flats, schools, libraries, markets – that the community would need. So in many ways, this town is a pioneer in attempting to build a self sufficient neighbourhood.
Named after Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain to mark her coronation in 1953, it was the government’s antidote against overcrowding in the city, conceptualised at a time when three quarters of the country’s population were living in slums crammed in a small area which made up about only 1 per cent of Singapore.
At Queenstown, you will find Singapore’s first Housing Development Board (HDB) flats – blocks 45, 48 and 49 at Stirling Road – which kick-started Singapore’s successful housing programme in the 1960s. These days, some 80 per cent of Singaporeans live in such flats, though the newer batches are much taller than these early flats that are only seven-storey tall.
The town is also home to Singapore’s first branch library, first neighbourhood shopping centre, and first sports complex, perfect for history buffs.
But unfortunately, some of these buildings have been pulled down to make way for newer developments. Residents of the neighbourhood, though, have campaigned to ask the government to conserve some of the existing buildings.
Some call this the messiest neighbourhood in Singapore, but we at Tribe would say it is the most vibrant. At Singapore’s Indian enclave, you will find cars and people jostling for space, shops spilling out into the little side lanes, and the smell of spices competing with the strains of Bollywood music for attention from your senses.
But amid all the chaos, there is shopping, eating and sightseeing galore.
Along the main Serangoon Road and in many of the side lanes you will find all manner of stalls and shops selling saris, jasmine garlands and spices and produce for cooking curries.
If you want to grab a bite, there is also no shortage of restaurants serving spicy South Indian food. Among the most famous and established are Muthu’s Curry and Banana Leaf Apolo, where locals and tourists alike go for fish head curry and rice served on banana leaf. But hawker Indian fare is also available – think prata and thosai – at the Tekka Market.
You cannot leave Little India without visiting Mustafa Centre, an emporium that truly sells everything. It carries household goods, groceries, jewelry, medicine and even has its own postal service to help send packages home for tourists who have bought too much to lug back home. Open 24 hours, it is one of the most popular late night haunts. While Mustafa is well-known to locals and a definite eye-opener, Naranjan Electronics is less known but you can get electronics for cheap. Do your homework first and be at your bargaining best. The goods usually come with no warranty (or at most the product’s direct warranty) and it’s cash and carry. Hence the low low price. Next door is Naranjan Mobile. Same deal.
For the truly authentic Indian experience, go on the weekend when you can be cheek to jowl with the Indian and Bangladeshi foreign workers out in full force on their rest days.