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The Different Worlds of Singapore

Vibrant Street Markets and Specialty Stores
The Different Worlds of Singapore
Singapore may seem westernized at first glance, but its exotic appeal can’t be denied once you lay eyes on the monkeys that roam freely in its jungle parks, and on the durian—Southeast Asia’s spiky “king of the fruits.”


By Heidi Sarna, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Arwen Joyce
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    Vibrant Street Markets and Specialty Stores
    Vibrant Street Markets and Specialty Stores
    You can find almost anything your heart desires in Singapore, but you have to know where to look. If you want unique mementos, skip the mega-malls and stick to street markets and specialty stores. You can bargain-hunt at the Chinatown Night Market near Pagoda Street and stuff your suitcase with lacquered bowls, fancy chopsticks, and silk robes. For brightly colored porcelain vases and antiques, head to Katong and Joo Chiat, two traditional Peranakan neighborhoods in the east. And if you’ve always wanted a taste of Bollywood, check out sari specialist Jinder’s on Selegie Road just south of Little India. For souvenirs with a Singapore flair made by locals, Cat Socrates is stuffed with kit(ty)sch stuff, from mugs and stationery to totes and jewelry.
    Photo by Arwen Joyce
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    The Distinct Personality of Little India
    The Distinct Personality of Little India
    Known for being a bit boisterous and rowdy, Little India has a personality that sets it apart from the rest of Singapore. It can start to feel a few degrees hotter than the rest of the city here as you dodge shoppers, templegoers, and trinket sellers on Serangoon Road. The beautifully chaotic gopura towers of several South Indian Hindu houses of worship, including the one at Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, soar above the mostly low-rise rows of old shophouses. Small mosques are tucked along side streets, such as the Victorian-style Masjid Abdul Gaffoor on Dunlop Street. The crowds and pungent smell of flowers, curries, and frying roti prata excite and assault the senses. The sidewalks are taken up by racks of DVDs, cases filled with phone cards, carts selling garlands of fresh flowers, and men working at sewing machines. It’s a uniquely South Asian crush of color and hum of activity. If you head there on a Sunday—the day most Indian and Bangladeshi construction workers have off—the streets might be even more crowded than usual.
    Photo by Arwen Joyce
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    Past and Present in Chinatown
    Past and Present in Chinatown
    From the orchid garden on the roof of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Chinatown seems miles away. But at ground level, Maxwell Food Centre and the narrow, history-filled streets of this formerly seedy neighborhood buzz with activity. Once the site of opium dens and brothels, Chinatown has started to gentrify as upscale bars and eateries, such as 28 HongKong Street begin to proliferate. For a glimpse of what the area’s shopping centers used to look like back before the current era of sleek, glamorous malls, check out People’s Park Complex and People’s Park Centre near the MRT (metro). To see where Singapore’s original shoreline lay, visit Thian Hock Keng Temple, dedicated to the goddess of the sea; it was where Chinese travelers prayed before and after treacherous 19th-century sea journeys.
    Photo by Majida Tufail Hanel
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    Energetic Festivals and Parades
    Energetic Festivals and Parades
    In Singapore, a land with no seasons, colorful festivals with fireworks, parades, and special treats mark the passage of time. Chinese New Year, one of the country’s biggest holidays, means lion dances, drums, and elaborate meals. During this holiday, family and friends gather around a traditional dish, yusheng, a salad of raw fish and shredded vegetables, and toss it with their chopsticks. It’s believed that the higher they toss it, the more luck they will have. In August, National Day celebrates Singapore’s independence with fireworks and military parades. During the Mid-Autumn Festival, Chinatown is decked with shimmering lanterns, and Singaporeans give gifts of traditional moon cakes made with salted egg yolk or covered in “snow skin”—a frozen glutinous rice.
    Photo by Arwen Joyce
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    Mint Tea and Mosques: The Arab Quarter
    Mint Tea and Mosques: The Arab Quarter
    Singapore’s largest Muslim house of worship, the gold-domed Sultan Mosque, is the focal point of the Kampong Glam neighborhood east of Little India. Walk along the pedestrian-only street near the mosque to browse trinket stalls, and then head over to Haji Lane for its hipster-clothing boutiques. A popular evening destination, the area becomes lively with diners and bar patrons who linger at sidewalk tables. Along Arab Street, you’ll find fabric shops—a reminder that the area was once a textile district. After exploring the neighborhood on foot, take a break at one of the many sidewalk cafés for some fresh mint tea and homemade hummus with ground lamb. You can find authentic Lebanese cuisine at Beirut Grill on Bussorah Street.
    Photo by Arwen Joyce
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    Jungle Trails for Hiking and Biking
    Jungle Trails for Hiking and Biking
    More than 500 feet above sea level, Singapore’s tallest hill is in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. To reach the summit, you trek through primary forest rich with native flora and fauna. In MacRitchie Reservoir Park, take advantage of miles of beautiful hiking and biking trails, or go on the TreeTop Walk—you’ll feel like you’re soaring above the jungle from your vantage point on a suspension bridge. The Southern Ridges, a series of paved, open paths that connect green spaces like Mount Faber Park and Labrador Nature Reserve, offer prime panoramic views of the city, harbor, and Southern Islands. In all of these parks, the macaques can get aggressive, so don’t tempt them with food or you’ll be dealing with lunch-snatching monkeys (as well as hefty fines).
    Photo by age fotostock
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    The Relaxed Pace of Island Life on Pulau Ubin
    The Relaxed Pace of Island Life on Pulau Ubin
    After a 10-minute ferry ride from Changi Point, you’ll arrive on Pulau Ubin—a small, densely forested island where life moves a little slower. Rent a bicycle and spend a lazy day pedaling around its sleepy fishing kampongs (villages). You can sample fresh grilled fish and prawns from seaside hawker stalls, sip some Tiger Beer, and get a glimpse of what life was like in parts of Singapore as recently as 50 years ago, before Singapore’s modern development. Visitors may also enjoy kayaking trips and nature walks led by local volunteers. Stroll along the boardwalk at the island’s Chek Jawa wetlands. Check the National Parks website for details and to book tours. If you don’t want the peace and quiet to end, stay overnight at the island’s rustic resort, or at one of its free beach campsites.
    Photo by Arwen Joyce
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    Taste the Rainbow
    Taste the Rainbow
    The “farmpreneurs” in the northwest Kranji district grow organic produce and educate Singaporean city dwellers about its merits. At Bollywood Veggies, a farm and public garden, you can see how big a jackfruit grows, as well as taste other exotic produce, including rambutans and more than 20 types of banana. The durian is one of the most unusual local fruits. Protected by a thorny rind, the soft flesh inside elicits strong reactions. Every bite is different—sometimes it’s sweet, other times it’s as pungent as onions or garlic. This smelly treat is banned in most hotels and on public transportation.
    Photo by Arwen Joyce
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    From Sharks to Butterflies on Sentosa Island
    From Sharks to Butterflies on Sentosa Island
    Those who want to get in touch with the natural world will feel at home on Sentosa Island. Home to SEA Aquarium, one of the world’s largest aquarium, you can see more than 800 marine species here, from manta rays to sharks. Once you’ve had your fill of all the water-dwellers, swing over to the Butterfly Park & Insect Kingdom, where you can witness some of nature’s most beautiful—and unusual—creatures. A rain-forest-style area and an aviary allow you to get up close with myriad butterflies and tropical birds, and the insect museum showcases rare specimens from all over the planet.
    Photo by Derk Richardson
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    Asia's Best Zoo
    Asia's Best Zoo
    The Singapore Zoo is renowned for being in sync with its jungle surroundings. Wander at your leisure or take a guided tram to glimpse the zoo’s more than 2,500 animals hailing from around the world. Don’t miss the neighboring Night Safari, a park with such nocturnal creatures as giant flying squirrels and tigers, and the new River Safari, home to freshwater fauna—and Southeast Asia’s biggest panda exhibit. Jurong Bird Park is less well-known, but it provides another opportunity to take advantage of Singapore’s abundant natural offerings. This attraction showcases birds in every color of the rainbow, from penguins to flamingos. Buy some feed and step into the Lory Loft, the world’s largest aviary for lories (small, colorful parrots).
    Photo by Arwen Joyce
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