The Different Worlds of Singapore

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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 jungle parks, and on the durian—Southeast Asia’s spikey "king of the fruits."

With additional copy by Heidi Sarna.
By Arwen Joyce, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Arwen Joyce
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    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 jack fruit grows and taste other exotic produce, including rambutan, crystal fruit, and 20 types of banana. The durian is one of the most unusual local fruits. Protected by thorny flesh, the soft fruit inside elicits strong reactions. Every bite is different—sometimes sweet, other times as pungent as onions or garlic. This smelly fruit is banned in most hotels and on public transport.
    Photo by Arwen Joyce
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    Energetic Festivals and Parades
    In a land with no seasons, colorful festivals with fireworks, parades, and special treats mark the passage of time in Singapore. Chinese New Year, the country’s biggest holiday, 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 colorful lanterns, and Singaporeans give gifts of mooncakes made with salted egg yolk or covered in sweet snowskin.
    Photo by Arwen Joyce
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    Vibrant Street Markets and Speciality Stores
    You can find almost anything your heart desires in Singapore, but you have to know where to look. If you want unique souvenirs, skip the megamalls 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.
    Photo by Arwen Joyce
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    The Distinct Personality of Little India
    Known for being a bit boisterous and rowdy, Little India has a distinct personality from the rest of Singapore. It can start to feel a few degrees hotter than the rest of the city as you dodge shoppers, temple goers, and trinket sellers on Serangoon Road. The crowds and pungent smell of flowers, curries, and frying 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
    From the orchid garden on the roof of the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, Chinatown seems miles away. But at street 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 Hong Kong Street and The Study, begin to proliferate. For a look at what the area’s shopping centers were like before today’s glamorous malls, check out People’s Park Complex and People’s Park Centre near the MRT (metro).
    Photo by Majida Tufail Hanel
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    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 nearby pedestrian-only street 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 goers 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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    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 this sleepy fishing kampung (village). You can sample fresh grilled fish and prawns from seaside hawker stalls, sip Tiger Beer, and get a glimpse of what life was like in parts of Singapore as recently as 50 years ago. Visitors may also enjoy kayaking trips and nature walks led by local volunteers. 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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    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 S.E.A. Aquarium, which holds the Guinness World Record for being the world’s largest aquarium, you can see more than 800 marine species, from manta rays to sharks. Once you’ve had your fill of amphibians, swing over to the Butterfly Park and Insect Kingdom, where you can witness some of nature’s most beautiful—and unusual—creatures. Two aviaries allow you to get up close with myriad butterflies and tropical birds, and a wildlife exhibit and insect museum show rare specimens from around the world.
    Photo by Derk Richardson
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    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 feel like you’re soaring above the jungle from your vantage point on a freestanding suspension bridge. The Southern Ridges, an open green space that connects Mount Faber Park and Labrador Nature Reserve, offers prime panoramic views of the city, harbor, and Southern Islands. In all of these parks, long-tailed macaques can get aggressive, so don’t tempt them with food or you’ll be dealing with lunch-snatching monkeys and hefty fines.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Asia's Best Zoo
    The Singapore Zoological Gardens are renowned for being in sync with their natural jungle surroundings. Wander at your leisure or take a guided tram to see the zoo’s nearly 3,000 animals hailing from around the world. Don’t miss the Night Safari, a park with such nocturnal creatures as giant flying squirrels and leopards, and the new River Safari, home to freshwater fauna and Southeast Asia’s largest panda exhibit. Jurong Bird Park is less well-known but another opportunity to take advantage of Singapore’s abundant natural offerings. The park 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