Not just an enclave for the original Malay settlers, Kampong Glam ('kampong' being the Malay world for village and a glam tree for growing in the area) is an area where all the migrant Malays settled down and built a life for themselves. Today, it is a place thriving in unique fashion trends for the youth as well as traditional and ethnic items.
Kampong Glam is a unique ethnic quarter with a modern twist. Historically a prime settlement and trading area for Malay migrants from Malacca, the Bugis, the Javanese and Arabs who descended from various parts of Indonesia, it was also the home of Sultan Hussein (Singapore's first sultan), his family and his followers. This site is now well-loved by people from all walks of life but is still regarded as an important cultural centre for Malays in Singapore. Kampong Glam, or village tree in Malay, was named after an iconic tree that use to reside in the Malay district at the time.
Today, the area doubles as a popular heritage conserve with patrons visiting the mosque, buying authentic ethnic clothing, raw cloth and dry goods and a unique entertainment hub by nightfall with a gathering of Middle Easterners and youths roaming around the back alleys of Haji Lane and Arab Street alike smoking sheesha (tobacco smoked from a multi-stemmed instrument), checking out old record shops and Middle Eastern cuisine.
At the heart of Kampong Glam lies the impressive Sultan Mosque. Still a integral place of worship for Muslims, this majestic building is orientated towards the Mecca. Its dome is adorned by a ring of bluish glass, which was made entirely out of glass bottles. These glass bottles were contributed by the poor, who laboured earnestly to buy and sell glass bottles in order to accumulate enough for the mosque. Today, this ring of bottles pays tribute to those who contributed out of their poverty.
The Malay Heritage Centre located within Kampong Glam is also another great way to gain a more comprehensive look at the cultural heritage of Singapore's Malays. The previously an istana (Malay for palace), now accounts of Singapore's Malay society with an internal museum. Set up by Sultan Hussein's eldest son, Sultan Ali Iskandar Shah, visitors can explore the rich cultural background while marveling and the detailed interior of the actual home of the Malay aristocratic family in its conserved glory and form. You can also learn the intricacies behind sarong (a large length of cloth that is tied around the waist) tying and watching Malay drum (kompang) playing and Malay martial arts (silat).
Make your way down to Kandahar Street to try traditional Padang specialties from West Sumatra in Indonesia that have become local favourites. Sample nasi padang (white rice served with several dishes that include meat and vegetables) or beef rendang (dry beef curry) from Salero Bundo or Sabar Menanti. For more local favourites, head over to Zam Zam Restaurant, well-loved by visitors and locals alike for its fast service, cheap and delicious food. The mutton murtabak (a flat dough stuffed with onion, mutton and eggs) is a firm favourite.
Shop at Bussorah Mall, a pedestrian mall that is lined with iconic shophouses, and check out Habib Leather & Crafts for unique rattan handbags or NP Ghariwala for Indian cushion covers, shawls and shoes. A must-see would be the Jamal Kazura Aromatics which sells Egyptian, Czech and Austrian perfume bottles and oil-based (alcohol-based perfumes are not allowed in the Muslim culture) perfumes.
Fabric heaven awaits at Arab Street, with every imaginable fabric for every purpose at Dilip Textiles, Toko Aljunied and Poppy Fabric. Pick up yards of silk or Indonesia batiks from here for all your fabric needs, or pick up ready-made items such as tablecloths, bedcovers and saris.
More modern-looking than its traditional surroundings, Haji Lane has become two blocks of indie fashion shops, with unique clothes, accessories - both for the home and for the individual, vintage toys and even a little ice-cream parlour, known as Pluck.
Possibly the best time to check out Kampong Glam is during the Ramadan period where a night market is in place at the breaking of the fasting period by nightfall. Adorned in their bright colour traditional costumes, the Sultan Mosque is unusually jammed back with families of worshippers alike breaking their fast and ending festivities with a massive celebration on Hari Raya.
Visit Kampong Glam for its incredibly earthy and ethnic vibe, and visit the largest mosque in Singapore to admire its unique structure.