Make your way down to Little India, which is made up of four different areas: the Lower Serangoon Road, Central Serangoon Road, Upper Serangoon Road and the Arab Quarter. Try to get there early enough so you don’t have to jostle with the crowds, and wear light clothes and good walking shoes. The area is marked by the iconic five-foot ways, so be prepared to jostle and be jostled, all the while dealing with Singapore's humid weather and inhaling possibly strange smells produced by the jasmine garlands and Indian spices. Watch as talented garland-makers skillfully weave flowers such as roses, marigolds and jasmines into garlands of red, yellow and white flowers, colours associated with love, peace and purity.
Little India in the evening
Start at the beginning of Serangoon Road, with Tekka Market on the left and The Verge on the right. Watch how modern Singapore slowly fades into the background and you become surrounded in the busy activities of the local Indian population. This area, as per Raffles’ Town Plan, was previously set aside for the Tamil immigrants who came to Singapore. Although the cultural population has expanded to live beyond this area, it remains an important part of their culture and is still visited for purchasing traditional Tamil goods, as well as for sampling traditional Indian cuisine. Start off with local favourites such as roti prata (flat dough served with curry) and roti john, which is a baguette containing minced meat, sardines, an egg and chopped onions, and move on to the traditional North and South Indian restaurants that line the streets.
Visit Jaggis North Indian Cuisine for a selection of tandoori dishes that include meat, a rarity in the generally vegetarian district. The establishment serves Punjabi food that is both authentic enough and healthy (it’s low in salt and oil) so you don’t feel too guilty about binging. Try the butter naan (flat breads that are slightly thicker than the roti pratas) and dip generously into the curries of your choice. The butter chicken is also worth a try. While the prices for individual dishes may be relatively cheap, keep in mind the total costs so you don’t overspend.
Another popular place to visit would be Komala Vilas, where you can try a wide array of curries, dhal, condiments, Indian breads, served with rice or their special sauces or simply try out their Indian sweets. For those who have never tried Indian food before, it’s sure to be an eye-opener. Should the spices threaten to overwhelm you, wash it down with teh tarik (tea that is transferred from cup to cup in a stretching motion to make the tea more frothy). You can easily get a meal here for less than S$10!
For a bit of historical culture, seek out the fortune tellers with their vibrant birds, a dying trade in Singapore. Get your fortune told for an insight into your possible future or just simply snap a shot of this rare profession. The streets are also filled with goldsmiths, generally respected because they are the image-makers of the gods. Pick up a pretty trinket or two. Also, along Cuff Road, check out another dying trade- the spice grinders. If you’re buying Indian spices, ask them to grind the spices into a powder for easy cooking. The area is also home to the flour millers, so check out these rare sights in Singapore before they disappear for good.
This is also the place to purchase colourful bolts of cloth. You may want to use the material to make your own sari (which would make an excellent souvenir) or a beautiful dress out of it, or just simply buy a sari already pre-made at the stores. Also spend some time in these stores looking around for some accessories. You can get trinkets for about S$9.
If shopping in the humid weather is a turn-off, head over to the Mustafa Centre, a 24-hour shopping mall that is blissfully air-conditioned. This is perhaps the most genuine definition of a hypermarket - it sells almost anything you could think of including Indian food, groceries, toiletries, clothes and electronics. Look out for the cheap electronics, but do your research beforehand to make sure you don’t get ripped off. As a general rule, always make sure that the brand is credible and that you get a warranty with the electronics that you’ve purchased. If the brand is one you’ve never heard of, refrain from buying it. Pick up digital cameras or USB flash drives here. You can get a flash drive with a few gigabytes for a reasonable price.
Little India lights
To complete your cultural tour around Little India, visit the Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, which hosts a stunning rajagopuram (entrance tower) as its main feature. It used to have more humble origins, starting as a small shrine built by the Bengals to honour their goddess Kali in 1881. The temple was added, and images of Kali began to be incorporated into the temple. There are two sides of Kali, one the vengeful destroyer disemboweling her victims while wearing a garland of skulls around her neck and the other, a nurturing mother taking care of her two sons. At first, the temple only had figures of Kali, but later on, figures of her sons Ganesh and Murugan were also added. If you’re not a Hindu worshipper, just step up to the temple to gaze at the intricate details of the temple’s many figures and check out its architecture.
From Little India, make your way down to Arab Street, in between Bugis and Lavender MRT (train) stations. Traditionally the area where Arab traders resided, you’ll find textile and carpet stores prominently displaying their wares, as well as leather, basketware, gold and gemstone stores. Take this chance to get some material to make clothes with, or simply buy shawls and scarves for the women in your life. If you’re the kind of person who likes a lot of bling on their accessories, look for the shops that sell lots of crystals, Walk down the five foot-ways and check out the brightly coloured facade of the shophouses, in cheery shades of every colour imaginable.
Here, feast on some Arabian and Middle Eastern food, at the Egyptian restaurant Al Tazzag, featuring hummus, pita and kebabs and admire the intricately weaved carpets on the floor. Other dining places to scour for local cuisine would be at Zam Zam, which is opposite Sultan Mosque and adjacent to Golden Landmark Hotel. This place reportedly serves the best mutton murtabak (a dough that’s sort of like a prata, only thicker and filled with meat, onion, garlic and egg)
In true Singapore fashion, where the old and new live side by side, Arab Street has the traditional wares mixed in with the youth subculture. In recent years, a plethora of blog shops have sprung up online, and some of the most successful brands have taken up residence in this area as well. Walk down Haji Lane to satisfy the fashionista in you and admire the graffiti work done by young aspiring artists. It must be noted however, that this lane is not really for the budget traveller, so keep in mind your budget and maybe get one or two items that you absolutely must have, among the unique graphic printed shirts, bohemian clothes, knick-knacks and ornaments to decorate your home with and even rare indie tracks.
Head down also to Grandfather’s Collections, where you’ll learn about the toys that children of the past in Singapore played with. Games such as five stones, pick up sticks, tops, capteh ( a heavily weighted shuttlecock) abound in this treasure trove of nostalgia. Find also the beloved Coca-Cola bottles and trace the changes to its design over the years. Girls would love seeing the graceful changes of clothes and makeup to their favourite Barbie Dolls over the years, not only a visual timeline of the years but also a nostalgic return to their childhood.
Check out Little India and find a world drastically different from the modern Singapore we’re so familiar with.