The secret - and unique - side of Singapore

Seeking the exotic ... there's more to Singapore than shopping.
Seeking the exotic ... there's more to Singapore than shopping. Photo: Austin Bush/Lonely Planet

It can be difficult to explain the lure of Singapore.

This is a place where pastel colours are all the rage. Where the highways, high-end hotels and highrises are as generic and bubblegum clean as Asian pop princesses.

And that's partly why Singapore, once famous for its opium dens, brothels and flamboyant transvestites, has a reputation for being neatly trimmed, expensive and well - boring.

But does Singapore have something to offer visitors other than shopping and western price tags? I decide to find out, setting myself the challenge of experiencing something uniquely Singaporean - without blowing my budget.

This task is approached with some cynicism. As with many travellers, past experiences of Singapore were limited to the glitzy airport, gazing at the Singaporean vista through a McDonalds window, or plowing through the brand name frenzy of the Orchard Road shopping district.

And my only unique memory of this place was the novelty of shopping in an Asian city where it was all brand names and no bargaining.

I start by walking through the Bugis district, where office workers herd into traditional coffee shops. The humidity is suffocating, and at first, all I see is a metropolis of glinting skyscrapers, traffic and shopping centres that could be in any western city.

But within minutes, I see something to make me stop. It's an old stone engraving embedded in the wall of a modern convenience store. The engraving spans just 30 centimetres or so and displays some words in Sanskrit.

I ask around and discover that the building was once a temple. Developers had got hold of the property, and used all their creative wisdom to plaster plastic over stone and turn it into a 7-Eleven convenience store.

I think of all the layers of this place, of Singapore's smoky past of transvestites and brothels and traders, and gaze wonderingly at the building, looking for traces of the temple.

I look at this building and realise it's the western veneer that often makes Singapore seem uninteresting to visitors. So I set out to explore the ethnic districts again, this time with open eyes. Singapore is a true melting pot of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Arabic communities.

So I see women with Chinese features wear sarongs and Arabic dress. I see another Chinese temple, a Christian church then a Hindu temple all within the hour.

Past the huge reflective surfaces of the high rises and shopping centres, I reach the older-style buildings and markets of Little India.

With senses wide-open, gliding, shiny Singapore dims for a moment. The scent of sandalwood billows all around. Dusky sarong-wrapped women sell stripped coconuts.

And when I ask, I discovered these are covered in blazing orange turmeric powder and sold to worshippers who crack them, spilling the milk on the steps of the temple to purify themselves.

I decide to avoid the main walkways, and wind through the alleyways. Through a corridor where you have to brush past garlands of marigolds, jasmine, I find a sari shop.

Saris in fiery reds and deep hued purples cover every inch of wall. Some even threaded with real gold or silver. I buy some cheaper fabrics for a few Singapore dollars, then head to another market where handmade wooden toys are sold for less than a dollar. It's like a more sanitised and easier version of India.

So I decide to eat lunch there, entering one of the banana leaf restaurants where you can eat a feast for around SGD$5 ($A4.65). The tables are filled with businessmen and the air is filled with the spicy scents of masala.

The meals start with the basics of rice, fried cabbage, long fried beans, lentils and papadams for SGD$3 ($A2.80). For just a little more, you can order flowercrab, Sri Lankan crab, pepper chicken, tandoori chicken. All freshly cooked by chefs who work at long grills with plumes of smoke rising all around them.

In the Arabic quarter is it similarly curious. I find one of the original buildings that the first Arab settlers built. It is a colourfully bohemian cafe where people recline on cushions and smoke tobacco from hookahs.

I order kardadeh, a sweet, light drink made from hibiscus flowers. Then eat Yemeni pudding, a warm dish made with honey and rice flour.

Then I visit a perfumier who works out of a lovely, ethereal glimmer of a room filled with glass vials.

Here, he creates personalised scents delivered in small, intricately detailed silver vials. As with the food and purchases, these too only cost a few dollars.

By now it is dark. I wander further, finding myself lost in an area where the streets are lit up by Chinese lanterns that swing gently in the breeze, turning everyone into trembling silhouettes.

And this is when I really do see something genuinely curious. It's not an edgy businessman tugging at his pastel collar, but a man worshipping at a Chinese temple.

The man kneels between two blaze-red dragons, palms raised in prayer and incense sticks trailing picturesque streams of smoke into the afternoon light.

It's the kind of picture seen in a million postcards, but what are unusual are the features of the man. They are the features of an Indian man and this is a Chinese temple.

Then I realise that almost everyone worshipping at this temple is Indian. And for a moment, in this strange juxtaposition of fluorescent Coke signs, Chinese lanterns, passers-by speaking Tamil, Malay and Chinese, I really experience something uniquely Singaporean.

IF YOU GO:

The Ibis Hotel has functional and contemporary rooms for both business and leisure travellers, with LCD TVs with a selection of international channels, complimentary Broadband and WiFi internet access in all rooms.

The Singapore food ambassador and "makan guru", KF Seetoh, developed and endorsed the 20 iconic Singapore dishes for its All About TASTE restaurant.

The Ibis: 170 Bencoolen Street Singapore 189657. Visit Ibishotel.com.

Jetstar flies daily Melbourne-Darwin-Singapore, Cairns-Darwin-Singapore and Perth-Singapore. Connections via Darwin are also available from Brisbane and Sydney. Visit: www.jetstar.com or call 13-15-38.

The writer was a guest of Jetstar, staying at the Ibis, with assist-ance from the Singapore Tourism Board.

AAP

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