Geylang: Singapore's most exciting neighbourhood

For me, Geylang – Singapore's red light district in the east of the island – will always be about my morning bike rides to work when the relative order in Singapore suddenly gave way to this heartland suburb's glorious chaos.

Old uncles would brazenly pull overloaded wooden carts through four lanes of commuter traffic, other cyclists would come at me from all points of the compass, and the small streets or lors (short for lorong, Malay for corridor) were redolent with the sickly sweet smell of durians from the packed fruit stalls that spilled out onto the footpath. It was like approaching a hornets' nest that would fade as I cycled on past Geylang and into the quieter area of Eunos, further east. 

Anyone who still clings to the outmoded view of sanitised Singapore needs to get out of the malls and explore these "lors unto themselves" which are alive around the clock with sizzling satay stalls, raucous KTV bars and new hip locally-owned places for a drink. 

Still, when my parents decided to move to the Geylang area, I was a little surprised but they knew the island well, having been residents there for over a decade, and on our first visit you knew they were on to something.

We meet up in a small paved beer garden that rings an unassuming hawker stall on the corner of Lor 29. Our Tiger Beer lady, dressed in the branded blue dress of the national brew, gives us frosty glasses straight from the fridge and a big bucket of ice to combat the hot evening. We are heading for a progressive dinner in the heartlands.

After a quick drink, we wander the streets, where period shophouses with ornate facades, try to push their beautiful frontage out past the neon lights like the working girls competing with each other on the street corners. 

Here in Geylang you will find some of the simplest and tastiest food on offer in Singapore and our first stop is very close. Said to be one of the finest in the city, Kwong Satay is a tiny hawker tucked into a strip of shops along Lor 29. We grab a mixture of chicken and pork skewers for the princely some of 50¢ each and dip them into the rich peanut sauce.

Further along at the junction of Lor 19 and Geylang Road is Eminent Frog Porridge, one of the many purveyors of all things Kermit along this stretch of road. I opt for the claypot version and, while I am a little put off to be eating amphibian, the meat is tender and well-marinated and the spicy sauce is designed for dousing all over my plate of white steamed rice.

At 661 Geylang Road is perhaps the area's most famous eatery, the Sin Huat Eating House which was lauded by Anthony Bourdain for its amazing crab bee hoon (noodles), but the fame has gone straight to its price list and I give the $130 a noodles a miss this time.

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But crab is on the menu for our final food stop. No Signboard Seafood is wellknown for its chilli crab and has a number of outlets throughout Singapore, including East Coast and Esplanade, but the Geylang outlet has the most flavour, and not just in the food. Old uncles entertain girls half their age, groups of working girls snatch a quick noodle dish before heading back to their posts, and huge family groups laugh and eat. We are shown to a table at the back with a great view of the proceedings and order the white pepper crab. The restaurant is bathed in forensically bright white light with token red paper lanterns hanging along the roof; staff appear to be more pleased to see you leave than arrive. But the food is amazing and there is nothing left to take with us. 

Our walking tour ends at neighbourhood bar The Tuckshop which sits on a bend of the Geylang River. Started by five local residents, The Tuckshop serves craft beer and bar food like the Beef On Heat and Drunken Fish and Chips. It is is a relaxed vibe with low seating and groups of expats and locals.

Geylang is just getting started by the time we decide to call it a night, but visit any time, there is always something going on.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

yoursingapore.com

GETTING THERE

Major airlines Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com), Qantas (qantas.com), Emirates (emirates.com) and British Airways (britishairways.com) all fly to Singapore from Melbourne and Sydney. For low-cost carriers, Scoot (flyscoot.com) flies from Sydney to Singapore and Jetstar (jetstar.com) flies from Melbourne to Singapore.

STAYING THERE

Hotel Clover

Doubles from $S280 with breakfast at this good mid-range option set in the Arab Quarter with a foyer referencing its former life as a textile house. Visit 769 North Bridge Road, Singapore. See hotelclover.com.sg.

Cameron Hotel

Situated in the east of the island, this hotel opened in 1956 and is a great cheap option with rooms starting at $S80. Visit 393F Upper Changi Road, Singapore.

EATING THERE

No Signboard Geylang branch is at 414 Geylang Road (nosignboardseafood.com) while The Tuckshop is found at 403 Guillemard Road. 

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