Think Singapore and visuals of skyscrapers, theme parks, shiny malls, high-end fashion, and futuristic designs flood you. These visualizations though intrinsic to its progressive image, narrate only half the story. There are still pockets hidden in Singapore’s back alleys, underground and up 50-floors, that open to panoramic vistas taking us on a journey through its intriguing past.
Given its location, Singapore has played a crucial role in maritime trade for centuries. It has flourished from a tiny fishing village to a British trading station and now a global leader in commerce. This has, therefore, turned it into a melting pot of cultures in Asia.
Thus, an apt place to begin your holiday in Singapore would be the Asian Civilization Museum. Founded in 1993, it is a repository of the artistic heritage of Asians with a focus on Singaporeans.
Singapore, though has progressed in leaps and bounds over the past 50-years since its independence, certain corners of this city-state have managed to preserve their distinctive identity. It is in these nooks that travelers get to explore the real hidden gems of Singapore.
An excellent way to experience this is to walk through the vibrant neighborhood of Kampong Gelam (Glam), one of Singapore’s oldest quarters.
Historically a Malay port enclave, it was allocated to Malay, Arabs, and Bugis communities in 1822 by Sir Stamford Raffles, subsequently becoming the seat of the Malay Royalty. The gardens of their Istana (palace) today house the insightful Malay Heritage Center located close to the Sultan Mosque.
The nomenclature of its tiny lanes encompasses most of its history. Haji Lane, for instance, was a gateway for Southeast Asians proceeding for Haj. At that time, it would have been filled with small guesthouses, eateries, and shops-houses selling sundry goods.
Today, they are turned into a colorful collage of chic cafes, upscale boutiques, and trendy bars. As you amble a little further, you stumble upon the fragrant leaves of the Gelam tree that gave this neighborhood its name.
Similarly, Peranakan life (a beautiful amalgamation of Malay and Chinese traditions) is the essence of Chinatown. Here you can admire the intricate beauty of their pastel-colored traditional terrace-houses like the NUS Baba House/Museum and marvel at the delicately carved shrines like the Wak Hai Cheng Bio (temple).
There are also ample options to indulge your taste buds at the hole in the wall Peranakan eateries or bustling hawker centers like the Maxwell Food Centre. Nothing is more enticing and exciting for food lovers than these hidden gems of Singapore, traditional culinary spots much-favored by the local population.
Keeping an inquisitive eye might also introduce you to Mr. Lee Yong Tong. One of the few street barbers of Singapore working his magic on clients seated on a vintage barber chair with archaic tools in a nondescript back alley. This is offbeat Singapore at its very best.
Move ahead, and you’ll find that tucked behind the glass-fronted facades of corporate offices and vibrant temples is a somber reminder of a war, still lingering in parts of Singapore. Given its strategic location, Singapore was a prime target for the Japanese in WWII. A chilling reminder of these times is the underground WWII British command center called Battlebox, Fort Canning, which can be visited on guided tours. It was here that the British surrendered to the Japanese on 15th Feb. 1942.
It is easy to get caught in the whirlwind of historical and urban sights in Singapore. However, surprisingly, it has managed to preserve an abundant ecological enclave for the nature lover in you within its fast-developing urban landscape.
A ferry ride to Pulau Ubin will bring you to one of Singapore’s last remaining traditional villages (Kampongs) and the Check Jawa wetland nature reserve park. Here, you can go hiking in the reserve, explore the rustic village on foot or cycle further towards its rocky shores to witness the island’s sleepy vibe and rich bio-diversity.
A more active and water-friendly activity to do in Singapore is kayaking through the many mangroves that skirt its shoreline. A guided leisurely paddle through Mandai Mangroves, admiring the ecosystem up-close, is a wonderful way to spend a day out from the city’s humdrum. The Macritchie Reservoir also has umpteen opportunities for a fun day out on the water.
No visit to Singapore is complete without having a birds-eye view of its skyline. The Singapore Eye or the Marina Bay Sands afford great views but come with a hefty price and can be overwhelmingly crowded.
With a little extra effort and for a nominal fee, the sky park up the 50-floors of the largest public housing complex, Pinnacle@Duxton, offers unparalleled views of the Central Business District, the Chinatown, and the harbor. It lends a newer perspective to Singapore’s ever-changing skyline.
Adding a few more days to your holiday allows you to discover some of Singapore’s lesser-known hidden secrets. You’ll soon realize that it is a beautiful land that goes back in time, steeped in culture and frolicking in nature. Being able to touch this side of Singapore helps you delve deeper in its past, absorb its present and fathom its future in a more wholesome way.
Photos: Author, Pixabay, and Unsplash