October 30, 2011

Singapura: Little India on Foot

Spice-scented streets, speakers blasting out Bollywood pop-songs, and the riot of colours - that’s Little India for you, the very heart of the Indian community in Singapore. This district dominated by locals garbed in saris and turbans draws tourists with both its ambiance and clusters of shops bursting with goods is our first stop for our last day in Singapore.

Like Chinatown, Little India is best enjoyed on foot.  We hopped off our double-decker hippo bus in Serangoon Road and immediately after embarking and within 3 minutes of walking, Mj is already greedily sinking her teeth onto Samosas – a spicy potato stuffed Indian pastry. 

When you get to Serangoon Road with its eclectic vibrant atmosphere, you wouldn’t think it used to be an area for raising cattle and trading livestock.  History has it that Europeans settled here in the early days (hence the street names i.e. Dunlop St., Campbell St, Clive St. etc) but some years after, these early settlers vanished and was replaced by an Indian community who were attracted to the area due to its ample grassland and abundant water supply.

Today the only traces of cattle you’ll find are those of statues and stones.  The streets now are filled with colourful shop-houses selling ethnic jewellery, saris and salwar kameez, brassware, silverware, flower garlands, freshly grinded spices and of course Bollywood DVD’s.

Hippo tours offer a free guided walking tour of Little India and again, we decided against it.  We just went on a leisurely stroll stopping every now and then for photographs and for MJ’s bangles-shopping spree.  The leisurely stroll took a little too long and when we got to Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple it was already closed and wouldn’t open until 4pm.  Sucks for us since we’re catching the night train back to Malaysia and did not have the time to go back to Little India.

Tamil pioneer workers built the shrine of Veeramakaliamman, 
a goddess that protected them in a foreign land.  
The Tamils are an ethnic group native to Tamil Nadu, India and the North Eastern of Sri Lanka.

After a quick and a rather disappointing stop at the temple, we retreated to the back alleys of Serangoon looking for lunch and later found ourselves in the backpackers’ area of Dunlop Street. A sign boasting of the best authentic biryani in town piqued our curiosity and made us duck in the cool comforts of the Bismillah Biryani Restaurant. Mj had an order of a fragrant and spicy plate of chicken biryani (which was too spicy for my uninitiated stubborn taste buds) while I settled for the hardboiled egg that came with the dish and the complimentary crisp papadom with some sort of garlicky-yogurty-ish dip which I must say was pretty darn tasty. While we haven’t tried other biryanis in the area and we have nothing else to compare it too, I’m taking the polished clean plate as a sign of its goodness.

I was in dire need of a spare battery by then and it’s just our luck that we could already see the crown of Sim Lim Shopping Centre, a six storey of shops specialising in selling mainly electronics and gadgets, and that’s where we’re headed next but not before passing by the beautiful Moorish architecture of Abdul Gafoor mosque.

place of worship for many Indian Muslims in Singapore

HOW TO GET THERE:  Take the MRT Northeast Line to Little India, this will deposit you in Racecourse Road, from there take a right and you’ll find yourself in the middle of Little India. 

October 26, 2011

SINGAPURA: Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum

Art, culture, history and religion, all in one roof! The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum is hard to
miss when taking a stroll in Chinatown. Its striking red colour 4 storey building with architectural styles
based on the Tang Dynasty just calls out to you no matter how tired you are from all that walking and

There are two entrances to the temple, we entered through the South Bridge gate and were greeted
by two giant warrior statues that is supposed to protect the holy places inside. There is no admission
fee but it is a place of worship so dress appropriately - no bear backs, no off the shoulders and no mini-

The temple is dedicated to Maiterya Buddha or “the compassionate one”. Its main worship area or the
Maiterya Hall also called the 100 Dragons Hall has warm and calming colours and is filled with Buddha
statues. Entering the hall is like entering a different world altogether, so serene and peaceful despite
the tourist with their cameras, so removed from the frenzied alleys Chinatown.

Behind the Maiterya Hall is the Universal Wisdom Hall where the goddess of mercy Bodhissattva
Avalokitesvara sits on an elaborate lotus throne, the sides of the hall are surrounded by Zodiac

Unfortunately, we were already beyond beat at this point that we could no longer check out the other
remaining floors, but here’s what you can expect: the mezzanine floor contains wax replicas of famous
monks; the 2nd floor for art exhibitions like calligraphy and paintings, there is also a tea house on the
same floor; the 3rd floor is a museum and contains a vast collection of Buddha artefacts; the 4th holds
the controversial tooth relics of the Buddha (some dental experts say that the relics were actually those
of an animal).

Oh well, another reason to go back.

HOW TO GET THERE: the temple is located at 288 South Bridge Road, take the MRT North East Line to Chinatown station.  

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October 23, 2011

SINGAPURA: Sri Mariamman

A “Gopuram”, or a brightly painted monumental tower richly embellished with Hindu deities, cultural figures and real life carvings of mythological creatures was the first one that caught everybody’s attention aboard the TOUR BUS that everyone was soon filing out the door in the CHINATOWN stop to get a closer look, us included. Even from the distance, it’s evident why this oldest temple in Singapore is a major tourist attraction. This place of worship dedicated after its goddess Mariamman who is especially praised for the protection against illness and diseases was even declared a National Monument.

The inside of the temple is just as impressive as its exterior.  It is said that in order to have good luck, worshippers will have to walk the temples’ interior clock-wise several number of times.

Entrance is free, but shoes are not allowed inside the temple as a sign of respect so leave it outside or put it in your bag.  You can walk with your socks on though, a good thing since the walkway to the other shrines don’t have roof on them and it can get intense walking on sun-heated cement floor.  Also, wear appropriate clothing (knees or shoulders should be covered).

Taking photographs are also allowed for a fee of 3SDG per person; double that for a video cam.  The temple is open from 6am to 9pm.

If you happen to visit Singapore on an October, be sure to come by the temple and witness the annual Fire Walking for Singapore’s Theemidhi Festival.  For more information, call this number +65 6223 4064.

HOW TO GET THERE: If you’re taking the MRT, take the Northeast Line and get off at Chinatown Exit A and walk along Pagoda Street going to South Bridge Road.  If you are on a Hop-on Hop-off, the bus will stop near the temple in South Bridge Road, it should only be a short walk.

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October 16, 2011

SINGAPURA: Chinatown on Foot

Singapore has been unfairly dubbed as lacking a soul due to the absence of chaos and clutter in the midst of towering skyscrapers of cement and steel. But before you write it off as just another too successful metropolis, look closer and let yourself get lost in the narrow back alleys - you’ll be surprised that it is actually throbbing of unique character and in varied rhythm thick with charm.

What was once where Chinese immigrants lived, worked and played, this beautiful and renovated neighborhood with elements of Baroque and Victorian architecture buildings is now one of the busiest and most tourist infested places in Singapore.

The primary attraction here are the carefully restored buildings that has been turned into restaurants, cafés, food stalls and shops that sell probably almost anything you can think of. There’s also the traditional Chinese souvenirs like ornaments, porcelain Buddha’s and jade. If you follow your nostrils, it will lead you right to aromatic Chinese medicine and even dried creatures believed to have medicinal properties.

Museums and galleries can also be found in Chinatown as well as mosques and temples, parks and an Opera Theatre.

While the heat and humidity could get a little too much, there is no better way to appreciate Chinatown than to do it on foot. It would have been so nice to explore the whole of Chinatown but since we didn’t have the luxury of time, we decided to just visit a few places of interest.

We started our DYI walking tour by getting off at South Bridge Road and Pagoda Street (VIA DUCK AND HIPPO TOURS HOP- ON HOP-OFF BUS) and first visited the oldest Hindu Temple in Singapore, the Sri Mariamman Temple. Entrance to the temple is free but you have to leave your shoes at the gate, taking photos is also allowed for a reasonable 3SGD per camera.

Next stop was the vibrant Pagoda Street lined with shopping stalls and clusters of restaurant that can blow away your Singaporean Dollars (just ask MJ).

Right in the middle of the shopping area is the Chinatown Heritage Center, a museum that showcases the history of the Chinatown and how the early Chinese immigrants lived.

Wandering aimlessly in the area, we came across this narrow alley with colorful structures of quirky cafes, shops and watering holes; these buildings are over a hundred years old and now have been carefully restored and are under conservation. The street is better known as Ann Siang Hill and leads to the more popular and hip Club Street.

Continuing on, was the impressive Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and Museum. Opened to public only in 2007, this 4 storey building houses the historical Buddha’s tooth relic, although contested by some. This cultural monument includes a museum, a souvenir shop, a tea house and hundreds of Buddhist artifacts well worth a visit.

Further digging through the heart of Chinatown yielded a discovery of a quaint air-conditioned café tucked in yet another charming narrow alley and decided it to be the perfect place to take a break from all the walking and sweating. We capped our pretty fruitful tour with a cup of mind jolting cappuccino and ham and cheese sandwiches.

GETTING THERE: If you are taking the MRT, take the Northeast Line and get off at Chinatown Exit A, you will find yourself in Pagoda Street near Chinatown Heritage Centre.

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