So, you’re heading to Singapore for a long-weekend getaway. You’ve been there before…that infinity pool, check…huge metal trees, check…selfies with crazy architecture…check. You’re looking for something new this time, maybe a more authentic experience? After some seventeen years of living in the Lion City, I’d like to give you a few suggestions for some new Singapore adventures.
Do it local #1: Changi Village
It’s hard to imagine, sometimes, that Singapore is anything other than the crazy Instagram star it has become. Yet, outside of the downtown core, Singapore is basically residential clusters, connected by the excellent MRT system. One of these neighbourhoods that has managed to retain some old-school charm is Changi Village, located on the island’s east side. Changi is a step back, and a step away, from present Singas’. If you want to see things from a more local perspective, this is your place.
One of the city’s few surviving traditional outdoor hawker centres is still in full operation in Changi Village, offering the local faves: Laksa, Nasi Lemak, Satay, Bee Hoon….you’ll find them all here. Served up in the traditional, no frills Bourdain-praised way you must experience to really know Singapore. Save room for Iced Chendol as well.
If you’re after souvenirs beyond tiny Merlion figurines, this is also your place. There’s batik, rugs, baskets, fishing tackle, basically all sorts of unique SE Asian treats to squeeze into your carry-ons.
Nighttime is when this place really takes off, though. It’s a top local destination for Singapore East-Coasters for dinner and beers. Charlie’s Corner, serving Western dishes like burgers and fish & chips, has been around for decades. The Little Island Brewery is relatively new to this scene, but offers an excellent array of locally crafted beers, a great menu, and heaps of relaxed outdoor seating.
Changi Village is also your jump off point for ferries to nearby Pulau Ubin, for hiking, biking, swims, and freshly caught seafood.
Take the MRT line eastbound, then grab a taxi to Changi Village. So much more the real Singapore.
Do it local #2: Mustafa Centre
Yes, all of the guide books mention Singapore’s famous and fabulous Mustafa Centre, a sprawling complex of any and all things Indian, (and a ridiculous bunch of other things as well), located in the heart of Singapore’s Serangoon Road. Visitors to the Mustafa retail megaplex will find comfort from the exhausting heat in the air-conditioned aisles, as well as all sorts of enticing bric-a-brac to take home as souvenirs.
However, what you may not know is that Mustafa is not a tourist trap. It is well-known by locals as the place to get anything. ANYTHING. If you need it, you’ll find it at Mustafa. If they don’t have it…you don’t really need it.
So, tourist friends, why would you shop anywhere else for your Singapore takeaways? Be careful, though, it’s quite easy to get lost amongst the many floors of merchandise.
The sari and batik department is a riot of colour and texture. Just think of all of the amazing home decor projects you can manage with the gorgeous and unique fabrics! Even if you are not a seamstress, you can still find finished product here for draping as a bedcover, or to tie around a pillow.
Watches, sunglasses, bangles, (plus an astounding display of gorgeous real gold jewelry), all are on sale here in mind-boggling abundance. Foodies will also be delighted with the curry and spice selection, some ingredients familiar, many not.
A crazy selection of curries, herbs, and spices
A trip to Mustafa will keep you busy for hours, which is fine because they’re open 24/7/365. And yes, it really is true that if you go in the middle of the night, you can spot shoppers in their pajamas.
Don’t settle for ordinary trinkets to memorialize your time here. Do like the locals and head to Mustafa for gifts (for yourself, or those back home), that have real value. Oh, and if you still can’t quite stand not getting a traditional Singapore souvenir…yep, of course Mustafa has those as well.
Mustafa Centre, Serangoon Road, Little India, Singapore.
Do it local #3: East Coast Park & Lagoon Hawker Centre
At one point, Singapore had a choice: beautiful beaches, or commerce. We all know how that went. However, nice beaches do exist here, and whilst they are maybe not as glorious as some of those in neighbouring countries, they shouldn’t be overlooked.
East Coast Park is a great place to chill out and get away from the concrete of Orchard Road or the Marina district. Located along the East Coast Parkway, the park offers bike or skate rentals for all ages and skill levels, as well as grassy expanses under the shade of palms to retreat from the scorching sunshine.
All of Singapore’s main eastern coastal parks are connected via paved bicycle pathways, so you could in fact ride along for literally hours in breezy calmness.
Late afternoon is the time when things get hopping, as locals head to the gigantic East Coast Lagoon Hawker Centre. A sprawling outdoor collection of food stalls and tables, you’ll be able to enjoy all of your SE Asian faves here, plus freshly caught BBQ Stingray as well. Grab an icy cold beer, find a table, and settle in for a relaxed tour of local grub. Lagoon is extremely popular, though, so either arrive before 5pm, or be ready to wait a while whilst you scout for an open table.
…and, the ½: Leave Singapore altogether.
Ok, now for the “½”, which I’m calling as such because it really doesn’t involve Singapore at all. If you really want to do this island city-state like the locals do, then consider leaving it. Yes, that’s correct. Just leave. Singaporeans are avid travellers, so weekends will find many of them taking short trips abroad to next-door-neighbour countries Malaysia or Indonesia.
Let’s focus on Indonesia here. Batam, part of the Riau archipelago, can be reached in less than thirty minutes via walk-on ferry from Singapore. (https://www.batamfast.com/home/index.ashx)
Once there, Nongsa Resorts, (http://www.nongsaresorts.com) offer a variety of restaurants, hotels, and activities such as parasailing, charter boat fishing, golf, spas, kid’s clubs…there’s just plenty of options to delight everyone in the family. Over the years we lived in Singapore, we probably ventured to Batam at least 20 times. It’s a great break that is easily booked online.
So there you have it, the best 3.5 suggestions for doing Singapore like the locals. Add “lah” to the ending of a sentence or two, you’re going to fit right in!
Sheri Marr is an American expat, living abroad for more than 30 years in Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, & New Zealand. You can learn more about her travels and experiences at http://momoffgrid.com
*Some photos from free sources.