Experience India without the teeming masses or the Delhi belly, says Australian travel writer Richard Tulloch, as he delves into Singapore’s colourful ethnic district.
A Singaporean taxi driver first brought the charms of Little India to my attention. “How is your hotel, Sir? Are you receiving satisfaction?” he asked.
I was guarded, knowing where such discussions with taxi drivers can lead. “It’s okay.” It was comfortable, though generic.
“Are you receiving a good breakfast there, Sir?”
“It’s not bad.” Cold scrambled eggs and curly bacon from the bain-marie, filter coffee, canned fruit salad, mini cereal packets.
‘Next time you are coming to Singapore, Sir, I recommend you staying in Hotel 81, Little India. Very clean, very cheap. Breakfast round the corner, very, very cheap, Sir.’
I took his advice on my next trip and it turned out very, very well. Breakfast at the 24 hour cafe round the corner was roti prata egg, a thick pancake fried with an egg inside, accompanied by dhal and a generous mug of tey tarik, Malay for ‘pull tea’, thick and sweet, poured spectacularly from jug to jug to mix condensed milk through it. Cost: 2.30 SGD (less than 2 USD) and not a mini cereal packet in sight.
Welcome to Little India. I’ve come to love it. In a city which is so modern and organised that visiting it can feel unadventurous, Little India is one district which feels exotic, lively, exciting and, well, very, very Asian.
Packed into a few streets are the smells, the colours, the turbans, the saris and dhotis, the hawkers, the religious observance, the street food and even a little squalor, rare in 21st century Singapore. Missing is the confronting poverty, the begging and the health risks many travellers to real India find challenging.
The District By Day
A half day strolling the streets will be enough to see Little India’s main markets, temples and shopping centres.
The Tekka Market is the main food outlet in the area, and Little India Arcade, the place to look for souvenirs and arts and crafts. It’s mostly junk of course, though interesting to watch the wood carvers at work on the street.
The most spectacular Hindu temple is Sri Veerakaliamman Temple in Serangoon Rd. It’s dedicated to the goddess Kali, she of the six arms, and features spectacularly gruesome statues of the goddess waving around severed heads and eating people’s intestines. I was assured the victims all deserved their fates. If that sounds a bit confronting, visitors are welcome to enter the temple, as long as they remove their shoes and behave respectfully. Discreet photography is permitted.
Shopping is Singapore’s primary sport, and in Little India the rule still applies, but the prices are much cheaper. Serangoon Road is lined with tailors, goldsmiths and phone card businesses, and it’s a good place to get a t-shirt to replace the disgusting ones you’ve been living in on the road.
The Mustafa Centre sells everything, if you can face the crowds. It was recently closed for a week due to breaching fire regulations. Be prepared to have any bags you are carrying sealed as you enter the door – nothing personal; there are shoplifters about.
Exploring By Night
Nightlife is not Little India’s forte, so better to make the focus of your evenings food. Singapore in general has brilliant cuisine, and Little India is no different, with great food at very reasonable prices. Don’t be put off by the shabby decor of the local eateries – the quality of the cuisine will make up for it and there is very little danger of being poisoned by anything you eat. Singapore’s anal (sorry) health regulations make sure everything is very hygienic. For less than $20 you can eat a really good meal. Alcohol, particularly wine, is relatively expensive, though local beer is reasonable priced.
Ananda Bhavan vegetarian restaurants serve excellent dosai meals, and their superb mango lassis (fruit and yoghurt drinks) are a must.
Meanwhile in Dunlop Street, tapas bars and smart little establishments like BarKode have sprung up near the more traditional Star Inn Cafe, where cricket and Premier League football play continuously on the overhead TV screen.
Wanderlust Hotel is as hip and quirky as Singapore ever gets. The former Chinese school (that’s a quirk already in Little India) has been converted to a boutique hotel, where interior designers with names like ‘Phunk’, ‘Asylum’ and ‘ffurious’ have been given free rein to have some fun. The lobby and bar are worth a visit for the barber’s chairs and converted shopping trolleys, and the wallpaper made from can labels.
Santa Grand Hotel Little India is not as grand as it sounds, but neither is it as expensive. Rooms are small but very clean, and breakfast is served at the Curry Restaurant next door (fear not, you don’t have to have curry, but it is Indian food only).
For penny-pinchers Little India is a well-stocked backpacker-land. The InnCrowd Hostel in Dunlop St. has dorm beds (SGD20 including breakfast), friendly staff and a nice bonus is a free kick scooter tour of the area in the afternoons.
My taxi-driver-recommended Hotel 81 Dickson was indeed basic, but as advertised it had a very, very clean bed which fitted perfectly into a very, very small room. The bathroom was not so much a bathroom as a shower cubicle with a toilet inside. A word of advice to beginners – use the toilet before you shower if you prefer a dry seat. (Update it appears to be closed now!).
Charlotte Chu runs private walking tours of Little India for individuals and small groups. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Whilst group walking tours (not tested by your correspondent) of Little India held every Wednesday organised by Journeys.com.sg. And of course, don’t forget to check out Urban Travel Blog’s guide to Singapore for our take on the rest of the city!