Live Like the Locals in Singapore

One of my favorite parts about traveling is having the opportunity to experience how other people live. Sure, seeing the sites, shopping and zoos are fun, and I enjoy them as much as the next girl or guy (actually, probably more). But what I really fancy doing when I visit a foreign country is to frequent the places the locals go. Eat the where the locals eat.  And stay where the locals stay.

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I recently went to Singapore, and while most people I know like to stay downtown, I opted to stay in a residential neighborhood about 15 minutes away by taxi. Staying downtown is great. It’s close to loads of fantastic restaurants, museums, and parks. There’s so much to do in that area. But it’s not where most of the natives live. So instead of staying among the sparkling lights, tourists and the hustle and bustle of downtown, I chose to stay in the beautiful, historic Katong district.

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I did little research and learned that Katong has all the conveniences of being downtown (plenty of shops, restaurants, bars, etc.), but with a completely different vibe. It’s more low-key and less touristy, but also very cool and hip. It’s primarily a residential area, and the Joo Chiat neighborhood is in walking distance. To be clear, there are a few hotels in the district, so it’s not completely tourist-free.

Katong has a very distinct look and feel. And if I’m being honest, it’s like nothing I would have imagined seeing in Singapore. The architecture is not like any place else in the city. It reminded me a little of the row houses in New Orleans. The buildings are made of cement (I’m pretty sure); some are colorful and most have ornate details and arches.

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The reason Katong is so unique is that it’s where the Peranakans (natives mixed with local and Chinese ancestry) and Eurasians originally settled. And their cultures still remain in Katong today. From the buildings to the clothes to the food, this district has things you won’t find in any other part of Singapore. Also, it’s a quiet, relaxing place to come back to after spending hours walking, sweating and sight-seeing in the city.

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We stayed at the Hotel Indigo, and it is fabulous. The rooms are a very nice size, the hotel is new and modern, and there’s an infinity pool on the roof with an amazing view. The decor is stunning; from the furniture to the tiles to the art, it’s all beautiful and unique. The hotel also features a 24-hour fitness center, a business center, free Wi-Fi and same-day dry cleaning. Unfortunately, it does not have a self-laundry facility. The hotel restaurant, Baba Chews, is another perk. The breakfast is incredible! I devoured my morning meal there almost every day I was in Singapore and was always immensely satisfied. I also stopped by every evening for a nightcap (to two). The bartender never disappointed. I happily slurped many slightly-overpriced cocktails with a Katong-twist (to be fair, alcohol in Singapore is pretty expensive anywhere you go). My favorite amenity Hotel Indigo offers is the Handy. While a lot of travelers nowadays opt to purchase portable Wi-Fis or pre-paid sim cards, if you stay at this hotel, you won’t need to. The Handy is a smart-phone you can use during your stay; you can make unlimited local calls and have unlimited access to the internet. It even has several popular apps already installed. Additionally, it has tons of information and suggestions on Katong and Singapore.

My Top Five

While Katong isn’t a place you’ll need days to explore, it does have a lot to offer. Below are my five favorite things about this neighborhood.

1.  Laksa

With Peranakan culture comes laksa; a spicy noodle soup (and also my new favorite food). While you can find laksa all over Singapore (especially at the hawkers), Katong has its own version and it is insanely tasty. I really loved 328 Katong Laksa the best. The broth is a pretty orange-sherbet color and has what tastes like a shrimp and coconut milk base. It’s spicy, but not too spicy (they give you extra spice if you want more). The noodles are rice noodles (I think) and they’re cut in short strands, which I really like. And the soup has a pretty good amount of prawns. If you’re allergic to shellfish, or just don’t like them, this isn’t the dish for you. But if you do, you’ll be in heaven. I also tried their crabmeat steamed buns, which were super good also. I recommend grabbing a large lime juice with your meal. It goes perfectly with the soup and is tart and refreshing (ideal for those hot, humid days). Honestly, I can drink it all day, every day. It’s that good.

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2.  Shophouses

Koon Seng Road (between Pulasan Road and Rambai Road) houses some of the prettiest shophouses I’ve ever seen. They are vibrant and elegant. The two-story shops are historic and very popular. There were quite a few people taking pictures when I got there. While there are lovely shophouses all over the Joo Chiat and Katong neighborhoods, but these… they’re special. Definitely, something to see.

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3.  Sri Senpaga Vibayagar Temple

I’m a huge fan of temples, shrines, and churches. The architecture and design fascinate me. Katong and Joo Chiat contain a few temples you can visit. However, the Sri Senpaga Vinayaga Temple is by far my favorite. It’s a Hindu temple for the god Ganesha, and it dates back to the 1850s. Its architecture boasts features of the Chola style, and its entrance tower is one of the tallest in Singapore. The temple is a historic site, and while tourists are welcome, I didn’t see any during my visit. Only worshippers. This made my experience feel that much more authentic. The Sri Senpaga Vinayaga Temple is definitely worth a visit.

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4.  Heavenly Wang

No! Not in the dirty way! Katong is home to many (and I mean MANY) restaurants, bakeries, bars, and cafes. And one thing I discovered I LOOOOOOOVE during my trip is Singaporean coffee, or kopi as they call it. It is more than good. It’s AMAZING! I didn’t have a single cup that I didn’t enjoy. But it was especially good at Heavenly Wang. Kopi is made differently than it is the U.S. or even Europe. It’s brewed not the stove in a tall pot with a long spout; inside it, there’s a cloth sack that infuses the coffee. It’s served a variety of ways, but my favorite is with sweetened condensed milk (known as just kopi). It makes the coffee sweet and velvety. I also tried the traditional Singaporean breakfast of soft-boiled eggs, toast (I chose the peanut butter toast; I hate regular butter) there; it’s also really good. Honestly, if coffee isn’t your thing, Katong has such an amazing variety of pubs, bars, and restaurants. You’ll surely find something you absolutely love.

 

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5.  Souvenir Shopping

So to be completely honest, I’m not a huge fan of stuff. In the last few years, I’ve become less interested in buying things (especially things that don’t serve a purpose) and more interested in the experience. So doing things. Going places… that’s more my thing. But I do enjoy window shopping, especially for things that I can’t possibly get anywhere else. I love checking out souvenir shops. And no, I don’t mean the cheap, made-in-China magnets and t-shirts. I’m talking about woodwork, hand-beaded shoes and original textiles that are considered traditional in the places I visit. Katong has some fantastic souvenir shops with authentic Peranakan dresses, ceramics, and snacks (my favorite kind of souvenir).

 

 

 

A Forest in the Clouds

 

Wouldn’t it be wondrous to explore a forest in the clouds? Well, you can. Sort of. Cloud forests exist in humid tropical and sub-tropical areas that have persistent low-level clouds. There are only a few places in the world where you can experience them. In Singapore, the Cloud Forest at Gardens by the Bay is inside a glass dome. They’ve created an environment that mirrors what you would encounter if you were high in the mountains of the tropics, in the middle of the city.

 

As soon as you walk through the doors, the cold air and heavy mist make you feel like you’ve been transported to a different part of the Earth. Right in front of you, a mountain and the world’s tallest indoor waterfall (man-made, of course). It’s green and cold and beautiful. Inside the dome, you’ll find a huge variety of plant-life. Flowers and greenery line the path to the elevator that takes you to the top of the mountain. The line was a little long, and the dome a little crowded, which made getting a closer look at some things difficult (patience is key).

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At the top of the mountain, there’s a stunning garden that reminded me of the movie Fern Gully (minus the fairy). It’s covered with flowers and moss, with a pond in the center. This is a very popular photo spot, so you’ll have to fight your way to edge for a picture if you want one. From there, you’ll begin your descent to the bottom through these incredible skyways that circle outside the mountain. The views are marvelous. Not only do you get to see the beauty of the plant-life on the sides of the mountain, but you get a complete view of the city through the dome’s glass. Pictures don’t do it justice. And even on a cloudy day, it’s breathtaking.

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Inside the middle of the mountain, there’s a smallish mineral cave that displays a number of crystal formations. There’s also a video that shows how climate change and an increase in temperature could affect cloud forests and similar environments in the future.

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Cloud Forest at Gardens by the Bay was a very fun place to visit. If you like nature and gardens, you won’t regret going. Adult tickets will cost you $28 (Singaporean dollars). Totally worth it!