A common lament among locals is that ‘there’s nothing to do in Singapore. I beg to differ. You don’t even need to dig deep or wander far. It is not just a shoppers’ paradise or a playground of tourist attractions. If you just look around the corner, there is an eclectic mix of sights and sounds that showcases the real Singapore.
Our journey begins just before midnight. When most people are getting ready for bed, an entire industry comes to life at several wholesale markets across the island.
There are the two fishery ports at the western and northern ends of Singapore in Jurong and Senoko that come to life with wholesale auctions between 2am to 4am. Between them, they handle about 250 tons of fish per day. Though not strictly opened to public, anyone with a valid ID can enter to watch the auctions. Unlike the famous Tsukiji market in Tokyo where everything is orderly and clean, this is your traditional fish market with an organized chaos of fish spread all over the floor. A good pair of water-resistant footwear and a high tolerance of fish scents is well-advised.
If you do not have a nose for fish, then there is the sprawling 15.4 hectares vegetables and fruits wholesale centre at Pasir Panjang located at the southern end of Singapore to explore. Opened 24 hours and operational all year round (except on the 1st day of the Lunar New Year), it is Singapore’s main distribution centre for a wide variety of exotic and fresh imported fruits and vegetables. Like the fisheries, the busiest period is between 2am-4am when the auctions are held. There are also many wholesale retail shops here that remain open till late into the afternoon where you can get bargains for organic produce and dried goods.
Yet perhaps the most interesting wholesale market is the one located right in the middle of the island in Toa Payoh, one of the oldest public housing estates in Singapore. Toa Payoh literally means ‘big swamp’ in the local Chinese Hokkien dialect as it was once an extensive squatter district. Just after midnight, truckloads of fresh greens arrive from neighboring Malaysia. The open-air street market along Toa Payoh East operates in almost clandestine semi-darkness as many food and restaurant operators make their purchases at bulk prices.
Feeling puckish after the pre-dawn wholesale adventures? Toa Payoh is also the perfect place to have breakfast in the heartlands. None more so than the Market and Food Centre located at Block 127 Toa Payoh Lorong 1, which was built in the 1970s. On the ground floor is the wet market where the goods from the wholesale markets end up in the shopping baskets of everyday housewives. On the second level is one of the best local food centres around. When it comes to food, Singaporeans will travel any distance. So it’s no surprise to find people from near and far, coming to savour some of the best local delights this food centre has to offer. Fried carrot cake. Traditional Teochew Steamed Buns. Fish Soup. Fried Prawn Noodles. Just to name a few.
From Toa Payoh, we head north to Lim Chu Kang – the last vestige of agriculture in Singapore. Back in the 60s, this largely rural district had numerous vegetable, fruit, poultry, and pig farms. Today, scarcity of agricultural land in Singapore has seen them modernised using science and technology. Here, you can visit a frog farm, numerous fish and vegetable farms and even a goat dairy. Also located in Lim Chu Kang is the recently expanded Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve. Singapore’s first ASEAN Heritage Park functions as an important education, research and recreation park to encourage the appreciation of the beauty and diversity of wildlife.
Instead of visiting the poultry farms in the North, why not have lunch at a former chicken farm. Tucked away in a corner of Clementi, between an army camp and a university campus, is Union Farm Eating House. Paper wrapped chicken is a popular dish in these parts. However, not many people know that it was invented by Union Farm back in the 50s when they were actually still rearing chickens. Best of all, it is one of the few places in urban Singapore to enjoy a meal in a kampung (traditional village) setting.
Singapore is not just a city of glass skyscrapers. There are many nature parks worth visiting. One of the best trails suited for the active takes you across the Southern Ridges which consists of 9 kilometres of flora from West Coast Park to Harbourfront (about 2½ hours). For those less hardy, there is also a more palatable version to stomach. Beginning at the Hortpark, you can transverse the Alexandra Arch across to the Forest Walk near Telok Blangah Hill Park. From there, there is the magnificent 36m high, 274m long Henderson Waves that leads you to Mount Faber. At Mount Faber, you can enjoy a well-deserved breather and a scenic round trip ride on the world’s first glass bottom cable car. It offers panoramic views of Singapore’s increasingly dense business district and the island resort of Sentosa.
This is Singapore after all, so one must experience its new ‘Wall Street’ – the Marina Bay financial district. Getting its inspiration from London’s Canary Wharf and Shanghai’s Pudong Financial District, it is a seamless extension of the existing business district to cement Singapore’s position as a major business and financial hub in Asia. At its heart is the Marina Bay Financial Centre (MBFC), a mixed-use development consisting of office and residential towers, and retail space. While visitors to Wall Street poses with its famous bull, MBFC has its own pair of water buffaloes symbolising the industriousness of Asian culture. These buffaloes have travelled a long way from the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in UK where they stood for over two decades.
If the allure of shopping is just too much to resist, then head over to the Ion Orchard, one of the newest malls along Singapore’s premier shopping street – Orchard Road. While there, head to its Ion Sky Observatory on the 56th floor. It offers stunning 360o views of Singapore be it rain or shine, day or night. And best of all, it is free.
Around the corner from the swanky shopping haven hides one of its best kept secrets. For over a decade now, the Cuscaden Patio bar serves the cheapest beer and best chicken wings you can find in Singapore. A perfect respite from the hectic shopping you will no doubt be doing lots of. And for the adventurous, there is also the infamous alternative Orchard experience located across the road at Orchard Towers. A retail and office building in the day, by night it transforms into 4 floors of bars and pubs offering exotic entertainment.
If you are up for more of the alternative, you can head to the central eastern district of Geylang. The combination of traditional shop houses, foreign worker enclaves, nightclubs and regulated red-light district provides an experience you cannot find on the rest of the island. Geylang is not just about the world’s oldest profession. It is also popular among locals as a food paradise where all kinds of street food from all ethnicities can be found in shop house eateries and restaurants, late into the night.
As this 24-hour kaleidoscope draws to a close, our journey ends fittingly at Singapore’s only 24-hour department store located in the Little India district – Mustafa Centre. It is the heart and soul of the area and is not just popular with the Indian community. Prices are reasonable and there is nothing you cannot find here. It is also home to the only 24-hour pharmacy on the island.
There is no doubt that there is a lot more of Singapore to be experienced. But as you can see, there is already plenty to see, do and get lost in these 24 hours of the real Singapore.
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