Kampong Glam is the toy town neighbourhood on the northern side of Singapore River, in the planning area of Rochor. The word 'Kampong' in the Malay language means a compound area, and 'Glam' probably comes from the long-leaved paperbark trees that are native to this place. As you take a walk down the streets, the one thing that predominates over everything else is the vibrancy of colours. They are everywhere and in every shade - yellow, pink, white, blue - you name it, you have it. Up close, Kampong Glam looks like someone has carefully organised everything like they were painting a pretty picture.
The place, however, was not always like this. Back in the colonial days, the Raffles Plan of the British Company had Singapore divided into several districts by ethnicity. This part went to the Sultan of Johor and some of the Arab and Malay communities. Many of the residing families turned out to be merchants, and they ended up making this region a bustling hub of trade.
By the early twentieth century, Kampong Glam was not only for the Arabs and Malays but Indians and Chinese as well. Soon, like Little India and Chinatown, Kampong Glam too was refurbished and restored to its current glory. The shops were rebuilt and painted, streets were made, plants were potted, and textile shops, jewellers, art and curio shops, restaurants, cafes, bakeries popped up one after the other.
The centre of spirituality and knowledge
Because of its Islam-dominant past, Kampong Glam is still referred to as the Muslim Quarter occasionally. Quite a few areas of the neighbourhood, especially Bussorah Street and Kandahar Street still hold on to that vibe. At the centre is the Masjid Sultan Mosque with its colossal dome and the four quintessential minarets, towering above the neighbourhood.
Inside in the prayer hall, there is an extensive carpet in red and white, donated by the Prince of Saudi Arabia. The white and green walls reflect the luminescence of the chandeliers, making the mosque a true centre of spirituality.
As for knowledge, the Malay Heritage Centre is also situated right here, with nine galleries worth of displays about the history, culture, custom, traditions and the demographical evolution of Singapore. Before getting busy with shopping, eating and drinking, a thorough visit to this place will give you an idea about not just the Kampong Glam neighbourhood, but the entire country.
The urban thoroughfare
Lined up along the chock-a-blocked boulevards are colourful shop houses, one vibrant colour after another. Hidden behind these colourful façade of these doors is every shopper's paradise. Bussorah Street and Kandahar Street are the most traded avenues for shoppers. Garments, jewellery, antique art and craft, curio items, Persian carpets, handmade perfumes, wall and home décor - the streets of Kampong Glam are like the genie in a bottle. And even more than the commodities, the interior and exterior decorations of the shops will blow your mind.
The Lane of Art
The best part of urban Kampong Glam, with the most offbeat shopping scene, hides in the narrow street of Haji Lane. This part of the neighbourhood is an absolute gem of exploration. Vintage boutiques, quirky label shops, international bars with live music, street-side café - Haji Lane has got an entirely different and euphoric ambience going on.
The lane is best known for the bursts of colours all over the walls of houses and shops. The bottom half of most buildings are spray painted with the brightest of colours and transformed into lovely creations that make for great backgrounds for a photoshoot session. Blue and yellow abstract art on the red wall, blue windows and green plants on orange walls, red doors, pink windows, giant portraits - you will not be able to tear your eyes off from the artistic display so much at large.
Take a few turns, and you will end up in Jalang Pisang and Jalan Klapa proudly boasting wall art installations of Lithuanian born Malay artist Ernest Zacharevic. The creativity in the art forms will leave you mesmerised.
Satiating the taste buds
The cuisine of Kampong Glam is a whole other entity in itself. Middle-eastern flavours like Lebanese, Egyptian and Turkish are the traditionally available ones here, mostly in Arab Street. The more conventional eateries are Halal, so they do not entertain alcohol consumption. However, there are enough places to smoke up a shisha after dinner with kebabs or the famous platter of Nasi Padang.
The new age neon-lit places have a different theme. In the places like Blu Jaz Café or Piedro Nagra, servings revolve around new cuisines like Mexican and American with beer and boutique cocktails, thus adding a bit of spice to the nightlife of Kampong Glam.
Many veteran travellers often give this quaint neighbourhood in Singapore a miss. Albeit there are not many attractions to rest your eyes upon, the experience of walking the streets of Kampong Glam is an experience in itself.