We all know the well-marketed version of Singapore filled with glossy malls brimming with luxury brands but step outside the malls and the tourist traps of Orchard Road and you'll find a very different Singapore. A more soulful city in touch with its past and a respect for the finer yet simpler things in life.
Situated just off Beach Road you'll find Arab Street and Haji Lane. It could be the smaller, less grungy cousin of London’s Brixton.
On the first floor of an unassuming shop house, Bar Stories is a cocktail bar without a menu: just walk in, sit down and let the mixologists quiz you until they have your measure. Sweet or sour? Gin or Vodka... or Rum? Some of the creations are truly original. One cocktail comes out with a sprig of rosemary on fire. Bravo, they should call it the ‘Burning Bush’ – very biblical.
The darkly austere LongPlay is a bar for the true audiophile. Featuring a high quality (though not disturbingly loud) sound system they regularly play vinyl from their 3000+ LP collection. Sitting down with a glorious 17 year-old Hibiki in hand I heard everything from Muddy Waters to KISS through the course of an evening.
The mix of people is as varied as the mix of music. At one point the bar breaks into a verse from All Along The Watchtower and while the singing talent is a mixed bag, the euphoric mood is undeniable.
Walk down Haji Lane and you'll see an almost perfect street scene: buskers play acoustic ditties that add to a feeling of conviviality, small cafes serve earthy, rich coffee made by 20 somethings with complex hair cuts and yes more bars.
Traditional Singaporean shop houses squeeze in side-by-side, painted in bright pinks, greens and blues. You’ll find Middle Eastern eateries aplenty, along with bijoux clothing, jewellery and trinket stores. It's also one of the few places in Singapore you'll see the grit and expression of street art.
Running parallel to Haji Lane, Arab Street is the main destination for many of Singapore's Muslim women to buy high-end finery. Fabric shops light up the street in hues of gold, orange and red, reminiscent of Middle Eastern souks.
At sunset the muezzin calls people to prayer in the nearby Sultan Mosque, the song vibrating across the entire precinct. With so much Middle Eastern and Islamic influence surrounding you, it feels like you've left Singapore behind and teleported to downtown Cairo or Sultanahmet in Istanbul. The hunger-inducing smells of grilled meats and fresh pide bread chase you as you walk past Turkish and Lebanese restaurants.
Arab Street and Haji Lane offer up a candid side of Singapore that says more about the city-state’s character than the same-same bling along the main thoroughfares. For the visitor, the grit and old-Singapore charm thriving in the shadows of the skyscrapers will be a welcome change of place.
Getting there: Catch a taxi (they're cheap) or catch the MRT to Bugis and cross the road to Haji Lane, it's hard to miss.)