If you are looking for an authentic cultural experience away from the spanking retail stretch of Orchard Road, then Kampong Glam is as authentic as it gets.
Amid the brand new casinos and high-end malls that Singapore has to offer, Kampong Glam is a rare find as the essence of the place is wonderfully bohemian, yet is steeped in Islamic culture and history.
The first thing that strikes tourists when they step into Kampong Glam is the grand old Sultan Mosque which cuts an imposing figure along the busy stretch of North Bridge Road. The blaring of prayer calls or ‘azan’ coming out from the mosque’s speakers, gives an added mystique to Kampong Glam, which has helped draw locals and tourists alike.
Of late, however, the whole stretch of Bussorah Street has become even more vibrant, especially, ever since the authorities paved and landscaped one side of the street nearer to the mosque. Here, you can find a backpackers’ lodge, bars, shisha cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops, perfumeries and coffeeshops. However, if you really want to experience Kampong Glam at its best, you should pay a visit during the holy month of Ramadan. During this time, the entire Kampong Glam vicinity comes to life with night bazaars selling affordable yet delicious Malay and Middle Eastern fares as well as colourful streetlights dotting the whole area.
The name Kampong Glam is derived from two Malay words. Kampong means “village” while Glam refers to a variety of eucalyptus trees which used to grow in the area. Kampong Glam was once home to Singapore’s Malay aristocracy, Sultan Hussein Shah of Johor, his family and followers. It was also home to the Malays and Arabs, many of whom were merchants. Sir Stamford Raffles, founder of modern Singapore, allotted land amounting to a total of 56 acres to the Sultan after the he signed a treaty ceding Singapore to the British Crown. The Sultan, however, never resided there as he died in Malacca in 1835.
In 1840, his eldest son, Tengku Mohammed Ali Iskander Shah, came to Singapore to claim his father’s estate. In the same year, he built his official residence, Istana Kampong Glam, at the Sultan Gate. In 1989, Kampong Glam was gazetted as a conservation area by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA). Today, Istana Kampong Glam is home to the Malay Heritage Museum where you can find out more about the history behind Singapore’s ethnic Malay community.
Kampong Glam backpacker central
Kampong Glam is located close to where all the action is. Budget conscious travellers love this place for its cultural richness and history yet is within walking distance to the city. Here, you can take a tour at the Sultan Mosque, go to the Malay Heritage and Children Little Museum or do some bargain hunting for carpets and fabrics.
Kampong Glam is also within walking distance to shopping malls like Bugis Junction and Illumina. Travelling to the rest of the city is also hassle-free as you can just hop on the MRT train network at Bugis MRT station which instantly connects you to the rest of Singapore.
Kampong Glam entertainment
Prior to 2001, Kampong Glam was a ghost town by night save for the month of Ramadan. All that changed when Dr Ameen Taleeb opened Café le Caire in 2001 which offers shishas, snacks and Middle Eastern food. Dr Taleeb, who is currently the chairman of the Kampong Glam Business Association (KGBA), was credited by the area’s business community for injecting vibrancy into the area. Since then, other similar bars have begun sprouting in the area. Customers are now spoilt for choice due to the different shisha bars that have recently opened.
Haji Lane is a bohemian stretch equivalent to what you find in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury area. The shophouses along the stretch has colourful graffiti paintings that house independent record stores, interior design firm, vintage clothing stores, artsy cafes, shisha bars, independent fashion labels, tattoo parlours and trinket stores. On weekends, the whole stretch comes to life with street performances like fire twirlers. Occasionally, you get dance music events and flea markets.
There’s a chill out café here called Going Om’ which is a hit with both locals and tourists. Taking influences from the Hindu religion and scriptures, this cafe serves one of the best shisha (albeit more expensive) in the vicinity using Iranian tobacco. Over at Bussorah Street, you can enjoy a cold beer at Sleepy Sam’s, go for a walk in tour at Sultan Mosque or hop on to the Children Little Museum.
Shopping in Kampong Glam
Arab Street has always been a haven for textiles and carpets where tourists and locals can always be seen bargain hunting. You can find every fabric imaginable here as well as some of the most intricate Persian carpets. There are also Muslim operated shops selling religious paraphernalias. If you fancy shopping for edgy clothes, there are several stores along the Haji Lane stretch offering vintage clothes to independent local designers. There are also souvenir shops and perfumeries along Bussorah Street.
Kampong Glam dining
Zam Zam Restaurant, located along North Bridge Road, serves one of the best boneless chicken murtabak in town. This Indian Muslim restaurant has been around for more than a century and is a favourite dining location for locals and tourists. It is usually packed during lunch hour. The paved side of Bussorah Street comes to life when night falls with alfresco dining areas where you can feast on Malay and Middle Eastern cuisines from the various dining establishments.
A popular eatery here is Kampong Glam Café, which is located at the junction of Baghdad Street and Bussorah Street. Here, you can find Malay cuisines at affordable prices. The unpaved stretch of Bussorah Street offers plenty of fine dining options serving Middle Eastern fares and shishas.
Getting to Kampong Glam
Kampong Glam is easily accessible due to Singapore’s excellent transport network. From Changi International Airport, you can simple take the MRT train service down to Bugis MRT station and then take a five minutes walk to Kampong Glam. Taking a cab down will set you back at least by SGD$20.
There is a travel agency along the unpaved side of Bussorah Street where you can arrange your tourist itinerary to other parts of Asia. If you intend to travel to Malaysia, you can simply hop on to the various bus coaches that depart from Golden Landmark Complex and Golden Mile Complex every hour.
Sleeping in Kampong Glam
Budget conscious travellers love Bussorah Street as it offers them direct vantage point of the Sultan Mosque when they bunk it at Sleepy Sam’s. Sleepy Sam’s is the only backpackers’ lodge in Kampong Glam. It is located just a few footsteps away from the Sultan Mosque and the various dining establishments to cater to all kinds of budgets.
In the afternoons, you can see backpackers enjoying a cold beer at Sleepy Sam’s bar downstairs before heading for a walk in tour at the Sultan Mosque or buying souvenirs at the various shops along the stretch. Rooms here start at SGD$28 per night depending on the type. There is also a 7-11 store just opposite Sleepy Sam’s.