Chinatown in Singapore: Museums, Temples and Cheap Souvenirs

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We stepped out of the MRT station on to Pagoda Street, right in the centre of Chinatown in Singapore. This pedestrianised street is lined with souvenir shops in the ground floor of colonial buildings. The atmosphere is instantly different to other parts of Singapore I have visited, touristy, yes but in a fun way.

Pagoda Street

Pagoda Street

Despite having visited Singapore several times, I had never been to Chinatown. Perhaps I assumed it would be the same as the Chinatowns in other cities around the world, and of course there are similarities. However, Chinatown in Singapore has a great atmosphere and is a fun place for wandering around, browsing for very cheap and tacky Singapore souvenirs, and cultural tourism.

Chinatown Heritage Centre

A little way down Pagoda Street is the Chinatown Heritage Centre. This museum, set in two adjoining colonial buildings, tells the history of Chinese people in Singapore, from the hardships endured by the first immigrants to the success stories of Singapore’s Chinese business people. Combining personal biographies with historical reconstructions of living conditions it was fascinating to think that we were standing in the very area being described.

I learnt a lot about Chinese culture in Singapore, from clan names and their significance to Chinese foods and festivals. The authentic reconstructions of cubicle living and shophouses also reminded me that in other parts of the world, people still live in these conditions, that here in Singapore can be shown as a museum’s historical exhibit.

Me in a historical kitchen reconstruction

Me in a historical kitchen reconstruction, but outside Singapore this is not so different to the kitchens people use every day.

At S$10 per adult the Chinatown Heritage Centre is not cheap but we felt it was worth the ticket price.

Perfect for a Wander

Walking back out on to Pagoda Street the old buildings around us had a new significance thanks to what we had learnt at the museum. We wandered around for a while and came upon a public dance aerobics session with people of all ages joining in.

Food stalls and endless souvenir shops continued to line our path, and there were a fair number of Chinese medicine shops selling remedies for everything as well as traditional Chinese teas.

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

Although I don’t know much about Buddhism, I had been intrigued by this temple since I first heard its name, and as we approached from a side street, passing table upon table piled high with offerings, we knew we would see something special. In my brief temple-visiting experience, the peaceful but friendly atmosphere is a welcome retreat from a bustling cityscape.

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

Fortunately we were not wearing very short shorts or hats and so we were allowed to enter the temple. Chinese Buddhists were arriving for a ceremony, mingling with tourists like us. We walked around the sides, where thousands of Buddhas are displayed. Information about the displays is given in English as well as Chinese.

We learnt about the Imperial Life Protectors who protect followers according to the animal of the year of birth. For example, I was born in the year of the pig so mine is Amitabha Buddha. Followers can pay to consecrate their Imperial Life Protector.

Upstairs in the Temple

We went upstairs to the top floor where we saw the Buddha Tooth Relic, which the temple is named after, along with many other Buddhas. To enter this room we slipped off our shoes. Platforms on either side were reserved for meditation and there were some people meditating, despite the tourists coming to see the relic.

Climbing the last flight of stairs we came out at the roof garden, a square with lush, green plants and in the centre, a prayer wheel. We watched the people in front of us walk round, pulling the prayer wheel until it had rung three times, and we did the same.

Buddhist Prayer Wheel

Buddhist Prayer Wheel

A Buddhist Ceremony

There are more floors in the temple, between the ground floor and the tooth relic, but it was closing time. We made our way back down to the ground floor and were just in time to watch a ceremony taking place in the front courtyard.

Buddhist monks chanted and played percussion instruments and the congregation, wearing black robes, joined in at certain point. The rich aroma of incense filled the air.

Temple Ceremony

Temple Ceremony

Heritage and Religion of Chinatown

The combination of visiting the Chinatown Heritage Centre and the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple, although the most touristic places of Chinatown in Singapore, really gave a flavour of the area, showing us the history and religion of the area.

Wandering around the narrow streets and alleyways gave us a taste of modern Chinatown in Singapore, and now we know where to go for cheap souvenirs!

South Sulawesi in Pictures 6: Stilt Houses

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One of the elements of the South Sulawesi landscape that really caught my eye were the houses and their architecture, from the curved rooftops of Torajan traditional homes to the stilt houses that line the road around Bira on the … Continue reading

Bira Beach (Pantai Bira): White Sand Spoilt by Litter

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A friend’s opinion that Bira was the most beautiful beach in Indonesia secured my decision to visit as the endpoint of my South Sulawesi trip, which had taken me north to Tana Toraja and to the city of Makassar.

Bira Beach, a few hours drive from Makassar, has become one of South Sulawesi’s most popular traveller haunts, with domestic and international tourists coming to enjoy the powdery white sands and crystal clear waters.

White sand at Bira BeachTourism = Litter

Unfortunately, as happens in many places that become tourism’s new best friend, the main part of the beach, where the road finishes abruptly at the seashore, was covered in litter. Plastic bags, food and drink containers and other random objects had been churned up by the waves and dumped on the beach, and the situation did not change during our three-night stay.

Rubbish on the beachYes, the sand is some of the most powdery soft white sand I have ever set foot on, but the need to constantly watch my step to avoid treading on broken glass rather spoilt the moment.

The sign on the right tells people to keep the beach clean. Beside it is a pile of litter.

The sign on the right tells people to keep the beach clean. Beside it is a pile of litter.

A Changeable Sea

On our first day the sea was relatively calm; people buzzed back and forth on banana boats dragged by speedboats. Other boats anchored near the beach, with passengers from nearby islands alighting. I swam in the sea, and as long as I avoided the boats, it was pleasant for swimming.

On day two, however, the waves were bigger and it was impossible to do proper swimming. Sunsets along the beach were beautiful, but not of the sun-dropping-into-the-ocean type.

I found that walking further along the beach, away from the hubbub of Bira with its souvenir stalls and rubber ring hire shops, led me to cleaner sand with fewer people, and I swam there on day three.

Not a Peaceful Idyll

So, Bira is definitely not the peaceful idyll that some guidebooks and people would have you believe. It’s a small but bustling tourist place, with plenty of places to stay and eat, and lots of shops to buy your Sulawesi t-shirts.

With this kind of under-planned tourism, where places just sprout up to cope with demand, there is often a lack of thought for keeping an area clean and pleasant. I hope that this issue will be addressed by the local businesses who rely on a steady stream of beach-going visitors. And for the time being, I suggest avoiding Bira – there are plenty of better beaches in Indonesia (here’s one example).