When I first visited Singapore in October of 2015, I was more than underwhelmed. I was actively displeased.
Maybe it was being burned out at the end of five months on the road or maybe it was just that I was busy at a conference that kept me in the pricier parts of the city, but I came away with a very strong opinion:
Singapore is definitely my lease favourite of the twenty countries I’ve been to.
This isn’t the first time I’ve disliked a place on first visit. I was underwhelmed by the Grand Canyon in 2009 (but loved it in 2016) and found Shanghai a bit disappointing on my first visit (before falling in love with it on my dozen or so subsequent visits).
With that in mind, I was excited to give the country a second chance when I was contacted by somebody from Far East Hospitality about revisiting Singapore in partnership with the Village Hotel Katong.
Spoiler Alert: My first impression was so, so wrong.
Village Hotel Katong: A Lush Base of Operations
Located in the Katong district of Singapore, Village Hotel Katong seems worlds away from the built up, modern city that exists around the Marina Bay Sands while still being a short cab ride from the bustling heart of the city.
Trading in towering skyscrapers and overpriced bars for brightly coloured shotgun-style terrace housing and cute little eateries, the Katong district of Singapore is decidedly more approachable than the often intimidating noise and press of the city proper.
With large rooms (all of which have balconies), a pool with a view, a delicious on-site restaurant serving scrumptious Asian cuisine, and a private lounge for club members offering the free-flow happy hour drinks for which Singapore is famous, it’s an upmarket hotel that promotes itself as affordable luxury with a difference.
That difference? It encourages visitors to live like a local, arranging local walking tours, food crawls, and cultural experiences for its guests upon request.
Making the local culture accessible is such a fantastic idea that I’m surprised more hotels haven’t done it.
Our stay also included access to the brand’s Far More Perks package, which includes sweet benefits like late check out (we checked out at 4pm on our last day), complimentary lounge access at Changi Airport, and access to the Club Lounge for happy hour drinks and nibbles.
I enjoyed everything about our stay, but it was these ‘live like a local’ benefits that I really took the most from.
After my last trip, I’d described Singapore to one friend as being “large and soulless. Dubai in Asia”.
In a few short hours, I was proven very wrong.
The Peranakan Experience
Katong is home to Singapore’s Peranakan people. and it is their colourful culture that pervades every aspect of the area.
From the brightly coloured terrace houses to the rich aromas of exotic foods being cooked in virtually every second store, the area immediately surrounding the Village Hotel Katong is awash with energy and activity.
Guided by a locally accredited guide, we spent two warm and fascinating hours exploring the back alleys, side streets, and bustling roads of this corner of the city.
Our tour included a visit to a local bar and market where the bartender desperately needed us to test the coolness of his newly tapped keg, a few playful minutes in a newly opened puppy cafe, and a commentary on this area’s development from seaside playground to the fusion of Peranakan and Eurasian cultures that exists today.
Our tour also included a visit to Kim Choo Kueh Chang for a more hands on Peranakan experience. Part cultural museum, part boutique, part kitchen, and part classroom, this fascinating little shop was where we got the lion’s share of our information.
We started our visit with blue tea and traditional snacks while our host explains a little bit about Peranakan culture to us.
It’s not as simple as being ‘Straits born Chinese’, he explains, it’s a culture unto itself. A fusion of Chinese and Malay traditions that have further morphed as other cultures have been observed into this unique local culture.
Traditional Chinese reveres the dragon, he explains, but Peranakan culture honours the more feminine phoenix in its art.
Peranakan culture is not something you are born into as much as it is something you embrace and become a part of.
Our journey of cultural discovery also included a demonstration as to how traditional rice dumplings are made, and damned if this wasn’t more difficult than it looked!
While we struggled with the task, others watched on as they learned Peranakan bead-work or some other skill. There’s a real sense of community and creativity in the space. A cultural community centre nurturing the skills that Peranakan culture holds so dear.
A Different Kind of Singapore Experience
I think the biggest thing I took away from the experience was that Singapore is far more than just the futuristic high rises and expensive eateries at its heart – there are these corners of the city with their own personalities just waiting to be discovered.
It’s an experience that is hard to put into words, as it was something that completely changed how I viewed Singapore. Far from being this big, soulless city targeted at luxury travellers and shopping enthusiasts, I discovered a corner of Singapore that oozed culture and quirky charm.
Food in the Katong district of Singapore is considerably cheaper than what I’d found around Fort Canning or the Marina Bay Sands, with a bowl of amazing Peranakan laksa or a plate of noodles and shrimp coming in at between $4 and $6.
Like much of Singapore, it’s friendly and impeccably clean. It’s a melting pot of people from all around the world, and it’s made all the more charming because it’s accessible to every traveller – not just those who can afford $20 beers in the financial district.
Visitors to Singapore can check out the Katong district themselves and uncover no end of hidden gems, but if you’re interested in living like a local and enjoying your trip as much as I did, you can book your own stay at www.stayfareast.com
Have you ever visited an ethnic district of a major city? Whether it’s Little Armenia in LA, Chinatown in San Francisco, or the Arab District of Xi’an – I’d love to hear your recommendations!
Disclaimer: My stay with Village Hotel Katong was sponsored by Far East Hospitality. All opinions are my own.