Little India is, as the name promises, the centre for the large Indian community in Singapore. While a rather sanitized version of the real thing, Little India retains its distinct identity without degenerating into a mere tourist attraction and is one of the most colourful and attractive places to visit in Singapore.
The North-East MRT line's Little India and Farrer Park stations, near Serangoon Road, are convenient entry points into the area. Bugis station on the East-West line is also within walking distance (see Bugis). The new Downtown line stops at Little India and Rochor.
Getting taxis in Little India can be difficult, especially at weekends. It's best to either book by phone or head to the major roads on the edges to flag one down.
Little India's main drag is Serangoon Road, which starts at Rochor Canal Rd and continues northward to Serangoon itself. The action is tightly concentrated a few blocks on either side of the road, and can be easily covered on foot.
Little India's primary attraction is the district itself. Here too you can find the gaily painted shophouses that are an icon of Singapore, but now most of the Chinese signs (almost) disappear to be replaced with Tamil, Hindi, Bengali and other Indian scripts. Stores hawk saris and gold bangles, spices and incense waft in from the doorways and Bollywood's latest soundtracks blare from every other alleyway.
- Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple, 141 Serangoon Rd. Little India's busiest and oldest temple, dating back to 1881 — although the present structure was completed in 1986. The temple is particularly busy on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Be sure to take your shoes off before venturing inside. Free.
The most extreme thing to do in Little India is to join the festival of Thaipusam, held yearly during the full moon in the lunar month of Thai (usually Jan/Feb). Male devotees attach ornate shrines to their flesh with piercing hooks known as kavadi and walk across town in a day-long procession. Female devotees usually just carry a pot of milk on their head and join the procession. The procession starts from Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road and proceeds to the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple at Tank Road.
Around Deepavali, the Hindu festival of light, Serangoon Road is festively decorated (with lights, of course!) and open-air markets are set up to sell Deepavali goodies. Like Thaipusam, the exact date is set by the lunar calendar, but it takes place in October/November and is a public holiday. Near the beginning of Deepavali, the fire-walking festival of Thimithi is held, in which many male devotees walk across a platform of burning coal. Although the actual fire-walking takes place at the Sri Mariammam temple in Chinatown, the procession starts at the Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple in Serangoon Road and makes its way to Chinatown early in the morning where the fire-walking commences.
A more low-key event happens every Sunday evening when a half-million workers from the subcontinent throng the streets of Little India to hang out on their day off. Most of the crowd is friendly enough, but inevitably a few get into drunken fights and there's a heavy police presence about to keep an eye on things.
The central streets of Little India are packed with stalls selling all sorts of Indian goods. Two giant shopping centres, however, are unique not just in Little India but all of Singapore:
- Tekka Market (Tekka Centre), 665 Buffalo Road. Little India is a cacophony of car horns, bicycle bells and the vibrant chatter of its residents. This explosion of sights, smells and sounds in Tekka Market is only a short walk from Little India MRT Station. Tekka (as it is locally known), has a plethora of stalls selling Indian, Malay and Chinese food that draws crowds from all over Singapore. There’s also a wet market stocked with the freshest vegetables, meat, fish, spices and flowers. Also available are souvenirs such as brass oil lamps and pots, or fresh garlands of jasmine, whose scent is signature aroma of Little India.
- The Verge Shopping Mall (formerly Tekka Mall), 2 Serangoon Road (junction of Serangoon Road and Sungei Road near Rochor MRT), ☎ +65 6307 6761. 1000-2200 hrs. Little India's first and only modern air-conditioned shopping mall. In the process of being re-branded as the IT-oriented The Verge in a bid to compete with Sim Lim, just around the corner. Sheng Siong hypermarket occupies the 2 basement levels of the mall and there are travel agencies on the first and second floor. The ground floor houses ethnic Indian wear, F&B outlets and services. The fifth floor houses a collection of craft and florist shops. The retail shops are complemented with service providers. The mix of tenants ensures that there is something for everyone at The Verge. The adjoining block Chill @ The Verge is largely occupied by nightclub entertainment, a tattoo shop on the ground level and parking facilities on levels 3 to 7. The new Rochor MRT Station has an exit located next to Chill @ The Verge, which enhances its convenience.
- Mustafa Centre, 145 Syed Alwi Road (off Serangoon Rood near Farrer Park MRT), ☎ +65 6295 5855. 24 hrs. Singapore's supreme discount department store: floor after floor of absolutely everything at what some say are rock-bottom prices, ranging from Rolex watches and washing machines to fresh mangoes, bags of lentils, tailored suits and airline tickets. Open 24 hours; the exchange counters in front are probably the best place in Singapore to exchange any currency you can think of (and many you can't) at competitive rates. Mustafa Centre also offers travel, hotel reservation and visa assistance services. There are now many mini-Mustafa outlets scattered along Serangoon Rd, but the original and by far the largest is the one facing Syed Alwi Rd.
- Sim Lim Square, 1 Rochor Canal Road, ☎ +65 6338 3859. 1030-2100 hrs. Not actually in Little India but right across the street, Sim Lim is Singapore's Akihabara, a giant electronics mecca squeezed into one building, with hundreds upon hundreds of tightly packed specialist stores. Some competitive prices can be found here on computer parts, but consumer electronics and cameras are not particularly cheap in comparison with large on-line retailers, and a good number of shops on the first and second floors engage in scamming tourists and wrecking their holidays. Upon stepping in, immediately skip the first and second floors (a big tourist trap) and start shopping at floors 4-5, descending to 3 later, not forgetting the back corridors - these are the only places to consider shopping. To reiterate, avoid the first and second floor shops as many of them have a tendency to grossly overcharge or cheat tourists by means of pricing tricks (omitting tax, selling included accessories separately, adding uunilateral fees, and similar misleading or deceptive tactics) and the occasional outright substitution fraud; unless you know exactly what you're doing and/or need something unusual, you might want to shop at Mustafa instead. The third floors and above are the real haven for computer geeks looking for cheap bargains and to upgrade or put together a system; grab price lists from the Sim Lim entrance and do your on-line price research. Sim Lim Tower, just across the street, also has a few shops but these focus on electronic components; it pales in comparison sizewise.
The other shopping options in Little India cater more to the Indian market:
- Little India Arcade, 48 Serangoon Road (Campbell Lane). A narrow pathway through a cluster of restored shophouses, filled to the brim with Indian clothing, accessories, incense and a rather good Indian sweet shop at (#01-16).
- Naranjan Electronics, 154 Race Course Road (Farrer Park MRT). Small shop for basic electronics like digital cameras and mobile phones, with bargain-basement prices. Please note the rock bottom prices comes with no 'warranty' or 'service' what so ever. Many of items are not for sale in Singapore. So try to check your goods before you leave though, as these guys have a strict (and theoretically illegal) no-returns-whatsoever policy.
Waiter, there's a fish head in my curry
One speciality of Little India is fish head curry, a uniquely Singaporean dish. It's one of the stranger-sounding and admittedly stranger-looking dishes around: no, you don't eat the head itself, but there's plenty of meat to be found inside as the head in question barely fits on a plate! Cooked so long that it falls apart when poked at, just dig in and pile up the bones on your table. Eyeballs are not eaten, but the Chinese think the connective tissue behind it is the best part of the dish.
There are two types of fish head curry in Singapore, Chinese and Indian. Little India's fish head places unsurprisingly mostly serve the Indian kind, which is usually spicy and hot. Most specialty restaurants are on or near Race Course Rd, conveniently located between the Little India and Farrer Park MRT stations.
The thing to eat in Little India is obviously Indian food. Both southern and northern cuisines are well represented, food is cheap even by Singaporean standards, portions are generous and vegetarians in particular will have a field day. Note that these are authentic Indian places and people around you will be eating the way Indians do, namely by hand — it's best to shed your inhibitions and dig in, although cutlery can be provided on request.
- Jaggis North Indian Cuisine, 34 Race Course Rd, ☎ +65 6296 6141, fax: +65 6296 0780. Caters to meat-eaters too with a selection of tandoori dishes. Set meals available, or mix and match at the counter.
- Kasturi Restaurant, 1 Roberts Lane, ☎ +65 6299 5510. North Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani cuisine, meals from $2 upwards.
- Komala Vilas, 76-78 Serangoon Road (and other branches around town), ☎ +65 6293 6980. 11:30AM-10:30PM. A Singaporean institution featuring purely vegetarian Indian food, the masala dosa here is epic. Downstairs is fast food, head up for restaurant-style seating and serving. Sets start at less than $3 and even the largest platter of breads and dips will cost less than $7. Note that gourmands prefer the original outlet over the many franchised fast-food copies, and that not all dishes are available all day. South Indian set meal upstairs is $6.50 with top-ups.
- Saravana Bhavan, 84 Syed Alwi Rd, ☎ +65 6297 7755. 8 AM-11 PM. The Singapore branch of a restaurant chain from Chennai, serving up vegetarian Indian food. Get a massive set lunch for $4.80 or just order your favorites for a few dollars a piece. Try the rava dosa, a steal at $2.60.
- Sagar Ratna, 103 Syed Alwi Road (just across from Mustafa Cafe). Opened in the second half of 2005. Franchisee of a South Indian restaurant from Delhi, and serves up decent fare for reasonable prices. Set meals ($5-7) are good value, ordering a la carte will cost you more. The rasam (spicy lentil soup) in particular never fails to impress. Strictly pure vegetarian.
- Madras New Woodlands, 14 Upper Dickson Road (Walk into upper Dickson Road (from Serangoon Rd) for about 50 meters and you will find the restaurant to your right), ☎ +65 6297 1594. 07:30AM-11:30PM. This restaurant found in a slightly more quieter part of Little India (since it lies on one of the side streets) is a pure south Indian Vegetarian restaurant. Special dishes to try here are the "Keera Adai" (which is a type of South Indian pancake with spinach inside) and sambhar Vadai. Other dishes like the dosa, vadai and idli are also excellent for the price here. $5-10.
- Banana Leaf Apolo, 54-58 Race Course Rd. 10 AM-10 PM daily. A well-known place for all sorts of South Indian food; no prizes for guessing what serves as the plate. Most visitors come here for the fish head curry, even the "small" size is enough for 3-4 and will cost you $18, plus $2.50 a head for rice, pappadams and dips.
- Khansama, 166 Serangoon Rd, ☎ +65 6299 0300. Cheap coffeeshop-style eats downstairs (under $5) and a midrange air-con restaurant upstairs (mains $5-10). Generous portions if you don't mind their touts. Best known for its tandoori dishes and a wide selection of chaat appetizers.
- Lagnaa, 6 Upper Dickson Rd (East off Serangoon Road, on the Southern side of the street), ☎ +65 6296 1215. Delicious Indian food from a very friendly owner. Upstairs is barefoot only with a very relaxed atmosphere. Offers cooking courses and also a "slave" deal: work for 3h to have one wish granted. Mains around $9 (a la carte).
- Muthus Curry, 72-78 Race Course Rd. 10AM-10PM daily. Muthu's has a respectable claim to coming up with the idea of fish head curry; now run by the founder's son, this shop continues to draw the crowds. Fish head $16-25 (serves 3-4).
- Bismillah Biryani, 50 Dunlop St. The most famous biryani restaurant in Singapore.
- Delhi Restaurant, 60 Race Course Rd (2nd branch on Serangoon Rd). Offers a more upmarket experience with vested waiters and a stack of awards posted on the wall. The menu features northern Indian food and has non-vegetarian selections as well; order a couple of Kingfisher beers to get pappadam with an excellent mint dip on the house. $30.
Race Course Rd has some funky pubs and bars. Desker Road is Singapore's dingiest quarter of ill repute and best avoided, especially on Sundays.
Little India has quite a few sarabat stalls offering local drinks, especially teh tarik ("pulled tea", a Malaysian variant of sweet, milky Indian chai), also available in iced. A particularly popular one can be found at the intersection of Perak and Dunlop Rds, next to the mosque.
- Prince of Wales Backpacker Pub, 101 Dunlop St, ☎ +65 6299 0130. Brightly painted Australian corner pub/hostel transplanted in Singapore, with Gippsland Gold draught beer shipped in, near-nightly live music and fun theme nights (eg. free drinks for guys in skirts). Drinks around $10 (half price for in-house guests), dorms S$18, Private rooms with windows & private bathroom $60 aircon.
Along with neighboring Bugis, Little India is Singapore's backpacker district and has many hostels offering cheap lodging, as well as some of the most affordable hotels in town. Note that some of the cheap hotels around Desker Rd cater to the sex trade.
- G4 Station Backpackers Hostel, 11 Mackenzie Road (3 mins stroll from MRT Little India exit A), ☎ +65 6334 5644. All prices are nett. & Booking through via site is even cheaper! Includes simple breakfast, free usage of PCs & WiFi and lockers. Very clean with luggage storage and movie screenings and Nintendo Wii! Walk-in rates for dorms: $40/pax.
- Footprints Hostel, 25A Perak Rd (5 min Walk from MRT Little India exit C), ☎ +65 6295 5134. All prices are net. Breakfast, internet, wifi and lockers are all free. Dorms from $22/pax,.
- Ali's Nest, 23 Roberts Lane (off Serangoon Road, near Farrer Park MRT), ☎ +65 6291 2938. Possibly the cheapest hostel in Singapore, but for a reason: some travellers complain of bedbugs. No sign outside so look for the number. Price includes breakfast of toast and tea/coffee. Ali is helpful and well traveled. rooms $20-30.
- Empire Residences, 202A Syed Alwi Road (corner of Jalan Besar), ☎ +65 9100 9123, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. New hostel located at the northern fringe of Little India, near Mustafa but rather far from the MRT. Free wifi and free breakfast. Dorm $22-$35, single $80 up.
- Fragrance Hostel, 63 Dunlop Street (2nd block East of the intersection with Clive Street), ☎ +65 6295 6888, e-mail: email@example.com. A new and clean, if slightly crowded, backpacker hostel/hotel. Rooms are 6 bunk dorms, but all have aircon. A member of the Fragrance Hotel Chain, which has branches of differing levels all around the city. Only a short walk from Little India MRT station, and right in the middle of Dunlop Street and the engaging madness of the Little India district. Dorm $20.
- Hangout @ Mt.Emily, 10A Upper Wilkie Road (7 min uphill from MRT Little India exit A), ☎ +65 6438 5588. No frills, just fun, proclaims the recently renovated Mt. Emily Hostel. Sparkling clean primary colors and IKEA furniture make the rooms feel more like Oslo than Singapore. Free internet PCs, rooftop bar, laundry facilities, and lockers. Breakfast is certainly nothing special but rooms are clean and pleasant. It requires a walk down the hill and through a nice park to get to the MRT station or visit shops and restaurants. Dorm $40, doubles $120.
- The Inn Crowd, 73 Dunlop Street. A friendly backpacker hostel with an excellent website. They run a free kick-scooter tour around Singapore, which is a great way to see some of the central districts of the city. Prices include breakfast and internet access. Dorm $20, double $59.
- Prince of Wales, 101 Dunlop St., ☎ +65 6299 0130. Free breakfast, Wi-Fi, and lockers. A hostel that also serves as a bar. The accompanying bar has a party almost every night and a beer garden with live bands. It can get a little loud but if you're the wild type it's perfect. Dorm $28, Double $100.
- Ambassador Hotel, 75 Desker Rd, ☎ +65 6392 3944. Self-proclaimed charming boutique hotel, but it's smack dab in the middle of Singapore's dodgiest red-light district. Dingy inside - part of the same chain as Aspinals and Claremont. $90.
- Claremont Hotel, 301 Serangoon Rd, ☎ +65 6392 4855. Recently renovated mid-range hotel, around the corner from Mustafa. $90.
- Penta Hotel, 33 Birch Rd (Farrer Park MRT), ☎ +65 6299 6311. Rooms have air-con and the location near Mustafa and the MRT is fairly good. $70.
- Shing Hotel, 165 Kitchener Road, ☎ +65 6291 2565. Basic but adequate accommodation within striking distance of Mustafa — and Desker Rd. $40-70.
- Tekka Boarding Service, 462 Serangoon Rd, ☎ +65 6297 5038. Brand-new hotel promising minimalist design and maximum comfort. The prices certainly are among the cheapest around. $35/45 single/double.
- Tekka Hotel, 22 Belilios Ln, ☎ +65 6225 3378. No-frills hotel in the heart of Little India. Internet connectivity in rooms. Cockroaches a plenty. $59/69 single/double.
- Royal India Hotel, 88 Syed Alwi Rd (opp Mustafa), ☎ +65 6297 7488. Another cheap hotel that's perhaps a small cut above the rest — their website advertises "homogenous tiles flooring", and offers discounts for advance booking. $100.
- Albert Court Village Hotel, 180 Albert St, ☎ +65 6339 3939. Tastefully converted from pre-war shophouses, this boutique hotel is located diagonally opposite the Little India MRT Station, a block from Sim Lim Square and right beside the newly opened Lasalle College of the Arts. $120.
- Parkroyal on Kitchener, 181 Kitchener Rd, ☎ +65 6428 3000. Probably the most upmarket hotel in the neighbourhood, 5min from Mustafa and the Farrer Park MRT. Good value if you're willing to pay a small premium. $135.
- Perak Hotel, 12 Perak Road, ☎ +65 6299 7733. A tasteful, small, private guesthouse in a renovated Peranakan-style building. $150-180.
- Mayo Inn, 1 Mayo St (corner of Jalan Besar). Spartan rooms but moderately priced, on the edge of Little India. The side facing Jalan Besar can be pretty noisy. $100-$140.
- LaundryMart Express, 22 Boon Keng Rd, 01-37 (Boon Keng MRT Exit B), ☎ +65 6294 2256. 24h self-service coin operated laundromat in the central area of Singapore. $5 for 10kg, wash, dry, detergent and softener are provided.