Just east of the city centre, Bugis is a neighbourhood with one foot in the past. The old and new are juxtaposed on every corner with business hotels beside street markets and the crowds on the footpaths and MRT are as likely to be on their way to the mosque as they are to the mall.
Bugis is named for the Bugis tribe, seafaring people from Indonesia reputed to dabble in piracy, who came to Singapore in the early 19th century to trade and established kampongs (villages) in this area. After the arrival of the British one of these settlements, Kampong Glam, was designated the home for wealthy Muslims, including Malay royalty and Arab merchants, who built the Istana Kampong Glam palace and Sultan Mosque — two magnificent buildings that still stand today.
In the post-WW2 era Bugis became a centre for an entirely different type of trade — prostitution. Fuelled by sailors on shore leave, Bugis Street gained a reputation for sleaze with squalid bars, brothels and transsexual shows. The party didn't last long: Old Bugis Street was razed in the mid-80s to make way for the new MRT, but its sordid history is immortalised by Paul Theroux's novel Saint Jack and the film of the same name. Needless to say, this story of an American pimp trying to do business on the mean streets of Singapore in the 1970s was initially banned by the local government.
The sleaze is long gone, but Bugis still has an eclectic assortment of attractions. Squeeze into the Bugis Street Market to shop for cheap souvenirs, read a newspaper at the modern National Library, or feast on murtabak (stuffed flat bread) and teh tarik (frothy milk tea) at one of the Halal Malay restaurants. Arab Street remains a centre for contemporary Muslim culture with Persian carpet stores, hookah bars and the call to prayer sounding out from the Sultan Mosque. Hip Haji Lane is the haunt of Singapore's counterculture kids and the five foot way is lined with independent boutiques, tattoo studios and artsy cafes that double as bars after dark. This is one of Singapore's most intriguing yet underrated neighbourhoods.
Over on Waterloo Street the historic Hindu and Buddhist temples draw so many worshippers that the road has become pedestrianised with palm-readers and incense sellers spilling onto the footpaths. The surrounding area has a high concentration of budget hotels and vegetarian restaurants, and Sim Lim Square electronics mall is a few minutes away.
If you're arriving or departing Singapore overland, most buses to Malaysia stop in the Bugis area at the Queen Street terminal, Lavender Street terminal or Golden Mile Complex.
The Bugis area is sandwiched between Central and Eastern Singapore. Its general boundaries are Jalan Besar, Lavender Street, Beach Road and Middle Road. As it's a 15-minute walk or even shorter bus ride to Orchard Road, Little India or downtown, Bugis makes an excellent base for exploring Singapore and has a high concentration of budget hotels and hostels.
The area is mainly served by the Bugis MRT station located beneath the Bugis Junction shopping centre. Most of the area's attractions including the Bugis Street Market, Kampong Glam, the National Library, Sim Lim Square, and Waterloo Street are a five-minute walk from the station.
One stop to the east, Lavender MRT is convenient for guests staying at the new crop of hostels along Lavender Street and Tyrwhitt Road. Lavender Food Square at the junction of Jalan Besar and Foch Road serves cheap food and beer and, most importantly, is open late.
Internet cafes are more common in Bugis, particularly around the Sim Lim Square IT Mall, than other Singapore neighbourhoods. For 24-hour surfing, try Musa Internet at Kampong Glam or AJ Internet Center on Bencoolen Street.
International access ATMs are abundant and found at every mall, convenience store and MR station.
Raffles Hospital, one of Singapore's finest medical facilities, is located beside Bugis MRT station.
Text and/or map last updated on 30th October, 2013.
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