Singapore receives more than 18.5 million international visitors in 2018, according to the latest data from Singapore Tourism Board.

Many tourists spend time at our shopping belts, integrated resorts and other iconic landmarks that have played host to Hollywood films such as Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and Independence Day: Resurgence (2016). But some have also opted for the path less-traveled and ventured into our hawker centers and ethnic quarters.

Tekka Center, Little India

At 10am, Mr and Mrs Peter Gotzler from Germany arrived at Tekka Center, known for its textile shops, food center and a big wet market. Their tour guide was eager to show them the “real Singapore”.

tekka centre

At the food center, the couple were impressed by a hawker who tossed a roti prata with exceptional finesse. So even though they just had their breakfast at the hotel, they ordered an onion prata to get a taste of the South-Indian flat bread.

tourists in awe

Arts Belt, Little India

At another part of Little India, the multi-colored shophouses have caught the eye of a British couple.

arts belt

Having visited Universal Studios Singapore and Gardens By The Bay, Mr Dexter Edmonds and Ms Kayla Johnson were eager to see a less posh Singapore.

colourful walls at arts belt

They stopped by Little India and were “mesmerized” by the heritage buildings and traditional vibes.

“It’s a different side of Singapore, that’s for sure,” said Ms Johnson. “We had an impression that Singapore was all modern and new, this place changed our minds.”   

“It’s so colorful and vibrant, unlike the grey buildings we see everywhere else,” she said, adding that they would visit Kampong Glam before concluding their trip.

Albert Center, Bugis

Dr Ludmila Kisseleva, a Physics and Mathematics professor from San Francisco, United States, was shopping at Bugis when we crossed paths. Eager to try local hawker fare, Dr Kisseleva jumped at the suggestion of visiting Albert Center Market.

albert center
tourist enjoying singapore food

Over a plate of chicken rice and fried carrot cake, Dr Kisseleva shared her observations about the mix of old and new in Singapore. Just a day ago, she was “overwhelmed” by the futuristic Supertrees and floral domes at Gardens by the Bay. At Bugis, it’s the eclectic mix of Hindu temple, Taoist temple, fortune telling kiosks and old malls like the Fu Lu Shou Complex and OG Albert Complex that left her in awe again.

 “I was told that there are old places, but I must admit, I was surprised by the vast difference,” Dr Kisseleva said, before heading off for bargain hunting at Bugis Street market.

tourist shopping at bugis street

Haji Lane, Suntec City and clean streets

tourists at haji lane

For Mr Michael Dine and Ms Meow Thara, who travelled from Thailand to Singapore for the first time, every corner of the city-state is worth exploring.

But our historic Sultan Mosque and the hip Haji Lane didn’t quite make the cut as Instagram-worthy spots for the Thai couple. They were more interested in capturing the litter-free streets instead.  

“Look at how clean the streets are,” Mr Dine said as he whipped out his smartphone at every opportunity to take pictures of the spotless streets on his way from Kampong Glam to Suntec City. 

clean streets of singapore

“In Thailand, we can do ‘this’,” Ms Thara said while gesturing that she could throw away the bottle in her hand anywhere on a whim.  

Mr Dine also added that he likes Singapore for its “cheap, fast, clean and safe” public transport.

tourist in a bus

“If public transport in Thailand is like that (of Singapore’s), I will sell my car and take (the) bus everywhere,” Ms Thara quipped as she found herself a seat on a SBS bus.

That’s a remark that made me reflect on the things I’ve taken for granted about my own country – a little red dot that stands proud on the world map.