Money no object: Orchard Road

One of the most popular pastimes in Singapore is shopping, as Cathy Packe discovers.

Within minutes of getting into the taxi at Changi airport, the driver had put me straight on what Singaporeans do to enjoy themselves. "Shopping and eating," he told me. "That's what everyone here loves to do." "And where do they shop?" I enquired, expecting to be directed towards an indoor mall or the latest fashionable shopping street. "Well - everywhere," came the reply. "But your hotel is close to Orchard Road - why don't you start there?"

Orchard Road is Singapore's main shopping drag, a mixture of London's Oxford Street and New York's Fifth Avenue with a touch of Hong Kong's Nathan Road thrown in for good measure - although even that description doesn't quite convey the scale of what is on offer. In the mile or so between the Hilton and Meridien hotels, it is impossible to count the retail outlets, whose variety includes Tangs department store and more than 30 malls. The glitziest is Paragon, an attractive complex with six floors of outlets whose staff are as elegant as the designer items they are there to sell.

Shopping malls feature large in Singaporean life - they are the places where many people spend much of their leisure time, not only shopping but eating, watching films, and enjoying an air-conditioned break from the heat and humidity of the outside world. Vivocity is the latest of these malls, a destination in its own right, with a walkway along the waterfront facing Sentosa Island, rooftop paddling pools, a 15-screen cinema and a varied choice of restaurants as well as plenty of shops. The Suntec City shopping mall houses the Fountain of Wealth, designed according to feng shui principles;c the koi carp in the pool nearby symbolise abundance and prosperity. Tanglin Shopping Centre is the oldest, a good source of carpets, pearls and other Asian specialities. Far East Plaza is good for young fashions; Raffles City caters for those with plenty of money; and Funan The IT Mall specialises in electronic goods. The Mustafa Centre is a wonderfully colourful establishment in Little India which opens 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

It is this huge variety that makes shopping in Singapore a delight but also a challenge: there is so much to choose from that it is difficult to know where to go first. So at this point I decided to take professional advice and call the Shopping Hotline, a 24-hour toll-free service that claims to offer suggestions on where to shop and, more importantly, where to get the best deals. "If you are looking for bargains, you should go to Bugis Street," I was told. "There you have a choice of three shopping centres, and a street market." Conveniently, it also has an MRT station, so getting there, no matter where you are staying, is no problem.

Once a raucous area popular with transvestites, the original Bugis Street has disappeared, to be replaced by a new shopping zone. The area now described as Bugis Street is a covered, bazaar-style market offering clothes, CDs and gifts at bargain prices; on the opposite side of Victoria Street is Bugis Junction, a covered, air-conditioned mall whose shop fronts are designed to look like oldfashioned Singaporean shop-houses, painted in pale colours, their windows framed with shutters.

For keen shoppers, Bugis, as the whole area is known, is paradise - the only problem, in this city of shopaholics, is that half the population is likely to be there, flocking into the stores or jostling in the crowded alleys of the street market in search of the latest bargains. Despite shopping hours which are already long by most standards - the average mall opens around 10am and closes about 9pm - some of the outlets at Bugis and along Orchard Road stay open until midnight on the last Friday of each month. Judging by the street banners, MRT posters and flyers handed out everywhere, this is an eagerlyawaited occasion, with malls offering discounts and shopping vouchers, and public transport operating later than usual to accommodate shoppers.

It is easy to come to the conclusion that the entire city is relentlessly focussed on shopping. In addition to the malls, most hotels have elaborate retail outlets - go to Raffles to shop at Tiffany's or Louis Vuitton - and there is even a movie currently doing the rounds called Gone Shopping, a tale of love and life in the city's malls. But away from the city centre districts, in Chinatown, Little India or Kampong Glam, while commerce is still important, at least it comes at a gentler, more Asian pace.

Chinatown is the place to go for colourful food markets

In these areas, the shopping malls all but disappear. In Chinatown they are replaced by the individual stores of Club and Amoy Streets, and colourful food markets like the Chinatown Complex Temporary Market on Outram Road, where the stalls are groaning with giant ginger roots, lychees still in their spiky shells, and bean sprouts soaking in tubs of water. In Little India, colourful little shops offer clothing and gold jewellery, while in the doorways, groups of young men thread marigold heads into garlands for the temple. From there, cross the canal and walk along Arab Street, a thoroughfare in the Muslim district of Kampong Glam that is lined with fabric shops, whose tailors can rustle up an outfit for you in a couple of days. The heart of Kampong Glam is Bussorah Street, a tree-lined avenue in front of the mosque, whose small shops contain a treasure trove of wooden artefacts, elegant pashminas and beaded bags made by the Peranakan or Straits-born Chinese community, all at impossibly low prices.

There is one final bargain that is only available to visiting shoppers. Look out for the tax-free shopping logo displayed in many of the city's stores, and then hang on to the receipt for anything you buy. Assuming you spend more than S$100 (£32.85) in any one shop, you can take your receipts to the Customs desk at Changi airport before you check in, and the Government sales tax - 7 per cent of everything you have bought, less a small handling fee - will be refunded. And that should provide some spare cash for a final shopping spree - in the departures area at the airport.

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