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Paya Lebar
Photograph: Gordenren/Shutterstock

The ultimate guide to Paya Lebar and Geylang Serai

Once a Malay settlement, this 'hood is now home to Paya Lebar Quarter, Kinex, and the iconic Geylang Serai Market

Cam Khalid
Written by
Cam Khalid
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Located near the Kallang River, Paya Lebar was once a large swamp – hence, the Malay translation for 'wide swamp'. With a population increase, it started to see many rural settlements and agricultural grounds in its surrounding areas. However, in 1865, it was purchased and colonised by Richard Owen Norris who lived there with his family.

But the vibrant cultural enclave was truly known to be home to one of the last Malay settlements on mainland Singapore – Kampong Melayu. Also known as Kampong Eunos, it stretched from Jalan Eunos to Sims Avenue and Changi Road, and is home to many Malays and wealthy Arabs including the Alkaff, Alsagoff, and Aljunied families.

As the number of kampungs falls, the number of flats and malls rises, and this is not a surprising sight in Modern Singapore. But all is not lost. To preserve the Malay cultural heritage while turning Paya Lebar into the ultimate lifestyle and commercial destination in the east, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) has plans to develop Paya Lebar Central, within which Geylang Serai is situated, into a centre characterised with its distinct cultural identity – giving you more reasons to visit this up-and-coming neighbourhood.

RECOMMENDED: The ultimate guide to Singapore's neighbourhoods and the ultimate guide to Kallang

Do

  • Things to do
  • Cultural centres
  • Geylang

Located along Changi Road, Kampong Ubi Community Centre first opened doors in 1982, inviting all to experience the richness of the Malay culture and heritage. Here, you can find activities such as sepak takraw (kick volleyball), silat (martial arts) and dikir barat (musical form), as well as its gallery which houses many artefacts like the gong, keris (asymmetrical dagger), and other cultural exhibits.

  • Things to do
  • Geylang

A nod to the Malay settlement in Old Singapore, Wisma Geylang Serai is a sight to be seen with its double-pitched roof à la traditional Malay kampungs as well as designs and spaces that mirrors the serai plant, ketupat, and serambi on stilts. Highlighting the 'kampung spirit', the community civic and cultural centre brings families and friends together through cultural events such as Hari Raya Aidilfitri celebrations. It also houses the Geylang Serai Community Club which features badminton courts for a friendly game or two with the pals.

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  • Things to do
  • Geylang

From Paya Lebar Road, hop on your best two-wheeler and cycle along the serene Geylang River. Along the way, look out for shelters that resemble kelongs, and a gazebo that mirrors the shape of a kampung hut – all in homage to the area's past as a Malay settlement. Continue down towards the Singapore Sports Hub where you can take one of the three paths to Marina Bay, East Coast Park, and Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park. Otherwise, enjoy a breezy ride through the four-hectare cycle-friendly Paya Lebar Quarter where there's a wide cycling trail that links you to the various park connectors.

 

  • Things to do
  • Geylang

What do you get when the National Library Board and SkillsFuture Singapore join forces? The LLiBrary. Not just any library, it's the first public-accessible one to support working adults in their professional development. Spanning over 770-square-metres of indoor and outdoor reading spaces, the book repository carries Continuing Education and Training (CET) materials and resources focusing on career development and the upgrading of skills. Visitors can also access NLB's extensive collection of digital resources for more information.

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  • Sport and fitness
  • Climbing
  • Geylang

Go big and bold with one of the largest indoor bouldering gyms in Singapore – Boulder World conquers a whopping 7,000-square-feet floor space, with over 100 different routes for climbers of any level to take on. If it all feels a little overwhelming, opt for any one of its bouldering packages which are available for both kids and adults, and its team of experts will be there to guide you. The gym also does Ladies Night' every last Friday of the month, where you can score an entry for you and your gal pal at the price of one.

  • Sport and fitness
  • Gyms and fitness centres
  • Geylang

This 1,451-square-metre hunk of a gym marks Virgin Active's first outlet on the east side of Singapore. It offers a slick gym experience with high-tech cardio and weight training machines by Technogym that can store workout information, track your progress, and even ensure that you’re keeping pace while you’re working out. Those looking to take a proper beating can make use of the Aqua Boxing bags for the ultimate boxing experience, while those into Pilates can join any of its five Reformer classes that range from beginners to HIIT.

Eat

  • Restaurants
  • Malay
  • Geylang

The queue at this nasi padang restaurant stretches out the door even before lunchtime hits. We can’t blame the crowd, though, as only the early birds get the worm. Or in this case, stellar beef rendang and sambal goreng. There are only limited quantities of each item, so hot favourites like the tauhu telor sell out fast. Aside from quintessential Malay dishes, there are also rarer ones like lemak siput sedut, or sea snails swimming in a coconut-rich broth. And be sure to scream ‘yes’ when asked if you’d like a dollop of sambal with your rice. 

  • Restaurants
  • Chinese
  • Geylang

The family business has been making popiah skins the traditional way – from scratch, by hand – since 1938. The halal-certified shop was mainly known for popiah skins before going with the full shebang – the result is a warm, chewy bite with ingredients such as egg, prawn, and sweet and savoury sauces. It also offers kueh pie tie, sweet black sauce, and other ingredients to DIY your own popiah. It’s also one of the few places where you can watch the chefs twirl the dough to create these delicate but resilient layers.

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  • Restaurants
  • Bakeries
  • Geylang

Built in 1942, this Joo Chiat gem is the oldest surviving Muslim bakery in Singapore. The family-run heritage shop is best known for its curry puffs (or karipap) and buns. Whether you like it flaky and crispy, or soft and buttery, each creation is filled with a savoury mix of potatoes and meat that will leave you wanting more. Treat yourself to a variety of flavours like the signature beef and chicken, beef rendang, black pepper beef, smoked duck, and more.

  • Restaurants
  • Hawker
  • Geylang

Whether you're down Geylang Serai for a bit of grocery shopping at its massive wet market, making a pit stop at Haig Road Market & Food Centre for a bite or two is an absolute must. Just a stone's throw away from Geylang Serai Market, the hawker centre is the largest in the area, and boasts a plethora of stalls offering menus ranging from Indian, Malay and Chinese fare to Western delights and fusion food. Satisfy your sweet tooth at Traditional Haig Road Putu Piring (as featured in Netflix's Street Food) where the stall is popular for its gula Melaka-filled steamed rice flour cakes topped with grated coconut.

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  • Restaurants
  • Hawker
  • Geylang

Located between the bustling thoroughfares of Changi Road and Sims Avenue, the Geylang Serai Market has been a focal point for the local Malay community since it was built in 1964. The airy 955-seater Geylang Serai food centre sits on the second floor, sharing the enclosed 9,000 sq ft floor space with a wet market and a battery of shops laden with clothing, groceries, household goods and other bric-a-brac. The market is also home to not one but two legendary nasi padang rice stalls – both with a highly distinctive style – Hajjah Mona Nasi Padang (Stall 166), and Sinar Pagi Nasi Padang (Stall 137).

  • Restaurants
  • Korean
  • Geylang

Singapore's answer to Korea's Egg Drop, Egg Stop is here to make your breakfast an egg-cellent one with its very own version of the gilgeori toasts – aka Korean street toasts. The grab-and-go halal breakfast features eggy fillings – think oozy yolk with stir-fried marinated beef ($7.40) or creamy scrambled eggs with slices of chicken ham ($4.90) – sandwiched between soft, thick slices of buttered milk toasts. Complete your quick brekkie with an Americano, espresso or fruit punch for only $2.

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  • Restaurants
  • Fusion
  • Geylang

This hidden gem in Paya Lebar makes a great respite from the hustle and bustle on the main street. Nestled within an industrial building, Nuevo Café dishes out European cuisines with a hint of Japanese influences on weekdays, and quick bites such as stuffed croissants and brioche burgers ($4.50) on weekends. But if it's the heavier mains you're after, try the mentaiko with bacon linguine ($8.50) which is topped with salted fish roe, bacon, and white cream sauce; or the Asahi beer-battered fish and chips ($8.50) which comes with a choice of mentaiko mayonnaise or truffle mayonnaise dip.

  • Restaurants
  • Geylang

If you don't mind a 10-minute walk for some plant-based grub, make your way to this vegan burger joint in Eunos. Deemed as the world’s first plant-based burger joint, VeganBurg does sound scary for dedicated carnivores, and checking into Veganburg’s cosy yet playful interiors (think grass carpeted dining stools and a walled bicycle) may either intimidate or challenge you. Start off with the best-selling Avacado Beetroot ($11.90) which comes with GMO-free crispy plant-protein patty, creamy vegan aioli, and wholemeal buns. For something spicy, opt the Chilli Krab ($11.90) which is topped with homemade chili "crab" sauce made from handcrafted rempah with a blend of chillis and ginger.

Drink

The Tuckshop
  • Restaurants
  • Geylang

Far from the sorry selection of your school canteen, The Tuckshop serves café fare by day and craft beer by night. (Even if you want booze in the afternoon, we – and The Tuckshop – don’t judge.) With over 40 types of bottled beers (from $14), the owners are serious about their hops. And the tasting notes they’ve written in the menu will help even the most novice of drinkers decide on the right beverage. Grab a cold one before planting yourself in the al fresco area to watch the traffic zoom by.

  • Bars and pubs
  • Gastropubs
  • Geylang

It's always tipsy hour at Tipsy Penguin's sister outlet. Aptly named Tipsy Bird, this chic gastrobar in Paya Lebar covers all the essentials like booze, bites, beats, and sometimes live football screenings. Unwind over pints of Hite Beer or Frosty's Lager ($10), or a glass of its signature Tipsy Old Fashioned ($17), a strong cocktail with a tinge of sweetness finished with fried orange peel. You can also choose your poison from a selection of red and white wines, champagnes, and sangrias. There are also non-boozy options, ranging from coffees and teas to juices and mocktails. If you're feeling peckish, it serves up all-day breakfast, salads, quinoa bowls, burgers, steaks, and even local claypot dishes.

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  • Restaurants
  • Bubble tea
  • Geylang

Chi Cha San Chen is serious about its tea, and it shows – its signature brews have been handcrafted by Taiwanese tea masters with over two decades of experience in growing, roasting, and tasting tea. Its standard bubble milk tea ($4.20) is made with a black tea base and cream, but the highlight is undeniably the award-winning Ding Dong Oolong milk tea ($4.70) which we daresay is one of the best in Singapore. Other options include a refreshing High Mountain Pouchong tea with lemon juice ($4.20), and the Cassia black tea with mousse ($4.70). 

Shop

  • Shopping
  • Geylang

Paya Lebar Quarter is the latest to join in the cluster of retail buildings, including Paya Lebar Square and SingPost Centre, surrounding Paya Lebar MRT station. You can expect the usual suspects like Uniqlo, Cotton On, Innisfree, Shaw Theatres, Popular Bookstore, Challenger, and more as tenants. There is also Haidilao Hot Pot, Wine Connection, TungLok Seafood, Japanese rice sandwich joint Hayai, and new The Privé Group concept Lucky Bird for food options.

 

  • Shopping
  • Shopping centres
  • Geylang

Juxtaposed beside old shopping centres like Tanjong Katong Complex and City Plaza are Paya Lebar's spankin' new malls including Paya Lebar Quarter and Kinex. Previously known as OneKM Shopping Mall, the community-centric Kinex prides itself as a fun destination for those leading (or kickstarting) an active, vibrant lifestyle. Unleash your inner Picasso at Tree Art, throw shapes at Distinct Creative Arts, update your wardrobe with pre-loved threads, discover your next favourite local brand at Excluniqueee, and snap a selfie at the staircase at the entrance that’s bathed in colourful graphics.

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Bake King
  • Shopping
  • Supermarkets
  • Geylang

Bake King is a perennial fixture in the baking aisle of almost every supermarket, but did you know that the brand has its very own brick and mortar store? Furthermore, the range available in the outlet extends beyond just bottles of food colouring, baking additivities and packets of dried fruits and nuts. There, you’ll find everything you need for your patisserie endeavours (and lockdown baking), including cake moulds and stands and uncommon ingredients such as dried rose petals and charcoal powder.

City Plaza
  • Shopping
  • Geylang

Situated on the shopping stretch at Geylang Serai, this shopping mall is a bargain hunter's haven for pre-loved fashion. Check out Whitefiction, Refash and PEONY Collection for pre-loved clothing and fashion finds for $10 or less. Make a pit stop at Arnold's Fried Chicken for spicy, golden-brown crispy chicken, before continuing your search for your next #OOTD. Check out our roundup the best shops in City Plaza.

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  • Shopping
  • Geylang

Since the 1960s, Joo Chiat Complex has been an important trading point for Malay, Indian, and Chinese merchants in Singapore. It's one of the best places to cop quality wares from traditional craftwork and art pieces to jewellery, ethnic clothing and fabric. And if you've got great bargaining skills, you might even get them without the hefty price tag. One of the malls long-time residents is H Hashim Bin H Abdullah. A household name in Geylang Serai since 1922, it's one of the oldest bookstores in Singapore and has been the go-to shop for Malay and Islamic books.

  • Shopping
  • Shopping centres
  • Geylang

Whether you need a new baju kurung or fabrics to make your very own design, Tanjong Katong Complex has you covered. The old shopping space is known for its wide array of traditional Malay clothing and textiles, as well as furniture stores and interior design agencies. One of its popular tenants First Lady sits on the second floor, carrying women's fashion such as baju kurung, jubah, and hijab. There's even more variety during Ramadan, leading up to Hari Raya Aidilfitri. However, like most old shopping centres, its fate remains uncertain as its lease expires in 2022, so catch it in its unique, charming glory before it's too late.

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