As cities go, Singapore rightly has a reputation as a pricey one. But despite being expensive compared to that in the capitals of the island nation’s southeast Asian neighbours, accommodation is generally of high quality and comfort. Hostels figure prominently on the radar of budget travellers in a way that they don’t elsewhere in the region (simply because the cost of a private room is often already so low), but if you’re past the bunk bed phase and yearn for a little more comfort then bargain hotels abound too, and needn’t skimp on facilities or little extras. In fact, unless you are travelling alone, you’ll likely find the cost of a double room in a good value hotel like the heritage Kam Leng comes in lower than two dorm beds.
The Kam Leng Hotel, on the outskirts of Little India and around a ten-minute walk from the nearest MRT station at Lavender, is an old and charming Chinese property that has been open since 1927 (never mind the ‘1938’ emblazoned on the front of the building, it’s older than it lets on). Extensively refurbished in 2012, the hotel is a slightly eerie maze of corridors leading to four storeys of rooms that do an impressive job of combining the building’s restored original glory with a deft eye for modern design. Each floor, reached by lift, starts with one or two pieces of vintage furniture, like retro sofas and funky designer chairs, that are set strikingly against original decor. The authentic Singapore-retro tiled flooring in the lift lobbies is to die for. Somewhat dark corridors, all concrete and no windows, are prettied with small collections of black-and-white photos from Kam Leng’s past, the frames deliberately hung at wonky angles, and the very heavy doors to each room are hooded by cool lit-up neon signs. The tiling theme carries on around the hotel to pleasing effect, with entire walls along the corridors and stairwells covered in understated white and green tiling that feels very British art-deco – presumably there is a colonial link in there – and in places reminds me distinctly of the interior of Harrington’s pie and mash shop in London.
Small but smartly designed rooms go further to showcase the hotel’s original Peranakan design – old-style, mismatched green-and-grey granite flooring remains, as do the old exposed water pipes and electricity wiring which have been painted to match the walls. But the scene has again been modernised and pimped out with vintage pieces of furniture, like the cute retro bedside tables that I wanted to take home. The accent wall behind the bed in our room was decked out in a dark olive green, but all the other walls were a shade of off-white and the room as a whole could have done with a little more colour splashed into it. That said, whitewashed wood furnishings break things up, as does the teal-like shade to the picture rail running around the three-quarters-high mark on the wall. Our very soft bed was backed by a plush miniature pink faux-leather headstand, and retro glass light fittings are suspended from cords on either side. Rooms lack a wardrobe and have limited storage space – think a small shelf above a few coat hangers; just about sufficient for a weekend break, but unlikely much more.
The spacious bathroom – really, ours was almost as big as the rest of the bedroom! – is separated by three rather too modern conservatory-style frosted windows that together span an entire wall. These windows are probably the worst design element of the room. The sense of space in the room as a whole is maximised by the fair bit of light the windows let flow through from the traditional old-fashioned, distressed shutters that have been kept behind the glass in the bathroom window. But they afford little privacy and the lack of blinds or curtains makes it difficult to sleep in of a morning (in rooms facing the busy road behind the hotel, the rather loud hum of morning traffic will make a lie-in difficult too, but at night it’s much quieter). The three-function shower combination, though somewhat difficult to fathom, boasts a gloriously powerful rain shower – it’s high pressured enough that, on full power, it really does feel like you’re standing under a pleasantly warm waterfall. The shower’s other functions are a hand-held power shower and a funky tap half-way down, all built into one. Despite the toilet’s positioning just next to the shower, it somehow manages to avoid the usual look of a wet-room-style shower-over-toilet setup. Bizarrely there is no toilet hose, only paper – of disappointment to those of us who find the hose one of the major attractions of living in Southeast Asia. The bathroom’s attractive tiling completes the look: simple, smallish white tiles reach half way up the wall and are elegantly framed there with a single layer of grey-blue tiles of the same size.
In-room facilities are basic but sufficient: a small desk provides cover for a mini fridge (though there’s no mini bar) and safe, kettle and complimentary tea, coffee and water (hilariously and for reasons unknown, the sugar sachets provided were from Burger King) and a hairdryer. A decent-sized TV is mounted on the wall at the end of the bed with a selection of English-language cable channels – this is Singapore, after all. Power sockets are limited in number; ours had just two but these were relatively well positioned, one next to the bed and one at the desk. Impressively, the latter handily had a built-in adaptor, allowing it to be used with any appliance no matter where it’s from. Decent free wi-fi reaches all rooms and is accessed with the same simple password you would use at home; no logging on to irritating portals.
Check-in was friendly and efficient but felt impersonal. A homey feel prevails in the lobby, with a large dining table inviting you to linger. Comfortable padded seating has been added to the sill of the large windows, above which sits what looks like the hotel’s evocative original exterior sign. The windows look out over a courtyard that boasts clean, again art-deco tiling inspired communal bathrooms and a winding staircase enveloped by climber plants that leads up to a pleasant terrace. The space admittedly feels a little under-used, with just a few large tables and chairs sitting up there, but it is a great sun trap and would make for a pleasant tanning spot or somewhere to escape for a little solitude – that said, there is no escaping the hum of traffic from below. Apparently the hipster design-led in-house restaurant Suprette, which sits to one side of reception, use the terrace space for the odd barbecue – the grill set against the wall at the back is testament to this. A small pool built into this space would be a fantastic addition to the hotel’s amenities, though would no doubt lead to a hike in room rates – perhaps a case of being careful what you wish for. In the meantime, the Jalan Besar swimming pool is just a couple of streets away and has two large public pools with changing facilities and lockers – excellent value at $1 during the week and $1.30 at weekends.
Suprette is open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner, though closes between meals – their menu of European and American inspired dishes is exciting and the friendly, compact space is easy to warm to. As well as brewing their own beer they have a unique list of cocktails and wines; the well-stocked bar is the perfect place to pull up a pew and they put on regular ‘playlist nights’. Local office workers patronise the place at lunchtime just as much as hotel guests, but those staying can get discounted lunch vouchers from reception for $7++.
The Kam Leng‘s convenient location in the up-and-coming Lavender area, with easy access either on foot or by MRT to attractions and eating options across the city, makes it an attractive option. The iconic Lavender Food Square hawker centre, directly over the road and open since the 1980s, was another reason to stay here but will sadly close for demolition at the end of September 2014. But with competitive rates, appealing vintage design and an ambience that straddles on-trend and home-from-home, there are still plenty of other reasons to base yourself here the next time you’re in Singapore.
383 Jalan Besar, Singapore