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Western-Style Malls

The newest and grandest shopping mall in Singapore is ION Orchard, with a coveted location at Orchard Road's main intersection above the Orchard MRT station. Luxury couture labels grace the ground-floor windows of this futuristic shopping mall. ION's 56-story tower is one of the area's poshest residential addresses as well, and has dining and an observation desk on its top floors.

Orchard Road Area -- The malls on Orchard Road are a tourist attraction in their own right, with smaller boutiques and specialty shops intermingled with huge department stores. Takashimaya and Isetan have been imported from Japan. John Little is the oldest department store in Singapore, followed by Robinson's. Tangs is significant, having grown from a cartful of merchandise nurtured by the business savvy of local entrepreneur C. K. Tang. Boutiques range from the younger styles of Topshop and Miss Selfridge to the sophisticated fashions of Chanel and Salvatore Ferragamo. You'll also find antiques, oriental carpets, art galleries and curio shops, HMV music stores, Kinokuniya and Borders bookstores, video arcades, and scores of restaurants, local food courts, fast-food joints, and coffeehouses -- even a few bars, which open in the evenings. It's hard to say when Orchard Road is not crowded, but it's definitely a mob scene on weekends, when folks have the free time to come and hang around, looking for fun.

Marina Bay -- The Marina Bay area arose from a plot of reclaimed land and now boasts the giant Suntec Singapore convention center and all the hotels, restaurants, and shopping malls that support it. Shopping here is convenient, with the major malls and hotels interconnected by covered walkways and pedestrian bridges, making it easy to get around with minimal exposure to the elements. It's also connected to Raffles City Shopping Centre by an underground shopping mall, the City Link Mall (tel. 65/6339-9913). Across the reservoir, the mall at the new Marina Bay Sands is accessible by the scenic Helix pedestrian bridge.

Around the City Center -- Although the Historic District doesn't have as many malls as the Orchard Road area, it still has some good shopping. Raffles City Shopping Centre can be overwhelming in its size but is convenient because it sits right atop the City Hall MRT stop. One of my favorite places to go, however, is the very upmarket Raffles Hotel Shopping Arcade, where you can enhance your post-shopping high with a Singapore Sling.

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Multicultural Shopping

The most exciting shopping can be found within the ethnic enclaves throughout the city. Down narrow streets, bargains are to be had on all sorts of unusual items. If you're stuck for a gift idea, read on. Chances are, I'll mention something for even the most difficult person on your list.

Chinatown -- For Chinese goods, nothing beats Yue Hwa, 70 Eu Tong Sen St. (tel. 65/6538-4222), a five-story Chinese emporium that's an attraction in its own right. The superb inventory includes all manner of silk wear (robes, underwear, blouses), embroidery and house linens, bolt silks, tailoring services (for perfect mandarin dresses), cloisonné (enamel work) jewelry and gifts, pottery, musical instruments, traditional Chinese clothing for men and women (from scholars' robes to coolie duds), jade and gold, cashmere, art supplies, herbs -- I could go on and on. Prices are terrific. Plan to spend some time here.

For one-stop souvenir shopping, you can tick off half your list at Chinatown Point, aka the Singapore Handicraft Center, 133 New Bridge Rd. (tel. 65/6534-0102), with dozens of small shops that sell mainly Chinese handicraft items from carved jade to imported Chinese classical instruments and lacquerware. The best gifts there include hand-carved chops (Chinese seals), with a few shops offering good selections of carved stone, wood, bone, glass, and ivory chops ready to be carved to your specifications. Simple designs are affordable, although some of the more elaborate chops and carvings fetch a handsome sum. You can also commission a personalized Chinese scroll painting or calligraphy piece.

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In the heart of Chinatown, Pagoda and Trengganu streets are closed to vehicular traffic and host a vibrant Chinatown Street Market (open daily about 11am-11pm), where you can find a wide variety of Chinese silk robes, Indonesian batik souvenirs, Vietnamese lacquerware, Thai silk home linens, and Singaporean souvenirs -- the list goes on. I've found the prices here to be inflated. If you're on a shoestring budget, find similar items at the market at the corner of Trengganu and Sago Streets, called Chinatown Complex, where you may find it easier to bargain.

My all-time favorite gift idea? Spend an afternoon learning the traditional Chinese tea ceremony at the Tea Chapter, 9-11 Neil Rd. (tel. 65/6225-3026), and pick up a tea set -- they have a lovely selection of tea pots, cups, and accessories, as well as quality teas for sale. When you return home, you'll be ready to give a fabulous gift -- not just a tea set, but your own cultural performance as well. Another neat place to visit is Kwong Chen Beverage Trading, 16 Smith St. (tel. 65/6223-6927), for some Chinese teas in handsome tins. Although the teas are really inexpensive, they're packed in lovely tins -- great to buy lots to bring back as smaller gifts. For serious tea aficionados or those curious about Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), stop by Eu Yan Sang, 269 South Bridge Rd. (tel. 65/6749-8830; www.euyansang.com.sg), where they have stocks of very fine (and expensive) teas, plus herbal remedies for health. For something a little more unusual, check out Siong Moh Paper Products, 39 Mosque St. (tel. 65/6861-1819), which carries a full line of ceremonial items. Pick up some joss sticks (temple incense) or joss paper (books of thin sheets of paper, stamped in reds and yellows with bits of gold and silver leaf). Definitely a conversation piece, as is the hell money, stacks of false paper notes that believers burn at the temple for their ancestors to use for cash in the afterlife. Perfect for that friend who has everything. Also, if you duck over to Sago Lane while you're in the neighborhood, there are a few souvenir shops that sell Chinese kites and Cantonese Opera masks -- cool for kids.

Arab Street -- On Arab Street, shop for handicrafts from Malaysia and Indonesia. I go to Hadjee Textiles, 75 Arab St. (tel. 65/6298-1943), for their stacks of folded sarongs in beautiful colors and traditional patterns. They're perfect for traveling, as they're lightweight, but can serve you well as a dressy skirt, bed sheet, beach blanket, window shade, bath towel, or whatever you need -- when I'm on the road, I can't live without mine. Buy a few here and the prices really drop. For modern styles of batik, check out Basharahil Brothers, 101 Arab St. (tel. 65/6296-0432), for their very interesting designs, but don't forget to see their collection of fine silk batiks in the back. For batik household linens, you can't beat Maruti Textiles, 93 Arab St. (tel. 65/6392-0253), where you'll find high-quality placemats and napkins, tablecloths, pillow covers, and quilts from India. The buyer for this shop has a good eye for style.

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I've also found a few shops in the area that carry handicrafts from Southeast Asia. For antiques and curios, try Gim Joo Trading, 16 Baghdad St. (tel. 65/6293-5638), a jumble of the unusual, some of it old. A lovely antiques shop, Melor's Curios, 39 Bussorah St. (tel. 65/6292-3934), is almost a mini-museum of furnishings, home fixtures, and objets d'art that will fill any Singaporean with nostalgia.

Other unique treasures include the large assortment of fragrance oils at Jamal Kazura Aromatics, 21 Bussorah St. (tel. 65/6293-3320). Muslims are forbidden from consuming alcohol in any form (a proscription that includes the wearing of alcohol-based perfumes as well), so these oil-based perfumes re-create designer scents plus other floral and heady creations. Check out their delicate cut-glass bottles and atomizers as well. Finally, for the crafter in your life, Kin Lee & Co., 109 Arab St. (tel. 65/6291-1411), carries a complete line of patterns and accessories to make local Peranakan beaded slippers. In vivid colors and floral designs, these traditional slippers were always made by hand, to be attached later to a wooden sole. The finished versions are exquisite, plus they're fun to make.

Little India -- I have a ball shopping the crowded streets of Little India. The best shopping is on Serangoon Road, where Singapore's Indian community heads for Indian imports and cultural items. The absolute best place to start is Mustafa Centre, 320 Serangoon Rd./145 Syed Alwi Rd., at the corner of Serangoon and Syed Alwi roads (tel. 65/6295-5855), but be warned, you can spend the whole day there -- and night, too, because Mustafa's is open 24 hours every day. This maze of a department store fills 2 city blocks full of imported items from India. Granted, much of it is everyday stuff, but the real finds are rows of saris and silk fabrics, two floors of jaw-dropping gold jewelry in Indian designs, an entire supermarket packed with spices and packets of instant curries, ready-made Indian-style tie-dye and embroidered casual wear, incense and perfume oils, cotton tapestries and textiles for the home -- the list goes on. And prices can't be beat, seriously.

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Little India offers all sorts of small finds, especially throughout Little India Arcade (48 Serangoon Rd.) and just across the street on Campbell Lane at Kuna's, 3 Campbell Lane (tel. 65/6294-2700). Here you can buy inexpensive Indian costume jewelry like bangles, earrings, and necklaces in exotic designs and a wide assortment of decorative dots (called pottu in Tamil) to grace your forehead. Indian handicrafts include brass work, woodcarvings, dyed tapestries, woven cotton household linens, small curio items, very inexpensive incense, colorful pictures of Hindu gods, and other ceremonial items. Look here also for Indian cooking pots and household items.

Across the street from Little India Arcade, Tekka Centre is being renovated. This popular market carried stall after stall of inexpensive salwar kameez, or Punjabi suits, the three-piece outfits -- long tunic over pants, with matching shawl -- worn by northern Indian ladies, plus lots of cheap Indian-made prêt-a-port. They've all put up in a temporary location along Race Course Road, not far from Tekka Centre.

Punjab Bazaar, #01-07 Little India Arcade, 48 Serangoon Rd. (tel. 65/6296-0067), carries a more upmarket choice of salwar kameez, in many styles and fabrics. If nothing strikes your fancy at Punjab Bazaar, try Roopalee Fashions, a little farther down at 88 Serangoon Rd. (tel. 65/6298-0558). Both shops carry sandals, bags, and other accessories to complement your new outfit.

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Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.