Discovering Singapore’s Hidden Charm
Modern. Efficient. Expensive. Clean - sometimes even “sterile”. Fashionable. Orderly. Futuristic. These are words that I’ve heard to describe Singapore. Not necessarily in a disparaging way. These things appeal to some, but not to others. This was my first experience of Singapore in 2009 on a short stopover.
Some travellers to South East Asia are looking for something different, and they can be dismissive of a Singapore that appears work-centric, industrialised, commercial. At first glance, it looks manufactured or inauthentic. The scale of Marina Bay Sands built on reclaimed land to house the giant Casino, infinity pools, VIP areas, and endless shopping zones. Sentosa, with artificial beaches, overpriced beach clubs trying too hard. Gaudy Clark Quay, where shopfronts have an upper story made to look like village townhouses… but they are just decorations. Rooftop bars full of traders and London staffing guys eyeing up your watch trying to decide if you’re worth talking to or not.
But there is another side to the place. Historic. Diverse. Serene. Laidback. Culturally rich. Intriguing.
One morning, I set off for a long walk with no phone, no maps, no credit card, no money just to see where it would take me. I walked through Kent Ridge Park and followed the Canopy walk into tropical gardens at HortPark. Then onto well beaten woodland paths and grassy parks in Labrador and Mount Faber. Beautiful views, exotic wildlife, and points of interest like the Henderson Waves .
Dozens of mental notes adding to my list of things to follow up on.
- A secret tunnel at Labrador Park, haunted by a pontianak (a vampiric, vengeful female ghost). If you hear the sound of an infant crying and the smell of the plumeria flower or a decaying corpse then you must run away and never look back.
- A bizarre and nightmarish journey through Ten Courts of Hell at Haw Par Villa. A decaying theme park created by the founders of Tiger Balm, populated with gruesome statues depicting torture of sinners.
- A WWII museum at Bukit Chandu (Malay for “Opium Hill”), detailing the story of heroism of the Malay Regiment who held the hill against the advancing Japanese army during the Battle of Pasir Panjang. I had read about the battle in J. G. Farrell’s novel.
On another day, I headed off east on the MRT to Punggol. Had some fresh seafood before catching a boat to peaceful Pulau Ubin. There you can visit a traditional “kampung”, sleepy old village and explore the island by bicycle, dodging the wild boar who roam freely, while listening out for call of hornbills. The terrain varies from thick jungle to coral reefs, and mangrove swamps where mudskippers wallow. I learned about the dugong, an occasional visitors to these parts. It is a critically endangered marine mammal, similar to a manatee, known as the “sea cow” or “the lady of the sea” to some, and said to have inspired ancient legends of mermaids.
I soaked up the atmosphere of Pulau Ubin and took it back with me to mainland Singapore where it could be invoked again and again. Monitor lizards rooting around in the undergrowth of an urban primary rainforest in Botanic Garden. Thrilling treetop walks and wetland boardwalks at Bukit Timah, where you can keep your eyes peeled at sunset for pangolins and colugos. Kampung-style Peranakan cuisine like nothing you’ve tasted before. In every street shaded by a rain tree, every HDB block where the Asian Koel calls out endlessly, wherever you go there are hints of the rich atmosphere and heritage of Singapore that you can come to appreciate.
My walk home from work had two options. I could follow the busy dual carriageway through Buona Vista - high rise buildings, ultramodern shopping centres and futuristic technology parks. Or I could take the back roads. Cutting through parks, winding through old pathways and boardwalks, and onto the greenway.
For those willing to venture off the beaten path, Singapore reveals its secrets and invites you to experience its diverse and intriguing culture.