A modern city, bursting with sleek high rises and business suited inhabitants of a corporate world. Bustling with people. Filled with shopping malls. Chaotic. Frenetic.
Well yes, Singapore is all of those things, but I also found another side to this incredible city. A green side.
I am always looking for the natural side of cities because they are a big part of what makes cities special to me. It is the reason I didn’t love New York but am obsessed with Vancouver. The reason I chose Sydney over Melbourne to live in. Why I will go back to live in my home country of New Zealand one day.
I am keen for green.
During our 24 hour stopover on the way to South Africa coupled with the four nights we spent there on the way back, I noticed an underlying natural beauty to Singapore that could almost be overlooked in this concrete jungle of the city.
Wandering along the streets in the city there were small reminders of the pre-urban environs. Fragrant flowers provided bursts of colour to a background of steel and glass. Large angsana trees line the upmarket Orchard Road and dense foliage grows wildly in tropical parks. These little swaths of green have hung in there despite the high level of urbanisation.
Modernisation of Singapore has failed to completely extinguish the city’s jungled beginnings. A reminder that Nature cannot be completely repressed.
Chinatown was the first place we explored in Singapore and we immediately were surrounded by green as we walked along the outskirts of the district through lush parkland. Rogue chickens pecked at the rich soil on the side of the pathway which was shaded by a canopy of vine draped trees. A rooster greeted us from atop a tree stump. A small, rural enclave in the big city.
The Singapore Botanic Gardens were another fantastic spot to escape the fast pace of city life. Free to enter you could wander around for hours, surrounded by rolling fields and native trees. There is a dense pocket of tropical rainforest with a raised boardwalk that takes you through thickets of vegetation. Flying squirrels dart from tree to tree and the air is thick and humid. Singapore is one of the only cities in the world to have tropical rainforest within the city limits, along with Rio de Janeiro.
Also within the Botanical Gardens is the National Orchid Garden which is home to the largest display of orchids in the world: Over 60,000 plants! Set over 3 hectares, the Orchid Garden includes a mist house, which was very refreshing to walk through both for the orchids and for me, and a cool house, which recreates the environment of a tropical highland forest. The morning before our visit to the Botanical Gardens was stressful when we took the wrong bus and ended up in the middle of nowhere but all of my worries washed away while walking among the beautiful orchids.
Another garden in Singapore that is well worth a visit is the impressive Gardens by the Bay. The main gardens are lush and tropical, surrounded by the waters of Marina Bay on one side and encompassing a lake and a river. Giant glass domes encase a cloud forest and a world of flowers, both which looked amazing but were out of our price range. The stars of the show are the manmade super trees, giant creations that light up in a display of beautiful colours at night, but the rest of the gardens are very natural.
We saw locals running along the river as the night approached and the air became cooler. Sitting riverside at an outdoor food court, we ate sticks of chicken and prawn satay as the night got dark, surrounded by trees with fairy lights strung between them. A cool breeze drifted off the water.
The most unique green space we found in the city was the 213 acre Bukit Brown Cemetery, a historic cemetery bordered by a busy highway. It is believed to be the largest Chinese cemetery outside of China and is the last resting place to around 100,000 people.
It is delightfully lush and overgrown, with some headstones completely engulfed by the long grasses and jungle vegetation. It feels more like a nature reserve than a cemetery and it’s a shame it isn’t because a large section of this peaceful place will be destroyed soon to make way for an eight lane road. The exhumation of graves has already begun and sections of the cemetery were closed off when we visited, but there is still so much space to explore and we hardly saw anyone else during our ramble.
The sun finally came out on our last day in Singapore so we headed to Sentosa, determined to find a natural side to this flashy tourist island. Walking across the Sentosa Boardwalk that links the island to the mainland, we continued on past numerous theme parks, tacky souvenir shops and American chain restaurants. It certainly felt like a South East Asian Disneyland and I suspect that is exactly what they are going for. The closer we got to the other side of the island, the quieter it became.
Arriving on Palawan Beach we were pleasantly surprised. I have always heard that the beaches in Singapore are nothing great but I thought it was beautiful with its swaying palm trees, crescent of white sand and sparkling waters. It wasn’t completely undeveloped (it is still Sentosa after all) but it was more tastefully done, just a couple of discreet beach bars/restaurants to compliment the natural beauty. The beach was relatively empty with just a few people sunning themselves on the sand or swimming in the slightly murky sea.
We had left the crowds behind at the theme parks.
A suspension bridge spanned the short channel between the beach and tiny Palawan Island, the southernmost point of Continental Asia. There wasn’t much on the island, just a tiny beach, a couple of towers you could climb up for a view over the Singapore Strait and a few palm trees.
It felt so good to soak up the sun between dips in the reasonably cool ocean. I wandered the other section of Palawan beach along from the suspension bridge and came across a peacock also out for a wander.
After days of rain, our perfect morning at the beach could not have been more appreciated.
We only had the chance to visit a few of Singapore’s green spaces. There are so many more that I would love to experience in the future such as the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve with its tropical rainforest and hiking trails, Pulau Ubin which is a small island off the coast where there is a traditional Malay Kampong (village) and MacRitchie Reservoir and its treetop walk.
Singapore is a super modern city that has risen out of the jungle, seemingly changed completely from what it once was, but nature stills lives there.
You just need to know where to look for it.