Singapore, a gleaming metropolis of soaring skyscrapers, manicured gardens, and people in suits; where shopping malls are supersize, electronics are truly king, and chewing gum is illegal. I have passed through the city many times, but never considered it as more than a brief stop on my way somewhere else. Now I have a three-day visa run and am determined to get a glimpse into life beyond the shiny facade. I catch a bumboat to Pulau Ubin, a small island that is home to one of the last remaining kampoengs (traditional villages in Singapore).
Renting a bicycle I pass through palm groves and rubber plantations and soon find myself in thick rainforest. Sunlight peeps and teases through the leaves, interspersed with drizzly rain. It is disgustingly humid and I feel like I am trapped in a steam bath, the gentle rises in the road leave me pedalling madly and I regret not paying the extra for a mountain bike. A giant − almost Komodo dragon-size lizard stalks across the road in front of me, and monkeys swing through the canopy high above. Eventually I come to the Chek Jawa wetlands, a conservation area that is home to Singapore’s richest ecosystems. The timber boardwalk starts on a pretty boulder strewn beach and winds around a seagrass lagoon. In the shallows I spot cowrie shells, shrimp, star fish and a pair of tiny seahorses. It leads on through giant mangroves and mud mounds, built by the illusive mud lobster, then back onto a path through dense coastal forest. I reach the parking area and find that it has been overrun by monkeys, one perches on the seat of my bike another sits in the wicker basket. Thunder rolls in the distance and the sky has turned black. I really don’t want to get caught in a tropical storm and once I regain possession of my bike – by clapping my hands loudly to shoo the monkeys away – I pedal furiously, passing small farm houses surrounded by fruit orchards, trees laden with ripe durian and fields of tropical flowers. I arrive back at the kampoeng with its quaint houses and Chinese lanterns, just as the rain sets in and find shelter in a quirky restaurant swamped in pot plants and twisting vines to wait out the storm. It’s dark by the time I get back on the boat and the bright twinkling lights of the city beckon across the water.
The natural jungle of old Singapore is left behind and I am soon back in the concrete jungle that is modern Singapore. The bus passes through suburbs filled with colonial mansions and then right through the heart of Geyland, the vibrant and garish red light district with sleazy massage parlours, night markets, and xxx girly bars with pumping music.
Refreshed and showered I head out into the labyrinth of streets that make up Little India which is buzzing with all the trappings and trimmings of the Southern Indian Tamil Culture. The streets are rowdy and chaotic with hawkers selling garlands of yellow flowers and kitch Hindu iconography; Bollywood music blares out from loud speakers. I take a seat in a sidewalk cafe and am soon eating aloo gobi, palak paneer and chapatis, washed down with a mango lassy. The air is thick with the smell of cardamom, and women glide by sheathed in bright saris and laden with gold jewelry. I wander past ornate temples swathed in garish colour and am overcome with nostalgia for my days spent traveling in India. I am easily lured into a costume jewelry shop filled with sparkling adornments, and eventually leave with a bag filled with gaudy earrings, hair trinkets and jingly jangly anklets.
The Evolution Gardens
Located at the famous Botancial gardens, This 1.5 hectare area provides a journey through time and depicts the evolution of life through the ages. The entrance is marked by a column of petrified trees and the path leads through different areas, starting with the barren, desolate ‘Lifeless Earth’ 4,600 million years ago. Onwards through time, I pass prehistoric plants and trees that look like something out of a sci fi film, as well as giant dinosaur footprints, and a magnificent grove of Cycad palms, modern survivors from the Jerassic era. Then on through the first flowering plants that sprang from the earth 144 million years ago.
I have just a few hours left and one item remains on my agenda, and that is to visit Kampoeng Glam – the heart of the Muslim community with streets named Arab, Kadahar and Bhagdad. The breathtaking Sultan Mosque acts as a landmark, it’s design was influenced by the Taj Mahal and it is composed of a mesmerising swirl of minarets and turrets topped with a shiny golden dome. A pedestrian street lined with tall palm trees leads up to the mosque and the area is imbued with a quiet, lazy charm. I spend my last hour exploring the alleyways and small shops filled with spices, Persian rugs and rolls of shimmering silks and rich brocades. And then my time is up, and its with more than a little regret that I make my way to the airport. A city that I had dismissed as boring and soulless has turned out to be multi faceted and endlessly fascinating