First published in ‘Colours‘ Garuda Indonesia’s inflight magazine, April 2017 edition.
In Singapore, you’re never more than a stone’s throw away from a public garden. To celebrate Earth Day, Colours visits one of the world’s greenest cities to explore and soak up Mother Nature in Singapore’s many outdoor spaces.
Singapore is certainly unique: a bustling city-state of 5.78 million people with languages emitted from its streets ranging from Mandarin to Tamil, Malay to English. The country’s first prime minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew, introduced the ‘Garden City’ movement in the mid-1960s, an ideology that has been manifested today in the plethora of green spaces that can be found across this bustling metropolis.
Named the ‘Second Greenest in the World’ by the World Cities Culture Forum, incredibly nearly half of Singapore’s land area is dedicated to parks and gardens. Deciding which ones to visit can be quite a daunting task, so I decided to take some local residents’ advice.
“I guess it depends where in Singapore you live,” says Lina, an expat originally from the Netherlands who has been living in the city for two years. “I live on Robertson Quay and I attend boot camp in the park three mornings a week.” She tells me her favourite outdoor space is Fort Canning due to its close proximity to home, its hills and many steps – perfect for those hardcore workouts she loves so much.
For local resident Byron Lim, it’s the MacRitchie Reservoir, located further north. “You’d either have to drive or take the MRT to Marymount, but it’s worth it once you’re there because you really feel like you’re away from it all – and the kids love it,” he tells me over coffee on the lively Orchard Road. “Just don’t feed the monkeys!” he laughs.
Clearly, the expression ‘each to their own’ applies when attempting to narrow down the city’s must-see green spaces. So, with a general overview of where to go, I strapped on my walking shoes and headed out to explore the great outdoors.
The Futuristic Garden
Gardens by the Bay is arguably Singapore’s most iconic outdoor space. Situated right by Marina Bay, what separates it from the rest is that it may be the only park that is even better enjoyed by moonlight. This revolutionary downtown garden is watched over by 18 towering 25–50m-tall ‘supertrees’ – architectural marvels creeping in plants that provide respite from the tropical sun during the day and light up like an electronic music video at night. Embedded with the environmentally sustainable function of photovoltaic cells that harvest the sun’s energy, these trees stand as a testament to what Singapore is capable of. Walking through its magnificent grounds on a Saturday night, I was awestruck by mankind’s ability to seamlessly blend the futuristic with Mother Earth.
There was laughter to my left: a group of tourists had claimed a piece of green under the supertrees, passing time with their favourite drink poured into plastic cups and snacks brought from outside the grounds. Some seemed deeply engrossed in conversation, barely taking notice of the light-and-sound show unfolding in the supertrees above. I walked through the crowd and made myself comfortable on a large rock, taking in the performance, ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ at the magnificent display of colours and music.
The Colonial Garden
The Singapore Botanic Gardens were established in 1859 by the Agri-Horticultural Society and serve as the city’s more traditional park compared to Gardens by the Bay. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015, the gardens reflect an English landscape style so expansive in size that you need several days to navigate its entirety.
My visit started at the Visitor Centre and Nparks HQ, from where I strolled down to the Symphony Lake, home of turtles and large monitor lizards, as well as the Shaw Foundation Symphony Stage. Slightly further along, at a large stretch of open grass called the Palm Gardens, other visitors had set up camp for the afternoon, lying out on the green enjoying a picnic and a game of Frisbee or football. This appeared to be one of the gardens’ busiest spots, and those in search of quieter corners could easily continue walking to one of the many other lawns on site.
Those with a penchant for orchids may want to stop by the National Orchid Garden, home to the largest display of orchids in the world. With a S$5 (US$3.50) entrance fee for tourists and just S$1 (US$0.70) for senior citizens and students, there is plenty to discover inside, including the VIP Orchid Garden, where new orchid strains are crossbred and dedicated to important visitors from around the world. On my visit, the Barack and Michelle Obama orchid was the proud centrepiece in the main building: a curious pygmy orchid made up of soft purples and yellows.
If, like me, you forgot to pack your own picnic, there are several cafés in the gardens that can replenish you, and Halia Provisions will be able to stock you up with picnic necessities. With a strong local iced black coffee in hand, I sat on a bench and watched park-goers stroll by, the birds swoop overhead, and the leaves in the thousands of trees rustle in the cool afternoon breeze.
The Beach Garden
A local’s favourite weekend spot – and for good reason – the East Coast Park spans over 15km of scenic coastline, within an area of 185 hectares. I took a trip on a Sunday afternoon and opted for two wheels as my means of transportation, renting a bicycle from the park for S$5. Cruising along the shoreline, I felt so far removed from Singapore’s hustle and understood why people come here regularly for a quick escape. Runners, in-line skaters and other cyclists passed me by as I took my time gliding along the boardwalk, soaking up the gentle afternoon breeze and warm sunshine. Out on the sand and under the coconut trees, scores of families and friends gathered to enjoy an afternoon bite and soak up the relaxing ambience a day at the beach never fails to provide. In the water, people were causing a ruckus on jet-skis, while dozens of tankers busied the horizon – the sole reminder that I was still in Singapore.
The Historic Garden
Right in the heart of Singapore, Fort Canning is as steep in history as it is in steps. Sitting at 60m, this hill once served as the headquarters for the Far East Command Centre and the British Army Barracks. Today, the park, which spans 18 hectares, is a history buff’s playground, home to sites such as Raffles House, the Fort Gate and the underground bunker known as the Battlebox. A sally port, a small door leading in and out of the fort, which allowed defenders to enter and exit undetected when under siege, still stands within the gardens and is a haunting reminder of the war.
Fort Canning stands as a living, breathing outdoor museum in the city, although non-history nerds are just as sure to find something to enjoy such as yoga, exercise boot camps, music festivals and heritage walks. Although guided walks are available at most of the parks (typically on weekends), the Singaporean government has also prepared a useful feature called DIY Trail Guides, which intrepid park-goers can easily download from www.nparks.gov.sg. I myself wasn’t done exploring, and was off to see what those cheeky monkeys at MacRitchie Reservoir Park were up to.
Five Senses: Taste
Singaporeans are proud of their rich and diverse street-food culture, housed in the many hawker centres that dot the city. In the East Coast Park, make sure to stop by the popular East Coast Lagoon Food Village. Here, you can find local delicacies ranging from barbecue pork noodles to satay, of course not forgetting the variety of seafood dishes, which won’t cost you a pretty penny
Five Senses: Sound
Singapore never sleeps, and it can be hard to find somewhere to sit in silence.
Within Fort Canning Park lies a space for you to be still and calm your mind. The Meditation Site by Han Sai Por is a row of natural wood benches in a tranquil space, surrounded by greenery and protected from the sun by lofty trees. Here,
I sat with my thoughts and the sound of birdsong for half an hour – a great way to reboot and rejuvenate before returning to the city’s dynamic street life.
Five Senses: Sight
To experience the true spectrum the orchid species has to offer, within the Orchid Gardens at Singapore’s Botanic Gardens awaits the Mist House. Here, I was blown away by the most remarkable exhibition of orchids I have ever seen, ranging from the classic to the downright dramatic. Even if you’re not a fan of these distinctive flowers, you are likely to come away from this greenhouse with a newfound respect for them.