• Dispatch #11 •
I walk through some of the greenest places in Singapore.
Everything grows in Singapore—at least those that can thrive in high temperatures. The muggy, equatorial heat clings to anything alive, coaxing their cells to grow and multiply, turning the Lion City into a lush garden, where the only things that can interrupt you at certain times would be monkeys roaming the trees and birds heading back to their nests.
Here are some of my favorite walks in Singapore:
1. The Singapore Botanical Gardens
Where Old Plants Grow
I start with the garden that showed me the oldest plants. Beyond the small lake where the ducks swim and the pretty white gazebo where many a bride has posed for photographs lies the Evolution Garden, where prehistoric plants grow and moss have claimed huge rocks. It was my favorite spot in the Botanical Gardens. It smelled different there, as though the earth had been lying in wait for millions of years. The trees loomed high and close to each other, shielding me from the scorching heat, even though not all of them were real. The sun cast light rays on the green carpet, making it a very peaceful place to stroll and think. If I close my eyes, I could pretend a velociraptor was lying in wait to tear us little humans into shreds. Seriously, go.
2. MacRitchie Reservoir
Singapore’s Oldest Reservoir
This is a short story of a very lovely morning. I was almost an hour late in meeting my friend Yerim, because I realized I was on the wrong end of the formidable MacRitchie Reservoir. Sheesh, this was one huge bucket of water, I thought as I frantically looked at the map and the pitiful dot that I was. We wanted to trek down the trail and end at the reservoir, and so we did. As hikes go, it was blissfully uneventful, and there were many young and old people hiking, running, or giving a botany lesson. As in most natural places in Singapore, monkeys were seen. At the end, we saw the huge bucket of water that was being used by several kayakers. It was, after all, a Saturday. Looking guilty, we covered our faces while having a snack, because we didn’t know whether it was permitted. It was a very lovely morning. The end.
3. Bukit Timah Nature Reserve
The Highest Point of the Lion City, Where Tigers Used to Roam
I did a Christmas Day hike at the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. My flight out of Singapore was postponed by two weeks, and I was stranded in the country with nowhere to go for the holidays. Seeing a nature reserve was such a relief. I did not have to go to a mall.
It was great that I was not the only one who had the idea, as there were many other people who were hiking that day. Because it was Christmas, people were in a jovial mood, greeting friends and strangers alike. There is something in nature that binds humanity, unlike in shopping malls where they would want to tear each other apart during a holiday sale.
At 163.63 meters high, it wasn’t a remarkable summit though it is supposed to be the highest point in Singapore. But I stopped anyway, watching yet another family of monkeys and being reminded of my primate-hood. It wasn’t a very long walk, so I decided to take one of the side trails, which was not very crowded and indeed I became a bit afraid that I was lost. Eventually, I saw a magnificent curved tree branch in my path—such as relief to have something grow randomly in a country where everything is I order! Soon, I was back where I started, and I looked inside one of the official cottages where I could learn more about Bukit Timah.
Bukit Timah means “tin hill” in Malay. “Hey, it sounds like bukid, which also means ‘hill’ in Filipino!” my Philippine half exclaimed inside. There used to be tigers here, and years ago, because of dwindling habitats, they became a danger to humans, who turned to hunting them. It was the last defensive stand against the invading Japanese army. But right now, it was my refuge for Christmas, and I didn’t feel so alone.
Not far from the cottage was a short walk leading to the Hindhede Quarry, which was a very quiet place where I watched some turtles swim. The reflections on the water made me think I was staring into an Impressionist painting. It was a serene Christmas.
4. The Chinese and Japanese Gardens
The Age of Humans
A kite in the shape of Disney’s Nemo and an energetic cricket match greeted me at the entrance of the Chinese Garden. It was a rich crop of humanity that would make me remember these two interconnected gardens. Indian, Filipino, Malay, and Chinese locals and expats used these public spaces in very interesting ways. At the top of the pavilion, which was only a few stories high, was a view of the traditional facades being swallowed by soaring condominium buildings.
I had my photo taken at the statue of Mulan, because what Asian girl growing up watching the first Chinese Disney princess wouldn’t? There were interesting Confucian statues, pavilions, and symbols rendered in stone. The Chinese Garden was a palette of bright reds and oranges, exactly the way I imagined it to be.
The Japanese Garden, on the other hand, was a lot more muted. It was a calmer oasis of light greens and browns. I encountered a very interesting scene of a purple-haired cosplayer having a photoshoot, and an Indian religious class—the latter I cannot be any more specific with because I didn’t want to interrupt the teacher. But looking at a young man who looked like he came from the future and these group of older men wearing their beautiful traditional garments—both a few steps away from each other—and I remember being happy at finding such diversity in people—something I felt was lacking in Korea, my previous address.
5. Gardens by the Bay
Is This The Future?
South of the city in Marina Bay Sands lies Gardens by the Bay, a beautiful though somewhat ominous garden attraction. Do I really want my plants enclosed under glass? I mused as I walked through the Flower Dome. It was beautiful, though, with beautiful flower gardens admired by beautiful families who had all paid to have a beautiful experience. Did I mention it was beautiful?
In another spot, the Cloud Mountain looked like something from a sci-fi movie. A manmade mountain covered in plants and waterfalls, it was lush and ethereal. I saw an elderly woman gamely having her photograph taken; she looked so happy. I walked up and reached the bridge that made the bottom look like a Lego installation. Seeing the rigid gray pipes made me pause. A part of me wanted to be at a real waterfall beside a real mountain that was born before mankind was. But I appreciated the climate change exhibition they had during my visit.
Outside, the Supertree Grove was a scene from a dream. Vertical tree-like sculptures towered over me like giants. It was beautiful, but instead of xylem and phloem, they had machines inside.
It was all very nice and I didn’t mind paying for the admission, but deep inside I wished I was back in Korea or the Philippines, where the mountains are real and old and had myths surrounding them. It is a very strange feeling to have, as someone who now partly makes a living imagining the future. But I knew one thing: in the future I wouldn’t want children to know of only engineered trees, man-made mountains, and regular flowers growing indoors. By now, I had seen so much of the country’s natural offerings, from a rustic tropical island, to a small hill, to a quiet reservoir, to lush gardens—all of them, I should point out, had human interference one way or another. This futuristic garden was just another option. I hope it stays as the exception rather than become the norm.