[As published on Ask Men UK, April 2014]
Surprisingly, This Is Singapore…
Long the traditional stopover for anyone heading to the Far East, Singapore has maintained its sparkly-clean reputation as Asia’s super-city of tower blocks and malls for decades now. Great for killing a few hours between flights? Yes. Top of the list for the next sunshine break? Probably not… yet.
If you’re thinking of dismissing your next stop here with a book and a bowl of noodles at the airport, it’s time to think again. In fact, we’d even go as far as to say, it’s absolutely worth dedicating a whole holiday to this city, because Singapore has a whole lot more going on than even the guide books care to admit. Away from the neon lights of Chinatown, the glistening glassy towers of Marina Bay and the aromatic side streets of Little India, there’s a whole different side to this region — one home to wild jungles, old Chinese shophouses and colourful markets displaying funny-shaped fruits you’ve probably never heard of. This side of Singapore is designed for the curious and adventurous — and believe us, it’s worth fitting in.
Cycle through the jungle
Just a 10-minute bumboat ride (S$5 return) from the eastern Changi Village is the tiny island of Pulau Ubin. Here, the spotless paved streets and high-rise hotels give way to a cluster of tin-roof, open-front stores offering fresh coconuts and bicycles for hire. Grab yourself a mountain bike (with a lock) for the day (S$5) and opt to explore the island’s dusty paths on your own, where you’ll come across everything from red jungle-fowl and singing Hornbill to giant mangrove trees and even a few wild boar (warning: they aren’t the friendly type and will aggressively try to steal from you). The Chek Jawa Wetlands area to the east of the island is a must for spectacular views over the sea.
Get historical on horseback
An abandoned graveyard may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly an incredible way to learn about the area’s complex history. Almost every tomb at the Bukit Brown Cemetery tells a story, many dating back to the fall of Singapore to Japanese occupation during World War II. You can even trace the routes taken by soldiers as they were forced to retreat — and it’s humbling to think this exact site was once a raging battlefield. Tours are conducted by English-speaking volunteers either on foot, by bicycle and even on horseback. Due to low turn-outs, the council are thinking of bull-dozing the whole site to the ground, so be sure to visit while you can — although, it’s these limited numbers that makes the experience more special. Take the 855 bus from HarbourFront Station to Lorong Halwa and it’s just a short walk.
Sand, sea and island hopping
Stilt piers, fresh-fruit markets and plenty of sandy beaches don’t sound too much like a classic Singapore scene, do they? That’s because this next area is not technically in Singapore — but at just a 45-minute ferry ride away, it’s close enough. The Indonesian island of Bintan is easily reached by catamaran from the city’s Tanah Merah Terminal, and deserves at least a couple of days of your time. Sip regional beers at the island’s many lush resorts or head straight for the capital, Tanjung Pinang, and opt for the three-hour forest hike to the top of Bintan Besar (376m) for stunning views of winding rivers and thick jungle. To get there from Tanjung, jump on a bus to Kampong Sekuning — and don’t forget to bring good hiking shoes. Many visitors here just hop over for the day.
Step back in time
Back in the 1960s, Singapore was a very different place. Made up of hundreds of tiny villages, the city skyline wasn’t yet made up of lego-style towers and communities were small with three or four generations of the same family living under one tin roof in simple bungalow-style homes. They picked fruit from the mango trees in the garden, fished in the local canal for dinner and kids played in the street while chickens roamed around freely. Today, as we all know, it’s a completely different story — well, except for at one little kampong (village) in the northeast of the city called Lorong Buangkok. Things here haven’t changed much and the locals have managed to avoid the sprawling city lights and maintain their sense of simplicity. Of course, it’s just a matter of time before this changes; but for now, it’s a little part of an era long past. Head here to marvel over just what a difference 50 years can make, while sipping a steaming pot of tea in a local Chinese shophouse.
How to get there
Avoid the usual squash in cattle-class by opting for a flight with Qatar Airways (qatarairways.com / 0333 320 2454), who seriously impressed with their seat space and dinner menu. Economy flights to Singapore start from £564, with return business class flights from £1,832.