North of the downtown area, it’s still possible to glimpse Singapore’s wilder side. True, this sector is as packed with satellite new towns as elsewhere and suburbs shadow the major thoroughfares, but the island’s core remains dominated by thirty square kilometres of rainforest and reservoirs, forming a central nature reserve. Jungle hikes are perfectly feasible and not too taxing, and there are many other points of interest, too, such as Memories at Old Ford Factory, a museum housed in the building where the British surrendered to the Japanese, and Bukit Brown, one of Singapore’s last remaining historic cemeteries. Up in the far north of the island is the area’s main lure, Singapore’s highly regarded zoo (and its Night Safari spin-off), as well as the Sungei Buloh wetland reserve.
Only 2km west of the entrance to MacRitchie Reservoir Park, the Chinese cemetery at Bukit Brown is imbued with a sense of history, of how Singapore society and customs have changed and are still changing. The site, threatened with redevelopment, has been the focus of a concerted campaign to save it, one by-product of which is that volunteers sometimes lead free half-day walking toursthat anyone can turn up for. Even if you don’t come on a tour, the cemetery is well worth wandering for an hour or more: the grounds are lush, there’s the chance to spot wildlife and the tombs are fascinating for their architecture. On a practical note, be sure to bring sunscreen and mosquito repellent.
Bukit Brown is named after G.H. Brown, a British businessman who lived in the vicinity in the mid-nineteenth century. The land was subsequently bought by three Hokkien businessmen, and then in the 1910s, the colonial government acquired part of it to create a sort of official cemetery open to all Chinese subgroups. That section, launched in the 1920s, has become the Bukit Brown cemetery of today. In the 1970s the cemetery was deemed full, since when it has been more or less abandoned (and since when cremation has become largely standard practice in Singapore, given the lack of land).
Bukit Brown’s significance today stems not merely from the importance of some personages buried there, but also from its sheer size – it stretches 2km east to Thomson Road – and location fairly close to downtown. Despite the huge potential of the site, it remained untouched while other old cemeteries were uprooted for redevelopment without a great deal of outcry. But with Singaporeans seemingly becoming much less compliant, a campaign of online petitions, Facebook groups and the like has greeted the government’s recent plans to push a highway down the middle of the cemetery.
At the time of writing, exhumation of graves in the path of the planned road was ongoing, and the road itself may be built by the time you read this. It’s hard to say if the rest of the cemetery will ultimately give way to new housing estates or other projects.
Making up the western fringes of the central nature reserve, Bukit Timah is Singapore’s highest hill and the ideal place to tackle Singapore’s last remaining pocket of primary rainforest. It’s most easily reached from downtown by catching a bus from Little India up Bukit Timah Road, which traverses leafy suburbs en route to Johor Bahru (it was the main road to the Causeway until superseded by the Bukit Timah Expressway). Some 9km on from Little India, the road becomes Upper Bukit Timah Road and soon arrives at the hill itself.
The nature reserve at Bukit Timah was established in 1883 by Nathaniel Cantley, then superintendent of the Botanic Gardens. Wildlife abounded in this part of Singapore in the mid-nineteenth century, when the natural historian Alfred Russel Wallace came here to do fieldwork; he later observed that “in all my subsequent travels in the East I rarely if ever met with so productive a spot”. Wallace also noted the presence of tiger traps, but by the 1930s Singapore’s tigers had met their end (the Visitor Centre displays a photo of the last specimen to be shot on the island).
Long-tailed macaques remain easy to spot, though that does not necessarily mean they are thriving. The central nature reserve has been dissected by highways, degrading its habitat, and when wild fruits are not in season, the macaques may emerge to scavenge around the houses at the base of the hill, peeking in bins for discarded food.
Otherwise, what really impresses is the dipterocarp forest itself, with its towering emergents – trees that have reached the top of the jungle canopy as a result of a lucky break, a fallen tree allowing enough light through to the forest floor to nurture saplings to maturity.
In the southeastern corner of the central reserve, MacRitchie Reservoir is one of the oldest of Singapore’s reservoirs – it was created in the 1860s – and the closest to downtown, Marina Bay excepted. The manicured gardens surrounding the entrance on Lornie Road don’t set the right note for a nature park, but it’s easy enough to get away from them on flattish trails that skirt the glassy waters and then take you into the jungle (allow half a day for the longest loop). Much more relaxed are the water’s-edge boardwalks a short walk to the west and east of the car park. A map of the trails can be downloaded, which also lists details of monthly guided walks.
You can get out on MacRitchie’s waters in a kayak, but the experience is a bit of a mixed bag. With a locally recognized kayaking certificate, people can venture along half the reservoir’s length, but only using monotonous, straight lanes; unqualified kayakers are restricted to a small area at the reservoir’s eastern end. To find out more, talk to Paddle Lodge in the green building a short walk east of the entrance and car park.
In the jungle on the far side of the reservoir, some 2.5km from the Lornie Road entrance as the crow flies, is the Treetop Walk, a 250m circular trail suspended above ground, giving a monkey’s-eye view of the forest. It is a bit of a hassle to reach, but as long as there are no noisy school parties bustling across, you’ve a decent chance of spotting some birdlife.
The old Ford car factory was the first plant of its type in Southeast Asia when it opened in Bukit Timah in October 1941. But by February 1942 the Japanese had arrived, and on February 15 Lt Gen Percival, head of the Allied forces in Singapore, surrendered to Japan’s General Yamashita in the factory’s boardroom. Today the Art Deco building houses a little wartime museum, Memories at Old Ford Factory, making good use of military artefacts, period newspapers and oral history recordings.
While the surrenders that bookended the Japanese occupation obviously get some attention, as do the lives of British POWs, it’s with its coverage of the civilian experience of the war that the museum really scores. Predictably, the occupiers mounted cultural indoctrination campaigns, and displays recall how locals were urged to celebrate Japanese imperial birthdays, and how Japanese shows were put on at Victoria Memorial Hall. This was not a benign intellectual sort of occupation, however. Stung by local Chinese efforts to raise funds for China’s defence against Japan, the Japanese launched Sook Ching, a brutal purge of thousands (the exact number is unknown) of Singapore Chinese thought to hold anti-Japanese sentiments. These violent events are illustrated by, among other items, some moving sketches by Chia Chew Soo, who witnessed members of his own family being killed in 1942. Not least among the privations of occupation were food shortages, as recalled by displays on wartime crops – speak to any Singaporean above a certain age today, and chances are they can tell you of having to survive on stuff like tapioca during those dark years.
Both the zoo and its Night Safari offshoot, on a promontory jutting into Seletar Reservoir, are highly popular, which is partly down to their “open” philosophy: many animals are confined in spacious, naturalistic enclosures behind moats, though creatures such as big cats still have to be caged. It’s a thoughtful, humane approach that may well please even those who don’t generally care for zoos.
Home to more than 300 species, the zoo could easily occupy you for half a day if not longer. A tram ($5/$3) does a one-way circuit of the grounds, but as it won’t always be going your way, be prepared for a lot of legwork.
Highlights include the Fragile Forest biodome, a magical zone where you can actually walk among ring-tailed lemurs, sloths and fruit bats. The white tigers are a big draw too. The animals aren’t actually white, but resemble Siamese cats in the colour of their hair and eyes; at feeding time (2.20pm) great hunks of meat are thrown for them to catch in their mouths.
Primates are something of a strong point: orang-utans swing through the trees overhead close to the entrance, and at the Great Rift Valley zone you can see the communal life of a hundred Hamadryas baboons, including some rather unchivalrous behaviour on the part of males, who bite females to rein them in.
Animal shows and feeding shows run throughout the day, including the excellent Splash Safari, featuring penguins, manatees and sea lions. There are also elephant ($8) and pony ($6) rides, plus a popular water play area called Rainforest Kidzwalk (from 9.30am; bring your children’s swimming gear).