I like to know how people live their everyday lives. I like to know the locations of schools, banks, post offices. When in new places, I visit grocery stores and take as many forms of public transportation as I can. In the places where I’ve lived, I’ve always really enjoyed visiting parts of time at the wrong of day – not night but day. When I lived in downtown Rochester, NY in my early twenties, it was not uncommon to visit the bar district on a Saturday morning run. Completely different place in every way – colours, lights, sounds, smells, people. Completely different place and often disarmingly so.
That’s what I really enjoyed about walking through Clarke Quay in Singapore on a recent weekday morning. Colours, lights, sounds, smells, people. Completely different place.
Because we usually see them in their glory, we sometimes forget that bars have to close up, too. Work continues after last call and begins far earlier than you or I would ever be there.
It’s eerie, in a way, ghostlike and still when it’s “supposed to” be loud and awake. Who was here last night? I wonder. Who went home laughing and who in tears? What stories were told in this spot mere hours earlier?
But at the same time, all is fresh and new. Waiting for new people, a new night, new stories.
We forget, sometimes, to look around. Out at night, immersed in all there is, we find our friends, enjoy food and drink, walk in the direction of the best music.
In the pulse of distraction, sometimes we forget to look around. But when we do, there’s vivid colour.
There are a few places in Singapore that feel airless. They are hot and humid and feel a bit like you’re being sucked right into the earth. Fort Canning Park, although beautiful, is one of these places and despite its central location I’ve spent hardly any time there. One stroll on the way home from the National Museum many years ago and a memorable evening of Shakespeare in the Park have largely been it. There are other parks with far more air to visit.
However, it was because of Fort Canning’s convenient location that a few friends and I decided to meet early in the morning to take photos. Despite the heat, and it really was very uncomfortably hot even just after dawn, we spent a very lovely morning exploring.
My friends (who know such things) assured me that this is a famous Instagram spot . . .
. . . but there was beauty to capture everywhere.
It’s impossible to live in Singapore and not cross the street directly in front of Fort Canning Park but I didn’t know that old colonial history lived right behind the fence on the other side of a grove of trees. Now I know a little bit more about the city I’ve lived in for almost five years.
There’s also something majestic about the juxtaposition of nature that has watched over us for so long and the colonial legacy that Singapore both honours and works to overcome.
My favourite part of our walk was Sang Nila Utama Garden – it felt like we’d turned a corner and ended up in Bali.
And there’s so much more to see! First thing in the morning was definitely the time to be there in terms of light and temperature, but also because of the feeling of calm that settled over me having started the day in such a tranquil place.
It’s great to travel but it’s good to explore your own backyard, too.
Most people know that Singapore is an island off the southern tip of Malaysia. Fewer people know that Singapore has about 64 satellite islands and one outlying island. (In all honesty, I didn’t know those numbers until I looked it up to write this post.) One benefit to being in Singapore for the summer has been ample time to go exploring! This post is a quick overview of my recent travels to some of Singapore’s other islands.
I’ve wanted to go to Pulau Ubin since I first moved to Singapore in 2015. One morning, a friend and I cycled out to the ferry terminal at Changi Point, paid $6 each for bumboat fare with the bikes, and waited mere minutes until the boat left with its maximum capacity of 12 passengers (4 of which were bikes).
There are plenty of bike rentals on the island but easy enough to take our own. Much of Pulau Ubin is made up of mountain bike trails and the one benefit to rental bikes is that they’re already pretty beat up. We were there on a muddy day and mostly stayed away from the mountain bike trails but there was plenty of easy cycling to keep us busy.
In addition to bike trails, Pulau Ubin is known for fishing and camping and there is an option to spend the night. Unlike the islands that I’ll discuss below, some people do live on Pulau Ubin (population was under 40 when I checked) and there are a few places to eat and drink there. There are also picnic tables at clearly labeled locations on the maps conveniently found around the island. We brought snacks and that served us just fine.
(Thank you to my friend for the Pulau Ubin photos below.)
I didn’t take pictures (again, thanks to my friend!) because I travelled the island by bike but I do want to highlight the flora and fauna that we saw. In addition to very tame wild boar and far more monkeys than one normally sees, Pulau Ubin is home to birds not found elsewhere in Singapore and some really beautiful mangroves that have been painstakingly restored. It’s a very special thing to walk along the narrow boardwalk between the mangroves and the sea.
For those of us who spend most of our time in cities, Pulau Ubin is a chance to experience one of Singapore’s last kampongs and an environment that we do not find elsewhere. If I’m able to go back, I’ll definitely take photos.
St. John’s, Lazarus, and Kusu
These three islands sit partially inside Sisters’ Marine Park and are about 40 minutes away from Singapore by ferry. The ferries leave from Marina South Pier and move between islands according to a set schedule. One round trip ticket costs $15 and there was no fee for bikes. The islands are quite large if you plan to explore on foot but bikes allowed us to cover a lot more ground and spend time in places that would have been a little too far to walk. It is also important to note that are no shops or restaurants (and nowhere to refill water bottles) on the islands but plenty of food stalls at the ferry terminal.
Our day started out bright and sunny and it was a lot of fun to see Singapore’s skyline from the other side.
And then the wind started to pick up. The color of the water changed from blue to steel gray and clouds took over the sky. The islands we were approaching disappeared and we were suddenly very, very small.
As happens in the tropics, especially during the monsoon seasons, if it looks like it’s going to rain, it does. The question of where it rains, however, is a good one. We watched rain on Singapore while the sun came out again on St. John’s. We saw plant species that I’d never seen before and so many coconuts!
We didn’t go in the water but I did take a few minutes to make my way down the rocks as far as I could go. There are many parts of St. John’s and Lazarus that have accessible (and lovely) beaches but it’s always an experience to go look where no one is looking.
We cycled from St. John’s over to Lazarus where we found people fishing and taking advantage of largely private beach space. My favorite part was watching the sky and this is why I’m not sorry we ventured out here during the rainy season. We watched another storm roll into Singapore and then continue straight for us. The sky darkened and we chased the wind to a gazebo where we ate our picnic sitting on towels on the ground.
The rain was quick and we had time for another quick cycle. It really is wonderful to be somewhere without cars and without buildings.
The ferry brought us from Lazarus to Kusu, a tiny little island that is close enough to Lazarus to swim if you’re so inclined. It is enshrined in legend that vary in telling, but all versions contain Chinese and Malay symbolism and remain culturally significant. In the legend, a tortoise turned itself into an island to save shipwrecked sailors. In actual history, the island has had many uses over time and is mostly built on reclaimed land.
Tortoises are found all over Kusu, both real ones in a sanctuary and in the form of giant statues. Kusu is also home to a Chinese temple that is visited on pilgrimage during the ninth lunar month.
I don’t know that I’ll visit St. John’s, Lazarus, or Kusu again but I’m glad to have done so. There’s a lot more to Singapore than sparkly buildings and I’m glad to be able to share that.
I first visited Coney Island on foot at the end of March, which was shortly before Singapore’s circuit breaker began on April 7. Since then, I’ve returned several times by bike. It’s a quick little ride or a longer stroll but feels like a different world. Have a look at the blog post linked above for details and pictures!
If there’s a silver lining to Covid-19, it is that I have been forced to explore that place that I live. A friend once said, “Singapore is small enough that if someone ever asks, ‘Have you ever done…?’ you should be able to say yes.”
Journey on. Journey well.
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place