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.
It’s always important to get outside. We know this, and it seems to be increasingly part of collective awareness because there are currently so many restrictions on movement. I am so, so grateful that we’re still able to get out and about in Singapore and I am taking advantage of this simple freedom as much as possible.
Over the weekend, my social cohort and I met early in the morning to take the MRT all the way to Punggol, the northernmost terminus of the North-East Line. From there, we caught the 84 bus to Punggol Waterway Park, is exactly what it sounds like. We were greeted by a turtle pond!
We walked along the path next to the water until we reached the bridge to Coney Island, also known as Pulau (“island” in Bahasa Melayu) Serangoon. Click here to read about the history of the island, which opened to the public in 2015 after ownership changed hands repeatedly beginning around the 1930s.
While much of Singapore looks like this . . .
. . . Coney Island felt like a whole world away.
We heard birds that we don’t hear in the city and saw different flowers, which I really enjoyed.
There were neat mushrooms, too!
It was great to smell the sand and the sea and the sand felt different here than it does in other parts of Singapore.
We walked the length of the island and then turned back to head back to Punggol Waterway Park. It was very hot and we were glad we’d ventured out in the morning. Except for a toilet, there are no amenities on Coney Island so if you’re planning to spend some time there, make sure you rent bicycles before crossing the bridge and stock up on snacks! There’s plenty to eat and drink along the promenade leading to the bridge but nothing but trees and beach once you’re on the island. Trees, beach, and groups of old men fishing.
Since we’re surrounded by glittering skyscrapers, it’s easy to lose sight of what Singapore used to be. And it’s the juxtaposition of the two landscapes that I love.
I’ve been very privileged to be able to travel abroad to wonderful places with students. Just like last year in Yunnan and the previous year in Battambang, Cambodia, my school worked with the JUMP! Foundation who develop, design, and manage our programs. As trip lead for the past three years, I have a close relationship with JUMP! – and in all honesty, they make me question my career choices every time. It is an honour to work with them.
For many students, this was their first time playing backpacker. We took an overnight train, three bus rides, and a short train throughout our trip. There’s a lot to see and do in Yunnan and we were all over the place in our six days of travel.
Our first stop was the town of Baisha. We arrived there after flying from Singapore to Kunming and taking a nine-hour night train from Kunming to Lijiang. This was my third experience on a night train and I slept surprisingly soundly. The earplugs probably helped, as perhaps did having the lower bunk. From Lijiang, Baisha is only about thirty minutes away by bus.
Like most of where we go on these trips, Baisha is a small rural community and it’s beautiful.
I was particularly fascinated with how buildings are constructed and how space is used.
Our primary reason for being in Yunnan was to engage with the environment around us and the minority groups that live there. Our first real activity was a hike up to Fuguo Monastery, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery that has been around since 1601. The hike was beautiful and we really enjoyed the cool air. We don’t get air like that in Singapore.
I’ve been to many temples and monasteries and I really enjoy them. I enjoy their beauty, their quiet, and their overwhelming sense of peace. I do sometimes wonder if that comes from shutting out the outside world and its problems, but that did not seem to be the case here, such as when the monks utterly defeated our students in our annual basketball game.
Our exploration of the landscape continued the following day. We hiked up to a reservoir located just outside of town towards the monastery and then down to a village located alongside Wenhai Lake. The terrain was steep and damp from the previous night’s rain and it changed as we walked. Once again, the air tasted different from the air that we have in Singapore and the wind came from a different direction. There were times during our walk when I lost myself in the forest and in the sensations of being somewhere foreign yet completely familiar.
It is a true pleasure to feel like I’m somewhere new and to look around at a completely different sky. Singapore is dense and full of tall buildings; our time in Yunnan gave me some much-needed solace and an escape from a world that I often feel is moving too quickly.
From our forest walk, we visited the Baisha Naxi Embroidery Institute where we learned traditional Naxi Dongba calligraphy. The symbols are pictographs that can be combined in a variety of ways to create many different messages. It was a lot of fun to use the calligraphy brush! We also learned traditional embroidery, which the kids really enjoyed and which reminded me of the sewing I used to do in elementary school.
We did not stay still in Yunnan, however. After two nights in Baisha we took a three-hour bus ride to Laojunshan. If I’m going to return to any part of Yunnan on my own, Laojunshan is it. I didn’t know it before I arrived, but the area is China’s traditional climbing heaven and as soon as we got there, I understood why.
The buildings are beautiful, too, and fit so completely into the red sandstone that was everywhere.
Many people from the Lisu minority community live in the area around Laojunshan and are known for their music and dance. We visited the home of famous Lisu musicians who have performed as far away as France. We spent an afternoon with them to make bamboo flutes and learn traditional Lisu dances. A week later, my flute still tastes and smells like wood and smoke, which I love.
Later that evening we had the opportunity to put our Lisu dance steps into practice, which was great fun. Laojunshan is basically one long street and the nightly entertainment is dancing! We gathered with the community after dark in a large courtyard with lights, tables, and benches and followed along as best we could. The Lisu women had beautiful costumes and many men were involved in the dance, too.
When we left the dancing, I looked up at the stars. It was so dark and there were so many stars. We don’t see that in Singapore.
Another thing we don’t see in Singapore is mountains. The following day we climbed Thousand Turtle Mountain, which was astonishingly beautiful. The views are glorious and the day was fresh and new from rain the night before. I loved watching the light and the mountains appear from the mist. I took some time to write and to sit and breathe the air; there aren’t many occasions when the world feels right to me but this was certainly one of those, for which I am grateful.
Thousand Turtle Mountain feels like a different world from anywhere but it was starkly different to Lijiang, our final destination that afternoon. Lijiang is about three hours by bus from Laojunshan and the home of the closest airport to where we were. At just over a million people, one of my Chinese colleagues pronounced it tiny. Considering we’d spent the week in towns so small that you could count the number of streets, Lijiang felt huge.
Rather than spend any time in the city, though, we headed straight to Lijiang Old Town, which used to be the market district. It maintains that character and flavour through winding, twisting, narrow streets full of shops but the shops today are for tourists. They sell souvenirs, food, and beverages of every kind. I do enjoy a market in any form and it was fun to wander around and see what there was to see. I really did like the architecture, too. Most buildings in the parts of Yunnan I have visited have exteriors far grander than I would have expected and it always catches me by pleasant surprise.
Throughout our time in Yunnan, I photographed flowers. We have lots of flora in Singapore but I love exploring the beauty of the places that I visit. It’s all so different! And there were so many purple ones!
The following day, we were back at the train station for a high speed train to Kunming to catch the flight that would take us to Singapore. We spent six days in a different world and I am grateful for each one of them, and for the people I spent time with along the way. It is experiences like this that make me feel right in the world and this one came at a good time.
Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt. – John Muir
Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place