In Singapore, the trains run on time, the streets are clean, crime is barely worth thinking about and visitors get through immigration in just a few minutes. It’s an incredibly convenient place to visit, even if you only have six hours to kill between flights. But the tourist infrastructure is set up for profit, and visitors are herded towards malls, casinos and other places where they can rid themselves of their cash.
But if that’s not your thing, there’s another side to Singapore. Beyond all those gleaming towers of commerce, it’s also full of offbeat charms. It’s colourful, multicultural and full of rich tradition. It’s packed solid with wondrous tech nerdery and there are even a few hairy beasts. Here’s a quick guide to some of Singapore’s more unusual attractions.
#1 Haw Par Villa
This bizarre religious-themed amusement park is by far Singapore’s weirdest tourist attraction. It was opened in the ’30s by the super-wealthy brothers who invented Tiger Balm, and it still has some vintage advertising as a reminder of its origins. But mostly, Haw Par Villa uses the medium of painted concrete diorama to tell stories from Chinese folklore. And Chinese myths are every bit as colourful as their Greek and Norse counterparts. If the statue of the giant crab with a lady’s head isn’t strange enough for you then check out the Journey to the West exhibit. (It’s based on the same story that inspired the TV show Monkey Magic.) Or better yet, wander through the courts of hell, where untoward folk are ‘drowned in the filthy blood pond’ or roasted on red-hot copper pillars and the still-beating hearts are cut from the chests of the ‘disrespectful and ungrateful’.
There’s enough gore here to fill up a metal video. It’s so grisly that many Singaporeans hate Haw Par Villa, because their parents took them here as youngsters to scare them into behaving. Perhaps that’s why it seems a little windswept these days, and why entry is free.
#2 Prawn fishing
Fishing prawns out of a pool-sized tank seems as close as you could possibly come to literally shooting fish in a barrel. Until you try it, that is. It’s surprisingly difficult, and it’s slightly frustrating that there’s always one guy sitting by the same tank who’s much, much better at it than you. There are about a dozen places in Singapore where you can catch your dinner with a fishing rod, and then fry it up on a barbecue. At some of them, you can watch sports on a TV and order a beer while you do it. It’s fishing for people who hate nature.
#3 Bird singing corners
Every morning, groups of men (and it’s almost always men) take their birdcages to one of a dozen or so of Singapore’s bird singing corners, where they sit around, drink coffee and argue about whose birds are best. On competition days (which always fall on a Sunday) birds are judged on how well they sing and how they dance, and the men complain about the judges. Perhaps the most interesting corner is at Ang Mo Kio, where the birdmen pull their cages up very tall poles onto a hook (because the birds nest and fly at that height). When it’s full, there are literally hundreds of cages, and birds warbling in each one. It’s a great place to soak up a bit of local culture and also to chat with devoted enthusiasts, who love talking about their hobby. Before you know it, you’ll have no trouble telling a red whiskers from a merbok.
#4 Monkey walks
Let’s get one thing straight: monkeys aren’t cute. Especially macaques. On your first trip to Southeast Asia, you inevitably learn that they’re just super-intelligent rodents with opposable thumbs and a penchant for theft. It’s not unheard of for monkeys to sneak into kitchens in search of food, so many Singaporeans consider them a pest. Once a month, though, the Jane Goodall Institute does a little public relations on behalf of the much-maligned macaque. The institute hosts a monkey walk at MacRitchie Reservoir, which is one of Singapore’s best patches of green, and a surprisingly good place for wildlife spotting. Large monitor lizards often thump their way through the undergrowth. Red-eared terrapins are common. You might spot a snake or two. And monkeys, of course, are everywhere. Some extra commentary on our distant, furry cousins is a nice addition to this nature stroll.
#5 Selfie Coffee
Selfie Coffee is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a place where the baristas pour a dense layer of creamy stuff on top of a coffee, and then print photos onto the foam. It’s located on Haji Lane, which is full of teenagers taking pictures of themselves in front of overpriced bike shops. It’s selfie-stick central, so they’ve picked their location wisely. The printing process yields some pretty impressive results. You too, could have one of these:
Why, you ask? Maybe it’s amusing to caffeinate a picture of your face. Maybe it’s vanity. Then again, I doubt it. Because the true joy of Selfie Coffee is the process of smashing up your own face with a straw.
Weirdly enough, the coffee is actually pretty good. But obviously that’s not why you come here.
#6 Nerdy museums
The Housing Development Board’s ode to its own policies (which really did revolutionise the way Singaporeans live, by the way) pales next to the wonder of the tax department’s museum to itself. Singapore must be the only place on earth where a tax museum wouldn’t be vandalised. That might be because the law takes an exceptionally dim view of vandalism, but it’s also because the taxman doesn’t take very much, as the exhibits make very clear.
Or, if you’re willing to take the train to the end of the line, you could visit the Singapore Discovery Centre and the Army Museum, which both have a rather patriotic take on Singapore. The former is packed with high-tech exhibits, which let you plan the city state’s future or even defend it from invaders. The Army Museum isn’t one of those places where you get a sombre lesson about sacrifice. It’s where you go to shoot an M-16 (or Singapore’s own assault rifle the SAR-21) on a digital range and come out with an pretty cool story.
(All images are author’s own.)
Timothy McDonald is a former ABC journalist who fled Sydney a few years ago for some tropical warmth. He currently lives in Singapore, where he eats lots of sea creatures, complains about the humidity and carries around too much camera gear. He's currently freelancing, mostly as a video journalist and television producer, with a few radio and online commitments thrown into the mix. He Tweets here and Instagrams here.