It was a typical humid, sleepy Saturday afternoon in Singapore. Instead of sweating it out cheek-by-jowl with the masses, I decided to escape north on a cool green bus ride to Sembawang Park.
I boarded the yellow Trans-Island bus number 167 on Scotts Road and settled back for a relaxing ride. Approximately 40 minutes later, it was like entering a long, leafy cocoon, with massive rain trees on both sides of the road. I could feel my tension ebbing away.
Farther along on my journey, I disembarked across the road from a row of shops at bus stop B35, and stopped by the air-conditioned The Prata Place. When I took my seat, I was enveloped by the heavenly fragrance of light-as-choux prata, essentially an Indian pancake.
Usually served with chicken curry or mutton, here it comes with many different fillings, such as pineapple, banana, mushrooms, strawberry and chocolate. I opted for a banana prata.
The edges were crispy, while the filling was creamy banana. SG $7 (US $4.50) buys a substantial meal, including teh tarik, literally “pulled tea,” which is poured back and forth from a mug to a glass. The result is frothy, full-bodied and sweet.
Two doors down from The Prata Shop is Han’s, an eatery run by a Hainanese family for the last two decades. It’s always been a popular choice for its pastries and western-style meals. The Hainanese have long had a reputation for being superb cooks of western fare, having worked for the British during Singapore’s colonial times.
Yo ng tau foo, a variety of deep-fried foods made from tofu, is the specialty at the coffee shop at the far end of the row. Each portion is served with lightly blanched vegetables, and everything is slathered with delicious, pale-brown gravy. Each entrée costs about SG $5. (US $3).
From here, bus 138 goes to the Singapore Zoo and the Night Safari. The Singapore Zoo is an “open” zoo where only rock walls and streams prevent the animals from escaping. Special attractions here include Children’s World, the Primate Kingdom, the sea lion and penguin gallery, the air-conditioned polar bear exhibit and a miniature railway. Among the zoo’s many endangered species is the world’s largest colony of orangutans.
The Night Safari is a nocturnal zoo that is adjacent to the Singapore Zoo. There are more than 900 nocturnal animals in eight zones that re-create various geographic regions, such as the Southeast Asian rainforest, African savanna, Nepalese river valley, South American pampas and Burmese jungle.
The Zoo and Night Safari are a major detour, however, and I get back on the next 167 bus and continue my journey. The bus enters Sembawang Road and passes by the Sembawang Golf Course (which is open to the public), then stops opposite the Sembawang Shopping Centre.
The five-story shopping center has a supermarket in the basement and a food court on the 4th floor that serves local fare. One of the best places to eat here is at the Singapore Satay Club, with its trademark tender, succulent Malay-style kebabs that are grilled on the spot.
There are also a number of stalls that offer typical mouth-watering Malay fare, such as mee goring (fried noodles), soto ayam (spicy chicken soup) and lontong (mixed vegetables in spicy coconut sauce).
I get on 167 again, and get off at the Sembawang bus interchange, which is next to the Sembawang MRT station. My journey’s not ended, though. I board bus 882 for the northernmost point of Singapore, the 15-acre Sembawang Beach Park.
When I step off the bus, my hair is whipped by the warm sea breeze. Sembawang Park is Singapore’s only park with a beach, and the fishing pier and beachfront are thronged with people on the weekends. It’s a big park, though, so there are still lots of quiet spots, especially early in the day. It’s a great place to explore, with an underground bunker from WWII and century-old trees.
Beaulieu House, a large colonial home with high ceilings, overlooks the beach. An admiral lived here until the late 1970s, but it’s now a restaurant. The trellised verandah atop the house is where, local lore says, he used to stand, scanning the waters and the nearby Malaysian shoreline.
I backtracked about 650 feet (200 m) out of the entrance of the park to Andrews Avenue. Townhouses along the first part of the avenue and a pub-and-grill called Buckaroo gave way to secondary forest on both sides of the road. It was a peaceful walk, shaded by the tropical rainforest canopy. Few vehicles came this way, and all I heard was the high-pitched drone of tropical crickets.
I soon came across a small mosque that still caters to regular worshippers. Once during mango season, I saw a group of people here harvesting mangoes from the trees that grow along the road.
At the end of the avenue is the Bottle Tree Village, a seafood restaurant. The name comes from the bottle trees growing here that were imported from Australia. To the right of the restaurant is the end point of the Simpang Kiri Park Connector, one of a green network of paved trails that spans 186 miles (300 km) across the whole of Singapore.
The Park Connector Network trails are usually found alongside the canals and rivers that flow through the island. They are green corridors that take walkers and cyclists away from traffic and exhaust fumes, and close to nature.
My bus excursion accomplished the same aim, taking me far from traffic and noise to a beautiful beach where I felt close to nature.
If You Go:
Singapore Tourism Board
I especially like the Creatures of the Night show, a half-hour show that demonstrates the natural abilities of about five species of animals. It’s worth catching at 8 p.m., 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. at the amphitheater, weather permitting. It’s free seating, and the lucky (or unlucky, depending on where you’re coming from) seat is where one of the animals in the show has deliberately been hidden. What kind of animal is it? Well, I’ll keep it a surprise; let’s just say you’ll have a wild, slithery time.
The Park Hoppers Special grants admission into both the zoo and Night Safari at a cost of SG $28 (US $18) for adults and SG $14 (US $9) for children.