Category Archives: Singapore

Haw Par Villa: Singapore’s hell on earth

Somewhere near Fort Canning Park, we lose our way and ask a few Singaporeans for directions to the nearest metro. A chatty old lady invites us to come along, as she’s headed there too. “Where are you going?” she wants to know. “Haw Par Villa,” I say, hoping I’ve pronounced it correctly. “Haw Par Villa? There’s nothing there!” the lady says dismissively. “It’s just an old park.” She proceeds to suggest a long list of places that we’ve already been to or have no interest in visiting. Fortunately, the metro is right in front of us; so we thank her and go to Haw Par Villa anyway.

A graceful statue at Haw Par Villa, Singapore
A graceful statue

The place owes its name to two Burmese-Chinese brothers – Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, who built it atop a hill as a venue to impart teachings about traditional Chinese values.

The ‘villa’ is a part of the theme park, commissioned for Aw Boon Par, by his doting elder brother. The sheer size (eight acres) and scale of the park shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that the Boon brothers were the sons of the man who came up with the famous Tiger Balm. Even today, statues of tiger cubs grace the entrance courtyard, along with a car that sports a tiger’s face on its bonnet. The story goes that the brothers first built these ‘Tiger Cars’ in 1927 to make it down the hill quickly. Eventually, they became excellent marketing mediums for the Tiger Balm brand.

Legends abound

The park’s history is as long as the legends that shroud its present. Featuring several macabre, larger than life sculptures and scenes from Chinese folklore and mythology, it’s inevitable that tales of ghosts and hauntings abound.

A ram and serpent look at you askance
A ram and serpent look at you askance

The eerily realistic Ten Courts of Hell have even led some to believe that Haw Par Villa is the gateway to hell on earth. If that were true, it would be a scene straight out of the popular television series ‘Supernatural’.

Just like the Singapore Botanical Gardens, Haw Par Villa is right outside the metro station that goes by the same name. I arrive there on a sunny afternoon and squint at the curved Chinese-style entrance with a tiger carved above the name of the park and dual-coloured twisting manmade masses to my right, masquerading as rocks. The path leading up to the gates is lined with the same twisting rocky walls, creating the illusion of having already entered the park.

A Chinese saint

A forbidding statue of an open-mouthed Chinese saint with contrastingly calm eyes makes for a strange sight. Further on, a ferocious serpent and a ram carved to perfection, gaze at you askance. You get the distinct feeling that the creatures in the park aren’t quite inanimate. Some say that the statues at Haw Par Villa are actually corpses encased in wax. True or not, the night-time guards feel safer leaving peace offerings of food items in front of the most dreaded ones.

Inside Haw Par Villa

Once inside, the walkway inclines upwards, lined with three-dimensional graceful figurines within colourful pavilions that are sometimes topped by Goddesses with knotted hair. The giant statue of a rotund laughing Buddha dispels the gloom somewhat. Come here at night and I have no idea what creatures you might encounter. Perhaps that’s why, the gates shut at dusk.

A laughing Buddha dispels the gloom at Haw Par Villa, Singapore
A laughing Buddha dispels the gloom

We reach a fork in the path where we can continue upwards or turn right towards the garage and the famed Ten Courts of Hell. With a prickly feeling at the back of my neck, I choose hell. A fantastic dragon sculpture painted in gold holds fort at the entrance. The first thing you see as you enter are the suffering heads of sinners mounted on a hillock; the red paint of the blood oozing from their eyes as fresh as yesterday.

The suffering heads of sinners

Then, you come upon the frightening form of Hu Fa Shi Zhe, upholder of the laws of the Ten Courts of Hell and controller of ghosts and devils. This is one man you don’t want to cross.

In the next cave-like structure, the God of Earth is seated on a green leonine beast, his shawl patterned like a brick wall. But all these sights are just to prepare you for the tunnel labelled ‘Ten Courts of Hell’ and guarded by two men with the faces of an ox and a horse. A placard advises parental discretion due to the graphic nature of the exhibits within. I can imagine coming here as a child, consumed by morbid curiosity and insisting upon being taken inside.

The Ten Courts of Hell

A story unfolds as you pass through the tunnel, beginning with the Golden Bridge, which marks the passage to afterlife, a man on his knees, desperately pleading for mercy and then, the ten courts of hell for ten different sins, ranging from murder to deceit, thievery, envy and lust. In one scene, men are being flogged with ropes and in another, they are being made to lie on burning hot coals. There are sinners being impaled on spears and others being made to hang upside down.

At any moment, his spear may rise again
At any moment, his spear may rise again

What makes these exhibits even more gruesome is that none of them are static – they are all frozen in motion, as though any moment, the tormentor might raise his spear again.

Garish lights add to the nightmarish quality, with the spotlight often trained on the sufferer’s features. Beheadings and nails being driven into sinners’ shoulders follow, all overseen by the stoic judge or giver of punishments. The courts depict men and women, both young and old. No one is spared the consequences of their deeds on earth.

A sinner hanging upside down at Haw Par Villa, Singapore
A sinner hangs upside down

You emerge from the tunnel with a definite resolve to tip the scales of karma in your favour. The sunlight that greets you once again violently shakes you out of the daze induced by those hellish scenes. You witness odd sights like kissing arachnids and an old woman being nursed at a young mother’s breast and you wonder what they mean. Numerous scholars have endeavoured to demystify the lifelike figurines at Haw Par Villa, but a few remain unexplained.

As you leave, you come upon the Tiger Cars with their protruding fangs and copious whiskers once again.

A Tiger Car at Haw Par Villa, Singapore

In a quirky touch, the Boon brothers had the cars designed such that the honk resembled a tiger’s roar.

Part of you wishes that you could pull the horn just once. But it’s time to bid goodbye to the secrets of Haw Par Villa, where perhaps, a lingering scent of Tiger Balm permeates the air in those late hours with none to smell it but the hapless guards.

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The best of Singapore in 5 days

The best holiday I’ve had in recent times was a five-day trip to Singapore, where I customised my itinerary as per my penchant for nature, offbeat travel and food. Somewhere between the primeval charms of Pulau Ubin island and the macabre depictions at Haw Par Villa, a unique theme park, I discovered the true nature of Singapore – happy, quirky and all-embracing.

The beginning

Singapore Airlines is known to be among the best airlines in the world and I was excited to get an upgrade to their luxurious upper deck. My friends and I – we planned the vacation around the 50 year celebration of Singapore’s independence which meant that there would be a lot of special events to experience and free entry to a variety of places. The flight experience was even better than what we had expected, if that was possible – ample leg room, economy seats that felt like business class, smiling crew, an array of in-flight movies and music and delicious Singapore Sling and authentic Singaporean cuisine for dinner.

Day 1

Singapore River
Singapore River

We checked into the stylish Studio M Hotel and were totally awed by their creative ‘loft rooms’. These rooms look tiny but they have a loft which gives you extra space. Seen from above, the walls with their forest foliage print look taller than average and the white furnishings give you a calm feeling.

The hotel is located right next to Singapore River and one can walk or bike along the riverside, along Clarke Quay and all the other piers until one reaches the famous Singapore Merlion with the water fountain spouting out of its leonine mouth. We did that while the rooms were getting ready and returned post lunch time for a much needed nap.

In the evening, we friends dressed up and decided to explore the night life of Singapore. We did a cocktail trail starting with the sophisticated multi-cuisine bar and restaurant Club 39 and moving on to 28 Hong Kong Street, Singapore’s best known speakeasy pub which features among the world’s best craft cocktail bars.

Day 2

Singapore Botanic Gardens
Singapore Botanic Gardens

On our second day in the Lion City, we were ready for some serious exploration. I love exploring small cities on foot and Singapore with its beautiful green spaces and colourful buildings is designed for a walking tour. We walked along Fort Canning Park, a beautiful park complex leading up to Singapore Pinacotheque de Paris, a private art museum.

We proceeded to Singapore Botanic Gardens, a gargantuan garden complex with many little parks inside it like butterfly garden, ginger garden, orchid garden, beautiful waterfalls, a simulated rainforest and the symphony lake with its abundant lotuses. We were amazed by the scale of the botanical gardens and the care that had gone into its creation and maintenance.

For lunch, we decided to go to Little India. Contrary to its name, one can get local food as well in the humble little eateries at Little India. If you ever set up base in Singapore, this is where you should come for all grocery supplies for Indian cooking at home. Unfortunately, nasi lemak was sold out for the day; so I settled for nasi goreng, Indonesian-style fried rice. We even saw a movie poster announcing the screening of a Tamil film in one of the streets. The population of Tamilian Indians in Singapore is significant.

In the evening, we continued our cocktail trail at 1-Altitude, a stunning luxury bar and restaurant atop the tallest building in Singapore. Needless to say, the views were spectacular. We spotted the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in the distance, identifiable by the supine ship on top of its edifice. Later, we went to Marina Bay Sands Hotel and there, we sampled Thai fare crafted by celebrity chef David Thompson at Long Chim.

Day 3

Pulau Ubin Island
Pulau Ubin Island

On our third day in Singapore, I wanted to go to Gardens by the Bay and feast my eyes on the ethereal man-made Supertree Grove. The grove is full of vertical gardens hat are 25 to 50 metres tall. We were also mesmerised by the beautiful sculptures, the vast variety of tropical plants and the lake in the middle of the gardens.

From there, we took a train and bus to reach Changi Village Terminal, the starting point for a ferry to the mysterious Pulau Ubin Island. Home to secret mangroves, wetlands, forests, campsites and hordes of beautiful pied hornbills, the island reminded me of the meerkat island that Pi discovers in the middle of the sea in Yann Martel’s booker prize winning novel ‘Life of Pi’.

In the evening, exhausted by all our walking, we sank down on our seats in the bus to be treated to the much talked-about Singapore Night Safari. Vague shapes in the dark passed by as we coursed along slowly through the park and the audio guide identified them as deer, lions and other wild animals. Getting off the bus and exploring the enclosures of the tiger, hyena and exotic birds was an even eerier experience.

Day 4

Haw Par Villa
Haw Par Villa

I had earmarked day 4 as the art and museum day and we went around exploring the arty neighbourhoods of Bras Basah Bugis. We stumbled upon several magnicificent museums and temples including the Singapore Art Museum and the larger National Museum of Singapore, with several educative installations.

From there, we proceeded to the little known Haw Par Villa, a garden complex built by the Chinese brothers who took over the Tiger Balm empire from their father. Now a theme park dedicated to Chinese mythology, the park is most famous for its Ten Courts of Hell with their life-size depictions of the punishments for heinous sins in the afterlife. At Haw Par Villa, you can also see the Tiger Cars that the brothers used to drive.

In the evening, we decided to visit Singapore’s most famous amusement landmark – Sentosa Island. Given its commercial reputation, I wasn’t expecting much but Sentosa Island turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I was totally charmed by the ‘crane dance’ we watched in the night, featuring mammoth machinated cranes on the sea, lit up in dazzling colours, their love story accompanied by haunting melodies. I also enjoyed walking on Sentosa Beach and seeing the Sentosa Merlion decked up in a rainbow of colours.

Day 5

Colourful wares at Chinatown
Colourful wares at Chinatown

On our last day in Singapore, we only had time to explore the city-country until lunch time. And we decided to dedicate our time to its most colourful and interesting neighbourhood – Chinatown. Here, I had the good fortune of experiencing the serenity of Buddha Tooth Relic Temple and walking among the festoons and colourful street food stalls. I also glimpsed the Mariamman Temple and shopped for souvenirs for my friends back home in the markets lining the streets of Chinatown.

Singapore is one of my favourite travel memories for three main reasons – the surprises, the company and the satisfaction of having made the best of my five days there.

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A brush with Buddhism at the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple

Those who are fond of reading would have realised at some point that they know a little of everything; yet they are an expert on very few subjects. My relationship with Buddhism had been something like that. This religion had always held spiritual appeal for me, given its focus on detachment, isolation and meditation. The very word ‘Buddhist’ resonates with profound wisdom and serenity.

So when I stumbled upon the grandiose Buddha Tooth Relic Temple with its glittering golden opulence and rhythmic, melodious chanting, I was more than a little surprised.

The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple at Chinatown, Singapore

Yet by the end of my tryst with this renowned place of worship, I discovered that at its heart, it was still the silent, spiritual Buddhism I knew.

The multi-storeyed Buddha Tooth Relic Temple dominates the colourful streets of Singapore’s Chinatown with what I can only call an otherworldly magnetism. From the outside, it impresses with its curved Tang-style architecture, typical of pretty Chinese houses and wafting fragrance of incense sticks, a classic fixture in Chinese worship.

The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple at Chinatown, Singapore
The curved roof typical of Tang-style architecture

And from the inside, the ornate vat holding ceremonial ash, the giant mound of rice and the life-size deities presiding over a sea of bowing monks in sombre black robes inspire real awe. Visitors are not allowed to enter the main hall where the monks pay homage to the Buddha with their hypnotic incantations. They may, however observe and pray from the upper storey designed like a balcony that offers a 360 degree view of the proceedings below. The Sacred Tooth Relic may also be viewed from afar, on the Sacred Light Hall on the fourth floor.

The vat full of ceremonial ash and incense sticks inspires awe
The vat full of ceremonial ash and incense sticks inspires awe
A giant mound of rice
A giant mound of rice

Those who do not own the little bound books inscribed with words of worship, may wander around the museum and marvel at eerily accurate statues of erstwhile monks. Within the glass cabinets that circle the entire upper storey, there reside excellently preserved relics of Buddhism. I stood among these tongue and bone relics with my eyes closed, absorbing the positive vibrations and arcane calmness that the chants had imparted upon the devout listeners and reverent walls.

Years of flawless chanting seemed to have preserved the magical draw of the temple that doubles as a rich repository of Buddhist history, despite the thousands of tourists that throng its entrance everyday.

The head monk reads from his prayer book
The head monk reads from his prayer book

Once the voices have stilled and you are possessed by the urge to sit for a moment and reflect upon the various emotions that have risen to the surface, you may wish to visit the roof garden. It is a secret oasis of calm, surrounded by a cool garden, pagoda and prayer wheel and is ideal for some moments of undisturbed rumination. Then again, you may simply want to revel in the echoes of the beauty you’ve just experienced. The only other time I’d seen a Buddha prayer wheel was at a Buddhist temple at India’s storybook hill station Manali, inscribed with the words Om mani pudme hum. This one is called Vairocana Buddha Prayer Wheel, named after the Vairocana Buddha who embodies the significance of shunyata or emptiness.

A prayer wheel at Rumtek Monastery by Sivakumar (from Wikimedia Commons)

When you prepare to leave the temple and explore the other delights of Chinatown, a treasure trove awaits you.

The Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery routinely prints free-to-read books of stories and teachings from the Buddha as a parting gift to those who come to His doorstep.

There are pictorially represented stories for children and little pocket books full of everyday wisdom for those who do not prefer to read reams of obscure scriptures. If what you read touches you in some way, you can transfer a donation to the monastery, so more souls may be gladdened by teachings of kindness, temperance and generosity.

The fearsome guard at the entrance
The fearsome guard at the entrance

There are some who say that Singapore lacks culture. My brush with Chinese Buddhism convinced me otherwise.

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Top free things to do in Sentosa Island

Sentosa Island is the star of most Singapore itineraries and that made me instantly wary of it. It seemed to be like the Marine Drive of Mumbai or the Taj Mahal of India – that one place that every tourist must go to, no matter what. But unlike Marine Drive or Taj Mahal, this one isn’t a monument or a natural marvel. It is, horror of horrors, an amusement park complex with tons of rides, activities and everything else that I absolutely dislike.

Sentosa Island - Lake of Dreams
Modern art at the Lake of Dreams

In my imagination, Sentosa Island was a crowded place teeming with unruly kids and long queues for rides that were sure to make me nauseous. What’s worse, it appeared to be a real hole burner in my wallet, with entry to the main attractions bordering on 50 to 100 SGD. But I’m happy to say that reality panned out quite differently. Not only did I not spend a single penny, I managed to have an enjoyable half day there and found more than a few moments that took my breath away. Let me tell you how it all happened.

Top free things to do in Sentosa Island

  1. Walk along the Sentosa boardwalk
Sentosa Island boardwalk
I was treated to panoramic views of the sea, the cable cars tracing a steady arc in the sky and little boats and buildings in the distance

After a morning spent exploring the museums of Bras Basah Bugis and the mythological sculptures at Haw Par Villa, a Chinese theme park, I was ready for a dose of good, old urban Singapore. “No more gardens!” my weary feet said and I was inclined to comply. I took a metro to HarbourFront station, took the exit to VivoCity and then assessed my options. I could either pay for the Sentosa Island Monorail and zip through to Sentosa Island or take the leisurely boardwalk and get there in 20 minutes. Money notwithstanding, walking is perhaps my favourite thing in the world after reading and writing. So, the boardwalk it was!

Half the boardwalk consisted of moving walkways which speeded up the process and allowed me to rest our tired feet. On the right side, I was treated to panoramic views of the sea, the cable cars tracing a steady arc in the sky and little boats and buildings in the distance. Now and then, I’d step off the boardwalk and sit on the warm benches, gazing at the sea and taking swigs of a liquid intoxicant stashed in my bag. It made for a relaxing walk indeed.

P.S.: Use of the boardwalk was free during the SG50 celebrations month, which is when I went. I believe they charge a small fee now.

  1. Sit by the waterfall and explore the caverns
Sentosa Island cave
We marvelled at the hanging structures in the cave

When you enter Sentosa Island through the boardwalk, you’ll find that most of the main attractions are to your right. But if you veer left, you’ll find yourself in a cool sandstone cavern by a tranquil waterfall. I sat on the slippery rocks and marvelled at the hanging structures in the cave. The best part was I was absolutely alone – the other visitors were probably too busy forking up money to enter Universal Studios!

Waterfall at Sentosa Island
The waterfall lies beside a calm lagoon
  1. Pose in front of Universal Studios and the casino
Universal Studios at Sentosa Island
Getting all of ‘Universal’ into the frame is a tricky process!

Say you really don’t feel like spending all day at Universal Studios but your friends and family back home will greet you with aghast expressions if you do tell them that. What you do is pose in front of the rotating Universal Studios globe and look suitably excited for a photograph. It makes for a great picture anyway! There is also a casino inside the glitzy mall and I was extremely curious about its internal goings-on. Alas, there was a fee to merely enter the casino. So I satisfied myself with a photo at its entrance (thankfully, there’s no fee for that).

  1. Enjoy the Merlion walk
Sentosa Merlion
The Sentosa Merlion bedecked in SG50 celebratory colours

I think it’s really funny that a half-lion is the mascot of Singapore though lions have never roamed the island in all probability! The story goes that the founder of the island, Sang Nila Utama, saw a Malayan tiger and mistook it for a lion. So today, you see the lion everywhere in Singapore and it’s even called the Lion City. Ah well, one good thing that came out of it is the spectacular Merlion at Sentosa Island. The Sentosa Merlion is much more impressive than the original Merlion sculpture at One Fullerton, especially in the night when it’s all decked up in lights and colours. Heading away from the mall, I spotted the Merlion in the distance and embarked on the mesmerising Merlion walk. It took me through lagoons, modern art and steps full of chattering tourists. For a fee, you can get inside the Merlion as well, but I was happy enough being so close to it.

  1. Soak in the view at Sentosa beach
Staring up in awe at the lit up staircase
Staring up in awe at the lit up staircase

At the end of the Merlion walk, I walked across a garden and began descending a flight of steep, zig zag stairs, lit up in a different colour after every few minutes. Gold, green and purple were definitely among the battery of colours that illuminated those stairs. When I came down, I realised I was quite close to the sea and also attractions such as laser shows and an indoor bungee jumping complex. Through a crack in the wall, I saw some of the laser show and a bird emerged out of forks of coloured, rocketing sprays of water. Pulling myself away from that marvel, I saw that there were different beaches to my right and left. I chose to go right and after some time, found the way leading down to Siloso Beach.

The soft sand, a cool breeze and the calming cover of the night was just what I needed after a day of walking, exploring, photographing and absorbing. The beach, with its lazy bars and shacks reminded me of Goa. I flopped down on a lounge chair and stared into the sea. A young couple played with their child on the shore. After a while, I went to dip my toes into the waves as well. Alas, when I returned, the shack waiters had wisened up to the fact that I hadn’t ordered anything and asked me to vacate the chair. I was quite content to sit on the bare sand and allow Singapore to sift through my fingers.

  1. Watch the mesmerising crane dance
Crane dance at Sentosa Island
The crane dance begins

I had no idea I was in for such a fantastic treat when I chanced upon the signboard for a ‘crane dance’ and took my seat on a flight of steps facing the sea. After a brief wait, a circular island-like structure in the middle of the sea lit up and from the centre, there emerged two gigantic ‘cranes’, designed like robots that could move, although they were anchored to one spot. An eerily beautiful music had me suspended in the web of the love story the two cranes spun. To symbolise feelings, multi-coloured water would pour forth from their ‘hearts’. Videos reminiscent of the visual graphics in Windows Media Player played on screens on their chests. Their arms moved gracefully and at one point, the cranes even kissed. I’m not sure what exactly the plot was, but the story seemed to have a happy ending. I don’t think you can see a robotic crane dance in the middle of the sea anywhere else in the world. You have to see it to believe it.

Crane dance at Sentosa Island
To symbolise feelings, multi-coloured water would pour forth from their ‘hearts’
  1. Walk along the river in the night
Sentosa Island in the night
Whatever you do, don’t leave Sentosa Island without a quiet walk along its shores and causeways

I had spent an unprecedented and absolutely wonderful evening in Sentosa Island. With the applause for the unworldly crane dance ringing in our ears, I walked along the coastline, enjoying the silence and the shimmering reflections of the city’s colours and lights. Whatever you do, don’t leave Sentosa Island without a quiet walk along its shores and causeways. Here in the midst of modern Singapore’s best tourist innovations, I felt the vibrant heart of the city and I can say that despite the mishmash of Malaysian and Indonesian cultural influences, Singapore has something truly unique to offer even the cash-strapped tourist.

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