There’s no place on earth quite like Gardens By The Bay Singapore, as we’ve discovered on our last trip back to the little red dot. Yet our accidental discovery of Singapore’s most iconic tourist attraction was nearly thwarted by Plan A; the zoo. An unusually sweltering day was to thank for this. It meant putting the zoo on hold for more merciful weather than having to face the kind of heat that turn zoo visitors into vicious caterwauling hyenas. Our heat-petrified family of four found it too easy to snap up my brother and mum’s offer to play tour guides at the ‘latest must-see’. They had us at ‘air-conditioned’.
Our tour began on the road cruising along the ECP (East Coast Parkway) with its rows of chalets interspersed with endless palmy greens. It hit me how long ago it’s been since I was only the size of my own children, peddling a tiny tricycle along those gravelled bikeways that used to be dirt paths and grassy lanes. My mind’s phantom shadows of our childhood selves running along the grassy patches hoisting up our crinkly paper kites and ghostly echoes of childish giggles brought me home to the places of old.
Whizzing past the now defunct ‘popular water park of the eighties’—The Big Splash, was a trip down memory lane. My kids gasped when I shared that their non-active mum had once slid down that famous and thrilling 85-metre long water slide (highest and longest in the world at the time) which was the closest thing to a rollercoaster ride for me as a kid. Alas, a major facelift has rendered it unrecognisable today. Like a has-been celebrity with one too many cosmetic alterations, my heart sank to see Big Splash transformed into a seaside dining and leisure precinct dotted with fast food outlets, cafes, bars and restaurants anchored by sports amenities.
On every trip back, one of the few hawker centres I would gladly brave the heat for would still be the good old one ECP one here (not far from Big Splash) for the best satay, satay beehoon, oyster omelette and duck congee. So grateful it still stands today amidst Singapore’s ceaseless modern upgrades. Thank God for top honchos in the Public Works Department who must love satay as much as I do!
We marvelled at the scenic views zipping past roadways lined with tall luxurious condominiums and towering buildings we have now lost track of along the highway, including revamped recreational venues like the remodelled National Stadium flanked by the OCBC Aquatic Centre and Kallang Wave Mall. The bewildering increase of a previously well-serviced but now mind-boggling network of MRT stations to make public transport even more universal, was admirable.
Other fun facts for my kids (they love these) were the stuff of history, like how the Benjamin Sheares Bridge was named after a Singaporean Eurasian doctor who became Singapore’s second President when I was only in primary school. Names like Sheares remind me of our late founding prime minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Indeed his vision of a ‘garden city’ embedded in the efficiency and heartbeat of a modern metropolis has been realised today. The vibrant visionary city that Singapore has become continues to inspire the world for ‘having it all’ while somehow managing to preserve even its old-world charm and colonial past.
As I pondered on this, our nostalgic road tour ended on our arrival at Gardens By The Bay. Nothing had quite prepared us for one of the most unforgettable sensorial experiences a traveller could ever embrace. The thing that Gardens By The Bay doesn’t let you forget is how it inspires you to open your mind and senses to being fully at one with nature surrounded by its natural beauty and wonder. Its very magic begins outdoors before you enter to explore the interiors of those famous glass domes. Ah, the land of the Supertrees.
To think that once upon a time tourists purchased postcards with retro attractions like Haw Par Villa and Jurong Bird Park—some of Singapore’s most iconic tourism images back in the day. No prizes for guessing that today’s highlight will be these iconic colossal concrete trees clothed in tropical ferns. They intrigue tourists and locals alike whether depicted as robotic trees branching out towards the sun by day or as spectacular lucid neon by night.
Back in the eighties, the most comprehensive gardens available for families to ogle at horticulture was confined to the sole option of Botanic Gardens. As for me, there is little memory of the flora but plenty of those lovely suppers that ensued at the old adjoining Teman Serasi hawker centre after every visit there with my parents. Ice Kachang or a cool refreshing Chendol was definitely my antidote after another killer walk! How unreal not to need a handheld fan or reach for another pack of tissues to mop up sticky perspiration while leisurely strolling through The Flower Dome. The best part is definitely the climate-controlled cool spring temperature.
Standing under the world’s largest greenhouse, I wasn’t simply in awe of how this monumental architectural wonder managed to support itself without a single vertical column in place. It dawned on me as I was focusing my viewfinder to capture the African Baobabs and bottle trees; how far we’ve come since those kampung years. Just then my little boy tugged me and pointed to a plaque embellished with orchids. It read, “Did you know? Sang Nila Utama is said to have lived for 48 years before he died and was buried on the hill of Singapura.” As I took a snapshot of this historical tidbit, I caught sight of the amazing panoramic views outside the dome: the imposing Singapore flyer, the F1 race track, breathtaking ocean views of the eastern side of Marina Bay, the Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino complex— all symbols of the tall progress our tiny red dot has made since ‘Singapura’.
Speaking of heights, it’s quite the experience to pace down the suspended 122m-long Cloud Walk which was taller above ground than I imagined; I grabbed the handrails tighter but my trepidation was soothed with the comforting thought that this was Singapore and the last place on earth one would find dodgy construction. I steadied myself as I put my trust in one of the world’s greatest engineering and architectural feats.
On descending from the ‘mountaintop’, we paused for a minute to behold an orangey sunset peering through the dome. The waters glimmered and sparkled reflecting the skies at twilight like precious gems. I was half expecting parakeets to squawk and swoop upon us or a monkey to swing across the foliage. Looking down below at the spectacular waterfall pouring into the artificial concrete ‘canyon’ beneath, I almost wished to see a lion (real or otherwise) emerge to complete these gardens of ‘Lion City’.
At that juncture I was reminded of how this ingenious innovation was to me a poignant reminder of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s passing as I couldn’t think of a more befitting tribute to his grand vision of building a ‘garden city’. As far as innovation goes, it’s no surprise that 21st century Singapore has surpassed his vision to evolve into a leading global ‘city in a garden’; one that surely makes every Singaporean proud.
Its endless accolades aside, if you simply prefer spring to summer, you might want to give the Gardens a try. We can do a lot better now in Singapore than turning up the air-conditioner while watching National Geographic on TV.
Happy Birthday Singapore. A toast to your 51st and many happy returns.
The above article was first published on the overseas singaporean website; this version has been edited by the author Kat Ngoi for outofman.com to commemorate Singapore’s National Day 2016 on this day, August 9.