SINGAPORE – During the shut-in period of the coronavirus, going outdoors was a rare, carefully apportioned treat.
In the past few months, after the end of the circuit breaker, some Covid-19 restrictions have been relaxed.
Crowds have been observed swarming parts of the beach at East Coast Park, with many in groups of more than five, without proper safe distancing.
With hundreds of parks in Singapore – National Parks Board (NParks) alone manages more than 350 – there is no need to throng popular nature spots like MacRitchie Reservoir Park.
Other less popular and less crowded green spaces can equally serve a variety of interests, whether it is jogging, hiking, bird-spotting or a lovers’ stroll.
Advocates of the regenerative power of nature sometimes speak about the calm that descends when they feel connected with the earth.
This may be found in the tranquillity of a well-kept garden, or the mystical quiet of a forest, or the reflective calm of the sea.
Here is a selection of seven under-the-radar parks to restore your equanimity.
1. Upper Seletar Reservoir Park
Recommended for: Instagrammers
Upper Seletar Reservoir Park is a blast from the past. The Seletar Reservoir was built in 1920 and officially opened in 1969 by a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, Princess Alexandra, The Honourable Lady Ogilvy, who is now 83.
Get an Instagrammable update to the present by posting photos of the park’s retro, rocket-shaped lookout tower, which was built to reflect the global interest in space exploration in the 1960s.
Humans look like mites standing next to heritage trees in the park like the Kapok tree, which can grow to about 40m tall.
Bonus points if you manage to catch wildlife within the frame.
A family of wild boars, with babies in tow, skittered away before I could get my phone out, leaving only patches of uprooted mud, where they had been foraging for grubs and worms.
Location: Along Mandai Road Track 7, off Mandai Road. Directions can be found on the NParks website (www.nparks.gov.sg).
2. Woodlands Waterfront Park
Recommended for: Sea lovers
The jetty is the star at Woodlands Waterfront Park. A contented buzz settles in the evening, as men kick back with their fishing rods and kids do stunts on their bikes along its L-shaped, 400m length.
During the day, monitor lizards and otters can be spotted swimming in the Strait of Johor. For those craving travel and faraway vistas, this jetty on our northern shore offers an untrammelled view of Johor Baru, the Causeway and the wide and open Strait.
Ms Jeyasree Chandrakumaran, 20, and Ms Farreen Naaz, 19, are friends who have travelled a long way to hang out at the jetty, from their homes in Ang Mo Kio and Tampines, respectively.
Ms Farreen, a Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts student, says: “It’s less crowded than in some other parks. The rippling water is calming. I feel so relaxed and light.”
Gazing across the Strait, I feel a pang of longing for the ill-remembered places I had been when I last visited Johor Baru, a few years back. Covid-19 and its closing up of the world has made me sentimental.
The noise and deluge of motorcycles and cars from Malaysia have ceased during the pandemic. The sunset gives a final gasp of brilliance before night falls, turning the sky apricot.
Location: Admiralty Road West
3. Marsiling Park
Recommended for: Gardening enthusiasts
Marsiling Park is a different beast from panoramic Woodlands Waterfront Park, which is a stone’s throw away. Even though its western edge is made up of mangroves, Marsiling Park is mostly manicured and dainty.
A playground in the shape of a butterfly, with a series of climbing ropes, is one of its kind in Singapore. It sits amid lantana and other plants that attract butterflies. A fitness corner has equipment that powers and charges your mobile phone when you plug it in as you exercise.
The centrepiece stone bridge, which dates from the 1980s when the park was first built, is flanked by Chinese pavilions. It is a familiar setting for local Chinese period dramas, which have been filmed here.
Formerly known as Woodlands Town Garden, this 12.8ha park is a soothing interlude if you want to take a breather. It is prettiest at night, when it is all lit up.
Location: Woodlands Centre Road, next to Bukit Timah Expressway
4. Japanese Cemetery Park
Recommended for: History buffs
The Japanese Cemetery Park, with its orderly rows of graves, is a tidy document of history.
About 900 tombstones can be found in this park in a quiet Hougang neighbourhood, which is said to be the largest Japanese cemetery in South-east Asia.
Established in 1891 and closed to burials in 1973, the memorials and information panels here provide a glimpse of a pre-World War II community unknown to many.
Japanese businessmen, prostitutes and soldiers are among those laid to rest here.
In the early years, three brothel keepers gained official approval for a cemetery for Japanese prostitutes who died in poverty in Singapore. Nearly half of the tombstones here belong to these karayuki-san (meaning “women who have gone overseas”), who made up a large section of the Japanese population in Singapore up to the 1890s.
The remains of the first Japanese resident in Singapore, Otokichi Yamamoto (1817 – 1867), a sailor who helped to translate portions of the Bible into Japanese, are also buried here.
Sensitivities surrounding the war dead from the Japanese Occupation, some of whom were interred here, possibly contribute to the cemetery’s low-key presence.
The coos of pigeons seem louder than usual in this quiet, dignified space, which measures 30,000 sq m. Tunnel-like archways, bursting with pink bougainvillea, criss-cross the cemetery, where a kingfisher flits among the gravestones.
Location: 22 Chuan Hoe Avenue
5. Tampines Eco Green
Recommended for: Bird-watchers
Something is hovering nearby, whirring so fast it looks like a dark blot in the air. Smaller than a sparrow, it drones louder than a bee.
Nature guide Andrew Tay, 56, identifies the perfectly named hummingbird hawk moth, which looks like both bird and moth when it comes to rest briefly on a bush.
Mr Tay, a nature educator at non-governmental organisation Cicada Tree Eco-Place, is teaching me the importance of names at Tampines Eco Green.
Knowing that a bird which sports a reddish chest and what looks like a black mutton-chop moustache is called a red-breasted parakeet somehow transforms its prettiness into beauty.
I use schoolgirl terms like “that green bird” and “this yellow butterfly” but I now want more. I resolve to dust off the nature books on my shelf at home.
In contrast, Mr Tay reels off the names of the fauna and flora like the names of his friends. He points out the orange bladder cherry with papery leaves, which grows wild here and which often adorns store-bought birthday cakes.
He identifies a Club Silverline butterfly, a rare, striped looker that has had part of its wings torn off, possibly by a hungry bird.
Brimming with 75 species of birds and 55 species of butterflies and dragonflies, Tampines Eco Green presents many uncommon vistas.
Dusk bestows a soft glow on woodland areas that look like they sprang from England.
The green-fringed ponds are Pre-Raphaelite scenes where one imagines artists painting Ophelia drowning. (Happily, there are no such Shakespearean dramas here.) The long-grassed marshes look almost like a savannah out of Africa, as the NParks website describes.
Logs double as benches in this ecologically conscious park, which has a water-less eco-toilet, the first of its kind in a public park. It converts human waste into compost using bacteria and wood shavings. The greatest marvel is how the loo is odour-free.
I get a jolt when I emerge from this 36.5ha park. The MRT tracks are just metres away, but I have been transported beyond traffic and trains.
Location: Tampines Avenue 9 and Tampines Avenue 12.
Directions: From Tampines MRT station, walk 20 minutes to the park via Sun Plaza Park.
6. Chestnut Nature Park
Recommended for: Hikers and cyclists
A long walk in Chestnut Nature Park can be pleasingly cool, even in Singapore’s dog day afternoons.
Secondary forest, with tall trees offering plenty of shade, covers much of Singapore’s largest nature park, which has two areas totalling 81ha – Chestnut Nature Park (South) and Chestnut Nature Park (North).
Cycling enthusiasts get separate mountain biking trails. Bikes can be rented and washed at a kiosk at the entrance of the park, which also sells snacks and drinks.
An elderly man, with an oversized, paddle-shaped flash diffuser attached to his camera, is peering at the dense foliage and taking macro-photographs, close-up photographs of tiny subjects like insects.
Animals like the blue Malayan coral snake, beautiful and venomous, and the shy, big-eyed Malayan colugo can be found in the park, which borders the species-rich Central Catchment Nature Reserve.
Location: Situated along Chestnut Avenue, Chestnut Nature Park stretches along Bukit Timah Expressway from Gali Batu Flyover to Dairy Farm Flyover. Directions via bus, MRT and car can be found at the NParks website.
7. Lower Peirce Trail Recommended for: Forest bathers
A family-friendly stroll along the Lower Peirce Trail yields better than expected returns.
Mr Dennis Chan, 26, the founder of The Untamed Paths, which offers wildlife tours in Singapore, says: “It’s a short walk that is under-rated. A lot of people don’t think they can see much here, but it’s similar to what one would find in a nature reserve.”
Along a 900m series of boardwalks, which most children and seniors can navigate, Mr Chan points out forest residents like a chestnut-bellied malkoha, an uncommon blue-grey cuckoo that looks like it has dabbed red eyeshadow all around its eyes.
The long-tailed macaques, which sometimes prowl the car park just outside the forested area near a popular prata eatery, Casuarina Curry, are close enough that I can make out their expressions.
Mr Chan has seen other primates like the Raffles’ banded langur, a threatened species, high up in the canopy along the trail.
The forest is filled with ambient sounds like the trickling of a stream and the croaking of frogs.
Yet the overall impression is a grand canopy of silence, with darting shadows of creatures unseen until they are ready to reveal themselves.
Location: Start your walk along Old Upper Thomson Road at the Casuarina Entrance.