It's a jungle out there

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 December, 2006, 12:00am

Parks and gardens perhaps, but you don't expect to find genuine rainforest in Singapore. In fact, it exists here in abundance, in public areas such as Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, Labrador Park and MacRitchie Reservoir, and outside the window of the MRT train as I head to the shopping hub of Bugis Junction. The last two days in Singapore have been nothing if not green - and now I'm horticulturally inspired.


It was the allure of orchids, mainly, that drew me to the gardens. Singapore is famous for them, hosting roughly 900 species and more than 2,000 hybrids, which are grown for the market and simple visual pleasure.


The main commercial centre for these delicate plants is Mandai Orchid Garden, in the island's north. The orchids thrive here, with spectacular sprays ballooning out of rows of robust stands. A highlight is the Vanda Miss Joaquim, a hybrid discovered by a Miss Agnes Joaquim in her garden in the late 19th century. This mauve and white beauty has since become Singapore's national flower.


If Mandai's patent is profusion, then that of the National Orchid Garden is pure art. Established within the Botanic Gardens in 1995, it is three hectares of lush, orchid-friendly forest. The piece de resistance is the Tan Hoon Siang Mist House, where a tropically moist atmosphere is maintained in utter stillness. It spawns some dazzling blooms, among them the phalaenopsis hybrid, the deep pink linear markings of which seem to be the work of a graphic artist. Chilly mountain-top climes are likewise reproduced in the recently opened Cool House. Tropical montane orchids bloom here in profusion and the unacclimatised visitor is blissfully refreshed with a cool, misty spray.


Endowed with three impressive ornamental lakes, the Botanic Gardens proper cover 52 hectares. They were established in 1859 and have been a favourite with Singapore's nature lovers, as well as early joggers and exponents of tai chi, ever since. They serve also as a proving ground for the many new plant species introduced from other parts of Asia, Europe and Australia.


A perennial drawcard for Singapore's visitors is Sentosa Island, with its theme park, aquarium, forthcoming casino and, yes, plenty of rainforest to explore.


The spectacular approach begins on Mount Faber, in Singapore's far south, from where you catch a cable car.


It swoops downwards, traversing Keppel Harbour and tiny Brani Island, and reveals that Mount Faber too has been copiously greened. The cable-car station is set within a verdant garden draped, for some odd reason, with strands of artificial autumnal leaves.


I have it on the authority of a taxi driver that Singaporeans don't often go to their parks. They don't need to; there is garden park all around them, which may explain why I have the magnificent Chinese Garden virtually to myself. A little kitsch, it is nonetheless a garden lover's delight. Modelled on a Sung-dynasty garden, it comes complete with nine-tiered pagoda, open-sided tea pavilions, imperial-style buildings and waterside pagodas, all fastidiously maintained.


The garden's central lake is spanned by two arched bridges. One leads through palatial Chinese gates to the Suzhou Penjing Garden, where 2,000 penjing, or bonsai, are artistically displayed in a series of walled courtyards connected by traditional moon gates and archways.


A soporific retreat for most of the year, the Chinese Garden is shaken rudely from its slumber in the eighth lunar month to host the Chinese Lantern Festival, each night seeing huge novelty lanterns reflected in the still waters of the lake.


Meanwhile, visitors following the paths and boardwalks of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, in Singapore's northwest, might be forgiven for thinking they have landed in the Okavango Delta, in Botswana, such is the sensation of wilderness and so amazing the profusion of bird life: egrets, striated and purple heron, white-breasted waterhens and pink-necked pigeons. The reserve is also home to monitor lizards, giant mudskippers and mangrove and lobster crabs.


Nor have Singapore's rustic human habitats entirely disappeared. They still exist on Pulau Ubin, an island in the narrow strait dividing Singapore from the Malay Peninsula. Most visitors come here to cycle or hike and there is plenty to explore. Street Centre is a Malay-style portside town with time-worn clapboard coffee shops, an opera house and temples. Kampung Melayu is the last authentic rural village in Singapore.


But the main attraction is the forest. It is not exactly primary but it's big and harbours 145 species of bird, a troupe of long-tailed macaques, wild pigs and the red jungle fowl, from which all domesticated chickens are said to have descended.


Singapore's city centrepiece is Fort Canning Hill, where the colony's founder, Sir Stamford Raffles, built his first bungalow. The herb garden he established here still thrives; in fact, the entire hill is akin to a huge botanical garden, so elegantly is it swathed in shrubs and trees. It has plenty of old military ruins to explore, relics left by the British, who had their headquarters here until the 1970s.


Singapore can now rightfully claim to be 'green'. The process to make it so was initiated by prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1967 and was pursued with zeal. The 700 hectares then devoted to parkland have since been expanded to 4,000 and the ambition to create a true garden city seems to have been realised.


Every major highway on the island is lined with yellow and red flame trees, rain trees and mahoganies. Median strips have come to resemble giant nurseries so overwhelmed are they with potted flowering shrubs and cordylines. Almost every man-made structure - footbridge, tunnel entrance and lamp post - has been swathed in flowering vines and bougainvilleas. Even busy city streets have been copiously greened; Orchard Road shoppers stroll in the generous shade of enormous angsana trees. Palms and ornamental shrubs grace pocket parks and squares throughout the city centre.


Awaiting me still are Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (with its 70 hectares of primary-growth rainforest), Toa Payoh Park and Sembawang Park. A mere 200 years ago, Singapore was jungle; today's Lion City was the haunt of tigers. The big cats may have gone, but not the climate and soil that spawned their habitat. The island's forests are fighting back and even expanding within the habitat of man.


Getting there: Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) flies from Hong Kong to Singapore. The Singapore Garden Festival began yesterday at the Suntec City Convention Centre and will run until December 25. See www.singaporegardenfestival.com.