Singapore April 2009

Singapore was a stopover on my trip to Australia and SE Asia in Spring 2009. I'd always wanted to visit Singapore, not particularly for birding as the impression I got was of a concrete jungle, but because I'd heard of it as an exotic remnant of the British Empire, something I have always been quite interested in. There still is quite a lot of British influence in Singapore these days, not least that the language is English and the signs are all in English, there's hardly any crime because of strict laws and harsh punishments (AU$1000 [+/- £500] fine for littering, for example - the UK should introduce this) and, because of all this, its a painless introduction to South East Asia.
What I didn't know about Singapore, beyond the usual big sea port/remnant of Empire stuff, was that it is actually quite a good, but gentle, introduction to South East Asian birding, until I read on Bird Forum and Joe's Birding Blog, about trips here. Singapore has a nature reserve, Bukit Timah, at the centre of the city plus marshes and other habitats a train or bus ride away, plus an excellent Botanical Gardens, so what a good place for a quick stopover! I didn't see everything in my couple of days there but my SE Asia bird list got off to a good start.

I arrived in Singapore late in the afternoon on 21st April after an overnight flight from London Heathrow on a Qantas 747-400 and, although there wasn't any time for birding before I'd found my hostel and it got dark, I had already seen a White-bellied Sea-eagle from the taxi from the airport, and plenty of Javan Mynas, which are probably the commonest birds in the place. The taxi ride took me along East Coast Parkway, which goes along the seafront and I have never, ever seen so many big ships in one place. There were hundreds and hundreds of the things, and I feel it could almost have been possible to walk across the Singapore Strait to Pulau Batam by going from ship to ship.
The hostel was in Chinatown which turned out to be excellent because of the proximity to really great eating places. I am not one of these strange people who describe themselves as 'foodies' (hate that term!), viewing food as fuel rather than any more than that, but one of the pleasures of going abroad is trying new things, including strange new dishes, and the outside night time food markets of Chinatown were only a street away. Food is not hard to find in Singapore, there are plenty of restaurants and food halls where you can buy Chinese, Indonesian, Malaysian, etc, food from vendors.

Looking down on the Buddist temple

The hostel itself was small, located in an apartment block (the block itself has shops and businesses, including the hostel, on the first two floors, then floors 3 to 21 are apartments), with two private rooms, a dorm room (which I stayed in), a lounge room/foyer and two showers/toilets. It was pervaded by a strange smell which, at first, I put down to the drains but which actually turned out to be that thing that South East Asians love and everyone else hates, the Durian fruit, which smells like a cross between vomit and sewage and tastes worse, of which more later. Next door to the block is a relatively new Buddhist Temple, the Temple of the Buddha's Tooth Relic, which was built in 2007.

The 22nd was spent doing very little, thanks to chronic jet lag and no sleep but, on the 23rd, I went to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve. I took the bus up there and, once I got off, it took me a little while to find the entrance to the reserve. The heat was 31 degrees (high 90s) and the humidity an appalling 90%! Walking was horrible because of this and I was completely knackered by the time I got into the reserve, but I did manage to see some species, such as Yellow-vented Bulbul, Asian Fairy-bluebird, Pacific Swallow, Germain’s Swiftlet, Crimson Sunbird (brief view, but I got a better view in Thailand some weeks later), Javan Myna, Tree Sparrow, and Banded Woodpecker.

Banded Woodpecker at Bukit Timah. Poor photo as the light was not good.

As well as these birds, there were large monitor lizards on the path, I nearly stepped on a three-feet long specimen, and abundant monkeys, which were very cute – I love monkeys – but there were signs everywhere warning people not to feed them as that makes the monkeys aggressive and is bad for them. There were also some large and beautiful butterflies and some scary-looking large ants. The place was also full of people doing their exercises, running, press ups, that sort of thing.

There was also a rather sad (sad as in telling an upsetting story, not 'sad' in the derogatory sense), display inside the visitors' centre, showing how Singapore was turned from mostly rainforest into concrete jungle and how the tiger was driven to extinction here. There was a picture of a hunting party standing triumphantly over the body of the last Singapore tiger, in Choa Chu Kang in the 1930s. People's outlook and views on wildlife were different then but, even so, you look at the picture and you think 'You bastards'.

A 3ft long monitor lizard at Bukit Timah

Sleepy Long-tailed Macaque

I had a far more productive day at Singapore Botanic Gardens the following day. It was hotter but the humidity was not as bad – either that or I’d began getting used to it (just when I was about to fly to Australia and freeze in Melbourne for a few days!). The birds seen here were: Collared Kingfisher, Javan Myna, White-vented Myna, Common Myna, Yellow-vented Bulbul, Little Heron, White-breasted Waterhen, Pacific Swallow, Long-tailed Parakeet, Brown-throated Sunbird, Common Tailorbird, Striped Tit-babbler, Peaceful Dove, Spotted Dove, House Swift, Asian Palm Swift, Olive-backed Sunbird, Black-naped Oriole, Oriental Magpie-robin, Pied Triller, White-throated Kingfisher, Coppersmith Barbet (heard only – I could not track the little bugger down!) and White-bellied Sea Eagle (this was high in a tree overlooking the Botanic Gardens Swan Lake – good pickings to be had, judging by the size of the fish in it).

Collared Kingfisher

Oriental Magpie-robin

White-bellied Sea-eagle at Singapore Botanic Gardens

Not a large list, I would have done better with cooler conditions, earlier in the morning. But I am not a morning person, so trade-offs have to be expected!

Later that evening, I went to Chinatown. Here, there are food stalls and you can buy all sorts of Asian dishes. I had squid that were cooked in some very spicy sauce, curry, beer and I even tracked down and tried durian fruit (I followed the smell! Although finding durians wasn't hard, the stuff was everywhere). I had ice cream with pureed durian on it and I can honestly say that it is the second worst thing, after brussels sprouts, that I have ever eaten. It tasted like a mixture of sewage, puke and ammonia and was absolutely vile. How on earth someone once smelled one of these and decided it was edible, I'll never know. But at least I tried one; I love trying new things, even things that are considered revolting by most westerners. The fruit is also appallingly smelly, it smells as bad - worse in fact - as it it tastes. The smell permeates everything and, as a result, it is banned from public transport, hire cars and hotels all over Asia; there are signs everywhere which state 'No durians', with a crossed out picture of the fruit above the words and there are penalties for infingements.
With this combination of food, it was no wonder that I had indigestion - no stomach ache fortunately though - all night and worse a mixture of curry, spicy squid and durian kept repeating on me!

Later that evening, I went up to the top floor (21st) and took a picture of Singapore at night. Normally I hate light pollution, it is so unneccessary and blocks everyone's view of the stars, but Singapore at night is 'something else'. Just after I took this picture, all hell broke loose as a terrific tropical thunderstorm erupted, complete with torrential rain.

Singapore at night

And that was it for Singapore. I flew to Melbourne the following afternoon. I can't wait to return one day. Despite not being a lover of big cities, I liked Singapore a lot. Some nice easy birding, good food (well, except the infamous durians!) and a nice, safe, friendly environment makes it a great place to spend a few days en route to somewhere else or home again.