Local's guide to Singapore: beyond the skyscrapers

There are experiences and places in Singapore even some locals don’t know about. From green corridors to hot springs, read on to find out where to find a slice of bona fide local life in Singapore. And the sooner you go, the better, as Singapore changes so quickly you never know when you might blink and miss something.

Bukit Brown Cemetery, Singapore. Image by Jnzl's Public Domain Photos CC BY 2.0 Bukit Brown Cemetery, Singapore. Image by Jnzl's Public Domain Photos / CC BY 2.0

Explore Bukit Brown Cemetery

Singapore’s oldest cemetery is home to nearly 100,000 graves, many capped by elaborate Chinese-style tombs and headstones. The oldest known headstone dates back to 1833, and many of Singapore’s earlier pioneers are buried here.

Abandoned in 1973, the cemetery remains a lush, overgrown oasis. At 0.86sqkm in size it’s huge by Singapore standards, and locals have made a concerted effort to save it from redevelopment so far. For a decidedly non-Singaporean experience, take an early morning stroll through the grounds and chat with the resident caretaker. If you ask nicely, he might point out the graves of notable locals including that of Lee Hoon Leong (1879-1942), the grandfather of Singapore’s first prime minister Kuan Yew, and of Gan Eng Seng (1844-1899), who established the Anglo-Chinese Free School in 1885 offering free education to the children from low-income families.

Do it:  The cemetery lies 2km west of the entrance to MacRitchie Reservoir park (Caldecott MRT station). Enthusiasts, historians and activist groups run free walking tours; check out their Facebook page (facebook.com/bukitbrown) and website (bukitbrown.com) for dates.

orong Buangkok. Image by Jnzl's Public Domain Photos CC BY 2.0 Lorong Buangkok, Singapore. Image by Jnzl's Public Domain Photos / CC BY 2.0

Visit one of Singapore’s last kampongs

As if willed into existence from an old black-and-white photograph from the 1950s, the kampong (village) at Lorong Buangkok is mainland Singapore's last blip of resistance against the tide of modern development. Concealed behind a wall of trees, the two dozen-odd families that call this small swathe of land (equivalent to around three football fields) home live a blissfully simple existence, much like their forefathers did in days gone by. For here chickens dart between ramshackle houses, dogs flick flies away with a flap of their ears, and locals still leave their front doors open.

Do it: From Ang Mo Kio MRT station, take bus 88 (in the direction of Pasir Ris). Get off on Ang Mo Kio Ave 5 (10mins), just after Yio Chu Kang Rd. Walk north up Yio Chu Kang Rd and, after about 50m, turn right onto Gerald Drive. After about 200m, turn right into Lorong Buangkok. After 50m, you'll see a dirt track on your left that leads to the village. Alternately, the village lies just under 2kms from Buangkok MRT station.

Green Corridor, Singapore. Image by Walter Lim CC BY 2.0 Green Corridor, Singapore. Image by Walter Lim / CC BY 2.0

Walk Singapore's grassy train line

When the 23km-long railway line leading from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands was shut down in July 2011, the abandoned trail along the tracks was quickly adopted by locals as a great place to stretch their legs away from the bustle of the streets. The route starts near the CBD and wends its way northwest, across railway bridges and through parcels of Singapore’s priciest and most beautiful real estate.

While there’s still debate as to what will become of the land, a passionate grassroots movement (thegreencorridor.org) is petitioning to develop what has now become known as Singapore’s Green Corridor into a permanent public space. A non-elevated version of New York City’s High Line, if you will.

Do it: Sign up for a walking tour via the Green Corridor website, or print out one of its handy route maps and explore on your own.

Sembawang Park, ner Sewambang hot spring, Singapore. Image by Walter Lim CC BY 2.0 Sembawang Park, near Sewambang hot spring, Singapore. Image by Walter Lim / CC BY 2.0

Soothe tired feet in the Sembawang hot spring

The barbed wire fence surrounding it seems more military compound than leisure centre, but once inside you’ll find Singapore’s very own hot spring. Discovered by a Chinese merchant at the turn of the 20th century, the spring in Singapore’s far north has had a colourful life. From having its water bottled by soft-drink company Fraser & Neave to being turned into recreational baths during by the occupying Japanese forces during WWII, to being acquired and then subsequently saved from military redevelopment, the spring is still pumping out thermal water 100yrs on.

The spring's popularity among locals, however, is not due to its setting (a small, stark, concrete complex) but for its supposed healing properties. Borrow a plastic tub from the caretaker, draw some water from the tap, and away you go.

Do it: Take the MRT (metro) to Sembawang. The entrance to the spring is on Gambas Ave between Sembawang Ave and Woodlands Ave 12. Entry is free, but there are no bathroom or changing facilities.

This article was first published in November 2011, and updated by Lonely Planet Destination Editor Sarah Reid in November 2014.