It's a typical afternoon in Singapore – hot and humid. Instead of sweltering cheek-by-jowl with the masses in Orchard Road, escape on a cool bus ride to the north of Singapore. Most public buses in Singapore are air-conditioned – otherwise we'd all expire from the tropical heat and humidity.
Paying cash on board for point to point fares is inconvenient and expensive, so for this day trip it's a good idea to buy an EZ-Link card at any Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station. The cost of an EZ-Link card is S$15, of which S$5 is non-refundable, S$7 goes to fares, and, upon return of the card, S$3 is refundable plus any unused portion of the S$7. The EZ-Link card can be used on MRT trains as well.
Pick up a card and start the tour at the Newton MRT station at Scotts Road, just beyond the main shopping district on Orchard Road. Then you simply tap your card on the fare reader each time you board and get off the bus.
Look for bus-stop B01 outside the Newton MRT station and board a yellow Trans-Island Bus (TIBS) number 167. From there, it's about a 15-minute ride to reach MacRitchie Reservoir and 25 minutes to Upper Thomson Road.
As soon as the bus passes the junction of Old Upper Thomson Road, it's like traveling in a long, cool tunnel. The laid-back feel increases with the entrance to the Lower Peirce Reservoir, which the bus will reach about 10 minutes after leaving MacRitchie.
Bus stops on this side of the road have odd numbers, and this one is B15. You might alight and spend some time here. To get to the reservoir, walk with the flow of traffic about a hundred meters to the T-junction of Upper Thomson Road and Ang Mo Kio Ave 1.
On the left there is a small road, Old Upper Thomson Road, and a clear sign: "Lower Peirce Reservoir." Framed by wild creepers and old trees, Old Upper Thomson Road looks deserted, but you may find parked vehicles with their drivers taking 40 winks in peaceful shaded spots. The reservoir is usually not overly crowded, and from the water's edge, you might see golfers across the water at the Island Club golf course.
Fishermen may angle for a catch at designated sport fishing stretches of the water. You'll likely come across families of long-tailed macaques. They have the run of the place, showing no fear of humans, but feeding them is discouraged as they can get pretty aggressive.
The Lower Peirce Reservoir is a good place for a picnic if you're here at lunch time, or if you need a pit-stop and haven't brought picnic fixings with you, walk from the reservoir entrance forwards to the next bus-stop (B21), then cross the road to Jalan Leban. There's a row of refurbished shop houses here with restaurants offering Cantonese, Shanghainese, Italian, and Straits Chinese cuisines. Or try the hawker center, which serves some great local dishes and fresh tropical fruit juices.
Upper Peirce Reservoir is accessible from the next stop, B23, but you'd need a car or a bike to reach it at the end of a long road with many steep slopes. A bike rental could be arranged by making a detour from stop B15, but that idea is a bit too hot and strenuous for the cool, relaxed mode of this particular trip.
So let's stay on the bus and enjoy the ever greening scenery for a while longer. Rain trees flank both sides of the road, and their branches reach out like gigantic arms to meet right over the center of the road. The trunks of the trees are shielded from direct sunlight in most months, and some have a surrealistic bright orange or pale green lichen growing on them.
Another stop-and-eat opportunity springs up at stop B35, across the road from a row of shops outside Springleaf Road.
At The Prata Shop you can choose to eat in (air-conditioned) or outdoors. Wherever you sit, you'll be enveloped by the heavenly fragrance of light-as-choux prata. A type of Indian bread that comes in many different flavors, prata has been called Singapore's answer to the croissant. Choose from pineapple, banana, mushroom, strawberry, chocolate, chicken floss, and milky prata. Or have it neat with a hot curry. S$10 will buy you a very substantial meal. Don't forget the teh tarik (pulled tea). Its frothy, full-bodied, sweetness will energize you for the rest of the day.
Two doors down from The Prata Shop is Han's, a traditional Hainanese eatery that is a popular choice for its tasty pastries and meals. Set meals cost about S$15.
If you fancy dining the traditional coffee-shop way, there's plenty of choice further down the road – lots of ambience, too. Ampang Yong Tau Foo is worth a try; it's the very last shop at the far end. Tables are filled to capacity on weekends.
Yong tau foo consists of a variety of deep-fried items made from tofu and lightly blanched vegetables in a delicious gravy. One serving costs about S$5.00.
From here, cross the road to re-board the bus either at stop B35 or the next one, B37. Or, if you like, you can change to bus 138 for a side trip to the Singapore Zoological Gardens or the Night Safari.
Continuing the journey along our route, bus 167 enters Sembawang Road. After Mandai Avenue, golfers might like to alight to check out the Sembawang Golf Course, which is accessible from bus stop B07. The links are open to the public.
The bus passes Chong Pang City, a housing development typical of the high-rise flats that 90% of Singaporeans live in. Stay on the bus and at stop B21, you'll be right opposite the Sembawang Shopping Centre. Along with an assortment of eateries and home furnishing shops, you'll find here Asian ethnic clothing and accessories of quite good quality.
From Sembawang Shopping Centre, bus 167 (also the 980) goes down Canberra Road to the Sembawang bus interchange right next to the Sembawang MRT station for a speedy trip back to town, and you can top up your EZ-Link card here, if need be.
Also right here is the Sun Plaza, rather like a sleazy cousin of the Sembawang Shopping Centre, but it does house a Cineplex and a Community Library.
So long as you haven't been tired out by strolling and shopping and eating, you can head for the beach from here, but you'll need to catch bus 882, a loop service that runs every 20 minutes and takes 7 minutes to reach Sembawang Beach Park, the northernmost part of Singapore. The drivers, having a relatively relaxed route, tend to be friendly and smiley.
On the way, the bus passes the junction of Admiralty Road East where there are some unusual houses built for the New Zealand and British armed forces stationed in Singapore in the 1970s.
The architecture of the houses follows the Western tradition. They use a lot of brick and dark wood frames, and there are large spaces (large by Singaporean standards, that is) between houses, very unusual in land-starved Singapore. The houses aren't actually visible from the bus, but there is a small green-roofed church that can be seen from the bus.
From Admiralty Road, the bus turns into the last stretch of road leading into Sembawang Park. It's a narrow road, with terraced houses on the right side and black and white colonial bungalows on the left.
Without disembarking and getting side-tracked along the way, the journey here from where we began at Scotts Road would take about an hour and 40 minutes. Now, you'll be able to see the Straits of Johore, and when you step off the bus, you'll immediately feel the sea breeze.
There used to be a small village (kampung) here called Kampung Wak Hassan, with wood houses and thatched roofs, but they have had to make way for development.
Sembawang Park is Singapore's only park with a beach. Some trees here are about a hundred years old. The fishing pier and beach-front are thronged with people on the weekends. Not to worry though, it's a big park, so there are lots of quiet spots, especially early in the day.
It's a great place to explore. Look for a hidden bunker from the time of WWII, and the gigantic game dice holding up the pavilions, a legacy of the 1970s. Beaulieu House is a colonial relic with high ceilings and a trellised rooftop verandah. It is now a restaurant, but an admiral occupied it until the late 1970s.
To the right of Beaulieu House, there's a fence separating the park and the Sembawang Shipyard.
If you're still feeling energetic, backtrack about 200 meters to Andrews Avenue, a tarred road lined with townhouses until you come opposite to a pub/restaurant called Buckaroo.
After Buckaroo, there is only secondary forest on both sides of the road. Occasionally, fruit lovers come this way to harvest mangoes from the trees that grow along the roadside. Right at the end – about a 15-minute walk – you come to the Bottle Tree Village, a seafood restaurant. The name comes from the Bottle Trees that were imported from Australia.
Few vehicles come this way, and all you hear is the high-pitched drone of tropical crickets. It's quiet but not creepy, and quite safe by day. It's a peaceful walk to end a peaceful day away from the heat and city clamor of downtown Singapore.