Singapore is a thriving city-state that is unlike anywhere else in the world. The people are polite and offensively beautiful, there are trees and green spaces everywhere (even on buildings!), you can score incredible Michelin star food for stupidly low prices, and the streets are literally sparkling because they are so clean.
Here are some fun fast facts:
- The Bukit Timah Nature Reserve has more tree species than the entire continent of North American
- Chewing gum is illegal
- Singapore didn’t gain independence from Malaysia until 1965
- There is a whopping 171 malls
- Singapore has the highest homeownership rate in the world at 92%.
- Due to the limited space, the taxes on owning a car are incredibly high. A standard corolla costs S$96,888 ($72,515 USD) due to registration fees, insurance premiums, taxes and high fuel costs.
Singapore is home to tried and true tourist attractions including Marina Bay Sands, Gardens by the Bay, the Zoo, the Botanic Gardens, Raffles Hotel, Clarke Quay, Orchard Road, and Merilon Park. I oblige to seeing at least some of “the sights” when traveling because it seems like the right thing to do.
Here’s the thing. Just because a site is in all the guide books and on all the blogs doesn’t mean it’s actually worth seeing.
I love to dive into the pulse of a new place by wandering down backstreets, finding authentic local food, and off-roading away from the guide books into unexplored territory. Nothing gives me a bigger travel high than an exciting stumble upon.
However, Singapore is relatively small and extremely developed with a high population density, and it isn’t quite the “hidden gem” type of place. But I was determined to find something totally unique (beyond the food scene, that is).
After countless Google searches such as “hidden gems Singapore” and “unique things to do in Singapore” I found something that peaked my interest:
Haw Par Villa.
It turned out to be a cultural learning journey I won’t soon forget.
Formally known as Tiger Balm Garden, Haw Par Villa was constructed in 1937 by Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, the inventors of the muscle rub Tiger Balm (I wish I could shake their hands, thanking them for the muscle saving creation). Haw Par Villa was designed as a cultural theme park with over 1,000 intricately designed statues and dioramas depicting Chinese folkloric stories with Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian values. You can get lost weaving through plaster dioramas depicting rats and rabbits engaged in battle, people with chicken heads, mermaids splashing around, and other head scratching oddities that are equally strange as they are fascinating.
The primary attraction is the 10 Courts of Hell, which depicts the postmortem punishments worldly sins will earn you. Parents would bring their children to the cave to show them the frightening fate that would await if they misbehaved. For example, disrespecting your elders will result in your heart getting cut out (pictured below), being a tax dodger will lead being pounded by a stone mallet, wasting food means your body will be chopped in two… you get the picture. Click HERE for the rundown of all 10 courts. Once you serve you’re sentence, you will enter the 10th gate of hell where you spin the Wheel of Reincarnation to see who or what you will be returning as in the next life.
The 10 Courts of Hell Cave is a fascinating insight into Chinese Folklore and religious culture, but if you are squeamish, well, go anyways!
Haw Par Villa was an initial success, but was abandoned in WWII as the Japanese took over the space given the good view of incoming ships. It was revitalized in the 1980s with the intervention of the Singapore Tourism Board that restored the statues and dioramas. While tourism picked up, the new high admission fees deterred potential visitors, and extra amenities and shows shut down.
The park is now free to enter, but there are eerily few visitors, making for a twistedly bizarre experience that you should certainly seek out while in Singapore.
But Katie, didn’t you JUST bash going to “tourist” spots like this?
Ah, why yes I did!
However, Haw Par Villa isn’t your typical attraction crammed with tourists fighting each other for photo ops with a “do it from the gram” mentality.
It is quirky, utterly unique, and offers a brilliant insight into Singapore’s culture. Imagine being a child, and being shown a scene of someone being “tied to red hot copper pillar and grilled” as a punishment for “urging people into crime and social unrest.” I don’t know about you, but as an impressionable 8 year old, I would probably take that to heart.
Of course, not all children were taken to Haw Par Villa and folkloric history doesn’t represent modern day views. However, Asian culture is undeniably different than Western culture with stronger cultural roots and ideals focused around a collectivist mentality compared to an individualistic one. There are hundreds of books written on the collective vs the individual, but long story short, it’s the difference between tailoring your actions to benefit the whole group vs doing what best suits your individual needs.
(I’m currently reading The WEIRDest People in the World by Joseph Henrich that dives into how Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) people are totally bizarre and abnormal in the grand scheme of history and the world. If your curiosity on Eastern/Western differences is piqued, I’d highly recommend picking up a copy.)
The fascinating thing about Haw Par Villa is simply the fact that is exists.
The stories and lessons from classic Chinese folklore are wildly different than what I learned in my Christian upbringing. I grew up being told that all my sins could be forgiven and that while humans are imperfect and will make mistakes, overall, don’t sweat it! Just put some dollars into the collection basket and spread the word and you’ll be fine! Sure, stealing is “wrong,” but it wouldn’t result in being “frozen into ice blocks.” Not to mention, when I was 9, my mom wouldn’t even let me watch 13 Going on 30, let alone show me graphic images of people getting punished (although there are clear comparisons to the Old Testament).
Wrapping it All Up….
If you travel to Singapore, fulfill your tourist duties and marvel at Marina by the Bay, sip on a Singapore Sling at Raffles, and check out the mega malls on Orchard Street (warning: I got lost for 45 minutes inside of one…) But I’d highly recommend taking the time to pay a visit to Haw Par Villa for a truly unique travel experience I guarantee you won’t forget.
Interested in the Singapore food scene? Check out this post!:
Singapore is a frugal foodie’s paradise with expertly cooked, astoundingly flavorful dishes for well under $6 SGD ($4.45 USD). If you are new to Asia, the food looks intimidating, but don’t let that deter you. Here are three authentic “gateway street food” dishes to try that give you a taste of authentic Singapore to ease your way in to the bustling foodie scene.